I Want My MTV: The Evolution of the Music Video - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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I Want My MTV: The Evolution of the Music Video

Is this just fantasy?
Although the origins of the music video date back to musical short films that first appeared in the newfangled "talkies" of the 1920s - they'll never last! - the promotional music video really came into prominence in the 1980s when the channel MTV based its format around the medium. Prior to its launch, the musical clips accompanying a pop song where often referred to by a variety of terms, including "illustrated song," "filmed insert," "promotional (or promo) film," "promotional clip," "promotional video," "song video," "song clip," or "film clip." Many of which were extremely cheaply produced, as an afterthought to the single, and rarely featured nothing more than a performance of the song, perhaps captured from a live show, concert or a single sound stage recording. Although MTV didn't change that per se, music videos were becoming more elaborate and considered before the channel's 1981 launch, it gave artists a reason to strive for more in this medium - valuable airtime promotion of their music. Let's look back on some key moments in the evolution of the music video, starting even before those newfangled talkies...
The Illustrated Song
Across our many Cinematic Firsts features, we've explored the early days of film and photographic recordings and how the 19th Century pioneers were pushing the boundaries, discovering just what the medium could do. In 1894, sheet music publishers Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern recognised the benefit of adding images to heighten a song's emotion and hired electrician George Thomas, along with a variety of performers, to promote sales of their song The Little Lost Child.

Using a stereopticon, also known as a magic lantern, Thomas projected a series of hand-coloured images on a screen simultaneous to a live performances. This would become a popular form of entertainment known as the illustrated song, the first step toward music video.

In 1926, with the arrival of "talkies" many musical short films started to be produced. Many of the early animated films by Walt Disney, such as the Silly Symphonies shorts, were also built around music, and the Warner Bros. cartoons were initially fashioned around specific songs, often from upcoming Warner Bros. musical films.

Live-action musical shorts, featuring such popular artists as Cab Calloway, were also distributed to theaters. And the famous Al Jolson 1927 movie The Jazz Singer was often split into separate reels, with a performance of tracks like Mammy used as film-promotion.

Coming not long after that in 1929, Blues singer Bessie Smith appeared in a two-reel short film called St. Louis Blues. Nicknamed The Empress of the Blues she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, and gave us an important step in the evolution of the music video as her performance is one of the first examples of a dramatised interpretation of a hit song, featuring multiple scenes, locations and transition effects.

Arguably the biggest jump toward the music video, and a firm influence in MTV's wall-to-wall music video format, Soundies were three-minute American musical films, produced between 1940 and 1947, each displaying a song, dance, and/or band or orchestral number.

Produced professionally on 35mm black-and-white film, like theatrical motion pictures, they were printed in the more portable and economical 16mm gauge. In an incredibly impressive move, given the time of their prominence, Soundies were shown in a coin-operated "movie jukebox" named the Panoram, manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. A very early video jukebox!

Musical Films
Taking the dramatised performance and professional production to a new level, musical films were another important precursor to the music video. Several well-known music videos from the golden era of the 1980s imitated the style of classic Hollywood musicals from the 1930s to the 1950s. One of the best-known examples is Madonna's 1985 video for Material Girl, which was closely modeled on Jack Cole's staging of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend from the Marilyn Monroe film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Once again, like the musical clips from the early talkies, performances like Monroe's one here were often separated from the film to promote the soundtrack.
Promotional Clips
In his autobiography, Tony Bennett claims to have created "...the first music video" when he was filmed walking along the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London in 1956, with the resulting clip being set to his recording of the song Stranger in Paradise and sent to UK and US television stations, airing on shows including Dick Clark's American Bandstand. However, it really wasn't a music video as such, more a promotional clip - there's a difference.

Sadly the promotional clip doesn't appear to have survived across the years and is now missing believed wiped, but it helped influence many later artists, including the Beatles, in that the benefit was made apparent to performers that they could still receive promotion for their music without having to turn-up themselves to perform it.

The First Music Videos
If you think that Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody was the first proper music video, as many people seem to believe, then you are sorely mistaken. The oldest example of a promotional music video with similarities to more abstract, modern videos seems to be the Czechoslovakia "Dáme si do bytu" ("Let's get to the apartment") created in 1958 and directed by Ladislav Rychman.

This led to a second rise in popularity for the video jukebox, this time across mainland Europe and the Scopitone. This visual jukebox was invented in France in 1958 and stocked with short films featuring many Eurpoean artists, such as Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc and Jacques Brel, all appearing in "music videos" to accompany their hit songs.

Across the pond in the UK, it would be six years later at the height of Beatlemania when the first proper British music video was created, although it didn't come from the Fab Four...

The Moody Blues producer Alex Murray wanted to promote the group's version of Go Now and oversaw the production (and direction) of a short film clip for the single in a visually striking style. Take a look at the music video above, it predates Queen's similar Bohemian Rhapsody video by a full decade, and clearly was influential in that band's iconic imagery. Go Now also predates what the Beatles did with promotional music videos for their single Paperback Writer and B-Side Rain both released in 1966, so can claim the title of the first English language proper music video.

Although the Beatles influence can't be understated, as once the Fab Four showed the global market just how powerful a promotional clip or music video for a single could be, many other artists began to use the medium to great effect.

Although the 1970s would see a rise in the use of concert footage for the promotional video, the music video was here to stay, it just needed it's "killer" moment. That came in 1975...

In 1975, Queen employed Bruce Gowers to make a promotional video to show their new single Bohemian Rhapsody, initially just for the BBC music series Top of the Pops. According to rock historian Paul Fowles...
"Bohemian Rhapsody is widely credited as the first global hit single for which an accompanying video was central to the marketing strategy."
Rolling Stone went further claiming Bohemian Rhapsody "practically invented the music video." As we've seen, it didn't, but, again, it was a huge milestone toward legitimising the format and, perhaps, a catalyst to the idea of having a television version of a video jukebox, the likes of which MTV aspired to be from its launch on August 1st 1981.

And once MTV began broadcasting, music video went mainstream.

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