Songwriter Interviews

Kevin Godley

by Carl Wiser

Share this post

With his partner Lol Creme, Kevin Godley created some of the most memorable videos of the early MTV era, a wildly creative time before commercial interests corrupted it. Thanks to Godley & Creme, we have the indelible images of Sting striking down candles ("Wrapped Around Your Finger"), Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush in a 5-minute embrace ("Don't Give Up"), and the living, dancing mannequins of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit."

Before they made videos, Godley and Creme made music and art, famously with Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman in 10cc, one of the most inventive and successful bands of the '70s. In 1976, Godley and Creme left to record as a duo and work on their invention: a device called the Gizmotron that hooked up to a guitar to simulate orchestral string instruments. Jimmy Page used the Gizmo on "In The Evening," but mere mortal axemen had a harder time getting it to work, and the company went bankrupt.

In 1980, a year before MTV, Godley & Creme started making music videos for Ringo Starr, Visage and Status Quo. They learned on the fly, with no strictures to restrain them (including nudity: Duran Duran's "Girls On Film" had to be completely re-packaged for MTV). With budgets and status, they became A-list directors for The Police, Culture Club, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, Graham Parker, Joan Armatrading, Eric Clapton and many others.

Concert visuals are another Kevin Godley specialty. After directing their video for "Even Better Than The Real Thing," he worked with U2 on their Zoo TV tour, which turned the concert experience into a stunning multimedia extravaganza. In 2019, he created a video for 10cc's biggest hit, "I'm Not In Love," which plays behind the touring edition of the band.

In this interview, we geek out a bit in discussing technical aspects like motion-control cameras and compositing, but also go into depth about the concepts and philosophy that have made Godley so successful - creatively and commercially - as both a songwriter and director.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I was watching your new video for "I'm Not In Love," and it's really striking in how simple and elegant it is. What is your philosophy for concert visuals?

Kevin Godley: To come up with something that doesn't disturb the performance and doesn't take the eyes off the performers too much. It's there really to complement what's going on as opposed to being the focus. It's always difficult to assess how that's going to work.

In terms of the band's canon, that song is quite significant. How can you sum it up in a succinct and tasteful way, a graceful way, without being obvious and without distracting people too much. I just went for something that I thought would be hypnotic and wouldn't be throwing too much information onto the screen, so if you looked away, you wouldn't miss anything.

I was aiming to somehow capture that sense of detachment, so the people are very dispassionate in the video, but the hair is very passionate. That wasn't something I realized when I came up with the idea - it was just going to be people with slow-motion hair, but once I began shooting, I asked the actors to keep their eyes closed throughout, and it just worked.

It was interesting for me on a couple of levels because I edited it myself. It was the first thing I did when I taught myself to edit. So, it was a buzz to do across the board.

Songfacts: I'm surprised you hadn't edited before. I always assumed you did that yourself.

Godley: I don't. I'd always felt more comfortable sitting back within the creative process, asking people to try things for me, and saying, "yes, no, let's do this, let's do that." Because I always felt that if I did both, the editor would be complaining about the director and the director would be complaining about the editor.

But the software you can buy these days, it's relatively easy to do so I just decided to try it. I didn't have anybody standing over me telling me what to do, which was a big help.

Songfacts: Well, I'm thinking of a video like "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," where it's pretty much all editing, just chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. What was your role in that video?

Godley: Well, it's interesting. We discovered a piece of software that was being used at the time. I don't know why it existed, but it was part of a console [switcher] made by a company called Grass Valley, and they had a visual sequencer which allowed you to set up a series of two-frame cuts for as long as you like between however many cameras you have. We knew this existed so we actually filmed it with that in mind. So, the process itself was automated.

We had a number of different situations going on throughout the song from lots of cameras, and then we ran it through this piece of software and told it to cut between takes one to six all the way through, two frames each. And that's all it is. In other words, it was an automated edit process because we knew vaguely how it would work. We designed the idea of the video for that piece of software.

We tried that technique once before for an American artist and it didn't work as well because it was too extreme. Every single shot that we did was different. There was a common denominator in that the artist was center frame, but we had him perform in six different environments, and again it was two-frame cuts all the way through the video. It was effective, but it kind of digged your head in. What we learned from it was that something has to remain static in the background. You can have things moving in there but if the environment is a constant thing, then it will work better.

So, sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong. It's not a definitive thing, it's a matter of luck, and the poor guy who got that video that didn't work, he didn't have all the luck, which is a shame. That's one of the bad things about making videos and being a well-known director: you get to try things, but people trust you, and I kind of regret that now. What we should've done was test it - shot something and tested the actual process before we actually went and shot it. But back then, being a video director was a bit like being an indulged rock star, so we just jumped, and I regret that.

"An Englishman In New York" (not the Sting song) was released in 1979 on the third Godley & Creme album, Freeze Frame. In the video, Kevin and Lol are bandleaders in a cabaret, but the band is made up of masked figures with animatronic movements.
Scene from the "An Englishman In New York" video
Songfacts: I think the first video you made was for "Englishman In New York," and you had a budget for that. Most people have to do their first shoot on the cheap, but you clearly had some resources for this video.

Godley: Well, just to clarify, we didn't actually make that one, but that was our first experience of it. So, I have no idea what the actual budget was.

What happened was, we weren't touring as Godley & Creme, but we had an idea for a short film that we thought could work, so we took it to the record label and they said, "Yes, you can make this but we have to get a proper director to do it for you because you've never done it," which is exactly what happened. We were part of the scenery.

We were just performers, but during that day of shooting we absorbed everything that went on, and towards the end of the day, we were suggesting shots, and we insisted on being involved in the editorial process because we loved it. We thought, Wow, this is amazing, this brings what we've done into context with what we used to be, which was art students. This brings the visual in contact with the musical. Wow, we could do things with this.

So, we absorbed everything, we assimilated everything, and by the end of the whole process, we had kind of taken it over, much to the director's irritation. He was very kind actually. Derek Burbidge was his name. But he kind of mentored us in a way and showed us what things could do.

Songfacts: Elements of that video show up in your iconic "Rockit" video. Can you tell me about making that one?

Godley: Well, that was interesting, how "Rockit" happened. It's kind of indicative of how lots of the really good ones happened. More accidental than anything else.

I was watching a documentary on television at the time and there was a little part of the program that featured an artist called Jim Whiting. It showed his work, and I fell in love with his work. I had a video tape, so I hit play and caught the last five minutes of his interview. Then maybe a couple of weeks later, we got sent "Rockit" as a track to try to come up with an idea of a video for, with the proviso that we couldn't show too much of Herbie because there was some weird rule at MTV back then that they weren't really showing black artists. I was like, What the hell?

So, we started thinking. We got together and I pulled out the Jim Whiting video. We watched this video and played the track next to it, and the two just fitted like a glove. So, we went to meet Jim and asked if he'd adapt and build some new objects specifically for this film, which he did.

When Herbie came over to London we only had a morning with him. We filmed him in a small room, just playing the song, and then he flew back. We didn't know how this thing was going to work, but by the time we finished shooting, we had some great-looking stuff - this weird, bizarre world that we created out of this art and Herbie. Then, we thought, OK, let's put Herbie in a retro television in a number of situations within the setup that we were filming. And that was pretty much it.

The other innovation was, while editing it, we simulated audio scratching with video scratching. That was quite painstaking: You can't just shuttle it backwards and forwards. So, when we transferred the film to editorial media, we did it backwards as well as forwards so we could cut between the two. It's quite a painstaking process and we didn't really know what the hell we were doing until we had pretty much done it, and it was like, Wow, what the hell is this? They're never going to play this - this is outrageous. It was pretty avant-garde for the time, but music video was in its infancy and it was growing at an enormous rate.

MTV took to it. It was like, this is really daring, and it got played to death. I think we won five awards for it at the MTV show. [Yep. For Special Effects, Art Direction and Editing, and also for Best Concept Video and Most Experimental Video.]

Songfacts: Yes, and you talked about how you created your own world for that video. Another one that has its own universe is "Wrapped Around Your Finger," with the candles. How did that come about?

Godley: The song was very graceful and very elegant, and we had the idea of the candles, but just filming them among candles didn't seem enough - there was something lacking in the idea. Visually, it would look great, but it was about how it moved.

I had the mad notion that wouldn't it be interesting if somehow the film was exclusively in slow motion, but the lip-sync was somehow in time to the music. We sat down and thought about how this might be possible. You see it quite often nowadays, but I think this was the first time it was ever done. In the studio, we played a sped-up version of the song, so the actual environment we were working in was totally opposite to what it ended up looking like - it was Mickey Mouse. You were listening to Mickey Mouse singing "Wrapped Around Your Finger" at double speed. We were shooting at 50 frames per second, the idea being when you slowed the film down, they were moving in slow-mo but they were in sync with the track at real time. And it did work. Not perfectly, but it looked amazing - it looked really, really amazing. But on the day, it was insane, because they were rushing around and hitting drums and playing guitars and singing at double speed. It was manic, and by the end of the day, they were exhausted.

Songfacts: You've described some happy accidents that made their way into your work. What is the greatest one of these happy accidents that came about on one of your videos?

Godley: Well, they're never complete accidents. They're accidents that are based on instinct because I've been doing it for a while and I get a sense of what might work. If I have faith in my idea, I follow it to its logical conclusion. One of the most exciting ones that worked extremely well was a video I did for U2 called "Even Better Than The Real Thing." It looks like the camera is actually moving around the performance, 360 degrees, up and over them and underneath them, because that's how the track felt to me.

So, I partly figured out a way of making that happen, but not completely as I'm not an engineer. Then I worked with a company called Artem who are a sort of physical effect company, who actually took that idea to its conclusion with various tests, then we just went ahead and filmed it. This time we did a test, thank goodness, and that was staggering - that worked better than I thought it would actually. It was quite extraordinary, and what was extraordinary about it was how the band reacted to that setup. They instinctively understood what it was capable of and worked the camera in a mode that would give us the best results, so it was a perfect marriage of a half-formed idea becoming a fully-formed idea, and on the day of the shoot, the performers reacted so well to it that it doubled its potential.

So, I wouldn't call it an accident, I would call it an instinct that turned into something tangible. By that time, there wasn't any room for accidents because budgets were going up and a lot was riding on it, so by then I had learned to make sure that things worked properly. And it did.

Songfacts: You've done a lot of the concert visuals for U2 as well, haven't you?

Godley: I've done some, yeah. I shot a version of the Zoo TV tour which was great.

After "Even Better Than The Real Thing," Godley directed U2's videos for "Numb," "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," "Sweetest Thing" and "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of." He also did the "Theme From Mission: Impossible" video for Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen (U2's rhythm section) and the video for Bono's duet with Frank Sinatra on "I've Got You Under My Skin." Godley earned a reputation for coaxing the biggest stars through the often tedious process of music video making, but Sinatra he couldn't keep on set: When a technical glitch caused a production delay, the crooner stormed off, leaving Godley to cobble together a video with scant footage of Sinatra and Bono together.
Songfacts: Especially compared to 10cc, U2 are in a very unique creative space. Can you talk about that?

Godley: Well, something I've learned over the years of making short music films, it's an artistic exercise on one level, but on another level, you are being given a brief to provide something that has a particular use, so you just can't go off and come up with an idea that is beautiful. It has to be beautiful with a purpose and it has to be strong and powerful with a purpose. And that purpose in a concert situation, regardless of who the band is, is to emphasize and amplify the experience of a performance of a particular piece of music. So, that is the job.

That can work in lots of different ways. You come up with ideas as one does, and inevitably, 10 of them won't be the correct idea, but the 11th might be. And that's always been the case, regardless of who it is. But as you rightly say, U2 are a different proposition to 10cc in that there is a whole lot more going on on a U2 stage than there is on a 10cc stage. U2, the band is very mobile. Bono is a superb performer who works the stage, so that has to be taken into account. Where things appear or when things appear on the screens has to be built into the overall picture of the experience - you're not just making a film for people to watch.

So that is essentially the difference. It's a matter of applying a particular thought process to a particular set of circumstances really. Sometimes you get it "righter" than others, and when it works, it's magic.

Songfacts: With U2, what's remarkable is that the videos should be distracting, and that's part of the whole aesthetic, but for them somehow it works.

If Bono wants an elephant, he gets an elephant. Scene from "Sweetest Thing."
Godley: Well, they've consumed the art of video somehow, or should we say the art of the perfect visual to enhance a live performance is something that they've been developing for a long, long time - since MTV first came out, which was revolutionary. Those first concerts in America were staggering. The whole concept of MTV was staggering. The use of the set and how it functioned with the band and what it was capable of delivering... it's almost like watching a normal concert and then watching something in VR. It was that kind of a leap, back then.

And, they are consummate performers in that they are open to developing their relationship with technology to such an extent as they can allow themselves to disappear into it or they can allow it to take over, depending on what they want to emphasize in a particular track. They use it so well, and they are open to that. They've become adept at the art of performance, and using technology and using visuals. They're probably one of the only bands, if not the only band of that era - maybe Peter Gabriel is somebody else who also finds it very, very exciting to blend the two - but they just do it so well, and they pour a lot of effort into getting it just right.

Songfacts: I didn't realize this until recently, but "Girls On Film" came before MTV. That's another band, Duran Duran, which is an iconic MTV artist. I'd like to get your thoughts.

Godley: OK, so the brief was an interesting brief. The management, as well as the band at that period of time, were very into pushing the boundaries, and they could obviously sense that something was coming, that visuals were becoming more and more significant. They had heard that music videos or whatever they were called back in those days were being played in dance clubs in the States, and there were no restrictions put on what was played, so the content could be anything you wanted it to be. So, the brief was, do something that's kind of provocative, but it's sexy, and don't hold back. Make it beautiful, make it interesting, and provocative.

So, that's precisely what we did, and the fact that it was played in clubs and noticed in clubs probably before MTV was what gave them some kudos in the States and started to build the fanbase in the States. A little bit of daring in the early days always bears fruit, and that's precisely what happened here.

Songfacts: In the video for "Every Breath You Take," there's a window washer. What's he doing there?

Godley: Well that's an interesting one. That particular video was a meeting of minds in a way. The Police had just experienced a spurt of popularity and exponential growth in their fanbase, particularly in America, and they wanted to do something different to what everybody else was doing. They'd been looking at black-and-white films of jazz musicians that used to be shown on film jukeboxes that used to exist in the 1940s. They were all films with curls of cigarette smoke, and that vibe was very attractive to them. We were looking at something very similar around that time, so when we convened in LA to talk to them and the label, we were on the same page. Then they critiqued back and we started story-booking it and thinking of something that would be very beautiful.

The window washer felt right for that kind of noir feel. But, it also may be somebody who you don't expect to be watching the process, which refers to that sense of surveillance that the song is really about. We specifically did not want to know his story. That's something I've held fast to all the years I've been doing this: I hate telling the story of the song, because it's either show or tell, it's not both. If the song is saying something, you don't want to be showing what the song is saying. You want to be putting the performance of the song, something about the song, in a place, a frame if you like, that enhances the experience. Don't do the obvious. But, in this case, I think the window cleaner is perhaps a suggestion of somebody watching.

Songfacts: That's a great way to put it. It's like you're hinting at a possibility to the viewer. It's almost like an auxiliary lyric, in a sense.

Godley: Yeah. But isn't it odd how people remember songs? I mean, "Every Breath You Take," many people said that they played that at their wedding, and they obviously haven't listened very hard to the lyrics, because it's obvious when you listen that it's the opposite of trust, it's suspicion. It's quite edgy, the lyrics. It's not about love and closeness, it's the opposite.

But, we wanted that film to have that element of suspicion in there, and I think we achieved it not with anything particularly provocative, but by the length of time that we would stay on a single shot. We were on shots for quite a long time, significantly closer to Sting, because it just worked. At that time, most videos were cut very fast - that was the vibe of the day. But we just naturally shied away from anything that was becoming a trend. We held fast to what we believed we should do, and it expanded the vocabulary of the music video, if that doesn't sound pretentious to say it. It just gave it another way of looking at what this could be.

Songfacts: Well, one of the things you didn't see on MTV was somebody playing an upright bass.

Godley: Yeah, and it worked. It worked because he looked great playing it essentially. And it was something different for him to do to what he's usually seen doing. I guess we are always looking for that little moment that delivers something unexpected but rather satisfying.

Songfacts: Like the gymnast in "Only Time Will Tell"?

The gymnast in the video for Asia's "Only Time Will Tell"
Godley: Oh my goodness me. Now you're going back. We were always trying to capture the mood of the track without being obvious, and that was another attempt to do it. And it worked. Most things do. In any profession, you train yourself a certain way. If you're an architect, you train yourself to think like an architect. If you're a painter, you know what to look for. It's just the process that kind of happens organically and automatically when you sit down and try to come up with an idea, and that was the idea for the gymnast. What do you think though?

Songfacts: To me, the gymnast represents a global phenomenon tying the world together. That's just what I saw in it. I don't know what you envisioned it representing.

Godley: Nothing. You're becoming a Dylan-ologist. Don't try to look for meaning in everything because there isn't meaning in everything. We just felt it would look interesting - it's as simple as that. I don't think we were driven by it having any meaning initially. It was just the memories that came to mind as a device that might look rather interesting and it felt like the music felt to a degree. That's often the driving force. It's only sometimes later that you realize that maybe there was something in that thought that did have a significance.

There are many lyrics for many songs that have the same thing. People don't always know what they mean until they've thrown in the process.

Godley & Creme's biggest American hit was "Cry" in 1985. The video was a groundbreaker, transitioning from one close-up face to another, a percursor to Michael Jackson's morphing sequence in "Black Or White."
Songfacts: You did a very remarkable video for "Cry," which was a Godley & Creme song. Can you talk about how the song and video came together?

Godley: Yeah. The finished video was Plan B. Plan A was, there were a couple of very famous UK ice skaters around about that time called Torvill and Dean. We wanted them to skate to the song - we thought that would be beautiful - but they weren't available. They liked the song and thought it would be great to do but they weren't available to do it at the time. So we had to come up with something else, and it occurred to us that the song itself is a kind of song that anyone can sing. So, we thought, why not do just that? Find a load of interesting faces, including ourselves of course, get them in the studio and get them to lip sync to the song and see what happens, which is precisely what we did.

We didn't know why we did this, but when we filmed them we lined them up as close as possible, with the eyes in the same position, the mouths in the same position. When we sat down to edit it, we tried cutting between them and that didn't quite work. We tried dissolving between them, and that worked. In fact, if you watch the video from the beginning, the first few transitions are just basic dissolves. But then we tried - for a laugh really to see what would happen - this thing called a "soft wipe," which essentially is a shape - it could be a circle that opens from nothing and takes you to the next shot and the edge of it can be soft or you can wipe from one image to the next, up or down, left or right, again with the soft edge. And we discovered that when we did that, all the way from person A to person B, you would get a person that didn't exist - a "plus" if you like. And I was like, Whoa, that's really interesting. And sometimes if you did it fast or slow, this sort of person would pop out. So that was the moment, that was the lightbulb going off during the editing process.

So we just followed that, and we kept trying this face against that face, and so on and so forth, until we found what we felt was the perfect half-person between every transition. It was not exactly an accident, but it was a trial-and-error thing because we were tuned to be looking for something interesting.

Songfacts: What inspired the lyrics to that song?

Godley: The song took 15 years to write. We started the song and all we had was the first verse. We had [singing], "You don't know how to ease my pain, you don't know..." That's all we had, and every time we sat down to write for a new album or whatever, we pulled that one out of the briefcase, but we could never find the next part of the song.

We were over at a string of Police concerts in New York and we hung out with Trevor Horn, who was also there. We resolved to do something when we got back to England together, and what we were trying to do didn't work, so he said, "Have you got anything else?" So we played him this scrap of music that was "Cry" and he said, "That's great, let's work on that."

So he brought in a guy called JJ Jeczalik who played a Clavia [synthesizer], built some samples and created a wash sound behind that. We didn't write it - we sort of built it.

The vocal came about simply by writing down a few phrases similar to what we already had. I was sent into the vocal booth just to sing and try stuff, and then we kind of patchworked it together. It turned into a piece of magic through the process, rather than it being a complete song that was recorded. It was a song that grew from nothing: a seed into a finished record by the processes of actually trying to turn it.

Songfacts: So that dates all the way back to your 10cc days when you first had that initial idea?

Godley: Not quite that far back, but not too far off that. It was probably around the Freeze Frame period of time, '78, '79 neck of the woods when we had that lying around in our collective consciousness. And there it would sit until that moment arrived.

Songfacts: You've talked about "I'm Not In Love" being the best 10cc recording; why is that?

Godley: I don't know if it's the best but it's the one that has fairy dust sprinkled over it. It was a song that we recorded early on in the process for The Original Soundtrack album, but the recording of it, it didn't work. We recorded it as a kind of lounge-lizard, bossa-nova thing and it didn't bring it to life at all - it killed it. We put it to one side because we didn't know what else to do, and we carried on recording. Some people seemed to like it, so we figured we should give it another shot, so we did.

It was possibly out of desperation of not knowing what to do that we tried all the washy voices. Forget instruments, forget guitars, forget drums. Just voices, like a heavenly choir, like a tsunami of voices.

Our work ethic was very democratic. It was all about "OK, that's pretty wacky, but let's try it." Lol came up with the idea of using tape loops to do it, which involved myself, Lol and Graham standing around a microphone for days on end, singing notes, which they then mixed down onto a 2-track, 1/4 inch tape and made a loop of it. Then we fed all the relevant loops back on the tape machines and turned the mixing desk into like a keyboard - on each set of keys you would have faders. So, we literally played the recordings we'd make, and each of us had four faders each. We had to bring this one in there, and that one in there, and all of them in here, and so on and so forth to create the finished thing. I think the vocals alone took about three weeks to record. But prior to that, we recorded a basic backing track to work to with electric piano, guitar and I'm playing bass drum on a Moog synthesizer, so that's like a backing track. And then we added the vocals to that.

We used Eric's original guide vocal in the end because it just worked, and from that point onwards, everything we added or took away or changed from that point worked. There were no head-scratching moments, no arguing, no disagreements, no problems. It was like we were in a magic bubble and everything fell into place. Then we mixed it, and it was six-and-a-half minutes long - something crazy - and we realized we had done something special. We didn't know it was a hit record or anything, but we knew it was special.

Again, it was a mixture of accident and lucky thoughts and a willingness to apply ourselves to a process that felt like it might work, and the further we went along that road, the more we realized that it could work, so we just followed our ears to its logical or illogical conclusion and there it was. It's not solely the "best" thing that band ever did, it was just the epitome of what we could do.

Songfacts: What inspired the lyric to "Englishman In New York"?

Godley: Going to New York for the first time.

Songfacts: What was that like?

Godley: Intense. Walking around New York, listening to New York. It's a 24-hour city, doing anything, any time, anywhere. Talking to people, just soaking up the atmosphere of this extraordinary place.

A lot of 10cc's music over the years has been driven by Americana, as opposed to anything European or British. We were always in love with America, so when we were driving from the airport along somewhere called Rockaway Boulevard [in Queens], it was like, Whoa, this is where we should be, right now, right here.

We were like a sponge, and we were film buffs, as well as America buffs. We were just into everything American, and New York seemed to be a harsh epitome of everything that was happening at that time. I was struck by the absurdity of it and the contrast: this against the other thing, but all living and working together and banging up against each other at the same time. That was insane. It inspired the lyric, which is pretty absurd in itself.

Songfacts: What did you think about Sting using your song title?

Godley: Well, we didn't hate it. It was absolutely fine. Probably helped. Maybe drew a few thousand people to listen to ours.

Songfacts: When you first started making music videos, what was your reference point?

Godley: None. We didn't have any reference points, and that is the key to what we did.

I'm not comparing our abilities in any way to the guy, but we were a little bit like Orson Welles when he made his first movie - he never made a movie before. It was a creative ignorance. We didn't want to be affected by the rules, the traditions, the "what you can do and what you can't do" when making film, because these aren't films. It's interesting, over the years, so many people who made music videos were trying to make movies, trying to do their favorite movies, be it Psycho or a Western or a detective film. They were trying to ape it, but they were trying to do it within the confines of three-and-a-half to four minutes, which isn't an ideal timeframe to build something that complex. So our view was, this isn't like a magnificent painting, it's more like a delicious, exquisite little postage stamp. So, we're doing it for a very specific reason, and it's not a movie, it's something very, very different.

Other than that we just followed our instincts: What would we like to see on the screen to accompany the song? And that was it.

I think we were in the right place at the right time when an industry was coming to life and was open to the way we felt about things. We were lucky in that what we put down on film, people liked to watch, but there was no conscious effort to become a specific thing with any specific set of rules - our M.O. was always to avoid that. It was always, "What would we like to see to accompany this?" It was really as simple as that, and usually it was something that didn't even exist yet, so we made it exist.

Songfacts: How did you do the "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" video?

Godley: In layers. We shot the set first from the four camera positions, then we covered the area in green screen and shot each individual member of the band in the set that was now green, so we could just pick anybody out and put him into the finished frame and play with him or play with her, which is precisely what we did in the edit.

We broke the performance down into the different instrumental sections: the drums, the bass, the backing vocalists, Sting, sax player, etcetera. We shot each person moving through the space from four different camera positions, knowing we would be combining these elements in post. We shot some at slo-mo, we shot some at double speed. We treated each person differently.

The finished product, although it works really, really well, would have certainly benefitted from existing technology, but digital editing didn't exist yet, so each time we added a layer, we lost quality, which is a shame. So, it's kind of grainy, it's kind of scratchy, but it still works.

Every time we filmed the next person, we would refer to what we just shot to make sure they didn't bump into each other when we put the thing together. So, we were quite careful of telling them where they could move at what point in the song. We'd realized some time before making the video how important the editing process was, what it can actually deliver, what it can do. Even though the machinery hadn't been designed to do this, the way we used the machinery and extended the machinery's capabilities was always a fundamental part of the process. So, this was one of those jobs that was made to be assembled in the edit.

Songfacts: Yeah, I am surprised the composite looks as good as it does considering how difficult that was back then.

Godley: Ugh. It was a nightmare. You know, green screen wasn't great, so you'd get the fuzzy edges, and every time you applied one thing over another you'd lose quality. [Here's an example of bad green screen from around this time.] There's probably six layers on that, so we had to bounce it down and render it and all that nonsense, so we were lucky.

Songfacts: Yeah, but you had the good sense to stay away from computer-generated effects back then, which are the most dated looking videos of the '80s.

Godley: Yeah [laughs]. One thing that I didn't stay away from, however, when I started working on my own, I was fascinated by motion-control cameras, and I started working with motion control and it drove me crazy. [A motion-control camera is programmed to do the same move over and over the exact same way. This allows the director to change the set and composite the shots together, keeping a constant camera move. Easier said than done.]

Songfacts: Why is that?

Godley: Because it wasn't perfected. There were a couple of significant pieces I did using motion control. One was a track I did for Sting called "Fields Of Gold," which involves looking at a small village at day and at nighttime. Sting is walking through this village while performing the song, but we use his shape to cut a hole between night and day. So, if we are at night time, his shape is cutting a hole that you can see daylight through, which is fascinating. But, in order for this to work, we have to shoot the village, which was the set, lit for nighttime, and then we'd have to shoot the set lit for daytime. So, we'd shoot the set lit for daytime and we strike the set and we have it redecorated and relit for nighttime. But motion control fucked up. It couldn't remember the exact moves for each of the things we did, and it proceeded to do moves that it had logged from a commercial three weeks ago or something insane like that. And they didn't have the relevant piece of equipment to correct it, so we sat around on our asses for about six hours doing nothing while they were rushing around frantically trying to mend this robot.

I ended up throwing a chair at the bloody thing. That happened a number of times for different reasons but usually because the technology just wasn't clean enough - it was prone to bugs, it was prone to heat, it was prone to everything that you didn't want it to be prone to. Another example was the video I did for the first Mission Impossible movie with Tom Cruise, with Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton. Again, exactly the same thing happened. It was a motion-control camera moving through a very complex set showing different footage on a number of different screens. So, it would do one move and the picture would change in all the monitors, and it would move again. So, a shot that maybe lasted 10 seconds in the finished video took about four hours to shoot. So, just the words "motion control" gives me fucking hives thinking about it.

Songfacts: Yeah, I think it's gotten better since then, as has technology in general. You don't even need a film camera anymore.

Godley: Yeah. I have this horrible vision of filmmaking in the future being this huge crane doing this amazing scene, with a remote head on the end holding an iPhone 6, which would look ridiculous. But yeah, it's amazing what you can do. Everything is changing and becoming more accessible, which is extraordinary.

Songfacts: Now, what you can't do is something like what you did for the "Synchronicity" video, which is quite an elaborate production. And that is an interesting mesh with the song, which is a rather intellectual, complex song. Can you talk about the concept and the execution of that?

Godley: Execution is an interesting word because the set caught fire at one point.

Songfacts: Wow.

Godley: Not for long - they were in there very quickly. The Police were touring around this time and they were doing fabulously well. They were wearing these very odd sort of stage costumes, these sort of Mad Max, armageddon things, and that was what drove the idea for the video, the fact that they looked like something out of Mad Max.

So, the thought was, why don't we build this insane environment which is being blown by the wind and there is litter and stuff flying away, but each tower that houses each performer is built exclusively of elements of each of their own instruments. That was the theory behind it and it looked amazing.

We used something called a Hot Head which is a remote camera mount that you can put on the edge of a crane and operate it from down below as opposed to being sat on a camera, which used to happen with a traditional crane. It was a great shoot, and we went to Scotland and we took a boat across the lake and all those bits and pieces, but really the heart of the thing was the studio performance. The sheer visceral nature of it really helped - we felt it really helped the momentum of the song. It's quite a fast song and it really has that visceral feeling about it. It turned out really well, but it does get dated a little bit because of the costumes.

Songfacts: Maybe. But they're very throwback.

Godley: They are. They have almost come full-circle. But it was great fun. There are great outtakes on there where Sting is looking magnificent, and I can't remember exactly what happened, but suddenly he wasn't. It was a joy to do because it was a big set. It was one of the biggest sets we'd ever worked in and we had a lot of fun doing it and trying things. We learned a lot from it, and it turned out well, which is always good.

Songfacts: How close is the end product typically to your original vision?

Godley: Well, typically it's a half a vision. It's an odd thing. It's exactly the same as writing music to a degree: You have an idea of what it should be and you can feel it and you can sense it. Even if you can't exactly see it, you can sketch something of it. You just work towards that mysterious missing element and if you're lucky you can see it with two eyes when it's finished and it's better than the original thought. Sometimes it's not - it's the opposite and the original idea just didn't make it, but most times, it's better. It's the same with a song, although when you're writing songs there's less at stake because you can just stop and come back to it in an hour, whereas when you're filming something, there's a whole lot more at stake: people waiting around, machinery, editors, cast. The whole background to filmmaking is there behind you to help you to pull it together if it starts to pull apart. They'll take you to the finish line, which is something that you can be proud of.

Songfacts: What's the hardest part of making a music video?

Godley: The hardest part is achieving the vision that you can't see completely until it's finished. And knowing that it's finished is a hard thing too.

But the hardest part through the late '90s, was the sense that the people in charge of labels or in charge of bands increasingly began to assess what kind of video would be most successful for this kind of act. So, you might get somebody to say, "We want to do something really edgy but you can't film it in black and white and you've got to have great make-up people and he's got to be on camera for 50 percent of the thing." In other words, the things that I have been trying to avoid take over, and that's just the nature of any creative industry: the exciting time for any new creative industry is always in the early to mid years when it hasn't quite figured out what it is yet. I think that's true of the music business, of rock and roll. It hasn't quite figured out what it is, so it's dangerous, it's trying stuff, it's experimenting. Until the money realizes what they think works and tells you what to do.

Songfacts: Yeah, which is true for music and for video too.

Godley: It's true for everything. But there will be people who are making things that are purely commercial and people who are making things that are purely art, and the mix of all that usually drives something to the surface that is unique as things change. I think we've been lucky being in that particular time during the early days of music videos where nobody bothered to preach. We were lucky because the things we did early on became hits, so it was like, "We don't know what a video is, but these guys seem to know. Let them do what they want!" Those were good years.

April 27, 2019
Get more at
Here's our interview with Graham Gouldman
For a different perspective on the early age of music video, check out our interview with Jay Dubin

More Songwriter Interviews


Be the first to comment...

George HarrisonFact or Fiction

Did Eric Clapton really steal George's wife? What's the George Harrison-Monty Python connection? Set the record straight with our Fact or Fiction quiz.

Pam TillisSongwriter Interviews

The country sweetheart opines about the demands of touring and talks about writing songs with her famous father.

The Real Nick DrakeSong Writing

The head of Drake's estate shares his insights on the late folk singer's life and music.

Five Rockers Who Rolled With The DevilSong Writing

Just how much did these monsters of rock dabble in the occult?

Bass Player Scott EdwardsSong Writing

Scott was Stevie Wonder's bass player before becoming a top session player. Hits he played on include "I Will Survive," "Being With You" and "Sara Smile."

Top American Idol Moments: Songs And ScandalsSong Writing

Surprise exits, a catfight and some very memorable performances make our list of the most memorable Idol moments.