The Evolution Will Be Televised

Monkey business: Chuck Statler launched his music video career with odes to primate rock
Sean Smuda

Just after 8:00 on a Monday night, I'm standing in a northeast Minneapolis liquor store parking lot that looks dark and empty, save for a single SUV with its lights off. I spot the vehicle and quietly steer my bicycle toward it, noticing a lone police car parked at an angle in the adjacent lot 20 yards away. The SUV's driver-side window is open. Inside, Chuck Statler has been waiting for me. He passes a package through the window.

"Thanks for meeting me," I say, glancing again at the cop car. It's too dark to tell whether or not it's occupied, but I'm almost certain I see a shadow shifting in the front seat. Should I be worried? I wonder. Is he watching us? Is this weird?

I take the package.

Statler starts the engine. A tall tuft of graying hair crowns his head, which he turns to me as he flashes a bright, gap-toothed smile. "Give me a call if you need anything else," he says as he pulls out of the parking lot. He turns on his headlights and slips into the Hennepin Avenue traffic.

I fix my bag over my shoulder and step on my pedals, pausing to steal one last glance at the squad car. I wait for the red and blue lights to whirl to life, the shrill siren to break the night silence, the headlights to blind me while the tires squeal and the car surges into action. Helicopters will descend from nowhere; snipers will pop up from rooftops. "Drop the bag!" the cop will shout, his gun trained on my forehead. "Hand over that package!"

But none of this actually happens. The cop car is empty, probably, and besides, Statler didn't give me anything illegal. At least I don't think he did. But, come to think of it, I'm not all that sure what's in my bag. Considering that my overactive imagination could have been boosted by some sort of contact high, whatever is inside the package might be some potent stuff. If that cop does decide to chase me down and search me, what would he find? A book, a wallet, some dental floss, and...say, what's this black box here?

I look in my bag. It's a VHS tape. No label. "Statler" is scrawled on the side. No big deal. Hardly anything to get worked up about. Certainly nothing to get arrested over, right?

I race home and throw the tape in my VCR. Static. Then, slowly, an image takes shape: Two half-naked men in diapers and monkey masks are spanking a woman with paddles emblazoned with Richard Nixon's face. They're listening to the sputtering, mechanized robo-pop of a Midwestern band once described by Rolling Stone as "fascist."

Jesus, I think, remembering the cops, the helicopters, the snipers. That was close.


Among those who are familiar with the absurdist video work of Chuck Statler, there is a faction of enthusiastic fans who regularly cite the 57-year-old Minneapolis filmmaker as a forefather--if not the very creator--of the modern rock video. One of Statler's most devoted fans is Jeff Krulik, the Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker whose Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a 15-minute documentary about a 1986 Judas Priest concert tailgate party, became a cult classic.

"I always consider Chuck as the man who invented music video," Krulik writes via e-mail. "He's among my greatest filmmaking influences. He deserves a lot more credit in the history books for his contribution to music film and video."

When I first meet Statler on a sunny September afternoon in a near-empty bagel shop, he balks at the suggestion that he had a hand in creating the form that would launch the MTV revolution. "A finger, maybe," he says. "In south Minneapolis I might have invented music videos. But what we currently refer to as music videos you can trace back to film clips in the '60s in Europe. So it well preceded me."

Film clips, while nearly unheard of in America, were a budding business in Europe following the birth of rock 'n' roll. Progenitors to the modern music video, they were short band films that record labels used to scout talent overseas. When a record company was interested in a group, it was cheaper to send footage of a band than to ship the entire band.

Aside from a few failed direct-marketing ventures by companies such as Target, the U.S. still hadn't caught on to filmed music by the 1970s, and Statler was one of the only American directors filming emerging new-wave bands prior to 1981, the year that video officially killed the radio--and film clip--star. As the poster for a Statler retrospective at the 2004 Baltimore Film Festival put it, "Before there was MTV, there was Chuck Statler." (A similar collection of Statler's work will come to Minneapolis this week during the Sound Unseen underground film and music festival, where Chuck Statler: A Retrospective 1976-2003 makes its Minnesota debut.)  

Statler has always been, and continues to be, a voracious consumer of music as well as a lifelong student of film. When it came time to choose a career, combining his passions was the obvious move. It was also a right-time, right-place affair. The time: early 1972. The place: Akron, Ohio.

Statler was attending his hometown college of Kent State in search of a BFA in film studies. It was in that fine arts department where he forged a friendship with classmates Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, who that year formed "The De-Evolution Band." Abbreviated as "Devo," the project borrowed from the tenets of a book called The Beginning Was the End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten by pseudo-scientist Oscar Kiss Maerth, who posited that the human race evolved from a species of brain-eating apes. Mothersbaugh and Casale were still stirred by the National Guard's murder of four Vietnam War protesters on their college campus two years earlier, so the band developed Maerth's theory into a new-wave manifesto that indicted the human race for devolving into nothing more than quasi-organic cogs in an automated, industrial Earth-machine.

Because they were art-school tech-dorks, Devo had an aesthetic that was largely dependent on visual intrigue, and their early recordings failed to gain any national momentum. By 1976, embittered by years of struggling in rubber tire country and getting nowhere, Devo were ready to call it quits. Casale phoned his old buddy Statler, who had recently dropped out of school and relocated to Minneapolis in search of a film production career. Upon hearing the news, Statler had one request. "Not so fast," he said. "Before you split up, let's do a film."

Statler drove down to Akron and hatched a scheme with Casale and Mothersbaugh to shoot a short film, starring the band, which connected their theme song "Jocko Homo" with a cover of Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man." The vague, Orwellian plotline featured an evil CEO, mad scientists, and a baby-faced man-child, and the result was "The Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-evolution," which was finished in 1977. By the end of that year, Devo had a contract with Warner Bros. (reportedly at the behest of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who were won over by Statler's film) and were in the studio with Brian Eno working on their eponymous major-label debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Meanwhile, Statler returned to Minneapolis, where he'd been working as an ad man, to make more music films. But when he scoured the Twin Cities for a band to work with, he had little luck. "Back then bands were reluctant to take the time to make a video," Statler says. "Today it's as much a part of the schematic as making an album. But back then, if a band had three days off, they didn't want to traipse around and do a video. Films cost money, and bands didn't have any."

Eventually Statler found a group willing to get in front of the camera. The Suicide Commandos, the early-'80s Twin Cities punk band, learned that the building where they practiced was going to be incinerated. As it happened, they had a song called "Burn It Down."

Soon afterward, Statler's phone started ringing.

A chance meeting with Elvis Costello's manager at a Minneapolis bar yielded a series of videos, including "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" Warner Bros. commissioned Statler to direct the video for Devo's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." For the next six years, Statler toured the globe, making videos for Prince, the Cars, J. Geils, Pere Ubu, Graham Parker, Madness, and many others. In the early 1980s, both Statler and Jonathan Demme--director of The Silence of the Lambs and the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, among others--separately approached American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar about making a film out of his now-famous underground comic, anticipating last year's theatrical release of Fine Line Pictures' Pekar biopic by more than two decades. (Demme couldn't secure funding; Statler wound up directing a short clip based on one of Pekar's Harry Crumb-illustrated stories, "The Last Supper.")

Statler has shifted his focus away from music videos over the past 20 years, returning occasionally for one-off jobs whenever a band puts in the effort to track him down (his most recent work has been low-budget outings with the Moldy Peaches and Ben Kweller). He lives in Golden Valley with his wife and kids, whom he's been escorting to rock shows at First Avenue since they were preteens. (Statler's son Wes fronts the local up-and-coming nu-new-wavers Melodious Owl). He still pays the bills by doing advertising work, and in his spare time he continues to beat against the mainstream current with his own filmmaking, which today tends toward long-form documentary and television. When I catch up with him at the bagel shop, he has just flown in from New York an hour earlier, having spent the weekend filming interviews (with Moby, among others) for The Music from the Ceiling, a documentary he's making about elevator music.  

Upon mentioning that particular project, Statler squints his narrow blues eyes and soaks in the bagel shop's easy-listening instrumentals. "It's like this stuff," he says, referring to the Muzak. "'Elevator music' is such a derogatory, pejorative term at this point in time, but I think it warrants reevaluation. It ain't mainstream, and if it has anything to do with non-mainstream, then I'm into it."

As Statler's audience will discover this week at Sound Unseen, this is a bit of an understatement. Beginning with his early Devo films and progressing through his '90s work--which includes a piece by Latino Elvis impersonator El Vez and the last filmed appearance by Tiny Tim--Statler's career retrospective is nearly two straight hours of comical surrealist whimsy. The years, it appears, did little to temper his affinity for the margins. Or, as he puts it, "There's no expiration date on weirdness."

The first half of Chuck Statler: A Retrospective 1976-2003, focuses primarily on Statler's early Devo work: The Truth About De-evolution, live footage from a concert at Kent, and the "Satisfaction" video--an early MTV hit that featured a baby-masked Mothersbaugh jamming a butter knife into a toaster. These clips established Statler's bizarro style, an aesthetic born out of his collaboration with Casale, Devo's principal image-maker and director of the band's later videos. Statler's ensuing film work abandoned many of Devo's trademark tropes--conformist futurism, natal regression, monkey masks--but he retained from them a visual vocabulary that's evident throughout his retrospective. Dadaist characters, nonsensical sets, playful scenes of bands dancing through streets, mansions, and junkyards--all are Statlerisms that pop up throughout the evening in videos by Elvis Costello, the Time, Pere Ubu, Madness, and others.

Still, Statler's aesthetic has progressed beyond the baby-sticking-knife-into-toaster imagery of early Devo. When pressed to comment on the evolution of his style, he raises a single eyebrow and smiles, denying any claim that he's gotten better over the years.

"Evolution?" he asks with a smirk. "Nah. De-evolution."

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