Power To The People – British Music Videos 1966-2016 review – a time capsule of innovation and evolution in popular music

by Nadia Bee

Power To The People – British Music Videos 1966 – 2016; UK 2017, full running time: 900 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5

“We wanted our visual statements to be strong and powerful, because we knew they’d be there forever” – Annie Lennox, reminiscing about the Eurythmics 1983 video Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These).

Even in the early ‘80s, the significance of music videos was clear – they were far from ephemeral confections. And the British music industry had understood the importance of the genre, as a marketing tool, well before: the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of the 1960s, with bands like the Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and The Dave Clarke Five conquering the United States, had been launched with the help of music videos, shown on U.S. prime-time TV shows.

By the time MTV launched in the U.S. in 1981, British music video was an established genre of its own, with its own aesthetic sensibility, production methods and audience – the world of Top of the Pops and The Chart Show.

Power to the People, a DVD collection of six discs and more than 15 hours of brilliant British music videos, demonstrates that uniqueness. A collaborative project between the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Film Institute, the British Library and music video industry participants, it’s an exhaustive collection. While there are some omissions, some due to missing masters, or licensing issues, overall the collection provides a scintillating overview of a key period in British musical and visual history.

The videos formats have been carefully preserved – original aspect ratios kept. It’s an important aspect of the aesthetic of the films, and this also anchors them in time.  The first video to kick off the collection is disconcertingly fresh, visually sharp – it is the youth of the performers that gives away its age away: they look so young, so healthy, lithe, as they prance and dance in an ever-increasing mass of soap bubbles. The Rolling Stones – in 1974. The video, shot on 2” videotape, is all about performance – and performance turns out to be the theme of the first disc in the collection.

Faced with a couple of hundred videos, and a wealth of potential themes, how to organise it all? The project curators decided on passe-partout categories: performance, concept, dance, narrative shorts – including social realism, political film, and gender. Within those, there are further sub-sections – comedy, political comment, or love stories. The academic categories dissolve as the videos run by in steady succession, each disc bursting with energy and originality. It becomes quickly obvious that almost any video in the collection could fit into most of these categories – but that in many cases there are some aspects – like dance, or gender expression, or genre – that are so foregrounded that the videos fall quite naturally into their allocated slot.

After the slim-hipped Stones ensconced in soap bubbles, the collection moves on to The Clash, The Cure, Joy Division, and somehow, Hot Chip. There is no chronological order, but from time to time, the videos seem to be grouped by tone, with a meandering progression. A certain lyricism seems to develop, with Godley and Cream’s Cry (1985), Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U (1990), and Radiohead’s No Surprises (1997). After Elton John’s I Want Love (2001), lip-synced by Robert Downey Junior and directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, The Streets steer the tone towards social realism and amiable bantering with Fit But You Know It (2004).

Art School influence is plain to see in much of the collection and is most obvious in concept videos of the early to mid-1980s – though the collection also presents an even earlier example, Manfred Mann’s The Mighty Quinn (1968).

Experimentation and originality come to the fore, a lasting influence evident in later video work, such as All Seeing I’s The Beat Goes On (1998) or The Avalanches Frontier Psychiatrist (2000). The animated Rorschach drawings – one of two versions –  in Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 Crazy brilliantly echo the lyrics: “Who do you think you are?/You think you’re in control/Well, I think you are crazy/Just like me…”

Dance is also given its dedicated slot in the collection, which showcases the work of choreographers such as Arlene Philips and Wayne McGregor, and the dancing of artists like Kate Bush, or, in a completely different register, Kylie Minogue. There are fascinating juxtapositions – at one point in the dance section, The Prodigy’s Out of Space (1992) is directly followed by Beverly Knight’s Made It Back (1998).

The pleasure of such a collection is its potential for discovery and re-discovery. Out of the blue, in a Sigur Rós track, a long-lost voice appears – the wonderful folk singer Shirley Collins. Memories pop up and familiar faces appear –  it’s a roll call of quirky, interesting actors, most of whom have pursued very individual, idiosyncratic careers – Samantha Morton, Aidan Gillen, Paddy Considine, Tilda Swinton, Johnny Harris, Rosamund Pike, Alan Rickman … and the incomparable Denis Lavant, here in collaboration with director Jonathan Glazer in the extraordinary Rabbit in Your Headlights (1998) by UNKLE, sung by Thom Yorke. Yorke appears so frequently in the collection, whether with Radiohead, UNKLE or Atoms for Peace that it feels an unspoken tribute to his work.

Lavant and Glazer also worked together in a short film which would certainly have had its place in the collection thanks to the originality of vision, the rawness, the superlative music, and the dancing – but that film was for a Flake ad, not a music video. The ad, with Lavant as a bare-chested dancing demon, prancing in a way not dissimilar to Mike Jagger, shows how close music videos and advertising can be, and how the former is an aspect of the latter. That link however is not explicit in this collection.

Power to the People is not just a treasure trove for music lovers, or for spotting much-loved actors. It’s an invaluable repository of directing talent. Many of the directors featured here have gone on to become distinguished feature film directors – aside from Jonathan Glazer, there is also Lynne Ramsey, Michel Gondry, Bernard Rose, Julian Temple, Sam Taylor-Wood – and several others. It’s a great list, and it is fascinating to see the continuities of style and theme from short film form to feature. Other directors, like Dawn Shadforth or Chris Cunningham, have focused on their work as fine artists. Several examples of their music video work are also included in this collection.

The last disc, which looks at gender, splits into two, occasionally overlapping, categories: ‘Masculinities’ and ‘Femininities’. The juxtaposition of the last two tracks is disconcerting and maybe intentionally ironic: James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful (2005) is followed by Fat White Family’s Touch the Leather (2016).

The videos bear no captions, no title, no voice-over – instead commentary and detailed credits are included in a booklet which comes with the DVD set. This means the collection can be used as a great parlour game: name the year, name the band, name the track… Still, the collection as it stands feels a bit opaque – there is so much more to understand about the choice of themes and the order in which the videos appear. Importantly, how do all these works fit into a longer history of art, and politics?

A book by Emily Caston – an academic involved in the project, and formerly a music video producer whose work is also included in this collection – will be published later in 2018, to accompany the DVD box set. It is bound to be a fascinating read and will explain a lot more about how the music videos and their place in history.

British music videos – 50 years, from 1966 to 2016: fifty glorious, stylish, lively years… If they ever seemed ephemeral, music videos have now proven their lasting power.

Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.


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