It was 40 years ago this weekend that the course of popular music was forever changed by the launch of MTV. The industry was turned upside down, the nature of rock and pop stardom completely shifted, and everything from album promotion and marketing to live performances and movie soundtracks was unrecognizably transformed. The channel debuted as part of cable’s new wave, along with other themed networks (HBO, ESPN, CNN) that would prove similarly game-changing — but only MTV’s impact on the culture of its time was great enough to ultimately define an entire generation.
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. When MTV first launched on Aug 1, 1981, it wasn’t available in most major markets — the staff held their launch party in Fort Lee, NJ, because no one could get the channel in Manhattan — and the operation was still fairly ramshackle, with a particularly technical difficulty-plagued first 24 hours. What’s more, the music videos weren’t quite there yet either: By most estimates, MTV only had somewhere between 100 and 200 videos in their library at the time, and had to lean disproportionately on certain artists with more clips available (like REO Speedwagon and Rod Stewart) simply to fill 24 hours of programming.
And the quality of those videos? Well… it wasn’t the highest plane the art form would reach. Since most 1981 videos were shot before MTV even existed — filmed to be shown on proto-MTV video programs like PopClips or U.K. performance shows like Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test, or just sent to markets where an artist didn’t plan to tour to give them added visibility — budgets and aims were low, with many shot as rudimentary performance clips, or as unintelligible art pieces. MTV’s golden age would kick off in earnest a couple years later, as the channel’s increasing influence inspired an influx of both label spending and artist ambition — not to mention an emerging class of video auteurs behind the camera, many of whom would eventually make the jump to feature films.
What the videos of 1981 did have on their side, however, was the same amateurish energy and charm as MTV itself. The production values weren’t top-grade and the ideas were often half-baked, but the excitement of embarking upon new and unexplored terrain was palpable. The seeds were being planted for music video’s eventual takeover: Some of the artists behind 1981’s greatest videos would go on to be defining faces of the franchise, while some of the directors would help mint future stars and set the visual precedent for MTV’s early years.
To celebrate this official Year Zero for the music video as a cultural event, Billboard‘s staff is counting down their 40 favorite videos of 1981. These aren’t necessarily the videos MTV was playing to death in 1981 — many of which were originally filmed and released in prior years, like The Buggles’ 1979 clip for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” famously the first video ever broadcast on the channel — and some of them didn’t actually make rotation until later years. But these are the videos that best reflect the stage that the artform had reached by 1981, as it began to crawl out of the primordial ooze of decades prior — still sloppy and unrefined, but increasingly creative, and a whole lot of fun.
So here they are: the 40 greatest clips from the year that marked one giant leap for music video, with a YouTube playlist of all 40 at the bottom. Read and watch closely enough and you can probably still hear J.J. Jackson’s and Martha Quinn’s voices in your head introducing each of ’em.
40. Loverboy, “Workin’ For the Weekend” (dir. Arnold Levine)
No stodgy live moves here: Loverboy are mugging for the camera and loving every minute of it in this over-the-top performance video. Guitarist Paul Dean and bassist Scott Smith lurk in the background and unleash synchronized stage moves, while frontman Mike Reno jogs enthusiastically around the set, acting out certain lyrics (“C’mon baby, let’s go” brings an exaggerated head nod) and singing his heart out. Plus, the red-leather-clad Reno made both the neckerchief and rock band-headband fashion crazes look cool in this clip. An exuberant classic. — ANNIE ZALESKI
39. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Spellbound” (dir. Clive Richardson)
“Spellbound” is mostly a performance clip of the U.K. post-punk quartet playing their Juju single, while the camera spins above them (or the stage rotates beneath them), and footage of the band running through the woods is spliced in and laid over the footage. But the really spellbinding parts of it are just the solo shots of frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux dancing up a storm in eye-popping lipstick and liner, looking halfway between Kate Bush and Robert Smith and just as iconic as either. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
38. Tubes, “Talk to Ya Later” (dir. Russell Mulcahy)
The Tubes were MTV fixtures at the outset, having been early adopters of the music video format — even making an entire video album for 1981 LP The Completion Backwards Principle, helmed by the Cecil B. DeMille of MTV, Russell Mulcahy. The most popular of the clips was “Talk to Ya Later,” whose press conference setting and dramatic, flashbulb-punctuated lighting perfectly matched the song’s nervy energy — and made the power-poppy art-rockers seem like a much bigger deal than they actually were at the time, which was sorta the whole point of the thing. — A.U.
37. Tommy Tutone, “867-5309/Jenny” (dir. Mark Robinson)
This one starts simply enough, with a performance from the band and lead singer Tommy Heath being slipped Jenny’s notorious number out at a bar. All of a sudden, Heath is peeping in Jenny’s windows and seeing a psychiatrist about his obsession before being (rightfully) arrested — so things escalate pretty quickly. Did he ever try just calling her, like countless others did after getting this earworm lodged in their brains? – KATIE ATKINSON
36. Styx, “Too Much Time on My Hands” (self-directed)
Styx had two videos in heavy rotation when MTV launched — theatrical performance videos for Paradise Theatre arena-rock singles “The Best of Times” and “Rockin’ the Paradise” — but their most entertaining clip of the year was for the synth-funkier “Too Much Time on My Hands,” sung by guitarist Tommy Shaw. Both the hip-swaying performance shots (with Shaw’s eye-darting paranoia predating Men at Work’s breakout clip of 1982) and the hilariously cheesy, overly literal bar footage it’s cut with (including frontman Dennis DeYoung with an arm full of watches) remain good fun — enough even to inspire a Jimmy Fallon and Paul Rudd remake a half-decade back. — A.U.
35. Madness, “It Must Be Love” (dir. Chris Gabrin)
Though Madness wouldn’t make much of a stateside impression until “Our House” a couple years later, they were already superstars in the U.K. by 1981 — ones taking full advantage of the music video format, filming four clips in 1981 alone. All four have an infectious join-our-gang energy, but the most gratifying of the bunch is probably “It Must Be Love,” whose “why not?” spirit involves an underwater sax solo (with a killer whale as an audience, necessitating a safety disclaimer at the video’s beginning) and frontman Suggs getting assaulted by an off-brand Big Bird following his “bless the bees and the birds” proclamation. — A.U.
34. Split Enz, “History Never Repeats” (dir. Noel Crombie)
Back in 1981, bands from outside the U.S. tended to have a better grasp on how to make arty music videos. Take New Zealand quirk-pop merchants Split Enz, which structured “History Never Repeats” like a series of dream sequences and flashbacks that subtly guide viewers back to the present day. A young Neil Finn, who was then taking on a larger role in the band, reminisces about romantic failure, political skirmishes — even the zany suits and goofball dance moves favored by earlier Split Enz lineups. The video somehow manages to be silly, serious and self-referential all at once, no mean feat for a three-minute clip. — A.Z.
33. Prince, “Controversy” (dir. Bruce Gowers)
Future videos would be plottier and purpler, but the sheer magnetism that would make Prince one of the biggest stars in MTV history was already plain in the performance video for “Controversy.” Playing in a church in front of a stained glass window — con-tro-ver-sey! — Prince funks his way around the stage, strutting and preening and dipping his mic stand in time with the guitar licks. The only time you can take your eyes off him are when the camera cuts to Dr. Fink in his surgeon’s garb behind the keys. — A.U.
32. Barnes & Barnes, “Love Tap” (dir. Rocky Schenk)
You might remember comedy-rock duo Barnes & Barnes better for their Dr. Demento-approved novelty MTV hit “Fish Heads,” but this video — for a ballad about one of the two Barneses getting beaten up by his girlfriend for trying to leave — also has its charms. (Slightly problematic, perhaps, but far too winking and self-consciously overdramatic in its Gone With the Wind-style staging to be taken seriously.) And yes, that’s pre-Weird Science Bill Paxton as the Rhett Butler-type getting the s–t kicked out of him by his Scarlett O’Hara. — A.U.
31. Ultravox, “Vienna” (dir. Russell Mulcahy)
One of Russell Mulcahy’s early-career triumphs, was the sophisticated mini-movie for Ultravox’s New Romantic swoon “Vienna.” Filmed in London and Austria for around “six or seven thousand pounds,” the romantic clip boasts surreal touches — for instance, a tarantula crawling over the face of a fancy party-goer — as well as plenty of moody poses from a dashing, mustachioed Midge Ure. Even if the plot is mostly obtuse, the clip still feels like a grand, golden-age Hollywood film ripe for rediscovery. — A.Z.
30. The Cars, “Shake It Up” (dir. Paul Justman)
Whether fair or not, the Cars had a reputation for being a staid live band, but a groundbreaking video presence. In “Shake It Up,” the band proves the critics wrong about the staid part. Ric Ocasek portrays a mechanic out for a joyride in a convertible with a party-rockin’ backseat. Throughout the clip are literal references to things that are shaken — a snow globe, dice, a martini shaker, shoulders while dancing, hair while headbanging — which culminates in more revelry in the greasy garage. While Ocasek is mostly his usual stoic self, even he jumps around with the crowd, buoyed by the enthusiasm throughout. — A.Z.
29. Van Halen, “(Oh) Pretty Woman” (dir. Robert Lombard)
Van Halen to the rescue! When a woman is held captive by a pair of dwarves and then spotted by a hunchback Samaritan (stay with us), of course the anachronistic foursome of a samurai (Michael Anthony), Tarzan (Alex Van Halen), cowboy (Eddie Van Halen) and Napoleon (David Lee Roth) is there to save the day. Eddie Van Halen’s cowboy was probably right at home on MTV in 1981, because the network’s early days were quite literally the Wild West of television, as this wacky video proves. – K.A.
28. Commodores, “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” (dir. unkonwn)
Compared to the overwrought mini-dramas and ornately choreographed musical recreations that would propel Lionel Richie to MTV megastardom in the mid-’80s, this clip for his then-group’s “Lady” feels refreshingly unlabored. It’s just the Commodores in high socks and short shorts, getting ready to play a little six-on-six soccer — Lionel in goal, natch — against a group of female paramours (and/or rivals) in the park. Horseplay abounds, choreography is attempted, and at the end of the day everyone except the referee wins. — A.U.
27. Electric Light Orchestra, “Hold on Tight” (dir. Mike Mansfield)
Jeff Lynne was never a man who failed to dream big, so when the ’80s came, his Electric Light Orchestra jumped on the music video spaceship with the ambitious clip for “Hold on Tight,” a (mostly) black-and-white amalgamation of ’40s-style adventure, sci-fi and romance film pastiches starring the band members. The scale for the video was almost unheard of for the pre-MTV age; within a couple years, its 40,000-pound budget would essentially be par for the course for any big-name artist. — A.U.
26. Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Private Eyes” (dir. Jay Dubin)
This simple performance clip seems to have had a fairly limited budget, and what director Dubin did have to spend went for wardrobe. The duo and their four band members wear trench coats and fedoras, enabling them to look like detectives in a classic film noir. Daryl and John also get to wear snazzy blazers – avocado for John and basic white for John. “Private Eyes,” helped by its engaging video and (of course) its catchy handclap chorus, became the duo’s second No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit of 1981, following “Kiss on My List.” — PAUL GREIN
25. Kate Bush, “Sat in Your Lap” (dir. Brian Wiseman)
Athenian hero Theseus may have slain the minotaur according to Greek mythology, but did he ever hop on the man-bull’s shoulders while the beast was roller skating? Didn’t think so. Surrealist imagery abounds in the video for this percussive, frenetic single, which boasts dunces and jesters a’plenty, in addition to a book flitting through the air like a butterfly. Kate Bush never toured after 1979’s The Tour of Life, but MTV brought her beautiful, baffling imagery to the world in the ’80s. — JOE LYNCH
24. Earth, Wind & Fire, “Let’s Groove” (dir. Ron Hays)
This was a relatively high-budget, technically ambitious video for its time, reflecting EWF’s status as one of the premier R&B acts of the previous decade. The video features electronic effects created by director Hays using an analog computer system. Bruno Mars wasn’t even born when “Let’s Groove” was a hit, but the video clearly influenced his 2013 “Treasure” video. “Let’s Groove,” an ultra-catchy, ultra-commercial, defiantly disco smash (released more than two years after disco was pronounced dead) reached No. 3 on the Hot 100. Alas, it was the final top 10 hit for this great band. — P.G.
23. The Stray Cats, “Rock This Town” (dir. Julien Temple)
The Julien Temple-helmed videos for Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” essentially generated a rockabilly revival out of thin air, with the Brian Setzer-led trio’s iconoclastic sound and image making them a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic in the early ’80s. “Strut” was the more memorably cartoonish of the clips, but “Town” was earlier and more kinetic, a Saturday night’s worth of excitement in 2:40 of bowling, jukebox demolition and swing dancing — presaging the next time Setzer would take over MTV with an unlikely retro wave. — A.U.
22. Gleaming Spires, “Are You Ready For the Sex Girls?” (dir. unknown)
One of the earliest and purest examples of a tried-and-true MTV staple: pairing a conceptually simple music video with a song that couldn’t have less to do with its visual. In this case, new wavers Gleaming Spires (led by Sparks’ then-new rhythm section Leslie Bohem and David Kendrick) matched an inscrutable lyric, loosely about sexual frustration and fascination, with a video that featured the duo baking a lemon meringue pie. It shouldn’t work, obviously, but the non-sequitur clip reveals its absurdist brilliance slowly — helped by sporadic moments of synchronization, like dough being slapped in time to a synth hit — and by the end, you’re absolutely salivating for that damn pie. — A.U.
21. Rick Springfield, “Jessie’s Girl” (self-directed)
Costing less than $1,500, the video helped catapult the photogenic (to put it mildly) Springfield to stardom in part due to his angst-ridden performance (calling on his General Hospital acting chops). Shot partially at 3:00 a.m. in the alley behind the Guitar Center on Sunset before he and his band got chased off, the clip perfectly captures Springfield’s seething, barely restrained jealousy every time he sees Jessie with the girl he so desperately covets. Springfield’s skinny tie and boxy suit may seem dated, but unrequited passion never goes out of style. (Points too for the cameo at the end by Springfield’s dog, Ron, who also appears on the Working Class Dog album cover) — MELINDA NEWMAN
20. Devo, “Whip It” (dir. Gerald Casale)
With the band in nose-high black turtlenecks and their signature red energy dome hats, singer Mark Mothersbaugh whips the clothing off a cigarette-smoking woman while beer-guzzling cowboys and cowgirls cheer him on. With bassist Gerald Casale often directing, Devo had been using music videos to send-up American stupidity since the late ’70s, but it was MTV’s choice to air this clip relentlessly in 1981 that propelled “Whip It” to No. 14 on the Hot 100 and ensured the new wave band’s survival. — J.L.
19. J. Geils Band, “Centerfold” (dir. Paul Justman)
J. Geils front man Peter Wolf proved one of the more distinctive dancers of the early MTV era as he cavorts through a classroom, the previous site of lustful memories of his “homeroom, homeroom angel,” who has fallen to earth and landed as girlie mag centerfold. Nearly 20 years before there was a pouty Britney Spears preening in a schoolgirl outfit, a bevy of beauties, who look way past high school age, surround Wolf in a variety of scantily clad outfits, ranging from negligees to cheerleading sweaters and saddle shoes. Fairly risqué at the time, the video looks positively G-rated now, and its MTV ubiquity helped propel “Centerfold” to the top of the Hot 100 in early 1982, making it the rock band’s sole No. 1. — M.N.
18. Elton John, “Elton’s Song” (dir. Russell Mulcahy)
Despite music video being a general safe haven for flamboyance of all kinds in the ’80s, videos with explicitly queer themes were still exceedingly rare — which makes this gay teenage love story all the more poignant. Filmed for Elton John’s Visions, a full video album accompaniment for his The Fox album (helmed, again, by Mulcahy) the quietly devastating “Elton’s Song” features a young boy at boarding school pining for his older, jock-y classmate, a crush never even acknowledged enough to be considered unrequited. It was an extremely bold statement for John to make at the time — particularly with a song titled as his own theme — and unsurprisingly, it was never shown on TV. — A.U.
17. Rick James, “Super Freak” (dir. Nick Saxton)
Before Prince became MTV’s first true Black rock star, Rick James was the singer-instrumentalist making the freakiest, glitteriest party videos. “Super Freak” was his most recognizable and captivating clip, all legs and long hair and limos, with the open-shirted, silver-streaked James at the eye of the hurricane. Of course, you wouldn’t have seen it on MTV at the time, because of its then-policy of playing only rock videos — which many, James included, interpreted as implicitly racist. However, Carolyn Baker, one of the few Black women behind the scenes in MTV’s early years, swore in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s essential I Want My MTV oral history that not playing the video was her call: “There were half-naked women in it, and it was a piece of crap. As a Black woman, I did not want that representing my people as the first Black video on MTV.” Also fair. — A.U.
16. Queen & David Bowie, “Under Pressure” (dir. David Mallet)
Queen and David Bowie were two of the most recognizable (and photogenic) rock artists on the planet, but neither appear in the video for their collaboration “Under Pressure.” Instead, director David Mallet stitched together a collage of silent films, news clips featuring buildings collapsing and traffic jams, and archival footage of unemployment lines and riots. The video’s brisk editing predicted MTV’s future quick-cut style, while the stirring montage sent a pointed message: Different types of tension — political, romantic, societal, cultural — can co-exist, but might boil over. Timely! — A.Z.
15. Adam and the Ants, “Prince Charming” (dir. Adam Ant & Mike Mansfield)
Few MTV stars of the early ’80s were as emblematic of the fashion excesses and campy theatrics of the U.K. new wave as Adam Ant. In this one, he plays a male Cinderella type tortured by his drag queen sisters, who gets turned into the dashing title character by his fairy godmother (played by U.K. film legend Diana Dors), then goes on to captivate the royal ball, smash a mirror, and then — sure — reappear as Alice Cooper and Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character, among other personalities. It set the precedent for a ton of early-’80s video clichés, for better or worse, but did so with more swashbuckling style than the overwhelming majority of its followers — and as the man says himself: “Don’t you ever stop being dandy… ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” — A.U.
14. Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes” (dir. Russell Mulcahy)
There’s so much to digest in this avant-garde video, from Kim Carnes opening the clip shrouded in black fabric to an evocative shadow impersonating the titular classic-film actress. But the most memorable aspect has to be the costumed partygoers slapping each other (and the floor) to the handclap beat of the second verse — an idea that came to director Russell Mulcahy as he listened to the song on repeat to prepare for the video. “I would put the cassette on … and close my eyes and let images just hit me,” he told Billboard in 2014. “I remember the idea of the slapping, because I felt like there was a lot of that in Bette Davis films, so I just stylized that.” – K.A.
13. Laurie Anderson, “O Superman” (self-directed)
A near-impossible task to match a left-field synth-pop single like “O Superman” (a No. 2 hit in the U.K., somehow) with a video as graceful, elegiac and disquieting as the song itself, but New York performance artist Laurie Anderson was more than up to the task. The visual is a masterclass in staging, cinematography and art direction, with only sporadic (and never gaudy) use of graphics and effects to accentuate the brilliance of Anderson’s own direction and star turn. The best moment: during the final, um, verse, when a robotically flexing and previously rigid Anderson softens her entire body language at the reveal of “And when force is gone… there’s always Mom…. Hi Mom!” — A.U.
12. The Specials, “Ghost Town” (dir. Barney Bubbles)
While the boys in Madness were tearing up dining rooms and cavorting with killer whales underwater, their second-wave ska peers in The Specials were having significantly less fun taking a drive through a deserted U.K. downtown for their spooky sign-of-the-times anthem “Ghost Town.” Inspired by concert riots, an economic recession and general civil unrest, the video was undoubtedly eerie in its visions of empty streets watched over by cold, monolithic skyscrapers, but the most chilling shots are the ones inside The Specials’ cars, with singers Terry Hall and Lynval Golding plaintively trading off despairing vocals: “Bands won’t play no more… too much fighting on the dancefloor.” — A.U.
11. The Rolling Stones, “Waiting on a Friend” (dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg)
The Rolling Stones reunited with The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for this clip for Tattoo You‘s “Waiting on a Friend.” Shot in Greenwich Village, the charming video depicts an alternate-universe Stones who are an up-and-coming bar band, not stadium-fillers. Like a restless teenager, Mick Jagger sings to himself while waiting for his bud Keith Richards, who’s meandering down the street, cigarette in hand. The pair wander over into a nearby bar, meet up with the rest of the band, and start jamming out in front of a completely indifferent crowd. It’s a low-key but sentimental clip that doubles as a charming peek into the Stones’ intra-band dynamic. — A.Z.
10. Rod Stewart, “Young Turks” (dir. Russell Mulcahy)
Rod Stewart was the most visible star of MTV’s first year — with 11 of his videos played a total of 16 times on the channel’s first day — and Russell Mulcahy was the most popular director. So when the two linked up for the “Young Turks” video a few months after MTV’s debut, they had to raise the stakes — which they did, with possibly the most cinematic video of MTV’s first year. Focused around two young lovers in Los Angeles running away, the video featured all sorts of things rarely seen on MTV at the time: on-location filming, split-screen cinematography, and even breakdancing (with choreography from Kenny Ortega, later of Dirty Dancing and High School Musical fame). Stewart’s own presence was largely incidental — which, as many such ’70s hitmakers would later discover, was usually the right move for aging rock stars looking to transition to the video age. — A.U.
9. Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love” (dir. Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel)
The first great animated video of the MTV era, Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” clip was just as colorful, effervescent and punch-drunk as the song it accompanied. An eye-popping mix of stop-motion styles courtesy of directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (eventual co-creators of computer-animated ’80s icon Max Headroom) “Genius” nails he song’s occasionally R-rated bubble-funk vibe, while paying further tribute to the music greats shouted out in the song — particularly James Brown (JAMES BROWWWWWN), who rolls up to a show in his G.F.O.S. limo (Godfather of Soul) and gets quickly crowned, before going onstage to a rapturous reception. — A.U.
8. Olivia Newton-John, “Physical” (dir. Brian Grant)
This video is basically a mood board for an over-the-top ’80s theme party, with its sweatbands and leotards over leggings — and it definitely knew it was campy back in 1981 too. Olivia Newton-John plays a very effective personal trainer in the clip, turning her flabby clients into muscle-bound Adonises during the course of a seductive shower. But in a cheeky (and provocative, especially for the time) twist ending that surely delighted her gay fanbase, the newly buff gentlemen leave together instead of hearing ONJ’s body talk. – K.A.
7. Grace Jones, “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” (dir. Jean-Paul Goude)
While Grace Jones was also shut out from MTV’s earliest years — again, depending on who you believe, for some combination of not being rock or for not being white — her early-’80s videos have proven as enduring and influential in their artfully striking presence and gender-bending glamour as anyone’s. “I’ve Seen That Face Before” features Jones’ face obscured by a number of triangular masks, each of which are cut away as she begins to sing the Astor Piazzolla tango — often in uncomfortably intimate, but jaw-droppingly transfixing close-up — before the camera pans out to reveal she’s been singing at a concert on a tower rooftop. You can see elements in the clip in smash videos to follow, from performers ranging from Sinéad O’Connor to Don Henley, but none of them are quite as entrancing as Jones, the most magnetic artist of the early music video era to be denied MTV ubiquity. — A.U.
6. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight” (dir. Stuart Orme)
Phil Collins wrote this song — his debut solo single — while in the midst of a contentious divorce. The stark imagery in the unnerving video underlines this fact in thick, permanent marker. Multiple murky close-ups of a grim-looking Phil — like his Face Value album cover come to life — singing about disorientation and misery? Check. Scenes of a claustrophobic spare room and disorienting hallway, which indicate he’s trapped by his mind? Present. A big gesture for the immortal drum break? But of course: Collins’ face turns into a colorful blob rendered by thermal imaging. — A.Z.
5. Go-Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed” (dir. Derek Burbidge)
Much of this video looks like a typical day in the life of a Los Angeles 20-something, as the Go-Go’s hop in a vintage convertible and aimlessly drive around the city. What’s not typical is the five women posing in front of their own poster hanging on the street, and hitting the stage of an L.A. club to play their perfectly poppy second single, all while being effortlessly cool. Oh, and not everyone goes from L.A.’s famous Trashy Lingerie store to a quick swim in a public fountain — an unplanned and potentially illegal part of the video, inspired by a brutally hot shoot day — but these girls know how to have a good time. – K.A.
4. Duran Duran, “Girls on Film” (dir. Godley & Crème)
The shorter clip for the single version of “Girls on Film” positions Duran Duran as the house band for a raucous, cutting-edge fashion event. The longer, uncensored version, which soundtracked a dance mix of the song, tells a more fleshed-out (pun intended) story. In fact, Billboard‘s Cary Darling described this edit of the “Girls on Film” video, a club hit, as “perhaps the most controversial rock promo video of 1981.” Directed by ex-10cc members Kevin Godley and Lol Crème, the risqué clip is admittedly too hot for (daytime) TV: It features female nudity, hints of voyeurism, nearly naked mud wrestling, and winking sexual references, such as women straddling a pole covered in shaving cream.
Although the titillation can occasionally come off as gratuitous, the video certainly helped Duran Duran gain a toehold in the U.S. — and established the group as one willing to embrace edgy artistic flourishes. “I don’t look on it as a pornographic film or a dirty movie,” frontman Simon Le Bon told Darling then. “It says a lot of things visually, which are in the song. It’s not for dirty old men in movie theatres. It’s for girls as well as fellas.” — A.Z.
3. The Human League, “Don’t You Want Me” (dir. Steve Barron)
From the very first shot of “Don’t You Want Me” — a car pulls up to a street corner on a foggy night, fading into the background as the woman it’s picking up comes into focus — it’s clear that the video is on another filmmaking level from every clip that came before it. Steve Barron’s epic meta-drama for the Human League’s he said, she said synth-pop classic just gets more impressive from there, efficiently folding in narrative layers and introducing instantly brain-sticking shots never seen before on MTV, like the camera panning away from Joanne Catherall’s on-set discussion just in time to catch Susan Ann Salley walking by herself and singing the song’s second verse. The clip’s humanity is never lost in the cinematic trickery, though, and the emotional close-ups are just as memorable as any of the dazzling wide shots. No surprise, then, that when Michael Jackson was ready to make his big MTV debut, “Don’t You Want Me” convinced him that Barron was the man to properly maximize his magic. — A.U.
2. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” (dir. Toni Basil & David Byrne)
For a video to accompany Talking Heads’ twinkling trance of a pop song, choreographer and co-director Toni Basil (yes, of “Mickey” fame) had frontman David Byrne watch footage of evangelists and tribal ceremonies to get in the right headspace. Fitting for a track that speaks to the pull of the unconscious on a seemingly cookie-cutter life, the “Once In a Lifetime” video finds a spectacled, sweaty Byrne kowtowing, violently shaking and caught up in the spastic movements of spirit possession as footage of religious rituals plays behind him — a visceral, captivating and thoughtful video performance from a time when most artists were content to just mime along with the track. Leave it to an art school dropout and Easy Rider co-star to bring brains to MTV in its inaugural year. — J.L.
1. Blondie, “Rapture” (dir. Keef)
Other 1981 videos might’ve been more accomplished (or more iconic) than Blondie’s “Rapture,” but none encapsulates the freewheeling spirit of early video more successfully. A sort of real-time ode to early-’80s New York, director Keith “Keef” Macmillan’s clip aimed to mix the city’s burgeoning underground hip-hop and art cultures — uptown meets downtown — and did so with a visual that was funny, weird, exciting, a little spooky, and totally unforgettable. Cameos from future Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy and New York art legends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lee Quiñones gave the clip credibility, and the brilliant turn from William Barnes the silent, expressionless, dancing Man From Mars gave MTV its first great video side character. (Barnes would go on to have no other acting credits — and the band says they never heard from him again — lending a sort of verisimilitude to his perfectly alien performance.)
But of course, the real star of “Rapture” is Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, the ideal prototype for the MTV superstar with her blend of art-world chic, streetwise toughness and Classic Hollywood glamour. Harry is undeniably enchanting throughout “Rapture,” whether dancing verrry cloooose with her Blondie bandmates or keeping up with the Man From Mars’ two-step during her third-verse rap — which made “Rapture” the closest thing to a hip-hop video shown on MTV’s first day (and arguably until Run-D.M.C. three years later). Unfortunately for Harry, the timing wasn’t quite right for her — MTV came along just as Blondie began to disintegrate, while her solo career got caught between disco and new wave and never quite got off the ground — but her example would be picked up by another brilliant downtown club kid with idol looks and rock star ballsiness a couple years later.
“Rapture” is far from a perfect clip: The budget is clearly lower than it should be, the direction can be a little sloppy and the staging extremely cheesy, no one in Blondie besides Harry can dance for s–t. But it captures the moment in time more brilliantly than any more expensive, professional production could have, and its energy is just as electric and seductive as it was 40 years ago. More importantly, it still makes the underground club that the Man From Mars peers into at the beginning of the video — and by proxy, the channel playing the clip in heavy rotation — seem like the coolest place in the world to be. — A.U.