I Wanted My MTV

In 1981, Gil-Scott Heron’s proto-rap song was proven wrong; the revolution was televised.

It started slowly, and there were plenty of technical problems in the beginning, but eventually the little cable channel known as Music Television completely changed the look, sound, and feel of television. In all likelihood, it was the most significant change to popular culture since the Beatles landed at JFK. And all it did was play commercials twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Make no mistake: music videos are commercials. They were nothing more than advertisements for albums, tours, and artists. They’d been invented back in the 1960s as a way of appearing on television shows without having to actually appear on the shows. It’s impossible to determine what the first music video is: was it the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night? Was it the video for “Paperback Writer” that featured the Fabs in a garden standing around and looking like the coolest gang on the planet? Was it by music video pioneer Mike Nesmith, who in the 1970s married his songs to short films that had nothing to do with Nesmith or the song? The debate can go on forever, and in the end it’s not the important. What is important is that a small group of television executive wannabes came up with the idea of creating a video jukebox and airing it all day, every day. They hired five personalities to introduce the videos. They launched the channel on August 1, 1981 by playing a ten minute clip of rockets being prepped and countdowns being intoned before a voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” and the promo for the Buggles’s “Video Killed The Radio Star” began.

The first ten years of MTV are considered the Golden Age of the channel, back when it still played music videos and before it degenerated into a series of reality shows that celebrate the worst of human behavior. A big part of that is simply nostalgia. I certainly had a love/hate relationship with MTV (I wrote an article for my college newspaper about “Empty V”), but I also could not stop watching it. Starting when MTV came to my local cable company in January 1982, when I had free time, my channel was set to MTV.

Even now, when I hear a song that was a hit in the early 1980s, I can see the video in my mind’s eye. I can’t hear “Centerfold” without seeing Peter Wolf running in slow motion through a corridor filled with beautiful women doing cartwheels. “Rio” calls to mind images of the Duran Duran boys cavorting on beaches and a boat. “Jesse’s Girl” makes me picture Rick Springfield standing with his legs spread, playing the guitar as if he was sawing a two by four. The music of that era is inextricably linked with visual images.

I have always loved music videos. Growing up in the 1970s, long before MTV, YouTube, DVDs, etc., there was no way to establish a connection with the band other than albums. I would stare at the pictures of the bands on the LP covers. Too young to attend concerts, this was the only way to know what the bands looked like. To see them performing, even miming to a song, brought the musical experience to a different level. It made the artists into something more than iconic photographs; it made them performers. To see the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper was one thing; to see them walking around in the streets of London in the “Penny Lane” video was a revelation. Looking at them now, it’s like looking into a time capsule and seeing old or, in too many cases, dead musicians when they were alive and full of youth and energy. I still get a thrill when I see a performance clip of a favorite artist that I’ve never seen before, whether it’s a live clip, a lip-synced TV performance, or a promotional video is irrelevant to me: it’s like watching home movies of my favorite bands.

Two recent books tell the story of the channel from different perspectives. I Want My MTV is an oral history that gathers stories from everyone involved: musicians, video directors, executives, on-air talent, behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. It’s an extraordinarily good book that leaves no stone unturned and recounts those early years straight up through the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. It is filled with stories of sex, drugs, rock and roll. There’s an entire, hilarious, chapter about Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” video that the rocker claims destroyed his career. There are ribald stories about the making of videos (including an unforgettable image from the making of Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman” that will sear itself into your brain). The origin of MTV’s first attempts at programming are discussed, from Yo! MTV Raps to 120 Minutes. MTV was a player at all the major musical events of the 1980s, including Live Aid, Farm Aid, the US Festival (remember that one?). This is like reading a fast-paced, funny history of 80s rock music. Much of that music was lousy, and almost all of it was over-produced, but the stories are great. The scope of the book is so large, it’s one of the few rock books worth a second read.

The second book, released just a few weeks ago, is another oral history called VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. This book focuses exclusively on the five people who were the original Video Jockeys, and it is nowhere near as successful as I Want My MTV. Of the original five VJs, only four survive. J.J. Jackson died in 2004. The main problem of the book is that the only real storytellers among the five were Jackson and, to a lesser degree, Mark Goodman. This is likely because both came up through radio, and both had extensive experience in the rock music world before MTV. Jackson was the first American DJ to play Led Zeppelin on the radio, and he was considered a friend by many of the big bands of the day. When doing promos and appearing on MTV, both Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey refused to talk to anyone except Jackson. They were all hired for their looks: Nina Blackwood was a smoldering hot wannabe actress who knew very little about music, but she filled the niche of the “Video Vamp”; Alan Hunter, another aspiring actor and dancer, knew next to nothing about music (though he’d appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video), but he could be goony and funny in front of the camera; Martha Quinn, a recent NYU grad who’d never held a job before, was the perfect America’s Sweetheart choice with her pixie-ish look and “golly gee!” demeanor; J.J. Jackson was the black elder statesman who knew rock history inside and out; Mark Goodman was the knowledgeable, Jewish/ethnic guy. When you consider that one of the behind-the-scenes guiding lights of MTV was Mike Nesmith, it’s ironic that the VJs were assembled much like The Monkees, with each designed to appeal to a different demographic.

Throughout VJ you learn the stories of what it was like to be there at the beginning when nobody, not talent, crew, or executives, had any idea what they were really doing. The problem is that for too much of the book, which is about half the length of I Want My MTV, they reminisce about things that are of little interest to the general audience: where they shopped, who they were dating, what kind of apartments they lived in. A couple of eye-popping things do emerge from these stories, like the fact that Mark Goodman was taking full advantage of his fame by bedding every woman he could find, including MTV contest winners, or the mind-boggling idea that Martha Quinn dated former Dead Boys/Lords Of The New Church singer Stiv Bators in what must be one of the most unlikely, and cringe-inducing, pairings in rock history. Both Hunter and Goodman also fueled much of their time with cocaine, while J.J. Jackson was hitting the clubs almost every night.

Where VJ fails is where I Want My MTV so gloriously succeeds: the music and, specifically, the music videos. Since three of the five knew very little about music, and none of them were present at the creation of the videos they were playing, their stories about interviewing or hanging with the stars of the day tend to be very self-oriented (Nina Blackwood recounts Johnny Cougar attempting to seduce her, Martha Quinn talks about how she flubbed an interview with David Lee Roth). There is almost nothing about the videos they were playing. The most surprising revelation in the book is that the VJs filmed their segments in advance: four segments per hour, each only one minute long. These characters, who seemed so much a part of the viewers’ lives, were only on air for four minutes an hour. For somebody like me, who could not tear himself away from the channel in those after-school hours, Martha Quinn seemed as ubiquitous as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “She Blinded Me With Science.” It’s oddly disconcerting to learn that these characters who seemed like such a huge part of my musical life were, in fact, bit players.

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave is a forgettable book that is akin to listening to people sitting around reminiscing about their salad days. What it lacks is electricity, and this is something that I Want My MTV, one of the funniest books about rock, provides in spades. Many of the stories in VJ are also in I Want My MTV, but come across as fresher and funnier. The latter book is the one to read.

And if you want to know why MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore, here’s the answer with more truth than you probably want to hear:

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The Listening Post: Spring 2013

Without the daily four-hour grind of commuting, I’m not listening to as much stuff these days. But there are a few things that have sparked the ear.

  • King AnimalSoundgarden. It’s not supposed to work like this. Bands that broke up nearly two decades ago and then reunite should not put out new material that is this good. Of course, it helps that Chris Cornell has made good music fairly consistently since Soundgarden’s 1996 opus Down On The Upside. And drummer Matt Cameron has certainly kept his prodigious chops intact by joining Pearl Jam. Nobody’s really sure what guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd were doing in the time between Upside and King Animal, but they certainly kept in touch with their instruments. The Achilles heel of almost every album Soundgarden released at their peak (Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, Upside) was their insistence that every bit of data that could be squeezed onto a CD was squeezed onto a CD. At 52 minutes long, King Animal sounds positively short compared to the earlier albums. What the length of those earlier albums meant was that some songs were too long, or there were songs included that would have been left off in the days of vinyl: filler. Even an alternative rock classic like Superunknown has several songs that would have been better off never seeing the light of day.

    King Animal is the shortest Soundgarden album since 1986’s Ultramega OK. It’s also the most consistently good album they’ve ever done. There is nothing on here that surpasses the classics that blared out of car radios back when you could actually hear music like this on car radios. There’s nothing as good as “Black Hole Sun” or “Blow Up The Outside World” here, but the songs on this album are not far off from those peaks and they’re all on that level. There are no sub-Sabbath dirges like “4th of July” or “Half” here either. The opening tracks are a statement of purpose. “Been Away Too Long”, “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps” serve notice that Soundgarden is back and that they’ve lost none of the chemistry that made them such a formidable presence back in the early- and mid-90s. The balance of the album brings the heavy (“A Thousand Days Before”, “Blood on The Valley Floor”, the punishing “Attrition”), but also plays up the band’s secret weapon: swirling, vaguely psychedelic instrumentation and melodies. It was this secret weapon that made “Black Hole Sun” so arresting when you first heard it. The reaction is similar when hearing “Bones Of Birds”, or “Black Saturday” (a close cousin to “Burden In My Hand”). There are curveballs like the album closer, “Rowing” which rides a Shepherd bass line straight to the delta and sounds like a Charley Patton field holler updated for the iTunes generation. There’s also “Taree”, an ode to growing up in the Northwest that has a time signature that defies description. “Eyelid’s Mouth” is a moody, sinuous mid-tempo number that ends in a welter of rhythmic riffs and searing lead guitar over Shepherd’s rubbery bass.

    What the future holds for Soundgarden is unknown. Matt Cameron is an essential ingredient both for his drumming and his songwriting, and it’s doubtful he’d be willing to leave his very lucrative day job with Pearl Jam. But if the next album is as good as this one, whatever the wait is it will be worth it.
    Grade: A
  • Document (Deluxe Edition)R.E.M. The golden children of Athens, GA are in the process of re-releasing all of their albums in 25th anniversary editions. The original albums have been thoroughly remastered, a second disc of unreleased material is included, along with a poster, postcards, liner notes, etc. They’ve done a great job with this, but then R.E.M. has done a great job on almost everything they’ve touched in their career. Document was the first R.E.M. album that broke through to the mainstream based on the Top 10 hit “The One I Love” and the FM/MTV favorite “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but what’s so remarkable listening to it again after so many years is just how bizarre the album is. There may have been a hit single here, but Document was far from a bid for mainstream acceptance. Even that hit single was just one verse repeated three times (with a slight change the third time) and a one word chorus: Michael Stipe howling “Fire!” as if he was being tormented in Hell. The backing vocal in the chorus (Mike Mills singing “She’s coming down on her own now”) was inscrutable even if you could discern it. “The One I Love” was a fluke hit, most likely due to its beautiful production and a complete misunderstanding of the darkly vicious lyric. It was 1987 and Document sounded nothing like the Pet Shop Boys or Michael Jackson. “They’re numbering the monkeys/The monkeys and the monkeys/The followers of chaos out of control” sang Stipe on “Disturbance At The Heron House”. Who knows what it meant? Who cared? Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch is heard in his famous rebuke (“Have you no sense of decency?”) of Joseph McCarthy in the politically charged lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy”. Stream of consciousness lyrics touching on everything from Donald Trump to, of course, LEONARD BERNSTEIN!! are rattled off at breakneck pace in “End Of The World”. “Strange” is a cover song of post-punk heroes Wire. The guitar that opens and punctuates the verses in “Finest Worksong” is discordant and distorted. And these are the songs that are on what’s usually considered the radio-friendly side of the album! Maybe in another universe, but in 1987 America this was as far from radio material as you could get. Side two is even stranger, with “Fireplace” (an ode to the Shakers), “Lightnin’ Hopkins” (which has absolutely nothing to do with the famous blues singer), the completely incomprehensible “King Of Birds”. Then there’s the album closer about a drunk who lives in his car behind the Oddfellows Local hall, where he drinks 151 proof rum and rants at the members of the order.

    Document was a breath of fresh air in 1987 when I spent the autumn listening to it until it had burned a hole in my brain. It is still a breath of fresh air; it’s a brilliant, confusing, mysterious album whose lyrics and instrumentation consistently undermine it’s radio-friendly production. The second disc included is a live show from Holland that shows the band at the end of an era, and at their creative peak (which lasted for many more years). In 1988 R.E.M. would sign with a major label and begin their assault on superstardom. In this show, they are still very much the little band from Athens, Georgia but they are putting themselves in place to dominate the music world.
    Grade: A+ (original album)
    Grade: A (live disc)
  • The Solution Is The ProblemMark Scudder. The first album from singer/songwriter and one-man band Mark Scudder (available on iTunes and through his website markscudder.com) is a low-budget affair with grand pretensions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though Scudder sometimes gets a little carried away. Recorded at his home, with Scudder playing every note, The Solution Is The Problem swings between bracing post-alternative rockers (album opener “Moving To Silence”) and hushed acoustic ballads (the title track). Scudder is clearly a guy with music in his blood. His voice is limited; you can hear him straining when he goes for higher registers. However, he plays all the instruments with no small degree of skill (the exception, as is usual in most of these non-Dave Grohl one-man band albums, is drums, where Scudder is only adequate). Still, the album never really sounds like a band. Even when all the instruments are charging ahead and Scudder is joined by some backing vocalists, as on the anti-Occupy Wall Street broadside “Occupied”, it still sounds like the meticulously crafted work of one guy. This has the effect of making the album seem static. There’s no sense of spontaneity. Still, it’s hard to argue with music that’s this well-played, and Scudder does yeoman’s work here. His lyrics are quite good, and his conservative politics are certainly unusual for someone in this field whose name doesn’t rhyme with Bed Stugent. Throughout the album he takes shots at the Occupy movement, and at an unnamed left-wing television host (“Follow Me (The Hypocrite Song)”), and “Free” is a statement of broad intent whose target is either unnamed or too many to name. But politics is only part of the game, and thankfully not that big a part; politics in rock music (whether it’s on the Left or the Right), is best done in either small doses or obliquely.

    There are two big flaws with the album. The first is that many of the songs sound the same: strummed acoustic guitars and Scudder’s deep voice eventually building to anthemic choruses or finales (“Free”, “I Want To Be With You”, “Alera”, “Occupied”). The songs are best when this device is used sparingly or when Scudder finds a groove and sticks to it (“Moving To Silence”, the excellent “I Will Love You If You Let Me”, “Follow Me”). The second, and more serious, flaw is that nearly every song is several minutes too long. Of the eleven tracks, only two come in under five minutes while a whopping seven are over six minutes, and four of those are over seven. The finale, “Real Hope”, is a nearly eleven minute-long instrumental soundscape that comes perilously close to New Age. Virtually every song on the album would have benefited from some judicious pruning. Mark Scudder is a talent to watch, but he would greatly benefit from playing with other musicians and from adhering to Rock and Roll Songwriting Rule #1: keep it short and powerful; it took the Beatles years before they wrote a song as long as the shortest one here.
    Grade: B-