What we know of today as the music video started out in the ‘60s as the ‘Promo Film’ or “Promotional Video.” These were essentially short films made to advertise a band’s new single, usually to replace an in-person appearance on a TV show or, in The Beatles’ case, to make up for concerts in general. This helped to give bands the freedom to grow in the studio without having to worry about replicating their sound on the stage.
Stylistically, many of these videos started as pre-filmed mimed performances to mimic a live show, which was already the standard practice for many pop music-oriented TV programs. Yet, as time went on and rock music became more complex and creative, so did the promo videos.
Spearheaded by The Beatles with their 1966 videos for “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” and then “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” in 1967, promotional films were becoming more like short art films, more in line with the musical sequences from The Beatles’ own A Hard Days Night and Help! and the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” segment from the beginning of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Backdocumentary, where choreography and music takes over while reality takes a step back.
Let’s explore the world of the promo video by taking a look at some of my personal favorite clips, ranging mainly from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Since the movement started at large with The Beatles, let’s begin here…
The Beatles – Paperback Writer, Strawberry Fields Forever and Something
As previously mentioned, The Beatles finished their touring days in 1966 and chose to instead focus on recording complex albums. So to help promote these records, they filmed promotional videos that could make an appearance in the place of the band on national TV.
Starting with “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” (although mimed performances of the band on a TV stage in addition to a rare animated short film for “Day Tripper” appeared even earlier) the band continued to support new singles in this way until their breakup in 1970.
Each film perfectly captured the band’s current phase, from the initial abandonment of the teeny-bopper mop-top image in ’66 with the warmly stoned “Rain,” to the ambitious psychedelic surrealism of ’67 with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in The Life” to the grown-up yet fractured days of late ’68-’70 with “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and “Something.” Thankfully, you can get all of these videos (and then some) on the 1+ set that came out a few years back.
Pink Floyd – Arnold Layne, Scarecrow, See Emily Play & more
Pink Floyd is known for making great use of the visual component of rock music, from highly conceptual album cover artwork to stage spectacles and film.
Their fondness for the pairing of music and film was apparent straight from the beginning. Apart from the band’s earliest forays, with soundtracking Mike Leonard’s filmed light projection experiments, Pink Floyd launched right away into the world of film with two different videos for their debut single, “Arnold Layne. ”
Filmed while Syd Barrett, the original band leader, was still in the group, “Arnold Layne” and then later “Scarecrow” perfectly captured the young band’s taste of irreverent humor, youthful energy and distinctly British, whimsical strangeness that characterized their then-current sound.
After Barrett’s departure, the band made a flurry of filmed videos while searching for a new identity, which is evident through the films’ varying styles and ideas. This uneven, yet creative period produced classic clips, like the “See Emily Play” video, which was a Barrett original, but filmed without his involvement:
…and the post-Barrett, but Barrett-esque “Point Me at The Sky” and “Let There Be More Light.”
Yet my favorite video from this period is a strange yet hilarious clip created for “Corporal Clegg,” off of the band’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, which features the band getting into a food fight in a canteen, intercut with military stock footage (things really pick up when Roger Waters decks out David Gilmour with a single punch.
There’s a wealth of incredible clips out there from the pre-Dark Side of The Moon period, mostly created by and for various TV shows, but these were mostly live or mimed performances. Yet the band contributed soundtracks to a variety of film projects, like The Committee, More and Zabriskie Point, but around the time that the post-Barrett Floyd truly found who they were, the highly influential Live at Pompeii documentary was released, being the most tight and together film project for the band to that point. This would help pave the way for the band’s future music videos, and of course the film version of The Wall.
Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale
Procol Harum’s music was often heavy with symbolism, poetic imagery and cinematic atmospheres, so setting their music to film would seem like a logical and natural choice.
Their signature tune, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” had several videos shot for it, including the two from 1967 below.
While each film can be slightly awkward here and there, they both do a great job at capturing the song’s unique blend of melancholic beauty and psychedelic grandeur.
BONUS: Once music videos were a thing and MTV appeared in the 1980’s, “Whiter Shade of Pale” received a newly shot video without the involvement of the group. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, the video is more like a surreal Lynchian short-film, reflecting the song’s vague and impressionistic lyrics and mysterious vibes:
The Small Faces – Lazy Sunday Afternoon and Autumn Stone
The Small Faces’ psychedelic epic, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake was one of the most eclectic and creative pop records of 1968 (and was partially one of the first rock operas ever). Along with its infamously inventive packaging, the band celebrated the music of their magnum opus with a wild TV special on Colour Me Pop, where the band (and narrator Stanley Unwin) mimed to several of the record’s songs with live vocals and trippy camera effects. Along these performances was a humorous and kaleidoscopic video for “Lazy Sunday Afternoon,” which sort of looks like a deleted scene from Head.
The band’s swan song, “Autumn Stone,” also had a video, which was just as melancholic and strangely touching as the song itself.
Traffic – Paper Sun, Hole in My Shoe
Much like Pink Floyd, Traffic blew up when they debuted. So they were also trusted with the money to film videos for their first two singles.
The videos themselves may not have been as strong as the songs that they were made for, but they were still intriguing enough. Interestingly, a deleted scene from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour featured a sequence with Traffic set to “Here We Go Around The Mulberry Bush,” which has a similar feel to these two other films.
Funkadelic – Cosmic Slop
Filmed in the summer of 1973 throughout the streets of Manhattan, the video for “Cosmic Slop” is a kaleidoscopic view of the inhabitants of George Clinton’s and Funkadelic’s twisted, acid-infused world. Out of all of these videos, this one is possibly the most fun. Looking like a stray performance of some avant-garde guerrilla theater troop, Clinton and the Funkadelics bring the track’s serious, solid grooves to screaming life. If you watch only one of these clips, make it this one.
The Rolling Stones – 2000 Light Years From Home
While I’m trying to steer away from straight mimed TV performances, I chose to feature The Rolling Stones’ video for “2000 Light Years From Home” from Top of The Pops, as it features some surprisingly creative camera work, which was far from the norm for these kind of BBC segments (especially for a band like The Stones). Taken from their sole psychedelic excursion, Their Satanic Majesties Request, “2000 Light Years From Home” is a heady brew of mellotron wig-outs (thank you Brian Jones) and astral rocking that sounds like proto-Hawkwind.
The band is decked out in strange metallic costumes and foil (including the face-painted Mick Jagger, who looks like a lost Alister Crowley devotee) while the camera focuses hazily on their otherworldly expressions and details of their instruments, like something out of an old mad scientist movie. Compare these shots to many of the early MTV videos and you could see several similarities.
To be continued…