By Robert Barry
In April 2005, less than a year before shooting their own debut film Electroma, the French electronic group Daft Punk directed themselves in a video for the song ‘Robot Rock’, from their third album, Human After All. The video finds Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo in black leather and robot masks performing on a dark, neon-lit stage resembling somewhat the sets for the BBC’s flagship pop music show Top of the Pops in the late eighties. Surrounding the stage, a plethora of small old-style cathode ray televisions show constantly modulating patterns of multicoloured diamond shapes, changing in time to the music. In keeping with the retrograde feel of the track – it features a prominent sample from American funk band Breakwater’s 1980 track ‘Release the Beast’ – these TVs are employing a device from an oft-forgotten chapter in the story of video’s long romance with pop music.
There is a kind of whig history of the music video in which early performance based clips, such as Jan & Dean’s ‘Surf City’ on the Pacific Coast Highway and the minimalist cool of The Animals’ sound-studio set for ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, give way to a burst of creativity which starts with The Beatles and explodes with MTV and Michael Jackson. It is a seductive narrative, and not uncoincidentally one that neatly dovetails with the rock heritage mag lists of the great classic albums. But in order to understand some of the more interesting fringe pursuits in the history of music video – not to mention seeking innovative possibilities for the future – it may be worth expanding our narrative to recognise pop videos as one node in an assemblage of audio-visual hook-ups that would include Italian operas, Looney Tunes cartoons, Busby Berkeley musicals, ‘Scopitones’ visual jukeboxes, and the technology employed by Daft Punk for the ‘Robot Rock’ video, the Atari Video Music system.
According to a story, told by former Atari games designer, Al Alcorn, to Video Games magazine in 1982, and subsequently passed into legend: when Atari first showed the Video Music machine to their distributors at Sears Roebuck & Co., the suits asked – rhetorically, one presumes – what exactly they had been smoking. By way of response, one of the Atari techs obligingly lit up a joint and offered it to them.
Consisting of a brushed metal plate and wood panel sides, the box looked innocuous enough – rather like an old stereo amplifier. But when hooked up between a sound system and a TV set it would generate a unique whirl of psychedelic patterns based on the rhythms and structures of the music played into it.
Released in 1976 to an unimpressed American audience, the Atari Video Music never took off, and within a year it was off the shelves and consigned to the dustbin of history. But the members of the band Devo must have been one of its few purchasers, for in 1979 the device generated the background for their performance in the video for ‘The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise’ from their second album, Duty Now For the Future. In swimming goggles and a short-sleeved white shirt, singer Mark Mothersbaugh yells into a Shure SM58 microphone while the Video Music’s distinctive rainbow polygons jitter and jive on a black background behind him.
Lately, Mothersbaugh’s music has been found on the soundtrack to a number of video games, from Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter to The Sims 2. Meanwhile, the legacy of the Atari Video Music can be seen in the kind of visualisation software included as standard in computer audio players like Winamp and iTunes. Many of these programs – from 1988’s Trip-a-Tron for the Atari ST to 2006’s TronMe – seem to me inspired by the 1982 science fiction film, recently rebooted as Tron: Legacy, with music by Daft Punk.
While such devices remain pretty primitive, scarcely more sophisticated than the Atari original but without its vintage charm, they nonetheless hold out the promise of a future in which unique and interesting music videos with a range of user-defined specifications are created automatically by a sort of artificial intelligence every time you plug a track into the system. One possible future of the music video, then, is the end of the music video.