The cliche about New Yorkers is that they don’t ever actually bother to see the city they live in until their friends and family come to visit them. For me at least, it’s extremely true–I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to hang out at the Liberty Bell and eat at Geno’s every day when I grew up in Philly either, but having lived here for nearly a half-decade, whenever I look at the New York sections of various travel guides, it’s still pretty disheartening to see the amount of stuff I haven’t done. I mean, it’s always there, right? It’s true with most things in life that when you have all the time in the world to do something, you’re pretty well guaranteed to never actually do it. You need the fresh eyes and legs of an outside visitor–someone for whom everything about the city seems new and exciting, and for whom the amount of time to really soak it up the way it was meant to be experienced is extremely finite.
New York seems like it was probably a pretty exciting place in the early-mid 80s, especially in terms of music. Punk had more or less crested in the city, and now dance where was it was at–the early days of electro and hip-hop. Of course, if you were actually living here at the time, you probably took it entirely for granted–maybe you went to a gig or block party here and there, or occasionally stopped and watched some b-boys on the street, or saw Wild Style in theaters, but ultimately, you likely neglected to take the effort to really appreciate the scene. This, as with so many other things, is why we needed our friends across the pond to help us out. For some reason, it seems that just about every British artist that visited New York from the years 1981-1983 had to make a video that acted like a travelogue for the area’s underground scene. Whether things were just that exciting in the Big Apple, or that stagnant in the UK, all these guys acted like annoying friends who can’t stop raving about how amazing their last vacation was. Yet, they might have made the best documents of that time and place of them all. Examples:
- The Clash – “This is Radio Clash.” The Clash’s intense love affair with the city of New York in the early 80s had a profound effect on not just their recorded output (hip-hop and funk-influenced singles like “Radio Clash,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Rock the Casbah”) but on their live shows (an ill-fated attempt to cross boundaries by bringing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five along on a European tour) and, of course, their music videos. Here they parade up and down the city, as well as monitoring it from a Man Who Fell to Earth-style surveilance room, and note the graffiti-tagged trains, breakdancing and police violence contained therein. New York would also be the setting for the live clip heavily circulated on MTV for “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” as the band rocks out a surprisingly grateful Shea Stadium, also taking the time out to take a top-down cruise of the city while a mohawk’d Joe Strummer takes pictures with his camera.
- New Order – “Confusion.” Temporarily bored with making the best synth-pop records their own country would ever hear, New Order teamed up with Afrika Bambaataa producer and electro pioneer Arthur Baker (who surely ranks a close #2 to Rick Rubin for most disheveled-looking, long-haired white dude to have a profound influence on 80s hip-hop) in 1983 to make a New York club anthem of sorts. “Confusion” is one of the group’s lesser-remembered 80s singles, but it’s stayed a favorite of mine over the years, and the video is perhaps the most vivid of the Brits Visit New York genre. The group splits footage of themselves playing (and Baker tooling in the studio) with slice of life stuff in apartments and pizza parlors and the requisite club scenes. The thing I love about this video is that its always moving–both in its cinematography and in its action, whether its Baker gradually prepping the record for public consumption, the band cabbing it around, the ladies taking the subway to the club, or the dancers getting down when they’re actually there. The actual going out is always the most exciting part of going out anyway.
- Malcolm McLaren – “Buffalo Girls.” I’ve been practically obsessed with “Buffalo Girls” recently–admittedly silly square dancing lyrics aside (and even those are pretty fucking catchy), there’s nothing about it that I don’t find irresistible–all the great little samples and scratches and the skittering beat and the awkward stereo separation and everything. The video is similarly compelling, as McLaren wisely stays in the shadows for the most part and leaves the visuals to the DJs in the booth, the b-boys doing their thing in Washinton Square (the footage of which was used a few years ago for VH1’s And You Don’t Stop ads) and in the streets and clubs of the city. It’s hard to say what made a white, British 37-year-old music biz svengali like McLaren decide that he was the man to bring hip-hop to the UK, but he did at least end up getting about half a chapter in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, even if it was mostly about how he proved that hip-hop couldn’t be easil co-opted by clueless outsiders.
There’s also Blondie’s classic “Rapture,” but they weren’t British, just white, near-middle-aged and kind of weird locals.
So what are New Yorkers up to today in the streets and clubs? Hey, don’t ask me–I just work here. What we need is a new influx of tourist Brits to show us the things about the city that we’re too preoccupied with day-to-day life to actually notice for ourselves. There must be some exciting things going on–some dance or rock sub-culture bubbling under the surface just wating to burst out into the mainstream–we just have to get those fresh eyes back on the case to inform us, in convenient four-minute travelogue video form, what they are. Otherwise, we’re just stuck with Maino and The Virgins‘ admittedly biased takes on things.