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

 

It Bites: Thankyou And Goodnight 30 Years Old Today

There’s a secret history of bands/artists disowning their own albums before they’ve even been released.

Lee Mavers’ La’s, Prince and Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders come to mind, and the brilliant Cumbrian four-piece It Bites can also be added to that list.

They even sent out a ‘please don’t buy our new album’ letter to their fan club. I still have it. Quote: ‘They feel Thankyou And Goodnight to be a complete rip-off on the part of Virgin Records…’ It didn’t work, of course. I bought it during its first week of release.

By summer 1991, a year after guitarist/lead vocalist Francis Dunnery had done a runner from the band (this interview gives intriguing hints as to his state of mind during spring 1990) while they were recording their never-to-be-released fourth studio album in Los Angeles, remaining members John Beck (keyboards), Dick Nolan (bass) and drummer Bob Dalton (then trying to make a go of it as Navajo Kiss, and later Sister Sarah) were less than thrilled to hear that Virgin intended to release an It Bites live album.

But it was out of their hands. They reluctantly helped with track selection/sequencing, approved the artwork and title and Thankyou And Goodnight summarily became the official au revoir to one of the finest British bands of the 1980s.  

One top 40 single (‘Calling All The Heroes’) was a pretty dire return for one of the most melodic acts of the era. Virgin should get some blame for that (were they generally better cheerleaders for their solo acts, apart from Genesis, Simple Minds and Culture Club?).

But you hear ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Kiss Like Judas’ and ‘Midnight’ today and it’s inexplicable that they didn’t crack the charts.

In particular, their singular lack of mainstream success throughout 1988 seems to have been a huge shock for the band, especially off the back of an extraordinary sophomore album Once Around The World, sold-out UK tour and well-received Robert Plant support slot.

But back to Thank You And Goodnight. Visually, it’s a pretty shoddy package. The cover looks like it was knocked off by a reluctant Virgin designer after a long liquid lunch. There are no recording dates or technical personnel, save for mixing engineer Nick Davis (XTC, Marillion, Genesis, Phil Collins), whose surname is misspelt.

Then there are some cursory ‘history of the band’ liner notes, with an annoying addendum by a Virgin staffer: ‘We owe you a drink, Ian!’. Yeah, right…

And then there’s the track choice – it’s basically the audio from the televised June 1989 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, plus a few ringers: ‘Yellow Christian’ (recording date/venue unknown) and ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ from London’s Marquee in 1987 (anyone know the date?), previously the B-side of ‘Midnight’.

A better bet for a live album would surely have been the whole T&C show, plus the whole Marquee 1987 show. It’s also surprising that both of their Hammersmith Odeon headliners (in December 1989 and April 1990) were not available for release (but both are allegedly audible on the privately-released Live In London box set, in which I’m yet to invest…watch this space…).

But it’s no surprise to report that most of the music on Thankyou And Goodnight is fantastic. Under Davis’s jurisdiction, Nolan’s bass and Dalton’s drums sound like a million dollars, at least on the T&C tracks. ‘Underneath Your Pillow’ is the standout, emerging as a superb pop song augmented by the extended, proggy ending, with Dunnery quoting from Holst’s Planet Suite (Venus, the Bringer of Peace).

‘The Ice Melts Into The Water’ and ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ (with its clever ‘Old Man & The Angel’ tag) are also superb, fitting reversions.

From memory, I saw It Bites live five times (Brunel University/Astoria 1988, T&C/Hammersmith 1989, Hammersmith 1990) and they were never less than sensational. Thankyou And Goodnight is not a great package but a decent-enough document of their late-career pomp.

What a shame they couldn’t have recorded one more studio album after 1989’s Eat Me In St Louis though and basked in some long-overdue success.

And one further mystery – Dunnery has obviously added some post-production vocals to ‘Ice Melts Into The Water’ – when and where? Maybe he was secretly in on the project after all…

 

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.

Book Review: Prince And The Parade & Sign ‘O’ The Times Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

Could Prince have thrived in this current age of the ‘bedroom’ musician?

On the evidence of Duane Tudahl’s superb new book – documenting every single studio session that produced the classic albums Parade and Sign ‘O’ The Times, plus countless others too – the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.

As Tudahl points out in his wonderful follow-up to ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, Prince’s genius very much depended on a coterie of talented, fiercely committed back-room staff, particularly Susan Rogers, Peggy ‘Mac’ Leonard, Coke Johnson and David Rivkin (brother of Revolution drummer Bobby), not to mention the constantly-on-call band mainstays Eric Leeds, Matt Blistan, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, all of whom are interviewed at great length.

But there’s absolutely no doubt who’s the boss and the book doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths about Prince’s methods and manners. However, it’s an embarrassment of riches for the fan and valuable historical document, not to mention a great, gossipy read.

We join the book at the beginning of 1985, smack bang in the middle of the Purple Rain tour. We learn how he quickly tired of its routine and looked ever forward, taking particular inspiration from Sheila E and other collaborators, ducking into studios around the country often straight after a gig, usually recording between 2am and 6am (Sheila’s album Romance 1600 was almost exclusively put together in this fashion).

We also learn that there were three huge equipment trucks on the tour – one that contained reels of tape, one with the stage gear and one that contained only Prince’s instruments, so that he could record anywhere, anytime.

Tudahl tells the whole story of the fascinating Los Angeles night of 28 January 1985, when Prince won three awards at the American Music Awards but then failed to repair to A&M Studios for the ‘We Are The World’ session (he offered a guitar solo to Quincy Jones but was turned down!), instead going out to party at Carlos ‘N Charlie’s Mexican restaurant.

The evening had huge repercussions and began a period of press barracking – he was even lampooned on ‘Saturday Night Live’, with Billy Crystal blacking up and singing ‘I Am The World’.

Tudahl has access to a huge number of candid interviewees who provide a kind of making-of guide to other key side projects from the period: St Paul Peterson talks in detail about the recording of The Family and his subsequent fall-out with Prince; Jill Jones describes the painful, hugely drawn-out period working on her underrated 1987 solo record; Eric Leeds describes how the Madhouse albums came about.

Then there are the fascinating details: we learn the full story of how ‘Kiss’ came together, with Prince getting inspiration while playing basketball on the Sunset Sound court; how the expansion of The Revolution in February 1986 was somewhat of a result of Prince’s fascination with ‘twins’, probably inspired by his fiancée Susannah Melvoin’s relationship with her sister Wendy.

We also get a real sense of Prince’s incredible progression as a musician, especially through the early days of 1986, and learn all of the relevant details about his collaboration with Miles Davis.

We read how the US bombing of Libya on 14 April 1986 affected Prince, inspiring a talk with Jill Jones, the viewing of a film about Nostradamus called ‘The Man Who Saw Tomorrow’ and subsequent removal of some of the more frivolous material on Jill’s album. We also learn how the LA earthquake of 12 July 1986 inspired the classic song ‘The Cross’.

And there are fascinating nuggets about how he saw his own work – he reportedly told Eric Leeds and Susan Rogers on 29 July 1986 that he thought his lyrics to ‘Adonis And Bathsheba’ were possibly his best, though Leeds and Rogers certainly didn’t agree… Both reasoned that Prince protested too much only when he was unsure of himself.

There are also the fascinating machinations of how the Sign ‘O’ The Times album finally came together, after numerous false starts, tracklist changes and the Warner Bros. top brass – led by Lenny Waronker – refusing him a triple album.

And then no detail is spared in the section on the ‘sacking’ of Wendy and Lisa, subsequent hiring of Cat Glover and reformatting of Prince’s live unit.

The period is an absolute whirlwind, and the mind boggles how much all of this studio time cost Prince and Warners. But finally the impression we are left with is that this book gets as close to the ‘real’ Prince as we are ever going to get – it’s not for the faint-hearted fan, but a fascinating, rewarding journey if you can take it.

As someone who regularly worked on a completely one-to-one basis with him, Susan Rogers often had the best seat in the house, and she offers rich insights into his family background and psychology. The section on Prince’s lonely recording session of Christmas Day 1985 will linger long in the memory.

But all of this is only scratching the surface. We haven’t even mentioned the making of ‘Under The Cherry Moon’. It’s another wonderful book and enormous achievement by Tudahl. We await ‘The Lovesexy/Batman Studio Sessions’ with baited breath.

‘Prince And The Parade/Sign ‘O’ The Times Era Studio Sessions’ is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Author Duane Tudahl discusses the writing of the book in this podcast.

The Cult Movie Club: Nine ½ Weeks 35 Years On (with spoilers…)

Its similarity to (groan) ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ and ‘Last Tango In Paris’ – plus rumours of lead actress Kim Basinger’s shabby on-set treatment by director Adrian Lyne and co-star Mickey Rourke – mean that ‘Nine ½ Weeks’ is generally denied a fair shake these days.

So why do I return to it every few years, always finding something new to enjoy (no sniggering at the back there)?

The NYC-set tale of a torrid, co-dependent affair between successful, attractive couple Elizabeth (Basinger) and John (Rourke) was based on Ingeborg Day’s (writing as Elizabeth McNeill) controversial 1978 memoir of the same name.

Despite its risqué subject matter, it’s hardly surprising the film was given a green light – Lyne was fresh from ‘Flashdance’, an enormous hit, while Basinger (beating off competition for the role from Kathleen Turner, Isabella Rossellini and Teri Garr) and Rourke were red-hot and highly in-demand.

But finally, it’s quite a downbeat, subtle, adult film, revealing layers of meaning with repeated viewings, possibly why I recall it as pretty boring (I was wrong…) when first seeing it with mates during my thrill-seeking late teens.

Essentially it’s about two attractive but somewhat alienated people – we frequently see them both ‘lonely in a crowd’. But repeated viewings of the film show them to be well-rounded, fully-formed characters, not just show-ponies in a second-rate soft-porn movie.

Basinger is the star of the movie, and she’s excellent. The demands of the role and lengths to which she was pushed by both Rourke and Lyne reportedly led her to some psychological trauma and even marital problems for up to a year after the film wrapped, as reported by New York Times writer Nina Darnton. Rourke’s first marriage also reportedly hit the skids during the shoot’s slipstream.

The film was shot in sequence, and the leads were encouraged by Lyne to stay in character off the set, so that their ‘real’ relationship echoed the screen relationship. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, the results speak for themselves – there’s palpable chemistry between Basinger and Rourke.

Sparks fly when they first meet in that Chinese deli (with a great cameo from Kim Chan, so memorable in Scorsese’s ‘King Of Comedy’) and there are elements of fun and light-heartedness in their relationship which can still raise a smile today.

The sexual politics may disturb these days, though it’s interesting to note that the movie’s screenplay is credited to two women – Patricia Louisianna Klopp and Sarah Kernochan – alongside the dreaded Zalman King…

Elizabeth is completely ‘in control’ at her workplace, but totally out of control in her personal life. This contrasts with John, a total control freak – at least on the surface – in both facets of his life. So she seems a highly intelligent, though somewhat lonely figure (indeed, loneliness is a big theme of the movie), sometimes even prudish, at least compared to her workmate Molly (played by the excellent Margaret Whitton).

Lyne’s direction and Peter Biziou’s camerawork are impressive with scrupulous attention to detail – every shot is designed to create the utmost visual impact, with recurring motifs and interesting subtexts.

A few years before ‘American Psycho’, the film also offers a truly fetishized view of ‘80s tech – John’s wardrobe, his state-of-the-art hi-fi, the emphasis on surfaces and image. This article sums up the film’s style concerns beautifully.

New York looks wonderful, with resplendent locations like the Chelsea and Algonquin hotels, Spring Street Gallery and Cafe Des Artistes. Lyne shrewdly places non-actors into the mix to give some local color, as he would for his next films ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Jacob’s Ladder’.

There’s a remarkable section where Elizabeth clicks through a succession of modern-art slides, and you can bet that every single one has been placed for a very specific purpose (and brings to mind the use of Francis Bacon’s artwork in ‘Last Tango’).

There are so many quintessential, memorable 1980s moments, most with very shrewd use of music (which lead many rather dunderheaded reviewers to describe the film as a full-length MTV pop video): the food orgy; the striptease to Joe Cocker’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’; the moment when Rourke and Basinger enter underpinned by Corey Hart’s ‘Eurasian Eyes’ (though Rourke reported that the ‘blue stuff’ sprayed into the room to add the perfect visual aura Lyne was after did a terrible number on his throat and eyes for weeks afterwards); the use of Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Arpeggiator’, Roger Eno’s ‘Voices’ and Eurythmics’ ‘This City Never Sleeps’.

Rourke has never looked better, and his performance is fascinating, very much living up to the ‘Brando for the 1980s’ tag. This film catapulted him into the Hollywood A-list, albeit very briefly (to his great credit, he resisted appearing in a lot of crud – at least for a few years – delaying a follow-up until ‘Angel Heart’).

Elizabeth and John’s final parting – featuring a rather stunning bit of Rourke business when a tearful John finally tries to reveal his ‘true’ self in order to keep hold of Elizabeth – again can’t help but bring ‘Last Tango’ to mind.

Devastated, Elizabeth leaves for the last time. But she’s full of ‘what ifs’ – should she have waited a little longer, given him a chance to atone? Could they have had a chance at a happy, ‘healthy’ relationship?

Out on the street, heartbroken, she looks over her shoulder in yet another beautiful shot, perhaps hoping John will be running after her. Sadly, he is rooted at his apartment, begging her to come back, albeit under his breath, soundtracked by Jack Nitzsche’s beguiling piano/synth theme.

The film’s shoot was long and troubled, and it reportedly went through various versions with some of the more risqué scenes (including one where the couple seem – at John’s behest – to enter into a suicide pact, only for it to be revealed as another one of his ‘tests’) removed after preview screenings.

The release date was postponed a few times, pending a few other key excisions, apparently including one scene where they lay down the rules of their relationship ‘game’ (which might have helped explain why Elizabeth sticks around for so long in the face of such abusive treatment).

When finally released in the USA during March 1986, the movie underperformed. But there were a few unexpected celebrants, including Roger Ebert, and, in extended/uncut form, it found a big audience in Europe, particularly France, going on to gross around $100 million against a $17 million budget.

It also became a huge success when released on home video (and was certainly the first-choice rental for a lot of us teens in the late 1980s).

So, forget ‘Fifty Shades’: happy 35th birthday to a fascinating – if potentially ‘troublesome’ – cult classic.

Mose Allison: Middle Class White Boy

You’d be hard pressed to find a musician less likely to thrive in the 1980s, but hey – it’s a great pleasure to feature Mose Allison on this site.

A big influence on artists as varied as The Who, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman and Frank Black, the Tennessee-born pianist and songsmith, who died in 2016, wrote witty, brilliant standards such as ‘Parchman Farm’, ‘Your Mind’s On Vacation’, ‘Feel So Good’ and ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’.

His speciality was the medium-fast blues/jazz groove, with an extra bar or two thrown in and/or an unexpected modulation. He found endless interesting variations on this theme and his self-mocking, occasionally profound lyrics made one chuckle or think – sometimes both.

Mose toured relentlessly, mostly eschewing festivals in favour of nightclubs (the first time I saw him was during a long run at Pizza On The Park in Knightsbridge – don’t look for it, it’s not there any more…), and had a cadre of pick-up bassists and drummers all over the world who had to adhere to some pretty exacting rules – no egos, backbeats, cymbal crashes or excessive use of the kick drum.

1982’s Middle Class White Boy was Mose’s comeback album, his first for six years and debut for legendary jazz impresario Bruce Lundvall’s burgeoning Elektra Musician jazz label.

But it’s probably fair to say that neither Mose nor Lundvall got an album they were happy with. The terrible cover doesn’t bode well. It was recorded in just two days and sounds like it. Then there’s the fact that for some reason Mose mainly opted to use a tinny, badly-recorded electric piano on the date.

Also he arguably didn’t have enough decent original material – there are five cover versions, only Muddy Waters’ ‘Rolling Stone’ emerging with much distinction.

But on the plus side he’s helped by two formidable sidemen – Chess/George Benson legend Phil Upchurch on guitar and ex-Return To Forever man Joe Farrell on saxes and flute, both of whom get a lot of solo space and play excellently.

And the album benefits from not one but two absolute Mose classics: the title track and a new version of ‘Hello There Universe’. But otherwise it’s not a comfortable listen. It’s a big relief when he breaks out the acoustic piano on ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’, even if the song isn’t anything to write home about.

The Middle Class White Boy experience didn’t exactly make Mose rush back into a studio; he released one further album for Elektra, a live record from the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival featuring none other than Billy Cobham on drums (they had occasionally recorded together on Mose’s Atlantic sides).

Then there was another five-year hiatus before his 1987 Blue Note Records (where he rejoined Lundvall) debut Ever Since The World Ended (with its remarkably prescient title track, given these current times), a return to form.

Perhaps predictably, the 1980s were not particularly kind to Mose but there are still some gems to seek out.