In the 1980s, MTV revolutionized the way we consume music. Now, it wasn’t enough to write a good song – artists also had to look good while doing it. (Or, failing that, they had to find and hire the right video director to bring their vision to life.)
But when MTV premiered on August 1, 1981, its lineup was much more haphazard and not yet quite organized – out of necessity, not by design. Music videos were not yet widely used as promotional tools in the United States, so the selection of available clips was limited to what programmers could find.
Step into the UK, where young artists like Duran Duran, Ultravox and Kate Bush were making groundbreaking videos – and rock artists like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Rod Stewart understood how the medium worked.
In the following excerpt from The Rio de Duran Duran, which was recently released as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, writer Annie Zaleski takes a look at how MTV’s early days unfolded and which artists received a boost from the channel.
Unlike UK artists such as Duran Duran, American artists have always valued the music video as a promotional tool. Along with Blondie, cutting edge groups such as Talking Heads and Devo have embraced the artistic merits of the medium; the latter group even won first prize at the 1977 Ann Arbor Film Festival for a music video, In the beginning was the end: the truth about de-evolution, which included the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo”. However, other artists were skeptical, dismissive or indifferent to the videos. “The only reason you needed a video in America was if you had a hit song in England, say,” says Gale Sparrow, who was the director of talent and artist relations early on. from MTV.
“If you didn’t have a video for The top of the pops [to air], then you were not in the The top of the pops. Or if all of a sudden you got really awesome in Europe you must have a video because you couldn’t visit all the places. “
In the early 1980s, music videos were making their appearance in America. Forward-thinking visionaries such as rock ‘n’ roll chameleon Todd Rundgren explored the emerging intersection of music videos and television. Michael Nesmith was also an enthusiastic innovator in this field, hosting a music video show called PopClips. Other shows began to appear: that of USA Network Night flight premiered months before MTV, while cable movie channel HBO, which already used music videos as interstitial time filler, launched Video Jukebox in late 1981.
MTV had an air of novelty due to its cutting edge features – for example, viewers could listen to the system in stereo if they had the right equipment – and a unique 24-hour format. Initially, the channel’s programming approach was to curate a mix of videos of established heritage acts and promising newcomers. MTV’s Day One playlist looked like a rock radio station slightly left of center, with its heavy emphasis on arena-rock staples (Styx, the Who, REO Speedwagon) and the acts geared towards the new wave (the Pretenders, the Cars, Ultravox, Talking Heads), interspersed with a few offbeat curves, including âI Wanna Be a Lifeguardâ by Blotto and âTurning Japaneseâ by the Vapors.
But since the channel had so many hours to fill, its search for videos was global. âWhat MTV found was that there weren’t a lot of US companies that had footage or videos immediately available,â says Rupert Perry of Capitol Records. “But if you went to London, you could find all kinds of things.”
As a result, UK performers have also become a staple of MTV’s offerings: on launch day of August 1, audiences saw videos from two-tone ska groups The Specials and the Selecter, pop pop singer Svengali Kate Bush and power-pop icons Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. British heavy metal band Iron Maiden was another favorite – the channel aired the band’s “Wrathchild” music video four times alone in the first 24 hours – while original New Zealand rock superstars Split Enz featured four separate video clips on day one.
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