Sound & Vision usually looks at current music videos--but the top entry in this month's survey was shot two years ago, for an album that preceded the group's most recent LP.
So what's a 1985 video, Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69," doing among the latest by Peter Gabriel, a-ha, Kate Bush, the Beastie Boys and others?
Like almost every other truly "underground" music video made in the last few years, "Death Valley '69" had a tough time getting seen anywhere when it was made. According to Ray Farrell of the South Bay independent label SST, the New York band's five-minute film finally managed to get a little exposure when Farrell included it on SST's newest video compilation. MTV even showed an excerpt of it on a recent segment of its "120 minutes" show.
MTV allowed only a bit of "Death Valley" to air because it goes against the sensibilities and standards that dominate the media--even cable TV. And if MTV shies away from most alternative videos, you can bet NBC's "Friday Night Videos" isn't about to touch them.
Unfortunately, that also goes for most local video shows--they stick to whatever the big record companies feed them, and to whatever won't get complaints from viewers.
The picture isn't totally dark. SST's Farrell said that some public television stations and public-access channels run unusual videos.
Still, it seems that the trend against showing underground videos has discouraged bands from making them. The Times' pop-music department certainly receives far fewer than it did a couple of years ago.
So here's an invitation: When you make your video, run off a copy on the cheapest tape you can find (we'll make allowances for low budgets) and mail it to us (with a self-addressed envelope if you want it returned). We don't want to raise false expectations: Since Sound & Vision only focuses on a small fraction of all the videos released, chances are your efforts won't even result in a mention. But videos that really stand out will be included in future Sound & Visions.
That said, here's the latest sampling, rated on a 0-100 scale:
Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69." Directors: Richard Kern, Judith Barry, Sonic Youth. This New York group established itself as perhaps the most convincing voice among the anarchic "noise" bands with the superbly grating "Bad Moon Rising" LP (1985) and its 1986 follow-up, "Evol." The song "Death Valley '69" (from "Bad Moon") grabs you by the neck and thrusts you into a Manson Family-like aura of violent madness, and this video (the only one the group has done) makes the nightmare even clearer. Its jagged images of bombs and riots and a crazed young woman on a rampage (included are bloody shots of her victims) are juxtaposed against peace-and-love scenes from the late '60s. We don't see a carefully balanced "message"--this is dementia unleashed. Why paint pictures of such a mind state? Because it's there, part of the human condition--and not about to be examined by the play-it-safe artists who fill TV. 88
Concrete Blonde's "Still in Hollywood." Director: Jane Simpson. Simpson made one of the best local videos of last year for Thelonious Monster, and she's applied the same dizzying approach to this notable L.A. group. Her anything-goes camera is constantly zooming and tilting and moving from one location to another, and into the predominant grainy black-and-white imagery she throws speeded-up effects, frantic editing, color animation and a whole lot else. It all perfectly fits the punk/pop energy of the song--one of the best love-hate odes ever recorded about Hollywood. 85
Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for the Right (to Party)." Directors: Rick Menello, Adam Dubin. These three New York rappers take the Run-D.M.C. sound and persona and crank them up another 100 miles per hour. Here's the essential spirit of rock--loud, rude, angry and joyous all at the same time. The video captures a good deal of the Beasties' infectiously obnoxious attitude by staging a dull party brought alive by the Boys' disruptions. The clip is surprisingly good-natured, maybe too much so--it even ends with a pie fight! I hope this lays a seductively mild foundation for a wild 1987 of Beastie videos. 80
Timbuk 3's "Life Is Hard." Director: Carl Grasso. Grasso, who filmed the pleasantly odd video that helped give this Austin duo a hit debut with "The Future's So Bright," returns with another quirky clip using a different technique. "Life" was done all in one boom-shot take (no edits) on a street corner in Vernon, with the camera swooping in and out like an inquisitive alien. Like the group's music, this isn't terribly enthralling, but it is very nice --and subtly perverse. 70
Kate Bush's "Experiment IV." Director: Bush. This song is the only completely new track on the English singer's new best-of LP "The Whole Story." Though listenable, "Experiment" doesn't stand up well alongside the classic singles on the album. The video is a dark fantasy about a "Music for Pleasure" sound machine that goes haywire while being tested, conjuring the image of a beautiful woman (Bush) who turns into a hideous demon. The mini-horror pic is mildly intriguing. But there's usually so much invention and suggestion in Bush's lyrics that her videos almost always disappoint--and this is no exception. 60
Peter Gabriel's "Big Time." Director: Steven Johnson. Go figure. Gabriel and Johnson made "Sledgehammer," the video that was widely considered the best of '86. Once again, Johnson creates a hectic cartoon-world setting for the great English singer. But it left me cold. Maybe I'm prejudiced by the song--the weakest on the "So" album. But even so, the video lacks the wit of its predecessor. 55
a-ha's "Cry Wolf." Director: Steve Barron. Barron made a creative, charming clip for a-ha's "Take On Me." Unfortunately, by doing so he also made these bland Norwegians stars-- and he seems to have gotten stuck making videos for them forevermore. There's some Barron-style invention in "Cry Wolf." But the hint of a "wolfman" story is confusing and old-hat, and the band looks more than ever like department-store dummies. Barron may be past his artistic peak, and a-ha--with a talent as small as those letters--never had an artistic peak to be past. 20
Bruce Willis' "Respect Yourself." Director: Jim Yukich. It's surprising to find that TV star Willis' first rock-video entry was shot by an old video hand like Yukich, because despite a slick look in the lighting and camera work, this one is awfully disjointed and uneventful. The first problem is the record, where the TV star's voice is undermixed and underwhelming on this remake of the Staple Singers' 1971 hit. The second problem is that the video, set in a bar, looks like a bad variety-show number, going from misfiring humor to seen-it-50-times-before dancing around pool tables. 7