As a child, I spent many an idle hour wondering why Paul Simon’s roadie looked so pissed off. There he was, the little guy in the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video, lugging drums and guitars in and out of a pink room while Simon himself sat cheerfully singing the song. Occasionally the roadie would sit twiddling his thumbs looking annoyed at singing the backing vocals, until he was allowed to cut loose on the odd tin whistle or bass solo.
What was this guy’s problem? I’d only vaguely heard of Paul Simon at that age – he was a boxer from the sixties who’d turned to designing bridges before getting into African music, I’d heard – but I got the sense from the bulge-eyed excitement of all the Top Of The Pops presenters introducing the video that he was a pretty big deal. Surely, then, this backroom grunt should be thankful to have such a strong supporting role in the video for his first hit in years, his fifteen minutes of fame ticking away with every sullen attempt to sing lead. The insolence!
It was a good few weeks before I somehow twigged that the guy I thought was Paul Simon was actually a comedian called Chevy Chase from something called Saturday Night Live, and his moody sidekick was Simon himself. I’d totally missed the joke of the first major music video cameo and, this week, I felt similarly out of the guest-star loop.
Stormzy’s ten-minute video for new single ‘Mel Made Me Do It’ is roughly 81 per cent celebrity cameo, three per cent expensive car, eight per cent Black pride statement, six per cent National Trust sightseeing tour and two per cent Stormzy getting his jacket cleaned. Among its bombardment of famous faces many are Celebrity Gogglebox-level famous (Jonathan Ross, Usain Bolt, Louis Theroux, Gabrielle, Ian Wright, Trevor Nelson), others celebrated heroes of the grime scene (Mega-Man, JME, Little Simz, Dave).
But when several minutes of the video were given over to Stormzy standing in a stately chamber with his finger on his lips beside what appeared to be a little-known regional Iberian mayor, I began wondering if Stormzy was being used for positive publicity in the wake of some public fund misappropriation fraud or bunga-bunga scandal he wasn’t aware of. Rather like the time One Direction group-hugged David Cameron in the video for their Comic Relief cover of ‘One Way Or Another’ in 2013, which has aged about as well as the average Brexit referendum.
Apparently though, as my friends who bafflingly find sport interesting informed me, this official looking bloke with Stormzy was a chap named José Mourihno who has something to do with football, and he was the video’s real star signing. And, my own soccerical (or should that be footiean?) ignorance aside, the level of press and public amazement around Mourihno’s appearance appears to suggest that, by going maximal, Stormzy has done the cameo video right.
In the wake of ‘You Can Call Me Al’, you see, several rules and trends became clear in the art of music vid cameos. For a start, as it very quickly became clear that even the most skilled comic struggled to bop along to a backing track in an amusing manner, roping in comedians quickly became old hat. We all remember Chevy Chase, but who still talks about Eddie Murphy cropping up in Michael Jackson’s ‘Remember The Time’ video in 1992? Or considers Ali G failing to break-dance and commenting on Madonna’s “babylons” in her ’Music’ video in 2000 a high-point of Sasha Baron Cohen’s oeuvre? Would you even look up from a particularly fiendish Quordle to watch James Corden cameo in anything at all? Exactly.
Instead, film stars swiftly became the dream casting. After all, whereas most musicians had the screen magnetism of a damp teabag, actors had a natural on-camera charisma, and had been selling movie theme song singles by osmosis for years. Would Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ have shagged the charts ragged for 16 weeks if the video hadn’t made it look like Kevin Costner had knocked it out between flaming archery contests?
Also, major Hollywood stars would pop up in A-listers’ music videos throughout the ‘90s, where there was an equal trade-off of prestige to be had. The UK’s indier acts, meanwhile, had to settle for whoever they could drag out of the Groucho that afternoon, stick in a bowler hat and get to chase a Page 3 girl around like Benny Hill. But the arrival of Fatboy Slim’s ‘Weapon Of Choice’ in 2001, in which Christopher Walken danced and flew around the lobby of the LA Marriott, flipped the script entirely. Here was an Oscar-winning movie legend prepared to star, with no little dedication and effort – this wasn’t just about singing a chorus with the car running and one eye on the cheque – in a video for some British big beat DJ who used to be in the Housemartins. Directed, no less, by Spike Jonze. The sheer wow factor of the match-up – the music video equivalent of a Bernie Ecclestone wedding – upped the stakes. Rock was gonna need a bigger budget.
Yet over time, as Harry Dean Stanton, Luke Perry and Owen Wilson starred in videos for The Killers’ charity Christmas singles, Bruce Willis chased down 2-D and Murdoc in the clip for Gorillaz ‘Stylo’, Jake Gyllenhaal played drunk tennis along to Vampire Weekend’s ‘Giving Up The Gun’ and a heavily pregnant Natalie Portman seemed to mistake the shoot for James Blake’s ‘My Willing Heart’ for another perfume ad, even A-listers in indie vids became normalised and everyday, barely registering on the hypeometer.
Hence, in the past decade, celebrity music video cameos have been more of a numbers game. Like quick-buck Avengers assembling, it’s all about how many stars you can get on-set at any one time. Stormzy is just the latest proponent; back in 2013, Arcade Fire mastered the form in their ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ video, in which a disco band playing in fake papier-mâché heads were revealed to include both Ben Stiller and Bono, while James Franco, Rainn Wilson, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Zach Galifianakis and Jason Schwartzman all span by the lens. The days of simply strong-arming whoever you come across in Graham Norton’s green room are gone; today you aim for the video equivalent of Robert Altman’s The Player, or Kanye’s naked ‘Famous’ waxworks come to life.
There is still credit to be had from unexpected, oddball or imaginative cameos though. Kate Moss pole-dancing to The White Stripes’ ‘I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’. Eric Cantona playing a lonely alcoholic king to Liam Gallagher’s butler on ‘Once’. Dave Grohl as a secret Satan in Tenacious D’s ‘Tribute’. And, yes, Jose Mourihno shushing the world in the company of grime royalty. Silently dropping him into such a cavalcade of stars was a masterstroke that further ups the game. Whoever this Mel was that made him do it, bravo.
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