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: