Seems like only yesterday.
But it wasn’t.
Watching this documentary you will feel old. You will feel like you lived through history, but that it was a long time ago.
MTV’s heyday was really the eighties. It bled into the nineties, it and its associated music video channels even lumbered into the twenty first century, but now they’re gone, history, for all I know there might still be channels on the cable, but I don’t know where or what they are and nobody ever talks about them and the truth is today’s movers and shakers in the music world never grew up in an era where MTV mattered, never ever.
But it did, it was everything.
Funny going from a monoculture to today’s Tower of Babel society. We all knew everything and now we know nothing, or just something in a very narrow silo. The only equivalent to MTV is the Trump show, we’re all aware of it, the shenanigans, but although the Donald is making it up as he goes, he has no sense of humor and doesn’t realize that we get sick of train-wrecks, that at some point you’ve got to change the programming.
Which happened with MTV with the firing of the veejays. It was like killing your brother or sister, your best friend, they were everywhere, omnipresent, and then they were nowhere. Eventually it leaked out that MTV’s philosophy was not to grow old with its fans, but to always appeal to the same young demo. A brilliant viewpoint that “Rolling Stone” refused to follow, but both entities are now in the dumper, because when it comes to art it’s always about the cutting edge, and if you’re not exploring, pissing people off, alienating your core, you’re dead in the water.
That’s the dirty little secret of successful artists…their fans want them to remain the same, even though when the acts give them what they want they still complain. But to walk into the wilderness? Some have done it, Bowie and Madonna, but everybody else seems stuck in time, locked in amber, with the same long hair/wig and the same outfits and it’s weird how they haven’t changed and we have.
The record business was in the dumper. A cash machine from the late sixties through the seventies, it was killed by corporate rock and the denigration of disco. This is not opinion, it is fact. CBS Records fired a ton of people, remembered by everybody working at that time, but how many of those people are still working in the business, how many are still alive?
It’s not only the VJs who disappeared, but all the execs too. Tommy Mottola was on screen briefly…does anybody fear Mottola today, does anybody care what he’s doing, is he even doing anything? Label heads were titans, now they’re unknown, just like the heads of movie studios. They’re not creative people so much as business people, it’s all about the bottom line, but Jack Antonoff says money is irrelevant if you’re ambitious, you just want to make it to the top.
And the star of this documentary, the man who appeared to have the most fun, was Les Garland. A legend inside the company’s walls, a known quantity in the business, all the ink went to Bob Pittman, who is heavily featured in this documentary, but Garland is the firecracker, the star, who knows all the musicians, whose office is always a party, who stays up all night just to roll into the building early the next day. In other words, have a good time while you’re doing it, that’s all that matters, everything else is irrelevant, like MTV itself, but once upon a time…
This is the viewpoint from inside the belly of the beast, from those who did not get screen time, who helped create the channel and its programming. And create they did. Maybe you can get the same charge from writing code, but I don’t think so. I don’t even think you can get the same charge from building a billion-dollar business. Everybody had power and they were given a clean slate. Do what you want to, what feels right. And when you remove the reins, you’ll be amazed what people come up with, they don’t want to let the team down.
So, much of this is history. Documented. But still, Michael Nesmith gets a lot of screen time, he could have been involved, but he didn’t want to be a businessman, just like Meg Griffin refused to be a VJ. Small choices turn into big mistakes. You’ve got to be willing to take a flier, to jump. Even Mick Jagger… They want him to do a commercial? Is he gonna get paid? Garland whips out a dollar and Mick is closed. The “I Want My MTV” campaign is born. Pete Townshend is next. Then everybody wants to get on board. That’s the way it always is, everybody’s gun-shy until you lock the heavy-hitter, then they all want to be involved.
As for the retelling of the story… All the big points are covered, but I wouldn’t have told the story quite the same way.
There was the idea. Then the launch. Then the campaign to get the channel on all the cable services.
All the initial clips were of old rockers in performance, and then…
Came Culture Club and the other English new wave acts. Not that the movie does not mention this, but it skates over the fact that this happened in 1982! That’s when the power of MTV started to be evidenced. And then came Duran Duran, with its expensive videos, and the change was complete. You had to look good, your clip had to be innovative, you had to spend bucks, and the field was wide open if you delivered on these accounts. In other words, the programming niche was not really that narrow.
And then came Michael Jackson. I was not in the room, but the story on the street, documented everywhere, is that Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all of CBS’s clips from the channel if Michael’s wasn’t aired. MTV caved. But in this movie, MTV wants Michael Jackson, but when the company delivers “Billie Jean” instead of “Beat It,” they’re hesitant. The stories are not inherently contradictory, but the Yetnikoff story makes MTV look bad, and gives power to the record companies, and that does not fit with the narrative. Although they do credit David Bowie with changing their programming philosophy, airing videos by black artists. This was a big battle back then, as was the airing of hip-hop, which is dealt with fairly in this doc, it’s just interesting that the kids of all the old rockers are now deep into hip-hop.
But it’s completely different. If you were on MTV, you were BIG! GIGANTIC! No one is that big today, NO ONE! There ended up being MTV outlets all over the world, you could tour everywhere, you were rolling in dough, you can still tour to this day. As for today’s artists? The biggest, from Beyonce to Lady Gaga to Bieber… None of them are even as big as Pat Benatar was. Remember “Fast Times”?
Yes, MTV was influential. It WAS the culture. You learned how to dress and…
The movie makes Viacom the bad guy. This is the first time I’ve heard that with this emphasis, that when sold to Viacom the air bled out of MTV, the lunatics were no longer in charge of the asylum. But in any event, we got a game show, “Remote Control” and then other half hour shows, many reality-based, to prop up ratings, and it was over. Yes, the reign of MTV was very brief, maybe ten years, from 1981-1991, for the following decade it was running on fumes, not where the action was, and when the internet and Napster and then YouTube put the means of distribution into the hands of the customers, it was all over.
Videos became an on-demand item online. And despite all those inane articles about the death of music video, there are now more videos than ever before, it’s just that the video is no longer everything, but just a piece of the puzzle, a way to see the act.
And although he’s seen, there’s no mention of the power of Abbey Konowitch. Yes, one guy was ultimately responsible for what got played and what did not. Nothing could be further from the truth today. What gatekeepers there are are much less powerful.
So it was clear, they were there and you were here. They were on screen, they worked at MTV, and you were at home, and your greatest desire was to be involved. You didn’t want to work at a bank, or in tech, or become an entrepreneur, you wanted to be involved with MTV, not only the engine of youth culture, but all culture!
Yes, the documentary makes MTV seem like the little engine that could. But the truth is Michael Jackson just blew it up. It already had purchase. People would turn it on and never turn it off. Can you imagine that today, sitting at home and waiting for ANYTHING??
Now it’s all on demand. The audience is in control. Everybody can play. However, something has been lost. The truth is, the internet and the creativity it has spawned is just as momentous as MTV, it’s just that more people are in control and there’s no dominance. MTV added coherence, clarity. If it made it on the channel, it was worth knowing about. And all the worthwhile acts were on major labels. It wasn’t until the early nineties that indie labels really started to get any traction.
So, what am I saying here?
The truth is you know almost everything in this movie. Not EVERYTHING, but it’s like looking at a family photo album. Yes, there are business insights, tips, and those might be unknown, and they’re important and cool, but really it’s about what was on screen. You were there, just like they were! That’s another thing that was left out, the contests! Win Mellencamp’s house? That was the lottery in those years.
So, the truth is this should have been a six to ten-parter. Ninety minutes is just a survey. There are good talking heads, there’s reference to both Billy Squier’s pink video and Tawny Kitaen, but all that might seem miniscule in retrospect was positively gigantic at the time. The channel was on 24/7, ninety minutes is not enough.
Then again, who is the audience?
Well, if it was on Netflix, kids would tune in to dig deep into history. Remember the impact of the Motley Crue movie? Kids want to go deep, they do not have short attention spans, in truth they want something to chew on, that they can marinate in, and if you’re delivering fluff they’ll treat it that way, by ignoring it or sampling it at best.
All the battles…the twenty first century cries for more videos on the channel…they seem quaint these days.
But make no mistake, MTV and music were positively PRIMARY in the eighties. Has there been any musical event in the twenty first century with even a tenth of the mindshare and impact of Live Aid? OF COURSE NOT! And you wanted to get rich, but you also wanted to give back. Sure, you might have hated Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren, but the news they were delivering oftentimes couldn’t be gotten elsewhere or was ignored by the target audience…MTV was a public service, in tune with its fans!
So, MTV is a great illustration that nothing lasts forever, that you must pivot. Pittman and Sykes made their way back to radio, but a lot of people got lost in the shuffle, they thought it was forever, and it was not. Nothing is forever, be ready to pivot, think about the future or you can be left behind.
And very little is remembered. Ask a millennial who Martha Quinn was. She gets very little airtime in this documentary, but what is truly overlooked is she was America’s Sweetheart. Normal, yet cool. Plucked from the suburbs to hang with the heaviest of the hitters. You wanted her to be your friend or your girlfriend or… One can argue strongly that MTV never recovered from her firing.
It was so long ago. Decades. But back then it seemed that MTV would be forever, like the Yankees. Or physical media. Or…funny what gets left behind.
So, if you’re playing to impress others you’ve got it wrong. No one cares. Come to L.A., during non-Covid days, you’ll see people who couldn’t leave their hotel room in their heyday walking the aisles of Whole Foods or Ralphs alone, unbothered.
And in the past…the past just faded away. But now we’ve got all this footage, all these videos, that are just a click away. The past coexists with the present. And this impacts music, it used to be the oldies were forgotten, but now every act has to compete with Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson, never mind the Beatles.
But no one is competing with MTV. It’s a dead paradigm. Kaput! A hula-hoop, yet with more meaning. Not inert like a pet rock, but just a moment in time. And of course, never forget MTV made instant stars, and oftentimes they fell off the radar screen just as fast. To last, you must pay your dues. Which is what is going on today, but it’s the opposite of the MTV era, people can’t believe it’s taking this long to break through!
But it’s about commitment, taking risks.
And that’s what the original MTV team did, push the envelope.
Fun. That was MTV. Both on screen and off. In the offices and at home. You wanted to get closer to the magic, you needed the magic. It was in an era where everybody was still optimistic, when the American Dream still existed, you truly believed you too could make it, even if the odds were long.
But some did. Some worth paying attention to, and some not. MTV blew up Dire Straits, but it also blew up Warrant.
But remember the first time you heard “Money For Nothing”? Or saw “Sledgehammer”? They captured the zeitgeist. That was MTV.
If you lived through it, you’ll want to watch this doc. Not because you will learn so much but because you will be brought back to what once was. It’s not exactly nostalgia, more a memory of a past era, that you were a part of.
We haven’t had that spirit here since 1991.
We’re waiting for more.
Responses from Bob’s readers. Please note, these comments are not edited for grammar or content.
From: Martha Quinn
Subject: MTV Documentary
I hope this email finds you safe and well.
Thank you for the kind words in your piece regarding the MTV documentary.
I’ve not seen the doc yet but you mention it’s the viewpoint from inside the belly of the beast. For the sequel I’d love to see a compendium of views looking at MTV from the outside, an exploration of the profound effect MTV had on an entire generation of fans.
Today when you see the MTV logo it takes no time at all for our brains to process what it represents. Like looking at a grilled cheese sandwich. One second. Boom. Got it. It’s hard to remember now, but in 1981 this was far from the case. MTV burst out of left-field like a meteor into an unsuspecting world. One summer night (August 1st to be specific, a night I will always remember) a fiery, mind-blowing, meteoric pop-culture disruptor blasted into our consciousness, changing the lives it touched forever.
You might have seen the (excellent) ZZ Top doc where Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard were calling each other the night they first saw MTV, asking each other “how long is this show going to be on??” No one could wrap their minds around what was in the world they were seeing. This extended to us working at MTV, we’d never seen anything like it before either. There were times when I Martha Quinn was late to my job working at MTV because I was home…watching MTV. One more video, just one more, just one more. The videos, the funky spray-painted logo, the unset we called a set, plus commercials with rockers?? Never, ever, ever witnessed before. The marriage of the 24-hour music radio format with television delivered an impact so massive it still reverberates today. I know first-hand how much MTV continues living in people’s hearts.
Listeners call in literally every day to my all-80s music radio station (iHeart 80s @ 103-7, KOSF in San Francisco) sharing what MTV meant to them. How they would dash home from school, turn on MTV and watch breathlessly for hours. Entire neighborhoods cramming into the basement of the one house on the block that had MTV. Kids who got jobs after school to help their parents pay for the cable. Stories of screwdrivers jammed into cable boxes to somehow receive MTV. Memories like these are Alive and Kicking. Fans have told me MTV was their solace while serving in the military, or enduring family struggles. Indie music fans have shared the isolation they felt until MTV blew into town showing them they were not alone, there was a tribe that existed for them in the world!
You’re so right nothing lasts forever (we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far) but wow what a miraculous We’re Not Gonna Take It moment in time. A shared experience that united a generation.
What do you say Bob, want to make the outside-looking-in documentary with me? We’ll call it I Got My MTV!
From: Meg Griffin
Subject: just the facts
I’ve been told you wrote that “Meg Griffin refused to be a VJ”.
Allow me to correct that.
I turned down an offer to work at MTV after some comments by Bob Pittman that rubbed me the wrong way.
Compensation they offered was not much to speak of, either.
My heart had always been in radio and shortly after I turned down MTV, Scottso hired me full time at WNEW-FM.
I had left WNEW FM in 1979 to be Music Director and full time host on WPIX-New York’s Rock and Roll From Elvis to Elvis which was a groundbreaking radio station in NYC. When the ownership there decided to dump the format where we mixed the Ramones into Buddy Holly into Devo -and Elvis Costello into Elvis Presley – in favor of going with a format they called Love Songs Nothing But Love Songs, I was outta there. And Scottso asked me back to WNEW FM at just about the same time MTV was launching. I auditioned at MTV and they liked me enough to offer the gig.
I have never regretted turning that job down. It was not a mistake for me.
And I was a VJ at two different eras on VH1.
And way more fun than that, I also hosted as VJ a show called “New Grooves” produced by Campus Network – which aired in some markets on NBC TV, following SNL.
And that’s the truth.
Subject: Re: Mailbag
Just occurred to me that even though Les Garland’s contributions to MTV were surely a stellar achievement, I’m pretty sure he’d put being a featured guest interview on Golf Radio right up there in the top 3.
Re: MTV Documentary
Bob, thanks for your comments on my contributions in my time at MTV. It, of course, was a very exciting period of pop culture and I was fortunate to have been given a great opportunity coming from my time at Arista.
I did have a terrific eclectic team at a time when the record industry needed a national platform to help present their priorities. it really worked when the artists and videos matched up with how MTV saw the evolving musical landscape.
Rick, John, Patti, and Amy to name a few, were in many ways the arbiters of the taste and soul of what was going on in music and culture and many times were were able to really help influence some significant breakthroughs at this most exciting time. As the Head of Music programming, I got the credit and the blame for what we did or didn’t do for people.
The truth is, Judy and Doug created the tapestry of MTV in the late 80s and early 90s and I am proud to have been a part of it, helping to drive the music and and building an audience that found us the destination for what was new and happening and of course having a great time!
None of realized the importance or power we had at a time of such iconic label executives and visionaries who needed the national radio station that played a mix of everything in a way the US media market never had.
I imagine we all miss those times….
Re: The MTV Documentary
MTV Music Television = Les Garland
From: chip rachlin
Subject: Re: The MTV Documentary
In ’81/’82 I was working for Bill Graham when he promoted the Rolling Stones tours in the US and Europe. I remember when the Stones played in New Orleans we gave a ton of tickets and passes to Les Garland for some contest winners. We didn’t really know (or care) what MTV was, but it was Les making the request so he got all the AA passes and tickets he needed.
When the European leg was over in the summer of ’82 and I was out of work, my old friend Michael Klenfner told me to call Garland about a gig at MTV. “What’s MTV I asked?” To make a long story short, I put on my best corduroy jacket and had a meeting with Les in his corner office at 1133 Sixth Avenue. After another job interview with Pittman, Garland called and said I got the job, but I better get a couple of suits as the corduroy jacket wasn’t going to cut it.
My life changed that day. Working with Les was demanding but ALWAYS fun and never boring. We could be up all night, til the sun came up and Les would be in the office shaved, smiling and looking like a movie star in his Armani suit.
Those years at MTV we truly had an “All Star” team with Sykes, Sparrow, Judy McGrath, Tom Freston, Rick Krim, Doug Herzog, Brian Diamond and David Cohn among others.
It all changed when MTV went public, but those first few years MTV everything rock & roll was supposed to be.
Can’t wait to see the doc.
Re: The MTV Documentary
Irving said he wanted MCA to be the first label to sign the MTV agreement, so we were. Viacom didn’t know one fucking thing about the music business; couldn’t tell a synch license from a master use license AND thought the record companies should pay their public performance fees! They came up with two concepts that won the day; 1) paying an annual fee, and 2) getting “exclusivity” for 30 days on major videos and non-exclusivity on everything else. Wiped out all the competition overnight. MTV promised to increase payments as their penetration grew and, of course,
offered less when the first deal was up.
The only fun moment in the negotiation came when we all gathered at Irving’s estate after some random awards show. Grubman was there, representing everyone. Must have been 50 people in the room when Grubman screams,”Kingie, why are you here”? Everyone turns to see Don King auditing the negotiations. He says, “You guys make boxing look easy”.
Your piece on the MTV documentary brought back a long forgotten memory. In the early 80’s I produced an album with Joe “King” Carrasco called Wild Party. The album didn’t sell much but it did have one significant event attached to it. Joe and I wrote a song called “It’s A Party Christmas” which became the 1982 MTV official Christmas Party song and we were invited to do the official video performance. If you watch the whole 3 minutes till the end you can see me with my then 4 year old daughter on my shoulders enjoying the experience. It was all done in good fun and it was.
Re: The MTV Documentary
People love to rewrite history! People love the smell of their own farts! The MTV Documentary producers are rewriting history! I had a front row seat and was the promo weasel bringing Cyndi Lauper,Culture Club,Michael Jackson etc to Les and company! The Michael Jackson/Yetnikoff MTV scenario did not go down as described-I lived it!! Its water under the bridge-history-noone cares anymore since a bunch of corporate veals fucked up the wet dream! Next…..
RE: The MTV Documentary
Bob, I have a feeling I will have enjoyed your review more than the documentary itself. I can already tell if it’s only 90 minutes, that’s like 90 seconds to someone like me who, from 1982 until 1992 was glued….perhaps not 24/7, but as close to it as possible. Before we got a VCR, I would wait at the top of the hour to see who was coming up & sit there with my cassette recorder to grab the songs I couldn’t find at Record Bar or Peaches….that stigma didn’t last long as we got a VCR a year or so in & the import/12″ section at all the local chains blew up. Those two things went hand in hand, a week absorbing the videos & a weekend surfing all the bins at the stores.
Because of MTV, I can, with some amount of certainty, go on record to say I was the first kid on my block to have the first two Duran Duran LPs (US pressings on the original Harvest label!) before anyone else did. My dad used to have a LP listening night with a buddy of his the first Monday of every month & my first time attending, I brought the Duran Duran records. Talk about bridging a generation gap.
As you might imagine, in 2020, I still support the bands I found thru MTV. Thank you so much for the review, I know I will like it, but want it to go on for so much longer. Each year of the 80’s could easily yield an hour each unto itself.
Re: The MTV Documentary
After Polygram/Mercury in Amsterdam made Abracadabra a hit with no help from Capitol, we found ourselves returning to America in 1982 with a number one hit and whirlwind tour. We had no time to get into a video studio to cut an MTV video for the new fledgling TV format so Capitol commissions one of the “up-and-coming” MTV directors and throws together a seamy, cheesy magic act-themed video with a couple still shots of us in there, casts a pretty blonde playing with a rat of all things, and voile’, instant MTV video! It’s hard to watch even to this day. But in typical Hollywood BS tradition, I think it won an MTV award!
Kenny Lee Lewis
Subject: from Holly Knight….I had more songs in the doc than any one artists
The birth of MTV was also a professional birth for me. We were the perfect match. I was there in every sense of the word from the very beginning…at least my songs were. When I saw the doc, it occurred to me that I have more songs in it than any one artist. When I watch it at a screening months ago, I didn’t feel old. In fact I felt younger …almost like I was there all over again and it made me smile. I miss those days. Remember Love Is A Battlefield, Better Good To Me, Obsession, The Warrior, Never, Ragdoll, The Best..those are just a few that I wrote – MTV was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the last decade of reckless abandon, excess. and well yeah in a weird way, even innocence…before consequences hammered down on pop culture…you know AIDS, war, economy..little things like that.
The first time I saw Benatar do her cover of “You Better Run”, I knew that I wanted in, that I was going to write something for her. It was time for women to show their angst and fire and men had dominated
that territory for far too long. So I did, not only getting “in” but dominating the airwaves …at least for a good run, until MTV changed ten years in and lost the meaning of the “M” , which actually stood for music.
That’s when I stopped watching it.
And then grunge and hardcore alt rock came and went, (which I also liked) and then – along came professional karaoke, i.e. American Idol and “The Voice” and in many ways fucked everything up. ..
Originality … original songs, everything got thrown to the wayside and got replace by “performance”…. So what happened? Rock died. And all that progress that we(women) made in the rock arena regressed
and went back into hiding. And I feel bad for Lzzy Hale and Nita Strauss and all the beautiful bad ass women rockers of today because they have no platform now, at least not like when MTV was around and could really make you a star.
And women were empowered back then. They could be really sexy without having to go commando and appear naked or slutty in their videos like they feel the need to do today. As if that’s the only way they can get attention. During the MTV days, pure TALENT was sexy and not only that but empowering, and in my opinion trumps everything else…more than image. I’m not saying that image isn’t important, of course it is, but it really shouldn’t be the number one attraction. And artists like Halsey are already brilliant enough that they don’t need to always put their nipples out there to get attention. Sometimes I watch her and other young artist and all I want do is give them a warm bowl of soup and a blanket.
Along with the notion of image…what the hell happened to the song. The art of the song. Melody and lyrics that speak. MTV was chock full of amazing songs that still hold up today. There is a reason that 80s music is more popular than ever now. I can’t tell you how much licensing I get for hit shows like GLOW, Schitts Creek, Stranger Things… And even the new generation is starving for what is now referred to as classic rock.
I”m still here…lots of great songwriters from that era are still here. But the business making of music is vastly changed. And your right…MTV was the best thing to happen in music history.
Tell you what, since maybe you would’ve told the story differently, you might enjoy my memoirs when they come out…because MTV is a big part of the story, part of an era that I rocked out in. Even with my own band DEVICE. I feel very lucky to have been an insider and influencer. It was EPIC !!!