MTV turns 40

The 24-hour cable-TV music-video channel, which debuted on August 1, 1981, led to seismic changes in the worlds of music, fashion and pop culture in the Eighties.
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MTV launched on August 1, 1981.

MTV launched on August 1, 1981.

By John Curley

For those readers too young to remember MTV’s launch on August 1, 1981 or if you had not been born yet, it’s somewhat difficult to describe how much of a game changer MTV was when it began. (Particularly because the channel is now so unwatchable.) Music videos really hadn’t been widely available in the USA prior to the launch of MTV, which was a creation of the media executive Bob Pittman and kicked off with the airing of the video for the aptly named "Video Killed The Radio Star" by the British duo The Buggles. HBO had a program called Video Jukebox that would air to fill the time between screenings of films or HBO original programs. So, they could only fit in a few videos before the next film or program would begin. Also, music videos would occasionally turn up on shows like the syndicated Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert (I first saw Paul McCartney’s innovative “Coming Up” video there) and NBC-TV’s The Midnight Special. In the UK, where music videos were more prevalent, programs such as BBC-TV’s Top of the Pops would often screen them. But the idea of a dedicated 24-hour channel that would just air music videos seemed ludicrous. Quite a few record companies did not want to give videos to MTV to air because they were sure it would fail. So, when MTV began, they only had about 200 videos, many of them by British artists, and aired each of those videos numerous times. I probably saw all of them.

The cable TV company that serviced my New Jersey hometown picked up MTV right at the start. (On the launch date, MTV was only available on a few cable systems in New Jersey.) But the launch was kind of low key, so I hadn’t heard about it. I found MTV on our cable system accidently about two days after the launch when, flipping channels on the three-tier, set-top cable box with 36 channels and looking for something to watch, I landed on MTV and saw the video for The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese.” I had seen the video previously on HBO’s Video Jukebox, so I was familiar with it. I had no idea what new channel I had discovered, so I sat on the couch to watch and wait for a station ID to air. It soon did: MTV, 24 hours a day of music videos, in stereo where available. It was like discovering gold! Twenty-four hours a day of music videos! Seriously?!? Yes, please! One of my brothers walked into the room shortly thereafter, looked at the TV screen and asked, “What’s this?” I told him, and he joined me to watch. I don’t think either of us moved for the next four hours or so. We were mesmerized. And we discovered quite a few bands and artists during those four hours of which we hadn’t been aware. The fantastic Split Enz from New Zealand were just one of them.

My brothers and I as well as our friends watched quite a bit of MTV that month, hours of it per day. And when we returned to school that September, everyone was talking about MTV. We couldn’t have known then what kind of seismic impact MTV would have, not just on music but on fashion and popular culture as well.

Those early days of MTV made stars in America of many artists that had little to no notoriety in the USA before that. Those that benefitted from their exposure on MTV included The Human League, Duran Duran, Culture Club, The Specials, Gary Numan, Billy Idol, U2, Bow Wow Wow, Adam and the Ants, Madness, Loverboy, Men at Work, April Wine, Joe “King” Carrasco, Cyndi Lauper and The Go-Go’s.

In addition to helping to create new music stars, MTV’s exploding popularity also made the five original video jockeys or VJs – J.J. Jackson, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn – very well known in many of America’s households. Prior to joining MTV, Goodman and Jackson had been rock radio DJs, with Goodman moving from NYC’s WPLJ-FM while Jackson, the veteran of the crew, had been a longtime DJ at several rock stations and was instrumental in introducing bands such as The Who and Led Zeppelin to American listeners. Blackwood was a model and actor and Hunter had done some acting, including a small part in the music video for David Bowie’s 1980 song “Fashion.” Quinn, the youngest of the five, had graduated from NYU earlier in 1981 and had been a college radio DJ in addition to being an intern at NYC radio station WNBC-AM.

One thing that made MTV special was its broad appeal to young people, and that those teens and twentysomethings were all viewing the same music video at the same time. That shared viewing experience is much more difficult to replicate today, with video platforms now catering to individuals with on-demand streaming and not a captive nationwide audience. Van Halen were a very popular band at my high school, and I can remember one day at school when many of my classmates were discussing the premiere the night before of Van Halen’s video for their 1982 cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Most of us had seen it. Quite a few of my peers can still rattle off the names of the songs from many of the music videos that aired in the early days of MTV as well as the names of all five original VJs.

It should be noted that MTV did receive quite a bit of criticism (very justified criticism, I should add) that the videos they aired during their first two years were almost all by white artists. It wasn’t until the video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” first aired in 1983 that the situation began to change. In 1988, MTV added the show Yo! MTV Raps to give hip-hop videos national exposure. It's really a shame that MTV did not air hip hop earlier since, as the popularity of Yo! MTV Raps proved, there was a mass market for it. If they had done so, hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would have had a much-higher profile on a national level.

I was a regular MTV viewer into the early 1990s but lost interest as the channel began airing regular programs and started to phase out music videos and, ultimately, most of their music programming.

I realize that with music videos available on demand via platforms like YouTube and Facebook Watch, the idea of a 24-hour music-video channel seems absurd now. And while it’s true that you often had to sit through videos that you didn’t want to see in order to get to watch the videos you preferred, MTV made the early 1980s a very unique time in the pop-culture history of this country. Having access to MTV in its early, adventurous days certainly expanded my music taste considerably. I will always be grateful for that.

The first two hours of MTV from August 1, 1981 can be seen in the video below:

The first video to air on MTV was The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star”:

Several of the other videos that aired in MTV’s first 24 hours include the following:

“Brass In Pocket” by The Pretenders:

“You Better You Bet” by The Who:

“Looking For Clues” by Robert Palmer:

“I Got You” by Split Enz:

“Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty:

“Rat Race” by The Specials:

“Heart of Glass” by Blondie:

“Fashion” by David Bowie:

“Cruel To Be Kind” by Nick Lowe:

“Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads:

“Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" by Ramones:

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions:

“Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac:

David Bowie discusses the lack of Black artists on MTV in 1983 interview with VJ Mark Goodman: