Most of us remember what we were doing on or shortly after Aug. 1, 1981.
We were watching MTV, of course.
The channel’s first decade — when music videos, many of them awful, ruled the airwaves and VJs like J.J. Jackson and (sigh) Martha Quinn were our best friends — is chronicled in “I Want My MTV,” the recent book by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.
The two have compiled the definitive oral history of the channel, which was one of the biggest gambles in TV history. Who could have imagined, more than 30 years ago, that teens and young adults would watch a channel devoted to music videos 24 hours a day?
Not to mention that a lot of the videos sucked.
The book is stuffed with interviews about the early days of the channel, when only a handful of videos were available; the complaints that helped get more videos from black artists on the air; the advent of Michael Jackson on MTV; and the behind-the-scenes of the channel’s daily struggles. To say that the channel’s executives, staff, artists and video crews were drug-fueled is an understatement. Maybe one of the greatest of all time.
A couple of anecdotes were especially amusing.
Many of the videos now considered classics were very off-the-cuff. The director of the memorable ZZ Top videos like “Sharp Dressed Man” and “She’s Got Legs” just happened to have the inspired idea of putting the Texas blues band in the background in favor of Playboy models.
And the video for Bill Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” gets special treatment in a chapter about how bad it was and how it pretty much destroyed the rocker’s career.
If you don’t remember the video — and I wish I could embed it here (I’m looking at you, WordPress) — it featured Squier prancing around a loft apartment and tearing his shirt off.
The book carries the MTV story into the early 90s, when the channel began airing the first “Real World” season and began shifting its focus from music videos to reality and lifestyle programming.
Theres a lot to get through here, and the authors probably include a few too many anecdotes about channel executives snorting cocaine and too few anecdotes about the on-air personalities and musicians. But if you were a fan of MTV in its heyday, the book’s worth a look.