In the Air Tonight

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(Pictured: MTV’s Martha Quinn with a remarkably normal-looking Ozzy Osbourne in 1983.)

MTV launched 40 years ago this Sunday.  I haven’t had time to write anything new about it, so here’s a reboot of some stuff I wrote in 2006 and 2011. There were lots of links in the originals but they’re all dead now, so I took ’em out and I don’t have time to put ’em back in. 

The first video ever shown on MTV was, famously, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles:

It had been a modest hit on good old-fashioned radio late in 1979–which, given its sonic oddness, was quite an accomplishment. With its iconic images of video screens rising from a pile of old radios, if it hadn’t already existed, MTV would have had to invent something like it for its first video.

Rather than showcasing the best that music video had to offer at that moment, the first hour’s music was entirely random. Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second video, followed by the hideous “She Won’t Dance With Me” by Rod Stewart (lyric sample: “Got a hard-on, honey, that hurts like hell / If I don’t ask her, somebody else will”). 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 remembers it now. Also seen: “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard, a remarkably geeky video even by the standards of 1981. Best song of the lot: either “Rockin’ the Paradise” [by Styx] 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.

Digression: MTV blasted to popularity in small- and medium-sized cities first, because it was easier to get cable clearances in those places than in major metropolitan areas. And once it became clear that MTV’s audience was going to be comprised largely of white suburban kids, that meant REO Speedwagon and Styx until you couldn’t stand it anymore.

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. . . . One of the things he talked about was how you could write in for your free MTV dial position sticker. One of MTV’s big selling points was that the 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 very first commercial 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.

You can find a lot of videos on YouTube purporting to be the first hours of MTV, and they’re all different. Likewise, sources differ on the exact video lineup in the first hour. My source for this post was the 2011 VH1 Classic rebroadcast of the first hour, and you’d think that they’d get it right.

My radio station is doing some special programming related to the anniversary this weekend. Putting it together, I learned that the video most played on the first weekend of MTV was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, although it didn’t appear in the historic first hour. 

Coming Monday: more from the weekend of August 1, 1981. 

6 thoughts on “In the Air Tonight

  1. September 1981:
    You: At the NAB convention, radio consultants were saying MTV will do for television in the 80s what radio did for music in the 1950s.
    Me: It’ll never work. Who wants to watch the same video over and over again? I give it 8 months.

  2. Brian L Rostron

    Is there any kind of accurate list of the most played videos? MTV would run countdowns of the 100 all-time most popular videos back in the day, but it seemed like half had always come out in the previous year. I’ve seen “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel credited as the most played, which would make sense, but who knows?

  3. mikehagerty

    MTV was the first point at which I felt like the culture had moved on without me. I was 25, had transitioned from programming and jocking to news and was five weeks away (though I didn’t know that yet) from moving to TV news.

    The apartment I lived in in Reno had one of those oddball community antenna things where they chose your channels, so we had the locals (CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS) and “free” HBO and Showtime.

    Reno’s real cable system was late getting MTV, if I recall. And nobody I knew was more than a couple of years younger than I was—so nobody was really hot to get it. By the time I saw MTV for the first time (other than news coverage of it on the networks), it was at least a year after launch.

    And to be honest, I didn’t see what was so revolutionary about it. I’d grown up seeing music videos. Every big act that couldn’t/didn’t want to appear in person on American Bandstand sent a video. The Smothers Brothers debuted the Beatles’ video for “Hey Jude”.

    Ditto The Real Don Steele Show and Groovy on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. The Monkees—two songs every episode.

    Even the first or second episode of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In featured a music video by The Strawberry Alarm Clock that had nothing to do with the song “Tomorrow” and something to do with beating the crap out of what appeared to be a lovely old ’58 Cadillac.

    So, when I saw MTV, my only wonderment was what took so long to come up with the idea of younger, personable people (many of whose names I recognized from the trades when they were radio jocks and one of whom—J.J.—I’d spent part of my teen years listening to on KLOS) doing the intros and outros. It made perfect sense to me, even if a lot of the videos didn’t.

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