MTV: The Early Years

Flip on MTV today and you'll see teen moms and New Jersey fist-pumpers, but when the channel launched in 1981, it was revolutionary. Those of us blessed with cable TV were treated to music videos - songs with moving images to go with them! We learned that REO Speedwagon weren't much to look at but Van Halen was really cool. Devo, Culture Club and Duran Duran entered our world, as did acts like ZZ Top and Dire Straits, which we had heard but never seen.

Greg Prato takes a look at this era in his book MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video. He interviewed over 70 artists and VJs to find out what went on behind the scenes, so we had some questions for him.
Which artists benefited the most from the MTV era?

There were countless artists that benefited from MTV exposure - new wave acts (Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls), pop artists (Men at Work, Culture Club), heavy metal rockers (Def Leppard, Quiet Riot). And quite a few already-established acts became even more popular from MTV, such as Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, ZZ Top, and Heart.

Why did MTV completely drop the music video format?

Well, since they don't play many music videos anymore and it's all horrible reality programming, I think it made perfect sense for MTV to drop the "Music Television" part. But something that you have seen time and time again with other music video channels (including VH1 and VH1 Classic) is that these channels will start out playing solely music, then they start branching out into showing movies that have nothing to do with music and/or horrible reality shows that have little to do with music... until you get to the point where there's NO music, and just horrific doo-doo.

What was your motivation behind asking Jello Biafra's thoughts on MTV matters? One would think his song "MTV Get Off The Air!" would not have predicted a sunny outlook on the subject...

I wanted to get people's views from across the board about MTV. Although there's no denying MTV was probably the biggest music story of the '80s and they did turn many people on to new bands, there was also quite a lot about the channel that people had a problem with. So I thought it would be interesting to speak to people who loved the channel, some that hated it, and some that saw both the good and bad in it. I thought Jello would be great to speak to because of the aforementioned song of his, the fact that he's a great interview, and admittedly because the Dead Kennedys w/ Jello are one of my favorite punk rock bands of all-time

Which VJs do you think took their jobs most seriously?

I'm sure they all took their jobs seriously, as it was a full-time job for each of them, and not only that, but it put them in the public's eye. They were all certainly at the forefront of pop culture for a while in the early to mid 1980s. There's a funny story in MTV Ruled the World in which Alan Hunter talks about how he used to work at a restaurant as a bartender when MTV first went on the air, and he realized that when people started recognizing him at the bar while making their drinks, it was time to quit and focus solely on his VJ gig.

You got to talk to Weird Al Yankovic! Is he as hilarious in person as he is in his music?

Most of the interviews I conducted were done via phone, but Weird Al was one of the few I did via email. Nevertheless, I think it was one of the best interviews for the book, as Al was pretty honest and open about his memories concerning MTV. And reading what he had to say about "The Stories Behind the Videos" for several of his classic clips ("Eat It," "Ricky," "Like A Surgeon," etc.) was an absolute hoot.

Are there any artists who look back on the "golden age" of MTV with misty nostalgia? Joe Elliott and Phil Collen of Def Leppard, for instance, seemed to be all smiles with the memories.

Yes, Def Leppard certainly benefited from exposure on MTV, so it's understandable that they have fond memories of the channel. It seems like most of the bands that experienced commercial breakthroughs thanks to MTV have the fondest of memories from the era - Quiet Riot's Rudy Sarzo, A Flock of Seagulls' Mike Score, and George Thorogood all had positive things to say. Both Daryl Hall and John Oates talk about how cool it was to drop by the station early on and do their thing - including a "Guest VJ" segment in which they cooked eggs!

Do you think the medium of the music video has been completely explored as an art form? We can think of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran, or Genesis as artists who really pushed the medium to new heights; will we ever see new work come out like those of the past greats?

I'm sure there will be artists that will continue to come up with cool concepts in video making - a recent example being OK Go's imaginative "Here It Goes Again" clip. And with the rise of YouTube, you don't have to count on a channel like MTV to play your video anymore, and you don't have to sink zillions of dollars into a clip. As long as it's original and different, you just have to upload it on the Internet, and chances are it will catch on.

Before your book, many music fans might have thought of Toni Basil as a one-trick pony with "Mickey," but now we find out that she's an accomplished choreographer who was behind many other iconic videos. What artist did you interview that turned your previous idea of that artist upside-down?

I pretty much knew what to expect from the artists before speaking with them, since I was a faithful MTV viewer back in the day. But it was cool to speak to video director Pete Angelus, who either co-directed or directed all those classic Van Halen and David Lee Roth videos from the '80s ("Hot For Teacher," "California Girls," "Just A Gigolo," etc.). He was a major reason why those videos turned out as hilarious and unforgettable as they did - the obvious proof being as soon as he ended his creative partnership with Roth in the early '90s, Mr. Roth's videos lacked the pizzazz of the aforementioned clips.

Did you ever see other music video shows before MTV? For instance, did you happen to catch USA Network's "Night Flight"?

From about 1984 onward throughout the remainder of the decade, I was pretty much exclusively a heavy metallist, so I would tune into other video programs that had a heavy metal segment. Tops would be USA Network's Radio 1990 every Wednesday afternoon (hosted by Kathryn Kinley), as well as a local New Jersey/New York video show that aired late at night, called The U68 Power Hour, which played quite a few uncommon metal videos (it was the first time I ever heard/saw the band Anthrax, for instance). Also, from 1981-1986, HBO would have a 30-minute show called Video Jukebox, which I would watch - especially before my area carried MTV.

Notable exclusion from the book: Tom Petty. It would have been great to hear what went through his head in coming up with the concept video for "Don't Come Around Here No More". Who else would you have liked to interview?

Let me go on record by saying that if there are any artists you notice that were not interviewed in MTV Ruled the World, 9 times out of 10 I reached out to the artist via the proper channels and either was turned down or never heard back. But that said...even the artists I didn't speak to, I made it a point to get opinions from other artists about their work, so you still get interesting insight. As far as listing which ones I would have liked to have included...PRINCE!

Overexposure on MTV is said to have contributed to the burnout of "hair metal" fandom. Were there any music genres that MTV killed?

Yes, certainly hair metal, but that was probably because the genre was lame to begin with, and by 1990, you had fourth rate Motley Crue clones doing their predictable, watered-down shtick. And you have to keep in mind - MTV is responsible for making these stinky bands popular, by playing them NON-STOP from about 1986-1991, so they're just as guilty as anybody. Boy, thank god for Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, when they were exterminating those stinkoid bands in 1991 - it was way overdue. Other styles that were overexposed? I don't know if new wave was killed by overexposure, but it certainly seems linked to the early '80s (and fashion from the era). But also, MTV harmed certain artists' careers as well - most obvious being Billy Squier, and his over-the-top ridiculous video for "Rock Me Tonite" (which is fully analyzed in MTV Ruled the World, in a highly entertaining chapter titled "When Music Video Attacks").

Where is the next Renaissance for music coming from?

Who knows? But it seems to usually come from places you least expect - an obvious example being Seattle in the early 1990s (for which I penned a book about a few years ago, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music). But god knows we're definitely due for some real/honest/raw music - I can't stand this limp, ProTools enhanced, American Idol sounding crap any longer. Whatever happened to the sound of a good old fashioned live rock band, warts and all? That's what made Led Zeppelin II, Never Mind the Bollocks...Here's the Sex Pistols, and Cheap Trick at Budokan such classics!

March 29, 2011
You can get Greg's book at Amazon

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Comments: 16

  • Djdee from IndianapolisMTV was to the 80's what Wolfman Jack was to an earlier generation. It's a time of lost innocence and a decade of GREAT music, movies and a coming of age for those of us lucky enough to have been old enough to experience it's full effects. It's so sad that they sold out to the popular culture of trash TV and awful reality shows. I'm with Elaine, I WANT MY MTV!!!!!!
  • K.c. from NhElaine: First of all, breathe. Next, it was "Little Big Town" with Lindsey Buckingham...and yes, it was incredible! That said, I was in high school when MTV first came out, and we also had a local video station called "V66". It only ran for an hour or so late-night; I could pull it in on my little rabbit-eared black & white portable TV in my room. Nowadays I watch more country music videos, which can be pretty innovative. Teea Goans "Letter From God" is sheer genius wrapped in gorgeous vocals.
  • Dakota from Houston TexasDo yall remember the female exercise show back then on mtv?
  • Tanya from La Verne, CaJake, the bands you mentioned were around with hair metal. How could they kill it? They were separate, co-existing genres.

    Anyway, I not only watched MTV, but I also caught USA's Night Flight and NBC's "Friday Night Videos". I miss that time seriously.
  • Ken from Flint,michiganearly MTV was great for discovering new artists and talk, wall of voodoo, the specials, living color, just to name a few...
  • Scott Connelly from Austin, TxRecently, i started to listen to a low-key texas singer-songwriter named ray wylie hubbard...actually, he has been around the music scene since about the late 60s-early 70s, but through the years his stuff became more and more progressive. now, however, he has come full circle, and is back to making gritty, bluesey tunes. i suggest giving him a listen-to - i think it's time he was recognized...again!
  • Michelle from Memphis,tnWithout MTV we wouldnt have known how to dress, what was "hot" way...before Paris! Ha! My favorite was the videos that told a story. it helped you understand the songs better..felt closer to your heart.
  • Carli from Phoenix, Az"Video Killed the Radio Star" one hit wonder by the Buggles was the first ever to play on MTV when they aired.
  • Dee from UsaMusic TV has turned into Moron TV.
  • Jessi from South Bloomfield, OhMTV back then was amazing. For alck of a better term, it utterly bites Dalek eyestalk today.
  • Elaine from UsaI loved MTV. It spoiled me. I rather have my CDs I pay be DVDs with the songs because of MTV. I want to be entertained visually, also. I had seen Van Halen on stage that year but when watching MTV and the close ups and David Lee Roth flirting with the cameras & Eddie it was just that much more delightful. The video where Roth is suppose to be doing a back flip was really cool, because you couldn't hardly tell it was a front flip played in reverse. I thought all the Originals of Van Halen were going back out on tour. Did they? I do not like Sammy Hagar, he acts like an obnoxious witch. He has a great voice but with his attitude I never liked him when he was by himself with other bands. But David Lee Roth could entertain you all day long and act like he was one of you just a "little prettier" LOL Now to catch a little rock you have to go to country, but they have let some in. When Jason Aldean played with Brian Adams that was really good. Aldean got Adams song to a tee on Crossroad. BonJovi with Sugarland was good. Def Leppard with Taylor Swift was strange but good. But Stevie Nix with that wonderful, sexy voice that one will never forget was not good with Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift I do not think understood her voice was overwhelming Stevie's low sensual voice that you barely heard Stevie at all. They are not paired off as well as others. Taylor sweet but overwhelming voice. Lindsey Buckingham played with Boomtown and they could really do Lindsey's songs well, unbelievable. I hate all these reality shows now like Bachelor, Bachelorette, Housewives of such & such, I do not even like American Idol, or Survivor, or Hells Kitchen (who wants to listen to witching all day). I WANT MY MTV!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Jake from San Diegopearl jam and nirvana took out hair metal? im sorry but the only thing those bands did was fill in the exact same slots of the mainstream those hair metal bands lost in the 90's. the real exterminators of hair metal was metallica, megadeth, slayer, exodus, anthrax, testament, ect. thrash killed hair is how i see it
  • Alma from Laredo, Tx.In small towns where concert venues were often close to zero, MTV was our closest thing in keeping up with new trends in music. What I loved about MTV was that it was laways on. I miss the dayw when you could look foward to hearing and seeing you favorite artist on TV. Mow all we have iTunes. Takes the ideal of the artist out of the music equation. There will never be times like those ever again. RIP MTV...
  • Smichael from Eastman , Georgiadon kirsher's " in concert "....friday night at 11:00...mtv ? are kidding right?
  • Sean from DublinThere was some great music back in the day. I agree, all we have is protools and American Idol crap that is not real music. Screw Teen Moms and Jersey Shore, I want my MTV!
  • Jesus Herrera from Mexico CityFor people like me in Mexico, back in the early 80s, MTV was like opening the eyes to the World...before MTV, music would come months after it had been a hit in other parts of the World.
    It was also delightful to see the fashion trends and to see concerts! (Rock concerts were "unofficially" banned in Mexico until the early 90s.
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