Day 885: Video Predates The Radio Star

originally published June 3, 2014

Now a haven for reality shows and programming that has little or nothing to do with anything resembling music, MTV was once the go-to station for the ubiquitously 80’s art form known as the music video. But flipping one’s video rolodex back to the Buggles singing “Video Killed The Radio Star” is hardly an act of embracing the retro when it comes to the timeline of the music video.

You’ll have to travel farther back still than the pre-taped lip-sync videos the Beatles sent in to the Ed Sullivan Show when they no longer wanted to contend with the manic theater crowds to appear live. No, the music video is literally about as old as the medium of film itself.

As with any conceptual progress in the medium of film, the music video had to be squeezed through the skinny tube of innovation, and a quizzical defining of its language. But make no mistake – the music video was always about the music. In particular, about selling the music. Of course, in the beginning it wasn’t sex and sweat and slow-motion twerking that sold the music; it was the technology itself. This was some pretty sophisticated stuff.

In 1894, a button salesman/lyricist named Edward B. Marks and a necktie salesman/pianist named Joseph W. Stern teamed up to write a song called “The Lost Little Child.” It was a cute little folk story about a policeman finding a lost child who turns out to belong to his estranged wife who once traded a donkey to Grover Cleveland for a magic whistle that could summon Poseidon inside a special thimble she’d wear in her hair, but only on Tuesdays when the barometer displayed a curious lack of humidity. Or something – I haven’t actually listened to the entire thing. The point is, music promoter George H. Thomas knew how to sell this thing.

The idea was to use a stereopticon (pictured above) to show a slide show against the curtain in Brooklyn’s Amphion Theater before the play, using the two lenses to dissolve between photos that would tell the narrative of the song while it played. Partly thanks to Thomas’s marketing ploy, “The Lost Little Child” was a certifiable hit, selling more than two million copies of the sheet music. This was the first music video, though at the time the gimmick was marketed as an ‘illustrated song.’

There was no record industry back then, but sheet music sales kept the music industry afloat. At least ten thousand theaters in America were showing illustrated songs before silent films, sometimes during the elaborate reel changes. The point was certainly to keep the audience entertained, but more important to the medium’s creators was getting folks hooked on the songs and buying the sheet music. Even after the advent of home-based record players and radio – even as late as 1937 when color movies were just beginning to emerge – illustrated songs were a hit.

A lot of silent film stars got their start as models for illustrated song photos, from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor. By the 1940’s, advances in technology had produced a new way to push the knuckles of music promotion deeper into the soft flesh of our everyday lives. No longer would we need to venture to a dark theater to be exposed to these visual ads for the latest hits. Now we could enjoy them while dining out.

They were called soundies: three-minute films, often with dance sequences, set to whatever song was being promoted. But rather than display the latest Jimmy Dorsey, Doris Day or Gene Krupa tune for movie-goers, they’d show up on a Panoram, which was a kind of film jukebox. You’d head to your local restaurant, nightclub, bar or amusement park and plunk in a quarter to watch people get their polka groove on to that Lawrence Welk hit you’ve been adoring on your radio because it was the 1940’s and maybe you liked really bland, shitty music.

In 1941, companies began fusing music with actual filmed narrative, adding the likes of the Keystone Kops or Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer to goofy little stories set to the music. These didn’t catch on – the public preferred to associate their music with watching either the musicians themselves or dancers. The soundies era was significant though, as they gave us some of the only visual recordings of African-American stars like Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner and Moms Mabley. The last of the Panoram soundies was released in 1947. From there, it was time for technology to up the game.

This is the French-invented Scopitone, the next stage of music video evolution. This device was brought to market in the late 1950’s by a company called Cameca, based out of Courbevoie. It spread to West Germany, then to England, and by 1964 it was beginning to make a splash in America. The machines were similar to the original film jukeboxes, but they played 16mm color film. Actual color!

One would imagine that the Scopitone revolutionized the music industry in the 1960’s, but in fact the trend never caught fire, possibly because the most popular artists of the day had no interest in producing films for them. But while you couldn’t pop the visual embodiment of the latest Rolling Stones or Kinks tune on the thing, you could still dial up Neil Sedaka singing “Calendar Girl” or Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” But by the end of the decade, the public lost interest. The Scopitone would never rise above fad status.

While the Panoram and Scopitone were spewing visual popular music into our lives in public, it was the musical short that truly heralded the video age. From the earliest days of sound film, studios would produce little one-reel shorts of the talent they were trying to push into the public’s collective consciousness – Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope and Judy Garland all got their starts this way, as did a number of future stars who wouldn’t gain fame based on their singing skills – people like Humphrey Bogart, George Burns and Cary Grant.

These were filler pieces, meant to be sandwiched between previews and newsreels between airings of a movie. When TV hit the scene, these shorts could pad the back end of a 20-minute sitcom.

The Beatles may have invented the conceptual-art style of the music video when they poured paint on a piano and leapt backwards into trees for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video, but the art form itself is downright ancient. It has most certainly been improved upon over the last 120 years, though I firmly believe we’ve passed the music video’s apex, which occurred somewhere around the creation of this masterpiece:

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