A decade later, the Billie Jean video was inducted into the Music Video Producers Hall of Fame and now, some 32 years after the video was released, Barron has written a book, titled Egg ‘n’ Chips and Billie Jean: a Trip Through the Eighties. The music video that least excited Barron has, in many ways, come to define him.
The 58-year-old Dubliner has since directed a number of successful feature length films including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Rat (2000) and the hugely popular Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001), a sequel to which is due to be released next year. He has also been nominated for 27 Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes.
However, it is Barron’s creative output during the Eighties, when he was working with and producing music videos for artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, Dolly Parton, A-ha (Magne Furuholmen from the band designed the artwork for the memoir), Paul McCartney and David Bowie, that forms the basis of this fascinating memoir, released earlier this month.
Was writing the book a cathartic experience?
SB: It was quite a cathartic experience. I wrote it in two chunks; I just went away for some of it and did nothing else for 14 hours a day, which is the best way of doing it.
I imagine all sorts of memories came flooding back…
SB: Memories kept popping out of the woodwork. I’d be writing about a specific day in the Eighties, and suddenly I would be back near the street where I once was with Michael Jackson – La Brea [in Los Angeles]. It’s a very particular street between Highland and Santa Monica that I drove up and down many times. It is almost the route to everywhere: not far from the Chateau Marmont where you’d hang out, [near the] Sunset Marquee, so it seemed to be at the centre of everything. I did once add up that I’d spent a total of four years at the Sunset Marquee during the Eighties.
When I went to write about all of that, I kept driving again and smelling La Brea, which has a very specific, dry smell. It has a smell that is very hard to describe: it’s LA, but it’s dry, dust meets petrol. It was very different to London, which has always got this very familiar, but sort of dank feel.
It was obviously a special time…
SB: Things came together at a certain time; in a certain atmosphere; when, culturally, things were at a certain place. Culture was in a pretty bad way. When you look at movies in the Eighties, we weren’t in great shape, creatively.
And so there was a massive opportunity for something to come along and change, in particular, the rhythms. And we realised that we didn’t have to just do what we’d seen before. We could be open to something completely original or extraordinary. There was a bunch of us who felt that way at the same time, and we began kicking open the door and the door kept opening, so we just piled in and had a great experience creating some absolute rubbish – and some stuff that has stayed around. I am really, really happy that I was there to experience, and lucky enough to experience, that journey through the Eighties.
And how do you feel about the state that culture is in today?
SB: My heart bleeds for music video directors who are trying to get through now on formats such as YouTube. There isn’t an industry, it’s falling away. Whereas we had a massive opportunity, there was a gaping hole to be filled. Right now, such a thing does not exist, there’s just a mass of everything with no holes to fill. You just have to shout louder. And there are some great videos being done that would have won MTV Video of the Year 10 times over back in the day. It is much harder to get appreciated because there is so much noise around. But there is some really great stuff out there.
Let’s go back to how it all started. How did you arrive at a stage when Michael Jackson’s agent is calling you to ask you to direct the video for Billie Jean?
SB: I left school early and became a camera assistant; a tea boy, really. I leaned to make a great cup of tea and got very involved with a lot of good film crews, who were doing a lot of good films. At the time I was really good at the tea and I think I was quite efficient at being perceptive of what might be needed.
Who gave you that first break?
SB: I worked with a film director called Peter Macdonald who was absolutely brilliant. He was involved with Cabaret (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978); all these major films. He was a brilliant operator, but he also had a real discipline about him which I’d never really seen.
I’d come out of school where it was all about getting away with what you could, and suddenly I couldn’t get away with anything. If I’d been out late the night before, he’d put me on the crane with the zoom, give me the most tricky job, where I couldn’t move out of my seat because of the balance. I would be hungover as hell. And he would have me doing the most complicated zoom, ending up on a close-up of Michael Caine. That was the best growing up I could do because it was a real discipline for someone who had become unwieldy at school. Even though I was someone who was really young, I was in the know technically, without training, just from observing.
And how did you then make the jump from working on film sets to directing and producing music videos?
SB: I’m hanging out with people like The Jam or Siouxsie and the Banshees. The music’s really interesting and we all tended to end up at the Speakeasy Club, so my social life is around music, not film.
The bands were my mates and they’re all curious about me working on these big movies. There were very few people who were connected in any way to music and film, there really wasn’t a crossover. And suddenly I was on that bridge and, even though I was just loading the film, the music people didn’t know the difference between that and a director. So it was like, ‘can you make one of those films that you’re working on for us?’
What was the first music video you made?
SB: The very first band that I filmed was The Only Ones, for their single Another Girl Another Planet. But the band I first connected with was The Jam. They were becoming really big. I wasn’t friends with them but I’d attempted to film a day at the Reading Festival that they were headlining, and so I met their manager and we filmed some of it. The Jam were aware that I was around trying to put these things together. At the time, what I was producing weren’t even called videos; they were called promotional films. I remember it changing between 1978 and 1980. At first, bands were saying ‘get me one of those promotional films’ and then suddenly it was a case of, ‘get me one of those videos’. It was then that the music video was born.
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Michael talks about Billie Jean on a 1999 interview at 9:23