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

 

1980s ‘Classics’ I Don’t Need To Hear Again (AKA The Bland Files)

Noel Coward famously noted the strange potency of ‘cheap’ music.

There was certainly a lot of cheap, potent music around in the 1980s.

But as the nostalgia industry has grown, so has the dossier of seemingly ‘untouchable’ ’80s pop songs, tracks that are staples of daytime radio but, to many ears, lack distinctive grooves, beguiling melodies or interesting hooks.

If you were being cruel, you might say it’s music for people who don’t really like music. And, weirdly, it mostly comes from established, experienced campaigners who have a lot of other strings to their bow. But we only ever seem to hear one or two of their songs.

Here are those overplayed tracks that always have me reaching for the ‘off’ switch but have retained a weird grip on radio programmers for over 30 years. We consign them to Room 101, here and now, never to be heard again…

Dire Straits: ‘Walk Of Life’/’Money For Nothing’

Yazz: ‘The Only Way Is Up’

King: ‘Love And Pride’

Whitney Houston: ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

Tina Turner: ‘Simply The Best’

The Beautiful South: ‘Song For Whoever’

Spandau Ballet: ‘Through The Barricades’

Dream Academy: Life In A Northern Town

Anything by The Proclaimers

Anything by Texas

Chris Rea: ‘The Road To Hell’

Sade: ‘Your Love Is King’/’Smooth Operator’

Steve Winwood: ‘Higher Love’

Mike And The Mechanics: ‘The Living Years’

Anything by Fleetwood Mac

The Cars: ‘Drive’

Mental As Anything: ‘Live It Up’

Soul 2 Soul: ‘Back To Life’

Anything by U2 apart from ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love’)’ or ‘The Unforgettable Fire’

Cyndi Lauper: ‘Time After Time’

Depeche Mode: ‘Personal Jesus’

Talking Heads: ‘Road To Nowhere’

Tracy Chapman: ‘Fast Car’

Anything by Tom Petty

Simply Red: ‘Holding Back The Years’

Prince: ‘When Doves Cry’

Womack & Womack: ‘Teardrops’

Anything by Duran Duran except ‘Notorious’ or ‘Skin Trade’

Anything by Bon Jovi

Culture Club: ‘Karma Chameleon’

Anything by Pet Shop Boys except ‘Suburbia’

Great Brit Swearing: Ian Dury, Culture Club, David Bowie & Up Yaws

487px-Ian_Dury_1Those of a nervous or sensitive disposition, look away now/cover your ears…

But I must confess: I’ve always had a penchant for good swearing in music. And long before those Parental Advisory stickers, there were some real humdingers.

Ian Dury’s oeuvre was of course an early landmark – his ‘Plaistow Patricia‘ became a kind of forbidden, blasphemous classic as did Marianne Faithful’s coruscating ‘Why D’Ya Do It‘. They both sounded like they really meant it.

David Bowie’s ‘It’s No Game (Part 2)‘ would also have us in stitches. His rather random four-letter word, sung in Iggyish baritone, enlivened many a dull afternoon. Cue the violins…

But then my uncle (it’s always uncles) passed me the following curio and the world of muso swearing was never quite the same again.

Initially coming on like a first-rate pastiche of early-’80s UK jazz/funk as played by the likes of Shakatak, its gradual insertion of four-letter words, delivered Barry White-style, never fails to provoke a titter.

It’s puerile, silly and childish, and I absolutely defend it as a valid piece of music… Rumours abound as to who’s responsible – the most likely candidates have emerged as sundry members of The Damned.

And then there’s the whole subgenre of bands-getting-it-wrong-in-the-studio-and-swearing-alot. The Troggs Tapes are of course the industry standard, but a Culture Club outtake from 1983 recently came to light on a career-spanning box set (recently removed from YouTube, sadly…).

We join our four heroes (plus poor pianist Phil Pickett) trying to record ‘Victims’ with the underlying pressures of expensive studio costs, an out-of-tune fretless bass and Boy George/Jon Moss’s corrosive love affair.

Suffice it to say, things don’t go too well. But imagine trying to produce this lot. Come to think of it, producer Steve Levine is possibly the one voice we don’t hear. Had he given up the ghost or was he all-too-aware of not getting involved and spoiling an audio verite ‘classic’?