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The evolution of the music video, part I (1890s - 1940s)

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 14, 2009 02:56pm | Post a Comment
Video and the Radio Star

I think it's safe to say that many, if not most, people seem to assume that music videos began with the initial broadcast of MTV on August 1, 1981. That first video, the Buggles' excruciating "Video Killed the Radio Star," came out in 1979, so what were they singing about? Were the Buggles prophets or were there videos before MTV?


For a long time, there have been musical numbers both in film and on TV. And hundreds of people have probably seen the PBS documentary about Soundies, where Michael Feinstein suggests that "an amazing forty years before MTV made its debut came a revolution in sight and sound." Hacktually, the marriage of music, advertisement and visuals within discrete shorts is almost as old as film itself and this, part one of The evolution of the music video, actually ends with Soundies.  

*cue the Ken Burns music*

1890s - The Kinetoscope

William K Dickson  Kinetoscope  Kinetoscope Parlor
William Dickson, a Kinetoscope and a Kinetoscope parlor

William K.L. Dickson, one of the most important pioneers of early film, was working on the Kinetoscope, which played short films matched sound recorded on wax cylinder to film. In what to me is the first music video (filmed around 1894), Dickson plays "Song of the Cabin Boy" on the fiddle whilst two dudes grind suggestively.

Watching the videos required a pair of earbuds and looking through a tiny contraption not unlike the viewer on Spock's 23rd century science station. Constrained by technical limitations to decidedly short durations of around 22 seconds, they were impractical for all musicians (with the exception of maybe Wire and Anal Cunt). Whilst some video purists now suggest that this is the way videos were meant to be seen, at a nickel per view ($1.28 adjusted for inflation), it wasn't appealing enough to make them profitable.



This one isn't that far removed from Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights."



1920s - Phonofilm & Vitaphone, Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, Visual Music and Photophones

Lee de Forest with Phonofilm   Phonofilm advertisement

After a long, enjoyable silence, something resembling the music video appeared, this time on the big screen in 1922 with Lee De Forest's Phonofilms. On April 15, 1923, he showed a program of phonofilms at New York's Rivoli Theater.








Vitaphone advertisement  The Vitaphone at Grauman's 

Warner Bros
got in on the action with their Vitaphone films, beginning in 1926. Recording the music onto discs instead of directly onto the film (as Phonofilm had), they may've represented a step backward in terms of technology. Artistically, however, they moved light years beyond their predecessor's darkened stages or curtain backdrops by situating their subjects in decorated sets.





Dave Fleischer  Ko Ko Song Car-Tunes  Max Fleischer

Beginning in 1924, Fleischer Brothers began making Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, which were, in addition to being precursors to music videos, were also precursors to karaoke. They were the first films to feature the "follow the bouncing ball" technique. In 1926, Phonofilm declared bankruptcy and the Fleischer's Red Seal followed. After joining forces with Paramount, the Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune was reborn as Screen Songs in 1929.






Visual Music

Oskar Fischinger  Komposition in Blau/ Lichtkonzert Nr. 1  Visual Music 

In 1928, Oskar Fischinger created a series of abstract films matched to music known as Studies and released through Electrola. In 1931, Universal purchased the distribution rights to Studie Nr. 5 and it was widely seen in theaters. The Wizard of Friedrichstraße made other movies that are, to me, amazing and seem to have no doubt influenced later musically-minded abstract filmmakers like Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage.

  Hollywood Rhythm  Dudley Murphy - Hollywood Wild Card

Dudley Murphy had gained some fame in 1924, co-directing (with Fernand Léger) the dadaist film Ballet Mécanique, with Man Ray as cinematographer. In 1929, using RCA's Photophone process, he made St. Louis Blues, a two reel film that added the concept of illustrative narratives to music films and was followed by Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."




1930s - Seeing Sound

  Mary Ellen Bute

Mary Ellen Bute
was an experimental filmmaker from Houston who, beginning in 1934, began making what were billed as Seeing Sound. In many ways, they resembled and were no doubt influenced by Fischinger's Visual Music but used science and technology to determine the visuals.






1940s - Soundies

    

In 1939, the Mills Novelty Company invented a visual jukebox they called the Panoram. In 1940, they produced many "soundies" for the machines, which were usually found in bars and the like. Artistically, many had much higher production values than their antecessors in the 1920s.









Auroratone
Auroratones were created by British filmmaker Cecil Stokes for use in the treatment of mental disorders and featured pleasingly proto-psychedelic visuals often accompanying the music of Bing Crosby. 


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Phonofilm (1), Lee De Forest (1), Kid Jersey (1), Dickie Crickets (1), Ko-ko Song Car-tunes (1), Oskar Fischinger (1), 1940s (23), Dudley Murphy (1), Seeing Sound (1), Visual Music (1), Mary Ellen Bute (1), 1920s (23), Panoram (2), Soundies (3), 1930s (19), Kinetophone (1), Music Videos (5), William K Dickson (1), Fleischer Brothers (1), Vitaphone (1), 1890s (11)