Kevin Seal introduces Steve Winwood’s “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?”: the second single from the Roll With It album, or as Seal puts it, “the song that my downstairs neighbor plays continuously.” (I wonder what part of town Kevin Seal was able to afford the rent in. I suspect that the salary of MTV on-air talent was actually much less than I imagined when I first watched this countdown in 1988.)
We open with Winwood’s fingers playing a lush keyboard part. We then see him writing down a composition (this one, presumably) on staff paper. This seems like it should be a clichéd shot, but is rarely seen in videos: many (most?) pop-rock musicians can’t read music. When Paul McCartney writes a symphony, for example, he has to play passages on guitar or piano to a transcriptionist.
At any rate, Winwood begins singing, sitting alone in a bedroom, filmed in grainy black-and-white. There’s some quick cuts to people dancing by a fire. Winwood stands up, and we shift to color, seeing the piano, the ceiling fan (of course!), and reflected in the glass of an open window, surging flames. Winwood stands by the window, in front of the raging fire, which is presumably intended to symbolize all the passion we’re not seeing on his face. He seems to be wondering what he’ll have for lunch, or calculating a mortgage payment.
New scene: a dusty road in the daytime. The customary move for a blue-eyed soul soulster like Winwood is to establish his R&B bona fides by making a video where he’s surrounded as many black people as the budget will allow for. This was the strategy Winwood employed on the video for “Roll With It,” which will surely place in the higher reaches of this countdown; we’ve already seen Glenn Frey use this tactic in the video for “True Love.” But with this video, Winwood attempts an unusual variation: he skips the juke joint in favor of an Indian reservation.
A battered pickup truck rolls down the road, in front of a decades-old gas station with big piles of tires. Native American elders gather in the shade with their dogs. Young people dance in front of a fire: the men are hunky and shirtless, and the women toss their long dark hair with abandon. Then, strolling down the road comes a lonely British warrior in a white t-shirt and a leather jacket: Mr. Steve Winwood.
His expensive haircut bounces bouffantly. He seems comfortable in his status as the whitest man ever to walk down this road. He is not distracted by the flock of chickens. A dog with an erection runs out to greet him. Winwood bites his lip and smiles, like he’s looking seductive for a hairspray commercial.
This seems like a good place to mention that Winwood apparently wrote “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” as a Michelob jingle before putting it on his own album. Which accounts neatly for the song’s overall feel: utterly slick and bland MOR product circa 1988, equally suitable as background noise on “Miami Vice” or for peddling beer.
Winwood stands in a doorway unconnected to any building, watching the young Native Americans get their groove on, dancing around the fire to a song that seems to be much funkier than the one we are listening to.
A young model-hot woman of indeterminate ethnicity (we’re supposed to presume she’s Native American, but it seems equally likely that the director helicoptered in a Latina model) washes her hair underneath a running outside tap, in slow motion. It’s all very Michelob Dry. (Subject for further research: did the same director do the commercial and the video?)
The hairwashing is intercut with footage of Winwood walking down that dusty road; he’s now in slow motion as well. He walks by some drying laundry. Young people dance by the fire. Winwood’s right hand plays a few notes on the keyboard. The dog chases a chicken.
The hot young hair-washer looks up from her ablutions, surprised to see a former member of Blind Faith cruising through the reservation. I mean, Ginger Baker drops by once in a while, but that’s different.
The director cycles through the same set of images (Winwood walking, wise old people, dog, fire dancing) we’ve seen before. The old folks clap along to the fire dancing. Winwood leans against that doorway. The dancing starts to include more humping and grinding, as if there was a mid-shoot memo from an executive saying “hey, Dirty Dancing is hot!” And then the video’s over, apparently having no plot beyond “Steve Winwood walks through an Indian reservation and sees various Native Americans but studiously avoids interacting with any of them.” It’s not clear why he was there in the first place: maybe his tour bus ran out of gas? Either Winwood walked back with a couple of gallons of unleaded, or he’s ambling into the desert, continuing his beer-sponsored vision quest.
“Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #1 on the “Mainstream Rock” chart). You can watch it here.