Not everyone on August 1, 1981 had a VCR at their disposal, and not everybody stayed up until midnight. But fortunately at least one person did, in order to tape the first two hours of a new cable channel called MTV: Music Television. Did they know it would be historic? MTV certainly hoped it would be: they equated the premiere of this 24/7 video version of radio with the moon landing. People born long after this time might wonder why a MTV Music Video award statuette was honoring Buzz Aldrin. But at the time, it made sense. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rock and Roll.” It was a statement: less than three decades after the first rock and roll single, this genre of music had won—-it had colonized the planet. And beyond the planet, the next stop: the universe.
It’s fitting the execs chose as their first selection The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Visuals were not just going to be an adjunct to the music, they were going to become inextricably linked. Either MTV was prescient about the visual decade to come or they in fact caused it to happen. Music videos or short films had been around since the invention of sound in the cinema, but MTV was *all* videos, *all the time*, brought to Americans due to the deregulation of the television industry in 1972 and the slow growth of cable channels.
After a Pat Benatar video, the VJs introduce themselves—-Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn (all soon to be household names and crushes)-—and then straight into a block of commercials: school binders, Superman II, and Dolby Noise Reduction. A strange group of advertisers, to be sure. Goodman returns to ask, blindly, “Aren’t those guys the best?” Goodman has no idea what has preceded him.
Yes, the first day of MTV was pretty rough. In fact, it’s a bit like a DJ who turns up to a gig to find they’ve left most of their records across town. In the first two hours we get two Rod Stewart songs, two by the Pretenders, two by Split Ends, another Pat Benatar video, two from Styx, and two from the concert film for the People of Kampuchea. We also get completely obscure videos: PH.D. “Little Susie’s on the Up”, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters “When Things Go Wrong”, Michael Johnson “Bluer Than Blue”. This is D‑list stuff. No wonder MTV premiered at midnight.
From these humble beginning the channel would soon find its groove and two years later it would become ubiquitous in American households.
People predicted the end of MTV right from the beginning. It would be a fad, or it would run out of videos to play. Forty years later, the channel has rebranded itself into oblivion. And while music videos still get made-—YouTube’s Vevo megachannel is the current equivalent—-none have the effect that those first two decades had on generations of viewers. To paraphrase the Buggles, we have seen the playback and it seems so long ago.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.