The Launch of MTV: "People's 'Feel-Good Hub'"

The Launch of MTV: "People's 'Feel-Good Hub'"

By Greg Prato

Jul. 27, 2022

It's hard to believe that on August 1st, 41 years will have passed since the initial launch of MTV in the US. And while the Cable channel would eventually become immensely popular and influential, initially, it wasn't. In fact, for the first year it was only shown in a very limited amount of markets (with it not even being available in New York City – where the channel was based – until long after its launch).

But once it finally made its way into most homes, the shift in the music industry was glaringly apparent (and proved long-lasting) – MTV was now the leading tastemaker concerning introducing new artists and promoting already-established ones, plus providing up-to-the-minute news, tour dates, and eventually, would influence fashion, advertising, and even politics.

To mark this anniversary, below are excerpts from one of my books, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, which details the channel's initial launch, its immensely catchy theme song (played at the top of each hour), and its slow build to success.

JONATHAN ELIAS [Co-writer of MTV's theme song]: That was written exclusively for the MTV theme. There were a lot of things John [Petersen] and I were writing for the MTV theme at the time. Some I wrote on my own, and some I wrote with him. They were ten, twelve-second small pieces. So for a couple of weeks, we were just writing a bunch of things, throwing them against the wall. This was something that was pre-scored. We hadn't gotten the film of the moon landing yet. And frankly, I wouldn't have known how to synch it up back then, anyway. I didn't even have a 24-track back then. I think I was working off of a half-inch TASCAM deck. We went into this cheap little studio with a couple of friends and just knocked out a bunch of these things. They weren't polished studio players ... we weren't polished studio players, John and I.

We didn't make enough money to pay anyone. All the guys got 50 bucks or 100 bucks to play it. There was no money involved in this, because none of us thought it was going to amount to anything. I think in those days, they were paying a thousand dollars a logo. You get a writer's share [each time the song is played], which has been extremely lucrative over the years. It was funny getting a thousand dollars ... and becoming an icon. But it gave you instant credibility in the commercial market, which is what I went on to do, and becoming a rock producer. One of the bands I produced later was Yes, who were old burnouts, even they knew the MTV stuff. No one knew it would become an icon, especially me. I think we all were like, "Wow, a thousand dollars!" In those days, a bunch of us were living in a loft in Manhattan on 17th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, which was the costume jewelry district. It was no man's land when I was there, '80/'81. It was unexpected, and like a lot of things you do in your career, some things stick, and some don't.

BOB PITTMAN [MTV CEO]: If you go back to the early promos, it was all about attitude. "Don't watch that. Watch this!" It was all sort of parodying other TV and MTV. Visually, the guy I hired to be the head of the on-air look was Fred Seibert, who I hired from radio. And one of Fred's great contributions was, before MTV, everybody cut their video first, and then they rolled music under it. Fred and his guys cut the audio track first and then cut the video to the beat of the music. Now, that would seem pretty basic today, but believe it or not, it wasn't back then.

Back then, everyone was doing the sort of Star Wars logos—big chrome logos coming out of a star-field, starting small and becoming big—and we didn't have the money to do any of that. So Fred was the one who said, "Instead of trying to do a cheap version of what everybody else does, why don't we come up with a whole new style that we can do cheaply, but because there is no point of reference, we'll never look cheap. We'll look innovative." And, indeed, we were. We broke all the rules at the time of design—logos can't change, they have to stay in the same position, the colors can't mutate. And we changed the logo color all the time, moved the logo all the time. It was animated. Completely new approach, and people picked up on that as an approach.

ALAN HUNTER [MTV VJ]: When it came time for the actual launch, we all got into a bus in Manhattan—because they didn't have it in Manhattan—and we had to go out to a little restaurant/bar out in New Jersey [The Loft] to watch the actual kick-off. So we got in this bus, we got totted out there, [and] there were hundreds of MTV employers and family members. My heart racing a mile a minute. We had all been drinking pretty heavily the whole night long, and we had to wait until 12:01/midnight. And at that point, the rocket blasted off, and it was drop-dead silence in the room. The guy said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is rock n' roll," or whatever the line was. The rocket blasted off.

The funny thing was the order we were to appear on camera was I think Mark, Nina, JJ, Martha, and then me. I was supposed to be the last guy. But the people out at the technical center in Long Island that do the uploading of all the video footage—that literally load the tapes into the machines— they loaded the tapes backwards, so I was the first one to come on! That's the trivia question, "Who was the first VJ on MTV?" That would be me, but it was supposed to be Mark Goodman. So after the Buggles came on [the first-ever video played on MTV was the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"], we all just looked at each other and said, "Holy shit! This might just get big ... if we can last." Of course, the next day, we all had to get to work. So that was pretty painful the next day, I'll tell ya.

GEOFF DOWNES [The Buggles, Yes, and Asia keyboardist]: We were told that "Video Killed the Radio Star" was used as the "launch track." I think it was more in hindsight. It was just something that they selected at the time. The impact started to progress as time went by. But nobody knew that this MTV channel was going to be quite significant.

NINA BLACKWOOD [MTV VJ]: It wasn't just the VJs. It was everybody that worked on MTV. The office people, the suits, the crew. And then the time came— that infamous rocket—that still gives me butterflies in my stomach. When that rocket went off, we were just ... I've never experienced everything like that. It was like a collective baby being born. There were tears, hugs, screaming, just such amazing energy. It was just an "Oh my God ... it's real!" feeling.

ALAN HUNTER: The other interesting thing about the channel that a lot people didn't understand is we didn't have any commercials the first year. MTV was literally not selling any ad space, because no one wanted to buy. The filler was stock footage of astronauts floating in space. And people thought that was great. "Wow, no commercials, and this interstitial material of cool graphics and just space people." And then about a year into it, when we started selling ads, people would come up to us in the streets and say, "MTV is selling out." I'm just like, "No ... they're just trying to make my salary!"

I don't know what the others were making. I won't quote a figure, but my only criteria for a good job was to get as much money as a good chorus boy makes on Broadway. That was my dream. I lived in an apartment on 55th and Broadway. I used to look out down Broadway and dream about being on Broadway some day. I wanted to be in musical theater. If I could just make 550 bucks a week, which was the going union rate for an equity actor, that would be just great. If I could make that, I'm home free. I made better than that. But I was not getting rich on MTV for the first year or two. I renegotiated my contract with them a year into it. We extended things, and I started doing a lot better. But I'll tell you ... we were like the early sports stars. We played hard, we got a lot of fame, and we started the whole business of MTV. But we did not enjoy huge salaries.

NINA BLACKWOOD: We didn't have a whole lot of videos. I think the number was about 300. I seem to remember around that number. Which, when you're running a 24-hour video channel, you burn through those pretty quickly. I remember a lot of Rod Stewart, Pat Benatar, the Buggles, Nick Lowe, Carlene Carter, Aldo Nova, Iron Maiden, Lene Lovich. [Lovich] was one of the first people I ever saw a video of, and I just loved her. I think we were playing Blondie at the beginning, "Heart of Glass." When we play one of the songs that we played back then on Sirius, it just all comes flooding back.

ALAN HUNTER: Everybody else had dropped whatever job they had, but I kept my bartending job a month or two into the gig. I literally went and taped the show during the day, and then I'd go to a place called the Magic Pan—it was on 57th and Sixth Avenue—and I had a nighttime bartending job. I didn't let go of it in the beginning. I don't know why. I just thought, "We'll see how this MTV thing works out." So about maybe two months into it, I was mixing a daiquiri, and this guy was sitting at the bar, two sheets to the wind, looking at me. He said, "You look familiar," and it still didn't dawn on me. He said, "Aren't you 'Mark somebody,' on this music channel?" And it dawned on me that he was talking about the gig I was doing during the day. I corrected him, and said, "No, I'm Alan Hunter." Pretty much, the next day or two, I put my notice in and quit the job, because I thought, "I don't want to be here making drinks while people are checking me out." It was kind of hard to let go of that gig. I was going to be an actor, if not a TV host, so for me, I took a diversion in my career. I think I made the right choice.

KATHY VALENTINE [The Go-Go's bassist]: What stands out a lot to me is MTV used to throw these big parties, New Year's parties. It was a big deal. For a few years, it was just the highlight of the year. They were amazing, great parties. There was one in New York that was really cool. I remember being there with John Belushi. I just remember getting a message at my hotel [from Belushi]—"Are we on for tonight?"—and going together.

ROBIN ZORN [MTV producer]: My favorite New Year's of my entire life was the first New Year's concert. I was an associate producer in the truck, and I remember, at one point, people said, "Robin, go out there and see who's there." It was the first time we did a New Year's show. We didn't know if we would get anybody there. And I remember I walked outside, and John Belushi was just stoned out of his mind, sitting at a table with his head on the table. I was all excited, like, "John Belushi's here!" And, of course, he was stoned, and we couldn't even get him on camera.

Also about that first New Year's show, I was responsible for keeping us on track time-wise. We had to hit four midnights. The first midnight was right on, the second midnight was a little off, and the third and fourth we weren't even close to being midnight. Again, it was MTV, so we just had the VJs announce that it was midnight. That was very typical for us. We were way off, and yet, we were on the air going, "Yeah, Happy New Year, it's midnight out there on the west coast," and meanwhile, it wasn't midnight. We just flew by the seat of our pants.

ALAN HUNTER: MTV filled a huge void. And it was unlike all those other programs. It was on as people's "friendly company," at all hours of the night, for college dorms or housewives in the morning. That was people's "feel-good hub."

Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor. MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video tells the complete story of the channel's formative era, and is available as paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and audio versions.

MTV Book