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10 Music Video Milestones That Predated MTV

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Keystone/Getty Images

On August 1, 1981, MTV went live to 100,000 cable subscribers. In the years that followed, hit songs and their accompanying music videos would become intrinsically linked in the minds of music fans, in a way that generations who came of age after Michael Jackson’s dance with the undead or Nirvana’s pep rally for punks may never quite comprehend. But music videos didn’t begin with MTV. The format had predecessors and an evolutionary chart that dates back nearly a century before the Beastie Boys pied some nerds in the face. Here are 10 milestones in music videos that came before anyone ever shouted “I want my MTV!” at some poor cable company phone line operator.


By Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern - The Little Lost Child, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern were clothing salesmen who had a side business as songwriters. In 1894, they came up with a novel way to sell the sheet music to “The Little Lost Child,” a song in the vein of the poverty-drenched tear-jerkers of the time. They hired electrician George Thomas to create a series of “magic lantern” slide projections of photos to accompany performances of the song. After vaudeville acts worked the song and slideshow of city scenes into their repertoires, Marks and Stern managed to sell two million copies of the sheet music. It’s arguably the first song made popular through corresponding electronically distributed images and ushered in the brief vaudeville trend of “illustrated songs.”  

2. “SCREEN SONGS” // 1929-1938

During the days when short cartoons were screened before feature films, Fleischer Studios introduced iconic silver-screen versions of Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman. The company also produced a series of “Screen Songs” from 1929 to 1938, which were arguably the first short films created to illustrate popular songs. The mostly animated, black-and-white shorts featured the antics of funny animals and other early cartoon archetypes set to songs by then-major radio stars, including Cab Calloway and the Boswell Sisters, according to Hal Erickson's From Radio to the Big Screen. Many included a bouncing ball above the lyrics that encouraged theater-goers to sing along, karaoke-style.

3. “ST. LOUIS BLUES” // 1929

With the advent of “the talkies” in the late 1920s, musical numbers became an integral part of cinema. One of the first short films made to showcase a preexisting song was “St. Louis Blues,” starring “Queen of the Blues” Bessie Smith. The two-reel, 16-minute film, directed by Dudley Murphy, features Jimmy Mordecai as Smith’s two-timing boyfriend and Isabel Washington Powell as the other woman. The action eventually moves to a nightclub, where couples are swaying to Smith’s performance of the title song, which she had recorded four years earlier. While “Screen Songs” introduced the idea of pairing a song with a visual sequence, “St. Louis Blues” pushed that idea forward by encapsulating a singer’s aura in a short, music-driven film.


“I filmed what I believe to be the first music video,” Tony Bennett wrote in his 2007 autobiography, The Good Life. In 1956, his record label filmed the golden-voiced vocalist walking through London’s Hyde Park and set the footage to his hit version of “Stranger in Paradise.” According to The Good Life, the clip was distributed to TV stations in the U.K. and U.S., to air in lieu of an appearance by Bennett himself. American Bandstand gave it some airtime.


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For about five years, 500-pound, 7-foot-high machines that played 16-millimeter Technicolor films of pop stars were installed in bars across the world. Two competing companies began selling similar “video jukebox” devices at the same time: Ottica Meccanica Italiana developed the Cinebox in Italy and Cameca came out with the Scopitone in France. Each model was stuffed with three-minute films of popular musicians that could be queued up for a fee. (A producer even created a series of Arabic videos for France’s population of North African descent.) The technology spread, eventually making its way to the U.S.

Stateside, the machines never quite took off, which is why few A-list singers contributed to the U.S. Scopitone catalog. The videos were often colorful and swanky, the kind of thing that’d get a barfly’s attention. When interviewed by Collectors Weekly, Bob Orlowsky, a former attorney who collects the machines, pointed to Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” as an exemplary Scopitone video.

“That’s the first one I always show people," Orlowsky said. "It’s just Neil in an ever-changing assortment of dinner jackets surrounded by a bunch of Las Vegas showgirls in very elaborate costumes, each themed for a different month of the year. It was guaranteed to get people’s attention in a bar in 1965. It’s just delightful.”


In 1965, The Beatles began producing promotional videos for their singles as a way to fulfill the demands of every Top of the Pops or American Bandstand-style show across the globe that wanted to book them. “The mania made it pretty difficult to get around,” George Harrison said, “and out of convenience we decided we were not going to go into the TV studios to promote our records so much because it was too much of a hassle. We thought we’d go and make our own little films and put them on TV.”

They started with “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” then became more complex over time, with “Penny Lane” employing horses across a grand city scene. As The Fab Four set the rules of their generation, soon many bands started creating clips for the TV market.


If you were a teenager in the Atlanta area, for a very brief window of time in 1970, the hippest way to spend a weekend in was to tune into channel 17 for The Now Explosion, a 28-hour, free-wheeling TV program that seemed to pioneer both MTV and the YouTube mashup edit. The idea, which was to try and replicate Top 40 radio on a UHF station, came from broadcaster Bob Whitney. (Back in the broadcast days, UHF was the lower, more localized signal strength of the TV bandwidth.) He hired two Atlanta DJs to host the shows.

Viewers might have watched a band’s official promotional clip or an amateur unauthorized video of a song created by the program's producer, 28-year-old R.T. Williams, including a politically-charged version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Of course, the cheesiest tricks in chroma key, color saturation, and split screening available to 1970s video art students were employed.

For a brief period, The Now Explosion was amazingly successful—which was surprising given its weirdness and how ahead of its time it was. After debuting in Atlanta, it was later syndicated to stations in Charlotte, Sacramento, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco. However, the idea proved to be financially unsustainable, and Whitney ended it less than a year after it began.

8. COUNTDOWN // 1974-1987

Just as color TV was permeating Australia and the country’s pop music scene was coming into its own, the government-owned Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) introduced Countdown, a weekly showcase of lip-synched performances and music videos. Settling into a Sunday night time slot, Countdown could instantly make a song a hit, according to Michelle Arrow's Friday on Our Minds. (Midnight Oil declined to appear because the show “was young girls and flashing disco floors [and] we wanted to present ourselves in sweaty, smoky pubs,” according to Arrow’s book.) The show lasted until 1987 when competitors, including the imported MTV, overpowered it in the marketplace.


The first clip to fully meet the MTV-era definition of the music video was arguably the one made for Queen’s classic of ’70s grandiosity. “[I]nsofar as we can locate a decisive origin of the form [of the music video], and thus its era, it is in 1975 with a promotional video to accompany Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ single,” wrote Philip Hayward in Culture, Technology & Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century. Whereas previous promo clips were mostly about the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about the song. Hayward argued that the video, known for the iconic formation of its band members standing with their faces in a diamond, has a unique aesthetic tied to the scope and mood of the epically emotional song.

Queen’s label EMI set aside the then-hefty sum of £3500 to record the video to help the song in its unexpected crawl up the charts. The video also spared the band from trying to recreate the complex composition live on TV. With the video, the band controlled the way in which their song would be presented on TV, a power MTV-era musicians would take for granted.

10. "VIDEO CONCERT HALL" // 1978

One of the first cable channels, USA Network, began utilizing the library of music material that record labels had amassed to fill its hours of programming. According to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, the network started a segment called "Video Concert Hall" in 1978. Eschewing the American Bandstand-style format of a host and lip-syncing guests, it simply played promotional videos and concert clips. The network also had a twilight block called "Night Flight," which featured cult movies, concert films, and occasional videos. Another early cable network, Nickelodeon, experimented with a music video show called PopClips.

(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]


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