Lights, camera, action: The 50 best rock videos ever

Screengrabs from some of the greatest rock videos ever
(Image credit: Future)

On August 1, 1981, the switch was flicked and the revolution began. “Ladies and gentlemen,” intoned a deep male voice, “rock’n’roll.” 

That was the moment a brand new channel named MTV – short for Music Television – was launched in New Jersey. Its remit was simple: to deliver the visual equivalent of a radio programme, except singles were replaced by music videos, and DJs became VJs, or video jockeys. 

The first promo to be played on the channel was loaded with irony and intent: Video Killed The Radio Star by boffiny British new-wave duo The Buggles. It fired the starting pistol on the golden age of the music video. 

MTV didn’t invent the concept of the music video; everyone from Gallic crooner Serge Gainsbourg to, inevitably, The Beatles had created their own early promos, while Queen’s instantly iconic clip for Bohemian Rhapsody popularised it in the minds of the public. 

But it was during MTV’s golden age in the 80s and 90s that the music video was truly elevated from humble promo into a certifiable art form – lavish, inventive mini-movies, with the ambition and artistry of anything Hollywood was pumping into cinemas. Eventually MTV cut the ‘M’ part of its remit loose in favour of a soul-withering diet of reality TV, but the genie had long ago been let out of the bottle. 

These days, the music video exists on YouTube, the perfect choose-your-own-adventure platform for the medium. The budgets might be smaller, but the invention and ambition remains. The music video, like rock’n’roll all those years ago, isn’t going away.


50. Electric Six - Danger! High Voltage (2003)

Detroit pranksters Electric Six made funny videos at a time when videos had stopped being funny. Their breakout promo was a surreally saucy S&M-themed romp featuring pencil-moustached frontman Dick Valentine indulging in some horseplay with a lingerie-clad paramour (played by actor Tina Kanarek, miming to Jack White’s voice). Rumpy-pumpy on a stuffed bison added to the bonkersness.

49. Lenny Kravitz - Are You Gonna Go My Way? (1993)

Not every video has to have a super-high concept. Sometimes it can just be a great-looking dude and his drop-dead cool band performing under a huge, custom-made chandelier consisting of 983 cylindrical lights while a bunch of beautiful people writhe sexily on a balcony around them. What the Mark Romanek-directed clip for Lenny Kravitz’s mega-earworm lacked in highfalutin concepts or blockbusting CGI, it made up for in knockout visual impact.

48. Whitesnake - Here I Go Again (1987)

Watching the galumphing performance video for the original ’82 single with an older, uglier Whitesnake next to this glossy reimagining is like seeing a clapped out Reliant Robin parked next to a Lamborghini. A newly madeover David Coverdale pouts and preens, but it’s his show-stealing other half Tawny Kitaen who steals the show, instantly burning the image of a woman writhing on the hoods of expensive cars on the retinas of millions of horny teenagers.

47. Journey - Separate Ways (1983)

If you go down to the docks today… you might find a bunch of dudes miming along on assorted air instruments to one of the greatest AOR anthems of the early 80s. Sure, the Separate Ways vid is heroically naff, and apparently filming was a nightmare (not least due to the presence of Steve Perry’s then-girlfriend, who was reportedly jealous of the model who strutted her way down the wharfs), but it’s got a geeky charm that’s undeniable.

46. Meat Loaf - Dead Ringer For Love (1981)

There’s erotic tension, then there’s this. A boggle-eyed Meat Loaf and gum-popping Cher play out their X-rated Grease-meets-West Side Story fantasies in a neon-soaked dive bar over four increasingly feverish minutes, while their respective posses frot up against each other in the background. At the end of it, these two mismatched shag-monsters strut out arm in arm, presumably to make the sex tape to end all sex tapes.

45. Bon Jovi - Livin’ On A Prayer (1986)

The second of the holy triptych of Slippery When Wet videos that helped launch them into the stratosphere. Exuberant and goofy, it made being a member of Bon Jovi look like the best thing in the world (come on, who hasn’t wanted to fly over a stage in a harness?), and proved that everything looks better if you blow most of your budget on sparks.

44. Tool - Stinkfist (1996)

Any song that takes its title from an unprintable sex act was never going to have a regular video, and Tool’s 1996 hit serves up a big plate of weirdness. Directed by Tool guitarist – and professional animator – Adam Jones, the stop-motion clip is an unsettling mix of sci-fi strangeness and nightmarish body horror involving bald alien creatures doing unnatural things to each other. Twenty-five years on, we still haven’t got a clue what it’s all about.

43. Toto - Africa (1982)

Picture the meeting: “So guys, we want a video where a man who looks like a 1980s darts player flicks through books in a library while the librarian looks on disapprovingly, cut in with the band playing on a giant encyclopaedia. And then everything burns down. The end.” Somehow, the unpromising video for Toto’s 1982 single turned this bunch of soft-rock beard farmers into unlikely MTV staples and helped elevate the song itself to musical godhood.

42. The Sisters of Mercy - Dominion (1987)

“The dynamic duo go on holiday,” is how goth king Andrew Eldritch drolly described the lavish clip for the Sisters’ 1987 single. Shot in Jordan at a cost of £1 million, it plays out like Lawrence Of Arabia-meets-the weirdest espionage novel ever written, with Bedouin horsemen galloping across epic desert vistas and Eldritch vamping it up in white suit, mirrored shades and walking cane. Does it make any sense? No. Does it look amazing? Absolutely.

41. The Smashing Pumpkins - Tonight Tonight (1996)

Billy Corgan’s grand musical ambition was never better-matched than with the dazzling part-animated video for Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’s epic fourth single. Inspired by George Méliés visionary 1902 silent movie A Trip To The Moon, this was a steampunk adventure before steampunk was a thing: juddering paper cut-out airships, a moon with a face, a pair of lovers battling pointy headed alien creatures and pink octopus-creatures, while a top-hatted Corgan and his bandmates float and flicker in the clouds like Victorian ghosts. You never got this with Mudhoney.

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.