Today, MTV is just another cable network serving up endless reality television, but once upon a time, as old fogies (i.e. anyone over 35) will tell you, the channel that played music videos 24 hours a day was groundbreaking and exciting. Blasting off on August 1, 1981, MTV arguably went on to save the music business, shorten attention spans, pave the way for home entertainment systems, and change what it meant to be a rock star as it created a new generation of chart-toppers, from Madonna to Guns n’ Roses to Run-DMC to, um, Musical Youth.
Now, recounting the network’s tumultuous first decade is Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s wonderfulI Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. Presented as an oral history, the 600-plus page book tells its tale through quotes from nearly 400 interviews the authors conducted with the artists, executives, VJs, managers and more.
Covering one of the most hedonistic businesses in the self-indulgent 1980s, I Want My MTV serves up plenty of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, from lurid extremes that some acts went to in order to get their videos aired, to the technological chaos behind the scenes, to the full-on debauchery that many MTV executives jumped into feet first. Nonetheless, it doesn’t shy away from controversy, exploring the charges of racism that dogged the network in its early years, and how MTV affected the presidential race of 1992 when Bill Clinton actively courted the network’s untapped audience of young voters. Navigating with ease through the political and the puerile, few pages go by without giving the reader a laugh, a somber pause or a flat-out “OMG” moment.
Between all the larger-than-life fun, however, the book introduces readers to the people who made the network so groundbreaking, like MTV executive Andy Setos, who insisted on broadcasting in stereo. It was a bold move, especially considering that it required customers to pay cable operators for separate audio connections to home stereos, since TVs only had one speaker. Setos recalls:
I got a call from John Lack [MTV’s founder] because I was a cool engineer and I’d had experience doing stereo television at WNET, the public TV station in New York. I think I was the tenth employee at WASEC. All the professional television equipment, all the TV sets, and all the video clips were monaural. I said, “Look, music is stereo, just like television is color. If this network is about music, it’s gotta be in stereo.” [Cable executive] Jack Schneider said, “But it’s gonna be hard.” I said, “The hard part’s my problem. Don’t worry about that.” So we were off on designing a television network in stereo—the first one anywhere, ever.”
A later chapter covers the Moscow Peace Festival, a now-forgotten hair-metal extravaganza with only a tenuous connection to MTV. While its inclusion is really just a welcome excuse for more hardcore party stories, the chapter does shed some light on Russia’s production efforts during the late Cold War era, as festival organizer/legendary manager Doc McGhee recalls, “We couldn’t get permits. Russian officials would say, ‘Sure, this is a great idea,’ but nobody would stick their neck out and sanction it. We never had a permit to do anything. I brought 64 tractor-trailers into Russia with no permits. That show was absolutely insane. I almost had a nervous breakdown.” VJ Adam Curry chimes in, recounting, “Before the broadcast went up to satellite, it had to go through the Russian censors. They had a gray Volkswagen bus—that was the KGB. At that moment, I knew the Cold War was bull—-, because these guys had no technology.”
MTV’s incessant stream of eye-popping videos also had a strong impact on the concert business, not merely at the box office but also in terms of production, as a new generation of concert-goers now expected to be entertained with the same speed-of-light intensity of a music clip. Early MTV executive Bob Pittman notes:
“Before MTV, concerts mainly consisted of artists standing onstage, looking at each other. I went to a David Bowie concert in the ’70s that was considered state of the art because they had a cherry picker that lifted him up when he did “Major Tom.” But after Michael Jackson and Madonna, shows became performances, with spectacular choreography and light shows. MTV changed live concerts.”
And that view gets followed by Scott Ian of Anthrax:
“I couldn’t be happier that it’s gone. Videos were bigger than radio—that’s why so many bands sucked live, because you could just make a video and never have to tour. It enabled bands to become lazy. Now, if you want to sell records, you have to be a good live band and go on tour for 18 months, like you did before videos.”
In the acknowledgements, the authors cite two excellent oral histories—Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live—as their inspirations, and their own book easily earns a place next to those tomes. Alternately explosive and introspective, walking the proverbial “fine line between stupid and clever,” I Want My MTV captures the now-lost era with great fondness and plenty of rock n’ roll swagger.
I Want My MTV on Amazon