For a music video released in August 1981 to coincide perfectly with the debut of MTV, I can’t imagine a more appropriate opening lyric. And there couldn’t have been a more appropriate director to bring the song to life than Russell Mulcahy, the Aussie auteur whose visions defined early MTV.
Here, Mulcahy provides the ultimate playground for Ultravox front man Midge Ure to express his inner film noir anti-hero. Fresh from loitering around foggy alleys, trenchcoat-clad, in the Third Man-inspired VIENNA (1981), the band’s follow-up THE THIN WALL finds Ure singled out and doomed by the literal flip of a coin.
The clip opens with a slew of unsettling disembodied hands that grab and grope Midge as he innocently tries to make his way down a corridor. And who could blame the hands for wanting to cop a feel of those fine fabrics? The man had style! He could rock the ‘30s/’40s-meets-‘80s look like no one else. The high-belted tweed slacks! The newsboy cap! The tapered pants-legs and geometric sideburns that add a dash of modernism to the vintage ensemble! May I take a moment to swoon?
Okay, back to the video. After swapping his newsboy togs for evening wear (I LOVE the suspenders), Midge makes his way to a Casablanca-esque club where a chic brunette delivers the aforementioned coin that becomes a glittery tennis ball; a sparkly MacGuffin of doom, if you will.
From this moment on, Midge is a marked man. The night club patrons stare, the ceiling fan looms menacingly, the floor caves in as he walks, even his fellow Ultravoxers plot against him.
Warren, Chris and Billy, their eyes often shaded by their hat brims (so clearly they’re up to no good!), seem to be in league with the split-faced man who pulls the strings, and they turn Midge’s reality into a nightmare. Of course, they all look so damned spiffy it’s hard to feel threatened – even with stage sweat pouring off their faces – but at least it’s an upscale nightmare.
Almost drowning in a car filled with water, our anti-hero then heads to the beach (in natty seaside attire, natch) alongside a cadre of synchronized swimmers moving in unison, half-buried in the sand.
The ball of doom ultimately shatters; has Midge survived, or does the shattered gold dingus represent his demise? And is it a snazzed-up tennis ball or a Christmas tree ornament? We are only left to guess.
As a song, “The Thin Wall” strikes me as a poem for the socially marginal – those average enough to play the game but perceptive enough to question the game they play. The lost souls who can’t quite bring themselves to shuffle through life with the same “bovine grace” of the syncopated masses, yet still feel isolated and pressured to gallop with the herd.
Typical noir themes of random persecution and encroaching doom blend well with the song’s lyrics (which contain a reference to the 1938 British film noir They Drive By Night), and the bizarre images and ambiguous ending make for perfect ‘80s pop noir.
After all, music videos aren’t supposed to make sense or follow a linear narrative, they’re supposed to present striking images to accompany the song. THE THIN WALL manages to do that with a heap of style, and in the process foreshadows a future Mulcahy masterpiece, Billy Joel’s PRESSURE (1982), a video that would make the most of those good old dependable motifs like spilled liquids in slo-mo, eerily long hallways and floors caving in.
In some ways THE THIN WALL is just a PRESSURE prototype, the latter presumably having a bigger budget and more special effects but with similar paranoiac themes and images.
But Billy Joel (God bless him) is no Midge Ure, and no matter how cool the PRESSURE video was it couldn’t quite compare with the swanky, retro savoir-faire of Ultravox, circa 1981.
Their music sounded like the future, their style borrowed from the past, they wrote songs with film noir lyrics and made sophisticated videos to match. Remind me again why they never had a number one hit?
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