Ty Matejowsky / January 14, 2021
As far as innovative 1980s music videos go, probably none is more immediately visceral and less popularly remembered than Belfegore’s “All That I Wanted.” Like a repressed memory from the dark recesses of Generation X’s collective unconscious, the promotional clip of this 1984 near-hit single from a short-lived German industrial/goth/post-punk/new wave trio warrants reappraisal—if not for how it showcases the propulsive strains of a song that blends the best of Killing Joke, Billy Idol, and Joy Division (while prefiguring Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails along the way) into an unholy alchemy of snarling guitarwork and abrasive electronica, then certainly for its reification of late-phase Cold War anxieties running amok along a Hudson River pier under the looming presence of the World Trade Center, still some 17 years away from its abrupt deletion from the Manhattan skyline.
By this point in their all too brief career, Belfegore seemed on the cusp of some mainstream breakthrough recognition. Having already released a long-player in their native Germany in 1982 alongside a pair of singles the following year, the band got signed to Elektra Records, home of CBGB-bred pioneers Television and new wave perennials The Cars. Belfegore’s self-titled English language debut built off the band’s more rudimentary predecessor thanks in no small part to the expanded sonic palette made possible by trailblazing krautrock/kosmische producer Conny Plank. Known for overseeing the recordings of both Neu!’s first album (1972) and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974), Plank’s trademark electronic stylings and harsh guitar and drum sound find expression in Belfegore’s ferocious opener and lead single “All That I Wanted.”
The video’s aesthetic genius lies both in its conceptual simplicity and unbridled kineticism. An ominous sense of foreboding prevails as leather-clad lead singer Meikel Clauss trots across the asphalt desolation of a New York City dock looking like a gothed-up version of “Mad” Max Rockatansky. Amid a scattering of overturned musical equipment, road cases, crash cymbals, amplifier stacks, and rubbish blowing about, Clauss speeds up slightly when a man carrying a fine art painting and easel closes in from behind, both of them increasing their stride as if fleeing some unseen menace. Next, Clauss appears back where he started, this time sprinting and singing manically to the camera, presumably one step ahead of imminent death and destruction. The man with the artwork is there also, picking up the pace, rapidly moving forward without so much as a backwards glance. Abruptly, a wide-angle shot reveals Clauss racing down the concourse from a similar starting point, this time running ahead and alongside a motley mix of costumed music video extras, some gripping luggage, one or two clutching firearms.
Over the next four minutes or so, Clauss—occasionally with his electric guitar or microphone stand—zigzags among this improbable throng of central casting rejects, bumping shoulders and throwing body blocks as they all dash headlong towards some unreachable destination. That or the crowd races past a now-stationary Clauss who, along with Belfegore bass player Raoul Walton and drummer Manfred Terstappen, performs “All That I Wanted” as if his very life depended on it. A series of fluid tracking shots sweeping past the band while these stock characters randomly hustle by adds dizzying intensity to an already chaotic scene. Among those unfortunate souls damned to repeatedly traverse this narrow tongue of industrial bleakness are a construction worker, nurse, showgirl, briefcase-toting businessman, Olympic torch runner (the 1984 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles), nun, sheik, uniformed schoolgirl, pram-pushing mother, restaurant waiter, cowboy, man with a leashed German Shepard, policeman, bellhop, assorted punk rockers, and a man inexplicably carrying a porcelain toilet. Many of these background actors end up taking a spill, some pitching forward while moving in and out of frame; others fall while dodging or leaping over random obstacles. As the music builds to a crescendo, the video does not so much end as peter out, left exhausted by a vicious onslaught of sonic and visual chaos.
As much a product of its time as a prescient foreshadowing of the mayhem that would one day envelop Lower Manhattan, sending ripples of dread across the global psyche, the video is not without its flaws. Amid shifts in camera direction, abrupt edits, and no discernable consideration for daylight continuity, the clip allows sharp-eyed viewers to pinpoint what happens when artistic vision bumps up against the time constraints, budgetary concerns, and other realities of on-location shoots. Beyond eyeblink instances of extras visibly hesitating before slamming to the ground (or more likely onto off-camera crash pads), the most obvious imperfection is the noticeable breathlessness and decreasing speed exhibited by some of the background talent in scenes ostensibly shot late in the day after take after take of running back and forth on an exposed pier while lugging cumbersome props. From the looks of it, only Belfegore’s rhythm section got off easy in this regard, as neither drummer Terstappen nor bassist Walton had to move much beyond their stage marks.
Minor quibbles aside, the video readily captures the prevailing sense of angst and helplessness characterizing Cold War antagonisms in the years immediately preceding thawed US and Soviet relations before the Berlin Wall came down. Ronald Reagan’s real and rhetorical efforts at pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) known colloquially as “Star Wars,” his scuttling of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty, and the escalation by the Soviets of the Soviet-Afghan War threatened to upend the geopolitical equilibrium previously maintained through the military/foreign policy stalemate of mutual assured destruction (MAD). Against this backdrop, the first half of the 1980s was a time suffused with varying levels of unease and uncertainty. Belfegore’s video for “All That I Wanted” viscerally distills the existential dread surging through the global body politic. Not only does it elicit the social breakdown that occurs with the panicked realization that the normality of everyday life is suddenly and irrevocably overtaken by events, it also visually encapsulates the powerlessness of ordinary people scrambling for a nonexistent offramp from a crisis neither of their making nor compliant to the political sway of their so-called leaders. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide as prospects for survival rapidly dim, might our final moments—the mushroom cloud already on the horizon—somehow resemble this?
Directed by experimental filmmaker and 1986 MTV Video Vanguard Award honoree Zbigniew Rybczyński, the heart-racing propulsion of this lost classic captures all that was possible for a short-form entertainment genre finally coming into its own as a veritable artform. Rybczyński—a Polish émigré and likely the only Oscar winner ever arrested and jailed mere minutes after receiving an Academy Award—cultivates a singular style easily recognizable across his decades-long filmography (he went on to work with Art of Noise, Lou Reed, Simple Minds, Rush, Fat Boys, Mr. Mister, Supertramp, Pet Shop Boys, and the Alan Parsons Project, among others). The eccentric visual language he employs in his music video work pairs rapid edits, repetitions, and sweeping Steadicam pans with the detached sensibilities, nonlinear narratives, and quirky aesthetics of an ascendant 1980s postmodernity not yet reduced to an exhausted caricature of itself.
Despite an eye-popping video, some initial college radio buzz, and prized opening slot on the 1985 European leg of U2’s Unforgettable Fire tour, Belfegore never connected with a wider audience, quickly slipping into obscurity. In 2011, after some 25 years of radio silence, flickers of life emerged when the band unexpectedly resurfaced for a one-off German reunion show. That same year acclaimed director David Fincher used “All That I Wanted” in a pivotal scene of his screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Such faint hints of a career resurrection notwithstanding, Belfegore’s legacy remains all but negligible.
Seemingly resistant to the YouTube algorithms working nowadays to define so much of our recollected MTV-era tastes and preferences—sorting formulas that work to winnow out all but the most obvious one-hit wonders and essentialized mainstays of a Stranger Things-like nostalgia trip—the conceptual novelty and thrilling imagery of “All That I Wanted” evokes an adrenalized urgency that belies its unsung status within a collective headspace prone to blind spots, if not outright bouts of generational amnesia. Despite such popular and critical indifference, the howling catharsis and uncompromising frenzy of Belfegore’s only major label video resonates today not just as a hidden gem of 1980s college radio ephemera awaiting rediscovery, but also as a pure embodiment of the pre-détente fears gripping the wider world when the specter of nuclear annihilation remained ever-present.