Public archaeologists explore both public engagements with archaeology, but also how archaeological themes and narratives permeate popular culture. My question here is: how do archaeological sites, monuments and landscapes appear in ’80s music videos?
This is an important question, since music videos have become a medium that has had a lasting influence on popular perceptions of past cultures and their traces in the present. Through archaeologically inspired costumes, architectures, settings and themes, the human past is repackaged and fantasised for contemporary audiences in humorous and exotic fashions, but sometimes in deeply emotive, spiritual or personal fashions. These videos have been consumed globally far beyond English-language audiences through television, but now also via the world wide web (especially YouTube and Vimeo).
Most ’80s music videos are set in mundane contemporary environments, or on film sets. In any case, it takes money and permissions to film on location. It also takes vision, and being bald as brass, to connect a pop music video to a specific well-recognised location of archaeological and/or historical significance, let alone an entire landscape or cityscape. Yet in the age that saw the apogee in both fabulous and ridiculous pop music videos, and some might argue the apogee of pop music, it is hardly a surprise that occasionally archaeological sites feature as backdrops, but also as integral dimensions, of famous and popular music videos.
First: some parameters for this discussion. I’m not including videos of live performances and festivals at ancient sites and monuments. Equally, I exclude album-covers/art and stage imagery and designs influenced by archaeological cultures. Songs influenced by archaeological and historical narratives are equally not eligible in this context. All these are valid themes that merit further attention elsewhere.
Yet for this blog post, many ’80s songs on historical and archaeological styles and themes can be discounted. For instance, Iron Maiden’s Powerslave (1984), The Bangles Walk Like an Egyptian (1986) and The B52’s Mesopotamia (1981) are not featured, even if the insightful B52’s lyrics need sharing:
“I’m no student of ancient cultures, before I talk I should read a book, but there’s one thing that I do know, there’s a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia”.
Likewise, anything by Clannad (Newgrange for example) and Runrig is excluded since they didn’t combine their songs with bespoke music videos. Mike Oldfield composed my favourite ’80s evocative instrumental about an archaeological site – Woodhenge on his 1980 Platinum album – but again, it didn’t have a music video. Similarly, the 1984 mockumentary This is Spinal Tap doesn’t feature, despite its awesome on-stage Stonehenge (featuring horned helmets, miniature trilithons, and dwarves).
For this post, I’m specifically interested here in music videos shot whole or in part in sites of archaeological and/or historical significance. In terms of historical buildings, I’ve tried to avoid country houses, railway stations and other historical structures which are a near-ubiquitous and widely deployed, as for example in Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart (1983) filmed at Holloway Sanitorium. The same goes for disused buildings and warehouses. If these were included, the list would be far longer indeed!
Finally, at one level, every outdoors 1980s location would constitute archaeology in some regard, so I here specifically on recognised heritage locations of archaeological/historical import because of their antiquity. As someone who dabbles in contemporary archaeology, this is against my instincts, but allows us to focus on sites intended to evoke the past.
So with these ground rules and parameters set, let’s proceed in chronological order. In doing so, we chart various registers of relationship between song, lyrics and setting, from the superficial to the deeply significant. We navigate different genres of pop and rock too. I make no claims at this being exhaustive, and it reveals my biases on musical tastes, but only in part. Still, I hope the 5 early ’80s examples here serve as a starting point for others to build upon in researching archaeology in popular culture via music videos.
1. Ultravox – Vienna – 1980
The image has gone only you and I, it means nothing to me
We start the 1980s with the splendid noir-inspired video for Ultravox‘s Vienna (1980). While mostly filmed in London, it does include outdoor scenes in Vienna, including Midge Ure singing in front of the 14th-century St Stephen’s Cathedral. Inspired by The Third Man, it is hardly surprising that a funerary theme is evident. Hence, we next see Midge in an historic cemetery close to the 19th-century grave of piano-manufacturer Carl Schweighofer, which was also featured on the single cover. Therefore, historical allusions to medieval and modern Vienna contextualise the entire aura of the song.
2. Adam and the Ants – Ant Rap – 1981
In the Naughty North and in the Sexy South
We’re all singing
I have the mouth
The Ant Rap is a song and video to be actively forgotten. Indeed, I owe Dr Simon Trafford a debt of thanks for reminding me about its truly disturbing and superficial medieval horror. The group featured many vague fantastical medieval and early modern allusions in their songs and videos and some are far better. This one is set at the National Trust’s iconic 14th-century Bodiam Castle, Sussex. Adam and the Ants and various other individuals are dressed in various period costumes with medieval-style tents in the background. There are parodies of Liberace and Bruce Lee incorporated as they prance around the castle (for reasons best not explored). They fire a canon at the castle, and there is a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Adam himself struts and dances around in shining armour and rescues Lulu by turning her guard into a pig. He then jumps into the moat from the battlements, again for reasons best left unexplored. On departing the castle, he throws his sword into the moat, only for an armoured hand to raise it out of the water again in some confused allusion to Arthurian legend. It’s all horridly frivolous and dumb, apart from Lulu who can of course do nothing wrong.
3. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Maid of Orleans – 1982
We leave the balmy summer idiocy of Ant and his Ants in Sussex for the snowy freeze of Yorkshire. Here, the awesome OMD’s music video to one of the greatest pop songs ever composed – Maid of Orleans – gives us a more sombre and evocative Mellotron-ghostly medieval past. This takes the form of a seance between past and present.
The dialogue focuses on a game of chess played between one of OMD and a phantom modern manifestation of Joan. They play within a warm hall with an open fireplace at The Manor studio while snow falls outside. Meanwhile, outside, in the medieval past, connected to the present via the snow and the chess pieces, we see Joan visiting the snow-covered ruins of a famous National Trust property – the Cistercian monastic house of Fountains Abbey. She takes the form of a female rider in mail coif approaching the ruins and entering into the undercroft below the monks’ dormitory where her horse happily chomps on hay. The undercroft is the focus of a sense of shadowy, approaching doom. Subsequently, she rides fast through the snow and is caught by an archer at a further National Trust site: Brimham Rocks. Her subsequent trial and death are thus implied. She then rides into the present across the line of the window within view of where the chess game is being played. Eerie and awesome.
4. Ultravox – One Small Day – 1984
How many times has it turned against you
How many times will they walk away
How many times have you let depression win the fight
Oh my sentimental friend
We’ll walk as one again
Ok, you’ve guessed it: I love Ultravox. But it is them, not me, that repeatedly choose to incorporate archaeological allusions into their songs and music videos. How many other band’s music videos can boast a monument of their own design, and how many can boast a poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark?
As well as featuring the Callanish (Callanais) megalithic monument complex on the isle of Lewis on the cover of their 1984 album Lament, the video for the single One Small Day sees the stones featured throughout. Indeed, we are seeing two different stone circles involved in the filming of the music video. It opens with the wind howling around the Callanish I monument, and these iconic stones appear subsequently on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, the band perform with megalithic grey sound-set and drum kit and keyboard tables in the Callanish III stone circle close by. Both these sites are under the guardianship of Historic Environment Scotland.
The song is about depression and survival against adversity, imagining a day where one “doesn’t die a thousand times”. So the icy cold megalithic context is perhaps an apposite environment for considering isolation and suffering, but also the potential for hope, endurance and restoration.
5. Kate Bush – Cloudbusting – 1985
But every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting possesses an epic and weird video originally conceived by Julian Doyle and Terry Gilliam as a short film. The story references the relationship between psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Reich and his son. It is therefore about childhood memories and senses of loss, suppressing memories of upsetting events, and recalling idyllic times spent between father and son ‘cloudbusting’ with a purpose-built machine. The video features Kate as Peter and Donald Sutherland as his father.
The setting is extremely astute: the multi-period prehistoric and early historic landscape stewarded by the National Trust: White Horse Hill. The landscape incorporates burial mounds of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age date reused in Roman and early Anglo-Saxon times, the Late Bronze Age white horse, and the Iron Age hillfort: Uffington Castle. I’ve discussed the landscape in detail here.
I have a key point to make about the location. The Wikipedia page suggests that Dragon Hill is the location of the cloudbusting machine. However, while it is featured in the video, Dragon Hill isn’t the destination of the cloudbuster. The angles and perspectives on the road past Dragon Hill, and landscape views onto the Ridgeway, suggest that Kate and Donald are being filmed on the north-west corner of the ramparts of Uffington Castle Iron Age hillfort. That is where the cloudbusting machine is situated and nowhere does Dragon Hill possess a ditch like that depicted as Donald views Kate using the machine. So I would like to propose that this is the Iron Age hillfort, not Dragon Hill.
The threat of arrest hangs over the events, and the video shows the images move backwards and forward in time, just as the landscape interleaves multiple eras. Therefore, video and landscape really work with each other, but in tension, in conveying the ways personal memories link to place, and how the passage of time is mediated by place and shared experiences of remembering and forgetting across generations.
I have two interim comments:
- The National Trust, in particular, have a lot to answer for;
- Have I revised a tiny footnote of pop music video history by identifying the filming location for Cloudbusting as different from that of the consensus?
I’ll be doing a subsequent blog post on late ’80s music videos featuring archaeological sites….