1. Duran Duran, “Girls On Film” (1981)
Recent videos by The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave, and DIIV have gotten some attention online for their liberal use of scantily clad and/or totally nude people, but this isn’t exactly an original tactic when it comes to building buzz around new music. Promotional clips and short performance films had been a little-noted element of the music business for much of the mid-20th century when, in the early ’80s, these mini-movies began getting more play: in nightclubs, on pay-cable channels, and on videocassette. Some artists exploited the medium’s cutting-edge appeal by making videos that ranged from the merely racy to nudity-studded softcore fantasies. Duran Duran’s Godley & Creme-directed “Girls On Film” video is one of the most famous examples of the latter. While the band performs its slinky neo-disco hit, a succession of lingerie-clad models strut down a catwalk into a boxing ring, where they play out sexy scenarios. A busty lady in a see-through top and sumo loincloth flips a wrestler, a gal in a cowboy hat wets down a muscle-bound man in a horse costume, and so on. Duran Duran was still making a name for itself when it shot the “Girls On Film” clip—and was largely unknown in the U.S. at the time—but a shortened, expurgated version became one of the first MTV sensations, and rumors of what might be in the “night version” spread among the channel’s early fans, giving Duran Duran some cachet. Later, the R-rated “Girls On Film” was released on video, to be purchased by parents who had no idea why their teenage sons had put this particular item on their Christmas lists.
2. Soft Cell, “Sex Dwarf” (1981)
Techno-pop duo Soft Cell scored an international hit with its cover of Gloria Jones’ ’60s soul chestnut “Tainted Love,” then built on the sleazy vibe of that single with an entire album about modern decadence, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. The video for that album’s “Sex Dwarf” is over-the-top “wrong,” from its opening images of a nude woman bound to an operating table in a dark dungeon to its shots of provocatively attired men and women groping each other on the floor while a man butchers meat in the background. (And that’s all before the dwarf in S&M gear shows up.) None of this is meant to be taken seriously, but director Tim Pope and the band pushed the joke so far that at the dawn of the modern music video, they delivered a clip just about as shocking as any the medium would later produce.
3. The J. Geils Band, “Centerfold” (1981)
Given how literal most early music videos were, the clip for The J. Geils Band’s puckishly pro-porn “Centerfold” was bound to be a little blue. Sure enough: The chorus of “homeroom angels” in the “Centerfold” video dance around wiry frontman Peter Wolf in fairly revealing negligees, sporting a look that would soon become common in ’80s videos. (See also: ZZ Top’s lingerie-tastic “Legs,” from 1984.) Later, director Paul Justman—brother of the band’s keyboard player Seth, who wrote “Centerfold”—inserts a shot of a drumhead replaced by a milky white substance, which is either a nifty effect or intended as a crude double-entendre. Then the angels, in cheerleader outfits, leap around a trashed gym, in an image eerily similar to Nirvana’s decade-later, decidedly non-sexy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.
4. Olivia Newton-John, “Physical” (1981)
There’s no mistaking Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 dance-pop single “Physical” as anything other a lusty call to carnal pleasure. But for the bulk of the Brian Grant-directed music video, Newton-John is portrayed as some kind of exercise guru, whipping a handful of tubby guys into shape—as though the song were really about health, not copulation. The fantasy sequences on either end of the video bring the song back around, though, as Newton-John imagines her clients transformed into oiled-up hunks in skimpy, bulge-revealing briefs. As she walks among them, stroking their skin and singing about being an “animal,” the video makes the very idea of physical fitness undeniably erotic.
5. The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men” (1982)
Written by Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer—yes, that Paul Shaffer—the novelty single “It’s Raining Men” was a belated disco anthem that returned the genre back to its roots in gay nightclubs, and has become a staple of drag shows and male stripper revues ever since. (More attention has been paid to the Shaffer half of these collaborating Pauls, but Jabara was a remarkable entertainer himself, appearing in groundbreaking Broadway shows and writing several popular songs before he died from AIDS complications in 1992.) For the video, “Weather Girls” Martha Wash and Izora Armstead fantasize about what a man-storm might look like, and while they roll around on a heart-shaped bed, studs in trench coats and Speedos magically appear, twirling and shaking their buns all around the duo. Hallelujah, indeed.
6. Ultravox, “Visions In Blue” (1983)
Reminiscent of the kind of soft-focus Euro-smut that filled out the programming schedule of Cinemax after midnight—the “young girl’s erotic journey from Milan to Minsk” kind—Ultravox’s “Visions In Blue” video combines footage of frontman Midge Ure singing the operatic synth ballad with shots of two ladies from days of old, bathing each other by flickering firelight and riding horses in flowing white dresses. Later, the women change into the costumes of early-20th-century Russia and dance the tango topless, as was the style of… well, not of the time the video was depicting, but definitely of the arthouse fare in the era the video was made.
7. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Relax” (1983)
As much marketing strategy as musical endeavor, Liverpool pop group Frankie Goes To Hollywood was pushed by its label, ZTT, to be provocative, beginning with first single “Relax,” with its not-so-veiled descriptions of screwing and ejaculating. In the age when Prince was a chart-topper, the near-pornographic “Relax” was fairly common Top 40 fare. The twist was that the Frankie frontmen were openly gay, so the erotic imagery of the band’s ads, posters, and records tended toward the shamelessly priapic, rather than the neutered Ken-doll beefcake of “Physical” or “It’s Raining Men.” The original Bernard Rose-directed “Relax” video—banned by the BBC, and pretty much every other TV outlet worldwide—was set in a Fall Of Rome-themed leather bar, where hairy men clutch bananas and wrestle each other while a bloated emperor gets a shave and leers. Beyond merely cheeky, the “Relax” clip celebrates gay lust in a way that still seems radical, and was downright revolutionary amid the homophobic mainstream culture of the mid-’80s.
8. Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy” (1984)
Unlike the smut-for-smut’s-sake of so many ’80s videos, the eroticism of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” serves a larger purpose. Echoing the storyline of the song, the Bernard Rose-directed clip shows lead singer Jimmy Somerville taking a train away from his hometown, reflecting on an incident in which he flirted with a handsome lad in the locker room of a swimming pool, and then was beaten to a pulp for it. The narrative and style of the “Smalltown Boy” video is a lot like the neo-kitchen-sink cinema that was becoming prevalent in the U.K. in the early ’80s (in movies like Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette and Mike Leigh’s Meantime), with a focus on small details, like the hero’s estrangement from his father and the refuge he finds with like-minded friends. But the reason it all works so well is because the central crush isn’t abstract. The small-town boy of “Smalltown Boy” stares longingly at the half-naked body of the diver he fancies, and that sense of impossible want informs all the drama that follows.
9. Madonna, “Like A Virgin” (1984)
Madonna wasn’t yet a professional provocateur when she recorded her self-titled debut album, but by the time her second LP, Like A Virgin, hit, her casually sexy attire and performances had begun to turn her into a style icon, and the subject of concerned commentary about what influence she might be having on the young girls who idolized her. The Mary Lambert-directed “Like A Virgin” video had a lot to do with the mounting outrage. Matching the song’s at once randy and romantic first-person lyrics, the “Like A Virgin” clip has Madonna looking directly into the camera in various Venetian locales, as she either dances joyously or prepares a luxe mansion for her lion-masked lover. The singer’s attire is actually fairly modest—especially in comparison to how raw Madonna would later get—but the impression the video gives is of a woman who is either about to have sex or who is recently post-coital. Whichever the case may be, she’s clearly owning her desire and her pleasure, which itself is a turn-on.
10. Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop” (1984)
Whenever anyone talks about the moral decline of popular culture as if it’s a new thing, that person should be reminded that in 1984, Cyndi Lauper had a Top 5 hit with a song about masturbation, and MTV regularly aired its Edd Griles-directed video, in which Lauper liberates the country from consumer-zombiehood by encouraging the citizenry to jerk off more. And God bless her for that. Whether Lauper’s young fans ever really understood why an animated version of Lauper (drawn by underground cartoonist Mark Marek) is pointing to the “self-service” sign at the gas station, or what the video is trying to say when it shows Lauper winning a game of Uncle Siggy’s (as in Freud’s) “Masterbingo,” the message of the “She Bop” clip was always there subconsciously. Everybody bops.
11. Helix, “Rock You” (1984)
Aping post-Road Warrior post-apocalyptica, the video for Canadian heavy-metal band Helix’s fist-pumping anthem “Rock You” begins with lead singer Brian Vollmer breaking the chains of oppression, and then rockin’ around a bonfire with his best buds and several slicked-up topless women in tribal duds. Quite often in raunchy ’80s music videos, the nudity seemed to be in response to what was in the multiplexes and on late-night cable at the time; with “Rock You,” Helix entered the realm of adult fantasy, even if the band never made it past the first couple of scenes of its sexy epic. At least “Rock You” is more imaginative than the other R-rated video from Helix’s Walkin’ The Razor’s Edge LP: a clip for the band’s cover of the ’60s bubblegum classic “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’” that showed a parade of topless women (including underage porn star Traci Lords) participating in a “Miss Rock Fantasy” pageant.
12. Dwight Twilley, “Girls” (1984)
If Ultravox was borrowing from Emmanuelle and Helix was wandering through the world of Mad Max, then Dwight Twilley’s “Girls” video is pure Porky’s. The clip even re-creates the sexploitation classic’s shower scene, though it offers equal-opportunity prurience. After a group of football players peek in at the cheerleaders’ locker room, the cheerleaders peek right back, watching the beefy men doff their towels and soap up. What’s most odd about the “Girls” video is that it comes from Twilley, a clean-cut Midwestern power-popper known more for being a poor-selling critics’ darling than for being controversial in any way. (Also odd: The song features backup vocals by Tom Petty, whose parts are lip-synched in the clip by a long-haired blonde woman.) But perhaps there was a shrewdness to Twilley’s cashing in on the teen sex-comedy trend: “Girls” would go on to be his biggest hit since his 1975 debut single “I’m On Fire.”
13. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Catholic School Girls Rule” (1985)
At a time when Red Hot Chili Peppers were still building a reputation as drug-addled, party-crazy knuckleheads who loved to get naked onstage, they shot a video for their punky, George Clinton-produced ditty “Catholic School Girls Rule,” and lived up to their reputation for inappropriateness. In addition to the requisite flash of gratuitous toplessness, the Dick Rude-directed clip features frontman Anthony Kiedis pretending to be Jesus on the cross, and ends with a tracking shot through a restroom where priests are getting blowjobs in the stalls. By the time the Peppers made this video, the brief early-’80s flowering of music-video programs on non-MTV channels was starting to wither, but The Playboy Channel was still providing a home for bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were willing to bypass MTV to serve something spicy.
14. Mötley Crüe, “Girls Girls Girls” (1987)
In the second half of the ’80s, MTV had become more a part of the music-business establishment, and while artists still used bare skin and sexual innuendo as much as they always had, the smuttier content became less artfully subversive and more Madison Avenue. The hard-rock acts, though, could always be counted on to make true, unapologetic hedonism a core part of their message. Case-in-point: “Girls Girls Girls,” the title track to Mötley Crüe’s 1987 album, which saw the band continuing to mix walloping heavy metal with good-time boogie. The song is primarily a list of the Crüe’s favorite strip clubs around the world, and the video literalizes that message by having the band roar up the Sunset Strip in motorcycles and then ogle the dancers at one of the clubs. This ain’t exactly the cleverest music video ever made, but the song and its clip are both flashy and exciting in the manner that became the norm for hard rock for the rest of the decade. (See also: Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” which is mostly a straightforward performance clip, dressed up with insert shots of Tawny Kitaen writhing around on top of and inside David Coverdale’s car.)
15. The 2 Live Crew, “Me So Horny” (1989)
The late-’80s furor over vulgarity in popular music—coupled with a not-insignificant anxiety from the cultural gatekeepers over the rapid rise of hip-hop—reached a new level of craziness when record-store clerks started getting busted for selling albums by Miami rap group The 2 Live Crew to minors. The rappers rode the controversy, getting more defiantly raunchy (and richer) with each new album, culminating in 1989’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be and the single “Me So Horny.” The song is fairly idiotic: rudimentary hip-hop that misappropriates a line from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with no sense of its irony. But the “Me So Horny” video reveals just how ridiculous it was that anyone would consider The 2 Live Crew a real threat to decency. Removed from the “Won’t someone think of the children?” hysteria, the guys in the group just come off like dopey adolescents, grinning sheepishly at their own sophomorically dirty lyrics while they hang around with rump-shaking women in skimpy bikinis. This video—and hip-hop itself, frankly—was a return to the DIY, underground vibe of earlier in the decade, when pop culture would produce things that young people knew about and their parents didn’t. “Me So Horny” is the kind of junk that junior-high-schoolers are supposed to pass around clandestinely. Such is the natural order.