In the early 1980’s I remember watching two adverts for Maxell cassettes. This featured Peter Murphy from the British rock band ‘Bauhaus’. As a child, the adverts scared the pants off me, but really opened my eyes to the power of the screen. So I really wouldn’t be typing here if it were not for these two masterpieces of the small screen.
As an older 40-something child, I still get a wonderful thrill when I hear the high-pitched noise and see the darkened room – a reminder to my younger self to put my fingers in my ears, and shut my eyes tightly.
As both adverts unfold I’m reminded of the classic battle of making the most of your time and budget. The production values on these videos are really good with excellent lighting and the very essence of 1980’s chic contemporary cool. Even the shoes featured in the advert did good business.
The first advert was called ‘Storm’ and produced by Downton Advertising.
It’s easy to see why this Maxell advert is memorable to so many; the silhouetted house, the infrequent electronic noises, and the cat howls that punctuate the sequence give this an unsettling edge. The choice of music: Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’, already famous for its inclusion in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, creates a suitably stormy feel. And let’s not forget Peter Murphy’s steely glares towards the camera, providing the added spook value.
I sought to track down anyone who might be able to shed a bit more light on these terrifying memories. And I was lucky enough to make contact with director Howard Guard who has enjoyed a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He was kind enough to shed some light on the making of the advert.
Guard was quick to point out it was a low-budget commercial, resulting in all kinds of hard work to achieve the footage required.
“The ducks were on wires pulled by a man hanging over the top of the set. The low angle tracking shot onto Pete’s shoes was by putting the Arri on a sheet of hardboard (shiny side down) and me pulling it, and the focus puller running alongside. I had an industry phone call about it at the time asking where we got the rig. The lightning was open fronted Brutes and a man arcing the carbon” – in basic terms this a technique for activating the huge lights you might see on a large-scale exterior shoot. (3)
The coffee vibrating was created by a small compressor next to it.
This is an advert that relies on the skill of filmic technique, rather than any kind of special effects work. At the time of transmission, Guard noted that “It was never intended to be a slick piece of optical trickery. It was simplicity itself; all in the shot material and the editing.”
Ironically, for an advert that places such a strong emphasis on sound, sometimes it’s fun to turn the volume right down and think about the studio floor. The sheer effort and coordination that Guard mentioned. Marc Hill was an art director on the shoot, and talked about how “half the construction crew were behind the wall moving the ducks and various props with Howard shouting “more, more” like an old-time silent movie director.” (1). It’s this image that I’m drawn to frequently, as I think of Guard directing the crew to make the magic happen: the music replaced with the sounds of shouting, orders and commands, industrial wind machines, crackles of lights being ignited, and assorted creaks and whooshes of various objects swaying in the storm of the living room.
But what we did hear in the end was a classic piece of music. Guard recollects that the advert was edited to two different sound tracks. “I cut the film with Simon Laurie to Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’ and a second version to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I loved both versions but we went with Mussorgsky in the end.” And it’s an inspired choice allowing the score to fade down naturally and let the very sinister whispering voice deliver the “Break the Sound Barrier” tagline at the end.
As I reached the end of my correspondence with Guard, I was delighted to discover the location of the house that features in silhouette at the end of the advert, another scary image in my mind. This was a former mannequin studio in west London, and it still stands today. It was one of those moments where, after all this time, I’m still amazed at the power of the internet, allowing me to find an obscure house that featured in a television commercial from the early 1980’s – pure television archeology.
And the success of the spot, soon led to a sequel the following year.
The follow-up commercial for Maxell video tapes, naturally has an even more visual flavour, employing lasers, cats and frogs, whilst retaining the famous Le Corbusier chair, palm tree and Peter Murphy’s glare. Guard noted “I shot until 4.00am and 3000 feet of film trying to get the frog to jump with the laser behind.” Whether the frog jumped or not, the advert had a lasting impact on me. The filmic techniques and physical effects jump out, from the use of colour to the eerie darkness of the very opening shot – a similar darkness that opens another of Guard’s famous works of the early 1980’s – the advert for Fry’s Turkish Delight “Full of Eastern Promise.”
Guard signed off with the words “I remain fond of it.” He’s not the only one. The adverts seemed to be popular with the audience and the younger market that Guard was aiming for. This was noted in a contemporary article in the journal, Creative Review.
“From the time of the first transmission, Downtowns (an advertising agency) received sacks full of mail and numerous phone calls about the commercial. Many were simply congratulatory; others demanded to know where they could buy the man’s shoes or even where they could find the man. And Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, the man in question, has found his subsequent concerts interspersed with references to Maxell, thrown in by the audience.” (2)
The legacy of that first advert was that Bauhaus (or rather Peter Murphy) ended up in the film ‘The Hunger’ (Dir. Tony Scott, 1983), as Peter Murphy explains.
“Howard Guard is the director – he was part of Ridley Scott Associates – a part of their team. He was one of their in-house directors. He had this commission to do Maxell Tapes, and he was looking for a model, and it was a ground-breaking ad. At that time it received awards it was so modern, the idea of this Bauhaus-Peter-black-homoerotic-scary-black-spider-thing. He was brilliant, and more Bowie than Bowie and scarier than Iggy, and whatever – to appear in this ad. Howard Guard himself, the director, was obviously speaking to Tony (Scott). He went to him and said “You’ve got to see this”. Because he came to our (Bauhaus) shows and he saw “Bela’ (Bela Lugosi’s Dead).
Ding! Eureka! Ran to Tony and said, “Get here!”. Tony came to the show and went “Oh yes”. (4)
These examples of world-building from Howard Guard are memorable, not only due to the marriage of soundtrack and visuals, but also through how space is realised. His use of light, and carefully controlled camera masks the limitations of the studio boundary. You can see it in his Maxell spots, but also in his ‘Turkish Delight’ advert. The fascinating photos from Art Director Marc Hill, illustrate the care and attention in which this set was created and lit (on stage A at Shepperton Studios) , and how Guard’s skill as a filmmaker completes the illusion.
Guard would continue to enjoy a successful career – next steps included videos for Bauhaus – ‘She’s in Parties’ and Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’.
(2) ‘The sound and the Fury’ – Creative Review (May?) 1982
(3) Interview with the author. October 2017.