A look back at the early days of MTV with author Greg Prato

By Peter Lindblad

What an insane notion it was. Playing music videos on television, 24 hours a day who in the world was going to watch something like that? Might as well have a channel devoted just to cooking food oh, wait. Never mind.

MTV came into being on Aug. 1, 1981. Doctored images of the Apollo 11 moon landing, with a flag sporting the MTV logo, ushered in a new age in music history, even if hardly anybody in the country took notice early on. After all, the only cable system in America that had it was in northern New Jersey, and viewers, who, ironically, got to see The Buggles Video Killed the Radio Star as MTVs first video, initially numbered about a few thousand. Of course, things would change dramatically in the next few years.

Artists and their management teams would come to see MTV as the ultimate promotional tool to sell records. And stars such as Van Halen, Duran Duran, Men At Work, Judas Priest, Madonna and scores of others embraced the new medium, making entertaining, and oftentimes high-concept, video art to accompany their latest singles. And people lots of them did watch. Incredibly, viewers found it hard to turn away from MTV. They would sit in front of it for hours on end. They wanted their MTV, as Dire Straits would make abundantly clear in the biggest hit song of their career.

 MTV had turned the music industry on its collective head, and in Michael Jackson, it found its king. Nobody made better use of MTVs potential than the man who created Thriller and became one of the biggest-selling artists of all-time. But somewhere along the way, MTV changed. No longer much of a music channel, MTV now caters to the lowest common denominator with some of the trashiest reality TV on the air.

Coming along to save us from what MTV has become is author Greg Prato, whose new book, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, details the halcyon days of a television channel and its VJs that impacted pop culture in ways its creators couldnt possibly have ever imagined. Prato talked about the book in a recent interview.

To read samples of the book and for information on how to order the book, visit http://stores.lulu.com/gregprato.

What were the expectations at the beginning for MTV? The channels use of Apollo 11 moon landing footage seems to indicate that there was a sense, even then, that it was going to change the world.

Greg Prato: I think that the people that were putting together the channel really had no idea that MTV was going to be as successful and eventually create as big a change in the music industry that it would. In fact, during MTV's first year or so, there was talk that it may be taken off the air, because it wasn't making enough money (in fact, it was losing money). It wasn't until 1983 (two  years after first going on the air) that the channel was a success financially. This is discussed in my book, as well as the subject of the Apollo moon landing footage, and how they almost weren't allowed to use it!

One of the sources interviewed for the book is Nina Blackwood, one of the original MTV VJs. How did she and the other VJs get hired for MTV? Does she remember if being a VJ came naturally to her or the others or did it seem like something completely foreign to them?

GP: Nina was living in Los Angeles at the time, and she read about job openings at a new music video channel in a trade paper. She was actually already hosting a local music television show, so she had some experience going into it beforehand. I also interviewed another original VJ for the book, Alan Hunter, who was an actor looking for work at the time. He happened to bump into MTV head Bob Pittman at a picnic in Central Park a few months before the channel was to be launched (Aug. 1, 1981) and got a tryout that way. It seems like it took a while for the VJs to get the hang of it, as Nina explained that at first they were told to follow scripted things to say, but after people thought they came off as too stiff, they were given more room to improvise.

What decisions went into the programming for MTV? Was there any real plan at the start or was the channel taking whatever videos it could get?

GP: At first, MTV played pretty much any videos that were given to them. They only had a limited amount of clips in their library and quite a few were repeated over the course of a day. Also, some record labels wanted MTV to pay them for use of their video clips at first. But when they realized it was such a great promotional tool for their artists, they were willing to hand over their clips to MTV. Early on, you certainly saw an awful lot of Rod Stewart, Pat Benatar, and Loverboy.

In talking to different artists for the book, how did they view MTV initially? Were some of them wary about this new medium? Did others embrace it early on?

GP: There is an entire chapter about this in MTV Ruled the World titled Initial Impressions, in which artists such as "Weird Al" Yankovic, Gerald Casale [of Devo], John Oates, Stewart Copeland, Marky Ramone, and Rob Halford (among others) discuss this. I think it took a while for people to fully understand the potential promotional power that MTV had, but just about everyone I spoke to said they were very intrigued by it initially. In fact, Halford talks about how he would just leave it on 24 hours a day whenever he was in a hotel room on tour around that time!

What do some of the VJs or other MTV people you interviewed remember about the launch and the planning for it? Behind the scenes, was it chaos?

GP: Yes, it was a mad dash to get everything in order before its Aug. 1, 1981 launch. And the night of the launch, they hit several technical difficulties, including the order of the VJs being jumbled up (Mark Goodman was supposed to be on first, but Alan Hunter's taped bits wound up being aired by mistake). Bob Pittman also talks about how there was a technical problem that would result in silence on the channel at various points that first night. I also interviewed a lot of "behind the scenes" people that worked for MTV for MTV Ruled the World, and they talked about how the set was being designed and finalized very close to the deadline, and how it was chaos leading up to the launch.

Did there come a point for everyone, or at least some of them, when it really hit them how big MTV was going to become?

GP: Yes, and there is a chapter in the book about this very thing, appropriately titled Success! Both Nina and Alan talk about when they would go to make promotional appearances in towns where MTV was being played (keep in mind, not all of the U.S. got MTV at the same time), and there would be mob scenes with hundreds of fans wanting to meet an MTV VJ. It was at that point that people who worked for MTV realized they had struck a nerve.

Do many of the people interviewed for the book lament what MTV has become? Are they nostalgic for what it used to be?

GP: Indeed. And guess what? Yes, you're right...there's another chapter in the book that tackles this very subject in the book! The chapter is titled MTV Today. The vast majority of the people who I interviewed are disappointed in what MTV has become almost no music and all about horrible reality shows that aren't based in reality at all (just a bunch of poorly behaved idiots acting obnoxious). That said there are also a few of the interviewees who say that they think MTV is "as it should be" in 2010. I tend to wholeheartedly agree with the former opinion, however.

What lines from the book struck you as being particularly poignant or insightful about the impact MTV had on the music industry?

GP: Michael Jackson's videos for "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Thriller." Before those 3 videos, very few black artists were played on the channel, and MTV was getting criticized for it. But once Michael was played on the channel, then it opened the doors for a wider stylistic variety of artists it wasnt all about just rock n' roll anymore. Which is obviously a very good thing, as variety is the spice of life.

What did you learn about the early days of MTV that surprised you?

GP: I wasn't aware how much behind the scenes work it took to get MTV to play the Michael Jackson videos for Thriller which if you think about it now, is quite funny, since Michael quickly became "the face of MTV," and probably more than any other artist, is the one you associate the most with '80s-era MTV. I also learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes filming of some of this era's most popular videos. I was lucky enough to interview such directors as Bob Giraldi (Michael's "Beat It," Lionel Richie's "Hello"), Steve Barron (Michael's "Billie Jean," Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing") and Pete Angelus (Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" and David Lee Roth's "California Girls"), all of which had tons of great stories about what it was like on the sets of these videos and working with these artists.

What happened that caused the departures of some of those early VJs? Was there a point for them at which they could see things changing for MTV from its early mission?

J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman
Martha Quinn and Alan Hunter
GP: It seems like there were conflicting versions of this, as you'll discover in my book. Some people that I spoke to claim that MTV would take a stance that the VJs were the "face of the channel" one moment, and then the next moment, [they] would say that MTV was bigger than the VJs. Many of the VJs were also being offered other work at the height of MTV's initial wave of success (roles in movies, offers to host other TV shows) and had to turn them down at the behest of MTV. Also, the VJs realized the writing was on the wall at the first-ever Video Music Awards in 1984, when the VJs were not the event's hosts (Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler were) and were only given small spots on the show. For me as a viewer, I always say that MTV started to lose its luster for me when the original VJs started to leave around 1985-1986. It just wasn't the same, as then MTV's playlists got more formatted, video budgets become astronomical, and videos required musicians to act and recreate Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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