I want my, I want my, I want my MTV

imgres-1We LISTEN to music, right?

We turned on the radio.  We played singles, then albums, then 8-tracks and cassettes, eventually CDs.  Now and then, we were treated to seeing our favorite artists perform on “American Bandstand,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Midnight Special,” “Soul Train.”

But on August 1, 1981, that all changed.  Thanks to the latest thing:  Cable TV.  Suddenly, we could see and hear rock music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We could watch MTV.

The notion that there would be an audience for music videos, sent out on some remote cable channel 24 hours a day, was ridiculed at first, just like other “narrowcasting” ideas of cooking channels, fishing channels, Christian channels, History channels, even 24-hour news channels.  “Who will watch this all day and night?” was the question the businessmen asked.

As usual, many of them were clueless to the changing times.  Bob Pittman, one of the executives who helped launch MTV, said, “Frankly, it sounded like an asinine idea.”  MTV was an outlet for a product that barely existed; there were maybe 100 music videos in existence, mostly by unknown British and Australian bands, and the quality was generally abysmal.  Who would care to watch this stuff?

Turns out, teenagers didn’t watch TV much, but they sure were eager to watch this.  They were a great untapped audience, an invisible power.  As my friend Holly put it, “We’d go to our friend’s basement and watch MTV all day long.  It was on in the background, and we didn’t watch it continuously, but whenever a great song came on, we were mesmerized.”

Mike Nesmith, always the most intelligent and innovative of The Monkees, was among the first to recognize the wisdom of marrying music and video into a full-flung cable channel that offered 24/7 music videos.  But it was a tough sell.   “Back in 1979, we put together a pilot with a half-dozen clips — Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” and the like — introduced by comedians like Howie Mandel.  And we were unable to sell it.  The TV guys were resistant.  They said, ‘Music doesn’t work on television.  Never has, and never will.’  And up until then, they were right.  But that was about to change, and in a big way.”

searchWhen The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” debuted as the first-ever video shown on MTV, it ushered in a new age, when songs would be introduced not only aurally, but visually as well.  MTV started out pretty much offering films of bands performing their latest songs in a studio or concert setting.  But within six months, maybe a year, every song that was released as a single had a dramatic, eye-catching accompanying video that MTV could play in their ever-changing rotation.  Songs were no longer audio only.  Now they had a visual component too.

At first, the only videos available were a weird brew of questionable stuff by the likes of Rod Stewart, Devo, Pat Benatar, Men at Work, Andrew Gold and others.  And MTV played them in relentless rotation, because that’s all they had to show.  But it didn’t take long for the record companies and their artists to catch on to this new marketing opportunity.  “Hey, we need to shoot a video of our new song so they’ll play it on MTV!” they said.  And the juggernaut was off and running.

mt-vj-crew-3When MTV first arrived, they realized they needed video jockeys — disc jockeys, but on TV. They needed to have stage presence, well beyond what DJs needed on the radio.  And they needed to appeal to all facets of the potential audience.  As executive John Lack put it at the time, “We need a black person, we need a girl next door, we need a little sexy siren, we need a boy next door, we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair.”

Martha Quinn, the youngest and perhaps most well known of the VJ stars of MTV’s early years, remembers the hiring process.  “I was still involved with my high school boyfriend.  That’s how young I was.  I said, ”What’s a VJ?’   They said, ‘It’s like being a DJ, but on TV.’  I said, ‘What do I do while the records are playing?’  I was thinking it’s like ‘WKRP in Cincinnati.'”

For quite a while, MTV had scant viewership, and little credibility.  But then, they went to Mick Jagger and got him to agree to go on air and say, with a tear running down his cheek, “I want my MTV.”  And once they got Jagger, they got Bowie, and Pat Benatar and countless others, and suddenly, every cable provider in the country was being pressured into offering MTV in their basic cable packages.

MTV was a business, and like any business, they catered to their primary audience which, at first, was white suburban kids whose families could afford cable TV.  So the artists MTV featured were almost exclusively white — New Wave, heavy metal, hard rock — but white.  It was rather extraordinary, really.  There were NO black artists on MTV in 1981-1982-1983, even though R&B and funk music were wildly popular at the time.  And then came Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, and, more specimichael-jackson-beat-it-music-video-michael-jackson-10371211-1047-609fically, “Beat It,” which was rock-oriented and featured the hard-rock guitar work of Eddie Van Halen.  That opened the door.

“I loved watching MTV for the dance videos,” said Audrey, who was 19 when MTV first showed up.  “We would tune in to see the newest ones everyone was talking about.  They were like short musicals, and they held our attention.”

To be frank, I’ve never been a fan of the music video revolution, and here’s why:  When I listen to a song, my imagination takes over, and I go to another place where the lyrics and music take me.  “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for example:  “Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about…”  I don’t need, nor want, some director, some film person, to give me their idea of what that might look like.  I wanted to conjure up that image on my own.

Some bands who didn’t really have all that much to offer still became big because they were fun to look at — artists like A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, Billy Idol and Culture Club.  As producer Rick Rubin put it, “In some ways, MTV hurt music, in that it changed what was expected of an artist.  You started to see artists break who were stronger visually than they were musically.”

My friend Sean, who was 15 when MTV debuted, said, “I loved the diversity and randomness of it.  You never knew what you would see or hear next.  I remember hanging in with music I didn’t really like, not only because something I did like might come on next, but because I was absorbing all the creative imagery.  And there’s no question that MTV’s influence was massive.  Bands like Men Without Hats were suddenly selling CDs in places like Iowa, where the radio stations were never playing them.”

Metal bands like Motley Crue took the ball and ran with it in a different way, using women in a slutty, demeaning manner that turned on some people but alienated many others. “The videos were poppy, and silly, and we got a kick out of them,” said Holly.  “But then they got sexist and kind of gross, and we were turned off by that side of it.”

fireshot-screen-capture-373-dire-straits-money-for-nothing-music-video-good-quality-all-countries-youtube-www_youtube_com_watch_vlad6obi7cagIn 1985, the british band Dire Straits went so far as to use guest vocalist Sting singing the ad tag line “I want my MTV” in its #1 single, “Money for Nothing.”  The song’s lyrics daringly featured two working class stiffs sitting in a pub watching MTV and grudgingly referring to the rock musician this way: “That little faggot is a millionaire.”

By 1984, the budget for videos went from $50,000 to well over $500,000, and eventually, $1 million.  Everyone wanted to emulate Jackson’s “Thriller,” even if their work didn’t deserve that kind of expenditure.  No one wanted to watch four guys singing into microphones anymore.  There had to be a grand concept, with half-naked women, flamboyant fashion, artsy lighting, or serious choreography, or all of the above.  The music was almost an afterthought.

Some artists saw the potential and went wild with it, most notably those that could include elements of dance and fashion to their presentation, like Jackson, Madonna and Prince.  material-girl-784x523They all freely admit that their mid ’80s superstardom owed a great deal to their omnipresence on MTV during those years.  Indeed, the debut of the 13-minute video for “Thriller” in 1983 attracted MTV’s widest audience.

Eventually, up-and-coming film directors saw MTV as a potential entree and resume builder.  Oscar-winning directors like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme saw the value in doing high-quality music videos for top name bands like the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads in order to boost their reputation in rock music circles.

“The videos gained the artists followers as much for what they were wearing as what they were singing,” said Chris, a music industry insider from Cleveland.  “The videos gave life to some of the songs well beyond the meanings of the words.”

Artists that would’ve otherwise been ignored were suddenly a big deal, thanks to their video exposure on MTV.  Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and Men at Work’s “Down Under” gave those bands the kind of attention agents would kill for.

Sure, sometimes the videos were wildly imaginative, well beyond whatever feeble effort our own minds could come up with.  Witness these award-winners:  “Sledgehammer,” Peter Gabriel, 1986;  “Take On Me,” a-ha, 1985;  “Like a Prayer,” Madonna, 1989;  “Girls maxresdefault-12Just Want to Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper, 1984;  “You Might Think,” The Cars, 1984;  “Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson, 1989;  “Addicted to Love,” Robert Palmer, 1987;  “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran, 1983;  “When Doves Cry,” Prince, 1984.

After four years on the air, MTV diversified, and came up with additional spinoff options like VH-1, which aimed toward an older demographic that enjoyed classic rock bands and vintage footage from “Ed Sullivan” and films like “Woodstock” and “Monterey Pop.”   This not only attracted another older audience but allowed MTV to become even more targeted toward current, younger bands.  As Holly explains, “Once VH-1 appeared, I probably never watched MTV again.”

By the 1990s, even the MTV suits knew the bloom was off the rose.  They watched other cable channels enjoying huge profits from airing original programming, and decided they too should start reaching out to their demographic with something other than music videos.  “We knew we needed to move on, even if it alienated many of our core audience who had come to expect music videos all day and all night,” said Amy Finnerty, an MTV exec.  “We came up with a teen soap concept — ‘TheReal World’ — and the numbers were through the roof.”   It started slowly, but within two or three years, Music TeleVision no longer showed music videos, except for maybe an hour a week at a predetermined time.

By then, there were other ways to see music videos, and by the mid-’90s, the Internet was in full bloom, with YouTube and other avenues for viewing music.

Today, many TV shows and most commercials use rock music and the quick-edit stylings that MTV pioneered in the early ’80s.  It’s not necessarily the best thing that ever happened to television, but it sure has had a major impact.

I’m gonna tell you a story…

images-11For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song.  To tell a story in a compelling way is an art, and to do it to a melody often makes it all the more appealing.

In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of stories of heartbreak, stories of war and famine, stories of love and tradition.  These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature.  Not surprisingly, they tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”

Still, some songwriters  — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went beyond the conventional song length.  I’ve selected roughly two dozen tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.

“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972  

The key to a great story-song is painting an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters.  In this case, it’s Harry, the cab driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover.  They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they have an uneasy re-meet.  “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…”  Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, and he seems happy just driving a cab while she’s unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977

The entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy of a Broadway stageplay, with multiple stories sung by numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman and his pal, Mr. Loaf.  None was more cinematic than “Paradise,” the vivid story of a teenage couple debating about whether to have sex (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?”  “Let me sleep on it”) and what it all means.  It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties every Saturday night.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972  

Even Motown took a stab at the story-song, when the Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September”).  It was recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the single version clocked in at nearly 7:00.  The vocal group’s final #1 set the tone for many more soul-story records over the next decade.

“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973

This song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from L.A. who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks.  Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973.  It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.

“Copacabana,” Barry Manilow, 1978  

Disco was all about instant gratification, and mindless dancing to a relentless beat, but this song, one of Manilow’s biggest hits, told the tragi-comic tale of Lola and Tony, and how their time in the limelight was ultimately destined to fail.  It had more of a point to it than most disco tracks, not unlike the film “Saturday Night Fever,” which is remembered for its disco dance songs but is really a sad story of death and loss.

“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968

By the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it only seemed right to try a story-piece like “Rocky Raccoon,” with Paul McCartney front and center singing the country-western yarn about rivals Rocky and Dan, and the girl Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).

“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969

The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically blew over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, which tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity.  The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Dylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work.  But perhaps his most notable is the one about Reuben Carter, a real-life boxer who was far from a saint, but got unfairly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently moved to write a lengthy piece that told Carter’s story.  It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.

“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971

Kris Kristofferson wrote this superb story in 1970, and in the original version, Bobby was a woman, but when it was recorded by Janis Joplin only a few weeks before she died, she changed the genders so Bobby was a man.  Her version went to #1 posthumously, but it doesn’t really much matter — the story it tells is of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

Canada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with this #1 ode to the sunken freighter.  It struck a chord with Americans and Canadians alike who live near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years.  It’s a great story but, frankly, a pretty boring song, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven long verses.

“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972

Not so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” explained, in rather enigmatic language, the evolution of rock and roll from 1955 to 1971, when the song was written.  It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1989  

Also not actually a story, but more of a litany of headlines of news events from 1955 to 1989, when the song was released.  Social science classes in middle and high schools have used this song to help today’s students understand the impact of the major and minor milestones of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that affected societal changes during those years.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967  

This sleepy, sultry number about a Deep South drama would’ve been perfect in the soundtrack of the movie from the same year, the Oscar-winner, “In The Heat of the Night.” As it is, the song’s lyrics do a marvelous job of telling the fictional story leading up to poor Billie Jo MacAllister’s suicide at the Tallahatchee Bridge.

“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967  

Perhaps the longest story in popular music, this one tells the tale of a bizarre Thanksgiving Day littering arrest, apparently a true story that happened to Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, during the Vietnam War protest years.  It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness at the folly and absurdity of the justice system’s overreach.

“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

This tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do.  The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store one night during the Yuletide season, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again.  It struck a chord with many people as they recalled past flings and relationships.

“Goodbye Earl,” Dixie Chicks, 2000

One of my very favorite country songs is this jewel by the Dixie Chicks from 2000, which tells the dark comic tale of a woman who copes with an abusive husband until, with help from her girlfriend, concludes that “Earl had to die” and decides to poison his black-eyed peas.  It’s said to be motivated by the popular films “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Thelma and Louise,” which both involve the consequences of redneck husbands beating up their wives.

“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976

“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…”  Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, a la Bonnie and Clyde.  Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in “Natural Born Killers” after Miller’s couple.

“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982

“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…”  Another story of a couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life.  Based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up and made it more contemporary for the ’80s audience.  It was one of the biggest hits of 1982 and still gets a ton of exposure today.

“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975

This 11-minute opus tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century.  Young had been reading historical biographies during this period and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits.  The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.

“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as this under-the-radar number, “Incident on 57th Street,” in late 1973.  It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.

“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975

Even the Brits knew how to write a story-song now and then.  Witness this minor classic from Bad Company’s second album, which tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle.  Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his most favorite in the Bad Company repertoire, and it might seem almost cliche, but it strikes a chord with many people (fans and musicians alike).

“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989

This one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.

Popular music is full of great stories.  Keep them coming.