Lou Reed’s seminal work with the Velvet Underground is back in the spotlight thanks to the tandem announcements of the Hal Wilner-produced all-star album I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground and Nico and superfan Todd Haynes’s forthcoming documentary about the art-rock band. But as a post-Velvets solo artist, Reed was one of the few acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s who made the transition to MTV — albeit in his case, quite reluctantly and unconventionally.
In fact, Reed’s arguably most famous music video didn’t even feature him. And Reed was such a punk provocateur, and still so ahead of his time, that that clip was deemed too much for MTV. When “No Money Down” premiered in 1986, the cable network’s switchboards lit up with complaints that it was traumatizing younger viewers and making them cry. And even 35 years later, it’s still the stuff of nightmare fuel.
“I thought that was really funny, that one,” Reed, who died in 2013, quipped in his typical manner, when asked by Neil Gaiman about the “No Money Down” video during one of his final interviews.
“In my opinion, even though it was kind of banned from MTV and people couldn’t understand it — it was wasn't at that ‘class’ of what MTV was supposed to be about — the video itself still to this day is very powerful. And people talk about it a lot,” Reed’s bassist from that era, Fernando Saunders, told PBS in 1997. “You know, wherever I go, people say that people should make more take more chances like that, like R.E.M with ‘[Losing My] Religion’ or something like that. I think it is at that level. … It's still considered one of the top pop videos. Innovative.”
In the deeply unsettling body-horror video, the Metal Machine Music man literally becomes a machine, a sort of failed reanimation experiment/gene-splice of Max Headroom, Hellraiser’s Pinhead, and maybe a member of StarTrek’s Borg collective. The spectral spectacle of the robot Reed lip-synching the Mistrial track is of course creepy enough. (The bionic creature was initially intended for another song from that album, “Video Violence,” but when Reed’s record label switched the single to this poppier option but kept the already-paid-for animatronic concept, the resulting contrast between the imagery and the music made everything even weirder.) However, about a minute and a half into the video, gloved human hands come into frame and start ripping the rubbery flesh and vein-like wires from Reed’s emotionless face, revealing the steel-and-plastic exoskeleton beneath. And that’s the not-ready-for-prime-time moment that kept “No Money Down” off MTV for years.
A decade later, thankfully, “No Money Down” was introduced to a somewhat more jaded and/or appreciative ‘90s MTV audience via Beavis and Butt-head. The cartoon tastemakers/headbangers declared it “the coolest of all videos” and suggested that Reed join GWAR — obviously the ultimate compliment coming from them.
The bizarre experimental film of sorts was the work of the legendary Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, who by 1986 had co-directed many groundbreaking videos that had been in heavy MTV rotation — like the duo’s own “Cry” (one of the first music videos to feature digital morphing technology), the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and “A View to a Kill,” and most notably Herbie Hancock’s android-packed “Rockit,” a five-time VMA winner. For that latter video, Godley & Creme had utilized the existing “robotic sculptures” of British artist and inventor Jim Whiting. But for “No Money Down,” they had to commission a custom Reed facsimile from a special effects company, after they realized that the famously cantankerous rock legend had zero intention of appearing in the video himself.
“He said, ‘You can do anything you want, so long as I'm not in it,’” Godley tells Yahoo Entertainment with a chuckle. “We thought, ‘OK, the notion of doing a Lou Reed video without Lou Reed in it is preposterous.’ But that was essentially what we did.”
Reed did agree to sit for a facial mold-casting to create the uncanny-valley final product. “I remember Lou had to have his face covered in plaster for about 15 minutes, breathing through a straw in his nose. They made this head that was operated by two or three people offscreen. It blinked. The mouth could move. Looking back at it, after three seconds, you know it's not Lou Reed — unless he wasn't feeling particularly well on that day,” Godley jokes. "But I think it was a bit disturbing, if you had bought into the fact that it was really Lou for an instant, when he started pulling his eyes apart. That was pretty grotesque. And that was the intent. So yeah, I think it was looked upon [by MTV executives] as, ‘Oof, we’re not sure about this. No one's dancing!’ Yes, that was a weird one.”
The ultimate irony is the original concept of the music video didn’t even include the Reed-bot “tearing itself to pieces” — so if Godley & Creme had just stuck to the script, MTV might have played “No More Down” a whole lot more back in the day. But then it wouldn’t have gone on to become a Beavis & Butt-head-approved cult classic.
“What happened was we filmed three takes, and so we got everything we wanted in the can. So, we said, ‘OK, at a certain point, when we give you a signal, we want the human hands that are here to rip the face,’” Godley laughs. “And these poor guys who had spent three weeks building [the robot] for us, they were like, ‘Wait, you want us to destroy that? We've put all our love and soul into it!’ And we said yes. And so, they did! We just gave them the signal and then they ripped the thing to pieces — which is not what you expect to happen, which is why [that scene] has been haunting everyone’s dreams, probably. It was pretty freaky. That had to be one take, of course. Once we'd done that, it was time to go home.”
Godley and his then-musical/cinematic partner Creme — who got their start in the early ‘70s as members of the English classic rock band 10cc — “sort of fell into music video” just before the MTV revolution, when they made their own video for the Godley & Crème single “Englishman in New York” off their 1979 album Freeze Frame. Soon they were an in-demand directorial duo, lensing videos for the likes of Culture Club, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, George Harrison, Wang Chung, and Yes. “We were musicians, and I think at that time there weren't many directors around with that kind of background per se, and musicians felt more comfortable talking about their ideas with musicians than with someone who used to direct documentaries or TV or whatever,” says Godley. “And so, that was a natural progression.”
After Godley & Creme parted ways professionally, Godley directed big-budget music videos on his own for U2 (those are his favorites), Fine Young Cannibals, Erasure, and Blur. But now, at age 75, he just released his first solo album, Muscle Memory — “to be honest, I didn't even know it was going to be an album,” he admits — and he says the crowd-sourcing technology he employed to assemble the record from fans' 186 musical submissions (including six from Gotye, of “Someone That I Used to Know” fame) reminds him of music video’s early wild-west era. “There weren't any rules. People can now buy recording equipment and musical instruments relatively cheaply. They can do everything that one used to need a big posh studio for. It can be now done in your bedroom with your computer, for the most part. … It is an exciting period.”
As for that very exciting period when Godley made the trailblazing and terrifying “No Money Down” video with life-long rule-breaker Lou Reed, one has to wonder if Reed freaked out when he first saw himself self-destruct on the small screen in ’86. “I don't think anything would freak Lou out,” Godley says. “And if it did, he wouldn't show it.”
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