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

 

The 11 Worst Music Videos Of The 1980s

Billy Squier doing his ‘thing’

When MTV launched on 1st August 1981, it was estimated that only 150 music videos were in circulation.

So if the round-the-clock station was going to succeed, it needed new content, and fast. But, mired in the middle of a recession, record companies were initially sceptical about the commercial clout of videos.

That period was short-lived; as record exec Mick Kleber put it in the hilarious book ‘I Want My MTV’, ‘Once Duran Duran started selling records in Oklahoma, it opened everyone’s eyes.’

Suddenly the video department of the major labels was the ONLY department that was expanding. In the rush to fill MTV schedules, production went into overdrive. The likes of Toto, Christopher Cross, Journey, Stevie Nicks, Van Halen, Steve Miller and Chicago – still-big-selling acts from a different generation – were forced to ham it up in front of the camera.

And thank goodness that some of their lamest, most ill-advised attempts are preserved for posterity, and for our delectation. We are pleased to present 11 of the worst clinkers.

Here you will find a strange parade of transvestites, mullets, models, douchebags, disco line-dancers and little people. What were the directors thinking? Who knows, but for once I’m inclined to concede that the 1980s might have been the decade that taste forgot…

11. Chick Corea Elektric Band: ‘Elektric City’ (1985)

From that weird sub-genre of ’80s music video: the jazz-fusion artist looks for a hit. One has to feel particularly sorry for sh*t-hot guitarist Scott Henderson (who didn’t even play on the track!), looking like Screech from ‘Saved By The Bell’, hamming it up against his better judgement, and brilliant jazz dance troupe IDJ.

10. Hall & Oates: ‘Private Eyes’ (1981)

After an unforgivable snare-drum-in-the-wrong-place opening, one of the most unimaginative visual documents in pop history, fronted by an anaemic, manic, clearly uncomfortable Hall. It didn’t stop the single from getting to #1 in the States, though.

9. Billy Joel: ‘Allentown’ (1982)

Actually, Russell Mulcahy’s homoerotic curio would make a pretty good musical. Just putting it out there… (Billy’s appalling ‘The Longest Time’ clip also almost made the cut.).

8. The Police: ‘Wrapped Around The Finger’ (1983)

Directors Godley and Creme’s instructions to the lads seem to have been: look as much of a pr*ck as possible…

7. Billy Squier: ‘Rock Me Tonite’ (1984)

Apparently our Billy was aiming for a homage to ‘American Gigolo’ but ended up with this slightly deranged, camp classic. ‘Directed’ by Kenny Ortega, later famed for ‘High School: The Musical’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’.

6. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’ (1983)

Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring…

5. Toto: ‘Waiting For Your Love’ (1982)

We’ll leave aside that this is a very ill-advised choice of single off the back of ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Africa’. According to guitarist Steve Lukather, the video was so bad that even MTV wouldn’t play it.

4. Journey: ‘Separate Ways’ (1982)

Could it have been any more unflattering to poor singer Steve Perry? And whose ideas was it to have the guy playing air keyboards? Not to mention that the preyed-upon, obligatory ‘sexy woman’ is obviously a drag queen, when seen in long shot…

3. The Jacksons: ‘Torture’ (1984)

The clue is in the title. Michael obviously got wind of the impending disaster – he didn’t even turn up for the shoot. They used a Madame Tussauds dummy in his place.

2. Chicago: ‘Hard Habit To Break’ (1984)

Great piece of music, horrible video. Lots of ‘sensitive’ men of a certain age longing for a succession of scantily-clad model/actresses.

1. Van Halen: ‘(Oh!) Pretty Woman’ (1982)

Short people? Tick. Transvestite? Tick. Questionable antics? Tick. Ridiculously cheap production values? Tick. Definitely a case of too much bourbon and not enough brains. Roy Orbison’s views on this monstrosity are not recorded…

Are there other stinkers from the 1980s? Of course. Let us know below.

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.