Written by: Sloan de Forest, Special to CC2K
Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles
In the late 1970s, things were simpler. European musicians with dreams of making it big in America often hired aspiring film directors to tape or film crude advertisements for their songs as a way of promoting themselves. Bands that could not afford to travel and perform in the US (or couldn’t get booked because they were unknown), could easily send videotapes oversees – and the music video was born.
Fortunately for the foreign acts, it turned out that many Americans enjoyed watching these strange little films set to even stranger, often synthesizer-heavy, music. But where to see them? Initially the cable channel Nickelodeon ran daily 30-minute installments of videos, and from time to time the networks even aired them on Saturday mornings – a sort of New Wave alternative to School House Rock. It wasn’t until midnight on Saturday, August 1st, 1981 that America finally hit the jackpot: 24 hours, 7 days a week of nonstop music videos on a channel called MTV, Music Television.
Most of us, even those who weren’t even alive at the time, know that for its debut video MTV chose “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the English duo of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, better known as the Buggles. The song has become immortal just for this reason, in fact; the answer to a simple 20th Century pop culture trivia question. It’s kind of a shame really, because “Video Killed the Radio Star” is a rare, well-crafted techno-pop gem that should have become a classic on its own merit. When viewed 28 years after it was made, the video undeniably feels dated. Yet it actually holds up better than most of its contemporaries, which were often shot on videotape instead of film and typically consisted of bands huddled on dull stages, giving straight performances into the camera. Novelty status aside, the video’s striking post-modern images have helped secure its place in history, complete with cameo (near the end) by then-unknown Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who worked with the Buggles on their first album.
Director Russell Mulcahy (who would go on to helm Highlander and The Shadow, among others) shot the entire clip for “Video Killed the Radio Star” in a single afternoon. Before bloated budgets and pretty faces conquered MTV – necessitating the presence of gorgeous, 19-year-old models prancing behind shirtless rockers in spandex – making music videos was “really good fun,” according to Buggles lead singer Horn. The budget for this clip was probably minuscule and there are no scantily clad prancing girls, unless you count the clunky gyrations of one rather full-figured dancer stuffed into a sparkling leotard, pantomiming and undulating within the confines of a clear plastic tube.
The video opens with an exploding luminous orb hovering above a young girl tuning into an oversized, Depression-era radio. Singer Horn is then superimposed – and overexposed – in high-contrast black and white as he lip-synchs the tinny vocals into an old-fashioned microphone, Rudy Vallee-style. The innocence of radio’s early days is depicted, shattered, and then lost completely as the girl transforms into a futuristic-looking woman; the embodiment of music video itself.
The scene then switches to the “abandoned studio” mentioned in the lyrics, with the band sporting white lab coats like mad scientists of the future. Instead of bubbling beakers, their lab is filled with television monitors and synthesizers – emblems of the new era in music, and appropriate set pieces for a band whose keyboardist was once entered into the Guinness Book of Records for performing with the most keyboards onstage (28). Two backup singers in Lost In Space-style tunics and oversized sunglasses, mechanically mouthing the song’s chorus on the TV sets, provide one of the most enduring images in the video. Their bright orange and purple costumes evoke both the early 1980s and Technicolor sci-fi of the mid-1960s, while their singing remains pure radio: an ode to the crass chorus girls of the distant past. At the video’s climax, the child climbs onto a pile of old radios, they all explode, and the broken-down studio crumbles away. The past is dead, the naïveté of simple music – with no pictures – destroyed. All that remains is a vast, solid white expanse on which the band performs (in shiny silver suits) for no one but a single, unmanned camera. This is the future, as seen from the year 1979.
Viewing “Video Killed the Radio Star” in 2007 presents an unintentional irony. Its words and images lament a loss of innocence, yet the 3 ½ minute film is itself a relic of a simpler era: the early days of music video. “Back then, it’s difficult to describe how exciting it was,” Trevor Horn has said. “The possibilities of what one could do with pop video, you know, pictures and music together. It was a new and exciting concept.” The freshness of this new frontier is felt throughout the video, one of director Mulcahy’s very first. Though he would eventually rack up dozens of video directing credits for artists like Elton John and Duran Duran, “Video Killed the Radio Star” captures a moment before his work became overly slick and flashy. As the 1980s wore on, Mulcahy’s videos became increasingly permeated with what critics would call “striking yet fleeting images that captivate one’s attention and soon disappear from memory.” Vacuous visuals are the stuff music videos are made of, though, and the Buggles’ first video is no exception. Still, its pace is gentler and it feels less jaded than the larger-than-life, highly commercial made-for-MTV clips.
Within a single decade, the excitement of pop videos would wear off; the novelty would tarnish. The bold new frontier of MTV would succumb to beach parties and game shows, and kids would choose the complex drama of reality programs over the simplicity of pop music. Nowadays, artists still make music videos … but the pictures have gotten smaller. The video, in the face of the almighty digital age, seems to be following the path of radio – until we come full circle and face the death of the video star. Now all we need is for the Buggles to write a song about it.