Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments: The infancy of MTV

For a span of about 18 months, two years tops, MTV wasn’t just the best thing in the history of television. It was the best thing in the history of civilization, ranking just ahead of Coen Brothers films and coconut Jelly Bellies. Then music biz heavy hitters (see, e.g., Jackson, Michael; Joel, Billy) discovered how to exploit it, and it fell to the level of Tuna Helper. By the time Road Rules came around, well, it was still better than genital warts, though not by much.

But back in those earliest days, as Mark Goodman and Nina Blackwood trumpeted the power of the mystical “stereo TV hookup,” it was a path to higher consciousness, operating on a simple premise: if you make a video for your rock and roll song and give it to us for free, we will play it. And with the industry establishment demonstrating its typical foresight – “video, meh, there’s no future in that” – much of the airtime fell to acts that couldn’t get arrested on American radio, including heavyweights like Squeeze, XTC and Elvis Costello, and fleeting curiosities like Ph. D and Robin Lane and the Chartbusters. And though you had to wade through the odd Cliff Richard video or the collected works of Triumph to get there, you were occasionally treated to the harrowing tale of roly poly fish heads.

If you were of a certain age, and I mean a really particular age – born in 1968, say between February and July – this was more revolutionary than I can possibly convey. Old enough to be aware, yet too young to have hipster prejudices, I sat transfixed before the tube at a time before internet and round-the-clock media. MTV was the first instantaneous portal to culture outside the norm, and with its arty, rebellious leanings, it conveyed a rather innocent air of decadence. “That MTV is sick,” my buddy Kurt’s mom once ruefully intoned. “Yes it is, Mrs. H,” we replied with smiles, “yes it is.”

The MTV of 1981 and 82 was where I first learned that there was something better than – or at least different from – the codified orthodoxy of Journey-Styx-Supertramp (bands, for the record, that also appeared thanks to no-budget performance clips). It’s where I first pledged that I would one day marry Martha Quinn (MJQ, if you’re out there, call me). And it’s where I discovered that a new wave of bands could fulfill and delight me as much or more than I ever could have imagined.

Here are a few favorites of the era:

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