Park Slope

Meet The Neighbors: Stephen Pitalo Talks About The Golden Age Of Music Videos

Stephen Pitalo

At this point, you’ve probably heard the news that MTV is bringing this year’s Video Music Awards to Barclays— very exciting, if you’re excited by the prospect of having music video heavy-hitters like Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift in town. What you may not know, though, is that we’ve got our own sort of music video pro right in our midst.

Park Slope neighbor Stephen Pitalo is the mastermind behind The Golden Age of Music Video, the extensive pop culture blog that uncovers true insider stories from the music video’s greatest era– which, according to Stephen, spans from 1976-1993. He’s also in the process of turning this cult-favorite blog into a book, featuring interviews with over sixty music video directors. We asked Stephen to talk a bit about how he came to love music videos, how that love has developed into a career, and what he’s seen behind the scenes.

Park Slope Stoop: Let’s talk about your love affair with the music video. How did it begin and how has it evolved into the blog? 

Stephen Pitalo: When the cable company in my hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, got MTV in the early eighties, I was like most teenagers at the time — completely mesmerized. Most people now don’t realize that we had maybe 20 or 30 channels, tops, so anything going on with MTV had a huge audience and the channel became a true phenomenon. At school, we’d talk about the world premiere of videos by Michael Jackson or Duran Duran, or whatever the video of the moment was. At that age, I aspired to work in film, so I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes features about shooting music videos. As you can imagine, I taped the first broadcast of “The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller” and watched it hundreds of times.

Fast-forward to the new millennium, and I’m working as an agency broadcast producer. A few commercial directors we hired turned out to have some classic music videos on their reels. I asked them about those clips, and they talked about those days with some fondness. I went looking for a book of music video director interviews, only to find that it didn’t exist. The concept of a book marinated for quite a while, and after shooting some music videos of my own for local New York bands, I began conducting interviews with music video directors, uncovering that a true “Golden Age” existed from 1976-1993 . I’ve been working on the book for a few years now, and the blog pulls some content from those interviews, as well as interviews with high-exposure artists from that era. The blog allows me to build a connection with the audience out there that I know loves this stuff.

PSS: Tell us about your upcoming book. Can you spill a juicy story from a favorite interview?

SP: The book will include interviews of more than 60 directors about what it was like to create those iconic music videos. One of my favorite interviews was Don Letts, who was a pivotal figure in the London music scene who introduced reggae to the punk world. He is a wild and highly opinionated figure who had great stories from directing videos for the Clash, the Pretenders and Elvis Costello. One of my favorites stories is that, for the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” video, he had to get a stubborn armadillo to walk in the video by blowing air on him, so just picture a guy that looks like Bob Marley blowing air on an armadillo in the middle of a Texas highway. People driving by didn’t know what to think!

Another of my favorites is when director Steve Barron almost killed Madonna when the 2-ton camera crane nearly tipped over onto her. It would have crushed her instantly. On the blog, I often interview artists about their experiences, and the lead singer of the Fixx told me that he once rubbed cocaine on his feet to numb out his blisters during a video shoot.

PSS: Any favorite music videos filmed in Brooklyn (and, better yet, Park Slope [do any exist?])? 

SP: I can’t recall any from Park Slope specifically, but there are only a handful of GOLDEN AGE-era videos that are recognizable as Brooklyn-based, like Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, which was shot in the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station, and Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” shot by Spike Lee in Bed-Stuy.

PSS: You’re pretty explicit in your definition of the Golden Age (1976-1993). Why 1993? What happened in 1994?

SP: Well, by 1993, several things were different. There was a sea change in music happening with the emergence of the Seattle sound, and the rise of computer editing systems like the Avid was changing the process of creating videos too. Producing music videos now had a business process attached, and that had changed from just a decade earlier. Guns N’ Roses produced a trilogy of big budget videos that dripped with excess.  It was an evolution very similar to other creative movements, and we’d reached the point when there is far too much input from the people holding the purse strings.

In the early 1980s, record companies didn’t know what made an effective music video, so they wrote a check and left the creative direction to the artist and the director. By 1993, music video production was a full blown industry, and most directors told me that the record companies made the process too difficult. You know how there are very few artists in Soho now, but many many art galleries? Similar deal. In the early days, the Golden Age directors felt they never had enough time or money, but most also said it was the best time of their career, when their own creativity helped overcome those challenges. It was just more fun.

PSS: How do you feel about the current state of music videos? Do you think the internet has killed the art or revitalized it?

SP: The internet has affected the video landscape in very significant ways. For one thing, the amount of videos of all kinds uploaded onto the internet is unbelievably huge, and when there’s that much, 90% of it is going to be awful. Now, the current technology does present opportunities that make it easier to create work and have it seen, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be doing it. McDonalds sells millions of burgers, but you wouldn’t got to McDonalds to get the best burger in America. For every new OK Go video that’s awesome, there’s a thousand Rebecca Black “Friday” videos to sit through. Also, now music videos can be shot and edited by just one person, which, in a way, has helped return the reins of music videos back to the artists and directors. Also, with the advent of wireless phone technology, people now can see live performances by artists pretty easily from phone videos. That’s a very important factor that effects how we ingest video images of music. What’s a real shame is that a majority of Golden Age music videos haven’t been digitally transferred — “Thriller” never got a true digital clean-up and transfer!

PSS: Let’s say you’re the deciding committee behind the VMAs: who’s getting the moon man this year?

SP: The nominations aren’t out yet, I believe, but I can’t see how they can ignore Psy’s “Gangnam Style“. If “Thriller” is the Citizen Kane of music videos, “Gangnam Style” is the Titanic. Creatively, I can see Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie”, directed by David Fincher, getting a lot of nods as well.

Photo of Stephen with some familiar girls, credit Carly Sioux

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