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Influential Music Videos of the 1970s and 1980s

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Lyn grew up in a musical household and has a passion for popular music genres. Lyn has also studied Music at University in Britain.

"Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles

"Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles

These days we all take music videos for granted and indeed they have become a standalone art form. Can you imagine a world without music videos? During the 20th century, humankind achieved so much and there is such a lot that we now take for granted.

Beginnings of Broadcasting

Gugilielmo Marconi sent his first transatlantic radio transmission in 1901. Although whilst looking online to confirm dates of earliest broadcasts, I have discovered that actually it all began in 1885 with Heinrich Hertz . . .

Heinrich Hertz proved that electricity can be transmitted in electromagnetic waves. He conducted experiments in sending and receiving these waves during the late 1880s.


The Birth of Music Videos

It is music broadcasting and the evolvement of the music video that are under the spotlight here though. According to Engineering and Technology History Wiki, the first radio broadcast for music to the general public was from Massachusetts in 1906.

Jump forward to the 1970s, and with the popularity of home video systems the music video began to take hold. On August 1 1981, MTV was launched.

Video Didn't Kill the Radio Star

"Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles was released in 1979 and has the accolade of being the first video to be played on MTV when it launched.

With its prophetic title, it is good to know that so many years later the lyrics are not the case. These days, the two co-exist and complement each other very well.

Home Video Players

There are music videos from as early as people were able to make film, but it was the advent of the home video player in the 1970s when the idea really began to take hold and then the popularity of MTV and of course now into the 21st century popular internet sites such as YouTube ensure that the popularity of music videos is such that it has now become an art form in its own right.

Here, I am going to look at some of the other music videos from the 1970s and ‘80s and explore what makes them stand out; I am deliberately seeking videos that are not just the singer or band playing and singing, but where something more was done with the video to make it stand out.

Of course, the songs have to be good as well and here I have deliberately chosen across musical genres, not just so that there is something for everyone, but more so with the hope that I just might introduce you to something you did not know and might not have otherwise heard or seen.

1. "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen

The first music video that comes to mind as an influential early video is that of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen that preceded MTV by 5 years.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" was groundbreaking, not only musically but for the accompanying video that launched the song to the public. Some may think that it was Queen’s first single, such is the power of the song and video. When released in 1975, however, Queen had already had hits with "Seven Seas of Rhye," "Killer Queen" and "Now I’m Here."

It was—despite being a non-radio-friendly 6 minutes and 6 seconds long—their first UK number one. Queen had to wait another four years until "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was their first USA number one in 1979.


The video begins with a shadow of what appears to be three people, then the lights go up and you see that it is the four band members of Queen carefully lit to give an ethereal appearance.

Initially written entirely by Freddie Mercury the song utilizes harmonies and operatic style to create a unique sound that fused rock, pop, opera and classical in a way that had not been done before. As they worked on the track the other band members had input and the guitar riff was originally created by Brian on the piano.

Watch the video and you will see the dramatic way Roger Taylor drums in the first drum close up the whole performance is a made for video performance, being over the top and “performed”. The video returns to the opening style as Freddie sings “I see a little silhouetto of a man” and then the four are made to look like more to signify the overdubbing of the harmonies and the same style and lighting is used as they go into operatic mode, before returning to rock.

'Bohemian Rhapsody' didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not? I certainly wasn’t saying I was an opera fanatic and I knew everything about it.

— Freddie Mercury to Bill DeMain

2. "Thriller" by Michael Jackson

Choreographed by Michael Peters, Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" has to be a major influence on the dawning of music video. Released in December 1983, two years after the launch of MTV, Michael's mini-movie is even longer than "Bohemian Rhapsody" at 13:42 minutes long.


At a cost of half a million dollars, "Thriller" was the most expensive video ever made at the time it was made and released. Directed by John Landis who had previously directed An American Werewolf in London (1981) and the Blues Brothers (1980) and produced by Landis, Jackson and George Folsey Jr the record company refused to fund another music video from the Thriller album.

"Thriller" is groundbreaking for a number of reasons and I think at the time a major contributory factor to the interest that the video attracted was that the then boy next door, innocent Michael Jackson persona made it extremely ironic that here he was making a seriously scary horror film to accompany one of his songs.

Thriller also introduced the concept of a mini-movie to accompany a song. And unlike "Bohemian Rhapsody," the actual song does not last the full length of the video and indeed, most of the time MTV played a shortened version of the video, focusing on the central song part. According to Time Out New York, Thriller remains the number one selling music video, and Bryan Kerwin says Jackson's 13-minute musical chiller opus melds creepy authenticity with campy fun to an astonishingly successful degree.

I think that was part of the success too, here we have a “nice” pop star playing the part of a werewolf and a zombie, he plays them though with a sense of fun and humor, although the horror is very much evident too.

3. "Another Brick in the Wall" by Pink Floyd

From Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall album, "Another Brick in the Wall" carried a strong political message, it is an anarchistic attack at bullying education systems and the single went platinum in both the UK and USA.

The video focuses on part 2 of the song and the music itself is carried by a strong, distinctive bass line and drums. Progressive rock masters Pink Floyd members did not value the idea of a single, but it is said that (music) producer Bob Ezrin convinced them otherwise. The single was accompanied by the very clever music video that, in common with their music was ahead of its time progressive and experimental, combining animation with actual footage and other aspects cleverly included that predated the digital age.


The music video has been highly influential, both for the political message it conveys and the dare to question the authority, but also because it questions the need to conform, the boy has written poetry and his math teacher makes fun of him for it. We are also shown an interesting social observation because the same master is in turn bullied by his wife at home.

I think though the double negative in the lyrics is very clever and is what has caught many people out. Really the song is saying we do need education, just not that education.

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teacher, leave those kids alone

— Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)

4. "Like a Prayer" by Madonna

Madonna as an artist has always liked to shock and with its burning crucifixes and racial integration her video for "Like a Prayer" certainly does that.


Madonna, the most successful female artist of the 1990s, is also exceptionally talented at marketing and the controversy surrounding this video certainly creates publicity.

If you actually watch the video though, there is scope to interpret it how you want to. Whilst I know the video was designed to shock middle America, and indeed the American Family Association denounced the video, as did Pepsi with whom Madonna had a sponsorship deal at the time. I think much of the message is a positive one, albeit with Madonna wanting to ensure controversy and therefore publicity.


In the video, Madonna plays a girl in trouble who we see in flashbacks witnesses an attack by some white men and finds refuge in a small church, which is instantly recognizable as a black place of worship and there are hints that this is back in time and therefore probably based at the time of segregation. She is drawn to the saint there who is behind bars and in her dream he comes to life. A black man who rushes to help the injured young woman is framed for the attack and Madonna wrestles with her conscience and having fallen asleep and dreamt in the little church goes to the police and tells them what she witnessed.

This is my simple version of the story, of course there are clues and controversies planted in the video and it certainly created a stir when it was released in 1989 and I suspect is still hard viewing for some today. By creating it, Madonna obviously drew on her Italian Catholic upbringing and her need to shock and for self promotion, something she is famed for.

I hear you call my name

And it feels like home

— Madonna

Controversial and Groundbreaking

This video is important because it shows that people can make music videos with just about any theme they wish. This controversial video is a backdrop to the perfectly formed pop song "Like a Prayer," deliberately controversial and groundbreaking.

Marquee for The Palace in downtown Los Angeles. This is the movie theater used in the Thriller video.

Marquee for The Palace in downtown Los Angeles. This is the movie theater used in the Thriller video.

Setting the Bar High for Those Who Followed

The above music videos are important for different reasons. What they have in common is that they were all groundbreaking and influential. Three of them were designed to be shocking, each one probably influenced sales of the music they were promoting and have set the bar high for those who have followed.


© 2017 Lyn


The Write Life from The United States on March 15, 2017:

Yes, the good old days. This kind of stuff really brings me back, seems like yesterday. Great read thank you!