MTV @ 40: The Videos That Made MTV

By summer 1984, Frank Zappa was already decrying the MTV clichés in his ‘Be In My Video’ single (‘Pretend to be Chinese/I’ll make you wear red shoes’!).

But, away from the familiar tropes, there were trailblazing videos that set MTV on its way during the formative years. Either technically or thematically, these clips laid the groundwork right up until the end of the 1980s.

Of course they are kind of familiar, but watching them all the way through brought some interesting surprises, and even an unexpected lump in the throat area during the denouement of ‘Take On Me’…

9. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (Dir. Don Letts, released September 1982)

The first ever video shown on MTV by a Black artist. This was a huge bone of contention in MTV’s early days, not helped by their regular, disingenuous rebuttal: ‘We only play rock’n’roll’. Don Letts’ joyful film put a spanner in the works, placing the lads in front of the Houses Of Parliament, the supposed ‘postcard’ vision of London, a tribute to the influence of Black culture in the UK and a stark message to the powers that be. Letts also created a huge hit in the process, reaching #1 in the UK and #10 in the USA.

8. The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Dirs. Kevin Godley & Lol Creme, released 20 May 1983)

Strongly influenced by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short ‘Jammin’ The Blues’, this was the video that catapulted Synchronicity‘s album sales into the stratosphere and gave the band a UK and US #1. Apparently directors Godley and Creme were pretty blitzed throughout most of the filming – according to the latter, ‘The first thing we’d do when we arrived on set was roll a reefer.’ Sting was reportedly no shrinking violet either, pointing to himself and telling the directors, ‘Keep the camera on the money’!

7. ZZ Top: ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ (Dir. Tim Newman, released August 1983)

Randy Newman’s cousin Tim helmed all of ZZ’s key videos (and Randy’s excellent ‘I Love LA’) and he masterminded this much-imitated, endlessly-rewatchable classic, giving the band a new lease of life and a lasting image as kind of ‘mythical rockers’ (apparently influenced by his reading of Joseph Campbell). But it was ZZ manager Bill Ham who laid down the law to Newman, offering two directives: ‘Use the car (Billy Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe) and put some girls in it.’

6. Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ (Dir. Edd Griles, released 6 September 1983)

Cyndi’s thing was inclusivity, and she delighted in showing a woman of every race in the video. It has echoes of John Waters’ aesthetic and the early Devo and B-52s videos, but this had a whole different vibe, apparently inspired by Lauper’s love of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.

5. Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (Dir. John Landis, premiered December 1983)

‘Billie Jean’ opened the door for so many Black artists but this was pure box office and a delicious comedy/horror. Famously Michael headhunted director John Landis after watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’, giving him just one brief: ‘Can I turn into a monster?’ Landis was not interested in music videos but did like the idea of making a theatrical short. The video changed the game completely, and it’s arguable whether the dance routines have ever been bettered. It premiered on MTV on 2 December 1983 and reportedly doubled Thriller’s album sales within a few weeks of its first showing. It’s still absolutely thrilling.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (Dir. Pete Angelus, released December 1983)

Of course Metal acts were starting to make waves before this, with impactful videos by Twister Sister and Def Leppard, but ‘Jump’ laid down all the future ‘live on stage’ clichés, with balls on. Hair Metal became huge after this, and MTV adored the likes of Warrant, Winger and Bon Jovi, but none could ever match this song or Diamond Dave’s natural showmanship.

3. Madonna: ‘Borderline’ (Dir. Mary Lambert, released February 1984)

Lambert had only directed one video (Tom Tom Club’s ‘As Above So Below’) before getting her dream job on this breakout Madonna single. Madonna and Lambert discussed the video’s plot for two days in the former’s minimalist bolthole on the Upper East Side with Madonna insisting there be a Hispanic influence, necessitating moving the shoot to downtown Los Angeles. This is reportedly the first video to use black-and-white footage combined with colour; Madonna’s manager Freddy DeMann supposedly went ballistic on viewing the final cut but of course it became a video cliché, gave Lambert a successful career and Madonna her breakthrough song.

2. Lionel Richie: ‘Hello’ (Dir. Bob Giraldi, released February 1984)

Apparently director/scenarist Bob Giraldi was driven half mad by Lionel’s terminal lateness onto the set. For his part, Lionel was very sceptical about the bust. Apparently he finally plucked up the courage to approach Giraldi about it: ‘Bob, that bust does not look like me.’ There was a pregnant pause. Finally, Bob said, ‘Lionel…she’s blind.’

1. A-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (Dir. Steve Barron, released September 1985)

The song had completely flopped on its original release, so WEA gave Steve Barron a blank cheque to make a memorable video and get a hit. Working alongside rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, who did 1,800 drawings for the shoot, Barron was heavily influenced by Ken Russell’s 1981 movie ‘Altered States’. Barron knew it would work when the memorable image of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book popped into his head whilst he was bored shooting a Toto video. Apparently singer Morten Harket and lead actress Bunty Bailey fell in love during filming, becoming almost inseparable. ‘By take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut,’ remembered Barron. Aided by the video, ‘Take On Me’ became the band’s only US #1.

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

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

 

Five Great ’80s Madonna Moments

5. Late Night With David Letterman, 1st July 1988

Though her most famous Letterman appearance was probably 1994’s swearfest, here she comes off more like a naughty big sister than an established star. Madonna and Sandra Bernhard laugh off Dave’s temper tantrums and seem to have stepped out of a ’50s B-movie.

4. Live Aid

This footage from La Ciccone’s Philadelphia appearance on 13th July 1985 gives a great insight into the atmosphere on the day and the adrenalin(and other substances?)-fuelled panic of the artist soundchecks. Live Aid came just a week after Madonna’s pre-fame topless pictures were leaked to the press. Her response was to wear lots of layers and silence the cat-calls with style, humour and an irrepressible joie de vivre.

3. ‘Crazy For You’

Most of my favourite Madonna tracks are ballads (‘This Used To Be My Playground’, ‘Take A Bow’, ‘Something To Remember’, ‘Oh Father’, ‘Promise To Try’) but this is possibly the pick of the bunch. Beautifully arranged by Steely Dan/Ashford & Simpson man Rob Mounsey (though that snare is still too big…), it was transformed from just another song in a so-so movie into a UK number 2 and US number one in March 1985.

2. The 1984 MTV Awards

A totally shameless and over-the-top celebration of womanhood. Imagine the reactions of the Armani-suited execs in the stalls. Madonna and Joni Mitchell have both spoken publicly about the chauvinistic attitudes that prevailed in the music industry of the mid-’80s. This was a brave response. Love her or loathe her, you’ve gotta admire her…balls.

1. The ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ club scene

For many people, this was her only decent movie performance, and I wouldn’t argue with that (though I need to see Abel Ferrera’s ‘Snake Eyes’ again…). Polanski paid homage to this scene ten years later in ‘Bitter Moon’, starring Hugh Grant, to similarly comic effect.

Frank Zappa v Corporate America: The PMRC 30 Years On

FZ at the 'Porn Rock' Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Zappa at the ‘Porn Rock’ US Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

The Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC was formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius.

They proposed that albums carry a rating system and wanted certain songs – the so-called Filthy Fifteen – to be censored. Frank disagreed vehemently with the PMRC (despite not appearing in the Filthy Fifteen list) and appeared on US TV to argue his case with a journalist and…Donny Osmond. With memorable results.

He also included segments of the Senate hearing on his spooky track ‘Porn Wars‘ from the album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention.

He also spent a lot of the mid-’80s fending off questions from lazy journalists about his ’60s ‘hero of the counterculture’ status. The fact is he was still making some outrageous, important music in the ’80s, but the mainstream media was more interested in asking him about The Mothers and Jimi Hendrix.

This fascinating, mostly uncomfortable interview shows that you’ve gotta do your research if you want to speak to FZ (he’s right up there with Keith Jarrett in this regard), and also you might find that he’ll mention ’embarrassing’ truths about your corporation and the music business in general. He’s much missed.