Steve Barron loved The Jam. He ended up directing ‘Burning Up’ (the music video) & Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
In 1983, Steve Barron was an up-and-coming music video director. He’d made such famous clips as a-ha‘s “Take On Me” and Michael Jackson‘s “Billie Jean.” The irony was that the Irish director’s musical tastes tended towards British punk and post-punk bands—he was a big fan of The Jam, for one. But a friend recommended him to shoot the video for a new singer who was just beginning to get attention.
In this excerpt from Barron’s book, Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: a Trip Through the Eighties, Barron writes about his first meeting with Madonna Louise Ciccone. I’m not sure why the anecdote has such a hold on me, but it’s one of the more fascinating bits I’ve come across (in The Guardian, which included it with their 2014 interview with Barron) that I probably won’t have space for in Superheroes v the Megaplex.
It’s interesting to note that Barron went on to direct the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which came out a couple of months before Dick Tracy. That movie (directed and produced by, and starring, Warren Beatty) featured Madonna in a high-profile role as nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney. Relative to their respective budgets and box-office takes, TMNT kicked Dick Tracy‘s ass.
Madonna and Burning Up music video Steve Barron
Madonna? You’d better be really good at what you do with a name like that or you’re f—ed. And this song just isn’t up my strasse in the slightest. I’m burning up, burning up for your love, burning up, burning up for your love. Why does anyone think that’s going to be massive? Certainly not me.
Mind you, I’m not exactly the greatest judge of what’s going to number one, am I?
But, still, I’d have to come up with a concept. I’d have to have an idea that feels right with the track. And it would have to be a cool idea. And if I don’t think the track is cool, how can I come up with an idea that’s cool with the track? It’s not my sort of music. I’ve still got, ‘They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings’ humming around in my brain. The Jam is where my head is still at. This ‘Madonna’ will never be in the same stratosphere as The Jam.
No, I’m not going to New York on my own to meet some blonde chick called Madonna who Warners think is going to be massive, even if they are stumping up a bit more cash than usual for a first time artist.
“Come on. You managed to drag yourself out in front of the Nolan Sisters,” Simon chortles. “I promised Warners you’d at least meet her. Then if you don’t like we can wriggle out of it. She’s a very cool dancer apparently.”
I can’t believe he’s promised them. I’m on holiday.
“Oh, she’s been practising in front of the mirror then?” It might be enough of the sarcy cynicism. Starting to hear myself whining.
“Actually, she saw the MJ video and she thought it was genius and she really wants to meet you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m on holiday.”
F—ing annoying. What am I doing here? Where is this bleeding apartment block? How did I agree to this? I’m burning up alright! That biting wind is bouncing off those stone Soho buildings right into my grumpy face. What number was it? That doesn’t make sense. Where’s the number on that building then?
This must be it. Smelly corridor. Crapped-out lift. Where’s the penthouse suite then? There’s seventeen buttons of floors but not a dicky bird about ‘the penthouse suite’. How would she have a penthouse suite anyway? Nobody knows her from Adam.
Maybe a rich boyfriend? Maybe just rich. Never mind, you’re here. Must be on the 17th floor then.
The 17th floor looks derelict. This can’t be right; there’s masonry and s–t all over the floor. Oh, look. Now I get it. There’s a paper plate taped to the flaking wall with an arrow pointing up the crumbling staircase, which says ‘Penthouse Suite’ in biro. Penthouse Squat is what it’d say if it was being truthful.
Climb those stairs. And more stairs. And what’s that thumping sound? And more stairs. And that music is pumping out up there. Dance music. That’s f—ing loud. Now I’m out of breath in front of an apartment door with no bell and no knocker and nothing but another paper plate with ‘Penthouse Suite’ in blue biro stuck to it.
‘Hello’ isn’t working. Door doesn’t even shut properly. A hole where a latch might have been. I can push it open. A sort of kitchen area on the right. A couple of very grungy pots and pans by an old stove that’s caked in many years of grime. There’s not a stitch of furniture in the place.
“Hello?” is still being smothered by boom boom boom coming from down a narrow corridor with a very worn carpet. Is this a wind-up? She knew I was coming. She knew what time. I’m walking along the corridor. Another door. The source of the loud. Even this door has the inviting sliver of slightly open. I’m going to try shouting again. The music is deafening but I can’t just walk in, can I?
I mean, this must be the bedroom.
“Hello? M – M – Ma – donna?”
F–k, that’s a hard word to yell. That just doesn’t feel like a name. It’s feels like a thing. Or a feeling.
Or a phenomenon.
“Ma-donna?” I’m pushing the door to the bedroom open. There’s a thin mattress in one corner. Against a wall is the most enormous Marshall speaker I have ever seen pumping out the loudest dance music I have ever heard. I look down.
Lying on the floor. Naked apart from her little white knickers, one worked-out leg folded over the other in mid dance-step or mid pose or stretch or whatever else she was in the mid of. She turns to look up at me in the doorway.
“Oh, hi,” I think she says, pulling a towel from under to over. I can’t be sure because the music is so deafening. It’s actually shrouding the whole moment in a completely surreal quality; though I guess this moment just has completely surreal written all over it. I think I retreat and look away. She turns the music down.
“Hi Steve” – “I didn’t hear you” – “Give me a moment” – “I’ll be right with you” – She says in that husky Michigan brogue we all now know. I walk back along the corridor to the kitchen where there’s a built-in breakfast table and benches. Soon she’s sitting opposite me in a sexy sleeveless thing and legging type Flashdance-type thing. She’s talking about music and dance and she’s moving and twisting as she talks. And she’s leaning her head sideways as I speak and laying her head on her hand as I tell her about my newborn and she’s flicking her hair to the other side and resting her head on the table. And my mind is racing and I’m looking at her thinking that’s a nice angle when she does that, and a nice angle when she does that.
And there’s something captivating and compelling that’s beyond sexy. There’s some vibe that comes from her that’s hard to put my finger on. It’s hard to describe. It’s a kind of light within her that gives her a quality that you don’t come across very often. She’s oozing it right now. What is that? Is there a word for that? What do you call that?