That's My Jam: MTV Did Not Help You

The story goes that the idea for MTV originated with a bunch of New York radio guys looking to expand their market. They had a bunch of songs/videos gathered that they wanted to share with the world -- but the bands they were featuring weren't considered popular enough to play on regular radio.

So with the help of some programming executives looking to find a way to make cable TV a profitable investment they launched what they essentially envisioned as a "radio station on TV" -- where music would constantly play, interrupted only occasionally by "VJ's" who would provide interesting facts about whatever artist's song had just played and help add a "face" to the thing.
As everyone knows -- the first song ever played on the network was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles.
But what I find most interesting about the history of the thing was the way "radio mentality" almost killed MTV.
See, the problem with radio guys is that they usually only see what's directly in front of them. They know what they think their audience likes, so they'll just keep doing that one thing over and over until that audience either grows too old for their advertisers to care about or the whole thing just runs out of gas and plummets to the ground like a plane crash. In the mind of most radio station executives -- if you start up a Pop/Rock station, build it into a local favorite, make a bunch of advertising revenue, give away a bunch of bumper stickers and beer coozies, and then either shut it down or sell the whole thing off to Clear Channel at a modest loss once the ratings start falling off, it's considered a "good run."
Early-era MTV was filled with guys like that.
They played the bands they liked and ignored the ones they didn't -- claiming that they didn't fit the "image" the network was trying to project. And much like the classic rock station that played Bob Seger and Beatles tunes in the day to pay the bills and then snuck in entire B-sides of Zeppelin and Metallica late at night, as long as the ads were getting sold and the Arbitron books confirmed that they were hitting their numbers -- they'd just keep running the thing until the spark went out and then move on to the next number on the dial, just like they'd always done before.
The only problem is -- MTV isn't a radio station.
One of my favorite stories from this period in the network's history is when they brought David Bowie in one day to do an interview, and VJ Mark Goodman sat down with him and essentially said, "Thanks for coming in today and answering a few questions for us today, David," at which point a clearly pissed-off David Bowie jammed a finger in Goodman's face and all but shouted back,
"Actually, I've got a question for YOU -- Why don't you
ever feature any videos by black artists on this network?"
Depending on what source you trust, there are many different explanations as to why MTV was essentially lily-white during it's first few years -- the most popular being the "We were just playing the songs we liked, and most of those artists were rock and roll and new wave bands made up of white kids. It wasn't an intentional slight, it was just the way we'd always worked when we were in radio" defense.

None of which explains why at one point executives at CBS Records had to basically threaten to pull all of their videos off the station unless MTV started playing songs by urban artists.
A few months later MTV aired Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean" -- and we all know what happened after that.
The odd thing about it is that at one point it was run sort of a pirate radio station. Hardly anyone knew who the Buggles were before MTV showed them to us. Sure, it might have all been part of some larger corporate scheme -- but MTV introduced a lot of us to music we might have otherwise never heard. Most frequently in the forms of scene-specific programming blocks like Headbangers Ball, 120 Minutes, and Yo MTV Raps. Places that for many of us opened the doors to genres and artists we then delved deeper into on our own, especially as the network veered more and more openly corporate over the years.

The interesting side effect of all this is that there were several bands out there that MTV's original myopic view were clearly intended to be helpful to who not only didn't benefit from the added exposure that the network provided, but in some ways possibly found themselves hurt by the addition of a medium that enabled listeners to see the faces of the people behind the songs.

One of my favorite of these is Aldo Nova -- a Canadian quartet most famous for the song "Fantasy." For those of you who might be too young to remember, this song owned on the radio. People loved the hell out of it. And why not? -- It's got huge guitars, a catchy hook, and a chorus that just begs to be sung out loud over and over with any and everybody at the bar who's listening to it.

In fact, it's a huge mystery to me why this song isn't among the many classic rock anthems that have sort of enjoyed resurgence as a result of the whole Guitar Hero video game craze. Seriously, if there was ever a tune custom-made for that game, this is it -- but as far as I can tell it's not on there.

Who knows, maybe there's a Canadian version of the game you can only get north of the border that features levels where you can only jam along to tracks by Rush, Triumph, Saga, Honeymoon Suite, and April Wine. But short of that, this in particular seems to be a song that is slowly fading into the background,
..And I for one can't help but wonder if the video is one of the reasons why:
OK, let’s forget for a moment the inexplicable opening sequence with the Uzi-toting guards and the nerdy guy "protecting" the guitar. Lets move past the presence of a working helicopter that surely sucked up all the working budget for the video, thereby requiring the less-than-convincing special effects used to represent the LASER BEAM COMING OUT OF THE GUITAR THAT IS USED TO OPEN THE DOOR OF THE WAREHOUSE, and let's just move right to the heart of the problem, shall we?
If you're in a band where one guy wants to wear a leopard-skin spandex
jumpsuit, then either you ALL HAVE TO WEAR THEM or no one can.
Seriously, is there anything that kills the rock and roll authenticity of this whole video more than the fact that the guy with the moon boots and the guitar that shoots frikkin' laser beams is being backed up by what appears to be a bunch of bank tellers?

I can just picture the scene in the dressing room -- everyone standing there with their arms crossed while an angry Aldo Caporuscio demanded to know where everyone else's leopard-skin suits were.
"Well, the guys and I had a meeting -- and we decided that we're not going to wear them anymore."
"But why!? They look great!"
"No man-- They look stupid."
"The songs about living a Rock and Roll fantasy life! How are we supposed to portray that if you're going out there in button-down shirts!?"
"Hey, we're ready to rock the song, but we just don't know, feel good about the spandex anymore."
"Don't you think it's gonna look a little weird if I'm the only one with one on?"
"That's just it, Aldo -- we were all kinda hoping that maybe you'd go without it, too. At least for the video shoot, you know?"
"Go without it!? Are you crazy? I'm Aldo effing Nova -- Where I go, the spandex goes!"
"Well yeah, but.."
"But nothing! I'm WEARING this. You losers do what you want."
"Come on man, don't be that way."
"You'll see. You'll ALL see. When this video shoot is over, people are going to wanna know where all the rock stars are -- and they're not going to mean you guys. They're going to be looking for the leopard man."
You laugh now -- but do you want to know what the scariest part of this whole thing is?
In the very next video the band put out in support of a song called "Monkey on Your Back" –-
..They’re all wearing matching jumpsuits.
[Listening to:  Jerry Reed - "Amos Moses" ]


Hex said…
It should be noted that while financially he's done well for himself, Aldo Nova's current Rock and Roll fantasy life involves writing songs and producing albums for artists like Celine Dion and Clay Aiken.

I guess that guitar that shoots lasers was able to open up a few doors for him after all..
Adam said…
I've always felt that the early criticisms of MTV re black artists were a bit unfair. Sure, they didn't play a lot of 'black' music (but they DID play some), but that was back when MTV was more of a rock station anyway. Back in the days before the sort of cross-pollination that you have today. It's easy for people to think of rock and r&b and hip hop and whatever as being part of the pop music continuum today, but back in the early 80s, things were far more segregated. And I think that MTV played to its main audience at first. It just turns out that they got smart and started playing playing to a wider audience and reaped the benefits of it.

On a side note, I wish JJ Jackson or whoever would've told David Bowie to fuck off and ask him when he was going to quit ripping off black artists like some sort of po-mo minstrel show or something (not to say that Young Americans is a bad album or anything).

On a totally different (yet maybe related note) I love watching those old videos, because it's funny to think of all the artists that would never have made it in today's day because they were so damn UGLY. I'm amazed Journey or REO Speedwagon even managed to get a hit or two during those early MTV years. Video didn't kill the radio star, video killed the star with a face for radio.
wigsf said…
You should reconsider the title of this post. Maybe I'm being a little myopic but I think a more appropriate title should be "Hey Vinny, READ THIS! It's your fucking mantra!"

First of all, you got some music history. Then you mention Bowie and Bowie doing good. Then you include a fucking Aldo Nova music video. Then you say there should be a Canadian Guitar Hero game. (Okay, I'm a Rock Band guy, but it's the same thing.) I've been secretly begging for a Can-Con edition of Rock Band. I needs me some more Rush. April Wine, oh yeah! If there's any band made for Guitar Hero, it's Bachman Turner Overdrive! Gotta throw some Loverboy in there too. Three words for ya: turn, me, loose.
(I don't know if Saga would work well. There might be too many keyboards. I've found the keyboard heavy songs just aren't fun to play.) And some newer, more recent stuff as well could find it's way onto the game, not just the classic stuff. Broken Social Scene is newish and popularish (although that stuff is awfully boring for Rock Band, there is a bunch of similar type stuff in the game already), Big Wreck has got some big ass guitars, some I Mother Earth, Tea Party and Our Lady Peace (yeah, Canadian music in the current decade really sucks donkey balls so I focused on the '90s).
The only problem I see with the Can-Con Guitar Hero is there is bound to be some N********k on it. And in which case, I would refuse to play it just for that reason.

And Aldo Nova has also worked with Jon Bon Jovi (from New Jersey) on JBJ's solo stuff. Basically, when Richie Sambuca is unavailable, Aldo fills the void. He's also written for Faith Hill. And no, Aldo Nova is not related to me. I just have a weird obsession with him, 'kay.

I heard this one story about early MTV. The producers decided they wanted to interview the guy who directed one of their more popular videos (no idea which video) so they booked a time for him to come in. The guy showed up and he was black. They didn't believe he was the real guy.

Oh, thought of another downside to the Can-Con Guitar Hero. There would have to be some French-Canadian content on it as well. Don't know if you've ever heard French-Canadian music, but when I say Men Without Hats is the best band to ever come from La Belle Provence, I mean it. We let them keep their culture, which apparently doesn't understand music. Not one little bit.
Adam (again) said…
Was Aldo Nova one of those bands that confusingly was also the name of the lead singer, like Sade or PJ Harvey?

I always loved this song, and really liked 'Monkey on your Back.' It is a lost classic, and is a pretty perfect example of the kind of music that Americans listened to in the early 80s. So many people only seem to remember A Flock of Seagulls and stuff like that, but this is what was on the radio. (Along with .38 Special!)
Hex said…
Hex -- commenting on your own posts again? Whatsupwitdat?

Adam -- One of the reasons I find this whole thing fascinating is that there isn't just one definitive story. Probably because MTV is still viable and many of the people involved are still alive and actively managing their images -- there are a bunch of different stories/accounts of early MTV's perceieved racial bias. Some people say they just did what they liked and it ended up being sort of inadvertently exclusive, and others claim that companies like CBS were leaning hard on them to get an upper hand with the network to push their pop artists (like Michael Jackson) and further tighten their hold on the market.

My contention is that MTV was sort of like a pirate radio station when it started, helping to create in it's own way a new stream of pop music that was different from the radio, but it could have easily done that with the inclusion of a wider variety of ethnic music and styles.

Unfortunatley it eventually kneeled to the pressure and the stacks of money that the record companies were offering, and now it's the Brittney Spears/Heidi Montag/Loren Conrad network.

Frank Zappa used to have a quote about Rock and Roll being the best way for ugly guys to get laid. And you're right -- MTV kinda screwed that up.

WIGSF -- First of all, Love Love Love me some Big Wreck. Highly underrated band.

Also, how could we both totally nerd out about Canada-Rock and forget classic rock staple (and one-time employer of mine) Pat Travers?

ps - I don't know much about French Canadian music, other than the fact that Voivod fucking rocks. So if anything else that from those pea soup eaters sounds like that, I'm cool with it.

Adam II -- The lead singer does call himself Aldo Nova. But in my mind, that doesn't put him anywhere near the same neighborhood as Sade.

But you're right, this song was all over radio when I was a kid. This, Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo" and Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein"

And if you want to talk about guys who are waaaay two fugly for TV, Edgar Winter's albino mug should basically be at the top of ALL those lists.
Heff said…
Oh, Yeah....MTV use to play music videos !....I had almost forgotten. Thanks for the Aldo Nova. I hadn't heard that song in Ages. I remembered the "lazer to the door", but not much else about the vid.
wigsf said…
You wanna know something really scary? I gotta read a blog by some guy in Florida to find discourse about Canadian music.

And the guy from Big Wreck went solo and got all N********k'd up. Sucks donkey balls now. Not that I was ever a big fan but that we-wish-we-were-Led-Zeppelin album has its moments. Shit, what's it called? The Pleasure & the Greed probably. I'm too lazy to go downstairs and actually look at the CD.

OOOHHH! And Guitar Hero needs The Lovercall, baby!
Jaeme said…
I loved MTV when it first came out. My favorite video was the one by Quarterflash. She's in a leotard running through a wood paneled trailer, and for some reason there are fire jugglers.

I think it was a requirement that at least one person had to suck it up and wear the leotard in those early videos.