The Man Who Defined The Music Video: Our Interview With Steve Barron

When you think about the most iconic music videos of all time, what comes to mind? There have been some great videos in the last couple of decades, but invariably the ones that are most often referenced are from the first decade of MTV. There was a freshness to music videos of that period, often wildly experimental and with a lighter touch than the average over-produced Lady Gaga video. And they were everywhere, swirling 24/7 on MTV and finding their way into network programs, shopping malls, and Saturday morning cartoons. There's a reason those videos stick with us after so many years, despite how crude many seem in comparison to what you see today, and it's largely because of the brilliance of some wickedly talented directors who were defining the genre on the fly.

What not everyone knows, though, is how much of that iconic list was the inspiration of one man. His name is Steve Barron, and he was the creative force behind some of the most memorable videos of all time. A director could have made his name off any one of these videos—"Don't You Want Me?" "Billie Jean," "Summer of '69," "Money for Nothing," "Rough Boy," "Take On Me"—but Steve Barron did all of them, and many more. His artistic vision practically defined the visual template of my youth, as it did for so many other people of our generation. And on the 30th anniversary of MTV, he was gracious enough to sit down with us at Culture Brats and tell us about his experience, his art, and his role in the birth of a genre.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to speak with me and all of us at Culture Brats.
No problem

You directed some of the most famous music videos of the early years of MTV. How did you get into that, especially at a time when directing music videos wasn't an obvious career path?
Yeah, it wasn't a clearly defined route, and it wasn't really a premeditated thing either. It just sort of happened by my start as a camera assistant and technician in films in London. I was actually very young getting into the business. By the time I was 20 or 21, I was doing some pretty big movies as the camera assistant, and when I was working on movies in the UK like Superman. I was living the 21-year old social life in London. I was meeting bands and people who were in the music business—as you do, out and about—and the more I met, the more I chatted with them. I was always a big fan of music; I just kind of got pulled into that world.

It was at a phase [when] they weren't called videos. This was like 1976, really, and they were promotional films. They seemed to be being done sporadically by the record companies who were frustrated by not having any outlet for them. But they were still making them just the same. I jumped onto that really by ignorance as much as anything, because the music world didn't understand what the film world did, and the film world didn't really understand what the music world did. The fact that I was a clapper loader and I was on this massive the time they weren't really distinguishing between the clapper loader and the director. The fact that I was working on the film gave me a certain amount of credibility. I was able to put together, through my knowledge of cameras primarily, little shoots for bands. The first one I really did was for The Jam. That's how it all sort of began: by chance, wanting to work with music but without a clear path.

Did you think of yourself as defining a medium at the time?
We didn't really do a lot of thinking (laughs). We weren't really thinking about what we were doing, we were just doing. It was led along by the enjoyment of being young people who liked going out and experimenting and just learning about directing through that. I was only a director because no one else knew what the cameras were doing on the set. The first one we did we didn't even nominate a director. We just kind of all did it and then realized you need someone to take the handle. We just got caught in the crest of that wave.

Then came MTV in the early '80s and suddenly these things became very important for the record companies, whereas before they were a bit of a nuisance. It was just a way of getting it on an Italian or French TV station. When MTV came along, there was suddenly this 24-hour video outlet and people are going to start watching these things, so it turned into a market. And because I was there in those few years leading into it and learning about it, I was more ready for that initial explosion.

What was that explosion like? It must have been a crazy time to be suddenly swept up in that huge cultural wave.
It was kind of exciting! A few of us in London had been talking even a year before about how these things are starting to get noticed and people are liking them. We really wanted to do something like MTV. That was an idea that a lot of people were having.... a lot of people with no access to the money to make it happen. You could feel it coming; the demand for it was there. When it came along, it was very exciting because it was a vindication of what we'd chosen to do and what we had been saying to the record companies. Whether we totally believed it or not, we had been pitching the whole idea of the influence of film and television for music. It was a massive moment of vindication, a very exciting moment, and a really busy few years. As you can imagine, it was full-on. Our feet didn't hit the ground for a few years.

I was looking at your videography, and you were responsible for dozens of the most popular videos of the time. You must have been very much in demand and I assume constantly working for four to five years.
Yeah, pretty much, although don't totally trust that videography. I've seen one with over 80 videos on the list attributed to me and there was a bunch of mistakes on there. But I didn't correct them; it felt like a bit of a task. I did like 120 videos but I didn't think I could remember them all, so I just didn't get it together, to be honest.

You keep referring to "we," almost implying a community of video directors and people behind the scenes working on that. Was there a true community working towards this common goal, and if so was it close-knit?
It was pretty close. We formed a company, Limelight, which in the early days was formed with my sister Siobhan and my partner, Simon Fields. We took on quite a few directors; we had Julian Temple working with us and eventually Russell Mulcahey, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Peter Care... a lot of the big guys who did those videos during that period came through that company or were around in London, sort of as an extended community. We were in it together in a lot of ways, although in a lot of ways we were competitors as well.

What were some of the unique challenges in concepting and directing music videos at that time?
The challenge felt like it was laid down by ourselves to do things that were extraordinary—out of the ordinary—and preferably unique. Yet obviously we understood as a business that what would be a complete home run would be something that totally worked for the song, promoted the song, and pushed the song to new heights but also made the craft stand with its head held high. It was kind of a double-edged thing, really. You wanted the video to be brilliant but you didn't want just the video to be brilliant and the song doesn't do anything. The two had to really come together. You could run off and do something that was almost selfish so it was all about the video and not the promotion of this song.

Did you approach them as an extension of the musician's vision? Or did you already have ideas that you would try to match to the music?
In the early days of the '80,s there was very little brief or ideas from the band about what they wanted to do. It was a new form for them. There were exceptions like Adam Ant, and The Jam to a degree on certain videos, that had a very strong art background or strong opinions on what their songs meant, but often it would be a blank page. Obviously you'd be inspired by the song: sometimes by the vocals and lyrics, and at its best by the atmosphere of the music. There could be certain lines or themes or vibes in that music that informs what you're going to do more than what the words were saying.

Let's talk about a few of your videos. Probably the most obvious one to talk about is Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video, which was one of the touchstone moments of '80s culture and often credited for propelling MTV to the heights it achieved. You were working with someone who after that video became a superstar, but he must have just been on the cusp of that when you were filming. Were you aware at the time you were working on something special? Was there anything particular about your approach to that video that you think helped it become so enormously successful?
At the time there were a number of different artists that were coming through the door, and when Michael Jackson came through it was someone I hadn't heard for a number of years but I loved. Off The Wall, the album from a few years earlier when he was only a teenager was fantastic. There was a buzz about doing a big American artist like that, but I had no idea it was going to be that successful. When I got the track I really like it. I thought it was really unusual. Obviously "Billie Jean" was an amazing song and I thought immediately it was a perfect song to do a video for. It gave a real story-line atmosphere within the song. It had a mystery and it felt like it was unfolding, and it had everything that was exciting to do for a director in it. But that was the only song. We heard the album wasn't out yet. They were very excited about it but nobody knew it was going to be massive.

The approach came from the manager. He'd seen the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" and he loved the cinematic aspect of that. He also said—this was a brief without meeting Michael first—that he'd like to do something a little magical. A bit otherworldly in the way that Neverland is otherworldly. That was the brief. And it was really a perfect brief.

The idea actually came from an idea I'd written for another music video. At the time you'd do a bunch of ideas and some would happen and some wouldn't. They'd get someone else to do it or they'd get five different treatments written and they'd choose the one they liked. I'd written a treatment that had never got made which was about the Midas Touch. I think it was originally for Joan Armatrading. I kept thinking as I listened to the song that that concept worked really well, much better for "Billie Jean." I put the whole thing together and they liked it. I think I wrote a page and a half on it, or something like that. I flew to L.A., met with Michael, and I had some storyboards drawn. I went through those storyboards with Michael he really felt good about it.

What was your reaction to the response once it launched?
The funny thing was that I was back in England by then and I didn't catch it. We were so busy that it was hard to be around the response. The response was pretty massive in that it was played everywhere, but it's hard to explain, but I didn't really get a reaction to it. It just was everyone going Michael Jackson-crazy. I never really got a reaction to it until years later. But it was definitely part of a great period of creativity for us.

You were also responsible for the "Money For Nothing" video, which I remember very vividly when it first came out. It was one of the first, if not the first, videos to use computer animation. That must have been an interesting attempt to try something new in that medium. Computer animation is everywhere nowadays, but it must have been a lot hard to pull together back then.
That one was an interesting case and a sign of the times. The bigger bands who were part of the crowd who had come through purely as great musicians, like Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, didn't fit very well with video. They didn't like what video would do to songwriting and to the way people listened to albums. They thought that it would pollute it in some way if you did a big concept that stood along side the song, it would muddy the listening. And in a lot of ways they were absolutely right. Mark Knopfler in particular just didn't want to do a music video. He thought you could do a video where the band was just playing, but MTV wasn't crying out for concert videos. They didn't want the band playing. You could get that on a live show.

When "Money for Nothing" came along, which starts off with "I want my MTV" and is a story talking about MTV, it was a big thing with Warner. They rang up and said, "Look, Mark isn't fond of MTV and the whole concept video, so you've got to try talk him into it."

I'd been working in a video facility for a number of years doing post-production, and in one of the rooms there was a computer animation machine called a Bosch FGS-4000. It was a state-of-the-art, massive machine, which probably does far less than the iPad now. It was churning out these graphics for IBM and big industry companies and the way it could churn out 3D graphics, I'd never seen anything like it. I thought it would be really startling and interesting for a video. And I thought with this song that the irony might be that the people slagging on MTV were actually made of television and computer pixels themselves.

I went to Mark Knopfler to film him—as far as he knew we were just going to film him in Hungary like he said he wanted, them just playing—but when I pitched it to him, I could see that I was sinking fast. Here was another high-concept video that was going to blot all over the song. But luckily there was someone else that day who he was with and she said, "He's absolutely right, these videos are not creative enough." It was odd because he actually didn't give the go-ahead on that idea, but not saying "no" either. Luckily it worked out in the end because the video ended up making perfect sense. Because it was about MTV, it had to be a conceptual video. And the naivety of the animation was what was cute about it. It was crude and very na├»ve but at the time it was very different.

Another video I wanted to ask you about is my all-time personal favorite video, a-ha's "Take On Me." It was such a unique vision. How did that idea come about?
I'd worked with Jeff Ayeroff at Warner on a number of other projects. That band had tried to release that single and had done a low-budget performance video and nothing had happened with it. He came to me and said, "I know this band can be really good." And I'd said to him over the years that I really wanted to do animation but they never gave us enough time to do actual cell animation. So he said, "OK, we can give you the time on this because we pulled the single from release. How long would it take?" "If you give us four months and enough money we can do something really spectacular."

[Jeff] had been sent some animation by Michael Patterson. It was his graduation animation. It was that form of rotoscope where you shoot film first then you draw off the film so it's slightly more lifelike. So I set about writing a story that would justify the animation. When I was a kid I loved comic books and the comic we used was a comic I read when I was about six. I don't remember the name of it but there was a motorcycle chase with goodies and baddies. The image that did it for me, where I knew the concept of the video was going to work, came to me while I was listening to the track—just a drawn hand reaching out from a comic book. I centered everything around that image and pulled back into this idea of a girl at a cafeteria and this parallel world where windows were frames that could be walked through. Where you could see someone through that mirror but only through that mirror. There was a bit of a nod to the Ken Russell film Altered States as well, where in your mind you're in a parallel world, and when he's banging against the wall it's a very similar scene where he's trying to pull himself out of who he is, into reality.

We shot everything there, so all the footage that was shot before everything was animated exists somewhere. Even those villains—the main villain with the monkey wrench is a friend of mine who I play football with who is also an actor, Philip Jackson. It was a film that sort of worked; it just hung together. It was a great track, and we got lucky with the casting as well. We looked at a number of girls and ended up finding Bunty Bailey.

You ended up working with a-ha quite a bit after that.
Yeah, I did probably seven or eight more videos, actually. We had a really good collaboration. I just saw them again recently. I hadn't seen them in years, and they asked me to do a closing, "end of a-ha" video ("Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)"). It was great to get together with them again.

Looking back is there a video that you're particularly proud of? Something you look back at and say, "That was my finest work?"
I suppose "Take On Me" has to be right up there because it did all fall into place and it was a tricky one to navigate in regards to reality and fantasy. And there was a Heaven 17 video that I really liked. The actual rushes were ruined, funny enough, and we had to reshoot it, but I was able to cut together one from the ruined rushes that had a jitter we couldn't use, but that was actually my favorite one that never came out. It was a song called "Let Me Go" and it worked really well.

In the end it's nice when certain songs have a haunting quality in videos if you can make that happen. We did Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." He was obviously her dead father, and that was an amazing experience. They were singing together on this song beautifully, and it was an amazing experience to watch her go through the process of registering exactly what she was doing, but not until after she saw the video. That was a very special video. I think it's hard in a video to get a real emotional reaction where you really cared. It often happens with the fans of the band, but to universally get a lump in the throat moment is hard and satisfying.

Videos have evolved quite a bit since the era when you were doing them. What do you think of music videos and MTV today?
I don't watch MTV, but I gather it's become a reality show channel. That's a shame, because it seems the outlet now for music videos is YouTube where you have to go there and know what you're looking for. It's a shame there isn't the umbrella for videos because there are some great, really clever, low-budget, creative ideas. I see a lot of videos now young guys are doing on shoestring budgets and they would have been at the time very special. In my day they would have been lauded, but it's very hard for them to get the recognition they deserve. Everyone says it's in a bad state now, and I agree. But it's in a bad state from a marketing point of view. There's a lot of good ideas out there, and people doing good stuff.

Do you feel like the ones that do break into the mainstream have the same level of artistic integrity?
It's very hard now to do something that stands out and makes people sit up and take notice. When we were doing them there were so few TV channels to go to get things that were pushing the boundaries. Now it's very hard to get that going. And there's so much influence. It's harder for people to do what we did, when we would literally start with a blank page, and sometimes no references at all. It's very hard to do that now because there is so much accessible reference around. You can find everything on the Internet. It's fantastic for research, but it's hard to be completely original and completely unique.

You've since made the transition from music videos to feature films and television. What skills did you gain doing music videos that have transferred well moving into that world, with higher budgets and longer story arcs?
That experience was invaluable, being able to be very free and wild. In movies you don't get the chance to say, "Right, I'm going to really be crazy brave and do something that might be absolute rubbish but might be brilliant." You could do that in videos because I did plenty of absolute rubbish. But that's because we rolled the dice on a very big scale. We would push it and no one was there to say, "Could that be rubbish?" Nowadays you don't get the chance to be that free. And you can't in drama. You can't be that carefree and experimental, I don't think.

But what I learned out of music videos was everything, really. It was like coming out of silent films and into talkies. You've learned the visual skills on an intensive course, but then you just need to learn the story and sound. Which is a massive part of it, sound and storytelling, in the second phase.

Since you were one of the earlier people to make that transition, as you were getting into the industry did people look at your resume of doing videos as an advantage? Or did you feel like it was a hindrance, perhaps with old-school movie and television people who had different expectations?
When I first made the transition there was that sort of thing. And the first movie I did was a little bit like an extended music video, Electric Dreams. I didn't help that cause in a lot of ways. (laughs) Once I'd done a movie that stood up on its own right and was a hit movie, which was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or maybe The Storyteller before that, which was a TV series which I did with [Jim] Henson and which Anthony Minghella wrote. That was the first time I was using the music video language, but with really clever dialog and storytelling.

I've noticed that some of the things you've done over the last few years, like the Merlin miniseries and the recently finished Treasure Island, not to mention some of the other things you've mentioned, have an element of the fantastic in them. Is that something you gravitate towards? Does that give you the creative license you want, and why you find yourself doing those sorts of projects?
Yeah, I think so. I like the magical. I think "Billie Jean" and "Money for Nothing" and "Take On Me" are all sort of fantasy films. And they are more naturally what I feel comfortable making. I've been more recently able work in a bit of reality, but the fantasy is still something I very much enjoy. Treasure Island is a pretty straight up drama from a great novel that tells a fantastic story, but it is grounded in a time and a place. But I've always got excited about films that have seen before or been there before. Pan's Labyrinth and those sort of movies... in a way they are the ultimate films that can have a grounded foot in reality and a fantastic, never before seen view of fantasy.

What are you working on next?
Well, I've got another month and a half on Treasure Island, then I've got a bunch of things. There's a film in India, and there's quite a lot around. You can see the trailer for Treasure Island on my website.

One final question: Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham, and Spike Jonze have all had music video anthologies put together and released to DVD. Are we ever going to get the Steve Barron music video anthology?
Funny enough I was approach to do one a couple of years ago, just as the DVD world was dying. So instead VH1 did a special. They did it on six directors and we each got a show. It was on VH1 in the states and Sky in the UK.

Well, thank you so much taking the time to speak to me. I found it incredibly fascinating. I came of age during those early years of MTV and so much of the visual blueprint of my life was established by your vision, and it's a great honor to speak with you.
Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

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