History of the Pop Video pt.3: Radio On The Television

“Ladies and Gentlemen: rock and roll”

And so it came to pass that with these words, dubbed over the top of footage from the Apollo 11 moon landing, MTV was born on Saturday 1st August 1981. To say that this was the dawning of a new era in both music and television would be no understatement. MTV would revolutionise the way the music industry operated, the working practices of bands and artists, the listening habits of fans, the viewing habits of watchers, and usher in an age of 24 hour specialist programming that would eventually become the norm.

“You’ll never look at music the same way again” was the pithy tagline dutifully trotted out by the ‘VeeJays’, and the whole tone of that opening broadcast is epochal, as if the human evolution had somehow been building to this specific point, something underlined by the use of footage of the first Space Shuttle countdown prior to the Apollo 11 clip. The tongue-in-cheek appropriation of these clips said to viewers ‘this is a life-changing moment, don’t forget it’ as if this wasn’t just about music, this was about mankind taking giant leaps forward in to a bold, bright technological age. It was very *now* and yet at the same time was the future being laid out right before the viewers eyes.

Just one of many versions of the famous MTV logo featured permanently in the corner of the screen.
Just one of many versions of the famous MTV logo featured permanently in the corner of the screen.

The foundations of MTV had been a while in the making. In Europe pop acts were already quite familiar with making what were then still largely referred to as ‘clips’ or ‘promos’ for pop music shows such as Top Of The Pops, and as we covered in part 2 of this series a similar thing had been happening in Australia and New Zealand. In the US however radio was still king when it came to getting exposure. The change came about when executives at WASEC (a joint Warner Bros/American Express media venture) and others such as Jac Holzman (Elektra records founder) and Michael Nesmith (former Monkee-turned-video director) began pitching the idea of a 24 hour music station, or as Jack Schneider, then President of WASEC would later put it “If you have a disc jockey with a microphone, a transmitter, and 40 records, you’ve got your radio station. So why don’t we put a disc jockey on TV?”. (For a much fuller account of the events of this time see this excellent Vanity Fair article from 2000)

Financial backing secured, and Veejays hired, MTV launched with a roster of about 120 videos many of which were by European acts such as Bow Wow Wow, Adam & The Ants and Stray Cats, all of who would benefit enormously from the sudden exposure. However, it was a video by another British band The Buggles that would end up with the prestigious accolade of being the first ever to air on the channel. Steve Casey, the director of that first programme said “One of the videos we were able to get our hands on was “Video Killed the Radio Star… as soon as I saw it I knew we had to start with this thing”. It was almost as if it could have been written especially for the occasion.

In truth the song and video were both 2 years old. The Buggles had actually written it as a kind of nostalgic-cum-futuristic comment on televisual technology and its erosion of more innocent times. Yet the song and the video, with its images of exploding radios, ‘spacey’ video effects, and shots of the band in shiny clothing playing in a kind of laboratory/spaceship setting, embraced the future at the same time. This was a dichotomous record about the relentless progress of technology and culture, using the medium of video in a self-referential manner. Video is killing the radio star and here’s the proof, it said. It helped enormously that it said it in the context of an infectiously catchy pop-song. It was the perfect way for ‘radio on the television’ to announce itself to the world.

Over the next couple of years MTV would establish itself and through a process of trial and error find both its proper voice and audience. However, it would also begin to attract much criticism for the narrow focus of the music it played and find itself having to deal with allegations of institutionalised racism for it’s seeming under-representation of black music. In the next part I’ll explore how MTV learnt to embrace a broader range of music, and how one black artist in particular, Michael Jackson, would take the music video to a whole new level…

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4 thoughts on “History of the Pop Video pt.3: Radio On The Television

  1. Ah “I want my MTV” a sort of battle cry for insomnia-tic teens with mowaks, lace half gloves, rubber bangles, banana clips and a whole lotta hairspray…In truth, early on there was a bit of “tunnel vision” in regards to acts and the popularity of other types of music. The “little channel that could” seemed to start off on a flat track then slowly started to climb the mountain towards pop culture success – but just like any hill, what goes up must come down and with the launch of the first reality show “Real World” Sensationalized soulless excess began to push out the music as the stampede down the hill began…I wait eagerly for your discussion of MJ and the Golden Age of the Music Video.

    1. Oh man, I should have replied to this way before now so please accept my apologies for my lateness! 🙂 Yeah, isn’t it strange how these days MTV seems to show just about anything but actual music. I confess, I can’t watch it anymore, it’s pretty horrible. The MJ article is coming very soon indeed, and then there will be one final post on MTV’s golden age. So glad you’re enjoying the series, and thanks once again for the ever excellent comments!

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