My 5 Essential Music Videos of the 80s
There was a time when the "M" in "MTV" stood for music and it was a lot like radio: video-after-video hosted by VJ's. While I was born in New Jersey I grew up in Massachusetts where cable was slow to arrive because I lived in a more rural area.
We had to due with NBC's Friday Night Video and, in a shout out to Boston area transplants the old V66, an over-the-air video channel until they were sold to a home shopping channel. One of their big claims to fame was the homegrown video "New England The Patriots and We" as the Patriots made their first Super Bowl appearance in year in 1986 (Look! It's Tom Ellis! Bob Lobel!)
But once cable was wired in I got to watch it to my heart's content; here are the 80s videos (and related videos) that I still enjoy today and the reasons why.
5. Living in America - James Brown
The video represented how the Rocky films had evolved from the grit and simpleness of the first movie to the glitz and flash of 1985's Rocky 4. Russian champ Ivan Drago challenges Rocky to a fight but because of serious head injury suffered in Rocky 3 his former opponent Apollo Creed steps into the ring instead.
It's also a song that makes an occasional appearance on patriotic occasions like the Beachwood July 4th fireworks display.
After a patriotic entrance with Creed dancing to James Brown's live performance and a confused Drago watching all this red, white and blue take a serious turn during actual bout when Drago fatally beats Creed in the ring. Rocky, driven by guilt because he followed his friend's instructions not to stop the fight, travels to Russia to avenge Creed's death.
The movie also changed up the traditional Rocky training scene with a video set to John Cafferty's Hearts on Fire contrasting Drago's high tech "enhanced" training to the Italian Stallion's simple regimen chopping wood, lifting a wagon with his wife and Pauly sitting inside, and losing the KGB agents following him before making a Rocky-like run up a snowy mountain.
4. Power of Love - Huey Lewis & The News
It was 1985 and I was an intern at a Boston radio station which gave me the chance to see my first movie for free: Back to the Future. I also got to see Teen Wolf completing which also starred Michael J. Fox. And Weird Science (which did not involve Fox).
Some videos for movies could come across as blatant ads for the movie. Or they could have a little fun like The Power of Love. The performance of the song was straight without clips of the movie. But it did include new footage with Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown arrived at a club in the movie's DeLorean interacting with curious fans at a club where Huey Lewis & The News was performing.
Huey was also in the movie as a teacher with a megaphone judging bands that wanted to perform for the school rock show. As Fox's band The Pinheads auditioned with their guitar infused version of The Power of Love Huey had the ironic line, "I'm afraid you're just too darn loud."
3. Two Tribes - Frankie Goes to Hollywood
This is the only video on my list that can't described as "happy" or "upbeat." The mid 80s were a scary time with the Cold War amped up by fears by some that President Ronald Reagan could launch the US into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. ABC in 1983 aired a movie called The Day After that played on those fears. It focused on Kansas residents dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear war
The Two Tribes video was a big production featuring a bloody wrestling match between "Reagan" and Soviet General Secretary "Konstantin Chernenko" before a rowdy international audience exchanging cash as they placed bets. The two leaders in business suits step into the sandy round ring surrounded by sand bags and violently go at it with "Chernenko" grabbing "Reagan" in the privates and "Reagan" biting his opponent in the ear and drawing blood. They go at it covered in sand and blood before some of crowd jumps in and starts fighting.
2. We Are the World - USA For Africa
This was the middle part of a trifecta of an all star response to the problem of hunger in Africa that started with Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas and climaxed with the Live Aid concerts in London and the old JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Phil Collins appeared on both stages. Live Aid concluded with We Are The World.
Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and producer Quincy Jones gathered 45 artists after the American Music Awards in January 1985 for the performance of the anthem which raised over $63 million for famine relief. The song made its radio debut across most formats seven weeks later in March and was the fastest selling single in music history (you had to go to Sam Goody or Strawberries to buy it...no downloads!). I remember pulling over my Plymouth Horizon the afternoon of its debut to hear the song and punched across the dial to hear it on several stations at the same time. Ah the magic of radio!
There was also an album that featured donated tracks by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band (Trapped recorded at the Meadowlands), the Pointer Sisters, Prince, Chicago, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis & The News and Kenny Rogers, among others.
Two more official versions were performed: a gathering of nearly 80 artists in 2010 for the Haitian earthquake relief that whose first performer was a young Justin Bieber incorporated footage of Michael Jackson's performance in the original.
Lionel Richie, complete with his "thumbs up" from the first, returned for the third version that debuted at the end of the 2020 American Idol finale to offer comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since all the artists, mostly current and past Idol performers, couldn't gather in a studio their performances were edited onto American icons like the Golden Gate Bridge, the US Capital, the Grand Canyon and Times Square.
1. We Didn't Start the Fire -Billy Joel
By the late 80s the back-to-back videos gave way to specific themed music shows and non-music shows. The VJ's were gone except for Downtown Julie Brown. I was a fan of Remote Control, the very non-traditional game show hosted by Ken Ober. It was the first nationwide exposure for Denis Leary, Adam Sandler and Colin Quinn.
Videos had also become bigger productions. History professor Billy Joel gave a musical post-World War II pop culture lesson that follows a suburban version of Lucy and Ricky from the days of "Harry Truman, Doris Day" through the cola wars of the 80s. It was a case of where the video and the song were dependent on each other.
I had always hoped for some kind of follow up but instead got a Marvel movie inspired video from Jimmy Fallon as Billy Joel with the cast of the Avengers and a blend of clips, the actor and Marvel comics books. The video ends with a neat tribute to the late Stan Lee. It aired for the first time in April 2019 before the release of the final Avengers movie, Avengers: End Game.
While working on this I found a video shot entirely on cell phone called "This Year Is a Dumpster Fire" about the first months of 2020 made by Rob Merritt for the Iowa Film Cell Phone Challenge. It does a really good job of recreating the original with "Billy Joel" overturning an ironing board.