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.
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
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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