Perfect Sound Forever

Early MTV

How the Mild-Mannered Music Channel Became
the Arbiter of Outrageousness
By Tony Sclafani
(February 2007)

Imagine combining the simple presentation of a cable access show with music video clips that looked like they were inspired by The Monkees TV series. That's how the Music Television cable channel came across when it first appeared in Aug. 1981. Few people realize it now, but when MTV started, it presented content that was pretty much family-friendly.

Yet within two years, the channel began to realize outrageousness was what really grabbed the attention of the public, and that changed not only the musical landscape, but the cultural one too. MTV's "age of innocence" is not something the channel likes to publicize, as evidenced by the fact that it totally ignored its 25th anniversary this past August 1. But it was revived when VH-1 rebroadcast MTV's opening day on the 25th anniversary of the channel's launch.

Here, we got to see freshly-scrubbed veejays like Alan Hunter (who looked like he could have replaced Michael J. Fox on Family Ties) and Martha Quinn, whose "new wave" get-up looked retro even then.

Then there were the videos. These were clips of singers simply lip-synching their songs (Pat Benatar's "You Better Run"); live concert clips (REO Speedwagon's "Take It on the Run"); or primitive concept videos that were usually humorous (Blotto's "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard") or contained some elements of camp (The Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket").

The closest the opening day's video lineup got to anything racy was Rod Stewart's "Ain't Love a Bitch" (thanks to its title) and Kate Bush's "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," a sensual clip in which the English songstress wore a tiny white outfit.

The inclination after viewing these selections would be to say they look like The Donna Reed Show compared to MTV's current sex-saturated videos. And indeed they do. But what's more revealing is to compare early MTV to other television shows during that time period. In 1981, the top-rated show was Dallas, a show not known for shying away from sex and violence. Other big hits that year were Three's Company, Falcon Crest and Love Boat. Guess the suits in the music industry considered music videos "kid's fare" back then, and didn't want to inject mom'n'pop TV sensibilities into youth culture. That would change.

"Some of those early videos were very corny and cheesy," admits Nina Blackwood in a recent interview for this article, one of MTV's five original veejays. "You didn't have a lot of technology; you didn't have a lot of money to put into the production.

At its start, Blackwood says, MTV only had around 300 clips. Some videos were already a few years old, but wound up in major rotation because, well, what else was there? There was no competition for airtime amongst artists, so videos were pretty straightforward affairs. Some of them were concert clips; others were simply silly, probably using the aforementioned Monkees as inspiration. What else was there?

Within these confines, directors still managed to innovate and do it without the now tried-and-true shock factor that everyone seems to employ. There was an elaborate cartoon landscape crafted for the clip of "Calling All Girls," a song by a session drummer-turned-singer called Hilly Michaels. The Tom Tom Club also got in on the cartoon action with a cutesy clip for their dance club hit "Genius of Love." David Bowie's "Fashion" employed a masquerade theme and even featured an appearance from Alan Hunter in his pre-veejay days (he can be seen with a prosthetic nose at 2:19 into the video).

A Wave of Influence

A benchmark of sorts was reached when the veteran J. Geils Band's "Centerfold" video went into "heavy rotation" on MTV. The clip was arguably the first video to help propel a song into the Number One position (where it stayed for six weeks). It was also slightly risqué in its use of the now tried-and-true "schoolgirl" get-up used by the models. The success of "Centerfold" was unprecedented for the group.

The Go-Go's showed that an all-female rock band was commercially viable when their live video of the "We Got the Beat" garnered major airtime. As MTV itself caught on, this video gave the year-old song a second life and it became a Number Two hit in early 1982. This song represents perhaps the first "MTV hit" by an untested group.

Considering the musical landscape of early 1982 (sappy pop, corporate rock and pop-country) it's doubtful that the new wave Go-Go's would have become pop sensations without MTV. FM radio had long ignored former Runaway Joan Jett, but when her video for "I Love Rock'n'Roll" began to generate attention on MTV, radio followed suit and the song also went to Number One.

MTV's willingness to play videos by untested artists was what endeared it to music fans at the time. For fans of alternative music, it was an exciting time. Finally, someone was taking notice. Even one of MTV's harshest critics, the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis, found himself mesmerized at the outset.

"I was a music geek, and I was curious to see what these bands were doing in this video format," DeRogatis says. "I was the sort of guy who would stay up and watch Midnight Special (a '70's late-night TV series featuring live performances). Whenever any band was on TV at all in the mainstream media it was exciting. I'd go to a friend's house and sit there for hours at a time (watching)."

"The first year of MTV was pretty much all experimental, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants," Blackwood points out. "There was no prototype that we could really follow. It was really kind of a free for all -- throw stuff on the wall and see what sticks. And that actually was I thought the cool part about it."

At the time, MTV was said to have reached a mere 300,000 to 500,000 viewers, and since the world wasn't watching (yet) the company was able to experiment. Blackwood notes that the station wasn't even broadcast in the section of New York where the studios were located.

"You have to remember cable was in its infancy," she explains. "We were sent around the country like little ambassadors and salespeople to meet with the owners and operators of the local cable channels."

By way of contrast, MTV is now broadcast into 89-90 million homes and has 9000 videos available at any given time, according to spokesperson Graham James.

Commercialism at Work

By the middle of 1982, record companies had started to get hip to MTV's influence. The British teen pop band Haircut 100 was featured in a variety of videos that showed them in faux jungle and beach settings. Other British groups like Bananarama and Fun Boy Three embraced the teenybopper aesthetic with videos that showed the bands with cardboard props. These videos were as cute and silly as ever. The Australian band Men at Work and the British synth pop group A Flock of Seagulls became the first "MTV bands," because their visual gimmicks were more attention-grabbing than their music.

But it took British popsters Duran Duran (who were U.S. chart failures in 1981) to make videos into a pseudo "art form," with their professionally filmed clips for the songs "Rio" and "Hungry Like the Wolf." The exotic locales, oddball camera angles and high cheekbones of the band members made Duran Duran into the first video "stars." Their videos also gave directors license to impose techniques usually used in film (symbolism, fast-paced editing, lots of female flash) to videos.

"About two years into MTV, people were seeing that these video things really are taking off and record companies were putting more money into it," Blackwood recalls. "There were people writing storyboards with more serious story lines for the songs."

"Like everything else –advertising and other wise - visuals are sex-driven," says Danny Sheridan, a music industry veteran and Blackwood's longtime manager. "A lot of guys that were making those videos were from the advertising field and knew that sex sells."

British bands like the Human League underscored their electronic music with moody videos that were less impressive when mimicked by less talented artists. Elvis Costello commented on the increasingly pretentious style of videos in a 1983 issue of Musician, saying recent English videos were all starting to "look like ‘Murder on the Orient Express.'"

In her 1994 book Hole in our Soul, writer Martha Bayles laments this intrusion of European art sensibilities into what was essentially an American art form, the popular song. And this is where MTV's history starts to get sticky.

By late 1982, the channel was no longer a novelty, throwing out oddball songs before middle America. It had become a publicity machine, and a slick one at that. New artsy videos gave pop music a pseudo-seriousness it had never had. This would result in both rock and pop music embracing irony and symbolism as it never had before. Emotional immediacy and sincerity became secondary.

As for MTV being a mere publicity machine, well, according to DeRogatis that had been the intention all along. Fans just didn't realize it.

"It was bought and paid for by the major labels and it was all politics," DeRogatis notes. Some fans saw the video form itself as flawed, since it placed image over substance. One such critic was New Jersey's Paula Carino, whose letter to the editor about the subject was featured in the March 1982 issue of Trouser Press magazine.

"Because of the marvels of video, the rich people in my school who have MTV cable know who the Go-Go's are and what they look like," wrote Carino. "In a few days they'll forget. What a wonderful art form."

Controversy as Commerce

MTV hit an early adolescence in early 1983 when a long forgotten video broke down the taboo against performers being overtly sexual (any flesh seen in early clips was sporadic and incidental). The video that arguably changed everything was by Missing Persons, a band comprised of former Frank Zappa band members. Their video to "Words" showcased female singer Dale Bozzio clad in a barely-there outfit with a top that she described as "fishbowls on my tits." Even by today's standards, the video looks shocking.

Soon after, the Los Angeles electro-pop group Berlin released "Sex (I'm A…)," a frankly sexual song with a video that showed singer Terri Nunn in bed and in a nightgown. This adult-oriented approach had never been done before. Soon it would become the norm. MTV was only 18 months old when the Berlin video surfaced. Within a few months, the kittenish sensuality of Pat Benatar seemed positively old hat. Skin was in; subtlety was out. Radio was slower to embrace this change and neither Missing Persons nor Berlin charted high with either of these songs ("Words" got to Number 42 and "Sex" topped out at Number 62).

When deliberate outlandishness began to replace harmless fun in videos, a new sensibility began to evolve amongst critics and audience members. Critics of most genres had always judged "innovation" in terms of breaking down social barriers, but this had only been one benchmark. Neither Brian Wilson nor Barbra Streisand, for example, set out to shock people, yet both were considered innovators.

Yet once MTV's influence began to expand, the idea of "pushing the envelope" became the main standard upon which critics would judge artists. Of course, pop music had always pushed barriers, whether it was Elvis' hips, The Beatles' hair, or Janis Joplin's entire persona. Nothing wrong with that. But with the domination of video, the sideshow elements of any given act became the main attraction. Artists who come of age now are reduced to either having to participate in a freak down or devise elaborate ways of working around it.

In the Sept. 1983 edition of Trouser Press, "Media Eye" columnist Karen Schlosberg had made mention of the channel's "blatantly offensive content," citing "women in tight leather (and) violence" as problems. By Dec. 1983 Schlosberg had developed a rating scale, where she judged videos based on "Gratuitous Sex & Violence" (the highest ratings-grabber was the electronic metal band Ministry who Schlosberg called "nasty and vicious").

Rock fans might have expected such admonitions coming from mainstream publications or conservative pundits. But the fact that the barbs were coming from rock magazine writers meant that MTV was having an effect on society that straddled the usual left-right, progressive-conservative bickering.

Rather than fight such criticism, MTV's brass learned that no publicity is bad publicity, especially with an audience mainly comprised of teens. Before long, MTV was showcasing Madonna writhing on the floor in a wedding dress and heavy metal groups doing God-knows-what. By late 1983, its age of innocence was over.

Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center campaign that was launched in 1984 was one reaction to pop music's new overtly visual sexual exhibitionism. Gore said she started the advocacy group after reading the lyrics to a Prince song her daughter was playing ("Darling Nikki"). But it's doubtful a few lyrics would have inspired a political movement had the culture not moved into R-rated territory.

"It was always pandering to the lowest common denominator," DeRogatis says of MTV. "And it all leads to Jackass and My Super Sweet 16."

DeRogatis continues: "Bottom line: MTV is the single most destructive force in the history of rock and roll. TV has the Orwellian ability to show us black and say that it's white. I think that's what was there with MTV to begin with."

Click on this link to see the original MTV veejays introduce themselves during the first few moments of the channel's broadcast:

Click here for a playlist of songs from MTV's first day:

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