Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Worst Day I Ever Spent In The Music Biz or Why Promo Videos Are The Work Of Satan.

When I think about developments between the two eras of the 1970's and 1980's, perhaps the most marked `step forward' is the music promotional video.

February 1991, I'm standing in an enormous disused warehouse somewhere in South East London within striking distance of Elephant and Castle. There is a single three bar electric heater for warmth in a freezing building the size of a football pitch and outside us on the wasteland there has been a substantial snowfall. Snow being a London video director's dream, we four Honey Smugglers find ourselves out in the white stuff in a spirit of what could initially at least be described as fun. With a couple of lunchtime pints and a shot or two of whisky, this is all a bit of a first.

Ged, Stevie C and myself, are acting unconvincingly (being largely unconvinced about what the hell we are supposed to be doing) and are but a sideshow to Chris the singer's lip synched close-ups, which he does carry off extremely well in his leather fur-lined hat. The rest of us don't have instruments with us to pretend to play, so we look like a right bunch of aimless charlies as we piss about under the freezing afternoon sun, taking vague instructions like "it would be really good if you all walked off in different directions".

The outside shots finally under wraps, the wind blowing ever colder and the novelty having worn off along with the effects of the whisky, we return to the warehouse. Inside, the other star of the video is a child actor in a multicoloured hammock looking (for reasons which are never explained) through a telescope, while a record spins on a turntable. The song has a storyboard involving us trudging through snow, our singer reading a book about Hollywood and leaving a photo frame in the snow...... while a kid looks through a telescope in a hammock. An obvious BAFTA candidate I'm sure you'll agree.

As the kid's solo scenes are filmed , (he's been hired for a couple of hours only, probably to comply with child cruelty laws), we become gradually conscious of the fact that an hour or two in the snow has taken it's toll on the lower trousers, socks and shoes of us assembled would be pop stars. The temperature in the open sided warehouse is decreasing by the hour as the winter dusk descends, and it begins to dawn on me that making pop videos is perhaps a pain best endured only once. Or at least to not be so stupid as to let a director mess you about in sub zero temperatures when you could be at home on this Sunday from hell enjoying a warm and soft time in bed with your lovely young wife to be.

Standing around (there are no chairs, who do we think we are ? U2?) for hours in a freezing warehouse with wet shoes, trousers and feet, no warmth and no food or drink: this is the life ! I'm sure Duran Duran felt the same, being kept waiting in the sunshine on that luxury yacht off the Brazilian coast no doubt being fed champagne, canapes and cocaine by leggy models while they re-did Simon Le Bon Bon's hair for the umpteenth time.

On an hourly basis we treat ourselves to ten minutes huddled together in Steve's car with the heating on, until between visits the car is broken into by some `Sarf London' urchins, thereby creating unwanted ventilation through the hole where the side window used to be and defeating the object of us trying to use it for respite from the biting winds chilling our marrows in the warehouse.

I know making videos isn't easy, but there were whole hours where nothing appeared to be happening at all. Surely it can't be that hard to point a camera at something. It was made worse by a complete lack of communication from the video guys. Hanging around is one thing, but it's the not knowing for how much longer which really gets you down. This became an endurance test of mammoth proportions and was about as interesting and rewarding as standing at a bus stop for 12 hours.

It's evening and even colder by the time we Smugglers line-up for inside shots of us dancing amid glittery strips of foil hanging from the roof while Chris once again lip-synchs the lead vocal to cut to and from the snow shots. It takes an absolute technical eternity to get Stevie C, Ged and I lined up in one shot, why I don't know....there's this farcical passing of a photo frame from one person to the other (mine ended up on the cutting room floor) and then there are some shots of each of us reflected in a chunk of mirror.... until finally, late that evening, with food and drink but a distant memory of some 12 hours ago, we were mercifully done.

An end to the misery finally in reach, and having no money for a cab, (I naively thought we'd be finished while the buses were still running) and with barely a clue as to where the hell we are anyway, I beg Stevie `Vox Continental ' Cox to take me home to my door about 3 miles away in Camberwell. Our keyboard man is the only one of us smart enough to have a car to deliver us from this god-forsaken place, even if it does now have a busted side window. I've rarely appreciated a lift as much as I did that night. "One of the most testing days of my life", says the diary.

About a month later, one Monday, my friend Sally Wooly says she saw the video on MTV the night before and that she didn't quite know how to say this but........she couldn't really see me in it. That's right kids ! I had stood around freezing my toes off and starving for 13 hours for nothing. The video director, who we never saw again from that day to this, hadn't even seen fit to include a couple of token shots of the insignificant long haired drummer guy as some small reward for his misery.

In the 70's the only thing that mattered was the music. You heard new bands on the radio if you knew where to listen, and there was a magic and mystery about only hearing them and not seeing them. If you liked them so much that you wanted to find out more you generally went to your local city hall or university and caught them in the flesh. When I first heard such obscurities as Seventh Wave on my local radio station in 1975, they sounded like they were from the moon, and what's more I didn't give a second thought to what the buggers looked like. Who cared ? The music was the soundtrack to your imagination. Imagination is not a pre-requisite for listening, but it happens because by listening rather than watching, the music is given a chance to "conjure up images of sacred spaces" as my friend Archie Patterson once so eloquently put it. Archie may have been talking about the great Kosmische Musik but it applies equally to say, `Tangled Up In Blue'. Can you imagine the pointlessness of shooting a promo for this song, when every one of the millions of people who have heard Bob Dylan's masterpiece have their own set of images in their head, to be added to as every nuance makes itself clearer.

Then MTV reared it's ugly corporate head, and it soon became the norm that some fool would be employed at great expense (the artist's expense of course) to make a video for the `marketplace'. All of a sudden lame storyboards, exotic locations (not if you're the Honey Smugglers), punishing shooting schedules, and protracted editing sessions become another exciting way to waste vast amounts of money you'd never recoup...and in all honesty the net result of all this indulgence ? many great music videos can you name ?

Although I can see the lists forming in your heads already, I can't think of one I really ever want to see again. I just don't think they work as an artform. They chain a song down to an association with a repeatable visual image, and that in my view defeats the object of music in principle, whilst one can listen to the same timeless song for a lifetime, who would want to watch the video more than once or twice ? Visual information becomes very boring very quickly, but for some mystical and magical reason music bears repeated listening in a variety of moods, circumstances and over vast timespans.

The other long term effect on the culture of popular music, entrenched today, was that bands were just as likely to be signed if their faces were video friendly, as if their music was any good. Ben Wardle admitted as much in his recent blog about the ubiquitous Ms Boyle. That's why today we have endless bands who are more bothered about the way they look than writing any remotely memorable or ground-breaking music, although even this theory doesn't explain or excuse Coldplay.

I'm with Jimi on this one. When, in the 60's, Hendrix was innocently asked what he had thought of an early oil slide lightshow in the golden days of London's UFO club his response was "Man, I've got better pictures in my head". If he'd lived long enough to witness the advent of the promo video he'd have been very grateful indeed for what he'd seen that night.

Suffer with me one time, I'm in there somewhere if you don't blink, and it's not a bad song.


Q + H said...

After seeing this one (see your inbox) we watched the video of a much better look at you (err...which is very important, of course)
Cool hair-do!

Steve Dinsdale said...

Ah yes, `Need'. I was blasting through a lot of old videos at random, and the bane of a drummer's life at filmed gigs is to be forever hidden behind either cymbals or the singer, so it was nice to have a glimpse of the old `me' with the frame to myself :-)

The groove we were laying down just makesme smile, and that's a lot of what the Smugglers were about. Had three great years in that band.

I was determined to have a hairstyle to remember, and I think I achieved that !