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Ian Molly Meldrum


Music Videos



Clip go the years, by Dino Scatena - 26th February 2005
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Dino Scatena eyes the first Countdown and beyond to trace the birth of the Australian music video.

To those of us of the Countdown generation, a culture-defining event took place exactly 30 years ago this week. Literally overnight, on March 1, 1975, like a scene out of The Wizard of Oz, Australian television went colour.

Suddenly, for better or worse, we could see the rainbow of satins in Skyhooks' stage costumes. Young girls across the nation felt as if they could reach through the screen and touch the near life-like tones of Daryl Braithwaite's exposed chest as he crooned: "Summer love, it's like no other love, oooh yeah ..."

The ABC first aired Countdown in late 1974, but it really wasn't until those early months of 1975 that the show exploded in popularity. A by-product of its success was the beginnings of a local music video industry. The launch of MTV in the United States was still six years away.

A month after colour arrived, Paul Drane, a young producer working in the ABC promotions department in Melbourne, was given the job of directing Countdown. By then the original creative team behind the show - Ian "Molly" Meldrum and ABC producers Michael Shrimpton and Rob Weekes - had started experimenting with their own pre-recorded music video sequences to break up the program's live-cum-mimed, studio action.

Some of the earliest examples of such purpose-made music clips included Horror Movie for Skyhooks and Yesterday's Hero for John Paul Young.

"That was the beginning of the idea of being able to do these special sorts of things," Drane recalls. "We couldn't do it every week because it would mean a film shoot, therefore it had an expenditure. We had a very limited budget so I basically had to save up over a period of a few weeks to be able to spend money outside our allocated engineering budget for the live studio shoots. So probably about once a month, once every six weeks, we would do one. The budget for such clips would rarely exceed $100."

Some of Drane's earliest videos stand tall as milestones in Australian pop music, most notably AC/DC's It's a Long Way to the Top (with the band performing on the back of a truck cruising down Melbourne's Swanston Street) and the comically explosive Jailbreak.

"The thing is you could do something like that back then," he says of the Long Way to the Top clip. "You could organise it with the city council and it could be done very quickly. We didn't have to shut the streets down or stop traffic. These days you'd have the street shut down for a day. It would be almost impossible.

"With something like Jailbreak, we put more time into that. It was very much a production film clip. It was planned with the explosions. We had to build a set to blow up. We had to get special-effects people in, Bon [Scott] getting shot in the back and all that. They started to evolve gradually into bigger productions."

Drane stayed with Countdown until the end of 1976, before going off to become an independent film-clip maker. By that stage, every pop act in the world was producing video clips to accompany the release of singles. Record companies were funding such productions. The music video had made the transition from a television production gimmick into a record company marketing device.

While Countdown undoubtedly made the music-video format famous in Australia, it obviously didn't invent the art form. British and US artists had been toying with conceptual and performance-based video clips to accompany their studio recordings for decades. There are also several early Australian examples dating from the mid-'60s, such as the Loved Ones' clip for their hit single The Loved One and, a bit later, Daddy Cool's silly little film about doing the Eagle Rock.

Countdown can't even lay claim to being the first Australian music program to produce in-house music videos. That kudos goes to its main competitor, Channel Seven's Sounds Unlimited, created by former radio announcer Graham Webb. Donnie Sutherland came in as the host on the very same Saturday morning that television turned colour. Previously, from February 1974, Webb had fronted a Sydney-only, Saturday morning video-clip program - possibly the first of its type in the world - called the Sat Today Show. Webb had come up with the idea of a television show made up entirely of video clips while travelling through Europe. Over there, new bands such as Abba were producing short videos specifically for export.

When Webb's show first went to air, his entire video clip library consisted of 25 songs. "I couldn't get clips for the songs that I wanted on air," Webb says. "One of them in particular was Everybody's Talkin by Harry Nilsson. Of course, there was nothing around for it."

Webb asked a young chap who was working in Seven's newsroom to go out and shoot some random footage to accompany the song. That young man just happened to be Russell Mulcahy, the director who would go on to redefine the limits of the video-clip medium for the MTV generation.

"He had a camera and he loved doing filming," Webb says. "And I said, 'Will you go out and film some background for this song?' Which he did. He got $85 for his job."

For his part, Mulcahy didn't need any more encouragement. He soon gave up work at the station to become a full-time video-clip maker. "The industry started off with me and a friend, who was a cameraman, in a Holden with a tripod and a 16-millimetre camera, just driving around and doing these crazy videos for no money," Mulcahy says.

"I think the first rock videos I did was with a company called Wizard Records, for bands like Hush and Marcia Hines. And then I went on and did AC/DC etc. We'd be in Paddington Town Hall with Hush and drag queens dancing around them. There were no rules."

By 1976, Mulcahy was in London making clips for English acts. Within a couple of years, record companies were flying him around the world to produce music videos for all manner of pop artists. On August 1, 1981, one of Mulcahy's clips, the Buggles' Video Killed The Radio Star, was used to launch MTV in the US.

Mulcahy spent the '80s producing big-budget videos for many of the world's biggest pop stars, from the Rolling Stones to Elton John, Spandau Ballet to Ultravox. He had creative licence to be as absurd and abstract as he wanted. Undoubtedly, his most audacious work came with the many clips he produced for Duran Duran.

Back in Australia during that time, other young directors, such as Alex Proyas and Richard Lowenstein, were also becoming internationally renowned video-clip experts. All three men are now full-time feature film directors.

Mulcahy, for example, hasn't made a video-clip since 1994. Even with all the money in the world, the medium, as a creative outlet, has its limitations.

Since the early days of Countdown and Sounds Unlimited, music-video clips and music video clip programs have become as ubiquitous a part of broadcasting as news bulletins. Aside from what appears on commercial television, there are now six 24-hour-a-day music stations available through pay TV. For a long time, it's been difficult to differentiate music video clips from television adverts. They are, after all, one and the same.

In Australia, the budgets granted by record companies for music clips are a fraction of what is spent on artists overseas. For generations of local film-clip makers, ingenuity rather than money has always been the key to their craft.

And, every now and again, the results are world class. Michael Spiccia, a Sydney director, plans to head to the US in search of bigger budgets. In recent years, the 27-year-old - who also makes television commercials - has produced some epic clips, by local standards. Most recently he filmed a $160,000 video for the Delta Goodrem single Mistaken Identity.

"Your average video budget in Australia is between $30,000 and $50,000," Spiccia says. "The ironic thing is that in the advertising world $160,000 is piddly, it's nothing. In America and European countries, there still seems to be a respectable bracket for music video budgets for the top-end pop stars. Someone like Britney [Spears] wouldn't be looking at any less than $1 million. Unfortunately, we never see that kind of light down here."

The inaugural MTV Australia Video Music Awards, hosted by the Osbournes, will be held at Luna Park on Thursday.