On August 1, 1981, MTV went live to 100,000 cable subscribers. In the years that followed, hit songs and their accompanying music videos would become intrinsically linked in the minds of music fans, in a way that generations who came of age after Michael Jackson’s dance with the undead or Nirvana’s pep rally for punks may never quite comprehend. But music videos didn’t begin with MTV. The format had predecessors and an evolutionary chart that dates back nearly a century before the Beastie Boys pied some nerds in the face. Here are 10 milestones in music videos that came before anyone ever shouted “I want my MTV!” at some poor cable company phone line operator.
1. “THE LITTLE LOST CHILD”//
By Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern - The Little Lost Child, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern were clothing salesmen who had a side business as songwriters. In 1894, they came up with a novel way to sell the sheet music to “The Little Lost Child,” a song in the vein of the poverty-drenched tear-jerkers of the time. They hired electrician George Thomas to create a series of “magic lantern” slide projections of photos to accompany performances of the song. After vaudeville acts worked the song and slideshow of city scenes into their repertoires, Marks and Stern managed to sell two million copies of the sheet music. It’s arguably the first song made popular through corresponding electronically distributed images and ushered in the brief vaudeville trend of “illustrated songs.”
2. “SCREEN SONGS” // 1929-1938
During the days when short cartoons were screened before feature films, Fleischer Studios introduced iconic silver-screen versions of Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman. The company also produced a series of “Screen Songs” from 1929 to 1938, which were arguably the first short films created to illustrate popular songs. The mostly animated, black-and-white shorts featured the antics of funny animals and other early cartoon archetypes set to songs by then-major radio stars, including Cab Calloway and the Boswell Sisters, according to Hal Erickson's From Radio to the Big Screen. Many included a bouncing ball above the lyrics that encouraged theater-goers to sing along, karaoke-style.
3. “ST. LOUIS BLUES” // 1929
With the advent of “the talkies” in the late 1920s, musical numbers became an integral part of cinema. One of the first short films made to showcase a preexisting song was “St. Louis Blues,” starring “Queen of the Blues” Bessie Smith. The two-reel, 16-minute film, directed by Dudley Murphy, features Jimmy Mordecai as Smith’s two-timing boyfriend and Isabel Washington Powell as the other woman. The action eventually moves to a nightclub, where couples are swaying to Smith’s performance of the title song, which she had recorded four years earlier. While “Screen Songs” introduced the idea of pairing a song with a visual sequence, “St. Louis Blues” pushed that idea forward by encapsulating a singer’s aura in a short, music-driven film.
4. "STRANGER IN PARADISE" // 1956
“I filmed what I believe to be the first music video,” Tony Bennett wrote in his 2007 autobiography, The Good Life. In 1956, his record label filmed the golden-voiced vocalist walking through London’s Hyde Park and set the footage to his hit version of “Stranger in Paradise.” According to The Good Life, the clip was distributed to TV stations in the U.K. and U.S., to air in lieu of an appearance by Bennett himself. American Bandstand gave it some airtime.
THE VIDEO JUKEBOX
For about five years, 500-pound, 7-foot-high machines that played 16-millimeter Technicolor films of pop stars were installed in bars across the world. Two competing companies began selling similar “video jukebox” devices at the same time: Ottica Meccanica Italiana developed the Cinebox in Italy and Cameca came out with the Scopitone in France. Each model was stuffed with three-minute films of popular musicians that could be queued up for a fee. (A producer even created a series of Arabic videos for France’s population of North African descent.) The technology spread, eventually making its way to the U.S.
Stateside, the machines never quite took off, which is why few A-list singers contributed to the U.S. Scopitone catalog. The videos were often colorful and swanky, the kind of thing that’d get a barfly’s attention. When interviewed by Collectors Weekly, Bob Orlowsky, a former attorney who collects the machines, pointed to Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” as an exemplary Scopitone video.
“That’s the first one I always show people," Orlowsky said. "It’s just Neil in an ever-changing assortment of dinner jackets surrounded by a bunch of Las Vegas showgirls in very elaborate costumes, each themed for a different month of the year. It was guaranteed to get people’s attention in a bar in 1965. It’s just delightful.”
6. THE BEATLES' PROMOTIONAL VIDEOS // 1965
In 1965, The Beatles began producing promotional videos for their singles as a way to fulfill the demands of every Top of the Pops or American Bandstand-style show across the globe that wanted to book them. “The mania made it pretty difficult to get around,” George Harrison said, “and out of convenience we decided we were not going to go into the TV studios to promote our records so much because it was too much of a hassle. We thought we’d go and make our own little films and put them on TV.”
They started with “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” then became more complex over time, with “Penny Lane” employing horses across a grand city scene. As The Fab Four set the rules of their generation, soon many bands started creating clips for the TV market.
7. THE NOW EXPLOSION // 1970
If you were a teenager in the Atlanta area, for a very brief window of time in 1970, the hippest way to spend a weekend in was to tune into channel 17 for The Now Explosion, a 28-hour, free-wheeling TV program that seemed to pioneer both MTV and the YouTube mashup edit. The idea, which was to try and replicate Top 40 radio on a UHF station, came from broadcaster Bob Whitney. (Back in the broadcast days, UHF was the lower, more localized signal strength of the TV bandwidth.) He hired two Atlanta DJs to host the shows.
Viewers might have watched a band’s official promotional clip or an amateur unauthorized video of a song created by the program's producer, 28-year-old R.T. Williams, including a politically-charged version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Of course, the cheesiest tricks in chroma key, color saturation, and split screening available to 1970s video art students were employed.
For a brief period, The Now Explosion was amazingly successful—which was surprising given its weirdness and how ahead of its time it was. After debuting in Atlanta, it was later syndicated to stations in Charlotte, Sacramento, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco. However, the idea proved to be financially unsustainable, and Whitney ended it less than a year after it began.
8. COUNTDOWN // 1974-1987
Just as color TV was permeating Australia and the country’s pop music scene was coming into its own, the government-owned Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) introduced Countdown, a weekly showcase of lip-synched performances and music videos. Settling into a Sunday night time slot, Countdown could instantly make a song a hit, according to Michelle Arrow's Friday on Our Minds. (Midnight Oil declined to appear because the show “was young girls and flashing disco floors [and] we wanted to present ourselves in sweaty, smoky pubs,” according to Arrow’s book.) The show lasted until 1987 when competitors, including the imported MTV, overpowered it in the marketplace.
9. “BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY” // 1975
The first clip to fully meet the MTV-era definition of the music video was arguably the one made for Queen’s classic of ’70s grandiosity. “[I]nsofar as we can locate a decisive origin of the form [of the music video], and thus its era, it is in 1975 with a promotional video to accompany Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ single,” wrote Philip Hayward in Culture, Technology & Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century. Whereas previous promo clips were mostly about the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about the song. Hayward argued that the video, known for the iconic formation of its band members standing with their faces in a diamond, has a unique aesthetic tied to the scope and mood of the epically emotional song.
Queen’s label EMI set aside the then-hefty sum of £3500 to record the video to help the song in its unexpected crawl up the charts. The video also spared the band from trying to recreate the complex composition live on TV. With the video, the band controlled the way in which their song would be presented on TV, a power MTV-era musicians would take for granted.
10. "VIDEO CONCERT HALL" // 1978
One of the first cable channels, USA Network, began utilizing the library of music material that record labels had amassed to fill its hours of programming. According to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, the network started a segment called "Video Concert Hall" in 1978. Eschewing the American Bandstand-style format of a host and lip-syncing guests, it simply played promotional videos and concert clips. The network also had a twilight block called "Night Flight," which featured cult movies, concert films, and occasional videos. Another early cable network, Nickelodeon, experimented with a music video show called PopClips.