Video and the Radio Star
I think it’s safe to say that many, if not most, people seem to assume that music videos began with the initial broadcast of MTV on 1 August 1981. That first video, the Buggles’ excruciating “Video Killed the Radio Star,” came out in 1979, so what were they singing about? Were the Buggles prophets or were there videos before MTV?
For a long time, there have been musical numbers both in film and on TV. And hundreds of people have probably seen the PBS documentary about Soundies, where Michael Feinstein suggests that “an amazing forty years before MTV made its debut came a revolution in sight and sound.” Hacktually, the marriage of music, advertisement and visuals within discrete shorts is almost as old as film itself and this, part one of The evolution of the music video, actually ends with Soundies.
*cue the Ken Burns music*
1890s – The Kinetoscope
William K.L. Dickson, one of the most important pioneers of early film, was working on the Kinetoscope, which played short films matched sound recorded on wax cylinder to film. In what to me is the first music video (filmed around 1894), Dickson plays “Song of the Cabin Boy” on the fiddle whilst two dudes grind suggestively.
Watching the videos required a pair of earbuds and looking through a tiny contraption not unlike the viewer on Spock‘s 23rd century science station. Constrained by technical limitations to decidedly short durations of around 22 seconds, they were impractical for all musicians (with the exception of maybe Wire andAnal Cunt). Whilst some video purists now suggest that this is the way videos were meant to be seen, at a nickel per view ($1.28 adjusted for inflation), it wasn’t appealing enough to make them profitable.
1920s – Phonofilm & Vitaphone, Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, Visual Music and Photophones
After a long, enjoyable silence, something resembling the music video appeared, this time on the big screen in 1922 with Lee De Forest‘s Phonofilms. On April 15, 1923, he showed a program of phonofilms at New York’s Rivoli Theater.
Warner Bros got in on the action with their Vitaphone films, beginning in 1926. Recording the music onto discs instead of directly onto the film (as Phonofilm had), they may’ve represented a step backward in terms of technology. Artistically, however, they moved light years beyond their predecessor’s darkened stages or curtain backdrops by situating their subjects in decorated sets.
Beginning in 1924, Fleischer Brothers began making Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, which were, in addition to being precursors to music videos, were also precursors to karaoke. They were the first films to feature the “follow the bouncing ball” technique. In 1926, Phonofilm declared bankruptcy and the Fleischer’s Red Seal followed. After joining forces with Paramount, the Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune was reborn as Screen Songs in 1929.
In 1928, Oskar Fischinger created a series of abstract films matched to music known as Studies and released through Electrola. In 1931, Universal purchased the distribution rights to Studie Nr. 5 and it was widely seen in theaters. The Wizard of Friedrichstraße made other movies that are, to me, amazing and seem to have no doubt influenced later musically-minded abstract filmmakers like Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage.
Dudley Murphy had gained some fame in 1924, co-directing (with Fernand Léger) the dadaist film Ballet Mécanique, with Man Ray as cinematographer. In 1929, using RCA’s Photophone process, he made St. Louis Blues, a two reel film that added the concept of illustrative narratives to music films and was followed by Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.“
1930s – Seeing Sound
Mary Ellen Bute was an experimental filmmaker from Houston who, beginning in 1934, began making what were billed as Seeing Sound. In many ways, they resembled and were no doubt influenced by Fischinger’s Visual Music but used science and technology to determine the visuals.
1940s – Soundies
In 1939, the Mills Novelty Company invented a visual jukebox they called the Panoram. In 1940, they produced many “soundies” for the machines, which were usually found in bars and the like. Artistically, many had much higher production values than their antecessors in the 1920s.
Auroratones were created by British filmmaker Cecil Stokes for use in the treatment of mental disorders and featured pleasingly proto-psychedelic visuals often accompanying the music of Bing Crosby.
Cineboxes, Scopitones and Color-Sonics
According to the Quixotic Internet Accuracy Project, the term “music video” was coined by DJ (VJ?) J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in 1959. That year, the Cinebox hit the scene, essentially following in the footsteps of Soundies by manufacturing videos for what was essentially a jukebox with a visual component. In 1965, the Cinebox was re-branded the Colorama in the US. The following year it was again re-branded, this time as the Cinejukebox.
Scopitones followed Cineboxes, hitting the French market in 1960 and making their way to the US in 1964. The similar Color-sonics followed in 1966.
Canada was a pioneer in moving the music video from various video jukeboxes to the television.Singalong Jubilee debuted in 1961 on the CBC, 23 years before the debut of Much. In addition to featuring musicians playing in the studios, artists were also filmed on location. The show was based inHalifax. Music videos proved an ideal alternative to a punishing journey across the vast, frozen wastelands of the north just to play a song or two before returning home. Sadly, I can’t find any videos from the program.
As we’ve now seen, music videos were around for 61 years before The Beatles got in on the act. And yet, many still insist that they invented the music video. As the Fab Four began to make studio-enhanced psychedelia that was difficult to come anywhere near re-creating on stage, they stopped touring and relied on music videos as the main way of promoting their music, perhaps giving rise to the myth of their having had a hand in the format’s creation. Many of their peers followed suit, often engaging in the lighthearted shenanigans apparently so popular with English teenagers of the 1960s. The Doors, including as they did a couple of film students, were generally more dour.
Australia, like Canada, is characterized by tiny outposts of humanity spread across an enormous, unforgiving countryside. Following the Canadians’ lead, Australia did more to establish television as the venue for music videos than any other country. With the UK and US millions of miles away, the Australians ended up regularly making their own videos for songs by bands unwilling to cross the globe. By 1966, Australian bands regularly made videos for their new releases. That year, The Black Diamonds (after encountering bushfires and blizzards in their attempts to tour) became the first “country” band to sign to a major without having set foot in the capital. A year later, The Masters Apprentices made a color video, which was just showing off, because Australia successfully resisted conversion to color TV until 1975.
Videos took off in Australia largely because the country is a dang continent and back in the day traveling across it was harder than just moving to England and getting famous there, something which many Aussie bands have done… and probably continue to do. So rather than drive through bush fires and blizzards to get from Perth to play to seven larrikins in Brisbane, music videos were increasingly used to promote bands.
Sounds Unlimited was begun by DJ Graham Webb for Sydney’s ATN-7 in 1974. Since music videos were still uncommon (and live performances weren’t going to happen with the show’s budget), Webb asked a station employee, Russell Mulcahy, to make his own. Mulcahy made about a dozen, which got him noticed and led to his quitting to freelance. In that capacity he went on to film videos for AC/DC, Stylus, Marcia Hines, Hush and more before he moved to the UK (typical) and filmed videos for The Vapors, XTC and, interestingly, The Buggles‘ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Two years later it was the first video shown on MTV. It may surprise younger readers to know that MTV began as a station that almost exclusively played music videos. Mulcahy later went on to direct classic feature films like Highlander, Razorback, The Shadow and Resident Evil – Extinction. Meanwhile, Sounds Unlimited became simply Sounds.
Shortly after Sounds Unlimited debuted, Australia’s ABC jumped into the fray. Director Paul Drane created videos for the show, including AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” and “Jailbreak.” With a larger budget, the show also featured live performances, which probably led to its much greater popularity. At its peak in the 1980s, it aired in 22 different countries. Drane went on to produce the Orson Welles-hosted The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.
Rage (sorry, “rage”) is an Aussie video program that began on ABC1 in 1987. That’s well after the debut of MTV, which somehow became synonymous with music videos, leading many to wrongly assume that the channel invented the concept. The first video shown on Rage was The Lime Spiders‘ “Weirdo Libido.”Rage is still going strong, as far as I know… years after MTV switched over to a reality show format.
More Aussie videos:
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century varieties of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!