Steve Barron: the cultural impact of one 80s music video director

This is going to get sentimental…
A few months back I went to a music video showcase I’ve been going to for about a decade BUG (#50!) which had a very special guest. One who is an example of the cultural ripples creativity can send.
It’s a guy I guess most of you have never heard of, and yet he’s touched your life in more ways than you imagine.
Steve Barron is a director who started as a tea boy on sets and by the late 70s was directing videos for bands like The Jam.
He was quite humble in Adam Buxton‘s interview, saying that many of today’s videos would have won ‘video of the year’ from MTV back then because the form (and production values) evolved so much.
Back then, labels didn’t really believe videos made a difference to an artist’s success. Most of them were shot in 16mm.
But then, in 1981, he managed to convince the execs to let him shoot in 32mm and the result was this little triple-inception-meta Truffaut homage.
But wait, it gets SO much better. So much better that I just had to write a whole post… With some help from the BUG programme notes, the interview and wikipedia.

Barron went on to create some well known videos. On a personal level, I recognise many of them as formative in the musical-visual soundtrack of my childhood. (Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out in 1982, for example)
But then, in 1983, he was hired to direct no less than Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, to which CBS would only pay a budget of 50k. Because, you know, videos don’t matter.
Wikipedia tells us:
‘The short film for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is considered the video that brought MTV, until then a fairly new and unknown music channel, into mainstream attention. It was one of the first videos by a black artist to be aired regularly by the channel, as the network’s executives felt black music wasn’t “rock” enough… Walter Yetnikoff, the president of Jackson’s record label CBS, approached MTV to play the “Billie Jean” video. He became enraged when MTV refused to play the video, and threatened to go public with MTV’s stance on black musicians. “I said to MTV, ‘I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.'”  MTV relented and played the “Billie Jean” video in heavy rotation along with Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. After the video was aired, Thriller went on to sell an additional 10 million copies.’
In 1984, his growing reputation and relationship with Philip Oakey, led to one of my favourite 80’s romantic comedies. Electric Dreams.

Now largely forgotten, except for the song, it included Virginia Madsen as a sexy cellist and a lot of early networked computing fantasy and AI utopian-dystopian riffing. I still think it’s pretty great.

In 1985 (according to wiki, the BUG notes say 1986 on this and the next) he was approached by a music exec willing to bet his reputation on an unknown Norwegian band. They had a song that already had a cheap video created for it, but no one would play. ‘Spoiled’ by a massive 100k budget, Barron decided to do something he wanted to do for ages – combine live footage and animation in a music video.
The official youtube entry:
At the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, the video for “Take on Me” won six awards—Best New Artist in a Video, Best Concept Video, Most Experimental Video, Best Direction, Best Special Effects, and Viewer’s Choice—and was nominated for two others, Best Group Video and Video of the Year. It was also nominated for Favorite Pop/Rock Video at the 13th American Music Awards in 1986.
It’s considered to be one of the videos that proved to label execs that music videos can make a band.
Barron went on to shoot most of Ah-Ha’s videos.
Incidentally, ‘Take on Me’ will go on to become one of the first youtube videos in the ‘literal version’ meme. If you’re like over half the audience at BUG which wasn’t familiar with it, enjoy…
The same year, Barron decided to play with animation in another way. Which resulted in a video that a about year later will be the first to air on MTV Europe. We all wanted our MTV. CGI animation will never be the same after that.
That year he was chosen to direct a video promoting the film Labyrinth, so he got to work with David Bowie as well as Jim Henson, as the video has a separate story and independent footage of the film’s characters.
The meeting with Henson will lead to Barron talking him into taking care of the animatronics for the original TMNT movie in 1990.
And this only brings the 80s to a close…
Barron’s biography ‘Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: A Trip Through the Eighties’ wasn’t available for a while due to some copyright clearing issues, but it is now, plus there’s some great behind the scenes stuff on the book’s website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s