Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen”: One of the first animated films to promote pop music

By on January 23, 2018

This popular “Mega Video Vault” episode — which originally aired on September 3, 1988, towards the end of “Night Flight”‘s original run on the USA Network — featured Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ “Accidents Will Happen,” one of the first music videos to use animation to promote pop music.

Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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This 1979 music video was created by the legendary Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton at their London-based Cucumber Studios.

It featured cutting-edge post-modern animation, and combined modernist geometric designs with computer-assisted animation techniques.

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Jankel has said that the video, produced by Andy Morahan, is segmented into three parts.

First, she took a photographer’s 35mm still shots of Costello and his band, the Attractions — Steve Nieve (keyboards), Bruce Thomas (bass), Pete Thomas (drums) — and used them for the stylized videographic rotoscope technique which she and Morton had developed for the video.

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These images were then traced off a ground glass screen onto a cel, digitized and programmed to move around onscreen.

Next, we see a series of Pop Art-style panels depicting examples of everyday mundane “accidents,” like a toaster burning a piece of toast, or a dropped tea cup smashing on a kitchen floor.

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The final image is the worst of all possible accidents, one we continue to fear in our daily lives even today: a finger pushing down on a red button, symbolizing the “accidental” launch of a nuclear-tipped missile.

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At the end, we see a short segment comprised of “green” computerized footage of Costello, one of the first uses of CG in a music video.

Jankel — who co-created the “Max Headroom” character, and co-directed videos for the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” (1981), Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier” (1983) and Miles Davis’ “Decoy” (1985), among others — says:

“It’s a vector computer-generated read-out of Elvis, filmed with a 16mm Bolex off a monitor at the architectural department of a big London university. They were the only ones that had the technology at the time. It was a computer interpretation, or rendering, of a graphic composition, after the well-known Piet Mondrian painting.”

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Jankel and Morton were living together at the time in a studio flat on Parkhill Road in Belsize Park, Hampstead, where Dutch Modernist artist Piet Mondrian once had his art studio.

Jankel says she channeled the feeling of Mondrian’s paintings — typically blocks of primary colors on white backgrounds, intersected by black lines — then mixed in a Sixties Pop Art feel with what looked like glitchy, distorted images, the way you might see them on a old TV set using a “rabbit ears” antenna.

Read more about Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ “Accidents Will Happen” below.

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“Accidents Will Happen” was recorded by Elvis Costello and his band at London’s Eden Studios with producer Nick Lowe towards the end of summer, 1978.

Costello has said he intended the song to be a statement about how sexual infidelity in relationships leads to the title itself being used as an excuse, as if saying that an episode of cheating was merely an “accident.”

The verses and chorus are from the point-of-view of the cheater who doesn’t appear too apologetic (“I don’t want to hear it ’cause I know what I’ve done”).

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The track was included on Costello’s Armed Forces album, released on January 5, 1979.

In May ’79, the track was released in the UK as a 3-song single, with a distinctive sleeve designed by legendary British graphic designer and artist Barney Bubbles.

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Bubbles’ work — which often combined Futurist and Constructivist illustration with a hint of Art Deco and Art Nouveau — was always very colorful and filled with geometric shapes, cryptograms, symbols, jokes, riddles and various art-history and music-history references.

There were three different UK picture sleeves, the first and most common turned inside-out and featuring pictures from the animated video, while a second pressing had the sleeve displayed correctly.

A third cover was a more conventional design with the “fish is brain food” photo.

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Barney Bubbles-designed inner fold-out sleeve for Armed Forces

After he’d already enjoyed a long, successful career as a designer, Bubbles — born Colin Fulcher in Middlesex (now Greater London) in 1942, changing his name in 1967 — began working in the music business.

He joined Stiff Records as designer and art director in early ’77, doing some of his most impressive work designing cover art for the Damned, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Wreckless Eric, and for Elvis Costello, beginning with his My Aim Is True album.

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Bubbles’ design for Costello’s second album, This Year’s Model album, was deliberately designed to appear that the entire design was printed off-register and mis-cropped.

His design for Costello’s Armed Forces album featured an extended back panel which consisted of folding flaps, postcards — carrying the instruction DON’T JOIN (advice against joining the armed forces), and a message that these postcards had been die-cut from the rest of the sleeve.

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Barney Bubbles-designed inner bag for Armed Forces

In late ’77, Bubbles followed Jake Riveria over to his new label, Radar Records, and to Riviera’s F-Beat Records, creating more designs for Elvis Costello releases there. He also directed several of Elvis Costello’s videos, including “Clubland” and “New Lace Sleeves.”

Towards the end of his life, Bubbles’ design work began to be rejected and he fell into dire financial straits. He committed suicide in London on November 14, 1983.

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Barney Bubbles

The “Accidents Will Happen” video now resides in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Watch Night Flight’s 1988 “Mega Video Vault” episode of “Night Flight”episode — which also features music videos from Devo, Tony Powers, Will Powers, Grace Jones, Chaka Khan, Peter Wolf and David Lee Roth, among others — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.