Pop Bursts

BY PAUL T HORGAN

Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star was not the first single to have a music video made for it; that accolade seems reserved for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. The Buggles’ single was instead the first-ever video played by MTV back when MTV was good. However, music artists had been making promotional films for their singles years before as a way of avoiding having to mime in front of adolescent girls on Top of the Pops, or perhaps as a way of avoiding the backstage creepiness of at least one of the BBC TV show’s presenters.

In fact music videos, or ‘soundies’ as they were called, appear to have come into existence with the invention of the music video jukebox (that used celluloid film) in the USA in the early 1940s. This innovation was prevented from completely usurping its audio-only rival by the ambitions of Emperor Hirohito, raw materials necessary for the production of the ‘Panoram’ video machines being redirected by the US government to the war effort.

Buggles released three further singles from their debut album, only two of which were any good. Elstree followed the symphonic overture style of Video . .  and told the story of an actor whose heyday in films has been replaced by stints on the BBC. This was a reflection on the decline of the British film industry from the late 1960s onwards. An example of this decline has to be the sex comedy Au Pair Girls. The concept of a British sex comedy, or at least one produced in the 1970s, is flawed because while the films were undoubtedly British, there was an absence of actual sex due to censorship, and genuine comedy was also noticeably missing. Instead there were varying degrees of gratuitous nudity and cringe-making innuendo.

I made myself watch this film, purely, I assure you, in the name of research. Au Pair Girls was actually an attempt to move away from the seedy nature of contemporary sexploitation films and instead to have meaningful plot and characterisation. It failed miserably. 

The surprising feature of this film was the quantity of well-known names who were willing to lend their faces to this venture for a fee. There were the likes of John le Mesurier and Richard O’Sullivan who signed on to this enterprise. Gabrielle Drake, fresh from playing a shrinkwrapped Lt Gay Ellis in the Gerry Anderson live-action science fiction show UFO decided that full frontal nudity in a scene in a barn with an increasingly bemused Richard O’Sullivan was to be her next career move. Playing a Swedish au pair, she cannot quite conceal her cut-glass received pronunciation behind a fake Nordic accent. In fact the film is essentially footage of five or so women in their twenties in various states of undress with tenuous plots and reasons for them to be in such a position just to avoid the film being categorised as nothing more than soft pornography.

Au Pair Girls was just one of numerous low-budget seedy films, such as the later Carry On films and anything featuring Robin Askwith, that formed the staple of the British film industry in the early 1970s before American money came over here to finance large studio productions such as Star Wars. It is hard to believe that the same industry that made Confessions of a Window Cleaner also produced The Dambusters. It was as if the life had gone out of a whole section of British creative arts. O’Sullivan went on to work for ITV. He had once appeared opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Cliff Richard. Like the Buggles song, John le Mesurier, a noted character actor in British comedy films, went on to play Sgt. Wilson in Dad’s Army, as if you didn’t know that already.

The same lifelessness of early 1970s British film is now in evidence today in the British singles charts. When Video Killed The Radio Star was riding high in the charts, it was on the crest of a new wave of creative energy that saw an eclectic mix of styles released for the British public to sample. Today, that variety may still exist, but the absence of a single source, such as Radio 1 or Top of the Pops, means in cannot be sampled in a single place. While this may be a good thing as the listener does not have to rely on the whim of a programme controller, it does mean that the listener cannot rely as much on serendipity to discover their preferences and explore their tastes. The number of sales required to top the charts has also declined as well.

The effect is that most mainstream charting pop music is now dross.

While the potential of music production technology has exponentially increased, the sophistication of the music, epitomised at its peak by bands such as Buggles, Tears for Fears, and Scritti Politti, has gone into reverse. Music has been “rewritten by machine on new technology”, and largely consists of a drum machine and very basic and far too similar melodies over which someone will either recite a list of words, sometimes rendered incomprehensible through the use of urban patois or having to be blanked due to the use of expletives or obscenity. In some cases they will have their sung vocals blatantly computer-processed to hit the right notes. While Kraftwerk made extensive use of vocoders to emphasise the otherworldliness of their music, this made sense in the context of their material. It makes no sense in a young female talking about her feelings towards a romantic partner or her undiscerning desire for bodily gratification. The dynamic range of the sound has also been clipped to make better use of audio compression formats or just to be more earbud-friendly, making listening to some music on speakers even more of a chore.

The audio equivalent of Au Pair Girls has to be the single foisted on the listening public last year by a double act known as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. That this is a rap single is a bad sign. Rock Me Amadeus it is not. WAP does not stand for Wireless Access Protocol, an early form of internet browsing technology for mobile phones, but instead refers to the tumescent state of a lady’s front bottom. The lyrics go into some detail over this, as well as specifying the conjugal activity that might be performed while the front bottom is in this state and also the dimensions and geometry of anatomy of the corresponding partner in this combination. Other forms of bodily intersections are discussed as well. In addition the vocalists make it clear that their ability and willingness to participate in conjugal activity is the sole contribution they will bring into any long-term relationship, seeking the other party to provide for accommodation, nutrition, material goods and routine domestic maintenance. There is an unsung assumption that such a relationship will not be transient. Before the vocalists start articulating their views on human relationships, a man repeatedly intones about the presence of prostitutes on the premises.

The accompanying video maximises the use of computer graphics technology, starting with a tracking shot of a rotating statue of the vocalists in a state of complete undress with water fountains emanating from the apex of their ample embonpoints in front of a mansion. The vocalists, clad in something little more than togas, walk down a corridor which is adorned with gold-plated sculptures featuring elements of female anatomy that are animated in time to the music. Behind each door is a burlesque tableau featuring the vocalists or their guests clad in minimal and thus relatively impractical clothing. The vocalists move from door to door. In one scene that is a dance going on, the choreography consisting almost entirely of agitating buttocks. The music stops as another woman marches down the corridor. I later discovered that this person was the star of a popular structured reality television show, whose father used to be an Olympic athlete and also now wishes to be known as a woman. Another dance scene features the vocalists in swimming costumes with backing dancers whose movements are choreographed in a large paddling-pool.

After viewing the numerous pseudo-erotic tableaux, the vocalists, previously so confident of themselves, seem to suffer a moment of self-doubt and rapidly exit the scene in a manner that is highly reminiscent of the quick exits performed by Peter Glaze and Don Maclean after some disaster in their silent slapstick films that were shown on the children’s TV show Crackerjack in the 1970s.

The song was highly-rated, topping charts across the world, but that is not an indication of quality, especially as music is now rarely purchased in person on a physical medium, merely being transferred from one computing device to another. Thus the music chart is made up of a counter in a programmable machine rather than an aggregation of shop visits and till receipts.

It is also a routine matter to be able to obtain the music for nothing. The track is available in various forms on YouTube, which is part of a publicly-quoted company, from where it may be downloaded at no cost to a computer using a free utility produced by Realnetworks, another publicly-quoted company. The video file may have the music audio extracted as part of the download process and then transferred to a  digital audio device or the storage of a smart television. The economics of the music industry in this context appears arcane but seems to rely on people’s ignorance of the potential of the technology they are using. It used to be a common activity to tape music from the radio or borrowed vinyl using a cassette recorder.  In fact music centres had cassette recorders built-in to facilitate this. This seems to now be a lost practice, as people have been groomed to expect to source their music from an online subscription service and pay to do so.

But this does not get away from the fact that the popularity of this track marks the artistic decline of the popular music industry into the same tawdry dead-end and using similar content to the British film industry in the early 1970s. In the case of the film industry, the decline started because television destroyed the regular habit of going to the flicks for news and entertainment, and so it became necessary to go downmarket to attract cinema-goers. Elstree became a BBC studio.

There are similar drivers in the popular music industry. People have other ways to entertain themselves than to follow popular music trends. Bands make money touring rather than selling records, while chart music has become this cultural backwater. Earlier this year, a drill music track topped the British charts. For the uninitiated. the ‘drill’ means drilling your opponent in a knife fight, although defenders of the term say it means other things as well. However, drill music is made by knife gangs of the kind associated with the market in illegal drugs as a way to assert themselves, and some gangs have been banned by law from making this music as it has been seen to incite or celebrate violence. Its artistic or even musical merits are limited, being just a person intoning in impenetrable vernacular to the unchanging rhythm of a drum machine.

The irony is that people in the industry do not seem to recognise this decline because of the customer churn. As people get older, new chart music seems less relevant to them and they stop listening, their custom replaced by the young. But this does not hide the qualitative decline. There are hopeful exceptions. In my opinion, the best track of 2020 was not the wannabe porn effort I have detailed above but Dua Lipa’s track Hallucinate, recalling as it does Madonna’s Jump and Pixie Lott’s  Boys and Girls. For 2021, I recommend this recently-released cover version of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Perspective. Both are the serendipitous discoveries, something that gets harder every year.

Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.