By: Chuck KlostermanThose who fail to understand the past are doomed to repeat it.However, what if that’s your goal? What if that’s exactly what youwant? What if repeating the past–and then repeating it againand again–is the only thing that makes you happy?
If this is indeed the case, you should do what I did: Watch VH1 Classic for 24 consecutive hours.Nothing wages war with insomnia like wall-to-wall videos from the Reagan administration. More importantly, there is much that can be learned from such an experience. It’s kind of like what Matthew McConaughey said in Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age.” He was talking about high school girls and I’m referring to Duran Duran videos, but what’s the difference, really?
(Reader’s Note: About 1/5 of this story appeared in the print edition of the August issue of SPIN.)
12:02 pm: The afternoon begins with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “So You Want to Be a Rock N’ Roll Star,” which is one of those videos where the band just performs a song live and we’re supposed to like it. Tom is wearing a sport coat featuring the planets of the solar system (Saturn most prominently) and he’s smiling constantly; I guess he likes his job. This is followed by a clip from an unsmiling Roger Waters, who sings about beautiful women walking their dogs on the Sunset Strip. I sense this will be a day of paradoxes.
12:23 pm: “Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic” is currently on my TV, and the Police are dancing around the recording studio like three nappy-haired gnomes. You know, everyone remembers that the Police wrote a bunch of great songs–but does anyone remember how often they wore stupid hats? I can totally understand why Stewart Copeland always wanted to punch Sting in the throat. Up next is Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth.” Obviously, the guys in Duran don’t wear hats because they’re “new romantic looking.” As a consequence, one of the Andys in this band is dressed like a gay pirate and appears to be sporting my sister’s least successful haircut from the spring of 1986.
12:57 p.m.: Okay, so now we’re into the hyper-trippy “All Right Now” by Free, and it’s raising a few questions. Logically, there is no way that everyone in the 1970s was a drug addict; that just couldn’t have been the case. However, this Free footage was clearly made exclusively for people who were completely high. Does this mean that the normal mindset of mainstream culture in 1976 was akin to the why stoned people view the world in 2003? I mean, maybe even straight people thought they were stoned in the 1970s; maybe that’s how everyone felt, all the time. This might explain how Jimmy Carter got elected; it also might also explain why his presidency was tainted by an attack from a giant swimming rabbit. Pop music can teach us many things.
1:16 p.m.: We’ve moved into the “all request hour.” Someone has requested Franke and the Knockouts “Sweetheart,” which is a song I never even knew existed. I like to imagine that some unemployed slacker is sitting in his doublewide trailer in the middle of the afternoon, and he’s thinking, “Ah, yes. All my hard work has finally paid off. At long last, Franke and the Knockouts are back in the public consciousness.” And I would wager $10,000 that this person is named “Franke.”
1:24 pm: “Dust in the Wind,” my all-time favorite song about dirt and air, is pulling at my heartstrings while the bearded fellows in Kansas pulls at their violin strings. You know, nobody makes truly sad songs anymore. Outside my bedroom window, some city employees are tearing up the sidewalk with jackhammers and playing the new 50 Cent record on a boom box; from what I can deduce, the first four tracks are about killing people, and the fifth is about drinking Barcardi. Now, I realize 50 is reflecting the reality of the streets and the frailty of human existence, but didn’t Kansas already do that? Nothing lasts forever, except the earth and sky. I should have become a farmer.
1:52 pm: Lindsey Buckingham is trapped in a fish tank and killing his doppelganger with mind bullets. Part of me is tempted to suggest that this low-fi technology and guileless chutzpah is cool and/or advanced and/or better than videos of the modern age, but I just can’t do it. This is pretty idiotic. No wonder Stevie Nicks had to do all that blow. I’m sure she saw this video in 1982 and thought to herself, “I used to share my shawl with that guy?”
2:05 pm: There may better guitar riffs than the opening of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” but there can’t be more than five. The singer’s hat sure is stupid, though. I wish Stewart Copeland would punch him in the throat.
2:09 p.m.: I’m watching a film of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” and it’s one of those montages where we see old scenes of traffic and frigid homeless people and crazy dudes in wheelchairs, and this is supposed to replicate the experience of traveling across Manhattan in 1970. However, I remain certain that this song must be a metaphor for a stubborn woman Hendrix was trying to sleep with, because there is no way Jimi Hendrix would ever be bothered by gridlock. Jimi never had to be anywhere on time.
2:25 p.m.: One of my favorite video themes is the “Spontaneous Sex Party In the Classroom” conceit, best personified by Van Halen in “Hot for Teacher,” but it’s also exemplified by what I’m watching right now, which is “Sexy & 17” by the Stray Cats. Sadly, the girls in this video don’t look 17. This is more like the last few seasons of Happy Days, where a 36-year-old Fonzie would snap his fingers and be groped by two high school cheerleaders, both of whom were roughly 33.
2:29 pm: Speaking of Van Halen, “Sexy & 17” is followed by “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” which is a narrative about a semi-hot woman being sexually tortured by two dwarves, only be rescued by a cowboy (Eddie Van Halen), a jungle savage (Alex Van Halen), a Samurai warrior (Michael Anthony), and Napoleon Bonaparte (David Lee Roth). This was released in 1981, so I guess this was Van Halen’s Village People period.
2:35 pm: Things are really getting excellent: Poison’s “Fallen Angel” is illustrating the cautionary tale of a small-town girl who moves to Los Angeles and immediately becomes a whore. The morale of our story? Never go anywhere, and never try anything. Stay home and buy more Poison records.
2:55 pm.: Blue Oyster Cult (“Godzilla”) and Led Zeppelin (“Whole Lotta Love”) just had a heavyweight heavy-off, and (much to my surprise) the rubber radioactive monster poundes the crap out of the German war blimp.
3:05 p.m.:I am informed by VH1 Classic that “We… are… the 80s,” and that is proven by Lionel Richie’s willingness to dance on the ceiling.I think this video came out at roughly the same point when Lionel hosted the American Music Awards and kept inexplicably repeating the word “outrageous,” the most overt (and least successful) attempt in pop history to create a national catch phrase. This video ends with Rodney Dangerfield bugging his eyes out and saying, “I shouldn’t have eaten that upside-down cake!” Now that’s a catchphrase.
3:20 p.m.: With the exception of a waifish brunette wearing a negligee and placing her foot in a basin of water, R.E.M.’s video for “The One I Love” is remarkably similar to the opening credits of the old PBS science show 3-2-1 Contact. I’m calling a copyright attorney.
4:02 p.m.: Driven by hot-blooded lust, Gloria Estefan is crawling into my lap and insisting the rhythm is going to get me (tonight). We’ll just see about that, Gloria. You pipe down!
4:08 p.m.: When one really thinks about it, the message of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” is rather brilliant, inasmuch as the song examines the disconnect between the actions of a lover and how those deeds are interpreted. However, this disconnect is significantly downplayed by the video, inasmuch as it appears to glamorize riverboat gambling.
4:18 p.m.: “Raspberry Beret,” the best Prince song ever recorded, is followed by the Bangles “Manic Monday,” the best Prince song ever recorded by somebody else. Prince supposedly gave “Manic Monday” to Susanna Hoffs in the hope that she would sleep with him. If I was Prince, that’s all I would ever do–I’d write airtight singles for every female musician I ever met. As far as I can tell, the reason you write great songs is to become a rock star, and the reason you become a rock star is to have sex with beautiful, famous women. So why not cut out the middle man?
4:48 p.m.: Here is what I am learning from “Our House” by Madness: Never invite ska musicians into your home, because they’re all too fucking happy. “Our House” and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” were my favorite songs in fifth grade. Man, I am so glad I got into Mötley Crüe.
5:11 p.m.: Watching Ian Astbury wear sunglasses while singing “Whiskey Bar” with two surviving members of The Doors only seem to prove how terrible this song was originally. There are five guys in rock history who are so overrated that they defy description, and Jim Morrison is at least three of them.
5:23 p.m.: In 1984, .38 Special released a record called Tour de Force. Do you think they were serious about this? I mean, do you think they were sitting in the studio, working on tunes like “If I’d Been the One,” and they eventually just looked each other in the eyes and said, “This is it. This is our Tour de Force.” I’m sure this must have happened, because why else would you make a video where a bunch of wild horses run through a prairie fire?
5:49 p.m.: I’m quite enjoying Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” However, I’m a bit baffled: How did Flashdance ever get produced theatrically? The movie itself isn’t necessarily bad (it’s kind of good, sort of). But how did anyone pitching the script ever get past the segment of the description where he’d have to say, “Okay, now here’s the key–this girl is also a professional welder.” Because I’m sure every studio executive responded by saying, “She’s what? A professional wrestler?” And then the guy pitching the script would have to go, “No no no, I said welder,” and they’d have a 20-minute conversation about how to strike an arc and why watching a woman do this would be sexy. Which it totally is, but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain.
6 p.m.: The Metal Mania hour opens with “Summertime Girls” by Y & T, which makes me wish my apartment was a ’84 Caprice Classic. Beautiful women are wearing black leather outfits on the sands of Malibu, and that can’t be comfortable. Luckily, they remove them in order to don black lingerie, which is evidently what they wear when they play beach volleyball. I can totally relate to this.
6:07 p.m.: Go ahead and call me sentimental if you must, but I will always prefer the Def Leppard videos where the drummer still has both his arms.
6:12 p.m.: Memory is a strange thing. Example: I completely recalled that the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” video was about the band being locked inside a steel cage while hundreds of sex-starved women tried to sexually attack them. However, I had somehow blocked out the fact that this video also involved leopards and black panthers.
6:25 p.m.: If I have a persecution complex (and I do), it probably came from watching Twisted Sister videos, namely “I Wanna Rock.” Without these videos, I would have never realized how many people were actively trying to stop me from listening to Twisted Sister.
6:42 p.m.: I’m watching “Girls, Girls, Girls” right now. One of the strip clubs Mötley Crüe mentions in this song is the Body Shop on the Sunset Strip, and every time I’m in L.A. I end up walking right past it.Part of me has always wanted to go in there, mostly because of this song. But I never do, mostly because of this song.
6:55 p.m.: King Kobra. Kool.
7:01 p.m.: By some act of God, today’s episode of Headline Act is about Kiss. Paul Stanley gives me advice on how to live my life before playing “Rock and Roll All Nite.” Gene Simmons explains that the KISS Army is a volunteer army. True dat.
7:32 p.m.: An interesting aside has just occurred to me: VH1 Classic shows no commercials (just promos for VH1). It’s been a long time since I’ve watched this much television without someone trying to sell me something. However, I suppose VH1 is selling me something; they’re selling nostalgia, which means they’re selling my own memories back to me, which means they are selling me to me. I am both the commodity and the consumer. So what’s the margin on that?
7:40 p.m.: Whitney Houston tells me she gets so emotional, baby, and I believe her. This video came out years before she went fucknuts, but she already seems pretty bizarre and skeletal. Fourteen minutes later, Aretha Franklin sings “Freeway of Love.” She is half as bizarre and 40 times less skeletal.
8:06 p.m.: Okay, here’s something I failed to anticipate: It turns out VH1 Classic operates on some kind of “block system,” because they just played Tom Petty’s “So You Want To Be a Rock N’ Roll Star” (again), and now they’re playing the same Roger Waters vid I saw at 12:05. I am now going to have to spend the next eight hours re-watching the exact same videos I just spent the past eight hours watching, in the exact same sequence. If I was a member of Al Queda, this would be enough to make me talk.
8:28 p.m.: This is all so remarkably meta. Because this is VH1 Classic, all these videos are things I saw in the distant past. They make me think if junior high. But because I just finished watching these same exact clips eight hours ago, my window for nostalgia is much smaller. I am now nostalgic for things that just happened. So the second time I see The Fine Young Cannibals “Good Thing,” it makes me nostalgic for 12:30, whichwas when I had General Tso’s chicken for lunch. Yeah, those were good times.
8:57 p.m.: Let me be honest about something: I am not the first person who came up with the idea of watching rock videos and writing about the experience. In 1992, a brilliant guy named Hugo Gallagher locked himself in a hotel room and watched MTV for seven straight days (this is back when MTV still played videos). I recall him writing that a Black Crowes anti-heroin video made him want to do heroin. That’s nothing. He should have watched this Free video twice!
9:10 p.m.: There is no way Derek Wittenburg can handle Clyde Drexler off the dribble, and Thurl Baily cannot match-up with Akeem Olajuan on the block. I am certain Houston will win the 1983 NCAA championship. Oh, wait… I accidentally started watching ESPN Classic. Sorry.
9:16 p.m.: The first time I saw Triumph’s video for “Somebody’s Out There,” I failed to notice that it inexplicably involved a woman looking into a microscope. Maybe all this repetition will pay dividends.
10:19 p.m.: In the world of Deep Purple’s “Knocking At Your Backdoor,” windmills are remarkably prominent.
10:31 p.m.: Earlier today, I saw Van Halen’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and merely thought it was strange. Upon further review, this is the craziest thing I have ever seen in my entire life.
10:51 p.m.: I was wrong about something else this afternoon: Upon further review, Zeppelin is heavier than BOC. I had just been distracted by the two-minute drum solo near the end of “Godzilla.”It also dawned on me (during Jimmy Page’s solo) that some modern band should do a homage to these early ’70s psychedelic acid rock videos that transpose live performance with still photography, and that band should be the White Stripes.
12:07 am: Well, it’s now been 12 hours since I started this project. I think I’m holding up okay, although it’s a lot less fun to watch videos when you always know what’s coming up next. This is becoming a Groundhog Day fiasco. But static stimuli makes you consider weird things:Like, was Boy George attractive? And I don’t mean attractive as a man, nor do I mean attractive as a woman. It’s more like, was he attractive as a human? And why does the answer to that question suddenly seem so different from the answer to the first question?
12:46 a.m.:Corey Hart looks exactly like a kid I attended basketball camp with in seventh grade. That guy had no game whatsoever. He did, however, wear his collar upturned, just as Corey does in the video from “Never Surrender,” which I’m now watching. I think that kid from basketball camp was named “Corey,” too. Or maybe it was Trevor. Oh well, let’s move on.
1:20 a.m.: I have very mixed feelings about this REO Speedwagon video (“Roll With the Changes”). This whole era–1979 to 1983, roughly–was definitely the worst period in the history of rock music. But I think it’s probably my favorite era of rock music, and my reasons for feeling this way are complex. At risk of getting all semantic and pseudo-Zen, I don’t like listening to “Roll With the Changes,” but I like the way it sounds. And I don’t like looking at REO Speedwagon, but I like the way they look. The bottom line, I suspect, is that there was never another time where the gap between “totally great” and “completely terrible” was so miniscule, which is why I’m glad VH1 Classic exists.
2:04 a.m.: “Let It Go” by the Japanese metal band Loudness includes ample footage of industrial power saws slicing through tree trunks (we’re back to the aforementioned Metal Mania hour). It would be fascinating to interview the director of this video today, because I’d love to hear him try and explain what he was trying to convey with this imagery. There is no plausible explanation: This is “heavy metal.” It’s not “heavy lumber” (and even if this film was conceptualized by some forward-thinking Tokyo auteur who spoke no English whatsoever, there’s no way he could misinterpret that). Is this supposed to mean the music of Loudness will attack the listener with the frenzied power of sharpened steel? If so, I guess that makes us the trees.
2:14 a.m.: Never before have I been so well-informed about VH1’s programming schedule. If you have any questions about upcoming episodes of Driven, feel free to email me at [email protected].
2:41 a.m.: “Girls, Girls, Girls,” again, again, again. What we learn from this video is that there are two kinds of strippers in this world: Those who smile, and those who don’t. The ones who don’t are apparently trying to seem sultrier, but I prefer the ones who smile. I get the impression the guys in Mötley Crüe spend less time worrying about this, though.
3 a.m.: New (old) videos start in an hour. I am so unbelievably stoked!
3:05 a.m.: The triumphant return of that 30-minute Kiss retrospective I watched at 7 p.m. Paul Stanley compares Kiss in 1972 to a “baby piranha.” Later, he discusses the concept of freedom and its application to the video for “Tears Are Falling.”He’s a goddamn genius.
4:01 a.m.: Oh my god. Oh my god oh my god oh my god. It’s Tom Petty’s “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star.” This block of All Star Jams is starting over again.This can’t be happening. But it’s happening. Oh my god.
4:41 a.m.: I’ve now seen Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed a Tear” thrice, and it’s not getting any better. I hate this. I hate Paul Carrack. I hate myself. But I will not shed a tear, because Paul Carrack understands me better than I understand myself.
4:47 a.m.: Some VJ named Eddie Trunk just implied that “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burden & War helped end the Vietnam War.
5:42 pm: The video for Taco’s “Putting on the Ritz” is not remotely akin to the way I remember it from Friday Night Videos. It seems to be set in a post-apocalyptic haunted mansion, occupied by Goth witches and tuxedo-clad warlocks wielding Darth Vader’s light sabers. I suddenly have an urge to locate my 12-sided die and roll up some hit points.
6:02 a.m.: At long last, a format change: Since it’s now “officially” Tuesday, we have entered Tuesday Two Play, which means I get to see two consecutive videos by every artist who appears. We begin with Bruce Springsteen doing “My Home Town” (live, with Clarence Clemons on tambourine) and “Thunder Road.” Back in reality, the sun has risen in the east, and people I will never know are jogging outside my bedroom window.The world is a foreign place. I do not belong here.
6:29 a.m.: I drift into shallow slumber and awake from a horrifying dream: A thin man is waving a bouquet of flowers at me, and I am struck into a coma. When the coma is shattered, I find myself half naked, confused about my sexual identity and overcome by sadness. I think a train may be involved, and possibly a double decker bus. But then I realize something else: I’ve been awake this whole time. These are just Smiths videos.
7:45 a.m.: Neil Young and Pearl Jam keep on rockin’ in the free world. Van Halen asks me if this is love while swigging Jack Daniels from the stage, and I have no answer.An underage girl on the beach says she wants candy, and it seems dirty. I find myself craving a Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
9:46 a.m.: There are way more ELO videos than I would have ever guessed.
10:03 a.m.: I’m running out of material. I just watched David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” and all I could think to write was, “Hmm… this looks like a Dr. Who episode.” Now I’m watching a pair of Steve Winwood videos and I can’t remember what these songs are titled, even when I’m hearings the chorus. I feel 800 years old.
10:17 a.m.: Whenever I’d listen to Toto’s “Africa,” I always assumed the song was using Africa as a metaphor. However, this video suggests the song is literally about the continent itself (and maybe about an African-American travel agent, although I can’t be sure), so now I’m confused. It definitely has a globe, though. Also, what does “Africa” have to do with the movie Fatal Attraction? I swore I just heard some VJ talking about that movie (and its relationship to Toto). I struggle.
10:55 a.m.: Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t someone create a network called “CNN Classic,” which could be a 24-hour channel of old news broadcasts? They could air old episodes of 60 Minutes and the wall-to-wall coverage that was shown during memorable national disasters and random episodes of World News Tonight from the 1970s. They could re-broadcast all the news reports from the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot and the real-time news feeds from the 1986 Challenger explosion. This idea seems unspeakably brilliant to me, and I honestly can’t believe I’m the only person who ever got high and came up with it.
11:35 a.m.: Okay, we’re less than 30 minutes away from the end of this joy ride, and I’m watching a Bryan Ferry video that’s primarily composed of unicorn footage from the movie Legend. I should retire right now. This is undoubtedly the apex of my career.
11:58 a.m.: Well, this is it. The end of the road. And who do I see when I reach nirvana? No, not Nirvana; it’s Cher (“Heart Made of Stone”), and I think she’s singing about people who died in Vietnam. And–somehow–this makes perfect sense to me. Nature has created no being as irrepressible as Cher, a woman who keeps coming back in order to remind us that she used to be somebody (and will therefore be somebody forever). This is why VH1 Classic exists–it’s a network for people who live exclusively in the past and the future, forever ignoring the present tense… and that means its for pretty much everybody over the age of 18 and under the age of 45. And when I see Cher again in at 7:58 p.m., this will still be true, just as it was eight hours ago.