In the period just before MTV launched in August 1981, music videos were already a presence in the cavernous Manhattan clubs known as “rock discos”. Shown between live performances on a big screen behind the stage and/or on strategically placed television sets, these now-familiar three or four minute clips seemed like a novel distraction (at best) or totally beside the point (at worst). Still, most people hadn’t witnessed them before. Up till then, music video meant American Bandstand, Soul Train, Solid Gold, Midnight Special and/or Don Kirshner‘s Rock Concert.
Watching TV in a music club always felt off to me. Disorienting. But the quirky visuals and eclectic sounds were captivating, especially if you didn’t know anybody and were less-than-confident about chatting people up on the fly. As MTV did in its infancy, NYC clubs fished videos from a shallow pool of new wave and post punk artists with a decided preference for English accents.
What follows is the first of a series: My Top Ten music videos of the just-pre-MTV era.
John Lennon’s murder still haunted NYC in early 1981. Recorded on 12/8/80, the day before he was shot, Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice” is John’s last recorded performance as well as her most (some would say only) accessible and satisfying piece of music. Nervous funk bass, ominous synth sighs, calmly obsessive vocals and Lennon’s harsh guitar snaking throughout: it works as epitaph even if it wasn’t intended that way. The video, put together after the tragedy, contrasts footage of the Lennon/Onos (with Sean) in bucolic repose with shattering sequences of Yoko solo, silent and grim, walking through the city with her memories and the shattered, shattering words and music. I met a girl…who tried to walk across a lake…of course, there was ice…
Of course, since this is John and Yoko, there is also an extended and embarrassing scene of the iconic couple making love. Their naked on-camera romp is so tender by today’s standards it barely qualifies as prurient, let alone pornographic. Yet it’s worth noting these pioneering media artists would have been right at home in the bare-all atmosphere of reality TV and social media. TMI was always an important part of their repertoire.