FAT25 · SMBU Video: Jonas Akerlund
The stunning Smack My Bitch Up video got its MTV premiere Sunday, December 7th 1997 at midnight during ‘120 Minutes’ — that happened exactly 25 years ago! In addition to the already scandalous single, Jonas Akerlund’s music video exploded and established The Prodigy as one of the most scandalous bands of the late 20th century. That’s why we decided to share a few curious interviews and to post some rare details behind the video from the director directly.
Even if you haven’t heard the name Jonas Åkerlund before now, you’ve definitely seen some of his work. The longhaired former Bathory drummer is now one of the most iconic music video directors of our time, having made a couple of mainstream classics like U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ or «My Favourite Game» by The Cardigans. Before all of that though, he got his big break with the controversial video for ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by The Prodigy.
The first-person POV video, where a woman does a bunch of drugs, goes out and gets wasted, and then brings a pretty lady home to get frisky with, brought a never-before-seen attention to the band. Literally everyone rebelled against the defiant video, from the House of Commons to Moby, Dead Kennedys and Beastie Boys. The Prodigy’s Maxim explained the band’s choice of the video as follows: ‘The music tune was gonna get banned anyway, so why not give a video that’s gonna get banned as well?’ (MTV’s The Essential, 1998).
Among other things, the relatively well-known porn star Teresa May took part in the video shoot. There is a funny story connected with her: twenty years after the shooting of the music video, White House chiefs misspelled Theresa May without the ‘h’ as Teresa May three times – mistakenly naming her after a porn star. This made quite a lot of noise in the yellow press.
Anyway, the video concept was based on a night out that Åkerlund had in Copenhagen. So what went down that particular evening? You may check out quite rare video interview with Jonas Akerlund exclusively at our Patreon! The talk was filmed in 1999 by one of the British public broadcast television networks. The interview is really interesting because the director shares some exclusive details from the filming, the ones that were never ever mentioned in any other interview later.
Очень редкое интервью 1999-го года. Специально для наших донатеров мы выложили его с русскими субтитрами на Boosty!
Jonas Akerlund 2010 Interviews
And just a few years ago the director also had a few talks, where he shared the story of how it all came to fruition, that’s why we decided to compile the two interviews into one to make the most complete story behind the video shoot. Questions by Danika Maia & Stephen Hill.
Hey Jonas, how’s it going?
Hey, I’m freezing my balls off over here in LA, but it’s good. Thank God you’re speaking English, I was afraid that this would be in Danish and I’m totally shit at it.
When was the last time you were over here in Copenhagen?
I’ve gone every summer since I was young, actually; been in and out of the city my whole life. Now it’s a little different though, I mostly just take the kids to Tivoli and have some nice dinner.
So it was a little crazier in your youth?
Oh yeah, it used to be the place to go and get wasted and smuggle beer and alcohol back to Sweden because it was a lot cheaper. We used to get a private boat, before the bridge to Sweden was built, and just sail it over. But it’s not illegal to bring booze back anymore, so that thrill is gone. Copenhagen was the place to go and see uncensored movies, too, because it’s always been a lot more open over there. I remember seeing Evil Dead 2 there back in the day.
Rumor has it that the «Smack My Bitch Up» video was inspired by a crazy night out in Copenhagen, can you tell us about that night?
I actually don’t remember much of that night at all. Not because we were too wasted or anything, but because it was a seriously long time ago. I think it’s better if I start from the beginning of the whole thing, is that ok?
Well it was a random series of coincidences that got me the video in the first place. I hadn’t made anything outside of Sweden yet, but I was lucky enough to have worked with Roxette, who were big internationally, so that gave my work some kind of spread. I got a call from Liam from the Prodigy one day and he invited me to his house in Essex to talk to me about making a video for their new single, «Smack My Bitch Up». I was pretty excited, because these guys were really cool and here I am, this longhaired metal dude, totally out of my element. So he showed the rest of the guys a video I made for a Per Gessle track «Kix», and I got the job…
And then you decided to make it about this night in Copenhagen?
No, actually. I had absolutely no ideas at all. I even ended up canceling this job because I couldn’t think of anything great; my mind was totally blank. So I had to quit the job. I then decided to take one of those Copenhagen escapades with my friend Hans to blow off some steam. We took the ferry from Helsingborg to Helsingør and then drove down the coast to the city and got a room at Hotel Kong Frederik, which was probably way out of our budget. I have no idea why we ended up there.
That’s when the night got crazy?
Well, like I said, I don’t remember much of it, but what I do remember is at the end of the night Hans and I were at a strip club around the corner from the hotel. It’s not there anymore, though. We were totally wasted and I kept losing him, so I remember at some point going into the bathroom and finding a locked stall and thinking Hans was stuck in there and something went wrong, so I kicked open the door and it was just some poor random dude taking a dump. That image in my head of kicking down the door and finding a random guy taking a dump is what gave me the whole idea for the video. I called the guys from the band the next day and said I had an idea if they wanted to give me the job back.
How come the main character ended up being a woman instead of you?
I literally didn’t think much about it, other than it would be an unexpected twist if this crazy party person was a woman and not a man. Some feminists loved it and some hated it. It was supposed to be outrageous and over the top, and we considered it comedy when we watched it later.
What was the actual shoot like?
It was absolutely crazy. We shot the whole thing in one day in London (the video was shot in London’s West End nightspot called Base — theprodi.gy note). We didn’t have GoPro or anything back then so we had to tape a gigantic old 35-mm film camera onto Henrik, the director of photography, and the poor guy had to wear it all day. I even have photos of him napping with it on. Plus we were constantly trying to hide from my bosses because they had seen the storyboards that we made with tits and blood all over them and they told me I’d be fired if I made it like that.
Did the band love the video when they first saw it?
Nope, I got fired after the first edit. There’s a scene in those first rough director’s cut where she hits this girl with a bottle and they were like ‘You can’t do these things! It’s too much!’ — they pressured me so much to get an edit to them quickly, this was in the days before the internet so I threw something together without any effects or anything and send them a VHS of my first edit, and I got a fax from the band’s manager saying ‘We don’t like the video, stop working on it’. And I thought ‘Oh well, there goes my three seconds of fame in the music video-making world in England!’ but I continued to work on it and finish it. Because I really liked the idea.
theprodi.gy note: we have since heard that Jonas showed the video to the band before any of the effects had been added so they turned it down. Following a discussion with Jonas and Liam, and the effects had been added, the band loved it and the video went ahead.
The funny thing is after they stopped breathing down my neck I could say “fuck it” and do it how I wanted. So I ended up finishing it and sending it to Liam from the band, with a little note saying ‘Here’s what I was trying to do’. And, about a month later, just as a coincidence his girlfriend found it and popped it in the video recorder. He called me right away saying ‘Okay, we’ve changed our minds. We love it!’ — the next day they opened some big festival with the video and it just took off. So the video was never really meant to happen, it was just a series of coincidences that led it that way.
Luckily. But this is where the story of Smack My Bitch Up just begins: you’ve had just directed one of the most contentious videos in music history…
And then of course there was all the controversy. When I moved to America Jay Leno was doing a «Smack My Bitch Up» joke every night for a week and I was like ‘Holy shit!’ — this is an English band playing dance music and using the word «bitch», which now is nothing but it was interesting to me to see the different perspectives. In England they were really angry because of the violence and in America they didn’t like it because of the nudity! So in England the feminists hated it and in America the feminists loved it! I remember somebody sending me a tape of this show with a priest talking about it in England. And I was like ‘What the fuck is going on?’ and laughing.
What a story! And how to you feel about the video today?
That video changed my career! It changed my life basically. And I remember thinking ‘if this was all that was need to change my career then I should have done it a long time ago!’ you know? A little tits and ass? That’s easy!
And did the controversy affected you personally?
Well, not so much. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to things like this back then. I knew that a lot of people were angry… one thing that did happen was that, when I moved out to LA, people would be looking at me and my friends when we went out and feeling a little nervous. I think they were waiting for us to go Smack My Bitch Up on them, haha!
Really funny to hear that! And then you went on to make Madonna’s «Ray of Light» video, how the hell did that happen?
Well that’s a whole other interview but yeah — she saw «Smack My Bitch Up» somehow and loved it, and actually called me personally to ask me to work on her video. I didn’t believe her so I hung up and she had to call me back and convince me it really was Madonna.
The final cut of the video got its MTV premiere Sunday, December 7th 1997 at midnight during ‘120 Minutes’ and was aired again at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 AM. The rest is history…
Check out the «Smack My Bitch Up» cover artwork story, including the rare details directly from the designers: theprodi.gy/smackmycoverstory and most complete track story: theprodi.gy/smackmybitchup