In Memory of the MTV 1980s

Rob O'Connor
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Back in the 1980s, before they discovered the joys of young people living together in various cities, in Winnebagos and on the Jersey Shore, MTV played music videos -- all the time. They even advertised it as 24 hours around the clock.

Reading through I Want My MTV, a recent book by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, I learned that being an MTV Executive was nearly as much fun as being an actual rock star. While MTV turned an audio medium into a visual one, they managed to alert young people to the fact that there were new bands out there, something the kids wouldn't learn from commercial radio where it wasn't unusual to feel like you'd stumbled into a world where stations were apparently designed to make you hate music.

Anyhow, why not list some of the fine, fine groups -- and some not so fine -- that appeared regularly on the channel in its early years? Surely, this list will make you want to watch some music!

25) The Buggles: It's like they knew. Before there was an MTV, the Buggles had written, recorded and released "Video Killed The Radio Star," a song released as a single in September, 1979 that appeared on their 1980 album, The Age of Plastic. MTV debuted on August 1, 1981. Did anyone record "The Real World Killed The Careers of Music Video Stars" back in 1986?

24) Blotto: Lucky for this Albany, NY band, they had a video for their song "I Wanna Be A Lifeguard," because MTV needed videos to play and they didn't care a whit who it was, as long as they could get ahold of it. The world needs more Blotto.

23) Lee Ritenour: MTV were so desperate for content on opening day that they played two songs, "Mr. Briefcase" and "Is It You?" by smooth-contemporary-jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour within the first 24 hours. While the kids clearly clamored for More Ritenour! the suits at MTV decided to move in a different direction. Somewhere Dave Grusin sobbed.

22) Run-DMC: It's no secret that MTV didn't really know what to do with rappers. Surely, the kids didn't want to see or hear this stuff. No commercial potential. But if Run-DMC were paired up with Aerosmith, a hard rock band from the 1970s who were down on their luck, to perform the 1975 'Smith track "Walk This Way," well, who wouldn't want to hear that? Besides, hip-hop and old Aerosmith fans? At that point, there were more kids who weren't fans of hip-hop and/or Aerosmith to make this a surefire hit!

21) Phil Collins: While the kids wanted to rock and rebel, their parents weren't so sure. Considering MTV took awhile before they started VH-1, which they initially built to fail (! -- read the book!), it was only fair that if the kids were going to get their new music, then someone had to represent those musicians who were about to be displaced. Bring on ol' affable Phil. He's comfortable, like a warm uncle.

20) Twisted Sister: The P.M.R.C. understood that left unattended, Twister Sister would force men to wear women's clothes and heavy amounts of make-up. However, by drawing attention to the evils of the Twisted Sister, the P.M.R.C. ensured our kids would survive and never fall down that slippery slope where sex with farm animals is all but guaranteed. Easy for you to scoff. You don't have a "hot goat" in the family.

19) R.E.M.: Yay! Everyone in college gets a film camera! Let's all make a video before we learn how to focus! Yay! Then we'll make better videos and the world will marvel at our progress. We're going to be young forever. Yay! Rather than be creepy rock stars, we're going to be average, responsible people and we're going to give college radio a big boost in the process. Yay! We'll let them show our videos on Sunday nights around midnight so everyone is red-eyed and tired as hell on Monday morning. Yay!

18) U2: Bono would be the King of England if his Irish ancestry didn't chuck that dream. Instead, he had to settle for being the singer in a rock 'n' roll band, so it's up to him to make that seem more important than it is. Check! Long before Obama figured out that "Hope" thing, U2 were on it like teenagers on mullets. Don't you hate positivity?

17) Prince: Good for MTV that Prince wasn't black. He was purple. And he made a movie so the execs at the MTV understood he was a video artist. The things people had to do to get a little attention around there. Had this been a previous decade, Prince could've gone on tour with Gerry and the Pacemakers and marveled as they butchered "Darling Nikki." Sometimes, it's OK to miss the "Good Old Days."

16) Aerosmith: By the mid-1980s, Aerosmith were back on top with the help of Run-DMC dusting off their ages-old "Walk This Way" tune. From there, they were on their own. Well, not exactly. Professional songwriters were brought in to help the group write something people would sing in arenas the world over and it worked. "Dude (Looks Like A Lady)," "Angel" and "Rag Doll" all charted and proved that Desmond Child, who co-wrote two of the three, was one of the 1980s most successful artists without leaving his office.

15) The Cure: You'd think the hair and lipstick would've made them a shoo-in. But they were sent over to the 120 Minutes program with the rest of the decent bands. Alternative fans were so appreciative. They'd gladly stay up or -- better yet -- tape the show and watch it all week long, pretending that these bands were more popular than they actually were. But like all things revisionist, The Cure are now still hugely popular while who gives a crap about most of the bands on this list?

14) Winger: Sure, Beavis and Butthead made fun of these guys and their loser friend wore their T-shirt, but, AHEM, MTV had to play the video in the first place in order for the joke to make any sense. I have a soft spot for bands who are unfairly weighted down with the sins of the many. I mean, there's always...

13) Warrant: It's maintained that "Cherry Pie" is a parody of the outrageous sexism found in heavy metal videos. Fine by me. I mean, I like to have my cake and eat it, too. What's the point of having the cake if you're not going to eat it?

12) Heart: At least they had the hair! Though the video age perverted the images of the many bands who struggled to adapt, Heart actually excelled at polishing up their sound and their look. Ann Wilson has a voice that can move mountains and that's all that matters in the end. Had she performed better material with less mannered productions, I would've liked them better, but they likely would be living in their cars.

11) A-ha: They won six MTV Video Music Awards for "Take On Me," a video that MTV played enough times to give them an award. The band is the most successful band to come from Norway, which might be why the country also now has a thriving death-metal scene.

10) The Replacements: The "videos" they made for their 1985 album Tim featured a stirring shot of a stereo speaker. For "Bastards of Young," the speaker is kicked over, while for "Left of the Dial" it is not. MTV didn't care much for them. I can't understand why.

9) Van Halen: If any hard rock/ heavy metal band was going to be a perfect match for MTV in its early "New Wave" days, it was going to be Pasadena's finest. The boys had a big attitude from the beginning and it translated to video without a hitch. Everyone knows David Lee Roth is a natural born ham, but the rest of the band were no slouches.

8) George Michael: George Michael, not the kid on Arrested Development, left Wham!, taking success and money away from Andrew Ridgeley, who has been linked to Bananarama's Keren Woodward. Michael is considered one of the world's best-selling music artists, which is slightly askew against new artists, since no one buys music anymore and money is mostly worthless. Dude, have you seen my bunker?

7) ZZ Top: Knowing they weren't much to look at, the Toppers grew long beards (except Frank Beard) and hired girls to be in their videos that would sneak them past the kids who weren't into "old dude rock" as a rule. Most shocking to learn is that Real Housewife of Orange County Jeana Keough can be seen in the video for the song with the car and the girls…you know? That one.

6) A Flock of Seagulls: It's been said their album was actually very good. But if any one group is said to symbolize the lack of substance of the early MTV movement, it's these exciting-hair boys. Unfair, completely. "I Ran" may be the one song everyone knows them by. But we should all have one song that people love as much as this one.

5) Whitesnake: In his book Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman had the line on Whitesnake, though due to the "family nature" of this blog I can only ruin, so I'll just say it had to do with Tawny Kitean and a car.

4) Duran Duran: I sometimes wonder what the 1980s would've been like had it not been for MTV. Could radio have held on and promoted the likes of Asia until we all surrendered? Or would young people the world over demand something more? Metal always had its devoted army who were used to being ignored, but pop fans thrive on a music's pop-ness. I remember the excitement in a young girl's eye when DD were mentioned. And I remember the scorn of the alternative crowd. Can't we all just get along?

3) Men At Work: What was so interesting about Men At Work's sudden rise was that they weren't particularly camera-ready and their music wasn't particularly new sounding. They were pleasant enough. But then there was room for Huey Lewis and the News during the 1980s and all that hip-to-be-square jive. So, why not? It was a weird decade.

2) Michael Jackson: It's said that Michael Jackson broke the color barrier at MTV. What he really broke were all the rules. He made videos more expensive and detailed than had ever been seen before and he did it with a reliance on old school show business tactics of shock and awe and sharp choreography. Then there was the music, which was a relentless push of hooks and a mix of pop and R&B that proved kids still wanted to dance, despite the continued stiffness of hard rock bands who lost the groove. Absolute power corrupts, however, and Jackson likely would've benefited from being less popular. He might be alive today.

1) Madonna: When Madonna first burst on the scene, she was no Cyndi Lauper. No chance of having much of a career. A flash in the pan. A gimmick. But then she kept changing it up. Her videos were must-see TV and MTV rewrote their standards just for her. She played the video age like a fiddle. Or should I say a drum machine? No one got more mileage out of manipulating an image and no one worked harder at maintaining her edge. She ignored the insults and laughed her way to the bank. Now she's art. Ha ha ha. Go Maddy!