Bill Paxton’s New Wave Past, From ‘Fish Heads’ to Martini Ranch

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photo courtesy of Sire Records
photo courtesy of Sire Records

Actor Bill Paxton, who died this weekend at age 61 following complications from surgery, will of course be forever remembered for his standout performances in The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, the HBO series Big Love, and other films and television shows. But children of the ‘70s and ‘80s will surely never forget Paxton’s past as the intrepid pesceterian in the cult-classic video for Barnes & Barnes’s Dr. Demento-popularized 1978 novelty hit, “Fish Heads.” And real ’80s pop historians might also fondly recall Paxton’s short-lived, Devo-associated duo, Martini Ranch.

First, “Fish Heads.” This utterly bizarre but charming clip didn’t just star Paxton as the eccentric host of a tea party for decapitated, decomposing fishes — Paxton, who was close friends with Barnes & Barnes (aka musician Robert Haimer and Lost in Space actor Bill Mumy), also co-directed. Paxton, cinematographer Rocky Schenck, and costumer Joan Farber shot the video with a Super 8 camera and hand-crank Bolex camera for about $2,000, and Paxton campaigned to get the video played on Saturday Night Live, long before the days of Digital Shorts.

“Ultimately, I took it to New York, and I literally had to wait in the waiting room at Rockefeller Center for two days before anybody would even see me. And then finally they came out to take the 3/4-inch tape, one of those big honking f***ing things, and I started to get up with them to walk in the back, and they said, ‘Uh, no, you stay here.’ I was like Rupert Pupkin!” Paxton recalled in a 2010 interview with Bullz-Eye. “And then, God, they must have put it in the machine right away, and obviously they played it, because they came out five minutes later and said, ‘Come on back, we want to put it on next week’s show.’ And I’m suddenly in like Flynn.”

“Fish Heads” aired for two consecutive weeks on SNL in 1980, and it later became a cable fixture during the early freeform days of MTV. But this wasn’t Paxton’s only foray into the wacky world of new wave. He later appeared in the Barnes & Barnes clips “Love Tap” and “Soak It Up”; he played the role of a Nazi (alongside another young and rising actor, Judge Reinhold) in Pat Benatar’s popular 1982 video “Shadows of the Night”; and he had a cameo with Rae Dawn Chong in New Order’s 1987 video for “Touched by the Hand of God.”

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But perhaps most impressively, Paxton had his own mid-‘80s new wave band with Andrew Todd, Martini Ranch, whose minor hit “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” was produced and engineered by Devo guitarist Bob Casale and featured playing by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Alan Myers. The video, co-directed again by Paxton and Schenck, featured a cameo by Anthony Michael Hall, with whom Paxton starred in the 1985 John Hughes comedy Weird Science.

Other quirky Martini Ranch tracks featured B-52’s vocalist Cindy Wilson, film composer Mark Isham, and even Judge Reinhold, who was credited as the whistler on “Reach.” The wild west-themed music video for “Reach” was directed by James Cameron and included cameos from Reinhold, Kathryn Bigelow, and Bud Cort.

Paxton’s final music video appearance came many years later, in 2003, in Limp Bizkit’s decidedly non-new wave “Eat You Alive” alongside Thora Birch. But we will always remember the good-humored and clearly fearless actor eating scones and crustless sandwiches at a fancy fish head tea party.

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