Anarchy Killed The Radio Star: Peter Whitehead

The promo films made by Peter Whitehead for The Rolling Stones in the 1960s mark the real birth of the music video

What links Allen Ginsberg, 1968s violent civil rights protests in New York and the Top of the Pops?

Forget Bohemian Rhapsody - the music promo has its real roots in 60s counter-culture.

It werent us, your honour: Keith Richards as the judge, Mick Jagger as Oscar Wilde and Marianne Faithfull as Bosie, in the We Love You promo.

Video Jukebox: Peter Whitehead takes a break from flying falcons in 1985.

This year's Edinburgh Film Festival will screen a seven-hour documentary on the history of the music promo. Video Jukebox was originally broadcast on 1985, only four years after the birth of MTV and a point in time when the music video had just recently become entrenched in the music industry machine. Watching now the equally dour pair of John Peel and fellow radio DJ John Walters in Video Jukebox, it's clear the one chapter in the story of the music video has largely been neglected: the role of the 1960's and, in particular, one man - the radical filmmaker Peter Whitehead.

One Monday in 1967, Whitehead took a call from the BBC. It was nothing unusual. They wanted him to fly to Dublin and make a short film to accompany The Dubliner's new single "Seven Drunken Nights" on that Thursday's Top of the Pops show. Whitehead agreed and accepted his usual fee - £200. The film would be shown once.

"I fly into Ireland, and I meet The Dubliners in a pub," Whitehead explains, still sporting the dandy's cut glass accent that matched his 60's style. "They all look at me as if I am a shit, you know? Anyway, we go out drinking - I don't usually drink - and somewhere along the line we pick up some really bright funny girl in a pub and, to cut a long story short, I wake up the next morning in her flat. No camera, no film and no memory of anything but this drunken crawl. I got on an aeroplane, got back to London and called my assistant, who said he'd put all the film into a lab -  I had actually shot a lot of film that night. We got the film back and, out of an hour-and-a-half, there were about eight minutes which were usable. So I bunged it altogether saying to the BBC, 'If you don't like it, sorry'. Anyway, they loved it, and it has such a response that they showed it again the next week, and again the week after that. I got my £200 three times."

It's now common currency that the music video began in the mid 70's, when record companies started paying for them and filmmakers started playing flashy tricks like Freddy Mercury's head rotating around a screen. But during the 60's, when TV shows themselves made promos to broadcast as compensation for bands not appearing live, the short music film already existed. Then - as now - these films had one foot in throwaway trash and the other in art.

Whitehead was one of the greatest avant-garde British filmmakers of the 60's. Between 1965 and 1969, he made five films which together stand as an unrivalled document of that decade's counterculture. The first was Wholly Communion, which captured an international beat poet convention in the Albert Hall. The last was The Fall, partly shot in New York, it uses footage which Whitehead took inside the city's Columbia University during the 1968 civil rights protest and occupation there. Whitehead is most well known though for his 1967 film Tonite, Let's Make Love In London, a wry look at so-called Swinging London. (He still argues strongly that the whole idea of Swinging London was invented and propagated by the CIA as a way of ridiculing British youth culture which had protest against the Vietnam War at it's core.)

"And in the meantime I was poncing about making money doing videos for Top of the Pops," Whitehead laughs. "That's the irony of it, but anyway...".

Whitehead's work with bands like The Dubliners, Pink Floyd and, above all, The Rolling Stones was the very inception of the artful, experimental and daring pop promo. In 1966, Whitehead completed a film for The Stones' "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow" which combined violent live footage of the band being attacked on stage with images of the band dressed in drag. A year later, Whitehead was asked to shoot a short film to promote The Stones' "We Love You" single. Filmed the day before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards appealed in court against their drugs convictions, Whitehead filmed the band in a courtroom setting, paralleling the case with the trial of Oscar Wilde. The finished film was banned by the BBC. Jagger and Richards won their appeal.

You only have to look at the competition to understand just how radical Whitehead's work with The Stones was at the time. Take, for example, the film used in 1967 to illustrate Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" on Top

of the Pops. For the full length of the song, it featured a clown camply running around in an empty TV studio wiping - no surprise this - fake tears from his face. Many similar promos didn't feature the artists at all. If they did, they were usually just tame recordings of live studio performances - nothing like the grainy, slow motion footage which Whitehead had offered of The Stones playing the Albert Hall, the crowd storming the stage, girls throwing themselves at the band's feet and boy throwing wild punches.

Whitehead himself gave up filmmaking in the 70's. He moved to Saudi Arabia in 1981 to pursue another love: falconry. One there, he set up the world's largest falcon breeding centre with the support and sponsorship of the Saudi royal family. On the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, he moved back to the UK and currently writes fiction.

Dazed and Confused: Do you remember Video Jukebox being shown on TV in the 80's?

Peter Whitehead: It started at 7pm, I think, and my bit came in about 8:15 and was seen by 8 million people. I remember thinking that after all my aspirations to make movies, to change the world and do The Fall - I'd had a nervous breakdown, I nearly got shot - my work is finally seen by 8 million people because I've made a few pop films. There's one thing I want to say now, one thing I've always been miffed by. If you talk to anybody about the history of pop videos, the mainstream comment has always been that the first true pop video was 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.

I knew you were going to say that.

Well, for fuck's sake. You look at The Rolling Stones' 'We Love You', which was made five years before in 1967. It was the first serious, politically committed, intelligent cultural video - which was also selling a song. made just before The Stone's drug trial, it dealt with The Stones' predicament. It transformed them all into actors in a drama and recreated the Oscar Wilde Trail. It dressed up Marianne Faithfull as Bosie. As far as I'm concerned, nothing that went before that achieved what I achieved with that film. And I've always hoped that one day I'd get recognition for it. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was a load of unadulterated crap.

Did you have different attitude towards making music promos and your other film work?

I did at the beginning. But then I began to realise when I worked with The Stones just how good they were. I considered some of them to be silly. If I did The Shadows, they were silly. If I did The Dubliners, they were fun. But if I did The Stones, I thought they were fucking genius.

They were only made to show once.

'We Love You' would have been shown once. But it was actually banned by the BBC because of the Oscar Wilde thing.

What was the band's role in making 'We Love You'?

Mick rang me up and said 'Look, we've got this song coming out, and because we've got our trial on Monday and we're going to prison, have you got any ideas because we can film it on Sunday?' So I was filming The Stones on Sunday imagining they were going to prison on Monday. I rang Mick back and said that as far as I was concerned this case case was as corrupt, scandalous, illegal and historically relevant as the case of Oscar Wilde. I wanted him to dress as Oscar Wilde and Marianne as a guy, as his boyfriend. Mick said, 'I'd love to do that, let's do it'. They weren't very cheerful that day. I can tell you, expecting to go to bloody prison. And then I said, 'Listen can you bring the fur rug?' The fur rug was the  one that Marianne was supposed to be under naked when they were busted. In one stroke, we said that this was going to be as scandalous as the Wilde trial - plus we could end up hopefully with a movie which we could go on to promote the song with. And to say that this is a lesser film than fucking 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - well that is simply unfair.

Front line stars: The Stones in the promo for Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow.