MTV @ 40: The First Five Years

Like most good ideas, it was a deceptively simple one: music radio, but on TV.

When the Warner Bros./American Express-bankrolled MTV (Music Television) launched 40 years ago this month, kicking off with The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, the music business was in a post-Saturday Night Fever slump.

But global record sales doubled between 1981 and 1990. Like it or hate it, MTV had a huge role to play. Its story also has fascinating echoes of the music business in the 2020s. But how did it revolutionise the industry so quickly?

In the early ’80s, video-making was a veritable Wild West, an almost-anything-goes environment. There were undoubtedly some shenanigans which wouldn’t win any #woke awards these days but, interestingly, it was predominantly women who ran video shoots, as producers and production designers.

Though their offices were based in New York, MTV was only initially available in the Midwest and suburban areas, as these were the places that had cable laid (leading to a veritable industrial revolution after the iconic ‘I Want My MTV!’ promo spots). Sonically, it was also important that MTV insisted on stereo audio from day one.

The localisation of MTV led to a big grassroots following for bands, particularly British ones, almost overnight. It also led to record companies getting very granular with sales; they paid closer attention, watching with interest if a band took off in one area. Labels started to take MTV very seriously indeed.

Then there was the Second British Invasion: a whole legion of young British acts (ABC, Flock Of Seagulls, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Cure, Billy Idol, Bananarama etc.) emerged in the early 1980s who took to videos like a duck to water.

They wowed Middle America, helped enormously by gifted Brit directors such as David Mallet, Julien Temple, Steve Barron, Godley & Creme, Nigel Dick, Don Letts and Tim Pope.

But, in a curious echo of the current streaming craze, it seems the major labels were not prepared for the video revolution. They didn’t understand it and were suspicious of giving their content away for free.

So they did what they usually do: shafted the artists. Video budgets became recoupable fees that came straight out of the artists’ profits. Artists were to all intents and purposes paying for their own videos.

The rise of MTV also meant that now the emphasis was on killer tracks rather than albums. It was a big problem for some acts, and the 1980s became synonomous with one-hit wonders.

Rolling Stone and the trade magazines regularly trashed MTV in its first few years, and David Bowie questioned the lack of Black artists amidst frequent charges of racism.

But, by 1984, everything had changed. In the bumper year for Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Madonna, it was clear that MTV was the tail wagging the dog. The naïve, experimental era was over.

Post-‘Thriller’, more and more money was being thrown at videos and every director wanted to put their stamp on the material.

Also, by 1984, thanks to advertising revenue, MTV’s margins were huge. They were dictating to record companies, not the other way round. MTV didn’t have to pay royalties to artists or labels for showing videos. There was no ‘playlist’ per se, so they could pick and choose what they played.

It couldn’t last. The big major labels demanded a royalty to play their videos in 1984, threatening withdrawal of their products, and they eventually got it.

The first few hours of MTV’s launch day is a fascinating watch, showing how rooted in the 1970s it was when it started out, featuring REO Speedwagon, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Gerry Rafferty, Todd Rundgren, The Buggles, Lynyrd Skynyrd (and TWO videos each of Pat Benatar, Split Enz and Rod Stewart!) and showing the dearth of decent contemporary videos.

The gauntlet had been laid down and it didn’t take long for some very creative people to pick it up.

Next time: the videos that made MTV during its first five years on the air.

Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby

‘I Want My MTV’ by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

 

1981: Uprising & Blood Ah Go Run

40 years ago, I was a young football-and-music-mad whippersnapper living a relative life of Riley out on the South Coast of England, but my hometown of London was catching hell.

Not that I was particularly aware. For most sections of the media, summer 1981 was all about Prince Charles’ marriage to Lady Di and Ian Botham’s Ashes (his crushing 149 not out at Headingley, 40 years ago this month, was the first time I remember being totally gripped by live cricket).

But of course there was a whole other side to 1981, a world brilliantly evoked by The Specials on their epochal #1 ‘Ghost Town’, and by directors Steve McQueen and James Rogan in their important, sadly still-relevant ‘Uprising’ series of new BBC documentaries.

The gripping but shattering films show how the St Pauls riots in Bristol, New Cross Fire tragedy of January 1981 and policing policies during the Black Peoples Day of Action in March (and throughout the late-1970s and early-80s) sparked uprisings all over the country, from Brixton to Toxteth, 35 years before the formation of Black Lives Matter.

Co-opting footage from the late, groundbreaking London filmmaker Menelik Shabazz’s 1981 film ‘Blood Ah Go Run’ and featuring interviews with most of the survivors of the New Cross fire, plus Linton Kwesi Johnson and various activists, ‘Uprising’ is a vital – at times devastating – piece of social history. And of course it’s a brilliant London film.

It’s also a grave warning to governments about the tragic pitfalls of acquiescing to racists. Don’t miss – ‘Uprising’ is on iPlayer until July 2022 if you’re in the UK.

Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls 40 Years On

‘A game of two halves’ is a common expression in football, but it can apply to albums too.

We all know albums which have one good side and one bad one (I’ll throw in The Seeds Of Love, Fulfingness’ First Finale, Music Of My Mind, The Colour Of Spring for your consideration…).

But another humdinger is As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, released 40 years ago today.

The Cult Of Metheny has ensnared many, and puzzled just as many. But As Falls Wichita fell smack bang in my favourite era of Pat’s music (between American Garage and Song X), and represented a real change of scene.

Side one’s 20-minute title track delivered a full-on prog/fusion masterwork, ably assisted by Lyle Mays in classic-synth heaven (Prophet 5, various Oberheims, Roland CR-78 and Linn LM-1 drum machines), always totally recognisable, and at a time when polyphonic playing had just become possible. He was rapidly becoming a Joe Zawinul for the 1980s.

‘As Falls Wichita’ may be the most ‘rock’ music released on the ECM label during the 1980s, with the possible exception of David Torn’s 1987 record Cloud About Mercury. It also seems dangerously ambitious. Then again, the whole album was recorded in just three days! Lesser musicians could have taken a month to record this track alone.

Apparently chiefly written to play over the PA system before Metheny Group concerts, it’s pure headphone music. The enigmatic title (apparently nicked, with permission, from an unreleased Steve Swallow composition) and superb album cover certainly help.

The track plays out like a good movie (its working title was ‘Apocalypse When’). It’s more John Carpenter than Keith Jarrett. You might even describe it as cathartic, dammit.

(Another reason for its success may be the complete lack of instrumental solos. Pat doesn’t get any solo space at all – he just plays some unobtrusive bass, chiming 12-string electric and a little six-string. All sounds are textural and in the service of the whole piece.)

A superb live version was featured on the 1983 Metheny Group album Travels. And those who remember the Christian Dior ‘Fahrenheit’ adverts in the late 1980s may be familiar with a small excerpt of the track:

But back to that ‘album of two halves’ thing. Sadly, side two of As Falls Wichita is New-Age sludge. Ponderous and flabby, it’s fuel to Pat detractors, but probably loved by acolytes.

‘September Fifteenth’, a tribute to Bill Evans (named for the date of the great jazz pianist’s death in 1980) is the chief culprit. A closing, out-of-tune version of ‘Amazing Grace’ doesn’t help. It’s music for tired Apple executives, and sounds like it was recorded in the last afternoon of the three days.

But As Falls Wichita was an unexpected smash by ‘jazz’ standards: the album got to #1 on the Billboard Jazz Charts and quickly became Metheny’s biggest seller to date.

So happy 40th birthday to the classic title track. Pour yourself something tall, tune in, drop out, get the headphones on, lie on the floor and crank it up. It’s a trip, man…

Further reading: ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years’ by Mervyn Cooke

Grace Jones: Nightclubbing 40 Years On

Nightclubbing, which turns 40 this week, would be iconic even if it was only half as good, thanks to Jean-Paul Goude’s fantastic cover painting.

But drop the needle anywhere and it’s an all-time classic, one of the jewels in Island Records’ crown and hugely influential.

Arguably its mashup of new wave, reggae, synth pop, disco and Caribbean flavours blueprinted the sound all the key New Pop acts of 1982/1983 (Talking Heads, Kid Creole, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, ABC, The Associates, Simple Minds, Thompson Twins et al) sought.

Some, of course, went route one and employed Nightclubbing co-producer and movingtheriver.com favourite Alex Sadkin.

But you might also call Nightclubbing Grace’s covers album – it features not one but six classics, if you count ‘Libertango’ and the Marianne Faithfull’s previously-co-written-but-never-recorded ‘I’ve Done It Again’ (Sting lent her ‘Demolition Man’ before laying it down with The Police).

She revolutionises Flash & The Pan’s ‘Walking In The Rain’ (her androgynous alto freaked me out when I first heard it as kid, there was just no reference point…) and compare her funky, succinct ‘DM’ to The Police’s ponderous, overblown version.

On a good system Nightclubbing‘s sonic details delight: the tambourine commentary throughout ‘Use Me’, Sly Dunbar’s dub-delay cross-sticks on ‘Walking In The Rain’, Grace’s whispered chorus on ‘Art Groupie’.

The Compass Point All Stars, particularly man-of-the-match Wally Badarou on keys, are perfectly poised to provide such moments.

But there is a weird quirk – the mastering. The album seems to get quieter as it goes along, at least on the original CD version. ‘Demolition Man’ requires some serious crankage. I’m not sure if subsequent reissues have rectified that.

Nightclubbing was NME’s album of the year for 1981 and it got to #32 on the US Billboard chart, a certified crossover hit. You might even say that the 1980s Proper started here, and it helped make 1981 one of the greatest ever pop years.

And we haven’t even mentioned Grace’s electrifying One-Man-Show that accompanied the album, directed by Goude, taking place at London’s Drury Lane Theatre and New York City’s Savoy. It was surely a huge influence on everyone from Laurie Anderson to Annie Lennox.

Fairport Convention: Sloth (1981)

What is ‘feel’, in terms of musicianship?

It’s something to do with the way the best players always give every note its full value, and never sound rushed.

The term is usually reserved for American musicians. But, to paraphrase jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, we had a few who could play some aces too.

Apparently folk/rock pioneers Fairport Convention had long split up when they reconvened for a one-off Granada TV special in August 1981. They delivered a beguiling version of ‘Sloth’, originally from their 1970 album Full House.

It’s a killer performance from drummer Dave Mattacks, adding to some classic tracks of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Chris Rea’s ‘On The Beach’ and XTC’s ‘Books Are Burning’ (Andy Partridge discussed Mattacks and XTC’s other drummers in this great interview). There’s also a whiff of US players Andy Newmark, Richie Hayward and Jim Keltner, not to mention Ringo.

Despite the slow tempo, the whole performance is kind of raw and ‘post-punk’, with some spikey Richard Thompson solos and excellent, ‘artless’ vocals from Linda. It easily transcends the folk-rock cliches.

Another band this writer needs to investigate further. And, despite the serious faces, maybe it was a relatively happy reunion – Fairport reformed properly four years later.

Talking Heads Part One (1980/1981): Reagan, Ghosts & Listening Winds

For many Americans, 1980 hoped to offer a break from the recent past: the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, a major recession. Disco.

A Presidential Election was also pending in November. At the beginning of the year, Jimmy Carter stood at 62% in the polls, Ronald Reagan at 33.

Reagan promised to return America to a pre-countercultural era, prioritising family values and social order. He courted the Fundamentalist vote; evangelists and motivational speakers suddenly popped up all over the radio.

Something pinged in David Byrne’s head, and he later outlined the febrile atmosphere of early 1980 in Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Totally Wired’: ‘The text was saying “Thou shalt not” but the preacher’s performance was this completely sensual, sexual thing. I thought, “This is great – the whole conflict is embodied right there…”’

Byrne and Brian Eno explored some of these themes on their groundbreaking My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (named after the 1954 book by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola) with a particular emphasis on Islam and its contrasts with Christianity.

The project was originally supposed to be a three-way collaboration between Jon Hassell, Eno and Byrne, a fake ‘field work’ complete with ethnography, liner notes and photos, but Hassell dropped out at the eleventh hour. The album is strikingly original, still relevant and sometimes terrifying.

A month before the Presidential Election, on 8 October 1980, Talking Heads released their masterpiece Remain In Light, also a collaboration with Eno. The album’s key tracks, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and ‘Listening Wind’, went even further than Bush Of Ghosts: the former showed that Byrne had completely assimilated the ‘sensual preacher’ persona, while the latter outlined a young Arab’s act of terror.

Mojique resents the rich ‘foreigners in fancy houses’ turning up in his country, makes a bomb ‘with quivering hands’ and dispatches it to his American enemy. It’s a unique, powerful piece of work, and one wonders whether its inclusion on Remain In Light contributed to the album being their worst-ever seller in the USA.

Reagan was elected on 4 November 1980 with 50.7% of the national vote. His famous Election Eve speech mentioned ‘that shining city on the hill’, invoking both Jesus’s Sermon On The Mount and noted Puritan John Winthrop. But Byrne’s New York had been under the cosh: more murders, robberies, burglaries and subway breakdowns were reported in 1980 than in any other year since records began 49 years earlier.

Reagan was inaugurated on 20 January 1981. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was finally released – after several postponements – almost exactly a month later.

Further reading: ‘Life And Death On The New York Dancefloor’ by Tim Lawrence