MTV turns 36
“Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll.” – August 1, 1981
With those words and a moon landing, music was forever changed. Within years of its inauspicious launch, MTV came to dominate popular culture and made superstars out of a new breed of image conscious artists. In its earliest years, MTV was the wild west of artistic freedom and the channel would air just about anything. By the end of the decade, record labels had taken control of their product and the wonderfully weird art of music videos had devolved into a new form of corporate marketing.
When MTV launched on this day in 1981, the only video that appeared ready for the decade ahead was the first one aired. The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was not only prophetic but stylistically modern with banks of synthesizers and futuristic women sliding down pneumatic tubes in glittery wigs. The rest of the videos aired that first day were a hodgepodge collection of whatever the channel could find and none of them were created with a 24-hour music channel in mind. April Wine’s “Just Between You and Me” played FIVE times that first day as did songs from The Who and Phil Collins. The lack of content was woefully apparent to anyone watching for more than thirty minutes.
Luckily for MTV, the New Romantic movement in London was blossoming into a pop culture phenomenon. Inspired by David Bowie and Roxy Music, the scene offered an escape from the dark realities that punk brought to the forefront. Extravagant fashions, colorful characters, and music built with synthesizers launched a new wave of music that was perfectly suited for the young video channel. By 1983, the second British Invasion was in full swing and synth-pop became the dominant form of music on MTV.
If you were a young kid first discovering music in the early 1980s, MTV was the greatest invention of your lifetime up to that point (the Atari 2600 was a close second). Without an older sibling to guide me through Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, I watched MTV for hours at a time absorbing every video over and over. At the time, it felt revolutionary and the low-budget quality of many of the videos gave it a rebellious undertone. The record labels, and our parents, were slow to catch on to what was happening. More than anything, it was a lot of fun to watch and these ten videos capture some of that magic.
David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes”
Always one step ahead of us mere mortals, Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” elevated the rock video to an art form and inspired the New Romantics, some of whom were cast to trudge down the beach while being chased by a bulldozer. This video is ground zero for the British Invasion made possible by MTV.
Adam & the Ants – “Stand & Deliver”
Adam Ant carried himself like a star long before he became one. Mixing punk and glam into something totally unique, Ant’s early videos showcased a natural entertainer who could straddle the line between the underground and the mainstream. Mixing various cultural and fashion trends into something new, Adam Ant remains one of the most innovative artists to rule MTV in the early 1980s.
Saga – “On the Loose”
Saga was a moderately successful 70s bands that found a new audience on MTV. Mixing concert footage with a narrative about a prison break, the Canadian prog-rockers were delivering an action movie set to music! Sure, now I notice that the prisoner is escaping by jumping over a six foot fence and the prison searchlights seem to follow the couple even after they’ve driven far away from the prison. At the time, I sat on the edge of my seat hoping they didn’t get caught and assumed Saga were the biggest rock band in the world. (Editor’s note: they weren’t)
Total Coelo – “I Eat Cannibals”
Maybe I was playing too much Jungle Hunt at the arcade but this video was so good that I made my parents take me to the record store to buy the 45 (my first ever record). Five women in colored garbage bags dancing in front of a neon jungle village might sound far-fetched but this was “art” in 1983. A few years after feasting on cannibals, one of the singers (Anita Chellemah) formed Cherry Bombz with former members of The Clash, Hanoi Rocks, and Sham 69 – three bands I had yet to discover as a ten year old in 1983.
Gary Numan – “Cars”
Recorded in 1979, Numan’s lone U.S. hit was a landmark recording in synth-pop history. Eschewing the punk template of guitar, bass, and drums, Numan recognized the potential of the synthesizer when he found one left in a studio where he was working. Creating a cold, alien persona around his new sound, Numan looked and sounded like the future that MTV was delivering to us in living rooms around the United States.
Madonna – “Like A Virgin” (1984 VMA’s Performance)
Without MTV, there would have been no Madonna. The channel provided her an outlet for her ever changing personas and style. She was pushing boundaries that were previously impossible for female artists. Her success empowered future generations of artists from Hole to Lady Gaga. This controversial performance at the inaugural Video Music Awards eclipses all her videos because it was so unexpected. Writhing around on stage in a wedding dress, Madonna changed the possibilities of popular music in four minutes much like Bowie had once done when he appeared on Top of the Pops.
Pat Benatar – “Shadows of the Night”
Cast as a New Wave Rosie the Riveter, a bored Pat Benatar drifts into a daydream that is equal parts Top Gun and Saving Private Ryan. Check out Judge Reinhold as a fighter pilot and Bill Paxton as the Nazi officer in this cheese fest of entertainment. Hard to find these days, the video was HUGE when it was in regular rotation on MTV.
Barnes & Barnes – “Fish Heads”
Speaking of Bill Paxton, he also appeared in this demented novelty hit that saw its fair share of play on MTV. Did I mention the producers were desperate for content?
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “You Got Lucky”
There was an unwritten rule amongst video producers in the early 80s that everyone would pillage Mad Max: The Road Warrior at least once. Like ZZ Top, Petty was an unlikely success story in the video age. Set in an apocalyptic world, the band stumble into a tent, watch some sci-fi, hit big on a slot machine, and then head out in search of something. Hey, it looked cool.
Duran Duran – “The Wild Boys”
Built upon a hybrid of disco, funk, and rock, Duran Duran’s music and image were tailor (or dare I say, Taylor) made for the video era. Their early videos helped break MTV as a cultural phenomenon as the band appeared in exotic locales like Sri Lanka and Antigua. The lads from Birmingham represented the hopes and dreams of the 80s children and they lived out our fantasies on television.
“Wild Boys” marks the end of MTV’s golden era because was the first to cost $1 million (if we don’t include Michael Jackson’s short horror film for “Thriller”). Once you start spending a million dollars on a video, the accountants take notice and there goes the creative freedom. Loosely based on a William S. Burroughs novel, legendary MTV director Russell Mulcahy created the largest post-apocalyptic world money could buy and the band was scene facing various obstacles from fame to evil water serpents. It was all a bit silly but totally awesome, just like those early years of MTV…