If there’s one person whose grasp on music and image defined the 1980s and the dawn of the music video, then that person has to be Steve Barron. He’s just published his autobiography Egg’n’chips & Billie Jean – A Trip through the eighties. It’s a fantastic read about a man who got to work with some of the biggest names in music – Michael Jackson, Madonna, David Bowie and Paul McCartney, to name but four, and created iconic, groundbreaking videos. By the end of the 1980s he was working on his second film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was to become the first independent film to gross over $100 million dollars. It’s an excellent read – and bolstered by the fact that there’s a wonderful sense of ‘I still can’t believe this happened!’ running right through the book. Here he talks to 17 Seconds about his memories of Adam Ant as a school prefect, and how hamburgers helped publicise music videos before MTV…
17 Seconds: Before you started making videos, you worked on several films as a camera assistant, including A Bridge Too Far and Superman. What are your memories of working on these films – and how did this lead to you making music videos?
Steve Barron: I remember as a teenager buying my first car from the cash I earned as a clapper loader — it was a second-hand ford corsair – 75 quid — I packed a load of luggage for a big trip to Holland working on A Bridge Too Far — the car conked out when I reached the hotel car park – it sat there for the first 6 months. I woke up one day and they’d dug a trench for a pipe and made it dog-leg around the car — I don’t know why thats relevant.
17 Seconds: The first music video you directed was The Jam’s ‘Strange Town’ (my favourite song by The Jam, by the way). What was your brief when you were making music videos in the late seventies? Was it easier or harder without MTV (never mind YouTube!) as a medium to get the video across?
SB: The videos would rarely get shown because there were no shows that looked to play them. Bands had to do top of the pops live or they probably wouldn’t get on [in 1979 there was no MTV in the US and there were only three TV channels in the UK].After The Jam’s ‘Strange Town’ it all went quiet. I tried selling hamburgers for a few nights at a mod club in Charing Cross. took a projector one night and played the crowd Strange town on 16mm on the wall. The kids went mad. Kept asking to see it again. I had to keep racking the film reel – again and again – didn’t sell many hamburgers!!
17 Seconds: You mention in the book at you went to the same school [St. Marylebone Grammar School] as Adam Ant, who you directed ‘Antmusic’ for. What are your memories of him at school?
SB: I remember Stuart [Goddard, Ant’s real name] in school – he looked very grown up and sophisticated with his wire frame specs. He was a prefect, too. They were scary. A year older seemed like an eternity.
17 Seconds: When a video that you had directed the video for went to no.1 in the charts, did that feel like your no.1 too?
SB: No, it didn’t really feel like mine. It felt like ours, like our gang had done something good. Something famous. The first one was the best one -The Jam ‘Going Underground’ — seeing those white limbo studio images that we had actually filmed just a few weeks ago in a tiny studio with cameras and lights and Eastman colour and lunch and we had actually got proper crew to show up and work for us and take it seriously and who then gave us invoices that we could count and pay- and here it was on the telly in the middle of the evening looking like nothing else on telly in the middle of the evening. They actually played it! They had to play it. It was number one.
SB: Your ground-breaking video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ is often credited with breaking the ‘colour bar’ on MTV. Was this something that as a director based in England (Where MTV wouldn’t come for several years) impacted on you?
SB: I had no idea MTV might say no to ‘Billie Jean.’ It was a pop video of a pop song. A brilliant pop song. What’s to say no to? Seemed weird. Stupid .
17 Seconds: A-ha’s video for ‘Take On Me’ was another classic that you directed. How long did you have to work on the video for? Is it true the video cost £100,000 – which in those days would have bought a house in much of the UK!)?
SB: Yeah it was 100 grand budget – to do a proper animated vid! And more importantly we had as much time as we needed to make it – except that after four months they wanted it NOW! And there’s still a version on VH1 and Youtube that they bloody made me give them two weeks before we bloody finished!
17 Seconds: Is there a video that is your favourite above all?
SB: Fatboy Slim – Christopher Walken — great vid [‘Weapon Of Choice,’ directed by Spike Jonze].
17 Seconds: You had a fantastic eighties, from the sound of it in the book. Did you feel that people were unnecessarily harsh about it in the nineties when there was a major backlash against it and it was seen as the decade that time forgot?
SB: I wasn’t listening
17 Seconds: Which other music video directors do you admire?
SB: Spike Jonze, Russell Mulcahy – anybody who takes risks.
17 Seconds: The book finishes in 1990. After the battles you had trying to make Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will you write a second volume to let us know what happened next?
SB: Only by popular demand! Ha!!
17 Seconds: What music are you currently listening to? Do you ever see yourself making another music video?
SB: Milky Chance, Micah P. Hinson, Holly Cook, Damon Albarn — I’d love to do a video of any of their stuff! It would be great fun! I miss shooting to a melody – when film and music gel perfectly after a challenging slog of a shoot dragging a bunch of gear across muddy fields and trekking halfway up a mountain in the drizzle, there’s no buzz like it. Very little else can make me cry. ‘Oh Iona…’
17 Seconds: Finally, what are your current projects and what are your plans for the future?
SB: Just about to go to India to produce a comedy set in Bangalore in the eighties – very fun project. Am developing two big TV series, one with the BBC is with my mate Danny Kleinman – he came up with a fab idea 25 years ago over a Chicken Bhuna off the bone… fab ideas never die – they just simmer and come to the boil twenty-five years later.
Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: A Trip Through the Eighties is out now