It might seem crazy to a younger generation, but not only did MTV used to play videos; it was the world’s main pipeline to new music for a good two decades. With moments surreal, terrifying, pensive, adventurous, mournful and hilarious, here are the best music videos of all time.
Megadeth – “Sweating Bullets” (directed by Wayne Isham)
For most people who suffer from chronic anxiety and depression, there is no worse place than the mind and no enemy more cruel than themselves. If anyone understands what it’s like to be at perpetual war with themselves, it’s Dave Mustaine. A plethora of great videos came out of Megadeth’s commercial breakthrough album Countdown To Extinction, but nothing quite illustrates the torment that drives the band itself quite like “Sweating Bullets.” Locked in a cell with the personification of intrusive thoughts, Mustaine faces a constant verbal barrage from his most formidable foe. The whole Dave vs. Dave battle might seem a little on the nose, but mental illness is a subject that benefits from blunt discussion. In that regard, “Sweating Bullets” is as necessary a work of art as it gets.
Slayer – “Seasons In The Abyss” (directed by Markus Blunder)
Say what you will about Rick Rubin, but he knows how to sell a pitch. As the United States geared up for the first Gulf War in 1990, the acclaimed producer and Def American head honcho saw an opportunity for the most aggressive band on his roster to capitalize on the disquiet. For Slayer’s first official music video, the band traveled to Egypt and made use of the palpable tension; not simply playing among the pyramids (which itself was a major feat) but also highlighting life in the nearby slums and the culture of death and rebirth surrounding the Nile River. Rick Rubin would say in a statement at the time about the environment: “It added an air of excitement, didn’t it? Military exercises were taking place, diplomatic talks were being arranged, bomb shelters were being built and Slayer was shooting a video in the midst of it all.” Cynical as that sentiment is, he was right about how effective the ambiance would prove to be. Many years later, “Seasons In The Abyss” director Markus Blunder would essentially make the same video for Shania Twain, but the aura is about as different as it gets.
Dio – “Holy Diver” (directed by Arthur Ellis)
One of the most beloved songs in heavy metal history, “Holy Diver” is one of those tracks that even a non-headbanger can appreciate. Driven by the ultimate earworm of a main riff and Ronnie James Dio’s legendary bellow, it’s a tune that was destined for mythical status among metalheads with or without the help of MTV. However, it is the song’s sword and sorcery inspired accompanying video that launched “Holy Diver” into the mainstream consciousness, allowing the necessary alchemy between the visual and the sonic to occur; creating something truly iconic. It’s a narrative that is one part Conan The Barbarian and one part Dungeons & Dragons, with our sword-wielding hero decked out in warrior furs and just chewing the hell out of the scenery. The benchmark of true heavy metal.
Metallica – “One” (directed by Mike Salmon and Bill Pope)
A harrowing journey through hell, Metallica’s “One” is an incomparably chilling and moribund track that speaks to the futile anguish of armed combat as experienced in Dalton Trumbo’s World War I horror novel Johnny Got His Gun. Although the first-person reflections of a soldier who has been rendered quadriplegic and mute serve the frustration and despair of the book well, it’s the vision of directors Mike Salmon and Bill Pope that truly brings the source material to life. Dripping with existential isolation, the video benefits from being as simple as can be. Footage of Metallica playing in an empty warehouse is interspersed with scenes and dialogue from the Johnny Got His Gun movie such as the now famous lament, “If I had arms I would kill myself.” Absolutely chilling.
Iron Maiden – “Can I Play With Madness” (directed by Julian Doyle)
One of the beautiful things about music videos in the 1980s was the fact that bands and directors often treated them as short films, complete with rising and falling action narratives. Heavy metal was unsurprisingly great with this stuff, with Iron Maiden being the conceptual cream of the crop. Shot in their native UK at Tintern Abbey and the Chislehurst Caves, “Can I Play With Madness” reads a lot like Harry Potter. It’s got wizards. It’s got crystal balls. It’s got Monty Python’s Graham Chapman playing a crotchety art teacher who can’t stand his students drawing the visage of Eddie, who has appeared in the clouds surrounding the old castle he assigned them to draw. The teacher obviously gets his comeuppance when he falls into a cave and finds strange alchemical texts, as well as an inexplicable video of Iron Maiden playing.
Pantera – “Five Minutes Alone” (directed by Wayne Isham)
Legend has it that Phil Anselmo once beat up a man in the audience during a Pantera show for heckling. Instead of realizing that actions have consequences and that maybe he should have kept his trap shut, he went and filed a lawsuit against the Cowboys From Hell. If that doesn’t sound cowardly enough, this guy’s dad called Pantera’s manager and said, “Give me five minutes alone with that Phil Anselmo guy. I wanna whoop his ass.” The ass beating might have never happened but at least it provided fodder for one amazing song. Director Wayne Isham utilizes intense close-ups, double exposure, and the band’s own kinetic movements to create a sense of total disorientation. It is a video that stands toe-to-toe with the song itself, and that’s no minor feat.
Tool – “Stinkfist” (directed by Adam Jones)
There was a point in time when Tool were almost as well known for their music videos as their music itself. Coming from a background in stop-motion animation, guitarist Adam Jones crafted nightmare fuel not dissimilar from the work of the Brothers Quay. Enigmatically stunning, their video for “Stinkfist” follows a similar aesthetic and subject matter to their previous hits “Sober” and “Prison Sex”, meditations on abuse, alienation, and a feeling of existing outside of the human race. Although “Stinkfist” was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Music Video, it was nonetheless censored by MTV. Clutching their pearls at the title and perceived subject matter of the song, the network retitled “Stinkfist” as “Track 1.” Obnoxious as that is, it did make for some hilarious moments of VJs smelling their clenched fists as they mockingly announced “Track 1.”
Guns N’ Roses – “November Rain” (directed by Andy Morahan)
Coming off of the whirlwind success of Appetite For Destruction, the creation of Guns N’ Roses double Use Your Illusion albums was a chaotic affair. As crazy as the recording process was, it had nothing on the surrealist vignettes the band made to accompany two of the record’s biggest singles, “Estranged” and the iconic “November Rain.” Loosely based on a short story by friend and road manager Del James, the video for “November Rain” is a chaotic fever dream that centers on the wedding of Axl Rose and then-partner Stephanie Seymour. It starts out with our protagonist frontman sitting up alone in bed, swallowing a few pills from his nightstand. The scene shifts to a concert hall, where Guns N’ Roses play with orchestral accompaniment. From that point we’re treated to a relatively straightforward nuptial narrative (I mean, I don’t know if you’d call best man Slash stepping out of the church to rip a solo “straightforward”, but this is LA in the ‘90s so whatever). Things don’t get really weird until the reception, when the rain starts and Seymour somehow… dies? It is one of the more cinematic videos in the annals of MTV’s heyday, and also one of the more puzzling. Although it makes a lot more sense if you’ve read the short story “November Rain” is based on (which is about a rock star who finds his ex wife dead by suicide as the song he wrote about the deterioration of their marriage plays on repeat in the background), that is kinda asking a lot from the audience. Just sit back and enjoy the trip.
Nine Inch Nails – “Closer” (directed by Mark Romanek)
In an interview with Kerrang!, director Mark Romanek recalled a conversation with Trent Reznor to the effect of, ”Trent said, ’Fuck it … If MTV won’t show it, fuck MTV.’” It is that unwavering spirit of fearless artistry in the face of likely censorship that makes the backbone of Nine Inch Nails’ exemplary “Closer” video. Borrowing from the likes of David Lynch, Man Ray and the Brothers Quay, “Closer” wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s a video that leans into elements of fetish scene taboos, blasphemy, and apocalyptic science fiction all at once, made all the more terrifying by Romanek’s patinated aesthetic. The pig’s head is real. The monkey was not harmed. The guy who makes the Slipknot masks also made that weird heart in the beginning. All’s right with the world
Twisted Sister – “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (directed by Marty Callner)
The mid-1980s might have been a great time for heavy metal, but they were bleak days for personal liberty. Led by then-senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper, the Parents Music Resource Center was a lobbying body that paired asinine liberals along with the moral majority in a quest to protect children from… bad words. The PMRC’s notorious “Filthy 15” list hit on some obvious targets like Mercyful Fate’s overtly satanic “Into The Coven” and Prince’s unapologetically sultry “Darling Nikki’, but their inclusion of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” can only be viewed as uptight parents trying to control their kids. In the video, an overbearing dad (played with aplomb by Mark Metkalf aka Animal House’s ROTC psycho Doug Neidermeyer) chastises his guitar-playing kid for seemingly no reason. At this point, the boy morphs into a fully decked-out Dee Snyder who expels the curmudgeon from the house with the power of rock. Dad is on the receiving end of all kinds of slapstick antics in his pursuit of reclaiming dominion over his house, all of which are done in the good faith spirit of comedy. As Dee Snyder explained during a congressional hearing, “The video ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ was simply meant to be a cartoon with human actors playing variations on the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote theme. Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons.” I don’t know if the PMRC were insidiously authoritarian or just profoundly stupid. Either way, I’m glad that they are gone.