homesick blues

#12: "Street Spirit," Radiohead



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Rank: 12
Artist: Radiohead
Title: Street Spirit
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Year: 1996

Not to make excuses, but I have a reason why this one was so delayed: for probably the last time in this list, I don't know what to say. Part of the problem is that the clip itself is an embarrassment of riches, and part of it is that Jonathan Glazer is one of a minority of directors of whom you can say, "There's no one else like him," and not be able to explain why. In the end, it all comes down to that nebulous concept of "mood": easy to say, hard to pin down. If a director gets the mood right, he can come away with a transcendent work of art; if he gets it wrong, you want to stab his eyes out with something pointy. (Go and YouTube search for the Keef-directed clip for Kate Bush's "Army Dreamers" for an example of a royally screwed-up attempt. I still have a hit out on this Keef guy.) In the case of "Street Spirit," I think I can count on one hand the number of videos that can even remotely compare in terms of mood evocation, shaping the images into deep breaths of sad longing just as the band did with the music. And he pulls it off on all levels. Cinematography? Stark black-and-white. Lighting? Sharp contrast. Setting? An aging trailer park, of the chrome-and-rounded-corners era, in the dead of some god-forsaken night, lightning approaching. Special effects? As simple as could be, all slow-motion and superimposition—perhaps ordinary and gimmicky anywhere else, but when combined with that black and white, harsh flare and deep shadow, it comes out ethereal and haunting. Choice of images? Ahh, here's where Glazer shines. It's almost as if he wanted to prove that the old clichés could still work: horses, falling bodies, night insects, blood, snarling dogs, all done before, and yet all made as fresh as new. And heavens, those dancers, captured as if they've leapt from the pages of a Lois Greenfield coffee table book, making me catch my breath every time. I don't know why Radiohead has such a knack of finding just the right directors every time, but they do. For a band with a career's worth of exceptional videos, this one is their best.
homesick blues

#13: "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Bob Dylan



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Rank: 13
Artist: Bob Dylan
Title: Subterranean Homesick Blues
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Year: 1965

Try to look surprised, folks. I've heard some parties identify "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as the first music video ever, which it wasn't—the films prepared for Scopitone TV jukeboxes date back to 1960, and there were plenty of theatrical shorts made even earlier that would certainly qualify. (I've even heard arguments placing Disney's Fantasia at the head of the line, a claim that's not entirely without basis.) And of course, it wasn't really intended as a "music video" at all; it was filmed in the alley behind London's Savoy Hotel as a segment for Pennebaker's documentary Dont Look Back [sic], and was used as the trailer for its 1967 release. Yet in an odd way, the "first music video ever" claims have it right, in that this was the first clip to demonstrated the music video attitude: cheeky, self-parodying, stripped-down, and edgier that most people remember, the stuff that would someday make MTV (in)famous. Moreover, it's arguable the most iconic video ever filmed. Think about it: it came out at a time when there was no distribution resource at all for music videos, and yet, I can't think of a video that has been copied, parodied, paid homage to, or otherwise referenced as much as this one. The concept (imagined by Dylan himself) of a stack of cue cards hitting (more or less) the bullet points of the lyrics—with or without Allen Ginsburg and Bob Neuwirth skulking about in the background—is easy to take for granted now, and even easier to have its brilliance overlooked. It is so, so simple, and yet funny, pointed, instantly recognizable, and infinitely adaptable, as has been proven by parodists and admirers ranging from INXS (in their almost-made-this-list clip for "Need You Tonight/Mediate") to Weird Al Yankovic to Les Claypool to the Flaming Lips to Tim Robbins (in Bob Roberts) to the ad men at Maxell. I think I realized just how ingrained in our collective cultural memory "Subterranean Homesick Blues" really is when I saw a commercial for an online dating service in Knoxville, Tennessee that was filmed in an alley, with a folkish song playing, and a woman holding up one cue card after another. I thought, My God, it's more than four decades later, and the Dr. Phil crowd still knows it on sight. Truly one for the ages, and deservedly so.
homesick blues

#14: "Come Into My World," Kylie Minogue



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Rank: 14
Artist: Kylie Minogue
Title: Come Into My World
Director: Michel Gondry
Year: 2002

It is no small measure of Michel Gondry's genius that he got me to watch a Kylie Minogue video more than once. One of Gondry's greatest assets is the fact that he was a rock drummer before he was a video director (his first clips were for his own band, Oui-Oui). Because he has a good ear for music in general and rhythm in particular, he's able to pick out musical abstractions and interpret them in concrete visual forms. Sometimes this talent is quite overt, as in his clips for the Chemical Brothers' "Star Guitar," the White Stripes' "The Hardest Button to Button" and Daft Punk's "Around the World" [q.v.], but it often manifests itself in more subtle ways. For example, when he listened to "Come Into My World," he noticed that it conformed to a consistent cycle: the chorus always turned up at regular, rigid intervals, regardless of whether the intervening space was filled with a verse, or an instrumental, or whatever. So, since the song basically loops back upon itself, so does the video. Gondry set up a motion-control camera in the middle of a French intersection, set up to follow the more-or-less simple circular path that Kylie would walk, past a meter maid, a poster hanger, an angry girlfriend throwing her beau's stuff out the window, a girl jumping across concrete posts, and so on. A full circuit only takes a minute, though, and it's at the top of lap #2 that he throws us a curve by cuing up lap #1 again, and overlapping the two, so that at the same time she walks past the door she came out of at the beginning, we see her coming out exactly as she had in the first place. This alone would be pretty cool—the moment when Kylie[minus 1 minute] drops her purse and Kylie[now] picks it up would alone be enough to get it on this list—but Gondry decided to go gonzo with the plan and double everyone: two meter maid, two poster hangers, etc. But lap #2 only lasts a minute more, and as she begins on lap #3 the director overlaps the scene from the beginning again, leaving with three Kylies (and three meter maids, and...), all at roughly one-minute intervals. by the fourth lap, the streets are getting horribly crowded; probably the most amazing thing about the video is the fact that there's never a time when two bodies try to occupy the same space at the same time. (Of course, the two days of rehearsal and the countless weeks of post-production helped a lot.) It's all classic Gondry how-the-hell-did-he-do-that fare, and I've never gotten tired of it. Just wait 'til you see what happens when she swings around the pole the second, then the third, then the fourth time, and you'll be addicted, too.
homesick blues

#15: "Stinkfist," Tool



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Rank: 15
Artist: Tool
Title: Stinkfist
Director: Adam Jones
Year: 1996

Yes, I know that this entry is long overdue. Part of that's because I've been absurdly busy, but part of it's also because I keep thinking about the One That Got Away. I mentioned in the introductory entry to this project that I was hoping to track down a copy of the Brothers Quay-directed clip for "Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)" by Michael Penn; sadly, after much research, I've come to the conclusion that nobody has it. (The closest I've come is two teensy little QuickTime files kept here, if you'd care to squint at what you're missing.) The Quays' kitchen-sink avant-WTF stop-motion animation style was all the rage in the mid-90's, and when combined with the quirky, moody acoustic sound of Penn's single, it made for truly compelling viewing that leaves me heartbroken that I can't include it. But just as director Jan Svankmeier's weird animation and puppetry influenced the Brothers Quay, the Brothers themselves kick-started a thousand imitators, most notably Tool guitarist Adam Jones, who directed all of his band's videos. Jones pulled off the difficult task of crafting an entire video look for the band based around the dark and the strange without a single band member in sight, and did so amazingly well. Earlier Tool videos like the animation-based "Prison Sex" wore their Quayish leanings on their sleeves, but "Stinkfist" set out for new live-action territory with all disturbing darkness intact. The director started with ordinary people and recognizable artifacts from our world—a telephone, a TV, tables and chairs—but pushed them forcibly into the surreal by covering everything, living or not, with a silver-blue powder that rendered it all anonymous and unsettling. (The powder technique had been used prior to that, but never on human beings; the producers found out later that it was in fact rather toxic.) He then used these images to create a world like ours, only turned on its head: iron nails for meals, visual static for entertainment, our secret fears and neuroses turned tangible as grotesque amputees, creatures and machines. The "metaphoric" knob has been cranked up to 10, the "dark" knob to 11, and the "creepy" knob up to somewhere about 37. Frankly? It'd give the Brothers Quay the heebie-jeebies.
homesick blues

#16: "The Scientist," Coldplay



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Rank: 16
Artist: Coldplay
Title: The Scientist
Director: Jamie Thraves
Year: 2002

What interesting timing: just yesterday, while I was pondering what to write in today's post, I happened upon a sidebar in the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly all about backward videos, presenting some thoughts and sentiments similar to mine. The thing most on my mind about "The Scientist" is this: Gimmicks are wonderful things (and I'm a sucker for 'em), but in the end they're just gimmicks. Take the concept of taping in reverse, with the artist lip-synching everything backward so that it all matches up in the end. Spike Jonze broke this ground with his clip for the Pharcyde's "Drop" [q.v.], which was a fun, engrossing and well-made little piece of video. That said, though, there's not really anything beyond that retrograde conceit, beyond hey-wow-that's-really-cool. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that—"Drop" appears on this list for a very good reason—but at some point, someone's going to come along and say, "And?" In this case, the "And?" came from Jamie Thraves, who answered his own question this way: What if a backward video could also sustain a narrative? That would mean we'd be starting at the end of the story and working back in time, right? Well, what story would you tell that way? The sly part is that he doesn't let on to the viewer that there's a narrative at all, or at least not at first. We get the usual kicky, splashy stuff like singer Chris Martin "falling" into an upright position, and a basketball game with weird inverse physics (I think there's a bylaw that requires a basketball to appear in any backward clip). But there's not nearly as much of it as you'd think, because Thraves is less interested at showing off the technique than putting it to work. As we watch, the video evolves from quirky to lyrical (I love the autumn leaves fluttering to heaven around him), then, surprisingly, from lyrical to mysterious, when we spy the body of a young woman lying in the field. And it's at this point that we realize that all we've seen leads to/from this one point in time, in that startling shot of the girl rising from the ground, amid a galaxy of broken glass, and mysterious shifts inexorably into tragic—all the more so when we see their smiles at the end of the clip, and know that their joy and this perfect autumn day are about to fall apart. "I'm going back to the start," sings Martin, because in light of what we know now, the start is a far better place to be. Stunning. (Plus, it must be noted, Martin lip-synchs in reverse better than anyone.)
homesick blues

#17: "One (Jammin' Version)," Metallica



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Rank: 17
Artist: Metallica
Title: One (Jammin' Version)
Directors: Michael Salomon & Bill Pope
Year: 1989

(My apologies for the long delay....)

One of the most depressing moments I've ever experienced as a music video fanatic came in 1989, when MTV announced the results of a phone-in poll they had recently conducted. The question was, "Which do you prefer: concept videos, or performance videos?" And performance videos won, dag blast it. It wasn't just that my beloved concepts got voted down; the other problem—the big one— was that this took place deep in the middle of the hair-metal craze, when seemingly every video was a concert thing, and every video looked Exactly The Same. The focus was entirely on stage antics: guitar tossing, synchronized hair shaking, stage diving, pyrotechnic hoohah, and enough spandex to shrink-wrap Yugoslavia. The knowledge that MTV's viewers preferred this over what David Fincher and company were doing at the time frankly made me ill. In the middle of all this, however, there was a bit of a stir over the fact that Metallica was breaking their career-long no-videos rule with a clip for their single "One," a video that, yes, was performance-based. But "One" couldn't have been more different from what the Poisonously Warranted Slaughter-Wingers were doing, simply because the directors, Michael Salomon and Bill Pope chose to focus on the band's formidable musical talent, rather than showy posturing that the Marty Callners of the world were making. To this end, they took the band off the stage in put them in a rehearsal space, an empty warehouse, which hadn't been much done before. They shot in high-contrast black-and-white, while simultaneously realizing that "cinematography" means more than "point camera at subject and press green button." And most importantly, they composed their shots according to what would best convey that these are musicians, and gifted ones at that. This meant focusing on guitar and on drums, often to the point of cropping out faces (and when faces are shown, we see sweat and intense concentration instead of lip-licking and Pepsodent smiles). By editing these scenes together with longer shots that show the band wailing away without so much as a thought about the camera, we are led to feel less like an audience and more like, well, their guests. The band released three different versions of the video, including the most famous one, which incorporated scenes from the antiwar film Johnny Got His Gun, the inspiration for the song. But it's the "Jammin' Version" that may be the quintessential performance video, the one that set the standard for the next decade. (And make sure you catch the brief interview at the end—it seems I'm not alone on the hair metal thing.)
homesick blues

#18: "Hurt," Johnny Cash



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Rank: 18
Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: Hurt
Director: Mark Romanek
Year: 2002

The first time around, I must confess, I didn't watch it. "Hurt," the clip that would be Johnny Cash's last, had been picked up by VH1 on heavy rotation when it first came out, but I always flipped away—the man's voice had faded to a whisper of its former glory, and it was difficult to listen to. I didn't know at the time why it had gone into rotation in the first place. I didn't know that Cash had agreed to work with Mark Romanek on the advice of his producer and good friend Rick Rubin, who said that he "trusts this guy completely." I didn't know that Romanek had arrived at Cash's home with no idea of what his video would contain, and only a few days to prepare and film. And I didn't know that between Cash's eternal directness and candor and Romanek's gifted eye, they would create a work that dares to examine the singer's age, his failing health, his very mortality, by showing us both the vibrant young man we all remember and the old man with frail voice and shaking hands he had become. No, it wasn't until almost a year later, after Cash had passed away on September 12, 2003, when the TV stations began playing the clip again in tribute, that I was able to watch it in its entirety. I don't think I've ever walked away from a music video as thunderstruck as I was after "Hurt," a relentless, unflinching reprisal of an enormous legacy, solidified into just a few minutes of video. Most of us hope to receive a eulogy with even a fraction of its power. Very, very few of us ever will.
homesick blues

#19: "From Your Mouth," God Lives Underwater



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Rank: 19
Artist: God Lives Underwater
Title: From Your Mouth
Director: Roman Coppola
Year: 1998

When it comes to concepts behind music videos, I don't normally recommend staunch literalism. I mean, the basis for your video shouldn't be the title alone—otherwise, the clip for "Sledgehammer" would've consisted of five minutes of guys smashing stuff. I am, however, willing to make exceptions, especially if Roman Coppola is running the show. The song is called "From Your Mouth," and...well, I'm sure you can draw some conclusions before I even start talking. Like Spike Jonze's work on "Weapon of Choice" [q.v.], this video lives and dies by its casting; I doubt this would have worked with anyone else on the screen. The young man in question is Hirofumi Nakajima, who at the time was the record-holder at the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York. His presence is absolutely essential to the success of this clip, not only because of his ability to consume large quantities of food quickly (he's seated in front of a banquet of everything from sardines to watermelon to ice cream to, yes, hot dogs), but to do so very smoothly, one bite following another in close succession, so that you hardly notice that the footage is being played backward. Oh, did I mention? The clip is in reverse, so that each bite he takes, he seems to untake, thus reconstructing the banana, the broccoli, and so on, nibble by nibble, seemingly making the food materialize from, yes, his mouth. In short, we're basically watching this skinny kid pull a full four-course dinner out of his maw in a single long uninterrupted shot. (Unconfirmed rumor has it that this was his sixth take, no less.) Some people get hideously squicked by it, but there's no reason why they should. Personally, I find it hysterical, and well-constructed besides, especially when the camera pans back at the end for a surprising bit of visual closure. It's a good thing I had lunch BEFORE I typed this....
homesick blues

#20: "Ava Adore," The Smashing Pumpkins



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Rank: 20
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Title: Ava Adore
Director: Dom & Nic
Year: 1998

At long, long last, we reach the top 20. And yet I am faced with a quandary: I must somehow deal with the fact that I've placed a video in the top 20 on the basis of fifteen seconds of footage; furthermore, those 15 seconds are the direct result of a single small directorial choice by Dominic Hawley and Nick Goffey, a.k.a. Dom & Nic. The concept behind the clip for "Ava Adore" is old and time-tested: the camera pans sideways in an uninterrupted take from one room to another, from one scene to anothers, until these rooms and scenes in some way add up to their own narrative. As I said, not the most original idea ever—it's been used by everyone from Elton John to the Monkees to the parties responsible for the opening credits to A Different World—and not something I'd normally be in a tizzy over. Granted, the conceit is handled impeccably here, with art direction owing more than a little to Federico Fellini in its decadence and (yes, I'll say it) freakiness, which for once fits in nicely with Billy Corgan's Nosferatu-meets-Oscar-Wilde stage persona. That alone would put this video in the running for this list, maybe even putting it as high as 50 or so. But then there's that directorial decision and those 15 seconds I mentioned earlier, and I cannot overstate how gobsmacked this left me when I first saw it. The rooms, you see, aren't all in a single row, but in two rows facing each other, as if they wanted to conserve space for some reason. This means that the camera, upon reaching the end of row 1, must either cut or turn around to face row 2. Assuming we don't want to cut, the easy solution is to build a suitably spectacular wraparound set at the end, and use that as the pivot point for the turn. The stroke of genius is that they don't do that. Instead, they let the camera swing around 180° the other way, back the way we came. So at the pivotal moment (pun only somewhat intended), we see the current room, then the room we just left, the room before that, the dolly track that holds the camera (!!), the film crew, the stage lighting, all the rooms we haven't even been to yet....and then suddenly we're back to Billy as if nothing had happened. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, indeed. When dealing with a surrealistic video like "Ava Adore," we depend on the suspension of disbelief to appreciate the art. With that one decision and that one turn, Dom & Nic take that suspension and stick a pitchfork in it. A brief moment, a small detail, but one that makes every difference in the world.
homesick blues

#21: "Closer," Nine Inch Nails



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Rank: 21
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: Closer
Director: Mark Romanek
Year: 1994

This shouldn't have worked. There are plenty of reasons why: Oh, here's another shock-value attention getter. Oh, here's another Mark Romanek-sponsored game of Name That Homage ("let's see, that shot's from Joel Peter Witkin, that shot's from....") But Romanek has made a career of taking unworkable ideas and making something extraordinary out of them. What sets "Closer" so many miles above most of the other self-consciously cringe-inducing epater les bourgeois-type clips (and don't worry, I promise I'll never use French again) is the director's understanding that for shock imagery to have any lasting effect, it must all add up to something. Anton Corbijn understood that as well when making "Heart-Shaped Box" [q.v.], a video with a similar impact, but here, Romanek goes pig's-head-and-cow's-shoulders above the bar. He has a gifted eye for images that will startle and unsettle, but not repel; in this veritable freak show, he manages to utilize the obscene, the blasphemous, the profane, the scatological, the taboo, the kinky, the sadistic, the grotesque, the bizarre and the just plain icky, and do so without pushing the whole enterprise over the line to the unwatchable. There again, we come back to the idea of the cohesive whole. His decision to bathe everything in sepia-tone was a brilliant one: it not only ties things together that would otherwise be difficult to connect, but it removes the whole film from our time and space, leaving us disoriented. Combined with expert Cuisinart editing, the use of century-old technology and printed materials, and the inch of dust and cobwebs that covers the entire video, we are left with the sense of old secrets, of old primal fears, of back rooms in abandoned houses filled with things we were never meant to see. Over a decade later, "Closer" still knocks the wind out of me.

(Note: The linked video is the complete unedited director's cut, the one MTV wouldn't touch with a ten-foot cattle prod. If you've not seen it, this is your chance to catch the full frontal nudity, the gynecological illustrations, and the crucified monkey that were hiding behind those "SCENE MISSING" placards. No, you don't want to watch this at work, thank you.)