First, on August 1, 1981, an event happened that changed and defined music for the next 15 years. That was when MTV debuted. There had been attempts at music video channels before. There was the Now Explosion in Atlanta in 1970, some record stores had one piped into their stores called Music Video TV. Shows like Soul Train, Top of the Pops, and American Bandstand occasionally used music videos during their shows. Plus, there was Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, which used music videos and concert footage.
However, it was a guy named Robert Pittman, who at that time was a Warner Brothers media executive, who decided to give the idea of a video version of a radio station a national rollout. His boss John Lack had tested the idea and based it on a show in New Zealand called Radio With Channels. They decided to give it a go and on August 1, 1981, MTV debuted.
The long opening was of a space shuttle countdown, followed by the shuttle taking off and a photo of Neil Armstrong holding an MTV flag, followed by an animated MTV logo. A 30 second version of that opening, sometimes with a Saturn 5 rocket, ran at the top of every hour, with the video jockeys or VJs telling you what was coming up in that hour.
Fun facts about the opening. The first words said on the network were said during the original opening. There were “ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll”. They were said by John Lack. The space shuttle part of the opening was discontinued in 1986 due to the space shuttle Challenger disaster. The first video played on the channel was the prophetic Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles. The first female singer on the channel was also the second video played overall on the channel. That was Pat Benatar with You Better Run. The first VJ shown on the channel was Mark Goodman, who now does an 80s streaming station on Sirius XM satellite radio.
There were a few problems with the channel at first. The first was distribution. Not many people had cable. In fact, my neighborhood didn’t get cable until 1983. The second was that there were extremely few minority artists being played. More on that in the second segment of the podcast.
The third was that there weren’t that many artists making records; at least, not American artists. Instead, MTV started playing British artists, who had been making music videos for years, due to Top of the Pops. Since that was all MTV had to play, they played them pretty much nonstop. Thing was, people liked what they heard and went to the record stores to buy the singles and albums. That, in turn, made record labels get radio stations to play the music and THAT is how new wave music became a thing.
What was the influence of MTV? Well, for starters, video did kill the radio star. Before, it didn’t really matter what you looked like because people were hearing your music. After, image became everything. A lot of bands became road kill in the video era, while a lot of bands who would have never had made it vig became huge stars.
It also didn’t end with record sales; it affected televison in general. MTV spawned a host of copycats; most noticeably, a show called Friday Night Videos on NBC, which used to run after the Tonight Show. It also caused the head of NBC tv at the time, Brandon Tartikoff, to famously write on a napkin at a restaurant during a pitch session with a producer that for his next show, he wanted “MTV cops”. That idea became the show Miami Vice.
They also had hit shows of their own. There was a game show called Remote control which had Ken Ober, Colin Quinn, nad Kari Wuhrer and also was one of Adam Sandler’s first shows. There was a dance show called Club MTV with Downtown Julie Brown. Fun fact: before Camille Grammer was on one of those Real Housewives shows as Kelsey Grammer’s ex wife, she danced on Club MTV. There was a dating game show called Singled Out, which was hosted by a pre-Nerdist Chris Hardwick, who was also a VJ back then. That show also made stars out of his co-hosts Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra. There was also the Real World, which started the reality tv craze and who can forget Total Request Live: it’s countdown show (starring Carson Daley, who is now on the Today Show) or Jersey Shore.
I’m not sure what MTV shows now, aside from Teen Wolf and Catfish. However, back in the day, they were on the cutting edge of pop culture and it all started on August 1, 1981.
As an added bonus, even though British music helped propell MTV in the early 1980s, there was still no MTV in Europe. That changed on August 1, 1987 when MTV Europe premiered. The first video played? Appropriately, it was Dire Straits with Money For Nothing, about a guy watching and commenting on music videos. It also had Sting singing the MTV advertising slogan in the chorus, I Want My MTV.
Next, back in the early 1980s, MTV had a racial problem. Because they considered themselves a rock format channel, they rarely played any r and b or dance videos. That also meant that for the most part, they didn’t play any videos with minorities in them. It’s not to say that there weren’t videos or artists available to them, like Tina Turner. The Specials were the 58th video played on the channel but they were a racially mixed band. Plus, they played ska, which was well within MTV’s wheelhouse.The rock format excuse was just MTV’s excuse at the time. Even Mark Goodman gave that excuse to David Bowie during an interview that famously reappeared online and started making the rounds when David Bowie passed away.
That all changed in 1983 when CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff made MTV an offer. Actually, he made a threat. See, he had this artist named Michael Jackson, who had been trying to get his videos played on the channel. If he didn’t get his videos played, Yetnikoff would pull every single video from every artist that CBS had on the channel. Back then, CBS Records was one of the biggest record labels out there and they had a lot of artists on there. MTV relented and they started playing Billie Jean but only after it had hit number one on the Billboard singles chart. Then, Michael Jackson released Beat It, with a now classic video to go along with it. Both he and MTV got a lot of exposure. In fact, it’s often said that Michael Jackson made MTV and MTV made Michael Jackson. I would say that statement is accurate. It was a very symbiotic relationship.
Still, even though they started putting on Black artists, for the most part, they stayed away from one genre of music that was trying to get huge at the time: hip hop. They started to play some rap videos from artists like the Beastie Boys and Run DMC but for the most part, rap was shown on light rotation.
This began to change in 1987. Johnathan Demme’s nephew, director Ted Demme, was a fledgling production assistant for MTV. He and his partner Peter Dougherty approached MTV with an idea. How about a rap show with interviews and music videos? MTV said sure but put it on MTV Europe. After it found some success overseas, Demme and Dougherty were given the green light to do it in America.
The original episode aired on August 6, 1988. The original host was rapper Fab 5 Freddy, who was already a well known name to hip hop and Blondie fans when he was name checked in the rap on the song Rapture. Afterwards, MTV developed a daily and weekend edition. Fab 5 Freddy hosted the weekend edition. For the weekday edition, Demme turned to Doctor Dre (not THE Doctor Dre of NWA fame) and Ed Lover, who was a friend of Demme’s from high school.
The show became a big hit, ran for seven years, and spawned copycats like Rap City and Sucker Free. Most importantly, it helped push hip hop more into the mainstream, due to the fact that by then, MTV had established itself into more homes and more countries. It all started in America on August 6, 1988.
I was going to do a personal birthday greeting this week but for the second week in a row, there’s another important event to cover. However, there are some huge birthdays to still shout out so big happy birthdays go out to Tony Bennett, Fatboy Slim, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Francis Scott Key, Luois Armstrong, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, and Geri Halliwell a.k.a. Giner Spice of the Spice Girls.
Now, on to the third story, which weaves in a little hip hop but not in the way that you might think. Back around 2011 or so, Lin-Manuel Miranda was coming off of a very successful production that he created called In the Heights. The show had gone on to be nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning 4 of them. Of course, when faced with such a greatly successful Broadway show, you’re left wondering how do you possibly top that?
When Lin-Manuel was going on vacation, he picked up a biography in the airport that was written by Ron Chernow called Alexander Hamilton. For some reason known only to creatives like us whose brains work like this, after reading a few chapters, he started picturing Hamilton’s life as a musical and he would give the play and the music a hip hop soundtrack because seriously, who wouldn’t.
Right around that time, then President Obama was doing an evening of poetry at the White House. He invited Lin-Manuel to perform parts of In the Heights. He decided instead to road test parts of his Hamilton project because who wouldn’t want to try something brand new in front of the President of the United States and a national audience? No pressure there.
Turns out, his gamble paid off. The response was overwhelmingly positive; so much so that he decided to continue with the project and flush it out some more. In 2013, he did a workshop where he had most of Hamilton worked out by then. That went well so he finished the musical and started an off Broadway run. He then moved the production to Broadway, where it ran in previews for what seemed like forever, drawing huge word of mouth and on August 6, 2015, after taking in almost $30 million in ticket sales during the preview, Hamilton officially opened on Broadway.
To say that the response was positive would be the understatement of the year. Hamilton broke box office records and has sold out so many performances that even with Lin-Manuel no longer there, I still don’t think that you can get a ticket. It also tied the record for most Tony Award wins.
As far as it’s affect on pop culture and history goes, Hamilton did a lot. First, it helped introduce a couple of generations to a lesser known member of our Founding Fathers. It also made him so popular that when it came time to redesign the $10.00 bill, he was left on it. Second, it helped expand hip hop to the Broadway audience. Hamilton the musical and phenomenon officially premiered on Broadway on August 6, 2015.