Eben Ozin’s music video “A E I O U Sometimes Y” 1983.
Sam Small, Editor
Top 20 Billboard Club Chart,
MTV Heavy Rotation,
LA Times Top 10 Video of the Year
I Dare You To Play This Record: Ebn Ozn’s AEIOU Sometimes Y
By Heather Drain
“There are 178 parent languages on our planet/With over one thousand dialects/
It’s amazing we communicate at all”
-Ebn Ozn “AEIOU Sometimes Y”
When the discussion of what constitutes a great music video comes up, it tends to be not that different from film or music talk. If it’s a healthy, barrier-cutting conversation, things like atmosphere and aesthetic innovation come up. On the other hand, when gabbing gets listless with dim thought and no vision, aspects like money and status-quo-obviousness get touted, as if life is one great big sterile sports bar.
Yet, when the soul is hungry for something other than microwaved coconut shrimp and being shouted at by a man reeking of Michelob Ultra and Axe body spray, you root around and seek the work that is truly special and not revered nearly enough. In such a quest, I present the 1983 song and music video for Ebn Ozn’s “AEIOU Sometimes Y.”
Ebn Ozn was the answer to the question of what happens when a rock & roller ends up being an electronic musical wizard (aka Ned Liben aka Ebn) collaborates with a highly charismatic and talented stage actor and future writer/musician/activist (aka Robert Rosen aka Ozn aka Robert Ozn.) What resulted from this collaboration were two great singles and one wholly unique full-length album, Feeling Cavalier. Out of that tiny but oh-so-fascinating discography, “AEIOU Sometimes Y,” was and still is the big standout, both in terms of its eternal playability, universal themes of cross-communications with amour fou combined with the easily wounded ego underneath masculine braggadocio, as well as being a big success on the club circuit.
1983 brought forth both the single for “AEIOU” as well as the music video. With this arrival, a not-so-sleight of hand revealed the question of how does one create a visual that properly fits such a darkly unique track?
Luckily for viewers, fans of the song, music video aficionados, and arthouse lovers with innate, middle-America-defying SLACK, the answer is incredibly well.
From the opening frame, it is clearly established that, like the song itself, this is not going to be your usual pop video. A wide shot of a park (possibly Central Park in New York City) reveals three points of figures. In the distance towards the slight left of center is a school teacher taking her young students on a field trip, while on the far right, two stylishly dressed gentlemen (Ebn Ozn) sit on a park bench, with neither looking especially happy. The central figure is clad in a long black, baggy coat and hat, with their back to the camera while standing still as a statue. They are nothing but a brief decoy, but helpful in giving everything the feel of a modern-day Seurat painting. The opening synths of the song with a voice saying, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” comes across as the best kind of warning/invite one can get.
Of the two gentlemen, the blonde (Robert Ozn) polishes an apple on his shirt and passes it to one of the kids as they walk by, with the expression on his face landing somewhere between mildly amused and wryly knowing. There’s already an undercurrent of something not so shimmery brewing, emphasized as the sound gets bigger, building synth upon synth in a way that foretells either a great dance track or a horror movie. (Why not both?) Either way, the Deus ex produce is in full effect.
From Ozn to passerby student in the park, the apple then reappears in a classroom, being handed from student to student until the final kid places it on the same teacher’s desk. The teacher, while not quite the Swedish girl named Lola whose “…English wasn’t too good…” in the song, is the object of romance for both Ozn and Ebn, with the former being more demonstratively aggressive. Ebn, on the other hand, is more reserved, though still clearly interested as he talks with her, miming the passage about “…languages and dialects.”
Ebn and Ozn both are visually striking in different ways here. Ozn is in full bohemian-suave-swagger mode, as he is dressed in dance-rehearsal-style tank-top and sweats one minute, then a personally tailored suit the next. Resembling a young, though less insane carnal-criminal Klaus Kinski, only lends to this brand of charismatic approach. He dances around the teacher on the street, like a sugar-high kid, eliciting charmed laughter from her, and later, shows up (in THAT suit) at her school and aggressively kisses (the admittedly willing) “Lola” while children are still milling about. (Which, come to think of it, is a total power-Kinski move.)
Ebn, on the flip side, is equally handsome, but infinitely more reserved, as we see him conduct students in a violin-heavy rehearsal with his hair styled in a music composer meets Bogart in The Return of Doctor X coiffure. Speaking of imagery, this is easily one of the best-edited music videos of the early 1980s, with each cut being simultaneously clean in its economy while giving us lushly cryptic morsels of story. The video’s editor, Sam Small, whose own career is incredible and features everything from concert films, documentaries, and non-profit work, was sought out by Ozn himself and handed the raw film that had been transferred to tape. Great raw footage can still be rendered toothless in the wrong hands, but that was clearly not a danger here. Between the visuals, the song, and Small’s editing, “AEIOU” transcends from music video to a proper short film. In other words, what any music video worth its salt should elevate itself to.
The tradition of every image in a music video replicating of each line in the song is not neatly in play here and “AEIOU” is all the better for it. Music videos were still an infant format in ‘83, with its origins dating back to the Scopitones of the 1960s, but on-the-nose storytelling was dangerously close to being hoary even then. While there were videos that were literally plotted that were are still good, those tend to be the exception, not the rule. Either way, even now, “AEIOU” is a video whose presentation and refusal to go in any sort of pat way has kept it fresh. In fact, the longest shot in the entire clip, is not any obvious romantic displays or high drama, but a tight close-up of Ozn’s face, which is flanked by a sparse black background, while he goes into the portion of the song with the following lyrics:
So, you know, I was really flipped out, you know
And she asked me if I’m angry or something
I said, “Of course I’m angry
Man, this isn’t high school or anything, you know”
So I’m feeling really cavalier
And I say “Uh, call me, you know, if you want to”
Ha, yeah, call me if you want to
So she rang me up and she says
“Hey! Do you wanna go out?”
Huh, do I wanna go out?!
His expression throughout is intense and tight-as-a-clenched-fist. It’s visually simple but punches in the danger cocktail of when sexual frustration and wounded pride come together. Ozn does such a great job and is clearly channeling his acting talent and experience throughout the video, but especially here in this scene. Letting this section breathe without any quick cuts is such an excellent decision on Small’s part, as well. Finding out that other than this and doing some post-production cleanup work for the group’s follow-up video/single, “Bag Lady,” Small did not work in the music video field at all, is insane and almost a shame. Almost, because one visit to the website for his business, Small Wonder Video Services, and you quickly realize this man has never had idle hands in his life, so the devil’s playground will have to make do with someone a lot less creative and motivated as Sam Small.
The way that “AEIOU” ends is so apt, with the film circling right back to the beginning, with Ebn and Ozn both watching on in the park as the teacher smiles while biting into the apple. The clip then goes back to the two men, with Ebn looking cooly disaffected and maybe even somber behind his dark glasses while Ozn’s face is pensive and resigned. Without making a grand gesture about it, ending on this note tells us exactly how the story ends with neither man getting the girl but it’s not cheeky or a joke. The mix of the song used here is the abridged one, which sadly leaves out some choice final lyrics.
I told her I wouldn’t sleep with her friends
She doesn’t sleep with my friends
(Sometimes) anything else you do, you know
Don’t you tell me
It probably goes without saying, that even if the narrator and Lola hooked back up, their union already had a thick cloud of jealous doom written all over it. Keeping that in mind, using this tight mid-shot of Ebn Ozn as the last shot in the video is even more perfect as if their mutual unhappiness is all but mocked while “Lola” goes off with her juicy red fruit of appreciation and knowledge, despite the broach of “…sleeping…” with one of his friends. Of course, a cigar can still be a cigar, but listening to the full song and then revisiting the music video is absolutely a rewarding experience that gives some food for thought.
One smaller detail used throughout the video that helps add to the patina of human dysfunction is one of the students that appears throughout. This small boy, with his two black eyes and a matching goose egg on his forehead, is used more than any of the other kids by far, including multiple close-up shots of him reciting the song’s grammar-based chorus. According to Small, “…He was just a kid who was in that class and showed up that way that day of shooting. I tried to not use him really as the black eye didn’t really fit into the storyline and was to me a distraction, but we were really limited in the coverage and they had shot a lot of him and Robert liked it.” Kismet is a hundred-percent real, folks.
While both Ebn Ozn, as well as their music, still get unfairly misunderstood even to this day, make no bones about it, this is a band worth exploring. It’s a testament to Ebn’s mastery of the Fairlight synthesizer, as well as an example of what great 1980s production sounds like. It’s also a fascinating work, that has some well-earned jabs at both TV consumer culture and yuppies. There’s even a cover of “Rockin’ Robin” that is the sonic equivalent of taffy with a chewy center laced with strong LSD.
Critics didn’t know what quite to make with such a unit, with even Trouser Press calling them “weird.” Well, there were pop acts in 1983 that may have gotten more money and better reviews, but they might as well be lost to the mists of time and waterlogged copies of Billboard. Ebn Ozn, weird or not, cannot be forgotten once one has experienced them. Lola may have moved on, but for those in the know, we know the right vowels to say.
Note: Huge thanks to Sam Small, for taking the time to answer my questions via e-mail and even giving extra information. Please visit his website, smallwondervideoservices.com to learn more about this video pioneer.