If you were an indy band in the 1980’s things that are ubiquitous, inexpensive and common place now, stuff that even a child takes for granted today - were very dear.
To my band EXUDE, a group with a strong visual angle (once referred to as a Van Halensque version of Adam Ant), music videos were mostly something we could only dream of.
Having freshly migrated from northern Michigan to southern California, we had no support system. No friends from school to help fill the clubs, no neighbors or co-workers to call on.
Music videos were controversial (were they ruining music!?), and also the fastest new way to break a band. To those too young to remember, MTV played only music videos and was HUGE in the 1980’s.
But to a young, broke unconnected band of musicians who wanted their own music video, the only options were beyond our means.
You needed an education just to learn how to turn on, let alone operate the necessary gigantic cameras of the day.
If it was mobile, chances are you had heavy batteries strapped to you in some fashion. Things we take for granted like being able to shoot something without controlled lighting (now done billions of times a day with phones) were technically and literally impossible.
Editing was “linear,” a cumbersome, lumbering affair. You started at the beginning and edited in order until you got to the end. Change your mind about something in the middle and you’d have to start over - seriously. Not to mention, editing meant making a copy of a copy. Quality suffered, but it was the existing standard way of doing things.
At the time I had a dayjob as an assistant manager at a video arcade. My boss, who had a budding interest in directing, expressed interest in helping us create our first music video.
A friend of his, Robert Jacobs, was recruited to handle camera work on an ambitious 1940’s period piece to accompany our new single, a “Nu-Rock” version of Chatanooga Choo Choo.
The director, ambitious, but with little experience, had chosen some excellent locations. However, without any artificial lighting, he was unaware of the need to do a “light study” of the changes in natural light.
So there we were, the band and about a dozen extras all done up in 1940’s clothing and ready to go. Without so much as a light reflector, Robert was tasked with filming (yes film) a 16 mm shoot.
We had locations that were too dark, had others where the light was coming from the wrong direction and worse.
Even a 1980’s standard definition “state of the art” transfer from film to video would be considered poor quality by any untrained eye today.
Irregardless, Robert did his best, and the resulting video, owing to everyone’s efforts was good enough to make an appearance as a contestant on MTV’s Basement Tapes.
Ever the restless creative soul, Robert kept in contact with us and we discussed doing another video. This time shot on video. Film was expensive and we weren’t any richer. He worked at a place that set up and operated video and audio installations. Robert could “borrow” equipment after hours and no one would be the wiser.
So we set about planning another ambitious video for our very 1980’s techno rock sounding song, “Life Is” (think Gary Numan meets Kraftwerk).
I’m not entirely sure of the original source video’s format, maybe ¾” video, but with it we had even less room for controlled lighting than with film. Before Disneyland bought and built over a parking lot behind the park, we were able to get night shots of me lip syncing with their nightly fireworks going off over my head. A free/guerilla method of upping our production values!
My brother worked on the maintenance crew at a hotel and we were able to pull off some motorcycle stunts in its empty parking lot (in the days before surveillance cameras).
Robert got his hands on public domain footage of atomic bomb tests.
There was a dream sequence where I had to awake, nude (except for a bedsheet I used to obscure my non G-rated parts) that we shot of me scurrying around in downtown Los Angeles in broad daylight. The goal was to reenact that common dream where you suddenly find yourself nude in public. Luckily, early that Sunday morning, the city was nearly deserted and no “public nudity” or “sex offender” tickets were issued.
Laboriously Robert assembled the video. He was able to use some early analog effects, that although primitive now - were fresh looking at the time.
After all the hard work and effort, there was no Youtube to show the video to the world. A bit obscure and artsy, even for MTV, the video was seen only by a few hard-core fans.
In 1989, we signed a record deal with an Australian record company. The company was basically a one man show, operated by an enthusiastic young Aussie named Kent Broderick.
Broderick was tossing a “Hail Mary” by backing us (and thus burning through a modest trust fund left by his deceased father probably intended for his education).
The fledgling label ended up committing nearly $40,000 to shoot and produce our newest music video, “Safe With You.” In 1989, I don’t think even Michael Jackson was spending $40,000 on a music video.
Broderick flew in a crew from “down under” including a director currently in the favor of Australian MTV. As a part of the deal we gave total rights to our previous videos and several recordings (including Chatanooga Choo Choo, and “Life Is”).
Chatanooga Choo Choo had been funded with the donations of a few dedicated fans. It was ours to give.
It never occurred to us that “Life Is,” on the other hand, was pretty much solely done by the blood, sweat and tears of Robert Jacobs. I admit, being a lead singer in a band takes a certain measure of ego and self-involvement. Since the video starred us, it never occurred to any of us that even though we never paid Robert a dime for all his work, or talked about “ownership” that he at least shared some if not all ownership. We really had no business making a deal that included that video without talking to him.
In my defense, up to that point old music videos, without YouTube, had the value of – well… nothing.
Even major record labels were putting no effort into archiving, restoring or keeping the original masters or production materials for their videos from deteriorating. Case in point, look up the poor state of the majority of music videos that have survived from the 1980’s.
As far as value or sales, in those days the only one selling VHS copies of music videos in any volume was Madonna. Madonna created a sensation by selling copies of her music music video for Justify My Love after it was banned by MTV.
So a copy of the video went to Australia, things moved on and we started production on the “Safe With You” video.
My musician neighbor had a friend who had just completed film school learning to be a camera operator. He had an acquaintance that he recommended we hire as a producer. That man, Dan Lebental, aside from being a crack producer who pulled off an amazing production for us nearly overnight, is known today for his masterful editing work on the megahit movies Elf, Iron Man and Ant Man.
The label hired and imported a director for “Safe With You.” A huge yeti of a man, the self confident, brash but talented Australian named Tony Egan.
We invited Robert Jacobs to the shoot. It was something we wanted all our friends and supporters to experience - a full production on a soundstage, sets, professional makeup, lighting, stuntmen, you name it.
When Jacobs was introduced to Egan as “the cameraman for Chatanooga Choo Choo,” Tony, with his Asperger’s-like insensitivity said, “Oh that video looked like crap!” Poor Robert, a bit taken aback, struggled to explain the impossible logistics he had faced.
In his defense, Robert had pulled off an amazing feat by actually getting us reasonably usable footage under impossible circumstances. The fact the video was able to be finished and actually aired nationally on MTV was a huge accomplishment.
Here was Egan, virtually surrounded by dozens of crew members scurrying at his command, with professional lights, on a sound stage putting down a man who had risen to a huge challenge and succeeded. Tony, uninterested in Robert’s explanation, got distracted and without further ado, drifted off.
Robert, a sensitive artistic man was, of course, wounded.
The video was finished, and although winning the final Basement Tapes competition on American MTV, was unfairly derided by a famous Australian late night comedy show. In a calculated way, the video was made into a joke on national Australian TV by someone, who we later learned was using the opportunity as retribution against Tony (probably for another insult that he had delivered to the wrong person). Tony today says that it ruined his career. Karma is a bitch.
Of course, it was easy to make fun of the wild styles we sported as a band in the late 1980’s. My swooping hairsprayed doo rivaled the lead singer of Flock of Seagulls for aerodynamics. But the 1980’s were all about being bold, unconventional and fresh and EXUDE was the genuine article.
Basement Tapes winners were usually given airtime on MTV for a month. As the final winner of the final Basement Tapes show, you might think we would at least receive that. Unfortunately, an executive had made a decision to instead award that air time to a new hot group that had just emerged. I kid you not when I tell you that group was - Milli Vanilli. Yes, Milli Vanilli got our airtime and used it to break through to the masses. Sigh!
Fast foward to nearly 30 years later.
Kent and his label have suffered the fate of the entire music business. His copyrights and property have been devalued by the information age. His father’s nestegg long since gone, his musical properties worth little, Kent struggles to survive working at a retail position.
Unlike every other label on earth, however, Kent managed to keep his properties alive. Transferring old tapes to fledgling digital formats. Then when that format became outdated, transferring and updating it again to the new standard digital format. Kent took care to store the original films for Chatanooga Choo Choo and Safe With You so that they survived and could be re converted to digital in the age of HD and 4K. Until, finally today, the software exists to help compensate for the poor lighting conditions that Robert had to cope with.
Wanting to update his properties yet again, Kent sent me to Universal Mastering, one of the premiere digital mastering houses on earth, to digitally remaster my old albums.
I was able to reach Robert and invited him for the big event. Things started off great. I was happy to see him, and Robert had brought a secret stash of a video he had shot of EXUDE that had never been used. Stylish, and fragmentary, it was still wonderful to see.
It was then I learned that unbeknownst to each other, Kent and Robert had clashed online. Robert, proud of his work, had posted a copy of “Life Is” online. Kent, not realizing it was Robert, thought someone had intruded on his copyright and had issued a “take down notice.”
Robert was again wounded and confused. How could they take down the video he had created?
It took a minute for me to put two and two together. I finally remembered that Kent had told me he had to issue a take down notice. It wasn’t a first. This had become customary for him as he was constantly finding music or videos he owned posted without his permission.
Not realizing the significance of yet another insult to Robert, I must have seemed like a inconsiderate ass when I realized what had happened and related the story to Robert (thinking it was a humorous mix-up).
The significance to Robert still did not register with me. Unlike the videos for Chatanooga Choo Choo and Safe With You, “Life Is” had been shot on video. Standard definition video. Film can be re-sampled with new technology which allowed for vast improvements in it’s quality. Video footage – not so much.
To me, no one could make a dime from the old videos, even the ones that could be restored. In my mind they weren’t of any value to most anyone, other than for sentimental reasons. But underestimating what a"sentimental value" could be was my mistake.
I was so clueless that it was only later that I realized that Robert’s silence (after I told him about the "take down" coming from Kent) was because he must have again felt robbed. He was again been insulted by his involvement in an artistic endeavor, an endeavor meant to help me. When I finally realized my faux paux - it was too late.
Robert didn’t answer emails and the phone number I had for him didn’t work. He disappeared into the ether of existence. I am sure he hoped to never be reminded of the injuries suffered by his well-intentioned efforts and involvement with me.
The irony is that Kent has now, at great expense, had Chatanooga Choo Choo digitally converted with state of the art technology. This has resulted in a vast improvement and also allowed corrections to be made to the color, contrast and quality of the video. At some time in the near future, Robert Jacob’s work will be seen in whole new light. When it is done, I will embed a link here for all to see. Maybe a bit of a before/after just to illustrate the difference a few decades can make.
At this point I am loathe to invade Robert’s self imposed peaceful exile from EXUDE and everything in “Frank Rogalaland,” but, I need to at least set the public record straight. Thank you Robert for your faith in me and EXUDE and all of your hard work.
I, we (the members of EXUDE) do appreciate the faith that you had in us and all that you did for us. I personally wanted to make sure that, in this small way I could publicly give you the credit for your work and talents!
I wish you well and hope someday I hope I am empowered with a way to somehow make it all up to you. With love and respect, your friend, Frank Rogala.