In the early ‘80s, MTV was the coolest thing on earth, and you just had to have it. We finally got it in my family’s house right as the channel was exploding, and it was a godsend. Having MTV made you cool, even if it was the only thing that made you cool.
My best friend used to make MTV mix tapes of his favorite videos, and I quickly followed suit, keeping the family VCR at the ready for my favorite music clips, and filled up hours and hours of my own mix tapes which I still have in my parent’s garage somewhere. Judging by a lot of old clips I’ve come across on YouTube, it looks like many others were doing the same.
As a young kid, I spent innumerable hours watching MTV, to the point where my father complained I had MTV for breakfast every morning...but then he was floored by a Billy Joel video and how it brought the music to life, and he was won over, too. I couldn’t wait to see the world premiere of a video, and I can still recall fondly rushing home from school to see the first airing of Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock,” which proved a sequel that totally blew away its predecessor, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
For the previous generation, The Midnight Special was mandatory viewing. It was a big leap to do a weekly rock show that was live, and at one in the morning after Johnny Carson. Despite this, it ran successfully from 1973 to 1981, and inspired the shows Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, and Dick Clark’s In Concert. Right as the Midnight Special was ending in the early eighties, the timing was perfect for MTV to bridge the gap at the dawn of the cable/VCR age.
It’s funny to think that the music business, in its infinite wisdom, didn’t understand the promotional power of MTV at first. But like Hugh Hefner said about Playboy, it was a moment and an event waiting to happen. When the creators of MTV first went around with their proposal for the channel, neither the major labels or the cable networks were impressed. As Tom McGrath reported in MTV: The Making of a Revolution, the major advertising agencies wouldn’t take a chance on MTV because videos weren’t a proven medium, and major labels wouldn’t spend money on videos because they didn’t think the channel would last.
When MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, it was only connected to 800,000 homes. As Vanity Fair documented, the MTV staff had to go to a sports bar in Fort Lee, New Jersey to watch the first hour because it was the closest place to New York they could get a signal (MTV wasn’t available in Manhattan and L.A. for the first thirteen months).
You can find the list of the first 24 hours of MTV on Wikipedia. I won’t list all sixty-two videos here, but the top ten was the Buggles kick-off, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the second video was “You Better Run” from Pat Benatar, followed by “She Won’t Dance With Me” by Rod Stewart, “You Better You Bet” from the Who, “Little Suzi’s on the Up” by Ph.D, “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard, “Brass in Pocket” from The Pretenders, “Time Heals” by Todd Rundgren, “Take It On the Run” by REO Speedwagon, and “Rockin’ the Paradise” by Styx.
Going further down the list, the first 24 hours of MTV had a lot of AOR (album-oriented rock) like REO, experimental videos like “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie, metal like Iron Maiden, a bunch of Rod Stewart, ‘70s tunes like “Baker Street,” and even two clips from jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour. In other words, a big grab bag of stuff. You saw a lot more of this variety in the early days of the channel, mostly because they didn’t have a big library of clips.
Sue Binford, the PR manager for MTV, told Vanity Fair that “Pat Benatar’s video played so often, every time it came on, the whole room would break into the chorus: ‘You better run, you better hide...’ We could all sing it in our sleep. When we had a new video on, everyone would just stop. We’d be so excited seeing something different on the screen.”
MTV execs Tom Freston and John Sykes then went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the markets carrying MTV. They learned from one record store manager that their store had sold a bunch a Buggles albums, revealing that the network was boosting album sales for groups that weren’t getting radio play. Soon thereafter bands started to see MTV in their hotel rooms on the road, and would drive their labels crazy asking why they weren’t on the channel.
Finally, the labels caved and started sending in videos, and MTV play gave a lot of bands the big breakthrough they needed. Def Leppard’s second album High and Dry had stalled at about 220,000 copies in the States, and then the album suddenly went gold. The band couldn’t figure out why until a friend told them: “There’s this new thing out called MTV. It’s like a radio station you watch on the telly, and they’re playing the video to death.”
Renowned video director Jeff Stein, who also directed the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright created the video for Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell." Once the video was a heavy rotation hit, Idol went from 1,500 seat theaters to arenas in about four to six weeks. “Back then you could really gauge the power of MTV and what it could do,” says Stein.
The point when MTV exploded can be traced to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then the biggest selling album of all time, the success of Thriller blew up MTV’s ratings and the channel's incessant play of Jackson’s videos helped drive his album sales to unprecedented heights.
Of course, a lot of ‘80s artists like Duran Duran, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Men at Work and many others rode the MTV tidal wave. The ‘80s hair bands got a huge boost from MTV, and many musicians from that genre told me they couldn't have done it without the network’s help. Poison guitarist C.C. DeVille believes MTV was crucial to his band's success. “Out of the top ten reasons Poison broke, the first five would be MTV," he says.
Bob Giraldi became well known as the director of “Beat It,” and other superstar video directors included Jeff Stein, Marty Callner (she's responsible for Aerosmith’s videos with Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler, etc.), Russel Mulchay (“Video Killed the Radio Star,” Duran Duran, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,”), David Mallet (the early Bowie videos, “White Wedding,”) Wayne Isham (the ‘80’s hair band videos with heavy stage pyro like Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”), and many more.
Videos hadn’t been done to death at this point. The medium still felt fresh and the possibilities were wide open. Hollywood also caught on fast, and movies like Flashdance capitalized on the visual style of video clips right as the channel exploded. Filmmakers like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Brian DePalma (Scarface) got into the act directing music clips, and video directors like David Fincher would eventually cross over to making feature films.
MTV had enormous power to sell albums, which for many bands was a double-edged sword. In 1985, Quiet Riot’s Kevin DuBrow said, “In the past, bands depended on radio air-play, concert tours, and magazine coverage. Now in one fell swoop, you can project yourself into millions of homes across the nation.” Yet as Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister soon discovered, once they lost MTV’s support, their careers ended just as quickly.
It wasn’t long before bands, individuals and organizations started lashing out. In their cover story on the network, Rolling Stone called MTV “The Selling Out of Rock and Roll.” The Dead Kennedys had the song “MTV Get Off the Air,” and Jello Biafra called the network the worst thing to happen to music since Saturday Night Fever. Rick James lead the charge that MTV was racist for not playing black artists, something the network always denied.
At first I couldn’t understand why anyone would bash MTV, but eventually - whether I was growing out of it, or the channel was changing too much - I, too, became sick of it. I got burned out on the endless repetition of many songs, the videos stopped feeling fresh or innovative, and every year the channel grew increasingly insufferable. Worst of all was the influx of game shows and reality TV programs (the narcissism of The Real World completely turned me off by its third or fourth year, forget about Jersey Shore).
In 1988 Guns N’ Roses won the Best New Artist Award at the MTV Video Music Awards, and as Slash wrote in his autobiography, “I’d like to know where that trophy is today. I think I left it in a cab, which, now that I think about it, is as much as it deserved.” Today there’s no consequences in dissing MTV because it’s a relic of a lost music industry. MTV can’t make or break anyone anymore, and Slash certainly didn’t need it to sell his current solo album.
And yet when I think about those prime years of watching and enjoying the network (circa 1983-1986), I recall them fondly. It was usually on in the background when life was still innocent and simple, when having to grow up was still a few years away and time moved a lot slower - when music, movies, video games and friends were all that mattered, and I fell in love for the first time. It was really great while it lasted.