Exploring the History of the First Music Videos

I am a sucker for a good music video. I don’t think that I’m alone in expressing this opinion– I’m not rebuilding the wheel here in terms of music journalism– but I do believe that music videos are such a normal part of modern music that we take them for granted. As if I didn’t have enough to do during this Halloween week, I go out and research music videos. My grades might suffer, but my loyalty to The Crescent is never-ending. 

In terms of history, music videos were somewhat inevitable as progressing technology made it more and more possible to marry music and video together. And why wouldn’t you? A visual side dish to your musical main? It simply made sense that you would then get people calling to come to the feast. A music video signifies more than simply a visual representation of a song, but instead a time capsule of a certain period and its values, culture, and visual aesthetic. 

But who created this phenomenon? Who started this visual medium that has award shows in its name and hungry eyes feasting on its visual majesty? Like all restaurants in Philadelphia that sell obscure sandwiches, many have claimed to be the first and the best, but I’ll be the judge of that. Music videos have a complex beginning, and you can credit many for their rise in popularity.

I think we would be doing a disservice to the medium if we didn’t first define what constitutes a proper music video, at least in terms of this article. As we know, early forms of film could technically be considered music videos due to their lack of dialogue and musical accompaniment, but they were not there to allow for the visual representation of the music specifically. For our purposes, we will define music videos as videos for songs used specifically as promotional material, whether that be commercial or not. With that in mind, let’s do some research. 

According to the ever-trustworthy History.com, short films featuring musicians and dancers began to pop up in the 1940s and were able to be viewed through machines in various public places. Not exactly what we’re looking for, but a bit closer to our requirements. But then, suddenly in 1959, the Big Bopper (aka singer-songwriter Jiles Perry Richardson) allegedly coined the term “music video.” Bingo. We are so close I can almost hear the guy.

The Big Bopper, Jiles Perry. Image via NPR.

According to an NPR piece on this topic, The Speek, which is a company specializing in finding and selling rare music videos, stumbled upon a video of the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace, that fits into their– and our– definition of a music video. 

“There’s a painted setting– hand-painted in black and white. At the start of “Chantilly Lace,” someone hands him a phone, which he puts to his ear. So there are props there and a basic setting. “These are the components of today’s modern music video,” says Dave Palmer, a worker for The Speek. That sounds pretty promising. The Big Bopper’s son, J.P. Richardson Jr., claims that his father spoke of “filming records” in the months before his tragic death in a plane crash, which also took the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. This sudden tragedy brought these widespread music video-based dreams to a full stop. Until the Beatles. 

Not to sound like your middle-aged father, but The Beatles are credited with changing everything. The group took the world by storm through their music, and then subsequently began to film promotional video after promotional video for their songs. Through these videos, we can see the concept of the modern music video begin to take shape. While they were generally just the Beatles doing a staged performance of the song over a playback, hilarity ensued, and aesthetic choices were taken in order to keep audiences watching. I’m not saying that The Beatles were the first people to just film some men with instruments and call it a music video, but it is undeniable that their widespread popularity helped skyrocket the idea of the promotional music video into the mainstream. It’s also impossible to ignore the more artistic elements of their videos, such as the video for Paperback Writer, which was filmed in a lush garden and in color, to make it even more visually appealing. The Beatles also put out A Hard Day’s Night, which many say is just a feature film-length music video, as a general plot is hard to find and its ultimate job is to promote the record. Richard Lester, the film’s director has also been credited for basically inventing this new medium of musical promotion. By the mid-1960s, bands from the Bee Gees to The Monkees were producing these similar promotional videos and creating a time capsule of culture as they did so.

That’s enough about the history of the Beatles (I extend my formal apologies to the Tulane history department). According to my detective skills, which is just Googling various buzzwords in my dorm at 3 am, people give way too much credit to MTV. But even MTV’s history is a little muddled. Mike Nesmith, known for his work on the hit 1960s television show The Monkees, debuted his music video for his song Rio in 1977, which some cite as the first true music video. It was not just simply footage of Nesmith playing his song, it was instead a narrative, an art piece to visually accompany the music. While many acts before him produced videosX for their songs– including The Monkees themselves– Nesmith is recognized as an early contributor to the style.

MTV finally hit televisions in the early 80s, but shows such as PopClips had already begun to pave the way for music-based television. I believe that the popularity and televised stronghold that MTV had in the US did spur a kind of music video renaissance if you will, but there would be no Music Television if there was not first the content to be housed on such a platform. Hot take, I guess.

I don’t know what “SuperCable” is but I want it. Image via Reddit.

I scoured the forums because the people who would have opinions on this idea can generally be found there. The general consensus online is that Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965) was the first music video in the way that we would classify them today. The video consists of Dylan standing in an alleyway, showing cue cards of the lyrics as life happens behind him. There are clear aesthetic choices within the video, not just a performance of the song, and it feels like it’s there more as art, not simply something to send out to promoters. 

Others online credit Queen’s ever-popular Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) as being the first commercially successful video. It’s so obviously dripping with aesthetic intent that it’s impossible to not call it a music video, but I would argue that aesthetic music videos were already in full swing by this time. So, just to recap: The Big Bopper, but also The Beatles, but we can’t forget Bob Dylan, and it might be Queen, but maybe Mike Nesmith. The fun of it all is that you can decide whichever one your little heart pleases. That’s the fun of topics that have no exact beginning. 

You want more of my opinion, you say? Personally, I think we should not take into account any music videos released before the masterpiece that was One Direction’s Best Song Ever video in 2013. I mean, come on people, it’s in the title.

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