Date: 01 August 1981
Time: 00:01 EST
Place: New York City, NY
Purpose: To play music videos (no, really it was).
Slogan: “I want my MTV!”
VJs: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, JJ Jackson and Martha Quinn
With the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll”, a crunchy guitar riff and footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing (with the US flag replaced by an MTV flag, of course), MTV was born.
Even though only a few thousand people from a single cable channel system in New Jersey saw the initial transmissions, a revolution was started.
The format when MTV began was modeled after a Top 40 radio station. But instead of DJs (disc jockeys), MTV had VJs (video jockeys). The original five eventually became superstar celebrities and were, collectively, the face of the station.
Most of the early videos were very crude and usually consisted of either promotional footage or concert footage of the band. But that didn’t matter. Now you could SEE the music as well as HEAR the music.
Rock, Alternative and New Wave were the flavour of the day. A lot of the bands that made this kind of music and, indeed, some of the biggest bands of the 1980s can attribute their success directly to the amount of airplay they received on MTV in the early part of the decade. But when the president of CBS Records complained about the lack of black artists being played, especially his heavy hitter Michael Jackson, things began to change.
‘Billie Jean’ was the first video by a black artist to be shown and by the end of 1983, when the 14 minute epic ‘Thriller’ was released the entire format was changed from Rock to Pop and R&B.
For the next five years MTV ruled the airwaves. Everyone had it. Everyone wanted more. And everyone talked about the bands being played. It was a great time to be a kid in the ‘know’ and a music fan.
In 1984 the MTV Video Music Awards started. 1986 saw the introduction of the Alternative show ‘120 Minutes’. ‘Headbangers Ball’ started in 1987 and ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ in 1988.
The early 1990s saw the beginning of other shows such as, ‘MTV News’, ‘Club MTV’, ‘Remote Control’, ‘MTV Unplugged’ and ‘Liquid Television’.
Unfortunately, all of these conventional shows, as good as they were, began to take away from the time that videos could be shown. And the demise of the station began.
By the mid-1990s nearly all of the programming was non-music or reality based. MTV still carries on today but now they have had to start several other channels (MTV2, MTV Tr3s, MTV Hits, MTV Jams and mtvU) in order to show any music at all.
But fear not! I am going to take you all the way back to the beginning. This mix includes some of the songs that were played on MTV on 01 August 1981. I must admit a few tears were shed in compiling and mixing this set and lots of memories came flooding back. I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I did creating it.
Shout at the top of your lungs ‘I want my MTV!’ to hear the mix.
Click on each of the track names to see the video.
01. Video Killed The Radio Star – The Buggles
02. You Better Run – Pat Benatar
03. You Better You Bet – The Who
04. We Don’t Talk Anymore – Cliff Richard
05. Brass In Pocket – The Pretenders
06. Take It On The Run – REO Speedwagon
07. Just Between You & Me – April Wine
08. In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins
09. I Wanna Be A Lifeguard – Blotto
10. Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello
11. Tusk – Fleetwood Mac
12. Rapture – Blondie
13. Ashes To Ashes – David Bowie
14. Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads
15. Cruel To Be Kind – Nick Lowe
16. Kiss On My List – Hall & Oates
17. Da Ya Think I’m Sexy – Rod Stewart
18. While You See A Chance – Steve Winwood
Video Killed The Radio Star
This was the beginning. Ground zero. The video that started it all. At 00:01 on 01 August 1981, MTV aired this video and ushered in a new era in music. Ironically, it was also the one millionth video that MTV played nearly twenty years later on 27 February 2000.
The tune was originally released on the LP ‘The Age Of Plastic’ in September 1979 and it became the first Number 1 song for the Island label in the UK.
The band featured Trevor Horn, who had previously been in Yes and would go on to be a highly respected producer, working with numerous Dance acts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
You Better Run – Pat Benatar
This was the second video that MTV ever played and it highlights their early fondness for Rock music.
The song is from Benatar’s second album titled ‘Crimes Of Passion’, which featured her biggest single, ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’. The album spent more than 90 weeks in the Billboard Album charts, including a month at Number 2, and earned her a Grammy for ‘Best Female Rock Vocal Performance’.
You Better You Bet
This song is from ‘Face Dances’ and was the Who’s last crack into the Billboard Top 20 singles.
The video was shot in black and white for ‘artistic’ reasons and featured the band performing on stage.
We Don’t Talk Anymore – Cliff Richard
This song marked a big comeback for Cliff Richard and was his biggest selling single worldwide. The single was released just before his 40th birthday and before the announcement that he was to receive the OBE for services to music.
It was Number 1 for four weeks in the UK in August of 1979, Number 1 in Germany for five weeks and peaked at Number 7 in the Billboard Singles chart in America.
Brass In Pocket – The Pretenders
This was the breakthrough hit for Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, even though Hynde didn’t like the song after it was recorded and didn’t want to release it.
The title was lifted from an expression that Hynde overheard someone from a support band say one day when he was trying to find his money.
The video was cheesy enough and featured Hynde as a waitress serving ‘specials’ to three gentlemen (the rest of the band) in a cafe.
Take It On The Run – REO Speedwagon
The band who took their name from a flatbed truck, used the initials (REO) of the founder of Oldsmobile and are renowned for their ‘power’ ballads also got a shout out on the first day that MTV hit the airwaves.
‘Take It On The Run’ was from the album ‘Hi Infidelity’ that spent three months at Number 1 in 1980 and 1981.
Just Between You And Me – April Wine
This tune was played on MTV’s first day of broadcasting and owns the distinction of being the first video by a Canadian band to be played. It was also the first video that the station repeated (most likely when they ran out of videos to show).
In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins
Released in January of 1981, ‘In The Air Tonight’ was Phil Collins’ first solo single. It was atmospheric. It was menacing. And it was big.
The song was an instant hit. It has been used in numerous advertisements through the years as well as featuring in the pilot episode of ‘Miami Vice’.
I Wanna Be A Lifeguard – Blotto
These guys were quirky. Really quirky. They were:
Cheese BlottoLee Harvey Blotto
There was also (at different times throughout the years)
Scott Blott (the only one without an ‘o’)
Juan Pablo Blotto
They formed in Albany, New York and always did their best to combine music and humor. Not always in equal parts though.
The band rose from the ashes of what was the Star Spangled Washboard Band, a post-hippie, comedy jug band.
They were New Wave. They played and released comical songs. They made a video for this track and MTV loved it, putting into heavy rotation for months after bringing music to the world of television.
Despite some exposure and recognition from the song on MTV, they broke up in 1984 and, thankfully, only ever recorded enough music to fill one CD. It’s called ‘Collected Works’.
Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello
The song that almost got away.
During the recording of ‘Armed Forces’, this song almost got dropped from the album but was rescued after the keyboardist wrote the piano part, which he based loosely on ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba.
Good thing too. The song went all the way to Number 2 in the UK charts.
Tusk – Fleetwood Mac
This album, ‘Tusk’, was the quirky follow-up to the massive LP ‘Rumors’. Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham had discovered ‘New Wave’ music and he convinced the band to be a bit more experimental with their music. He was also allowed to use more creativity in his writing, which resulted in the twenty song double album.
But the critics didn’t like it and neither did the fans. Where ‘Rumours’ had managed to sell over 30 million albums worldwide, ‘Tusk’ could only manage four million. The label saw it as a failure and blamed Buckingham. The band, however, blamed a major radio station for playing the album in it’s entirety prior to the release and allowing people to copy it. Indeed, home taping was killing music.
Rapture – Blondie
‘Rapture’ was a New Wave pop song that featured a Rap section released by Blondie at the beginning of 1981.
It was the third song to feature Rap and place in the charts but it was the first to go all the way to Number 1. Previously, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang and ‘The Breaks’ by Kurtis Blow were the first Rap songs to have some commercial success.
After this single, Blondie took a break but the record made strong headway into the world of Hip Hop. Grand Master Flash used pieces of it in his classic single ‘The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’ and it has been sampled or used as the basis for several other tracks.
Ashes To Ahes – David Bowie
‘Ashes To Ashes’ was a song about space men becoming junkies written in the style of a nursery rhyme. Due to the lyrical content, it is believed to reference Bowie’s previous work including, ‘Space Oddity’ and the album ‘Low’. In his own words, the song “wrapped up the seventies really well.”
The video was one of the most expensive at the time, costing over 250,00 pounds to make. It featured solarised shots, black-and-white shots and Bowie in a Pierrot costume, which made the clip one of the most iconic of the early 1980s.
Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads
This track was released in October 1980 on the album ‘Remain In Light’. It was written by David Byrne and Brian Eno after they heard a preacher speaking on the radio while driving through New York. It’s a song believed to be about a middle age crisis and the inevitable sacrifice of youthful ideals and dreams for more conventional success.
The video features Byrne dancing and moving like a marionette, flinging his arms and tapping his head. It was choreographed by Toni Basil (of the hit song ‘Mickey’ fame) and inspired by footage of people suffering from epilepsy.
The video is another that was on heavy rotation for many months on MTV and was also on exhibition in the New York Museum of Modern Art for a period of time.
Cruel To Be Kind – Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe doesn’t mind change.
He was once referred to as ‘Basher‘ because of his rough and ready aesthetic and approach to production.
He began his recording career in the mid 1960s playing Country and Blues Rock. Then he switched to ironic Pop and animated Rock in the mid 1970s.
This track was released in 1979 – the same year that he married Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash). It was part of another transition into more mainstream Pop music.
Then he became a millionaire in the 1990s. ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding’ was covered on the soundtrack to ‘The Bodyguard’. The album sold 15 million copies and since Lowe wrote that song, he received a lot of money in royalties.
In his own words, Lowe said that his greatest fear was, “sticking with what you did when you were famous”. In an effort to avoid that, he continues recording today and still incorporates different kinds of music into his sound.
Kiss On My List – Hall & Oates
Daryl Hall and John Oates began their recording career in 1972 with the album ‘Whole Oats’. It flopped. So did their second and third albums. The problem was they couldn’t settle on a particular style or sound and jumped from Folk to Soul to Rock to Pop and back again.
However, the song ‘She’s Gone’ did appear on their second album and, despite any real sales, received a lot of airplay on the radio.
Their fourth, self-titled album contained ‘Sara Smile’ and that was a Top Ten hit for them. Things began to change and they had more hits in the following two years.
Then, in 1978 they hit a wall. They struggled for two years with producers and musicians who didn’t understand their musical tastes and visions. So, they ditched LA, moved to New York, started producing their own records and recorded the album ‘Voices’ in Electric Lady Studios. It was a massive hit.
‘Kiss On My List’ went all the way to Number 1 in April of 1981 and they never looked back from there. By 1984, the Recording Industry Association Of America declared them as “the most successful duo in the history of recorded music”.
Da Ya Think I’m Sexy – Rod Stewart
In the late 1970s, everyone jumped on the Disco bandwagon. Even Rod Stewart. But not without controversy.
His Disco song ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ angered Brazilian musician Jorge Ben because he claimed that it was derived from his song ‘Taj Mahal‘. He filed a lawsuit and Stewart agreed to donate all the royalties from the song to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Stewart was also slated by the Rock press for ‘selling out’ and betraying his Blues-oriented Rock roots. But the song was a huge hit. It spent one week at Number 1 in the UK and four weeks at the top spot in the Billboard charts in America. And MTV played the video more than most others in the early days.
While You See A Chance – Steve Winwood
The 1980 album ‘Arc Of A Diver’ produced this breakthrough hit song for Steve Winwood and made him a successful, viable solo artist.
It was another heavily played video that reflected MTV’s early affinity to Rock and Pop music.