MTV From the Beginning

VH1 Classic reran the first hour of MTV yesterday, exactly as it aired on August 1, 1981. Talk about amateur hour.

The broadcast began with 15 minutes of raw NASA footage from a space-shuttle countdown, which was 14 minutes too much—and poorly edited with the Saturn V/Apollo 11 footage that became famous as the MTV station ID. But once the interminable countdown reached zero, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles hit the air. (Watch the first hour in six 10-minute installments here.)

Rather than showcasing the best that music video had to offer at that moment, the first hour’s music was entirely random beyond “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second video, followed by the hideous “She Won’t Dance With Me” by Rod Stewart. The first hour also included “Little Susie’s on the Up” by PH.D, which is frequently omitted by people listing the first hour’s videos because nobody had ever heard of it then, or remembered it five minutes later. Also seen: “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard, a good song but a remarkably geeky video even by the standards of 1981. Best song of the lot: either “Rockin’ the Paradise” or “You Better You Bet” by the Who. Best video of the lot: “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders, which is the one video from the first hour that most people would recognize if they saw it today.

Mark Goodman got the first VJ shift, and his smarmy personality was already on display, although he wasn’t quite as impressed with himself as he would eventually become. He also didn’t seem to on the air live—some of his segments were taped, and at least one of them was presented out of order, introducing “Rockin’ the Paradise” by Styx just after it had been played. Other segments began awkwardly with Goodman saying, “On MTV,” and then segueing into whatever he intended to talk about.

One of the things he talked about was how you could write in for your free MTV dial position sticker. This probably baffled some viewers yesterday. One of MTV’s big selling points was that the channel’s audio was in stereo, but TV channels didn’t broadcast in stereo back then, so TVs weren’t equipped for it. To get MTV in stereo, you had to hook your cable TV into your stereo receiver. You got a little gizmo that attached to the FM antenna port on the back of the receiver, into which you plugged a cable from the cable box. If it worked—a rather big “if” in my experience—instead of getting whatever signals you could pull down out of the ether, you would get whatever FM services the cable company was offering, including the audio from MTV. The purpose of the sticker was to help you remember where you should tune to get the MTV audio.

The Mrs. and I agreed that the first hour’s commercials, which VH1 Classic included, were the most interesting part of the show. The very first spot ever shown was for school supplies—some kind of expanding three-ring binder. Also in the first break, the only ad I’ve ever seen for Dolby technology, which was probably a trade for some of the equipment MTV was using. Later breaks included a classic Mountain Dew spot (idiots rolling downhill inside a giant inflatable donut, to the tune of “Give me a Dew”), an Atari spot with hot new games that looked like MS-DOS graphics, and a promo for the Movie Channel.

That those sponsors shelled out to be on MTV the first day is a bit of a miracle. At the moment MTV launched, it was on a single cable system in northern New Jersey.

3 thoughts on “MTV From the Beginning

  1. MQuinn

    This broadcast was to “celebrate” the network’s transition from VH1 Classic to the new “MTV Classic.” Basically, I think it’s what VH1 was originally intended to be…then what VH1 Classic became…and what MTV Classic will soon no longer be…

    1. True enough, MQuinn, about 8/1/2016. But this post was originally written in 2011, so it refers to the 30th anniversary.

      I have read about MTV Classic, which seems like an excellent idea, although it will apparently focus on the 90s and 2000s, which means a lot of the programs that started moving MTV away from music video (Daria, The Real World, etc). Seems to me there would be an audience for old-school video blocks, rebroadcasts of 80s-era Movie Awards shows, and so on. But that doesn’t seem to be what they’re planning.

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