Aphex Twin — Windowlicker. Story behind the video

George Palladev 7.11.2017

Aphex Twin — Windowlicker. Story behind the video

Aphex Twin’s videos are immortal—once you see them, you’ll never forget them. His story became well-known among electronic intellectuals: a ginger guy from the South of Britain who creates his own keyboards because he isn’t happy with factory presets and has been writing music since he was 13. Aphex despises the term IDM (intelligent dance music). Actually, he gives quite a lot of reasons to talk about him. He gives inexplicable titles to his songs, and he has a lot of them but doesn’t release that much. He taught a computer to write music under his name a long time ago in order to spend more time with his girlfriend in the bushes. People outside the scene said that a sane person couldn’t do such things.

Aphex answered: “Yeah, I experimented for a while but it was long time ago and not for music—it only makes it difficult because you need to concentrate for music.” It was during one of those nights in a club that Aphex met Chris Cunningham. They were both extremely surprised how similar they looked: tall, thin and long-haired. (And who wasn’t thin when he was young or long-haired in the 90s?)

When the Warp label decided to release not only full-fledged albums by Aphex but also a full-fledged video with a cool plot, the Come to Daddy track was sent to a short list of directors. Cunningham enjoyed Richard D James’s music. Before this, he made a video for his colleagues, equally complicated electronic musicians from Autechre. In turn, Aphex was amazed by the detailed development of the future video by his twin. Thus, a thing with dwarfs running around wearing masks of the eccentric Celt was created to scare old ladies. The five-minute-long horror film was constantly shown on European MTV during the night (American MTV decided against scaring old ladies). Cunningham didn’t have a music channel, and he received tapes with broadcasts. So, in one of the Party Zone shows Richard turned out to be in a company of hip hop gangsters with expensive cars, girls in bikinis and pure gold. Looking at all this madness, Chris realised it would be great to make Aphex’s next video with all possible hip hop features.

“That’s not the primary reason but it had a big bearing on it. When Richard did this track that sounded summery and sunny, I thought, Fuck. We should do it in LA in that style.

Chris Cunningham

Windowlicker was me trying to make a more commercial video for Aphex. The last half of the video sounded really pornographic. It made me think about girls’s arses. So I thought okay, that’s definitely how the video’s got to end and the first half of the video sounded like driving round in the sun.”

The sun was reproduced by using many lens flares (they weren’t mainstream yet) as well as by chasing before-sunset scenery. Pornography was achieved by Vince Paterson’s choreography. He created the dances for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Black & White, great half-videos, half-films with huge budgets, breakthroughs for their time and landmarks in music video directing. Here, like in 1991, there are dances on puddles in the street with an accent on private parts, but more grotesque and with a guest dancer instead of the musician.

Since Aphex’s face had appeared on the covers of his releases, the excitement around this icon with insane eyes started growing even more. On one hand, it was a face that could be used to scare little children and pregnant wives; on the other hand, a melancholic picture of someone from the southern hills. He looked either like a programmer or a serial killer. Or there is another word—windowlicker. In school slang, this is someone who sits near the window in a school bus in confusion or acts inappropriately. In the slang of pupils in UK it means moron.

Original and promo shots

Journalists were wondering: why does he need these grimaces? Aphex shrugged his shoulders, “When you see people in magazines, you can tell they’re thinking, OK, I know I’m not really good-looking, but they’re going to make me good-looking in this photo. So making myself look ugly is just the opposite of that. It’s just a reaction to that fantasy world that celebrities seem to live in.”

Aphex Twin

At first, it was living under the laws of showbusiness, and then Aphex got a bit carried away, as he says. Richard’s masks served him well and became a cult as well as their progenitor. Some people don’t believe that they didn’t use computers back then. “This is silicone,” explains Richard “They cast my face, but it didn’t look anything like me—it looked like I was taking a dump. So they had to sculpt it from photos instead. Quite well done, except they didn’t give me any eyebrows. And they’re not my teeth. All the masks are different. The black ones are really lush.”

This is a great compliment for a very self-critical Cunningham who has been creating special effects for big films since he was young and always criticised people who did masks for him for not making them realistic enough. Even H. R. Giger, the creator of the cheerful characters for all the Alien films (and Cunningham worked for the third one), appreciated the pinnacle of his creation—the girl with crooked teeth who two losers stared hungrily at from a Mazda. He created two pictures of smiling weirdos and named them after the video.

Windowlickers by H. R. Giger

“At first I was a bit hesistant to go back to using the head-swap idea,” confesses Chris Cunningham. “But it seemed so different in tone to Come to Daddy, that I thought it would be worth doing an LA sequel. By this point I was consciously trying to make each video completely different to the last. There were three more options left, I could either put his head on a woman’s body and change his sex, put his head on an animal’s body, or put it on an old person’s body. The track sounded so sexual and feminine, I thought I’d go for the sex angle. That’s another video that I really wanted to be like a cartoon. I didn’t want the dialogue to be too realistic or anything. I just wanted it to be really over the top.”

As noticed by one DJ, these two talk for so long at the beginning of the video that you wouldn’t think of just chatting or swearing but rather of some serious speech. In fact, it’s possible to count with your fingers how many times they said clean words but you don’t have enough fingers to calculate how many times they used fuck (44) and nigga (54). The clean version starts with a 38-window limo that requires a driving licence like a lorry. You can’t beep out the profanities for four minutes, because you will have nothing but beeping. But the idea of this quarrel is what’s called faire du lèche-vitrine in French and it means pretty much the same as windowlicker—catcalling girls from a car. And, of course, the video was deemed sexist and racist. Chris and  Richard don’t say who they wanted to offend, they say they made it just for fun.

They don’t even think that the infernal Come to Daddy where Aphex screams “I want your soul” with his diabolic voice (by the way, the track was created after fan mail with these words) is scary.

Behind the scenes

“The only truly scary thing about the video is the reaction to it,” says The Guardian that interviewed a concerned citizen who promised to deal with it. “Like the fools in Windowlicker who spend too much time talking, we live in a culture of oversignification, where anything becomes a sign of something else, of something we already know. And the consequence is that we don’t recognise and miss the excitement of the truly new.”

Those who thought that Cunningham dishonoured street values were equally wrong. “I still don’t think it looks like a hip hop video,” retorts the director. “I tried but I fucked it up. I knew if I used wide-angle lenses it would look like Hype Williams right away. It’s kind of a cheap hip hop video (laughs).”