“And Then We’ll Take it Higher”: Steve Barron and the Golden Age of the Music Video

Features / February 21, 2019

Steve Barron directing Michael Jackson on the set of “Billie Jean,” 1983

Steve Barron may not be a household name, but if you grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, you definitely know his work. Creator of some of the most iconic and memorable images of the music video network’s first five years, Barron was one of the early innovators who turned music video into a real art form. Dozens of filmmakers and directors would use music video as a training ground thanks to the kind of work that Barron pioneered in the early ’80s. Barron himself went on to become a film director, helming 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and 1993’s Coneheads, as well as quirky 1984 rom-com Electric Dreams, the tale of a love triangle between a woman, a man, and a personal computer.

Barron’s style is tough to pin down, but most prominent in the videos we’ll review below are arresting, big-screen, motion-picture-style visuals that don’t necessarily adhere to the lyrics of the song. Barron was always willing to try something new, especially different media styles—such as animation, either hand-drawn or computer-aided—to take the music video out of the ordinary and into a full-to-bursting visual experience that felt like it was meant for more than the diminutive TV screens of the time.

There are so many classic videos we couldn’t include in this cursory retrospective—Toto’s “Africa,” a-ha’s “Take On Me,” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” among many others—but our selections do offer a broad survey of the groundbreaking work Barron produced in the salad days of a new and lasting art form.


“Don’t You Want Me,” The Human League (1981)

The video for the hit single from The Human League’s breakthrough 1981 LP Dare is a meta-cinematic tour de force. (Simon Reynolds, in his magisterial 2005 study of postpunk and New Wave, Rip It Up And Start Again, assesses the video as a “Brechtian conundrum.“) Barron’s video rapidly switches back and forth between filmic narrative and behind-the-scenes verité. A noir thriller unfolds during the first verse, as a gunman played by the band’s guitarist, Jo Callis, stalks vocalist Joanne Catherall. As the video continues, we realize we’re seeing a film being made, and the video switches back and forth between the film being shot, the film being edited (by Adrian Wright, keyboardist and “Director of Visuals” for The Human League’s multimedia stage show in the band’s early years), rushes being viewed, and the original filmic story.

But Barron also balances this series of frenetic changes in perspective with a few long-duration shots: a lengthy, no-cuts tracking shot of vocalist Susan Sulley as she walks away from the film set and sings her verse, Vocalist Phil Oakey singing directly to the camera, his face filling the screen during the pre-chorus and chorus. This juxtaposition adds to the song’s lyrical back-and-forth, he said/she said tension. In the end, even the editing suite (the walls of which are conspicuously plastered with a poster for Ridley Scott’s Alien; Barron worked on Scott’s 1977 The Duellists as a clapper loader) is revealed to be a set, confirming that we’ve actually been watching the making of a video about making a film. This hall of mirrors has the added visual depth of being shot entirely on 35 mm film, a rarity for music videos at the time.

This video expanded the early boundaries of what kind of art form music video could be. Possibly more importantly, it served as a big-budget introduction to the Human League, their sound, and their distinctive look. The Human League had recently lost founding members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh (who went on to form Heaven 17, who themselves had a video directed by Barron in 1981, “Penthouse and Pavement“), and Oakey and the new Human League needed a statement to put their stamp on the band. “Don’t You Want Me” became that statement: a Christmas #1 in the UK in 1981 and a mega-hit in the States in 1982. The styling of Oakey, Sulley, and Catherall (dark eyeliner, ruby-red lipstick, and expertly sculpted hair) ended up becoming the de facto fashion primer for many young Americans taken with the New Wave British Invasion of the early ’80s. MTV’s unprecedented reach into suburban American living rooms made this electropop band from the north of England into fashion icons at the forefront of a new musical sound, thanks in large part to Steve Barron’s imaginative video.

Michael Grasso


“Money For Nothing,” Dire Straits (1985)

Turn your speaker up loud.

Louder.

LOUDER.

No, god, that’s too loud! Turn it off, turn it off!

“Money For Nothing,” from the almost flawless Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms (1985), possessed what is inarguably (don’t feel the need to try it) one of the most iconic rock intros ever. It’s fitting, then, that Steve Barron created an equally iconic music video to accompany the single. In 1985, the 3D computer animation (created by Gavin Blair and Ian Pearson) was cutting edge, and the video received heavy play, both on MTV, which the song obviously references, and on our dinky little New Zealand terrestrial television stations (in 1990 they came out with a third channel! Luxury!), where, not having heard of MTV, my cohorts and I deciphered the lyrics as “I want my own TV.”

Yeah! Having your own TV! That would be rad!

Knopfler had been against the idea of music videos in general, claiming that they detracted from the purity of his vision, and indeed the song gently undermines the youth-cult that centered around MTV and the new brand of star that rose up on the winds of its ascendancy—to the bafflement of the older generation. Knopfler claims to have written the song after overhearing a worker in a New York appliance store bemoaning the state of Modern Youth as expressed via rockstars in leopard print chiffon. Is the song making fun of these unenlightened working Joes—perhaps allowing The Youth to scoff at their own bewildered parents, who shook their heads over young men in makeup in parental living rooms across the world—or is it a genuinely affectionate ribbing?

Neither the song nor the video give much away. The video follows the narrative of the song more or less precisely, give or take the odd decapitation. Two hard-working blue collar types haul color TVs, microwave ovens, custom kitchen deliveries etc., and bemoan the fact that pretty boys with earrings get all the girls and the glory. The blocky computer animation manages to look so dated that it’s fashionable again; it’s the stage performance footage of the band, illuminated with 80s neon-tastic animated flourishes, that look outdated from the vantage point of 2019. Yet as it was Barron himself who was partially responsible for searing such visual signifiers for 1980s! into the collective consciousness, we can hardly begrudge him.

He also lampoons his own style with the moody monochrome music-video-within-a-music-video “Sally” that our beleaguered computer animated buddies drool over. The video itself was a fake (or was it?), and yet its inclusion shows us that even in the infancy of music video as a medium, the visuals were well-known enough that a parody could land effectively.

The computer animation might not dazzle for its own sake as it once did, but there’s something about the video that still captures the attention. The animated characters retain a humor and humanity, perhaps more so than the black-and-white video girl who appears as an objectified foil. Parody, or perpetuation? You decide. Whatever the case, it’s evident that in the hands of a director of Barron’s skill, new technology could be more than just a gimmick.

Lemme tell ya, them guys ain’t dumb.

J.E. Anckorn


“Electric Avenue,” Eddy Grant (1982)

Guyanan singer Eddy Grant moved to the UK as a child and had minor hits with his integrated rock/ska band the Equals in the ’60s. By the early 1980s, he’d been a solo artist for several years and finally had an international #1 hit with “Electric Avenue,” off 1982’s Killer on the Rampage, mostly thanks to exposure on MTV. Grant’s song, written about the Brixton Riots of 1981, is a damning indictment of the poverty and lack of employment and educational opportunities available to Afro-Caribbean Britons in early ’80s London. As Grant sings directly to the camera, he sits in a seemingly ordinary English sitting room, watching television (“Workin’ so hard like a soldier/Can’t afford a thing on TV…”). The shiny, mirror-like ground separating Grant on the couch from the telly is actually a perfectly still body of water. The image of Grant leaving his couch and dropping straight into the murk as his vocals on the soundtrack scream, “Can’t get food for the kid/Good God!”, is one of the more memorable moments in 1980s music video, a bold statement against the materialistic decade to come as well as the racism and colonialism underpinning the suffering on the streets of London.

The video was shot in Barbados in 1982 after Grant had moved there to work on new music. Barron uses the revving-motorcycle audio cue from the song as a thematic link between the video’s vignettes. Two masked motorcyclists shine a light on injustice, as we see through their eyes as they patrol the streets of Brixton/Barbados. Rescued from the ocean by the motorcyclists (where Grant has been drowning since trying in vain to turn off his television), Grant holes up in a café with a classroom full of kids (“Dealing in multiplication/And they still can’t feed everyone…”), drying off as the rest of the video unfolds and the motorcyclists return to their patrol. Barron’s video marries his cinematic, abstract style with an overt interpretation of the song’s search for social justice. Barron’s canny use of video filters and nighttime shooting thematically echoes the song’s novel synthesizer-reggae sonic palette: Eddy Grant here is the voice of the streets, but with a contemporary, high-tech edge.

Like “Don’t You Want Me,” “Electric Avenue” became a hit thanks to heavy rotation on MTV. In its early years, the “cutting edge” network was rightfully accused of not featuring many Black artists, until Michael Jackson broke it big in 1983 with the singles from Thriller (Barron’s video for “Billie Jean” was Jackson’s MTV splash).

Michael Grasso


“Steppin’ Out,” Joe Jackson (1982)

Anecdote: dumped for the summer with my chain-smoking bachelor uncle, I spent the endless Essex August  evenings in his house immersed in a golden fog of fag smoke, poring over his complete set of The History of RockHoR was a partwork magazine from publisher Orbis so stuffed with photos of bizarre beings that it almost seemed like some weird mirror-image of the company’s other mindbending partwork, The Unexplained. Among the artists I decided, on the basis of some particularly engaging photo, I was now a fan of  (often then obsessing about them for years before having the nous to actually manage to hear them), Joe Jackson stood out for seemingly making no attempt to not look fucking hideous. I liked several of his songs, and the memory of how much I’d loved “Steppin’ Out” when it had been on the radio all the time made me wish there was some way I could hear it. But this was 1984, so there was no way for that to happen.

Until I was awoken at one o’clock the next morning by Terry, my uncle’s usually silent neighbor, playing “Steppin’ Out” at deafening volume on repeat for the best part of three hours. The next morning I asked my uncle—who, dazed from his daily diet of dozens of roll-ups had slept through the whole thing—about it, and he answered that Terry had bought a CD player. Back then, this was tantamount to buying an AI in terms of outlay and paradigm shift, and the implication was that if you were daring enough to get a CD player, whatever you chose to do with it was legitimate. The Joe Jackson strangeness continued, though: I found that, after Terry’s nocturnal episode, the song was playing in my head. No, not that I was remembering it vividly—it was playing, loud and crystal clear, and I couldn’t turn it off. I didn’t really want to, true, but the sensation was frightening and lasted a day and a half. I’ve never experienced anything like it—as if my brain was, unsolicited, communicating to me that it had decided to up its commitment to music.

That’s my “Steppin Out'” story. I can’t have seen the video more than once (don’t make me repeat my pat sermon about there only being one weekly half-hour TV show on the then-three channels that broadcast music videos in the UK), and I may, in fact, never have seen it at the time. But it feels like it’s always inhabited my imagination. Like many of Steve Barron’s videos, I struggle to find anything to say about it. It doesn’t really have a particularly memorable identity and, though very competent, it isn’t hugely inventive, or even eye-catching. It’s certainly not up there with “Billy Jean” or “Money for Nothing” or “Take on Me,” yet something about it captures and (for me, at least) violently amplifies the feeling the song evokes so powerfully—that sensation, part resentful envy and part starstruck dreaming, of anxiously awaiting excitement you’re hoping is on the way but that’s still slightly out of reach.

Richard McKenna


 

“Pale Shelter,” Tears For Fears (1983)

When we talked about Tears For Fears’ debut album The Hurting in these pages a while back, Richard mentioned the delicate beauty of the young Curt Smith, and the first thing that leaps out of this visually striking video are the young, almost preternatually cherubic faces of both Smith and Roland Orzabal. While Barron doesn’t shoot the band especially gauzily, they do seem to glow in the oddly subdued Los Angeles light.

And yet Smith and Orzabal are just part of a ensemble cast of ordinary people encountering the kind of ordinary petty obstacles that make everyday life so frustrating—being bored in class, doing the laundry, being stuck at an intersection, missing a goal while playing soccer. Barron, however, makes epic surrealist theater of it all. The problems of each of these people is magnified—literally in the case of the huge smoking burn mark on the airport runway in the shape of an iron—as Orzabal and Smith hover above all these scenarios like Gnostic demiurges. As picayune as the conflicts and frustrations may be, ultimately the video offers a simple solution for all of them: finding connection with another human being. Even Orzabal hammer-tosses away his guitar at the end of the video, seemingly liberated, as we watch it get chomped by the (symbolic?) alligator that’s been threatening a swimmer in a Hockney-esque swimming pool. The video for “Pale Shelter,” like many early music videos, is less a narrative than a montage, but this kind of elemental and archetypal symbolism connects powerfully with Tears For Fears at this point in their career, around their own simply-stated and emotional lyrics around need, love, and, well, hurting. 

Michael Grasso


“As The World Falls Down,” David Bowie (1986)

In 1986, Jim Henson’s follow-up to The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, was released, triggering the sexual awakening of a generation of male-attracted individuals. The casting of David Bowie, then at the height of his Glass Spider tour excesses as the Goblin King, brought us not just some memorable film moments, but a soundtrack that perfectly matched the strange whimsy of Henson’s passion project. (One early casting proposition was Michael Jackson, and as fucked as our timeline is, at least we don’t live in that one.) As well as filling out Jareth’s tights, Bowie wrote several songs for the soundtrack that were performed in the film, and two of these were accorded separate music videos: “Underground,” and “As The World Falls Down.”

“As The World Falls Down” accompanies one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: the haunting and haunted ballroom scene. No metaphor for puberty ever wore puffed sleeves so well. The song’s official music video is something of a changeling child, incorporating Barron’s favored motifs of two-dimensional imagery: endless paper Bowies being churned out by that on-trend doyen of ’80s office equipment, the photocopier.

The scenes selected from the movie are an oddly disparate bunch. We get a little footage of the actual ballroom scene, and a lot of random shots of “clearly a puppet being thrown into the air” goblin action, which contrasts poorly with the dreamy atmosphere of the song. The surrealist visuals present in the scenery of Labyrinth are also echoed in the video, with our heroine moping artistically on a vast Rene Magritte-themed Bowie death mask, and wandering through a Bowie-face-shaped landscape, à la Salvador Dalí.

The narrative seems to make an attempt to play with the concept of time, which is a major theme of the movie. Our heroine (presumably Barron realized that an age-appropriate Businesswoman was a better co-star for Bowie-as-Bowie within a music video context than the teenage Jennifer Connelly) meanders about, looking angsty—possibly awaiting a fax of an animated Morten Harket from head office. But what’s this? There’s an old-timey portrait of her hanging in an unspecified corridor? The reincarnated love interest was an ’80s trope that kept on giving. Bowie too is given a past persona, dishing up his faux-’50s crooner schtick far less effectively than he did in the bravura “Boys Keep Swinging.” And anti-social gnome janitor Hoggle’s just… there (for a change), engaging in a bit of light interior decor.

For a director with such iconoclastic visual chops (not to mention the inventive movie property and visually arresting star it was there to support), the video feels faxed in. Or maybe like a faded photocopy of a more interesting video. A rare miss for Barron, who was perhaps shackled by the constraints of promoting the movie, and the lack of interest for the Bowie camp who were keen to focus on “Never Let Me Down” and Bowie’s attempt to reestablish a more rock and roll sound.

J.E. Anckorn


“Antmusic,” Adam & The Ants (1980)

Let’s be honest, you’d have a hard time fucking up a video starring the young Adam Ant: you could film him collecting litter by the side of a main road and it would still be riveting; so one of Steve Barron’s earliest videos starts off with a net advantage.

With its narrow broadcast window, UK music video culture was perhaps even more focused on making a definitive first-time impact than its equivalent in the US. You could pretty much only count on seeing a music video once in Britain unless a song was a massive hit, in which case you might see it twice, and it does feel like this necessity informs the Barron aesthetic: a need for imagery that would imprint itself immediately upon the viewer’s memory. That’s the mission of all music videos, of course, but Barron’s seem particularly given to this kind of one-exposure internalization.

With its trite narrative about Adam and gang bursting into a disco and putting on a show to convince the teeny-boppers to renounce jukebox drivel, “Antmusic” is hardly Andrei Rublev, but it possesses plenty of tacky chutzpah and is bursting with the type of visual touches guaranteed to zap images onto juvenile brains, most surprising of which is the huge, incongruously accurate and presumably vastly expensive British plug (which was apparently Ant’s idea), as well as other split-second joys like Adam’s rapping his cane on the dance floor with Adam Adamant-like élan, and the Ants’ initial thriller-like storming of the club. As with “Steppin Out,” I can’t really identify anything about it that would separate it from most other music videos of the day, except for a vague sense of it inhabiting the excitement of the performer’s personality, which seems, except for his occasional flashes of genuine inspiration and genius, to be Steve Barron’s most notable trait. The amount of this stuff that was produced, so much of it derivative, tends to bury how rare that skill was.

Richard McKenna


“Burning Up,” Madonna (1983)

Although clearly the lesser of the two great records sharing the same title—the other being obviously Judas Priest’s deafening 1978 disco-metal sexathon—“Burning Up” is still a rocker, and Barron’s video for it, though again strangely lacking in anything I can identify as distinctive, is entirely functional in communicating the message of just how fucking charismatic Madonna was back then. As with Adam Ant, all you had to do was point a camera at her and a laser beam came out that lit up the pop culture landscape.

The narrative is sort of difficult to read: a possessed bust of some Graeco-Roman goddess (Juno, perhaps?) equips Madonna with a laser and dispatches her to roll around in the road in ambush of some LA dude driving a convertible. Is the alternation of Madonna’s head with Juno’s on the wonky-looking “plinth” perhaps meant to imply that Madonna is an incarnation of the goddess of love? There’s a goldfish and a laser, and then Madonna’s in a boat. No, I’ve no idea what it’s supposed to mean. The video constantly seems like it’s about to burst into something glorious, some strange Hollywood Babylon-Andy Warhol-Clash of the Titans lunacy, but never does. In fact, the whole thing feels as though it was cobbled together from outtakes when the plan for a more coherent whole fell apart at the last minute.

I’ve probably seen it dozens of times over the years and I’ve just watched it twice now, and I still wonder why Madonna has a door in her house shaped like an iron in her house. It’s hard to know if Barron’s reputation doesn’t in part spring from just being lucky at the artists he ended up working with—I’m pretty sure if he’d made similar vids for Dollar or Ryan Paris, he wouldn’t enjoy the same cachet. As Barron himself has said, though, videos were harder to make at the time in practical terms: “you didn’t have to do a lot to cause a bit of a stir“. His work is always slickly done, though, and throws in every gimmick going, and I suppose that’s the joy of these videos: they’re utterly throwaway without oozing cynicism, and their brio and commitment means they’re still perfectly watchable 35 years later. And despite what feels to me, at least, like the relative anonymity of a lot of Barron’s work, it’s hard not to feel affection for it, as it does genuinely seem as though he sees the people in his videos as something more than just grist for the MTV mill. Perhaps that’s why the characters that inhabit them—the luminous Jacko, the Knopfler-shaped absence, the impossibly spectacularized Morten Harket, the electric Madonna–feel like emotionally true representations of the people behind them—even when, or perhaps because, the videos themselves are not particularly exciting.

Richard McKenna


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