Al Di Meola Stars in… “Sequencer”

Am I the only one that loves it when musicians do the acting in their own music videos? The more outlandish the concept, the better! And if the musician can’t act to save his life, then that gets the chef’s kiss from me. It really shouldn’t because that’s more along the lines of what I’d expect. I can applaud musicians that are also good actors some other time (Tom Waits, Dwight Yoakam). In this piece, I’m looking for that Tommy Wiseau level of awkwardness or lack of acting chops. While thinking of who to feature first, I didn’t have to think hard at all.

From the moment I first laid eyes on it, the music video for “Sequencer” by Al Di Meola held a special place in my heart. It’s about one of the most Eighties things you could put on screen, and hands the starring role to a man who, to the best of my knowledge, had no acting training. Full respect to Al for giving it a go because normally a lead actor or two may be hired to star in a music video, and the artist or band simply serves as musical accompaniment with flashes of stage performance thrown in to hammer home whose music video it is. The logic must be that there is no better way to establish whose music this is by having the primary musician to the bulk of the acting.

One key ingredient I think makes the video an enjoyable novelty is the track itself. While Di Meola typically wrote the bulk of songs on his records with the occasional cover song or outside writer thrown in, the majority of the Scenario album features tracks that we co-written or solely written by Jan Hammer. Hammer, also known for his playing with the likes of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, and Billy Cobham in the 1970s, recorded with Al in the past as well, but only had one writing credit on a previous Di Meola solo album with “Cruisin”. The 1980s saw Jan become established as a jazz/fusion musician that had an ability to craft themes with pop-sensibilities that helped the genre branch out into the mainstream. Most notably, his themes were prominent in the hit TV show Miami Vice, including the opening credit’s “Crockett’s Theme”. While the Scenario album pre-dates that particular gig, you could tell Hammer was well on his way to dabbling in more accessible forms of music, such as his Schon & Hammer project with Journey guitarist Neal Schon.

Around the time of the album’s launch, Al pledged an excitement about what Will Alexander of Fairlight (whose CMI synthesizer can be heard through much of the album and single) taught him about programming sounds and a strong desire to investigate these new possibilities, as he stated in a September 1983 interview with Down Beat magazine. He also stressed that “ far as my own albums and my own directions go, I really want to get into the future before the future arrives”. I’m not sure if it was his own change of heart or taking critic’s appraisals into mind that led to abandoning this direction, but a January 1984 Down Beat review gave Scenario a two and a half star (out of five) review, but it’s worth noting that it did take special note of “Sequencer”, calling it “some choice Di Meola rock & roll flash, and a solo that very well combines passion with strong-handed technical expertise”.

Perhaps some forces in the Di Meola camp felt it was high-time that he began to appeal to the MTV Generation, and with that came his first music video for the track “Sequencer”. This was one of two tracks that were written for the album exclusively by Hammer. The other, “Island Dreamer”, was a bit more typical of Di Meola despite a similar digitized feel. If they were picking strictly from Hammer’s two songs, they chose wisely. I don’t think the steel drums would have quite got the youngins’ toes tapping like the Fairlight rhythms of “Sequencer”.

In general when I hear much of the so-called jazz fusion of the time, and even certain rock bands from the era that shifted towards digital sounds, I wonder why the pop music world never learned from some of their past mistakes. Artists were so keen to be on the cutting edge that they’d immerse themselves in the latest technology, which I suppose gave them notoriety and profit in the short term. However, I seldom see mention from any jazz/fusion artists that their “electronic” periods from the 1980s (not to be confused with ground-breaking “electric” work from the prior decade like Return To Forever) was their best work. That’s more than likely because, in spite of commercial success or their enjoyment of the creative process, the material has not aged as well due to outdated technology that was employed. It reminds me of the over-the-top Auto-Tune that dominated pop music in recent years. It may still be a presence, but I don’t listen to the radio enough to verify if it is the case. On my limited exposure, many of these Auto-Tuners seem to use this as a crutch to make mediocre vocals sound better. When looking back on the state of jazz fusion in the 1980s, I can see why some of the more traditional jazz musicians were critical of the over-digitized nature of the music. These cats could all play, yet some of these new sounds they were exploring may have taken away some of the heart and beauty that lies in the compositions or in the musicians’ playing. The song “Sequencer” itself I’ll always struggle somewhat to separate from the music video because my first watch of the video happened to be the first time I listened to the song. I took it as a novelty in contrast to his earlier solo material, but it has grown on me as a fine track on its own. Not one of the worst example you can find of a jazz artist getting too bogged down by 80s digitization, that’s for sure.

That’s enough background for now. What I really want to do is analyze the “Sequencer” video. How would I describe this to someone who hasn’t seen it? To me, it looks like if you had a dream that your dad became a rock star if you fell asleep watching Tron. It also has elements of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and their “Mini Van Highway” video in its use of 80s future-tech and uncertainty over whether it legit or a parody.

I’ve no better way of doing coverage of this video than to jump in as if I am one of those robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, commenting on the video however I please. Given the moniker in which I branded this website, imagine me in the form of an armchair, if that helps at all. Not completely unlike Pee-Wee Herman’s Chairy, but give me cymbals for eyes, violin bow eyebrows, guitar picks for teeth, and a large tuning fork for a tongue. I realize that mental imagine probably won’t help you unless you’re actively trying to become an insomniac. Oh, and in the spirit of fairness, subtract my ability to crank out a good joke by about 60%.

Anyway, follow along with the video if you like, which should be available my clicking here (or here or here should the first link not work).

After he scraps the idea of living on a Joy Division album cover, Al Di Meola constructs himself a dream house.

Interesting start. Reminds me of those Harold and the Purple Crayon books or Picture Pages if it were hosted by Norm Abram of This Old House. Every decade seemed to have a different image of what the future will look like. It’s natural, considering that each passing decade brings on further advancements of technology. I have to say that if I didn’t know any better, someone must have invented the straight-edged ruler somewhere around 1978. In the 1980s, it seems there was lots of darkness, minimalism, and straight edges or grid patterns, perhaps most famously shown in the holodeck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. This music video does pre-date Star Trek: The Next Generation by about four years, but this common futuristic motif is very evident in this music video.

Then our star makes his entrance.

So impressive is his emergence into the building that we get a triple-take shot before he crosses the floor. It’s not quite Cosmo Kramer’s backless entrance to the Pinstripe ball, but it certainly left a mark on me! I was trying for years to place what Al’s wardrobe reminded me of, but while looking through childhood photos, it dawned on me. My siblings and I used to make clothes out of large pieces of paper for dress-up. I’m pretty sure we only had enough material to make fronts for our clothes and had to hold them against our bodies with one hand, but we’d often wear bed sheets as capes as well. That’s how Al looks to me in a nutshell. A proper explanation could be their looking to popular culture. Part Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” and part Jedi knight, which would partially explain the lightsaber beams that outline his house. Elements of this video could also point to an Asian influence, but no matter what the fashion source, the look goes down as well as white after Labour Day.

Of all that is to come in this video, the Fairlight CMI seems to be the one consistent element within the room. And for good reason! It does much of the heavy lifting giving the track its unique atmosphere. I’m convinced this music video could have doubled for a sales video of both the Fairlight and the Scenario album. I’d be curious to see if this led to any significant sales bump, but they did apparently retail for anywhere between 16,0000 and 60,000+ British pounds depending on the version. Al does not have the music talents of an ordinary man, so could likely justify a purchase of this technology even if he was significantly less popular than he was within the music scene. It was clearly well worth the money to him, as Al looks here to be really, really, really, enjoying the hell out of that Fairlight! I don’t even get that look of satisfaction on my face when my Bagel Bites have finished cooking.

His expression is kind of unusual considering he (as far as I can tell) never played a note of it on the album. Only Jan Hammer is credited with using the CMI in the liner notes, yet he is nowhere to be found in this music video. I could only imagine his acting was either considerably worse or he was busy in his own neon-framed house several miles away.

You’ve had a close enough look at Al by now. How old would you say he is in this video? They say that beards can age a man, but I have a beard, and am often told I look younger than I am (they just don’t spot the grays as easily as I do). Given that the video is from 1983, Al Di Meola would be around 28 or 29. If I didn’t know any better, my guess would be off by around a decade. He would eventually shave the beard within a year or two of this video. Not only did this cut years off his face, but it soon miraculously remedied his receding hairline too!

Part way through the video, Di Meola tires of the Fairlight and goes back to the guitar. The Fairlight knew it was where his heart truly lied, and was sweet enough to craft him one out of thin air.

I can’t be the only one out there to notice he’s now showing slightly more skin. I hear that manning a Fairlight can build up quite the sweat, so he’s naturally letting the armpits breathe a little. As for the guitar, this looks to be a Paul Reed Smith. Di Meola had struck up a relationship with the guitar designer as far back as 1974, though that’s not the site of him viewers would have been used to. The guitar that he was perhaps best known for at the time was his black Gibson Les Paul, which can be seen on the covers of both Elegant Gypsy and Electric Rendevous in addition to Scenario, so it’s interesting seeing him showcase a different guitar. I don’t always pick up on this when seeing the video, but it’s probably the occasional Di Meola nip-slip from this partial undressing that’s putting my mind on other things.

Next, two men enter the picture, and it doesn’t look to be the rhythm section.

Wait a minute! That guy with the swords on the right looks awfully familiar. Is it? Could it be… the sweet-toothed terrorist from Die Hard?

Yes, it is Al Leong. He may not be listed in the music video’s credit sequence, and I can’t spot this video on his IMDB profile, but it has to be him, right? That guy was in everything in his heyday, and had such a distinct look that I’ll believe it. Spoiler alert: unlike just about every other TV show or movie he’s featured in, Al (should I call him Al #2 in this context?) actually lives to see the end of the “Sequencer” video!

Hang on! Where did our beloved guitarist go? Did his landlord send these Hollywood tough guys to forcibly evict him? I get it that, they need space to demonstrate their mastery of their weapons, but should they not have cleared out that costly Fairlight as well? I’d hate to think of what an inadvertent sword scuff would do to its resale value. Seeing these two going at it from out of nowhere drives home the holodeck similarities more, but also the box of the video game SpellCaster for the Sega Master System. These events are playing out just like a video game, computer entertainment right in your living room!

The main oversight here is that physics of this room aren’t very consistent. Al (Di Meola, not Leong) entered the room using the door, and these guys just come flying through the walls. Such disrespect! It’s like when I was a kid and would play ‘house’ with my older sister. Leave out a small detail in play-acting such as using the door, using your utensils while ‘eating’, or avoiding stepping on the invisible cat, and there would be hell to pay. In a world where physics don’t matter, be like Al. I view these fighters’ purpose as serving as Goofus to Al Di Meola’s Gallant. We’re meant to cheer for Di Meola, so you’ve got to go out of your way to make these intruders unlikable.

Does someone want to let that poor chap in? It’s difficult to tell if he’s shadowboxing to keep warm or if he’s going to fight the winner, or even pounce on the loser once he leaves. Yet again, this seems to be violating an established rule of the house. I didn’t know we were even supposed to be able to see outside unless the door was open. Maybe there’s a switch somewhere that makes the walls see-through that acts in place of windows. Maybe that wasn’t a door to the outside at all, and Al was simply hiding in his refrigerator (which would explain the bright lights and the fact we first see him in more layers of clothing), only emerging to jam on his instruments once he was certain there was no danger. Maybe I’m over-thinking this entire concept, and should just sit back and enjoy the video.

Next up, Leong unleashes the beast. Either that, or he was peeling off that depressingly-black wall paper for the next phase of home renovations and cut a little too deep.

All of the warm-up time in the world, and we soon learn why. The outsider was preparing to challenge the guitar virtuoso the whole time. However, now he’s got himself a mask on. This shows he means business or forgot that you’re supposed to knock on doors on Halloween rather than kick through walls. Masks often add to the intimidation factor of an opponent, but when it doesn’t, my love of the Kids In The Hall has me thinking of one formidable foe: ERADICATOR!

Now this, I love! Al leans over his shoulder as if he was anticipating this visitor the whole time like some sort of Bond villain. You’d think he’d be alarmed by the festively-dressed spin-kicker, especially since this is the first time we see Al in the room with another person. I guess once you spend a few years in Chick Corea’s band, you should be prepared for just about anything (see Di Meola reflect on his time with Return To Forever in this interview).

As unique an artifact that this music video is, this is my favourite shot in the whole thing. The purpose of music videos being to promote the music, this is where Di Meola shines. To the layperson out there that only listens to music with vocals, you might be inclined to think songs of this nature are just one giant guitar solo. That’s not necessarily the case, thus the visual the director chose of this up-close, seated perspective of Al. The irony here is that I can’t remain seated because the way that this alternate-picking lick kicks off the solo starts always gets me pumped! And in case this isn’t enough to get your blood pumping, we have reached the climax of this micro-movie.

You knew it was only a matter of time before Al got in on the fight action, right? Off come the glasses and his remaining upper garments, so unless that synthesizer of his doubles as a tanning bed, it looks he’s ready to defend his fortress of solitude.

I have never played any of the Guitar Hero games, so I have no idea what the final boss stage is like. If they insist on breathing new life into that video game franchise, I insist that they make it play out like this portion of the video. This may be one of his most commercial songs, and he has more shred-worthy tunes more suited for those game like “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway” or “The Wizard”, but this image of him left a stain on my mind that can’t be washed away. I’ve also often wondered why guitars are affectionately called axes. I thought it would be out of the irony that they are made of wood. Little did I know that it was because they could be used as weapons. If a man fighting with a guitar isn’t hip enough for the youngest generation of gamers, at least put this idea to life in an action movie if it doesn’t exist already. Nice touch in syncing up their strikes to the synth phrasing, too! That detail is not lost on me.

After the director loses interest in filming how this battle plays out (heaven knows why that would be!), yet another contest appears to be shaping up. A three-on-one, of all things, expanding things into full-blown donnybrook territory. You’ll see that, once again, Al has left the room. I’m going on the generous side and thinking that having five combatants would violate that cozy room’s fire safety code.

Unfortunately, before things get cooking, the outnumbered fighter unveils their identity.

The fight, therefore, ends before it begins. The men stand back to watch her skillful solo sword demonstration, which is for the best. Who in their right mind would want to witness a potential misogynistic beat-down? Her going this route may have saved her three opponents from potentially being ‘cancelled’. Still, from a cinematic perspective, it’s best to reveal one’s identity at the end of the fight. If you manage to win and then unmask her afterward, you are far less likely to be convicted in the court of public opinion. What would possibly give her gender identity away? She’s a trained martial artist, not some amateur off the streets. Her voice wouldn’t necessarily give her away either. Certain female tennis players (like Serena Williams) have a roar that would raise the hairs on a lion’s neck, and grown men have been heard screaming like banshees if someone touched their Magic: The Gathering cards without first washing their hands.

It was already established that his guitar is a weapon, so I don’t know what to make of these last few moments of the video. Maybe Al got to unmask the man after winning their battle. I like to think that the experience made them good friends, and here they are just screwing around for shits and giggles.

Thinking it over, I believe this to be an outtakes reels, sort of like the ones shown during the credits of a Jackie Chan movie. Jackie must have used a guitar as an improvised weapon in one of his films, come to think of it. The trouble here is that they put one of Al’s best moves (the guitar spin) to waste here. It would have been better served moments earlier when the viewer felt that the stakes were higher. Not that anyone would realistically think a music video would kill of the protagonist. The only thing that music videos were killing at that point were radio stars.

The song, the actors, Di Meola, and even the Fairlight have had enough of this fun-house, and it all abruptly ends with an empty room.

With that viewing behind us, it’s worth pointing out some of the creative minds behind the scenes.

This piece of small-screen entertainment was directed by Peter Conn, a man used to working with much more-hip artists. Some of his credits include The Jacksons’ “Blame It On The Boogie”, Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra”, and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”. While many of his music videos seemed to follow a theme of utilizing black backgrounds, it wasn’t exactly the rarest method of shooting videos at the time. In slightly more modern times, Conn was responsible for special effects for TLC’s “Waterfalls” video, which earned him an award nomination at the 1995 MTV Video Awards. He details his remaining work and shares some personal memories, such as Di Meola’s excitement over that martial arts guitar battle, on the website for his Miles Consulting company. Outside music videos, the credit that jumps out at me the most is Robocop. He is listed as a video sequence creator through his own Homer & Associates company, which apparently involved directing of most of the media breaks. As far as I’m concerned, these were huge in setting the atmosphere of the film.

Other notable staff in the “Sequencer” video include producer Michael Grunstein, director of photography Robert Primes, production manager Mark Kitchell, and make-up artist Erica Ueland. It’s a chore to sift through the internet to be certain these names match the right people, but I once again spotted a few interesting matches to some of these names. Michael Grunstein (assuming it’s the same man) was an assistant editor in a feature called The Man of Miracles, which was about guru Sathya Sai Baba and hosted by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame. Robert Primes’ extensive cinematography and directorial experience spans TV shows like Quantum Leap and Felicity, as well as films like Rumble Fish, Bird on a Wire, and 1977’s The Grateful Dead movie. Mark Kitchell, notably, has directed environmentally-conscious films A Fierce Green Fire and Evolution of Organic. Erica Ueland has plied her trade in cult classics such as Halloween (1978), Schizoid, and Children of the Corn. I’m leaving out some of the listed and uncredited help here, but given how much I’ve gone over this obscure bit of jazz fusion history, it should go without saying that I appreciate all your efforts. Not many music acts can luck out and grab a young David Fincher or Michael Bay for their videos or be granted sky-high budgets, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get inventive and make an enjoyable music video. That’s exactly what Peter Conn and crew did here.

Any final thoughts? Do I ever! This video, unfortunately, focuses on a single room. I’m dying to know what the rest of this building would look like.

Is there an upstairs, and if so, what would keep you from falling through the floor?

If you were to hang a picture frame or poster on the wall, would it also turn invisible?

Should I even ponder the plumbing situation?

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