Happy Valentine’s Day, videophiles! Some say it with chocolates, some say it with roses, some say it with those little candy hearts that taste like the clump of dried Colgate stuck to the sink. At Images of Heaven, I prefer to say it with classic music videos.
Today we take a closer look at another ahead-of-its-time video from 1979. This one’s by the British Buddy Holly, Mr. Declan McManus – Napoleon Dynamite to you and me – but frequently referred to as Elvis Costello. It’s called ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN and it is precisely three minutes of pop perfection.
The reason this video qualifies as a Valentine is because I love it. Yes, this is one of my personal favorite videos of all time, and yes I felt that way before the Museum of Modern Art selected it as one of 35 important Golden Oldies of Music Video to exhibit in 2003. A prestigious honor, to be sure… but hardly as exciting as being discussed in my blog. So let’s start breaking it down!
The animated clip was completed in May of 1979 by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton at Cucumber Studios, the folks who would go on to direct the wonderful GENIUS OF LOVE video for Tom Tom Club in 1982, and would create Max Headroom a few years later.
In ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN, Jankel and Morton turned Elvis and the Attractions into abstract cartoon characters a good six years before Steve Barron made history doing the same thing to Norwegian pretty boys a-ha. As Elvis sings about accidents, they happen over and over: sharp rocks fall, bathtubs overflow, shorts are scorched by an unattended iron, a ketchup bottle splatters madly and strips of film are exposed to full sunlight. The best accident might be when a finger pushes a button and the entire state of California snaps off, sinking into the Pacific. Oops! I only find this entertaining because I know it’s scientifically impossible. (It is, right?!)
The constant movement of the images suggests both the fluid energy of the music and the constant peril of household hazards, plus it just looks really cool. There’s a certain tragic poignancy to this particular Costello tune (well, to quite a few Costello tunes come to think of it), so the whimsical graphics add a splash of buoyancy without being inappropriately goofy (like the ridiculously misguided, Benny Hill-meets-Mary Poppins video that ruined ABC’s sleek pop masterpiece “The Look of Love” in 1982 ... but don't get me started on that).
Perhaps because of the rapid pace, ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN is able to convey levity without silliness. The images of teacups shattering and burned toast hitting the floor half-buttered flash by so quickly that the somewhat cheeky theme of minor household accidents is not immediately apparent; at first glance it’s just a feast for the eyes and ears.
The fragmented animation of the band during the song's chorus is something like the effect achieved by drawing in pencil on graph paper, coloring in with Avery hi-liters, and then shredding the pages. Vari-sized boxes of muted black and white fill the screen, accented by horizontal strips of pinks, yellows and blues. Peppered with dashed lines, squiggles and other marks to indicate action, the figures are never completely confined to the boxes; a few drops of color always manage to escape the parameters of the squares. The overall effect, like the music, is that of accessible pop art at its best.
At one point, Elvis himself is even sliced in two and skewed. As if the result of some horrible cutting-room catastrophe, his trademark knocking knees bend and flex on a separate plane from his bowtie-and-glasses-clad torso.
The most amazing thing about this video is that it was created before it was worth anyone’s while to create such a piece. Though music videos were beginning to earn a bit more respect, they were still considered disposable promotion gimmicks – not worth the extra investments of time and money it took to make anything resembling art. MTV was barely a glimmer in Mike Nesmith’s eye, and there were certainly no Moonman statuettes at stake.
I’m still not exactly sure what circumstances led to the concept and production of this video (my kingdom for more documentation on the early days of music video!), but it makes me happy that it exists. And I must disagree with artist Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, who dismissed Jankel and Morton’s use of animation as “pleasant enough though not particularly interesting” in his 2003 review of the MoMA exhibit.
Perhaps to the modern eye the clip could be mistaken for a forgettable cartoon, but in 1979 nothing else like it had ever been seen (except maybe inside some trendy Manhattan gallery). In fact, there is an argument to be made that Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton created the visual style of the eighties, and if not they inarguably aided in defining it, Max Headroom or no Max Headroom.
Every frame of ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN is chock full of a sassy, innovative use of bright pastels and deconstructed geometric shapes that would eventually penetrate the world of greeting cards, t-shirt designs and textiles well into the late 1980s – and they did this in early 1979. As a promotional clip for a song that barely cracked the Top 40. Before the term "music video" existed. Over two years before there was a channel that played music videos. Wow. That was one happy accident.