The Art of the Pop Video, an exhibition at Fact (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, considers the past, present and future of the music promo and asks: is it art? Below, FT pop critic Richard Clayton gives the background to the top 10 clips selected by the show’s curators, Michael P Aust and Daniel Kothenschulte.
The Beatles: “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Director: Peter Goldman, 1967)
When the Fab Four could no longer tour, the visual identity of the band became ever more important. The Swedish TV director Peter Goldman took them to Knole Park in Kent to film this psychedelic landmark, using trippy techniques such as stop motion, reverse, slow motion and cross-fades, which had been developed years earlier by experimental filmmakers such as Georges Méliès. Groups including Pink Floyd, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones would also make pioneering pop promos in the late 1960s.
Bob Dylan: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Director: DA Pennebaker, 1967)
In an alley behind London’s Savoy Hotel, Dylan flips through cue cards bearing hand-written lyrics at a pace that launched a thousand clips. This oft-imitated sequence is the opening of the great documentary commemoration of the singer’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back. Yes, that is Allen Ginsberg lurking in the background. Steeped in cinéma vérité, Pennebaker received an honorary lifetime Oscar last year.
Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English” (Director: Derek Jarman, 1979)
The lead single of the 1960s siren’s punk-era comeback gets the political-montage treatment from a British film-maker then on his ascent to critical acclaim – Derek Jarman had released Jubilee, his punk Gloriana movie, the year before. The album Broken English was given a “deluxe” reissue earlier this year. In its first commercial release, Jarman’s full, 12-minute cinema promo, which also embraces “Witches Song” and “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, is included in the package.
Michael Jackson: “Thriller” (Director: John Landis, 1983)
John Landis broke through with The Blues Brothers movie in 1980, but it was the fact that he had just directed An American Werewolf in London that got him this gig. Amid thrillingly precise choreography, Jackson’s date becomes a night of the living dead. That venerable old ham Vincent Price delivered a voiceover and the rest was history. Last year, MJ’s estate settled a dispute with Landis concerning the rights and profits stemming from the video.
Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer” (Director: Steven R Johnson, 1986)
A moveable feasting on the idea of still life or a snazzy way of showing off claymation? The gloriously inventive video for “Sledgehammer” is both of these things, and great fun besides. It brought the work of Bristol-based Aardman Animations (later of Wallace & Gromit fame) to a wider audience, and also features designs by American stop-motion specialists the Quay Brothers. Art critics might venture the fruit-and-veg facial that Gabriel’s features get at one point is a reference to the 16th-century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The curators of The Art of the Pop Video suggest that the experimental films of Ernie Kovacs are an influence, too.
Björk: “All Is Full of Love” (Director: Chris Cunningham, 1998)
Björk is one of pop’s most visionary artists and Chris Cunningham is one of her favourite collaborators. The Brit was feted in 2003 – along with Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazer – with a DVD edition of his work by the Directors Label. That, in some respects, was the high-water mark of promo-making as a creative craft before the impact of downloading was felt in the industry. Gender-politics seminars had plenty to talk about in the wake of Cunningham’s “All Is Full of Love”, as lesbian narcissist robots get it on. It is now on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Cunningham’s first video-art installation proper, “Flex”, was shown at London’s Royal Academy in 2000.
The White Stripes: “Fell in Love with a Girl” (Director: Michel Gondry, 2001)
You really can do so much with Lego, can’t you? For most of us, the limit of our creativity might be correctly following the instructions for a Technic supercar. Here, Gondry equates the simplicity of the White Stripes’ music with the primary colours of the famous building blocks in a frame-by-frame, animated tour-de-force. The Frenchman went on to bring his whimsical sensibility to movies such as The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If he isn’t a visual artist, the curators of The Art of the Pop Video don’t know who is. Point taken.
Alex Gopher: “The Child” (Director: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, 1999)
Appearing in the abstracts section of the exhibition, this video cleverly uses the typographic forms of words to serve as the buildings, cars and people of New York. It seems as much an example of graphic design (in motion) as any purely cinematic or artistic practice, but in that sense it demonstrates how many creative disciplines overlap and forge ahead in the arena of the pop promo.
Ok Go: “Here It Goes Again” (Director: Trish Sie, 2006)
If there’s a definitive video of the YouTube age, this is arguably it. An ingenious routine involving eight treadmills, its zany, Chaplin-esque physical comedy was worldwide catnip and eminently “likeable” in social-media terms. To a greater or lesser extent, all the dancing memes you may or may not have “shared” since – including “Boombox 100” and those legion “Harlem Shake” clips – find their inspiration here. Throwing crazy shapes in public is nothing new, though. Spike Jonze did it for his video of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” in 1998, and he must have seen Gillian Wearing’s “Dancing in Peckham” (1994). A case of pop imitating art?
Radiohead: “House of Cards” (Director: James Frost, 2008)
Pointing at least one way ahead, this video was made with neither camera nor conventional lights but scanning technology and laser-mapping. Employing the same system – LIDAR or light detection and ranging – that’s used in prototype driverless cars, the director captured both Thom Yorke’s facial features and the townscape that forms the video’s backdrop. The effect is a strange kind of visualised echo-location. “In a weird way,” James Frost has said, “[the promo] is a direct reflection of where we are in society… everything is data-driven… our lives are digital.” That an interactive version of the video is offered too is another clue about where promos may go next – towards personalised videos, such as those obtained via Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown project, which operates with Google Streetview.