Thanks to the rise of MTV, the eighties were a pioneering time in the development of music videos. But the Wild West spirit fostered by the network in its early days led to some amazing juxtapositions: For every critically acclaimed song or big-budget gem, you’d get a dozen that, had you not been a middle-school kid riding a Mello Yello high, should have left you wondering, What just happened? It’s only decades later, in the dead of night, that the many artistic failures, visual disasters, and bouts with video dysentery you witnessed back then resurface in your memory, and you have to race to YouTube to prove to yourself that it all had to have been a terrible dream. But of course it wasn’t a dream. Here are a dozen very real videos that actually aired on MTV back in the day, neatly organized into the four waking nightmares you had about them.
DREAM 1: THERE ARE HANDS IN THEM THERE WALLS!
Ah, that old MTV standby: the Wall o’ Hands! It turned up in videos of all genres, from New Wave to metal, and worked no matter the production budget or narrative situation. Dream sequence? Someone running the horror gauntlet? Kooky art-wank? It’s all possible with the Wall o’ Hands. Why put up with the hassle of using rats or snakes when you have hands on hand — cheap, simple to train, easy-to-keep-alive HANDS?
Laura Branigan, “Self Control”
Branigan roams the city at night and encounters a mysterious masked dude in this 1984 video that’s part Phantom of the Opera, part Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and 5,000 percent creepy. At 3:26, right after she escapes the modern dance orgy, she stumbles down a hallway of jazz hands that reach out and halfheartedly try to steal her oversize eighties belt.
Oingo Boingo, “Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me”
The wall hands in this video are extra talented, because they strum guitar strings, accompanied by bonus singing wall faces. Still, you wonder why Oingo Boingo even bothered with all the freaky effects, since Danny Elfman’s bug-eyed maniacal grin was always the most unsettling thing on the screen. The way he dances like he’s being attacked by fire ants runs a close second.
The Jacksons, “Torture”
The Jacksons sure had their hands full with all the horrifying hand imagery in this famous train wreck of a video. The walls have hands! And the hands have eyes! And, sometimes, enormous fake fingernails! And will we ever forget the fake wax hand of a fake wax Michael Jackson raised in the air at the 6:08 mark? Never.
DREAM 2: WOMEN ARE REQUIRED TO WEAR TEDDIES
Allegedly once a practical undergarment, by the eighties, the teddy had devolved into a kind of lacy, slutty leotard worn solely for prancing-around purposes. Thus it proved amazingly versatile as music-video-wear — or, for Prince protégées, stage costumes. Rather than signifying a specific state of “bedtime” or “being undressed,” the teddy denoted perpetual Sexy Times in the world of eighties videos.
The Cars, “You Might Think”
As we see here, a satin teddy is basically a work uniform that a model wears for a long day of creepy music video shenanigans, which includes being ogled, chased, and tossed around like a digital Barbie doll. (At the two-minute mark, she changes into pajamas; maybe there were rules for overtime in the video vixen labor union?) Everyone talks about how scary the Thriller video is, but truly, Hell is neon colors and a shape-shifting Ric Ocasek.
The Romantics, “Talking in Your Sleep”
Of the dozens of women in the “Talking in Your Sleep” video, none whatsoever are talking in their sleep. If anything, they’re modeling in their sleep — standing around trancelike, wearing nightgowns, or teddies, or corsets with heels and stockings. Apparently this video was directed by a 12-year-old boy whose knowledge of what women slept in came entirely from Victoria’s Secret catalogues.
Vanity 6, “Nasty Girl”
If the teddy didn’t already exist, Prince surely would have invented it. For the members of Vanity 6, the teddy was the little black dress of nasty fashion: It could be worn with boots or stockings, accessorized with stuffed animals or a stiletto. And instead of stripping down to your teddy, you’d wait for a funky break to step out and change, then march back in without missing a beat to continue your sexy business.
DREAM 3: AWKWARD, RANDOM CELEBS ARE EVERYWHERE!
And by random, we don’t mean those “before they were famous” or “lead singer’s model/actress girlfriend slides around on top of a car” sort of performances made by the likes of Tawny Kitaen and, well … Tawny Kitaen. We mean the type of celebrity cameo that was only really possible in the early eighties, when no self-respecting famous person would willingly appear in a music video unless he or she either (a) had a movie tie-in to promote or (b) was doing a favor for a friend’s nephew’s buddy. It’s those “b” moments we cherish.
Bangles, “Going down to Liverpool”
Leonard Nimoy played the Bangles’ driver as a favor to his son, who was a college buddy of Susanna Hoffs. Not surprisingly, then, this video is a masterpiece of Awkward Interaction With Your Friend’s Dad, with lots of strained moments, side-eye, and Nimoy pulling “WTF” expressions — all of it, of course, totally sweet in its own way. Plus, at two minutes in, the car stops in a tunnel, and for about twenty seconds, it seems entirely possible that Nimoy has driven the Bangles there to kill them.
Tracey Ullman, “They Don’t Know About Us”
Tracey Ullman was playing a small part in Paul McCartney’s film Give My Regards to Broad Street, so McCartney returned the favor by playing an even smaller part in her video — ten seconds tacked on near the end
(2:45 mark). Blink and you might miss them, except for the way the camera totally zooms in on Paul McCartney’s face. And the way Ullman winks and mugs knowingly to the camera all, “OMG Paul McCartney.” Oh, and the way Paul McCartney appears beneath the word PAUL in huge block letters.
Ratt, “Round and Round”
The random celebrity cameo by which all other random celebrity cameos are judged! Ratt’s manager somehow convinced his uncle, Milton Berle, to star in the video for the band’s first single. Berle showed up on the low-budget set, did the briefest of schticks, and the rest is history. The way Mr. Television and his drag “wife” exit the dinner party at the 1:02 mark, never to return, adds a nicely perplexing touch worthy of a Buñuel film.
DREAM 4: THE DEEP, INEXPLICABLE NEED I DIDN’T KNOW I HAD
Some eighties videos just defy categorizationm but their randomness struck a strange chord within us. You’d watch and suddenly think, Dear Spinning Computer-Graphic Face Made on a Commodore Amiga, where have you been all my life?
Quarterflash, “Harden My Heart”
Music videos became so ubiquitous in the eighties that even by mid-decade, it was hard to remember a world without them. This early gem let you glimpse a world when all a band needed was a fire juggler, a few motorcycles, and a can-do attitude. The first fifteen seconds consists of nothing but the lead singer running down hallways in a leotard, so if you didn’t know what music videos were — and in 1981, you probably didn’t — you might have thought this was an aerobics video gone horribly, unspeakably wrong.
Go West, “We Close Our Eyes”
For those times you thought, But where is the really manly New Wave? Will Britpop ever give us a sweaty, Stanley Kowalski type? Here he is, people. Dancing. With a giant pipe wrench.
Will Powers, “Adventures in Success”
Yes, this was actually on regular rotation on MTV in the early eighties. The video lets you imagine what it must be like to have Laurie Anderson as your life coach. Which is to say, awesome.