Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Doin' The Time Warp

MTV: back when this logo stood for music
Twenty one years ago last month, someone somewhere out there decided to videotape three hours of MTV (commercials, VJ bits and all) and then shelve the tape for posterity. At some point recently, this person then took out the old tape, played it back while running it through a video capture program and put up two massive .avi files of the whole thing (in pretty decent quality stereo to boot) up in one of the usenet video binary groups I monitor.

Now, I don't know who this person is, where they live, or why they went to all the work to cap and post this little time capsule, but I would just to comment that they completely RAWK my world right now. I've just finished watching all 3 hours of ancient old-school MTV, and it was pretty damn remarkable-bordering-on-amazing viewing experience.

O.K., I have to admit here that there was one part of this cultural time warp that wasn't very amazing, and that was the playlist itself. For all of the great music MTV nearly single-handedly exposed me to in 1982 and 1983, this chunk of programming time doesn't exactly hit a lot of high musical watermarks ...

Night Ranger "Don't Tell Me You Love Me"
Huey Lewis & The News "Heart & Soul"
The Tubes "Monkey Time (Live)"
Prince "Little Red Corvette"
George Thorogood & The Destroyers "Bad To The Bone"
The Police "Synchronicity II"
Sammy Hagar "Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy (Live)"
Steve Miller Band "Jet Airliner (Live)"
Kansas "Fight Fire With Fire"
Michael Bolton "Fool's Game"
Quiet Riot "Cum On Feel The Noize"
Bow Wow Wow "Do You Wanna Hold Me"
The Who "You Better You Bet"
The Motels "Suddenly Last Summer"
Madness "Our House"
Nick Heyward "Whistle Down The Wind"
ZZ Top "Sharp Dressed Man"
Garland Jeffreys "96 Tears (Live)"
Stevie Nicks "If Anyone Falls"
Elton John "I'm Still Standing"
Thompson Twins "Lies"
Billy Idol "Dancing With Myself"
Men At Work "It's A Mistake"
Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson "Say Say Say"
Quarterflash "Take Another Picture"
David Bowie "Modern Love"
Billy Squier "Lonely Is The Night (Live)"
INXS "The One Thing"
The Romantics "Talking In Your Sleep"
Jefferson Starship "Be My Lady"
Robert Plant "Burning Down One Side"
Talking Heads "Burning Down The House"
Split Enz "One Step Ahead"
The Fixx "Red Skies (Live)"
The Pretenders "Back On The Chain Gang"
Joe Walsh "I Can Play That Rock N' Roll"

Egad, Michael fuckin' Bolton. Ow ow ow. Lemme tell you, that was a fun one to explain my girlfriend while it played. Sheesh, this must have been the only 3 hours bloc of MTV programming in all of 1983 that did not feature Duran Duran, Icehouse, Blancmange, ABC, Naked Eyes, Thomas Dolby, U2, Berlin, Adam Ant, Culture Club, Eurythmics, Devo, A Flock Of Seagulls, Eddy Grant, Heaven 17, Missing Persons, Ultravox, Talk Talk, Wall Of Voodoo, Yello, Men Without Hats, X, or even Burning Sensations. Dohhh.

Anyway, back to the interesting/remarkable parts of this experience ... the playlist above (embarrassing content aside) makes startlingly clear just how many "recurrents" were in MTV's rotation at the time, even when videos were exploding in number and influence. Of the 36 listed videos above (a staggering number in itself when you consider that MTV might show a few more than this in a week's span these days), only 6 were for songs in that week's Billboard Top 40 singles chart, and 9 in the whole Hot 100.

Also striking was just how cheap and comparatively low-tech everything was done back then. I'm not really talking about the videos here (truthfully, the only comparatively "expensive" videos back then were done by Asia, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran) so much as the entire MTV production itself. Watching Mark Goodman sitting around on the floor of an indie-record shop kind of set while reading music news from index cards, seeing lots of primitive, non-animated TV productions class-grade screen graphics for concert dates (and the odd black and white artist pic), the self-effacing humor in the channel's promotional clips touting stereo was like watching the complete antithesis of what MTV looks like now. There was no flash in the presentation whatsoever, no irritatingly transparent pandering to a specific target demographic, no Carson Daly, no game shows, no godawful motherfucking reality shows.

Sorry, I got off on a tangent, didn't I? O.K., taking a couple of deep breaths and attempting to quell my forthing, near-atavistic loathing of everything MTV has become and represents since, oh, 1992 or so. Back to memory lane ...

Perhaps the funniest part of the experience was watching all of the advertising sandwiched between often-excruciating videos and Goodman's clownish, pre-slacker delivery of news and forthcoming channel events (tune in for the world premiere of Bob Dylan's first video "Sweetheart Like You!" OMG!). The most refreshing/maddening aspect of the ads was their relative paucity to what we're used to these days on any channel: there are never more than two consecutive commercials on this recording, and sometimes only one ad airs during a music break. Also interesting was the wide breadth of advertisers covering a pretty wide range of possible demos, which I'm sure was a result of no one on Madison Avenue knowing who the hell was watching MTV and when. Indeed, it's pretty difficult now to imagine a time when MTV not only had to scramble for programming content but also had to accept advertising from whomever offered in order to keep themselves afloat, and the cast of contributors was quite varied: Pioneer, Cambridge Cologne, Sega, Atari, Cody Wild Musk (this was a hilarious ad), Murray, Wrangler, the National Coffee Association, Raisinets, Safeguard soap, the Chevy Chase bomb Deal Of The Century, Big Red chewing gum, Compound W, Twix, Sansui, K-Tel/Time-Life knockoffs, and Hubba Bubba bubblegum.

So, this was MTV in the first week of November 1983.

* Tons of music videos
* No non-musical programming whatsoever
* A few commercials here and there
* VJ's that acted at least functionally intelligent and seemed to actually be enthusiastic about the music they back-announced and not who Puck pissed off on the last Real World.

Damn, those were the days...

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