We think of the eighties and early nineties as the age of music video, as predicted by the Buggles all the way back in ‘79. There’s precious little reason to argue with the cultural prescience of their “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the very first video MTV aired. After the rise of the music channel, almost no one could push a single without a video in the rotation on cable. Even now, though MTV may have ceded the whole music video thing to the internet a long time ago, the principle remains.
Yet well over a decade before MTV debuted, pioneering musicians took to music video (or film) with the same natural affinity as Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Prince, or Van Halen did during the network’s heyday. Over a decade before the Buggles—a pun on The Beatles—there was, well… The Beatles, bona fide music video stars, with hip promos like that for “Penny Lane,” above, which would have fit right in on MTV. (“Is that Oasis?” “No, it’s The Beatles, man!”)
Shot in 1968 in East London, an estate in Kent, and Liverpool (home of the real Penny Lane), the video achieved its modern look by chance, since director Peter Goldmann had to find creative ways to get around a Musicians’ Union ban on miming for the camera. Before the ban, filmed musical performances typically featured bands lip-syncing to a backing track, as you can see in the promo video for “Hello, Goodbye” above, which debuted on the Ed Sullivan show in November, 1967. This one was directed by Sir Paul himself, though he did not enjoy the experience, as he later recounted. “It was something I’d always been interested in,” McCartney said, “until I actually tried it.”
That Musicians’ Union miming ban was still in place when the band went into the Abbey Road studios in 1968 to record the video for “Hey Jude,” above. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg got around it by inviting an audience of 300 people into the studio for the finale, making it seem like a live performance, though everything was prerecorded but Paul’s vocals. The single had already gone on sale a week prior to filming, but the promo film was the first introduction many fans had to the song, first on David Frost’s The Frost Report, then on The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour in the U.S. a month later. In the first minute of the video, the band goofs around with some fake jazz (proving that their guitars were, in fact, plugged in).
Though the “Hey Jude” film was shot in color, no original viewers would have seen it that way. As Dangerous Minds points out, we get to view this video “in far, far better quality than you’d ever have been able to see it during those original television broadcasts, back when most people in Britain and America would have been watching it on low resolution B&W TV sets.” Compare, for example, the short clip from a broadcast at the time above with the pristine “Hey Jude” video we have now. All of these Beatles videos have been restored and digitally enhanced in HD, and you can see these and more at The Beatles Vevo channel on Youtube. These come from the re-release of singles collection 1 on Blu-ray, which includes several dozen more videos in addition to 27 of the band’s #1 singles.
Particularly striking is the 1967 promo for “A Day in the Life,” above, edited from filming of the original sessions. As The Beatles Youtube channel informs us, “this was no ordinary recording session. The classical musicians, who had been asked to wear evening dress, took it upon themselves to wear fake noses, funny hats and generally enter into the spirit of the occasion.” The sessions were “filmed between 8pm and 1am with guests including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards,” both of whom you’ll see appear in the fray of musicians, along with many shots of Paul McCartney conducting the orchestra.
Did The Beatles invent the music video? That’s a debate for the forums. But they were surely one of the first, if not the first, to use them as a primary promotional tool—along with their films and merchandising. As far back as 1965, the band released promo films for their singles, like that for “We Can Work it Out,” above, one of three different videos the band shot for this song. In fact, it’s not anachronism to refer to this early example of the form as a “music video” since it was actually shot on two-inch black and white videotape. The format had not come into wide enough use at the time, so it was distributed on 16mm film.
Making music videos—on video—is just one of the many ways The Beatles have anticipated, or precipitated, the future of music. One of the ways they’ve lagged behind, or perhaps wisely held out, is in releasing their music to streaming and on-demand services like Spotify, Google Play, or Apple Music. That’s changed as of today, when 13 albums and four compilations become available to stream on nine subscription services. No telling what Lennon and Harrison would have thought, but Paul McCartney described the music’s digital reception as “fantastic” when the band first made a deal with iTunes in 2010. The remaining band members have released no statement this time around but a short promo video and a jolly holiday greeting: “Happy Crimble, with love from us to you.”
via Dangerous Minds
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Great article, thanks!