They Say It's Your Birthday

Mtv Twenty five years ago, on Aug. 1, 1981, a revolution began with the words "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll."

A rocket launched. An astronaut stepped onto the moon, planting a flag. After a few jagged chords and smacks of a snare, the camera cut to a mop-headed, former WMMR-FM DJ named Mark Goodman, who sat on a desk, arms folded, announcing, "This is it! Welcome to MTV, music television, the world's first, 24-hour, stereo music-video channel."

Yes, MTV once played music videos. That was hip back then. But turning 25 isn't so hip, apparently, which is why MTV is staying in on its birthday, with no plans to mention the occasion. Not everyone's happy.

But, back to our story. The first clip to air on this new cable network was a statement both ironic and prophetic: "Video Killed The Radio Star" by the Buggles.

A quarter century later, MTV has done a bit more than kill (or make) the radio star. It's Rocked the Vote, and forced the president of the United States to specify whether he wears boxers or briefs (Usually briefs, Clinton answered). It's popularized a jump-cut sensibility to the attention-deficited visuals of our time. It can be thanked for reality TV. Entertainment Weekly went further this week:

"The trailblazing cable network wouldn't just influence top 20 lists, it would do everything from dictate fashion trends to sway political elections."

How precocious was the network? At the moment of its launch, original co-host Nina Blackwood told EW, New York City didn't even have cable.

For all of its revolutionary power, MTV began a lot like a TV on the radio, with five peppy announcers, called VJs for video jockeys, playing a tight list of songs in set rotations. Outside of Philly, only one had a well-known name: J.J. Jackson had recorded a decent version of "It's All Right."

Here's a good question for Quizzo: What was the second song played on MTV? An Ask Yahoo Q & A yields this answer:

After the Buggles, the channel aired five spots introducing MTV's veejays (the spots were played in the wrong order). Then the next music video was broadcast -- the tune was "You Better Run" by Pat Benatar. Some fumbling and dead air followed these first two videos, as engineers and veejays scrambled to play videos in the right order. Eventually, the MTV team got their act together and became one of the decade's biggest influences on popular music.

You can watch those first moments here, on YouTube. Or revisit the whole first day of programming, starting at midnight Monday on VH1 Classic.

What's been MTV's footprint? Nothing you'd want to hum. Five years ago, when Time Magazine music critic Christopher Farley took questions on, he didn't start off talking about the music, when he talked of the network's influence:

It's really had an effect on reality programming. When you think about "Real World," it was sort of the godfather to other reality programming we see on TV today. Shows like "Survivor," and shows that MTV would probably not be that proud to be the godfather of, like "Fear Factor" on NBC, and "Big Brother" on CBS.

A chat participant asked him why the network had moved away from videos, Farley replied:

MTV doesn't play as many videos because, apparently, pure video programming doesn't always garner good ratings. So although their image is that of a video station, mainly they play a lot of original programming, shows like "Spider Games," the "Real World," of course, "Road Rules," and a number of other shows that really aren't even worth watching.

Videos didn't turn out to be "sticky" in the language of TV programmers; a kid with a wandering eye could easily click around out if he or she didn't like a song. Story lines would be harder to shake.

Landmark moments MTV has delivered, like the airing of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" in 1983, making it the first song by a black artist to gain play on the network. Nine months later, John Landis directed a record-setting $1.1 million video for the 14-minute "Thriller."

The Music Video Awards debuted the next year, with Madonna performing "Like A Virgin" dressed up like a wicked wedding cake. The network's love affair with Madonna would continue until 1989, when "Like A Prayer" proved to be the first of several controversial videos from the singer. (Here's MTV viewer's own list of most-controversial videos, via IndieBlogHeaven.)

MTV turned a corner with 1988's "Yo! MTV Raps." Soon the two-hour weekend show would command six days of weekly programming. Did they have a little influence on the hip-hopping of suburban hoods?

The network would give us "The Real World," Beavis and Butt-head, Carson Daly, Johnny Knoxville, the Osbournes, Nick and Jessica. No wonder they don't need to show videos any more.

Ok, quiz time. Think you can complete a list of the first 10 videos played a quarter century ago on MTV?  Guess a couple? Yes, there was Rod Stewart.  No, not the song that came to my mind.

Sirius, which has brought together the four remaining VJs for a show on its Big 80s channel at 10 a.m. Tuesday, (that's Goodman, Blackwood, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn) provided us with a list of the first day of programming.

There's a Philly guy, a British never-was (at least over here), a couple of '70s remnants and one smart-sounding, three-letter band that doesn't ring a bell.

Click "continue reading" to see if you know your Ahas from your AC/DCs.

a1. Video Killed The Radio Star, the Buggles.

2. You Better Run, Pat Benatar

3. She Won't Dance, Rod Stewart

4. You Better You Bet, the Who

5. Little Susie's on The Up, PHD.

6. We Don't Talk Any More, Cliff Richard

7. Brass In Pocket, The Pretenders

8. Time Heals, Todd Rundgren

9. Take In On The Run, REO Speedwagon

10. Rockin The Paradise, Styx.

Posted 07/31/2006 04:27:38 PM

STYX!!!! And nothing - *NOTHING* - says ROCK like Rod Stewart. Well, maybe Michael Bolton.

daniel rubin
Posted 07/31/2006 05:21:00 PM

What, no Journey? Of course there was a time, back when he was a leather-lunged kid, when Rod Stewart was IT. The Jeff Beck Group stuff, the Faces, even the beginning of his English countryfied solo career. Track down "Drinking Again," from Beckology. With MTV, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" happened.

Citizen Mom
Posted 07/31/2006 06:02:10 PM

Speaking of Cliff Richard, MTV in those days was also the only place you could watch the 'The Young Ones.'

daniel rubin
Posted 07/31/2006 06:06:48 PM

fill us in. this is a good thing?

Posted 07/31/2006 08:55:53 PM

The Young Ones changed my life.

daniel rubin
Posted 07/31/2006 09:10:50 PM

this is something i totally missed. should we have a screening party? with some young's and a curry?

Anthony Preziosi
Posted 07/31/2006 09:29:55 PM

Just as ESPN did little to enhance the "sports on TV" experience, I'm not entirely sure that we should be celebrating the 25th anniversary of MTV. Sports has become a constant highlight show, with players who are sometimes more concerned with their individual play than the team. Likewise, the video experience does not always enhance the musical one. Where music was once an artistic listening experience, it has now become more of a visual form of entertainment, which isn't necessarily a change for the better.

Citizen Mom
Posted 08/01/2006 08:18:41 AM

Or, Anthony, you could say that adding a visual element to music gives you yet another way in which to enjoy it. Dan: I will totally host a Young Ones viewing party, but in the meantime I'm pretty sure BBC America shows it on Thursdays! Impossible to explain, you just have to set your brain to 1982 and watch it.

Ed Ward
Posted 08/01/2006 08:34:30 AM

The Young Ones were great, but if you're having a watching party, I think you should cook Neil the hippie's lentils. One reason those first videos are such a weird mixture is that the record biz in America was caught with its pants down. Britain had been showing videos on Top of the Pops for several years (a big discovery on my first trip there in '80), but no American label had been producing them. Warner's "video department" consisted of one (1) person, Jo Bergman, who was clueless. This gave a big leg up to the various British new wave bands, who began invading America posthaste. And, for a while, the airwaves -- audio *and* video -- were exciting again.

Citizen Mom
Posted 08/01/2006 08:57:38 AM

Ed, Lentils it is, along with sausages, plants and goldfish (if that isn't too obscure). Have a great day everyone! MamaQ

Anthony Preziosi
Posted 08/01/2006 01:05:30 PM

Well, C-Mom, you could say that, if the visual element did not detract from the audio - which is what music is to begin with, right? Too often, the visual is more important - witness the current crop of interchangable bimbos and mimbos populating the charts. I think we've lost the substance to the form.

Posted 08/01/2006 02:01:52 PM

Even more important to music, in my opinion, Jerry Garcia would have been 64 today. August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995 MTV will mostly be remembered by me for making stars out of marginally talented (or outright untalented) entertainers, hoping for a quick hit single and loads of $$$$$. They have had a few good and cutting edge shows, but overall, especially now, that station blows.

Posted 08/01/2006 03:44:03 PM

let us not forget that when Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic rendering of "Wanted Dead or Alive" on the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards a whole new way to perform live was born. Inspired by that performance, the network created "Unplugged" and tons of artists performed acoustic renderings of their classics, even releasing them on CD.

Citizen Mom
Posted 08/01/2006 05:22:25 PM

The bottom line of it is that MTV doesn't age with its audience, they just create new channels (MTV2, the VH1s) to appeal to those groups and send them away. MTV itself remains about 15 years old. What bothers me is that 15-year-olds are so much more oversexualized today than they were 25 years ago. The stakes seem much higher. Plus, I like videos. Good topic, Dan.