Making The Video
I had been in London for six days, and I had managed to visit many of the most popular tourist destinations with my “dungeon master”. I had met my friend Sean in high school, where we both played Dungeons and Dragons with our group of nerd friends. While attending the University of Pittsburgh, we had stayed friends, mostly because all the other nerds went away to better schools. We had planned out a two-month long, affordable European summer adventure, in order to counteract a tedious first year of basic college coursework. We anticipated spending our first week in London, toting our cameras around, and seeing the sights. From Westminster Abbey, we walked to Piccadilly Circus, and had lunch near Trafalgar Square. We saw Big Ben, which was covered in massive scaffolding, and spent some time in Soho, looking for trouble. On one afternoon, we toured Windsor Castle and the surrounding community, sampling the local fare. We caught a movie in Regent Square, and took many pictures at Victoria Towers Garden. Our jet lag finally spent, we were left with one more day to spend in London before heading to mainland Europe. The plan was to bus down to Dover, where we could take the Sealink Hovercraft to France, and then continue our journey by train to Amsterdam.
The night before our final London day, we spent in a pub. Being 18, the legal drinking age in England, we took full advantage of our newfound freedom. The Sir George Robey was an authentic, smoky British pub with an authentic, smoky Irish band. We drank a few pints of John Courage Bitter and sampled an assortment of other liquid refreshments. We drank, and clapped along with the band and the crowd, feeling blissful and liberated. Sean and I were among the last few patrons ushered out of the pub, when it finally closed before morning. I remember nothing of our trip back to Finchley Road, where we were staying with an elderly cousin of mine, who knew my grandfather well.
By the time we got out of bed the next afternoon, we had already wasted half of our last day in London. The Whipsnade Zoo was chosen, after much debate over breakfast, as a low-key activity beneficial to nursing our hangovers. So, we took the Tube over to Baker Street to catch a bus to the zoo. It was an overcast day with an impending sense of cleansing rain. The street was crowded with people, and there was a buzz in the air. Already, we had begun to feel perkier, but Sean decided he needed to stop for a coffee. We sat on a bench watching the crowds pass by. Zoo buses left every hour, and we were in no hurry. Suddenly, without warning, a man walked right up to us as if he knew us. He looked at us and asked, in a garbled English accent, what we were doing for the rest of the afternoon. Before Sean could blurt out something about the zoo, I asked the guy why he wanted to know. He looked to be in a hurry.
“We’re shooting a pop video and we needs extras… you blokes like to have a go?” he asked, seemingly awaiting an instant response from the two of us.
“What kind of video?” I asked slowly, hoping it didn’t involve nudity.
“Pop,” he answered.
“What’s the name of the band?” asked Sean.
“Art,” he replied. “ Great white hope,” he added.
I looked at Sean and he looked back at me and together we gave off a “we-are-probably-not-interested” vibe. Less than a minute passed, before the guy told us where and when the bus was loading, in case we changed our minds. He added, as he was leaving, “There’s ten quid in it for bofe of you, if ya works.” He was gone in a flash.
Sean finished his coffee as we took stock of our developing options. We decided we would go to watch the Pop Video bus load, decide if it was worth it, and go from there. If not, we could simply walk another block to catch a zoo bus. It was a short walk to the loading place, and when we got there, we noticed a lot of kids our age sitting around in large groups. They were more than a few punk rockers sporting massive, colored Mohawks, covered with piercings. They mostly looked angry, and I made a silent promise to myself not to gawk, in an effort to avoid eye contact. Most of the kids assembled looked fairly normal, and there were noticeably a few preppies that reminded me of the Catholic School girls back in Pittsburgh. They wore short black skirts, smoked cigarettes, drank Pepsi’s, and giggled a lot. It was this group that swayed my vote towards getting on the bus, and it wasn’t a hard sell to Sean. So, when a bus finally pulled up, with another bus behind it, we just went with the crowd and queued up to board. It took 10 minutes to load both buses, but we were soon rolling through London toward the West End, knowing very little of what was about to happen to us.
We drove along a foggy river, and up some rickety docks, slowing down in front of some dark warehouses, which appeared at first to be abandoned. I thought I recognized this area from a Scooby Doo cartoon, and I was starting to get that creepy feeling Shaggy always did. After unloading from the bus, we were herded double-file, like cattle, into a cold warehouse with a copious staging area. We all looked around the stage like children on a field trip at the zoo, but what we saw was intriguing, bordering on alarming. There were chains hanging from the rafters, and fire pits flanking the sides of the rostrum. Guitars were propped up in stands, and a strange drum set sat in the middle of the stage that appeared fancy, but fake. There was a black spiral staircase, and lots of anvils on the set. Anvils of all sizes were strewn about haphazardly, creating an indecipherable motif that included elements of a medieval steel mill. We entered a chilly room filled with chairs and card tables, and Sean and I headed toward the back. As I watched the other kids disperse into the room, I noticed that they filled tables in the predictable lunchroom manner. The punkers sat together at two tables, producing the lion’s share of volume in the room. They all seemed to be enjoying this, which made me a little concerned. The black-skirted girls were in a corner not too far from us, and I kept an eye on them.
We filled out some short forms, got measured, and were sent in an assembly line toward the costuming room. Hurriedly, we were covered in black paper-thin cloaks and belted with gold ropes. Gold foil collars went around our necks at the base of our hoods and our wrists were bound with gold foil bracelets. I began to feel nervous and Sean looked like he was in comparable distress. Glancing around at the other slaves, I sensed an easiness in the air that I found comforting. I was beginning to question our rash decision to join the mysterious slave rock video community, and was starting to develop options in my mind for possible alternative action. We were then sorted by height, and led back into the staging area. I was separated from Sean, who was tall, so I walked behind a small, skirted girl. When I was told to kneel next to her, facing the stage, I caught a quick glimpse of her face. I was surprised to see a full set of straight white teeth with no lipstick on her full lips. Her eyes were green as was her ample eye shadow. She appeared to me as Irish Elf-ish, if I had to make a guess. She looked over at me and smiled. I was powerless to respond to her overwhelming beauty, except to smile meekly back with an inadvertent shoulder shrug. As I noticed her fine blonde hair barely touching her shoulders, a booming voice began speaking through a bullhorn, barking out orders and beginning some sort of countdown. The fire pits were all lit and the chains began to sway back and forth creating a metallic chime. Suddenly, there was a perceptible disturbance and we all looked in unison as the band took the stage.
Two poofy-haired blonde guys came out on the platform followed by a black haired guy in a red zoot suit. They went to pick up their instruments and I noticed that it was all strangely quiet. There were no wires anywhere and all the guitars were unplugged. The drum set, now an obvious prop, was getting a pretend solo workout by one of the laughing blonde guys. At once, they all turned their heads towards the two women approaching the stage, causing the entire assembled slave community to do the same. My jaw literally dropped when I recognized them. The first was a full figured, dark-haired vixen dressed in a black leather cloak. She had a backwards beret type hat on her massively poofy long hair. Though she was caked in mascara, she had brooding, dark eyes and a pretty face. Behind her was the real beauty, her younger sister, also dressed in typical rock wear. Her fishnet gloves went to her shoulders, which were bare. She appeared to be wearing a corset around her tiny waist, and long black boots that went above her knees. Her cleavage was impossible not to notice. It demanded my attention and yet quickly, I had to look away as if I had stared too long at the sun. Her frizzy blonde locks fell past her shoulders, covering her neck and chest.
I looked over to where I could just see a piece of Sean. He was sitting back on his feet with his mouth open as he stared at the stage. I whistled at him and was surprised to see him look my way and make actual eye contact. I mouthed the word “HEART” to him and pointed to the stage. He looked perplexed, so I made an outline over my heart with my fingers. His eyebrows went up and he started nodding. He whispered loudly, “Not ‘Art’” as loud music began to play. I recognized the song right away and I asked the Elfish girl next to me if she knew who the band was.
“Heart… I think, is their name” she replied with an alluring accent.
“Yes. It’s Ann and Nancy Wilson. The song is called ‘What About Love’,” I stammered to her. “Ever heard of it?”
“Fraid not,” she said. “Never eard em ere.”
“What? Don’t you guys have MTV?” I asked, surprised that a group as well known as Heart had not made it in Europe.
“I love MTV,” she began. For the next five minutes, she never stopped talking, mostly about America and television. Enthralled by her friendly enthusiasm, I was held rapt in attention. Yet, I also felt a pressing need to attend to the rock goddess Nancy Wilson, who was standing less than 10 feet from me, getting some last minute hair primps. Just then, without warning, the director began to address the slave army as a whole. He explained that we were to bow towards the stage with our arms and hands extended, and to try to keep our heads down as the cameras passed over. The first take was quick as the camera coasted above us, shooting upwards towards the Wilson sisters who were sharing a mic to lip synch. Bright lights backlit the stage, and at times, pointed directly at us, leaving us temporarily blind. The lights over the stage swayed back and forth like pendulums, creating a strobe like effect. The second take incorporated the smoke machines, and the music blared as the fire pits exploded with flames in synchronicity to the beat. I was surprised to see how high the jets of flame would reach, when the actual explosions were set off without notification. They left thick black clouds of smoke drifting into the rafters, explaining the chemical smell I had earlier noticed when we entered the warehouse. Looking down, I caught a glimpse at the Elfish girl, who was holding her head down, wiggling her fingers as she held them high. It occurred to me at that point, that if I were to somehow signal with my hands, then I could possibly identify my hands later, if and when I saw the video. So, as the camera passed overhead, I thrust out my hands with my ring finger and middle finger pulled into my fist. During my first semester of sign language we had learned the international sign for I love you. The I, the L and the Y all joined to make the recognizable three fingered gesture. I observed few other hands sporting signals, which made me feel distinctive and clever. There was a break in the filming as the set was being changed, and the slaves all sat on the ground in chatty circles.
Michelle, the Elfish nymph, introduced herself and asked me endless questions about America. I laughed inside, thinking that for once, I was the one who seemed foreign and exotic. I relished the moment.
“Have you ever been to the United States?” I asked.
“Thad be brilliant,” she exclaimed with unbridled enthusiasm, going on to tell me of her lifelong dream to go to America. It involved MTV, but I wasn’t sure how. As she spoke, I fell more deeply under her spell and I began to rethink my impending scheduled departure to France. We began to make small talk and she giggled a lot, flashing her striking smile. I started to imagine what it would be like introducing her to my friends back home. I offered her gum, which she demurely accepted. I wanted to hit the pause button, in order to make the moment last.
Bullhorns blared instructions and quickly the slave army all stood at attention. Half of the slaves, mostly from the back of the room, were corralled back into the table and chair room. As we jostled for position, I lost Michelle in the slave-filled shuffle. I got close to the front of the left side of the stage once again. Nancy Wilson walked over to right in front of me and looked down, seemingly in good spirits. I bolstered my courage and called out to her.
“Heart rocks!” I yelled with a fist pump. “You go, Nancy!”
Nancy returned my fist pump with one of her own and pretended to strum her quiet guitar like Pete Townsend of The Who. The slaves around me cheered, and I felt a pat on my back. I trembled with excitement and nearly pooped my pants.
The filming continued and a few takes later, we heard “that’s a wrap!” over the bullhorn. All around me, black cloaks were ripped away from bodies and gold foil temporarily filled the air. I glanced around for Michelle and Sean, but found neither of them. The remaining group began to exit the warehouse and we all slowly boarded the one bus that remained. I hoped that Sean had gotten on the other bus because I didn’t see him on mine. On the ride back, it was a joyful scene as a guy came down the aisle handing out ten-pound notes to each of us. By the time the bus stopped, back near Baker Street, I had made more friends than I had in four years of high school. Yet, to my dismay, nobody knew of Michelle.
I saw Sean as I got off the bus and I scanned around quickly for any signs of Michelle. Twice I thought I saw her black skirt but both girls were way too tall. I walked over to Sean and sat on the bench next to him.
“That was awesome,” he said. “And we got paid.”
“ I’ll never see her again,” I said.
“Who? Nancy Wilson? We’ll see it at home, on MTV,” he answered, beaming with pride.
“Not her,” I mumbled. “The blonde girl.”
I put my head in my hands as Sean reminisced about Nancy Wilson’s cleavage. I surveyed the area for another half hour before giving up. We rode back on the Tube, exuberant from our adventure, comparing notes.
After returning to the States, I finally saw the video. It ran on MTV for several weeks, eventually allowing me to record it on my VCR. The whole slave footage lasts only a few seconds, and the video itself, in retrospect, is dated and comical. Although it appears fairly grainy when the frame is frozen, I can almost make out my slave hand. I have paused it many times, trying to see my hand signals, disappointed that Michelle is all but invisible, lost in the sea of dark cloaks and golden foil.
The video is now, not surprisingly, posted on YouTube. I left a comment seeking other slaves for a potential reunion, but have yet to get any hits. Most of the other remarks were positive and many made mention of Nancy Wilson’s enduring sex appeal. Several people wax nostalgic for the innocence of the Eighties, and the campy nature of those early music videos. There was even a brief dialogue pertaining to the mysterious motif, most willing to claim an early metal rock theme, which, I guess, explains all those anvils.