If you’ve been kind enough to follow along with me as I reminisce, ramble and (sometimes) rant in my little corner of the blogosphere, you likely have come to realize that I love music. I love the way it tells our stories and marks moments in time that illustrate aspects of specific cultures and of humanity in general. I love the way it can change a mood with a few chords or a well-turned lyric. I love how it connects us to the people we love AND to those we will never meet.
Music is Powerful. Capital ‘P’ full o’ Power.
I have friends that have nurtured and educated me in this love, and our sharing of music is one of the wonders of my life. From records to cassettes to CDs and then the digital MP3s/MP4s and formats I haven’t even heard of yet… each new package mattered little to me. I wanted the access to the music- as much of it as I could get my hands on. (I never did have an 8-track player though. Somehow missed that classic piece of 70s technology).
Then, on August 1, 1981, something extra-wonderful happened.
I was on holiday in the States that weekend (MTV wasn’t allowed in Canada due to CRTC restrictions having to do with Canadian Content) and made sure that the hotel had cable in anticipation of the launch of this new music television. I watched in nervous anticipation as it made its debut. The first video played- historic and apropos- was also one of my favourites.
Video Killed the Radio Star.
I was in awe. It was cooler than mere words could describe. That little film was worth many thousands of words, as far as I was concerned.
Music videos- and programmes that featured them- had been around for a while. Michael Nesmith (my favourite Monkee, media mentor and mastermind), as mentioned here, pioneered the format in the US in the late 70s, and bands like the Boomtown Rats had been making videos for some time, as a means of marketing their music to fans in areas that they couldn’t reach by touring performances.
The short clips illustrated the songs, either with a (sometimes) clever narrative background or through seeing the band in performance. Suddenly, the faces behind the tunes were everywhere. There was an element of the feeling that attendance of a live performance could give (if only an element- there’s nothing like seeing a great live show) and the videos helped to foster a connection with bands that I would never have the opportunity to see in concert.
In addition to the videos that showed us glossy images in four minute clips (perfect for the Sesame Street Soundbite generation), those paragons of journalistic innovation, the VJs, asked compelling questions that further illuminated the private lives of our musical heroes. (Admittedly, the onset of the ridiculous adherence to current fashions in voyeuristic ‘infotainment’ can be, at least in part, placed at the door of such forums. But more on that later…)
I have the cassette version of Billy Idol’s first solo outing- Don’t Stop. In addition to Mony Mony, Dancing With Myself and a solo version of Generation X’s Untouchables, the flip side of the tape featured an interview with MTV VJ, Martha Quinn. Among other cheeky facts, Martha gets Billy to tell us why he recorded a cover of Mony Mony in an entertaining and Idol-esque description of him losing his virginity to the tune. So much was explained in that 12 or so minutes.
Back home, there were a few early iterations of the video show format. My fave by far was City Limits on City TV, hosted by the inimitable Christopher Ward. Every Friday and Saturday night between midnight and 6am, Christopher would greet his Limitoids and play cool tunes and talk to cool people. Memorable nights spent on the couch well into the wee hours included interviews with Robbie Grey of Modern English- that scored me a pair of tickets to their show that week, and a dude from Scarborough named Mike Myers who showed up pretending to be some guy named Wayne Campbell- and would, shortly thereafter, become quite well known indeed.
(Wayne would also appear as himself in Chris’ video for his song ‘Boys and Girls’. Chris returned the favour by playing in Austin Powers’ band, Ming Tea. That’s him on guitar and backing vocals.)
MTV and City Limits were prototypes for the birth of MuchMusic- ‘the Nation’s Music Station’- which started its broadcast life in August 1984. Those same CRTC regulations that prohibited MTV north of the 49th parallel meant that MuchMusic did a great deal to help foster an incredibly vibrant Canadian music scene (Barenaked Ladies gained all kinds of exposure by cramming themselves into the Much/City Speakers Corner to play Be My Yoko Ono) and made Toronto a popular destination for recording artists from all over the globe (Crowded House spent so much time in the MuchMusic studio it became like a second home to them).
Through spotlights, interviews and concert presentations, MTV and Much enhanced the stories being told through the songs that some pretty great musicians and artists were putting out there into our collective consciousness and culture. We heard the stories behind the stories, and the videos provided a new medium of communication while promoting awareness of various causes and world issues. Music television was a harbinger of how small the world would become, communications-wise, with the rise of the Interworld and instant- and video- messaging.
We shared our myths in these colourful sound bites, and marked the trends and mores of changing times and generations. It was storytelling lived large and glossy.
MTV and MuchMusic (when they actually had something to do with music) made me want to be VJ.
I applied to the Radio-TV program at Ryerson in a moment of passing fancy because of the influence that music television had on my life in that moment.
Roads not travelled and all that. Not that I have regrets per se, but the nostalgia of that period in television and music history brings remains visceral in its impact and import.
I watched with dismay as the programming format was superseded by reality and scripted shows and the videos- especially those by independent and alternative artists- gradually all but disappeared from the airwaves of MTV and MuchMusic. Other outlets popped up (pun intended, in the case of VH1s Pop Up Video) that tried to carry the flag, but the days of getting behind the stories in the songs (VH1s Behind the Music notwithstanding) and seeing the artists as both SuperStars and real people, not so different from the rest of us, who liked to hang out and have fun while sharing their stories with the world were, sadly, ending.
I couldn’t (still can’t) find a purpose in shows about ‘cribs’, ostentatious ‘Sweet 16’ parties, teen mothers, or those that follow mediocre ‘celebutantes’ as they participated in ridiculous scenarios and staged settings. It may be slightly hyperbolic to assert that such programmes are representative of the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization and indicative of governments’ attempts to stupefy their citizens into complacency, but only slightly. Video might’ve killed that radio star, but the subsequent video stars were massacred by the vulgar charismatic leaders of the newer cults of celebrity.
Arguably, and as demonstrated in that other anthem of early MTV, Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, the criticism of those who chose to entertain the rest of us is a staple of our society. Each generation tends to be contemptuous of the music and popular culture that comes after. I suppose I’m as guilty of that as the old geezer(s) who described Elvis Presley as a ‘definite danger to the security of the United States’ (Seriously. The Catholic diocese of a town in Wisconsin sent such a warning to the FBI. Google it). Except that I do enjoy many of our current pop cultural offerings- movies, music, novels and on and on.
I just miss the music channels actually being about music is all.
‘We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.’
Still, some of my favourite moments are preserved on video tapes held in safe-keeping for those moments when a little reminiscence is required. As long as the tapes (and my VCR) hold up, the stories and the storytellers will still be there- in a microcosmic universe invoking their 80s and early-90s heyday.
I shoulda learned to play the guitar. I shoulda learned to play them drums…