When it began in 1981, MTV had few videos to show. The first video, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” was already two years old by that point, and was played twice on the first day – Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” released earlier in the year, was played five times, as was “Just Between You and Me,” by Canadian hard rock band April Wine, and The Who’s “You Better You Bet.” Therefore, if you made a video for your song, no matter what type of video it was, and no matter what genre of pop music it was, it could end up in heavy rotation.
Meanwhile, Donald Fagen, of the jazz-rock duo Steely Dan, began the eight-month process of recording his first solo album, “The Nightfly.” It is a brilliant combination of fun and perfectionism – more bouncy, free and personal than Steely Dan, but still cut with a laser, and remains considered as one of the best engineered and recorded albums ever made. This success was down to Fagen’s persistence with recording his album entirely digitally, one of the first done so, while using the precision of a 16-bit version of “Wendel,” an electronic sampler and drum machine originally developed for Steely Dan by their producer, Roger Nichols, a former nuclear engineer who also patented the rubidium nuclear clock, to synchronise the digital studio equipment even more.
Two singles came from the album, both taking from Fagen’s childhood view of the future, as seen from the early 1960s: “I.G.Y.” – “What a beautiful world this’ll be / What a glorious time to be free” – and “New Frontier,” the latter of which had a video made for it. “New Frontier,” taking a phrase from John F. Kennedy’s speech accepting the US Presidency, is about a teenage boy inviting his girlfriend back home for a party in his family’s nuclear fallout shelter, the polar opposite to the “graphite and glitter” of “I.G.Y.”
The video for “New Frontier” was made by British animation company Cucumber Studios, run by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, before they created “Max Headroom” and directed “Super Mario Bros.” It combines live action footage, of the couple dancing in the shelter, with animation harking back to the early Cold War era... and then you remind yourself the Cold War was still going on at the time.
Jankel and Morton already demonstrated mastery of different animation styles with their videos for Elvis Costello’s “Accidents will Happen,” and Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” and therefore the animation for “New Frontier” is a giddy mix of styles, evoking Soviet propaganda posters, advertising, cartoons and album artwork, all evoking nostalgia in a point in history that, with hindsight, turns to horror. Fagen’s lyrics are by turns corny and sarcastic, both deliberately so – “She loves to limbo that much is clear / She’s got the right dynamic for the new frontier,” while also referencing, “the key word is survival,” and “prepare to meet the challenge.” Much of the imagery in the video is in time with the song’s lyrics, including Ambush fragrance and Dave Brubeck, and the brisk pace of the song is matched with the changes in imagery too.
Of course, on MTV, it was in heavy rotation, but Donald Fagen, who is only seen on a poster in the video, did not tour his album, and did not release any further music for ten years, having fallen into depression and writer’s block after feeling he exposed too much of himself on “The Nightfly.” It remains a brilliant album, even if Fagen once claimed not to have heard it since he made it.