Video Killed The Radio Star: An in-depth look at the making of some of the classic 80s-era music videos

By on April 4, 2016

Video Killed The Radio Star is a short-format documentary series which delves into a handful of the classic 80s-era videos and the people who made them, through in-depth and anecdotal interviews with music video directors and sometimes even with appearances by the artists themselves. We’re offering some of the episodes right now on Night Flight Plus.

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This absorbing collection is episodic and highlights the visual style and musical impact of some of world’s greatest rock stars, recalling the experiences — the genius, madness, excesses and ideas — behind some of music’s most famous videos.

The initial focus of the 15-episode series is on music videos from the 1980s , and occasionally on the British pop chart bands and artists of the 1990s. These episodes examine the life and ideas behind some of music’s most famous videos, intercutting the original videos (sometimes providing rare or rarely-seen content that wasn’t broadcast on basic cable TV programs in the United States) — with the iconic bands and the artists’ on-set shenanigans alongside the views and tales from the directors, the series explores the exciting period that changed the way we interacted with music forever.

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These VKTRS episodes — each one is about twenty minutes in length — were originally created for Sky Arts, an arts-oriented UK-based subscription channel offering 24 hours-a-day programming which features cutting-edge documentaries, cult films, and rock concerts on its schedule.

The series is, of course, titled after the music video for the Buggles’s 1977 hit “Video Killed The Radio Star” — written, directed, and edited by video director Russell Mulcahy — which is well-remembered as the first music video shown on MTV in the United States at 12:01am on August 1, 1981, and the first video shown on MTV Classic in the United Kingdom on March 1, 2010.

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The music video was practically invented for David Bowie, and in this episode –The Golden Years of Music Video — Bowie, and music video directors David Mallett and Tim Pope, discuss the challenges, expense, and visions behind Bowie’s music videos.

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Highlights include Bowie’s own thoughts on the videos, and a never before seen look at the sexy uncensored “China Girl” video that MTV refused to play due to Bowie’s brief nudity and strong sensuality.

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We also get a detailed inside look at how Bowie and Mick Jagger created their landmark video for Live Aid, “Dancing in the Street.” Other songs and videos featured during the episode include: “Space Oddity,” “The Jean Genie,” “Ashes to Ashes,” Blue Jean,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Heroes.”

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For Michael Jackson’s episode, we see how Jackson’s iconic videos changed music videos forever. Featured here are interviews with the directors behind Jackson’s music videos, including “Billie Jean” and “Smooth Criminal,” as well as discussing their collaborations with the King of Pop on the promotional films and videos he made for songs like the 14-minute long-format video he made for “Thriller,” which, according to this article in the UK’s The Guardian,

“sealed MTV’s reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station’s treatment of music (though MTV has always denied they existed); revolutionized music video production; spawned the ‘making of”‘genre of documentary (‘The Making of Filler,’ as Landis said at the time); helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales, because fans were desperate to see it when they wanted, rather than at the will of TV stations; and, in 2009, became the first music video to be inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.”

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We see how MTV — who were reluctant to show videos by black artists initially — ultimately accepted all of Jackson’s videos, which then set the bar high for the artists who followed in terms of quality and inventiveness.

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There are interviews during the episode with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, and commentary by bona fied music legends like Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy, as well as directors Steve Barron, Joe Pytka, Andy Morahan, Wayne Isham,  and Tim Pope.

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In the Frankie Goes To Hollywood episode, group vocalist Holly Johnson and director Kevin Godley tell you how the “Relax,” “Two Tribes” and “The Power Of Love” videos were made — all three tracks, incidentally, charted at #1 on the British charts.

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In Elton John’s episode, Elton John and director Russell Mulcahy discuss the absolute splendor of the Carlton hotel, located on the sandy beach in Cannes, France, which they used for the video shoot for “I’m Still Standing” (1982 ), one of the most famous Elton John videos.

Director Marcus Nispel is also interviewed, explaining some of the on-set shenanigans and setbacks that surrounded the filming for his cheery ’80s hit, as well as providing background information on John’s other video shoots, including “Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” Wrap Her Up” and “I Want Love.”

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In this episode (Extended Play-The Cure), Cure vocalist and leader Robert Smith and director Tim Pope talk about the stories behind he band’s most iconic videos, including “Friday I ‘m in Love,” “Let’s Go to Bed,” “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” “Why Can’t I Be You?,” “In Between Days,” and “Pictures of You.”

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In Billy Joel’s episode, Billy Joel and video directors Jay Dubin, Russell Mulcahy and Andy Morahan talk about Joel’s videos for “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” “Allentown,” “The Longest Time,” the Downeaster “Alexa” and the gospel-inspired video for “The River of Dreams.”

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Frank Murray, the Pogues’ manager, and Joe Strummer

In this episode (When Joe Strummer met the Pogues) we hear the stories about The Clash’s Joe Strummer (1952-2002) and interviews with the Pogues’s vocalist Shane MacGowan and the Pogues manager Frank Murray.

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MacGowan is among those examining Joe Strummer’s exit from The Clash, his part in The Pogues an the band’s attempt at shooting a “spaghetti western”-styled video for “Straight To Hell.” Also discussed are the Clash’s videos for “Tommy Gun,” “Rock the Casbah,” “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” and the seminal “London Calling.”

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The man behind the VKTRS series is multi-Grammy award winner producer/director/creator Scott Millaney, a seasoned veteran of the music video world, through his Monster Entertainment company, a brand management company which develops entertainment brands and distributes them worldwide (their main focus seems to be children’s animation, but they also produce children’s programming, and music and documentaries like the VKTRS series).

In the 1980s, Milanney was the president of the London-based MGMM production company whose music videos were among MTV’s most popular, mostly because they were one of the first production companies to specialize in making videos when MTV went on the air in 1981.

Milanney’s partners at MGMM include Brian Grant, David Mallet and Russell Mulcahy, who also appear in the VKTRS series. Their initials formed the company’s name: M, G, M and M.

The most ground-breaking, iconic, most memorable music videos of the first three years of MTV were by-and-large all produced by MGMM, who, in the early 80s, also had an office in New York and in Los Angeles, but according to Millaney it proved to be too far away from the company’s base to manage successfully and was later closed down.

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Here’s more from Brian Grant’s showreel:

“MGMM Productions was, the most successful Music Video Company of the 80’s. With offices in London, New York and Los Angeles, the company produced some of the most ground breaking and now classic music videos ever made. MGMM Productions was formed by Directors Brian Grant, David Mallet, Russell Mulcahy and Producer Scott Millaney. It was able to attract some of the other top directors of the time, including Godley & Creme, Julian Temple, Matt Forrest, Mark Rommanek, Nick Morris, Mark Pellington, DJ Webster and Producers Eric Fellner and Malcom Gerrie. MGMM went on to produce 1500 Music Videos, 40 hours of TV, 5 feature films including Sid and Nancy and dozens of commercials. The company won over 200 awards including the first video Grammy. This clip was made for MGMM Productions Christmas party in 1988. May of the artistes featured, were at the now legendary party in St. Johns Wood. The clip encapsulates the best of the companies work during those heady days in the 80’s.”

MGMM’s videos were often expensively-made epic dramas, with huge budgets — and the need to go bigger and more outlandish pushed their production costs higher and higher. At their peak, a promotional video that had typically cost about $60,000 — $10K for production, $10K for labor or crew salaries and perks, $20K for equipment and set building, $5K for editing, with the producer/director average around $15K, depending on his or her status — ended up ballooning to as much as $150,000 per video.

MGMM’s videos were also often shot in exotic sites such as Sri-Lanka, Hong Kong, Singapore or Syndey, Australia. In the case of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which had earned the late great Bowie a platinum album, his first, the entire video was actually lensed in Australia.

Millaney has been producing award-winning videos by major artists and bands ever since the birth of MTV, back to when the channel was brand new and starved for content. Some of those major artists include Olivia Newton John, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Queen and Elton John. All total he has produced more than a thousand music videos.

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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.