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Craig Marks Wants His MTV!

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum (Dutton)

Craig Marks Wants His MTV!

by Jay S. Jacobs

Legend tells us the MTV blasted off on television on August 1, 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” – a song that was like a shot off the bow of the staid music world and became the channel’s own personal mission statement.  However, while that was true, that is only part of the story.  It turns out that there was a certain amount of agita within the channel about playing a song that was already two years old and hadn’t been much of a hit when it was out.  Part of the choice for that song was symbolic, but part of it was through necessity.  At the time, the 24-hour channel had a little over 150 videos – and about 30 of those were by Rod Stewart.  Therefore, that day the channel also showed such unlikely MTV artists as obscure British rockers Ph.D and jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour.

This is just the kind of juicy little tidbit you can pick up in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (Dutton), an oral history on the formative years (1981-1992) of the legendary cable channel.  Put together by rock journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, who spoke with over 400 execs, VJs, music stars and video directors to give an unparalleled view at the rocking days and wild nights of the fledgling music channel.

We recently sat down with co-writer Craig Marks to get the skinny on the skinny tie brigade who made us demand “I want my MTV” for more than a decade.

What made you and Rob want to write a history of MTV?

We both grew up watching MTV in that era.  This is also the 30th Anniversary this year of MTV’s launch, so it was somewhat tied to that.  Just from talking to people, we thought there was a lot of fondness for the music video as a form.  A history of that, coupled with a history of MTV, hadn’t really been explored before.

You spoke with over 400 artists, execs, etc on the book.  Who were some of the most helpful in making the book?

They were all helpful in their way.  Obviously, it was really important that we were able to talk to the founders of MTV.  So, I would say Bob Pittman, John Lack, John Sykes, Les Garland and Fred Seibert – on a creative perspective, they’re really the five most important people.  Without any of whom, probably MTV wouldn’t have succeeded the way it did.  That was paramount.  Then, as far as artists go, now you’re talking about pretty much every artist who ever made a music video, or one of note.  It was crucial that we talk to Duran Duran and they were great interviews.  A lot of the directors were really vital, people like Russell Mulcahy and Steve Barron for instance, and Wayne Isham.  Back in those days, these directors made videos like one a month.  It was like assembly line style.  There are so many videos these guys made that to me, and I think to our readership, are very memorable.  It was invaluable to have their recollections and have their insights into those… and just their great stories.  What it was like being on the front line of this video revolution.  They were really the people best equipped to tell the stories.

Who were some people you would have loved to talk to, but just couldn’t get?  Like, obviously Michael Jackson…

Yes, Michael Jackson was unavailable.  You know, there are artists who for one reason or another declined to talk to us for the book, but I feel like we talked to enough of the people that surrounded them – either from the labels, or the producers, the directors, the extras in the videos – that we got a pretty good sense of what it was like on the sets of those videos.  And what it was like to be that artist at that point.  I mean, Madonna is not interviewed, but I feel like you can read this book and not really realize that she is not interviewed, because there was such a good feel for how important she was.  I would have loved to have talked to David Lee Roth.  I think he is probably the figure that Rob, my co-writer, and I most were hoping to talk to, because he is such a colorful guy.  Also, having interviewed him in the past for different magazines, we knew he was a really great interview.  He was the person that we felt saddest about not talking to.  From the directors perspective, schedules didn’t permit, but I would have loved to have talked to David Fincher.

How did you feel doing it as an oral history makes the story more immediate?

It’s less filtered, I’d say.  For better or for worse, the authorial point of view is… while we obviously still have a guiding hand and had to shape the stories, the tales are being told by the people who were the eyewitnesses to it.  The kind of people we interviewed are nothing if not really good storytellers.  The era that we are writing about did nothing if not provoke lots of good stories.  The 1980s are a fun time to write about.  So it felt like an ideal vehicle for an oral history.  To get multiple perspectives on certain videos, certain memorable times at MTV, certain turning points for the network.  If we had written in as a more traditional narrative, right through, it probably wouldn’t have been quite as punchy.  Maybe some of the fun would have been backgrounded for some more cultural context.  That would have just been a different book – not necessarily better or worse, but I’m glad we chose the route that we did.  There were certain books, like the Saturday Night Live oral history or Please Kill Me! that paved the way for this kind of book.  We were able to use those as kind of PPS guides of how we wanted this to turn out.

It was kind of amazing reading about some of the business practices at MTV at the time – the massive amounts of drugs and sex and the crazy hours.  In a modern world where HR is up your ass if you brush up against someone or steal a stapler, do you think that could ever happen again?

Probably, although I don’t think in the music business, essentially because of the profit… they’re just not making enough money to behave so badly.  (laughs)  The only reason that you can get away from that kind of stuff is if you are making so much money where you seem that it’s got enough forward momentum that bad behavior can be tolerated.  Also, it was a drug-fueled era.  Cocaine was the drug of choice.  That prompts a certain kind of behavior – a kind of reckless behavior, I guess.  The people with MTV, to their credit, it was their relationships with artists and the executives that worked for the record companies that enabled them to convince artists to do things that now would be unheard of.  For Mick Jagger and David Bowie to film commercials for free for the network – which they did with the “I Want My MTV!” campaign – that was for different reasons, but one of the main reasons was the people at MTV were buddies with those artists.  So a certain level of schmoozing of the artists was endemic to the job.  That requires some social lubrication usually, in the form of tequila shots or late nights.  That was part of their gig.  That’s what made them really good at their job.  They would party until 3:00 and they would be in the office at 9:00.

It was funny, for such a young medium, music videos quickly came up with a whole set of visual clichés: the falling wine glasses, the singer’s face projected on walls, dripping water, dwarves…   Name some of your favorite music video clichés.

The falling wine glasses – that was Russell Mulcahy’s specialty.  He invented that.  There was a Motels video, and then the Duran Duran video.  The overturned table was a really good stock image.  That one I like.  Also, I lost count of the number of videos that featured stacks and stacks of televisions.  That was really popular – kind of a post-modern comment on the visual world, or something.  That was a really big one that I remember.

It’s sort of like shooting fish in a barrel to come up with bad music videos from the early days of MTV, but name some that have actually stood up pretty well artistically?

I think there’s a lot.  From the very early days, the English New Wave bands of late ‘81/’82: Duran Duran, Culture Club, Human League, ABC.  I think the ABC videos are really great.  Julien Temple did a couple of those.  The Duran Duran videos, the exotic trilogy of “Save a Prayer,” “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” those are still spectacular.  I think  Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” is a really fantastic video.  That was Steve Barron, who had been watching a lot of Truffaut.  Usually that kind of pretention didn’t pay off, but in that case it really did.  Those groups were more creative visually than a lot of the hair metal bands that followed them.  Those videos adhered to a pretty strict template – they were performance videos with a little bit…  I think, even though it became clichéd so quickly, Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home,” which was stock full of slow-motion shots of forlorn bands being on the road.  That then became Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and so many other videos where it was like: Boo hoo, the life of the road is so exhausting and yet fun with slow-motion shots.  Those are still pretty fun to watch.

That said, what were some of the videos that now just look awful and completely dated?

There are so many.  I think the band that had the hardest time making the transition were the American rock groups of the ‘70s.  Famously, Journey’s “Separate Ways” is preposterous – an awful video.  Also the Journey “Faithfully” video, which isn’t quite as bad, but it is a ballad and it’s got lots of slow-motion shots of them on the road and has one really fantastically awful shot of Steve Perry shaving his mustache, which you can’t imagine why it’s in a music video.  Those Hall and Oates videos are terrible, really.  And they are the first to admit that these videos are just wretched.  You can really see it’s the groups that didn’t like making videos – that felt it was beneath them – those were the videos that failed the most.

I remember a lot of the even pre-MTV videos – like for example “Crackerbox Palace” or “Solsbury Hill” – they are hard to watch.

There are technical things.  Until CGI came to the fore, attempts to make those types of special effects videos were pretty ham-fisted.  I’ll tell you someone who made terrible videos was Prince.  Prince’s videos are shockingly bad, because he was such a megalomaniac that he wouldn’t let anybody else direct them.  There are stories in the book where he would hire directors, because someone felt that they had to, and Prince’s manager would say, “Okay, why don’t you wait out here and read a magazine while we make the video.”  Luckily he’s just such an absorbing live performer that the videos seemed kind of exciting.  But given his stature as an artist,  if you compare them to the Michael Jackson videos or the Madonna videos, they were really cruddy.

There was the famous question that was discussed in pretty much detail in the book – pre-Michael Jackson, was MTV racist?  Most of the employees strongly denied it, saying that it was just their format, but just as many artists felt it was legit.  Having spoken to so many people on the subject, do you think the charge had any validity?

I don’t think they were personally racist at all.  I think they came from an institution – commercial radio – where the prevailing wisdom was built on narrowcasting.  You would play a certain narrow band of music to appeal to a certain demographic that you wanted to attract.  They did not think that their audience, which they thought was going to be essentially a suburban male audience, was going to respond well to urban music videos.  It’s questionable whether this is what their research said or this is how they read their research, but this is what they believed.  They had years and years in AOR radio to back that philosophy up.  It took them until Michael Jackson to realize that this is TV, not radio.  Visuals mean more.  The package is more than just the sound of the record – or even the skin color of the artist.  “Billie Jean” was a great video.  It was so much better than everything else that preceded it.  Then “Thriller” was so much better than everything that preceded that.  It was TV, so it had a larger available audience.  And Michael Jackson: lucky for MTV that he was such a charismatic, dynamic, people-pleasing star that his videos transcended all the preconceptions that MTV had about audience and music and race.  I do think that MTV was reluctant to play “Billie Jean.”  On the other hand, I know that they were – and this is sort of racial, if not racist – they were looking for a black artist to play, because the pressure was on.  Luckily Michael Jackson came along.  These videos looked great and he was also an already established superstar.  He was a star with The Jackson Five.  He’d already put out Off the Wall.  He sold five million records.  This wasn’t like an unknown dude that they had to roll the dice on.  So it was perfect timing.

You discuss in the book that MTV sort of killed the idea of a long-term rock star.  Previously, bands could get airplay for decades, like the Stones, The Who, The Kinks, McCartney, etc.  Once the MTV era hit, with the exception of U2 and maybe Bon Jovi, even the biggest stars’ careers as hitmakers rarely lasted more than five years or so.  Why do you feel the short attention span of the videos tended to translate to the length of careers?

I would disagree with that.  I don’t think they killed the idea, I just think they abetted a different type of stardom, too.  Also, if you think about it, Duran Duran just sold out Madison Square Garden last week.  That’s kind of a long-term success story.

Yes, they are still big in touring, but no one buys their current albums and radio won’t play new songs.

And Bon Jovi.  If you think of the MTV acts who were the biggest in the 1980s – Madonna, Duran Duran, Bon Jovi, Michael, Guns’N’Roses, and then bleeding into the early ‘90s Pearl Jam, Nirvana – if they are still around, they are still arena or stadium bands.  Van Halen.  So, I think that if you were a star in the MTV era, and you dominated that era, you had the biggest platform practically in the history of the music industry.   Your stardom is still true in 2011.  They were also like a radio station, so they churned through artists.  They churned through Hammer and Vanilla Ice.  They churned through some of the hair bands.  But if MTV wasn’t there, those bands would never have succeeded as much as they had, so their fall from grace would have been a less steep one.  I don’t think that they created a different type of temporary-stardom cycle.  They just enabled minor stars to become major stars, in a way that wasn’t available to those minor stars previously.

One thing I found kind of fascinating was the quote from Joe Jackson, who at the time famously came out against music videos, that his stance pretty much cost him his career.  Steve Lukather of Toto also was quite vocal about how much he hated having to spend his own money to make videos he knew MTV would never play.  Was it really possible in the 80s for an artist to make it without playing MTV’s game?

Pretty much no.  But, I think it’s for different reasons, too.  You take someone like Joe Jackson – that’s an interesting case study.  Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, both of them.  Costello never made any good videos really, outside of the very first wave, almost before MTV started.  He just wasn’t comfortable making them.  He didn’t seem to like making them.  Joe Jackson essentially refused to make them at a certain point.  What that did more than anything – besides shutting off one mechanism for getting people your music – was that it internally at the record companies told a story that maybe this artist doesn’t really want to be famous.  So, maybe we won’t spend as much money on this artist.  If they don’t want to take advantage of MTV, that says something about this artist, so we’re not going to spend the money hiring an independent promoter to work the record to radio.  So it had a kind of effect where the machinery behind the artist started to slow down if the artist either didn’t want to or couldn’t translate into MTV.  Just avoiding MTV in and of itself, you could still conceivably have a totally fine career.  I’m sure lots of artists did.  But most times if you either declined to play the game or couldn’t figure out how to do it right, it definitely impacted your sales.  It made you seem like you weren’t of the time.  A lot of groups – if you take like, Genesis: they are a really smart example of a band that made videos work for them, even though they were completely non-videogenic.  So there were ways to work around it, if you could figure it out.  Find the right producer and director and come up with the right concept.  You could have really great visuals – or really popular visuals – without feeling like you had to dance and sing like Madonna.

One funny thing in the book was the fact that the execs of MTV seemed to be the wild living rock stars, more than the VJs – although it sounds like JJ Jackson and Martha Quinn had some crazy times.  Were you surprised to find the other VJs were actually kind of mild as compared to say Bob Pittman or Les Garland?

It’s sad in many ways that JJ is not with us anymore.  He would have probably told some great stories.  Yeah, I guess so.  I guess I was a little surprised.  Goodman was married to Carol Miller during most of his tenure at MTV.  Hunter wasn’t really that much of a party animal.  And Nina was really quiet, too, at least from what everybody says.  Particularly Les Garland exceeded their social animal magnetism by far.  He was by far the biggest rock star of the bunch.  But I think the fact that JJ wasn’t here to share his modelizing stories tilted the box score a little bit.

It was interesting that the MTV execs originally created VH1 wanting it to not necessarily be good – just to undercut Ted Turner but not affect them.  How surprised was everyone when VH1 eventually became a legit, powerful station as well?

It happened so much later, well after the book ends in ’92.  VH1 floundered for identity until probably seven or eight years ago.

Yeah, I remember early on you’d see Air Supply followed by Tony Bennett…

Really, until they stopped playing music videos and came up with their I Heart the ‘80s and reality TV programming, that’s when they really forged an identity.  Otherwise, it was just the other video channel.  I found it’s formation was an interesting business story, as just a way to put Turner out of business.  And it was ruthlessly effective.

Back in the 90s I knew a girl who worked for MTV – she wasn’t high up or anything.  But she was about 28 at the time and I remember that she once told me that working for MTV was sort of like being in Menudo.  Unlike most companies, the longer you had been at MTV and the more experience you built up, the less power you had.  And by the time you hit 30 you were just about out of there.  Do you think that MTV’s fascination with the youth culture and styles eventually took the channel from music videos to where it is now – The Real World, 16 & Pregnant and Jersey Shore?

Sure.  MTV’s demographic never changes, even though everyone at MTV ages.  The network doesn’t.  The network is perpetually fifteen.  It perpetually has to tap into whatever is unique about this generation’s youth culture, compared to the previous generation’s youth culture.  You need a mix.  You need grown-ups running the ship, but you need essentially kids who know this next generation of young people and what they are interested in – and how to market to them.  That’s always been the case with MTV and I’m sure it always will be.  Also, I don’t know if it’s true anymore, but back in the day, MTV paid their staff terribly, outside the top executives.  The directors and producers got nothing.  They had a hard time holding onto their talent, both the Jon Stewarts of the world – who started on MTV and left pretty quickly – and directors and producers.  They cut their teeth on MTV.  They were able to get incredible experience at a very young age.  They were thrown into jobs that were way over their pay grade, essentially.  They got to direct Unplugged episodes before they really even had their Directors Guild cards or whatever.  They were working horrendous hours for very little money.  The experience was invaluable, but there is only so long that you can work that kind of schedule for that kind of money.

I know this was after the scope of your book, I always felt like the death knell for music video on MTV was Total Request Live – when MTV decided that the fast cuts of music video weren’t stimulating enough and they had to add lots of bells and whistles to keep the audience’s attention.  When do you feel that the music left Music Television?

For a few reasons.  Even in 1986, people were saying the novelty of the music video had worn off.  This was 1986, no less 2001.  That’s one thing.  In 1986, there were very few other cable networks, still.  Fox… I think… launched in 1987.  So even another network going after a similar demographic… if Fox existed there was just one network like that.  Video games were not as commonplace.  The internet didn’t exist.  All the things that young people graft to that are time-sucks and whose pace is very fast – back in 1985, MTV wasn’t in competition with any of those things.  The music video was a new, exciting, vibrant, active medium.  Come 2001, the music video seems a little bit tired.  It seems old, it seems stodgy in some ways compared to the other leisure time activities that kids have access to.  That was another part – there were just a lot of really fast mediums that were competing for their audience’s attention.  Also, MTV realizes essentially as far back as ’87 and really in ’92 when they launched The Real World that narrative television rated better for them and therefore enabled them to sell more ads at a higher price.  That’s what it’s all about in TV.  You’ve got to sell your ads.  Any TV executive has to do whatever they can to make sure that people won’t turn the channel.  That’s what it’s all about.  You’ve got to get them to watch and you’ve got to make sure they don’t turn the channel.  Their idea was that if you played music videos too long, kids are going to get bored and turn the channel.  I’m sure they’re probably right.  They don’t do those things on a whim.  They do it because they research it and they think it’s true.

Early on in the book, the MTV pioneers were being told that a 24-hour music channel would never work on television.  Despite the decade long glory day of the channel, didn’t MTV eventually prove that point?  After all, when was the last time they actually played music videos?

Yeah, one of the things I found interesting was when I talked to Bob Pittman, who was as smart of a person as I’ve ever interviewed in my life.  I don’t know if this is like founder’s hubris or if he has something, but he still insists that if he had still been there, they would have never gone into long-form programming.  They would have kept at it with music videos.  They would have figured out ways to make the music videos work.  Even as the audience evolved, he thought: We don’t have to change for advertisers and completely scrap our founding principals, we can adjust it.   We know the audience loves this medium.  But, like I said, once they realized that other things worked better – narrative television worked better – the first thing MTV did was starting with a lot of countdown shows.  The Dial Ten or whatever it was called.  Then genre things – Yo!  MTV Raps or Headbanger’s Ball.  They realized pretty quickly that just playing random videos sequenced one after the other was too much like a big, free-formed radio station.  It was too easy for people to turn the channel if they didn’t like the next song.  That was just an unrealistic approach.

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved.Posted: January 9, 2012.

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