When MTV Played Music
Do you remember a time when MTV actual played music videos? I sure do. Most young kids probably don’t remember or don’t even realize that the channel called Music Television played music videos 24-7 back in the day. Now the channel is flooded with reality shows such as, The Hillz, Jersey Shore, and the long running Real World. Today the network rarely plays any music videos or has any music programming, but I don’t want to write about MTV of today, I want to discuss MTV in its glory days of music videos in the 80’s and how I came to discover this great channel.
First, a little history on how Music Television came to be. In the late 70’s, two things started to boom, cable television and music video. Some form of the music video has been around for years, but it really started to pick up in the mid 60’s and into the 70’s (it wasn’t referred to as a music video until sometime in the 70’s). Cable television came into households in the early 70’s and started to get big later in the decade. By 1980, there were a variety of channels on cable. There was one for sports (ESPN), one for news (CNN), one for shopping (The Home Shopping Network or HSN), so it was only fitting to have one for music. On August 1, 1981 at midnight MTV was born. The very first video shown was Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles, which was very fitting for the first music video broadcasted on the network. The channel would play music videos around the clock and would have a variety of VJs (Video Jockeys) host the channel between the videos.
The city where I lived didn’t get MTV on basic cable until January of 1987. Before then, I believe it was a paid channel in our city like HBO or Showtime and you had to have a special box for it. Growing up in the 80’s, MTV was a channel I would hear about, but have never seen. As my music interests grew during the decade, I couldn’t get enough of watching music videos. Since not everyone had MTV, they were plenty of music video programs on late night network TV, like NBC’s Friday Night Videos and a bunch of shows through syndication. These shows were great, but they would only last an hour or two and that was it until the following week. I wanted a channel where music videos never ended. After years of watching ads for the network that would say “I want my MTV!”, we finally got Music Television and it became a new addiction to me.
Getting the channel in 1987 was perfect timing. Our family just got our first VCR for Christmas 1986 and soon after that I started to tape everything in sight. I believe the first thing I recorded was a music video off of MTV. Now with this 24-7 channel of music videos I could watch and record as many videos as I wanted. I remember as a teenager getting home from school, I would turn the TV on and change the dial to MTV, waiting for one of my favorite videos to play. It was my favorite channel at that time and I was addicted to it. The format back then was simply like a radio station. They would show a bunch of videos in a row, go to the VJ once in awhile, then some commercials. This format was fine by me as I watched hours of the latest music videos and a bunch from years past.
Some of the artists that I watched on the channel had the most entertaining and effective music videos were Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Madonna, Duran Duran, David Lee Roth, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Def Leppard, and many more. MTV also use to show old music performances from artist from the 60’s such as The Doors, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Rolling Stones. They even had a program that played for a half hour everyday at Noon called The Closet Classics Capsule that use to play artist from the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s. So, you can get a variety of music videos from old to new on the channel.
MTV had many different music programs throughout the week like MTV’s Top 20 Countdown that aired every Friday night and they would countdown the latest music videos. Dial MTV aired Monday through Friday at 6pm. It was another countdown show, but this one you would call in and request the videos and the show would rank them. Back in 1988, Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me video was at #1 for the longest period of time. It was there for a total of 73 days. Dial MTV was one of my favorite shows on the channel and it introduced me to a lot of the hair bands of that day, such as Cinderella, Ratt, Poison, and Bon Jovi. They also had 120 Minutes, which aired at Midnight on Sunday night (early Monday morning). The show featured music videos from alternative artists like The Cure, New Order, Midnight Oil, Depeche Mode, and Echo and the Bunnyman. Another favorite of mine was Headbangers Ball which debut in ’87 and aired on Saturday nights. When the show first started, they did have a few hair bands in there, but it mostly featured hard rock and heavy metal bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Guns ‘N’ Roses, and later on, Metallica. The show went through rotations of different VJs hosting until 1990 when Riki Rachtman would become the main host of the show.
MTV also had a number of concerts and documentaries on different musicians. One that sticks out in my mind is a Genesis documentary and a concert from their 1981 tour. With Genesis being my favorite band and this was also the same time I was just getting into them and it was very cool to see these programs on the channel. I would watch a number of concerts and music programs throughout the next few years that exposed me to different artist that I still enjoy listening to till this day.
One of my favorite comedy series I actually discovered on MTV, which was the British sit-com The Young Ones. The show originally aired in Great Britain in 1982-1984 and MTV started showing reruns of the series. It was the first non-music program that they aired on the channel, although it did have musical guests on every show. The show would air at 11:30 on Sunday nights and I discovered it one Sunday in January when I was up late because there was no school on Monday. I fell in love with school since I saw it. It was nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Just a crazy, in-your-face, brutal comedy show about four college students living together. I taped every single episode of the series that aired (they were only twelve of them) and I still enjoy watching the series today. (I will have a Growing Up Fanboy all about The Young Ones, sometime next year.)
One big annual event that MTV broadcasted was the MTV Video Music Awards. It would always air in September and by 1987 they were on the fourth annual awards ceremony that started in 1984. I remember hearing about the awards when it first started and even seen clips from some of the shows. (I believe they broadcasted an edited down version of the show in syndication weeks after it aired.) It was cool to see the award show in its full three hours. It featured performances from current artists and guests from music, television, and movies. The VMAs was a big event to watch for me during that time.
In 1987, MTV started to broadcast a few more programs that were not centered on music videos. Along with The Young Ones, MTV started showing reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the fall of ’87. This was the first time I was exposed to this great comedy show. Just like The Young Ones, it became a favorite of mine and tuned in every time it was on. Unlike The Young Ones that was played once a week and late at night, Monty Python aired at 7pm every night and also aired at 11pm as well. Although I loved these shows, they didn’t seem to fit MTV’s format. The Young Ones fit in a little more than Monty Python because of their musical guests, but I guess MTV was trying to widen their audience and show something other than music videos. This is something they continued for years until videos were basically no more on the channel.
Also in that year MTV debut an original program that was a game show called Remote Control. This was MTV’s first original non-musical program, but parts of the show had music themes. The show, which was hosted by Ken Ober featured contestants (that were in their twenties) answering trivia questions on the subjects of movies, TV, and music. The show lasted for about three years and launched the careers of Colin Quinn, Kari Wuhrer (who were Ober’s sidekicks), Denis Leary, and Adam Sandler (who had walk-on parts on the show).
Despite these non-music shows, music videos still dominated the channel and that’s the reason why I watched. Plus, most of the music that I listened to would be hair bands or hard rock and that what was being played on MTV at the time. It was also exciting to see a new video debut from an artist that I liked. The VJs would plug whenever a new video from a big artist would debut, weeks ahead a time, like it was a new season of series starting up. I would often discover new artists or artists that were new to me on the channel. One of them was Metallica, who I first heard of when I saw their video for One play on MTV. I really liked the song and their music and the video was great. It mostly featured scenes from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun that showed a soldier from World War I in a military hospital that is a quadruple amputee who has lost his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The video was very chilling then and still is today.
During the start of the 90’s MTV started to show more rap videos, which didn’t interested me. Although I did enjoy some videos from the grunge era from artists like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgraden, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots. During this decade, I watched the channel less and less, due to the fact they didn’t play the music I listened to, but at least they were still playing music videos. Also in the 90’s, MTV did more original programming. Before reality television was mainstream, MTV started their very first reality based show, The Real World. A year after its debut in 1993, MTV launched another favorite comedy animated show of mine, Beavis and Butt-Head. The show centered around two half-brothers who were metal heads and just plain stupid that watched music videos all day and had crazy adventures in their small town. The show was hilarious and I tuned in for every episode. The show had the perfect balance of comedy, animation, and music videos, which fit the MTV mold.
As the 90’s were ending and the new millennium began, MTV was less about music videos and more about reality television. The network created more reality shows throughout the 90’s and into the 2000’s. I haven’t really watched the channel on a regular basis in fifth-teen years and haven’t even looked at the channel in about ten. The music was missing from Music Television and who knows if it will ever return and dominate the channel. With other music channels and videos all over the Internet at our command, it doesn’t look like it will ever return to a 24-7 music video channel. I can just reflect and think about better years for the network and think about how it use to be in the 80’s, when MTV played music.