“Over My Head”: Toni Basil’s 1984 video arrived in what was then the third decade of her career

By on July 11, 2017

Toni Basil’s incredible MTV-era career success, post-“Mickey,” continued with her self-directed 1984 MTV video award-nominated video for “Over My Head,” which originally aired in this “Video Vault” segment on “Night Flight” on March 26, 1988.

You can watch it again, over on our Night Flight Plus channel (we’ll tell you what you’re missing out on if you’re not a subscriber down below, in the middle of this post).

Meanwhile, feel free to read all about Toni Basil’s incredible career, pre- and post-“Mickey.”

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Basil’s new wave cheerleading anthem “Mickey” may have been her only #1 hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts in December 1982 (also topping the charts in Canada), but the lovely Ms. Basil was never just a “one hit wonder,” the single actually arriving in what was then the third decade of her career.

Before 1982, she’d already danced on TV’s “Shindig!”; she’d appeared naked in Bruce Conner’s famous avant-garde short film Breakaway (based on the track found on the b-side to Toni’s 1966 single for A&M Records); she’d acted in a handful of memorable movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s (Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces among them); she’d led a mixed-race L.A.-based dance troupe called the Lockers, progenitors of the ’80s breakdancing pop ‘n’ lock dance moves; she’d choreographed dancers in major movies of the 70s, including American Graffiti ; and, she had choreographed the dancers in 80s-era music videos as well as working closely with some of the biggest names in music at the time (David Bowie, David Byrne, Devo and many, many more).

From the 1960s to the present day, her work as a singer-songwriter, actress, filmmaker, choreographer and dancer (to name just a few of the jobs she’s had since) straddles the worlds of mainstream entertainment and counterculture & avant-garde exploration.

If you’ve only known Toni Basil for “Mickey,” we encourage you to read on.

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Antonia Christina Basilotta — later shorted to Toni Basil, which thereafter became her professional name — was born on September 22, 1943, in Philadelphia, PA, but she went to high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, where her father, orchestra leader Louis Basil, had begun working as the bandleader for the house orchestra at the Sands Hotel (he also worked at the Sahara Hotel and Casino, among other locations in Sin City).

Her mother, Jacqueline Jessica Anderson, had worked as an acrobatic comedian, which may be one reason young Toni was herself drawn to dancing and movement, studying ballet during her childhood with Edna McRae in Chicago.

In grammar school, she’d started a cheerleading squad, even before the school had any sports teams, and later she became the head cheerleader at Las Vegas High, where she graduated in 1961 at age seventeen.

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Toni — who has referred to herself during this period of her life as being a “baby ballerina” — got some of her first professional experience as a teen dancer with Wells and the Four Fays, a dance troupe that featured her mom who performed frequently at the Sands. Toni also became part of the dance team supporting singer Connie Francis.

It wasn’t long before the ambitious young dancer made her way down to Hollywood, circa 1962, where she ended up joining the L.A. cast of a revival of West Side Story, which featured most of the original Broadway cast. That’s where she met her lifelong friend, actress and dancer Terri Garr.

By 1964, both Basil and Garr were attending classes at a dance school launched by choreographer David Winters, one of the veteran West Side Story dancers, who ended up working as a choreographer on Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas (she appears in the film as the dancer wearing the red dress during the performance of “What’d I Say”).

Basil became Winters’ assistant, and ended up making a cameo appearance in the film, as did Garr, who would go on to appear as a dancer in nine Elvis Presley movies during the ’60s before starring in movies like Young Frankenstein (1974), Tootsie (1982) and appearing in many others (she retired from acting due to health issues in 2007).

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Actors Dean Stockwell and Toni Basil and artist Wallace Berman, Los Angeles, 1964, photo by Julian Wasser

Basil’s choreography work with Winters led to her getting one of the coveted go-go dancer jobs on the legendary 1964 TV special called “The T.A.M.I. Show.”

Garr was one of the dancers on the show too, and it was not too much later that they both ended up working on a brand new teen-oriented ABC Network variety show called “Shindig!,” which would go on to feature some of the top rock ‘n’ roll bands of the Sixties.

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In 1966, Toni ended up getting the opportunity to record a single for A&M Records, which came about through her friendship with pianist and arranger Jack Nitzsche, who had organized the music for The T.A.M.I. Show TV special.

She recorded two songs, “Breakaway” and “I’m 28 (and It’s Getting Late).” The latter song lamented the horrid idea of turning thirty before accomplishing anything of note (““I don’t want to finish up alone in a rocking chair”), although Basil was just twenty-three at the time, and Gouldman was barely twenty-one, if that.

“I’m 28″ had been penned by singer-songwriter Graham Gouldman, who in just a few years would be releasing a grand solo album of his own, The Graham Gouldman Thing (1968), before joining the original lineup of 10cc in 1972, a band who would have major chart success during the rest of the decade before Kevin Godley and Lol Crème would leave the band in ’76 to record music of their own (before spinning off further to direct music videos in the ’80s).

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Antonia Christina Basilotta (aka Toni Basil) in BREAKAWAY by Bruce Conner, 1966

“Breakaway,” meanwhile, had been written by Ed Cobb, who had been a longtime member of the Four Preps (1956-1966) and later the Standells, but his biggest success came as both a producer and songwriter.

A few of his other memorable songs include “Tainted Love” (a northern soul hit for Gloria Jones, covered often, but made into a early ’80s hit by Soft Cell), “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” (Standells), and “Every Little Bit Hurts” (Brenda Holloway, and many others).

That same year, 1966, avant-garde L.A. artist Bruce Conner, sculptor and collagist by nature, decided to use Basil’s song to make a hyperkinetic five-minute short film of the same name, BREAKAWAY.

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Antonia Christina Basilotta (aka Toni Basil) in BREAKAWAY by Bruce Conner, 1966

Conner’s film — which he insisted, like all of his films, to be titled in all-caps — was focused entirely on the lovely Toni Basil, billed as “Antonia Christine Basilotta,” who can be seen singing and dancing in various states of undress and occasional flashes of nudity.

It was shot in single-frame exposures as well as 8,16, 24, and 36-frames-per-second. It was a rare example of a Conner film which contained all-original photography.

He preferred to assemble new art from other artist’s work at that point; his famous 1958 movie, A Movie, was a twelve-minute film which — except for the title card, which reads “A Movie by Bruce Conner” — is completely assembled from secondhand newsreels, travelogues, stag films, and academy leaders.

Conner had known Basil for over a year by that point, having appeared with her in a famous 1965 photo taken by his friend and fellow Kansas native, Dennis Hopper, who was out in Hollywood taking incredible photographs and working on films.

In the 1965 photo, Conner is seen naked in a bathtub, with one foot extended out of the soapy water, while Toni Basil, Terri Garr and Ann Marshall are positioned behind him in various states of undress in what appears to be a cramped apartment bathroom.

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Bruce Conner in a tub, with Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Marshall, 1965, photo by Dennis Hopper

It was Hopper, by the way, and his friend, actor Dean Stockwell, who both held the lights during Conner’s filming of Basil in BREAKAWAY. Conner would later dedicate some of his work — photo etchings, created out of paper collages — to his friend, DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW, 1971-1973.

As you might expect, since Hopper already knew Toni Basil and they were already friends — she apparently knew a lot of artists, musicians and filmmakers who were based out in the Topanga Canyon area — that she would somehow make an appearance in his directorial debut as a filmmaker, a film that had originally had the title The Loners.

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Initially, Hopper — co-star and director — was given $20,000 by the film’s producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, to take a couple of spring-wound Bolex “H16″ Reflex cameras to do some preliminary shooting in New Orleans (these 16mm hand-held cameras are a popular entry-level camera used in film schools even today).

If the producers liked what Hopper brought back, they’d planned to give him the rest of the money ($1 million) to shoot the entire film.

Hopper and his co-star Peter Fonda filmed some of those early scenes in New Orleans with Basil (as a prostitute named “Mary”) and actress Karen Black, including scenes where they’re tripping on acid, and frolicking semi- or fully-naked in a graveyard, and it sounds like great fun, but this early shoot was reportedly very chaotic.

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Hopper ended up fighting with photographer Barry Feinstein, one of the camera operators, but they still managed to film some incredible 16mm footage, enough to convince Rafelson’s and Schneider’s company, Raybert Productions, that they were on to something.

Hopper was given the budget for him to finish his film, now called Easy Rider, a title had been suggested by co-writer Terry Southern (who was involved in some capacity as a co-writer, with Hopper and Fonda, although Easy Rider was mostly shot without a screenplay, and with many ad-libbed lines).

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Before Easy Rider was released on July 14, 1969, however, Basil was already making an appearance in another film for Raybert Productions, starring a TV rock band called the Monkees.

That movie, Head, was written by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, who also directed, and it arrived on movie screens on November 6, 1968 (be sure to read Night Flight’s epic post about that film).

Basil (along with Jimmy Hibbard) is listed on the film as a choreographer, and (along with her friend Terri Garr, who also makes an appearance), she also famously appeared onscreen as a dancer with the Monkees’ Davy Jones in a duet sequence in which Jones sings “Daddy’s Song,” a wonderfully sad little song composed by Harry Nilsson which was presented like a big Broadway-style production number.

By now, Tony Basil was involved in very nearly every cool scene in L.A. — whether it was the rock music world, the art world, and the world of dance, too, of course — and she was managing to find a way to express herself by combining elements from each of these worlds.

Four of the short avant-garde art short films she would direct around this time (Game of the Week, A Dance Film, Our Trip, and The Ping Pong Match) were ultimately exhibited at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and New York’s Grey Art Gallery.

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Karen Black, Helena Kallianiotes, Toni Basil and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

She had enjoyed her experiences as an actress, though she began to pursue those opportunities, appearing in a handful of films as the 60s came to an end, mostly appearing either uncredited in small parts as a “dancer,” “flapper,” “cigarette girl” (in 1970’s Myra Breckinridge) or similar types of roles.

She also appeared as one of the “pajama girls” in Pajama Party (1964), choreographing moves for her and other dancers.

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Toni Basil in Five Easy Pieces

As the 1970s dawned, her visibility in film roles increased to the point where she had more than a few lines of dialogue, such as Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) where she appears as “Terry Grouse,” catching a ride in the backseat of Jack Nicholson’s car and stopping off for a bite in that famous diner scene that everyone’s seen by now.

Mostly, though, she had smaller parts, often not speaking a word. If you’ve seen her in Robert Downey Sr’s Greaser’s Palace (1972), you no doubt remember her as the topless “Indian Girl” who dances her way into Chief Cloud’s sweat lodge, mute, signing something about the arrival of a zoot-suited Christ.

Later in the decade, you may have also seen her in 1976’s Mother, Jugs & Speed, playing the role of an addict.

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Toni Basil in Greaser’s Palace

Basil also continued to work as a choreographer throughout the ’70s, on movies like American Graffiti (1973) and that same year she formed a street dance troupe who called themselves the Lockers.

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The South L.A. based Lockers were a mixed-race group of dancers (six black men and one white Toni Basil), who not only would feature the late great Fred “Mr. Penguin” Berry (who would go on to much bigger fame as Freddy “Rerun” Stubbs on ABC TV’s “What’s Happening”) but later their lineup would also feature some of the ’80s-era dancers who would be seen breakdancing and popping and locking in feature films, TV appearances and music videos, some of which we’ve been telling you about here on Night Flight (including our recent post about Chaka Khan).

They mostly appeared using their psuedonyms and stage names — Poppin’ Pete, Pop ‘N’ Taco, Skeeter Rabbit, Leo “Fluky Luke” Williams, Bill “Slim the Robot” Williams, and Adolfo “Shabba-Do” Quinones (a regular on TV’s “Soul Train”) — wearing outrageous uniforms of knickers or elephant bellbottoms, striped socks, thick-soled elaborate Scooby Doo platform shoes (with green insteps) and fancy hats, leaping, stomping and breakdancing their way into mainstream success.

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Some of the female members who were part of the Lockers in the Basil-era included Pat Davis, Damita Joe Freeman and Janet Lock.

It was Basil, in fact, who coined the term “street dance,” an all-encompassing term which refered to the many styles of dance moves from urban cities around the U.S., including breaking, locking, popping, krumping, hip-hop, voguing, waaking, and other moves.

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Locking, incidentally, was invented by Don Campbell, one of the original Lockers, who gave his patented dance move — combining elements from the “Football” and the “Funky Chicken” — it’s first true name, “The CampbellLock,” before everyone began simply calling it locking.

Campbell — sometimes called CampbellLock or even Camelot — had a major influence on Basil, who began to bring her dance friends to Watts to see Campbell and his early crew crushing it on the dance floor.

The Lockers were also featured guests on TV shows like “Soul Train,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” and TV specials for Roberta Flack (“Roberta Flack: The First Time Ever,” airing on June 19, 1973) and Doris Day, as well as making appearances at smaller venues, even at school assemblies (they even appeared at your humble author’s high school sometime in ’76 or ’77).

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They also toured with Frank Sinatra, opening up for him at Carnegie Hall, and they opened for Dean Sinatra at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

They also opened up for Funkadelic at Radio City Music Hall that same year. They appeared in Schlitz Malt Liquor TV commercials, and appeared onstage at the Wattstax music festival.

In 1974, the Lockers caught the eye of David Bowie’s wife Angela, who recommended to her husband that he seek her out to help choreograph his highly-theatrical 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, which she did for Bowie, then in his Thin White Duke phase (she and Bowie remained friends thereafter, later choreographing his 1987 Glass Spider tour).

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Then, in 1975, the Lockers were asked to appear on the third episode of NBC”s brand new show, “Saturday Night Live,” which was still trying to figure out what it wanted to be (the TV show had frequent musical guests and dance numbers and was more of a variety show at the time before becoming a full-on comedy sketch show).

For that particular show, guest host Rob Reiner was reportedly frustrated with the quality of the show’s content and after the dress rehearsal performance, announced that he was not going to appear on the live telecast, screaming at producer Lorne Michaels that the show was going to be awful.

The show did go on, though, and the Lockers made their appearance just before that night’s “Weekend Update” segment, and the producers of the show liked Basil so much that they asked her to come back towards the end of the show’s first season, to appear on her own, in January of 1976.

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Toni performs on “Saturday Night Live,” January 1976

Basil was introduced by that show’s guest host, Buck Henry, who said: ““Just in case you don’t know what the word inimitable means, we’re going to show you a living example. And her name is Toni Basil.”

She then belted out a swinging jazz standard called “”Wham Rebop Boom Bam,” a feat even more remarkable considering she wasn’t yet known as a singer, and hadn’t had but the one 45rpm release ten years earlier.

Basil had come back to L.A., and appeared on “The Merv Griffin Show” singing “Wham Rebop Boom Bam.” She would also put on sold-out shows at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood in June 1976.

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In 1978, Basil conceived and choreographed a short film for “SNL,” which was to featured the Lockers dancing to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” alongside some ballerinas.

It aired on April 22, 1978, on a show hosted by Steve Martin that is widely considered one of the best episodes in the show’s history.

Read more about Toni Basil’s career below.

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By now, record companies were beginning to take notice of Basil’s work, and in 1979, Simon Lait, the founder of a fledgling British record label called Radial Choice, asked her to make a three-song video collection as part of a video album that his company was producing.

This collection was credited with being the first-ever long-form video, years before the debut of MTV, and its success led to more projects with RadialChoice.

Bowie would also introduce Basil to the music of Devo around this same time, which would later lead to her choosing three Devo songs to make videos around: “Be Stiff,” “You Gotta Problem” and “Space Girls.”

She would later end up dating Jerry Casale, Devo’s bassist and “chief strategist.” This video project was successful enough in the U.K. — being shown on late-night TV in England, mostly — that RadialChoice gave her money to make whole half-hour show’s worth of videos, which would eventually be collected years later and released as Word of Mouth.

Meanwhile, executives at the BBC saw those videos and asked her to do TV specials, which she directed.

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Cassandra Peterson, Paul Reubens and Toni Basil

One of the videos she made during this time was for an idea she’d had about wanting to do a music video based around the concerpt of cheerleaders, dancing and chanting and stomping (foot-stomping was always a big part of Basil’s choreography and a key feature of the Lockers’ dance routines).

In 1980, she had conceived, directed, and choreographed was a song based around a new recording of a song called “Kitty,” written by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn for a post-Bay City Rollers UK-based pop combo named Racey.

Racey had recorded the song for their 1979 album Smash and Grab but it hadn’t even been released as a single, and the Chapman-Chinn songwriting duo felt that Toni Basil might be able to do much better with the track, and so when Basil’s record company representative Simon Lait met with them to see if they could come up with a song for his fledgling star, “Kitty” was the song he was presented.

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photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett

Basil thought it was best to change the title to a man’s name, and chose “Mickey” because she thought it rhymed best with “Kitty.” She then re-worked the lyrics and arranged the song into a cheerleader chant, giving the song its popular hook (“Hey Mickey!”).

She then spent three days rehearsing the choreography for the video, which she wanted to feature real cheerleaders. Basil — her hair in pigtails — even wore the very same cheerleader’s uniform, with its pleated skit, that she wore while leading the girls in cheers back at Las Vegas High School.

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She went to cheerleading competitions to find girls who could back her up, and found two Los Angeles-based troupes: stomp-style cheerleaders from mostly black Dorsey High and stick cheerleaders, specializing in mounts, from largely Samoan Carson High: they’re the ones you see in the video, even though the feet stomping sound you hear at the beginning of the song was created on a basketball court’s wood flooring by three of the Dorsey High cheerleaders, who also clapped along (those sounds were mixed together and multiplied many times in the studio, and then mixed in with a drum beat).

When the BBC saw the cheerleading video, it asked Basil to make her own half-hour TV special around it, even as her UK record label, RadialChoice, were reluctant to release it as a single, initially; they preferred the album’s lead-off track, “Nobody,” until Lait took the recording home and his kid thought it should be the album’s first single.

“Nobody” was eventually released, but peaked at #52 on the U.K. Singles chart, but failed to chart anywhere else. A third single failed to chart altogether, and the the album’s frenetic “Shopping A-Z” track was released as a single in the U.S. only, the last from Word of Mouth, appearing on Billboard Hot 100 charts at #77 in 1983.

By the way, Simon Lait’s RadialChoice would fold in 1984, having only one other hit during its brief history with “I Eat Cannibals” by the British band Toto Coelo.

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MTV, of course, were very responsible for making the song a hit, based on the fact that they added the video to their heavy rotation, playing it nearly once an hour while it was nearing the top of the charts (it finally reached the Top 40 in October 1982, right around the time that real cheerleading squads began to perform it during their own pep rallies and football and basketball games).

The song made Toni Basil an overnight success although, as you see, she’d been involved in various capacities in the entertainment world since the early Sixties by that point.

“Mickey” went to #2 in the U.K. and #1 in Australia (where it stayed for two weeks in June 1982) before Chrysalis Records gave her an American deal, releasing the single in February of 1982, where it caused quite a sensation.

It also landed at #3 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music\Club Play Singles chart.

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In 1999, DJ\music producer Jason Nevins released a dance remix of “Mickey,” which managed to peak at #25 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music\Maxi-Singles Sales chart. It was also a club hit in Australia and in Europe.

Unfortunately, Toni Basil was never given any kind of songwriting credit — for her memorable opening chant, which she expected would be edited out on any audio-only release — and so all of the publishing royalties go to Chinn and Chapman’s publishing company.

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Chrysalis also release some of the other material she’d been recording and making videos for over the previous couple of years, issuing Word of Mouth, which would feature three songs by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale and Bob Lewis.

The album peaked at #22 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and was nominated for both a Grammy and an MTV Video Music Award.

After “Mickey,” Basil had wanted to go “blacker and funkier,” all the way back to her street-dancing days with the Lockers for her follow-up album. Chrysalis didn’t really know what to do to promote it, since her “Mickey” hit hadn’t been marketed that way.

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They wanted her to go in a more “new wave” direction, and that’s how Basil’s follow-up, Toni Basil, was promoted.

The album — which failed to chart at all — featured three more Devo covers, as well as the darker “Over My Head” (#81 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, #4 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music\Club Play Singles chart) and the percussive “Street Beat” (#81 Hot 100, #63, on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music\Club Play Singles chart).

A third single, “Suspense,” peaked at #8 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music\Club Play Singles chart, but a fourth single, “Do You Wanna Dance,” failed to chart.

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“Over My Head” — which we’re featuring in this episode from our “Video Vault” — begins with Basil dancing in front of several paperback mystery novels, before being zapped into one of the books.

She is suddenly featured in a dark room, clad in vampire-like fashion. She then appears on the cover of another mystery novel, before she is shown stuck on train tracks as a train flies over her. The train suddenly becomes a plane. Basil finally escapes the books and continues dancing in front of them.

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The video was nominated for “Best Choreography” at the first MTV Music Video Awards, in 1984, losing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

All along Basil’s most active work has always been as a choreographer.

During the 1980s, she worked with a number of celebrated artists — including Talking Heads on their 1981 video “Once in a Lifetime,” teaching David Byrne to be herky-jerky by showing him film clips of epileptics — as well as choreographing those great vintage Gap khakis commercials with all that cool bossa nova-style dancing in them, and helping out Tom Hanks in his directorial debut, That Thing You Do.

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She’s been a multiple Emmy Award winner, and Grammy Award nominee,and has choreography and directorial credits on over fifty music videos and has choreographed and co-directed concerts for Tina Turner, David Bowie, Bette Midler, David Lee Roth, Mick Jagger as well as many others.

In 2008, she was awarded Hip Hop International’s highest award “Living Legend of Hip Hop.”

She’s worked on an incredible range of television programming, from TV Land’s “Salute to Soul Train,” the NAACP Image Awards, and numerous music awards shows.

“Mickey” was installed in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as one of the groundbreaking singles of the 1980s, and the “Mickey” music video now resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1992, Toni Basil earned herself a place as an American Video Artist in the coveted Museum of Modern Art’s calendar.

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Watch Toni Basil’s “Over My Head” video and other music videos we found in our “Video Vault” back on March 26, 1988, they’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus for our subscribers.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, 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.