I Want My MTV, 30 Years Later

I know it’s hard to believe now, but MTV used to be cool, or at least interesting. Back at the beginning, when there weren’t a lot of videos, they had to play what they got. They had Pete Townshend and Sting (before he was a total prat) doing commercials. They ran Velvet Underground outtakes and local NYC bands and anything, at all, that they could run to fill the time and space. They had “VJ’s” (instead of DJ, get it?) that actually knew something about music. Martha Quinn used to be a dj at WNYU back when that was my outpost to hear about new music, driving home from my after-school job at the medical records department at the HMO. There was 120 Minutes and The Cutting Edge – both of which you would plan your week around, even if you had figured out how to program your VCR – and the old 60’s videos from Beat Club. There was plenty of crap, to be sure, but there was always something worth watching, something worth talking about.

Everyone I knew had a blank VHS tape on top of their televisions (or better yet, in the VCR) just so that when MTV played something cool you could fly across the room and shove the tape into the machine as quickly as possible. This, of course, rarely worked, so you’d record a video three or four times to try to get as much of it as you could, in different pieces. When a new video came out, you would sit there with the TV on, just waiting, hoping you could guess when it would be, that they might announce it, so you could get the tape into the machine and hit RECORD in time. I once was responsible for the dog eating the chicken that was supposed to be for dinner because I needed to see the “Dancing In The Dark” video premiere, and sat there transfixed in the living room while the dog pulled the plate down off the kitchen table and slurped it right up.

It wasn’t until I moved to Hoboken in 1985 that I actually had MTV at home. The thing everyone forgets is that at the beginning, only people in Manhattan could get MTV, even if you called your cable company and asked for it, just like Pete and Sting and Pat and Adam told you to do. Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island – all SOL. I used to go up to Connecticut and camp out for the weekend if I needed to see something, VHS tapes in tow. (I had convinced my parents to buy the family a VCR for Chanukah back when I was in high school, mostly because I wanted to be able to tape “Friday Night Videos” or “Night Flight”. I STILL HAVE A LOT OF THESE TAPES.) I took over the TV room at my parents’ house in order to watch MTV the Saturday of Live Aid, along with a stack of brand-new VHS tapes.

I remember the weekend MTV ran the entire Monkees series from end to end. People were standing around Maxwell’s, looking at their watches nervously: “I gotta get home and change the tape,” and everyone knew what they were talking about. No one made up excuses or pretended they were going home for any other reason. There was some snobbery over the people taping at EP vs those taping at SP. I lived at Second and Adams and could have taped at SP and still seen whoever was playing that night in the back room, but was too broke at the time to dedicate that many tapes to the Monkees. (That was when a brick of high-quality VHS tapes was considered a thoughtful gift for any occasion.)

And then, of course, it changed, like everything changes, when there’s a chance to monetize and synergize and reach for the low-hanging fruit and all of that. “Rock the Casbah,” which was amazing back in the day, seems so incredibly low rent for a band on a major – an indie label wouldn’t make a video that looked like that now. MTV played it at least once an hour, and at one point I owned a stuffed armadillo I got as a birthday present because of that video. (Go find it on YouTube. I’ll wait.)

I write about all of this, and remember when it felt like you were part of this secret club – I would call my friends when a particularly good or rare video was on! – and it seems so quaint and old-fashioned in a horse-and-buggy way in the age of YouTube and instant gratification. It was this tiny blip in time that changed so much about music and promotion and marketing and the way people looked at and found out about music.