A wooden head and a broken heart“Mind of a Toy” – Visage
Used, abused and torn apart
I gave you my best
and you gave me the rest
It’s time to die, time to die.
A common criticism of music videos, especially the ones created during the 1980s, is that they were all surface and little content. While there are strains of truth there, they are overshadowed by the kind of snobbery that booed Bob Dylan when he went electric and talked about how Grunge was necessary to snuff out the peroxide, hairspray-to-the-heavens glimmer flame of “hair rock.” Rush once sang that “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” and if someone is consciously going an “anti-image” route, guess what Bocephus, it is still an image.
Artists who often incorporate a purposeful touch with the visual side of music and performance have often had to fight a harder battle for respect and understanding. It’s the reason why bands that incorporated theatrics in their live shows got less respect than deserved (IE. The Tubes and even to some extent, Alice Cooper) versus a group of shag-a-muffins with their perfectly aged denim and flannel.
Case in point noted playwright and actor, Sam Shepard, documented his experience with the Rolling Thunder Review, where Dylan sported white face paint. In his book, The Rolling Thunder Logbook, he mentions seeing The Tubes and makes it sound like Satan on PCP versus the faux-earthiness of Dylan’s traveling show.
Artifice is artifice is artifice.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Visuals can enhance the music, creating something that is the embodiment of the phrase multimedia. The Tubes knew this. David Bowie understood, too, and so did the many artists that were direct descendants of Ziggy Stardust, most especially Visage and their frontman, the enigmatic paterfamilias of the New Romantic movement, Steve Strange.
The nucleus of Visage was formed in 1978 with Strange, Rusty Egan, who had played in the underrated power-pop band, The Rich Kids, and his former bandmate, Midge Ure, who is best known for being the lead singer of Ultravox (Mach 2 after John Foxx left). Visage emerged as a synthpop band that didn’t quite look or sound like anyone else.
There is no way one could ever confuse the band’s top 10 hit, ‘Fade to Grey” with, say, Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short” or even Ultravox’s “Vienna” or “Sleepwalk.” The music combined with Strange’s frontman presence, complete with his riveting blend of styles ranging from kabuki make-up and velvet to sporting tartans and beard stubble was an absolutely potent one. The thing about Strange is that anyone can wear make-up and dandied-up clothes, but it takes bollocks and inner-fancy to pull it off.
Visage was a natural fit for the onset of the music video age, so it’s no surprise that a number of their clips turned out so good. The videos for Fade to Grey, The Damned Don’t Cry, and Love Glove are the big standouts, but it’s the nightmare-surrealism of 1981’s Mind of a Toy that is especially unforgettable. The video was directed by the duo of Godley & Creme. In addition to being former members of the band 10cc, they were also one of the first standout music video creators. Their visual resume includes the infamous video for Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film,” the innovative clip for Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and even “Fade to Grey” by Visage, among many others.
With “Mind of a Toy,” Godley & Creme seemed to combine Steve Strange’s idea of dressing like Little Lord Fauntleroy (the titular character from the classic children’s 1886 book by Francis Hodgson Burnett) and classic childhood imagery twisted into sinister shapes, angles, and shadows. The end result is a piece of visual art that could hold up on its own, but when matched with the song, is a lush looking nightmare that can creep very quietly under your skin.
The song itself deals with the theme of the song’s narrator being tossed aside for a younger and newer paramour, akin to when children tire of their old toys after receiving a brand new shiny one. (After all, the sheen of the new can add shadows and cracks to the old when seen with the eyes of the young and the cruel.) That’s the surface level of it, but part of the twin brilliance of the song and video is that there are many interpretative roads to travel here.
The video, all hewn in blues, whites, red lips, and dusks, begins with an army of toy bears, angled slightly from above, giving the creepy illusion of marching toward a purpose of doom. The doom in question is displayed via a gilded frame that is seemingly suspended in the air showing the teddies tumbling down the stairs like lemmings being coerced off a cliff by a Disney nature film crew to their imminent death. It then cuts to a close-up of Steve Strange’s painted features appearing in the face of a grandfather clock, as his disembodied arm functions as a surrealist pendulum, while the bears lie motionless and scattered across the stairs.
A marionette of Strange holding a red ball appears in huge close-up and suspended in air, as the blades of a scissor start to clip at the strings. Now perched on the stairs is a small child, dressed exactly like Strange, who hands the ball over to an adolescent version-carbon-copy of him-herself, all establishing that a sad and sick pattern is at hand here. Not only are we expendable as adults, but even as children. In a world where various moral institutions fret over “the children” end up being often the same ones hiding one abuse scandal after another, humans are treated as disposable as the bits of plastic floating in the Mariana Trench.
That said, you know who else gets treated as disposable? Artists.
I’m all dressed up and nowhere to go
On a music box that never stop
I’ll dance for if you want me to
Move in time, move in time.
We soon see a full-grown Strange riding a wooden horse, an image that is both gorgeous with its dandied-pastel-tones and ghoulish, with murkiness shrouding the outer edges of the scene. The quick cuts of an extreme close-up of the horse’s toothy-grinning-maw moving only enhance the kinder-nightmare vibe.
Astride the horse, Strange looks simultaneously beautiful like a doll, menacing, and incredibly fragile. The rest of the video keeps the darkly surreal vibe at a taut pitch until the dollhouse burns while an old man version of Strange sits on the stairwell, laughing and holding the red ball. It’s all gonna end in ashes, one way or another.
“Mind of a Toy” is such a visual treat and resonant standout, even from the impressive and innovative Godley & Creme music video filmography. It is proof that you can create something on video that is lush and atmospheric without an astronomical budget or car commercial-graphic-gaffs or CGI. The fact that it’s attached to such a strong song from an underrated band is the icing and cherry on the cake. Godley & Creme both would continue to work in the video and music fields, both together and separately.
Visage would have various shifting line-ups with Strange being the consistent linchpin from the beginning to the end, which was his untimely passing in 2015. The world’s a little dimmer and less interesting without him, but with art like this video, his one-of-a-kind presence lives on.