When video thrilled the radio stars, music began to look a whole lot better
Thirty years ago MTV rocked modern culture, writes Damian Corless
Published 18/06/2011 | 05:00
Thirty years ago on July 4, 1981, a US cable channel flickered into life with a test card of white letters on a blue screen. It read: "Music Channel Coming Soon". It was a low-key debut for a force that would change the world, speeding up and dumbing down the information we consume, and ultimately reshaping the face of modern culture.
The first clip broadcast on August 1 was Buggles' 'Video Killed The Radio Star'. It went out on a niche New Jersey cable system so only a few thousand saw it, but the producers had their eyes fixed firmly on the big picture. The launch footage was a clip of the first moon landing, with Neil Armstrong planting a doctored MTV flag instead of the Stars & Stripes.
It was a statement of intent. Far from killing the radio star, video gave the music biz the biggest shot in the arm since the transistor radio. The new station spread like wildfire, and wherever it went it alerted record stores and radio stations to new acts who'd been sidelined from the rigid playlists.
It ignited what became known as "the second British invasion" of the States, with acts like The Human League, Eurythmics, Wham, Culture Club and Duran Duran storming the US charts because they "got" the new medium of video while many of their US counterparts snubbed it as just a passing fad.
MTV got very big very quick, and the bigger it got the more flak it attracted over the fact it was virtually a whites-only zone. The first video to feature black musicians was by the multi-racial group, The Specials.
Prince and Tina Turner qualified on the grounds that they played 'rock'n'roll', but they were almost token blacks.
Amid rising cries of racism and the threat of a boycott by CBS, MTV relented. In 1983, Michael Jackson's 'Billy Jean' became the first black track given heavy rotation, and Whacko's subsequent videos, including the 20-minute 'Thriller' would prove as vital to building MTV's success as MTV was to his.
MTV Europe started up in 1987, but while the rest of the continent was waiting impatiently RTE raced ahead of the pack and in 1984 began airing a homespun version entitled MTUSA, with the slogan 'Music Never Looked Better'.
Hosted by Vincent 'Fab Vinnie' Hanley, the format consisted of an unheard-of three-hour block of videos broadcast on a Thursday night and repeated on Sunday afternoons. Despite the fact that many of the clips featured US artists like Pat Benatar and Motley Crue, who couldn't get arrested in Ireland, it became required viewing for the nation's youth starved of alternatives.
The run ended in 1987 when Hanley became the first Irish celebrity to die from an AIDS- related illness. His death coincided with the launch of round-the-clock MTV Europe.
While Fab Vinnie was no Einstein, he brought knowledge and enthusiasm to a job which he made his own. In this he was the polar opposite of an entirely new breed of TV creature birthed by MTV -- the veejay. Unlike all TV presenters before them, veejays were handpicked to be all style, no content and instantly disposable.
Andy Warhol's 1960s prophecy that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes was made flesh. A handful of MTV Europe veejays have gone on to greater things -- Davina McCall, Cat Deeley, Russell Brand -- while the multitude have gone the way of Bros and B*Witched.
In parallel with giving us much shorter screen careers, MTV played a key part in shortening the attention span of humankind in general. The so called "MTV style" of quick cuts started out mimicking the new accessory of the TV zapper and ended up as the modern language of cinema, TV shows and adverts. The world was suddenly in much more of a hurry.
Some credit MTV with playing a bit part in bringing down the Communist Bloc, and it is true that overspill transmissions in the late 1980s helped whet the appetite of Eastern Bloc youngsters for the magical lifestyle just beyond the Iron Curtain. In reality, however, MTV has always been more about containment than revolution.
Forced to embrace black music in 1983, the station set about taming and diluting rap until the street rage of Public Enemy and NWA was sanitised into the over-the-counter culture of P Diddy and his homies.
The next bunch of potential tearaways, led by Nirvana, were mopped up with equally little fuss. Exec Amy Finnerty noted how Nirvana had "changed the entire look of MTV" by delivering "a whole new generation to sell to".
At precisely the same time it was housetraining grunge, MTV gave the planet its first reality show, The Real World. The radical new idea was to put a bunch of strangers living under one roof and film the results.
What MTV initially claimed was a serious attempt to explore interpersonal relationships quickly degenerated into a zoo for demented show-offs, but TV would never be the same again.
Thank you MTV.