Derek Jarman’s Experimental Music Videos: The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys & More

By
Sophia Satchell Baeza

The lineage of filmmakers making music videos arguably goes as far back as the 1960s with the work of Peter Whitehead and Kenneth Anger. The pop promos of British experimental filmmaker Peter Whitehead for bands like the Rolling Stones, much like some of the work of American occultist filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who used classic R&B tracks laid over images of sadomasochistic bikers, preceded what is now a fairly safe career option for a filmmaker waiting for the next funding cheque. Directors like Gaspar Noé (with his music videos for SebastiAn and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds) and Spike Jonze alternate from one to the other, with each showing the other's influence.

But for the artist and experimentalist Derek Jarman, whose early forays into the music video genre preceded the birth of MTV by several years, the music video was still in its inception. Jarman’s work is being commemorated on the 20th anniversary of his death as part of Jarman2014 – a national, year-long programme of events. For Jarman, the promotional music video was a way of exploring, practising and showcasing his particular experimental film style, as well as slyly introducing a generation to avant-garde film from his early experiments with the genre in the late 1970s and on through to the 1980s ‘MTV’ era.

The music video has often had an uncomfortable proximity to commerce, and it was no secret that Jarman also directed a lot of music videos to fund his film projects. But with true innovation, he imbued those videos with his distinctive style, bringing in a lot of techniques into his later films, like video matte effects, specific use of home video footage, and superimposition. Jarman worked with both pop and avant garde musicians like The Smiths (in their Queen is Dead era), Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Marianne Faithful and The Sex Pistols.

In his 1987 published journal Kicking The Pricks, Jarman both celebrated and bemoaned the medium, arguing that the "music video is the only extension of the cinematic language in this decade, but it has been used for quick effect, and it’s often showy and shallow." Jarman’s music videos were often an idiosyncratic extension of his own cinematic language, one in which music has always played a crucial part, from the punk soundtrack to Jubilee (1978) to his Super 8 experiments in nightclubs.

On March 22nd at the British Film Institute, Derek Jarman’s Will You Dance With Me? will premiere, a never-before-seen 78-minute video shot inside a gay nightclub in London’s East End. The film will feature experimental and unedited footage shot in 1984 at Benjy's, a former nightclub in Mile End, and soundtracked by, among other artists, Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

The Sex Pistols in Concert (1976)

When The Sex Pistols played a gig at Andrew Logan’s party on Valentine’s Day in 1976 at Jarman’s abode of Butler’s Wharf, he was the first to shoot footage of the band, in all its shaky, 18-frames-per-second, black-and-white, Super 8 glory. It’s very hard to see exactly what was going on, but that’s all part of the charm. Some of the footage was later used in Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980).

The Pet Shop Boys' "Its A Sin" and "Rent" (both 1987)

Jarman and The Pet Shop Boys had an intensive period of collaboration, with Jarman directing two music videos, "It’s A Sin" and "Rent", and later going on to make a sequence of eight short films used as background projections at the band’s 1989 concert, including "Heart" and "Always On My Mind". "Rent" is a typically sleazy example of 1980s fashion error, and arguably not Jarman’s best. Some black-and-white footage of the band at a train station combined with some tres retro shots of perms and gold lame. "It’s A Sin" revels in Jarman’s love of contentious religious imagery, cages and fire.

The Smiths "The Queen is Dead" (1986)

With the assistance of Richard Heslop and John Maybury, among others, Derek Jarman directed three music video for "The Queen is Dead", including "Panic" and "There is a Light That Never Goes Out". Filmed on Super 8, edited onto video and blown up to 35mm, these videos are quintessentially "Queen"-era Smiths, full of beautiful, angry boys and bombed out English landscapes.

Throbbing Gristle’s "T.G: Psychic Rally in Heaven" (1981)

In 1980, Jarman commissioned Throbbing Gristle to make the soundtrack for In The Shadow of the Sun. Genesis P-Orridge – an experimental artist and musician with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV – collaborated with Jarman on several other short films and music videos, including Pirate Tape: A portrait of William Burroughs (1982), Diese Machine Ist Mein Anithumanistiches Kunstwerk (1983), Imaging October (1984), and Psychic TV’s R. U. Experienced? (1988). The latter was shot in Jarman’s famous garden in Dungeness.

Marianne Faithful "Broken English" (1979)

With the album Broken English, Faithful’s haunting heroin-inflected stab at punk found the perfect match in its late 70s Jarman punk aesthetic. Influenced by The Sex Pistols and Faithful’s partner Ben Brierly from punk band The Vibrators, Chris Blackwell and Island Records commissioned Jarman to make three music videos to promote the album. “Broken English” starts with a typically English Gothic ringing of church bells as strange masked men intrude upon Faithful’s black-and-white misery. Typically Jarmanian occult interests predominate, including pagan rituals, masked revelry, and superimposed imagery of sex and violence, through which Faithful strolls through, world-weary and leather-clad.

Wang Chung’s "Dance Hall Days" (1984)

British pop outfit Wang Chung’s popular single "Dance Hall Days" also received the Jarman video treatment. Featuring some personal home video footage of his mum and him in the garden, which would later reappear in his feature The Last of England (1988), as well as Isaac Julien’s documentary Derek, this video is an odd mix of the private and the public, as Jarman’s intimate home videos comingle with large and overblown displays and pageants. Towards the end of the video, the band appear dressed as characters from Jarman’s favourite film, the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz.

Other music videos:
Marc Almond’s "Tenderness is a Weakness" (1984)
Carmel’s "Willow Weep For Me" (1983)
Billy Hyena "Wide Boy Awake" (1984)
Bryan Ferry's "Windswept"
Jordi Vallis and Psychic TV "Catalan" (1984)
Orange Juice’s 'What Presence" (1984)
Bob Geldof: "In the Pouring Rain," "I Cry Too," (both 1987)
Easterhouse ‘Nineteen Sixty Nine’

The BFI's Derek Jarman season runs throughout 2014 as part of 'Jarman2014'.  

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more