A short history of the British music video

Too often MTV is credited with the origins of the music video. In fact, the revolution began in Britain, more than half a century ago.

No Surprises (1998)

It’s more than half a century since the first promotional short films were made for singles by British artists such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in 1966. When the history of the music video has been analysed, it’s been largely in relation to North American genres and cycles. A long-standing assumption is that music video evolved in response to the launch of MTV in the USA in 1981. But British production predated MTV and was stimulated by changes in youth culture and popular music marketing that saw promotional films for individual single releases first being made in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘pop promo’ is rooted strongly in British and European moving image genres. 

In the 1960s, music videos were produced by freelance directors through independent production companies in Soho such as Eyeline, which specialised in making commercials for independent television (launched in the UK in 1955). In the late 1970s, companies such as Limelight, MGMM and Oil Factory were launched to meet demand from UK labels sending videos to European television programmes for broadcast. When MTV was launched in 1981, most of the videos it screened had been made by British directors, often through LA satellites of these British independents, until a homegrown independent production sector emerged in the USA in the mid to late 1980s.

Through the 1980s and 90s, British music video genres and styles evolved not only as a result of decisions made by marketing teams and label managers at British record companies and divisions, but also through feedback from in-house plugging teams and companies such as Anglo-Plugging. After MTV launched in the USA in 1981 and in the UK in 1987, the exhibition outlets most valued by British pluggers were not cable or satellite channels but The Chart Show (which ran on Channel 4 from 1986 to 1988 and ITV from 1989 to 1998) and Saturday morning children’s TV shows featuring music video segments, such as BBC1’s Live and Kicking (1993-2001). 

In the 1990s the leading production companies included Propaganda Films and Black Dog (a subsidiary of Ridley Scott Associates). The industry boomed in the late 1990s. Research showed that in 1998 UK labels spent approximately £37.5m on 850 music videos. MTV impacted on British audiences through the UK division of MTV based in Camden Town, London, which did not screen the same repertoire as MTV USA or MTV Europe. In the 2000s, social media and peer-to-peer file sharing on YouTube lifted the national boundaries on exhibition. 

The performance styles and audience-address of many British music videos parallel the working-class white rock music and youth culture of the 1960s, as well as the early trick films (1895-1904) screened in music halls of Britain. Like these short films for music hall audiences, music videos have offered opportunities to filmmakers to play with the possibilities of film as a medium, and to experiment with new techniques advanced by technological innovations in film production, editing and cinematography. For example, Jonathan Glazer’s video for Jamiroquai’s ‘Virtual Insanity’ (1997), Grant Gee’s video for Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ (1997) and Sophie Muller’s video for Blur’s ‘Song 2’ (1997) all in different ways resemble academic Tom Gunning’s definition of the trick films made in Brighton and London by such directors as William Paul and George Smith. They share the same quality of contriving to suspend and invert the laws of nature for novelty entertainment value. 

As well as trick film and live performance, music videos were created from cultures of production and genres intrinsic to album design and popular music practice. Although the first generation of music video directors in the 1960s were largely ambitious young filmmakers creating content for the cinema, many of the second generation of directors in the late 1970s and 1980s came from a background in design, having worked with bands on their album covers, print and poster campaigns (eg Nick Egan) or on their photography (eg Stephane Sednaoui). 

Peter Christopherson (1955-2010) (also known as ‘Sleazy’) was a musician, video director and designer. He was one of the 3 partners of the influential British design agency Hipgnosis, which was responsible for many notable album covers of the 1970s. He went on to form the Industrial Records band Throbbing Gristle. After Throbbing Gristle he helped found Psychic TV along with Geoffrey Rushton, aka John Balance. He then formed the experimental group Coil along with Balance, which lasted 23 years. Although Christopherson’s work as a musician is widely recognised, his contribution to music video art is less well recognised. 

Christopherson’s video for Coil’s ‘Tainted Love’ (1984) was the first British video to be taken into the permanent collection by the Museum of Modern Art in 1985, and used for its pioneering exhibition ‘The Art of the Music Video’ in 1984. The recording artists with whom Christopherson collaborated regularly to create music videos include Marc Almond, Erasure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Bomb the Bass and Robert Plant. Christopherson produced music videos through his own independent production company, Christopherson & Co, which he owned jointly with his long term producer, Fiz Oliver. 

In the late 2000s and especially after the launch of YouTube in 2005, much public attention shifted to internet-distributed videos. But British music video had already reinvented itself with grime on Sky’s Channel U (subsequently Channel AKA). Today synonymous with Wiley, Skepta and label BBK, grime as a music genre emerged in 2002 when the mainstream popularity of UK garage was on the wane. Founded in 2003 by Darren Platt, Channel U was distinct from mainstream channels because it showed videos by unsigned artists. The aesthetic that emerged in grime videos is Britain’s 21st-century punk. It originated for practical reasons. Roony Keefe, creator of the Risky Roadz DVD series in 2004, describes it as a DIY style, “birthed from wanting to get something done, and making it happen, regardless of budgets or camera quality”. It was a refreshing antidote to the postmodern hyper-real and high-end music videos of MTV and The Chart Show of the late 1990s. 

Within the overall category of ‘short films’, music videos can be divided into genres taking from the industry itself and from a terminology used by video commissioners since the 1980s of performance, concept and narrative videos.

Performance videos

The performance video genre has its roots in mid-1960s films such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964). It purports to be a representation of the band performing live. The core deceit of the performance video is that the band do perform the track live for filming but mimic performance by singing and playing their instruments in sync to audio playback of the track. Some bands and directors have rebelled against this deception to create genuine live performance videos, such as Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980) and Christopherson’s video for Nine Inch Nails’ ‘March of the Pigs’ (1994). 

Directors who have excelled in performance often came from a music or record company background, or came to video directing through album design. Performance videos have often used new in-camera or post production effects to attract viewers. Some focus exclusively on vocal performance such as Godley and Crème’s ‘Cry’ (1985), John Maybury and Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (1990), and Grant Gee’s ‘No Surprises’ video. Within the British music industry, certain artists – mainly from rock – have been resistant to any video genres other than performance (Oasis and U2, for example). There are precedents for the styles used in pre-1966 video jukebox and other short film clips, as well as TV broadcasts of live performances.

Concept videos

The concept video has its origins in the pioneering 1960s work of Peter Whitehead for The Animals and Pink Floyd, and in the evolution of a genre which uses conceptual imagery intercut with performance to visualise the themes and emotions of the song. As more film graduates and experimental film artists entered the arena in the 1980s, increasingly conceptual videos became more widespread, with Derek Jarman’s trilogy for Marianne Faithful and Richard Heslop’s videos for 23 Skidoo being significant examples. Later important examples include Angus Cameron’s hypnotic psychedelic video for My Bloody Valentine’s ‘To Here Knows When’ (1991). Elbow’s video for ‘One Day like This’  (2008), directed by Ringan Ledwidge, is not abstract like some of the earlier 80s work in this category, but based on real footage, almost a ‘still life’ in moving image. It illustrates the fact that many of these ‘pure’ concept videos commissioned in Britain have not included any literal representation of the band at all. 

From the late 1960s onwards, filmmakers sought to differentiate their performance videos by introducing an unusual concept. The Rolling Stones’ video for ‘It’s Only Rock ’n Roll but I Like It’ (1974), conceived and directed by Michael Lindsay Hogg demonstrates this perfectly. Through the 1980s, as demand for music videos centred on band performance increased, directors who were able to consistently come up with novel concepts for the band were in high demand – these included Tim Pope, following his innovative run of videos for The Cure.

The popularity of the performance genre continued through the 1990s with Sophie Muller and Blur’s ‘Song 2’ (1997) and Dom & Nic’s concept performance for Supergrass’s ‘Pumping on Your Stereo’ (1990). Garth Jennings’s videos for Vampire Weekend (2008 and 2009) are also classic examples of the concept performance video in which the director puts the band in an unusual environment, sometimes thematically linked to the lyrics of the song, to record the sync

Narrative videos

Narrative videos look back to the pioneering work of The Kinks’ Ray Davies, who put together an ITV crew in the late 1960s to film a promotional film on 16mm in Kentish Town in London for ‘Dead End Street’ (1966). That video was never screened, because the BBC refused to play it. But it is a well-known and loved work within the music video industry itself.

Other notable narrative videos include Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ (1981), directed by Steve Barron; Radiohead’s ‘Just’ (1995), directed by Jamie Thraves; Roots Manuva’s ‘Witness the Fitness’ (2001), directed by Mat Kirkby; Oasis’s ‘The Importance of Being Idle’ (2005), directed by Dawn Shadforth; Daniel Wolfe’s seminal narrative trilogy for Plan B (2010), as well as Wolfe’s video for The Shoes’ ‘Time to Dance’ (2012). Some 1990s videos for electronic artists included no performance footage at all but also consisted purely of narrative footage filmed with actors, such as Dom & Nic’s video for The Chemical Brothers ’Believe’ (2005).

Music video has functioned as a career entry point and training path for directors who did not or could not get access to the feature film industry via any of the conventional routes in theatre and television at the time. It’s also been an experimental playground for creative crew such as cinematographers like Seamus McGarvey and John Mathieson, as well as colourists like Aidan Farrell, to develop new styles, techniques, equipment and technologies. The limited literature on the impact of music video on feature film style does not yet do justice to these myriad impacts because it has only focused thus far on the alleged impact of the ‘MTV edit’. Yet, without music video, award-winning British film artists like Farrell would not have been able to develop the techniques and styles of their emergent craft. 

British feature film directors who began their careers as critically acclaimed music video include Steve Barron (Electric Dreams, 1984; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 1990), Julien Temple (The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, 1979; Absolute Beginners, 1986; Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, 2007; London: The Modern Babylon, 2012), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, 2000; Birth 2004; Under the Skin 2013), Jamie Thraves (The Low Down 2000, Treacle Jnr 2010, Pick-Ups 2016), Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2005; Son of Rambow, 2007; Sing, 2016). 

Barron, Temple, Glazer, Thraves and Jennings have all carried into feature film a heightened use of music, SFX, non-linear editing. They use these crafts rather than dialogue to tell stories because they learned the craft of filmmaking in a medium essentially heir to the silent film. 

Note and further reading

This history is taken from a research project on British music video history (2015-19) run by Professor Emily Caston and Professor Justin Smith in collaboration with the BFI and British Library, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/M003515/1). The project drew together both industry and academic expertise and used a new and very rich selection of data, archives, and films from private industry collections. It brought together leading academics from popular music, film and television studies and cultural studies to analyse the significance of these collections both for an international audience of academics and for the general public.

You can find out more about this history in the project publications and outputs written by the research team and BFI curators below.

British music video publications and collections

‘Power to the People: British Music Videos 1966-2016’, (2018). Limited edition DVD boxset: a collection of 200 landmark music videos with accompanying production credits. Thunderbird Releasing. 
Caston, Emily (2020), British Music Videos 1966-2016: Genre, Art, Authenticity, Edinburgh University Press. 
Caston, Emily (2020), ‘Conservation and Curation: Theoretical and Practical Issues in the Making of a National Collection of British Music Videos 1966–2016.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 19.
Caston, Emily (2020) “Interview: Sophie Muller.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 19: 211-218.
Caston, Emily (2020) “Interview: Kris P. Taylor.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 19: 195-202.
Caston, Emily (2020) “Interview: Carrie Sutton.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 19: 203-210.
Caston, Emily (2019), “The Pioneers Get Shot: Music Video, Independent Production and Cultural Hierarchy In Britain.” Journal Of British Cinema And Television 16. 4: 545-570.
Caston, Emily (2017), “ ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’: Excerpts from a Focus Group on Editing Music Videos, with Explanatory Historical and Theoretical Notes.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 11.1: 99-118.
Caston, Emily (2017) “The Dancing Eyes of the Director: Choreographers, Dance Cultures, and Film Genres in British Music Video 1979–2016.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 11.1: 37-63.
Cave, Dylan (2017), “British Landmark Music Videos and the BFI National Archive.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 11.1: 79-99.
Fowler, William (2017), “The Occult Roots of MTV.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 11.1: 63-78.
Haddon, Mimi (2019), “Warp’s Music Videos: Affective Communities, Genre and Gender in Electronic/Dance Music’s Visual Aesthetic.” Journal of British Cinema and Television 16.4: 571-590.
Paterson, Richard (2020), “Music Video and Commercials Production in the UK Screen Industries: An Overlooked Dynamo of Innovation and Success.” Alphaville: Journal Of Film And Screen Media 19: 178-183.
Smith, Justin (2019), “Absence and Presence: Top of the Pops and the Demand for Music Videos in the 1960s.” Journal of British Cinema and Television 16.4: 492-544.
Smith, Justin (2017), “Comparable to MTV–But Better: The Impact of The Chart Show on British Music Video Culture, 1986–1998.” Music, Sound, And The Moving Image 11: 11-37.

The above journal articles can be found in these 3 special issues: