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(Credit: MTV)


The MTV launch: A minute-by-minute breakdown of the first half an hour

“Ladies and gentleman, rock and roll.”

With that statement, on August 1, 1981, MTV launched as the world’s first television channel devoted to showing music videos. Music videos, or promotional films as they were usually referred to at the time, were not a new concept: The Beatles often filmed elaborate performances and showed them on segments of programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. The BBC would occasionally show clips from Pink Floyd and The Who. Occasionally, promotional films tied into real-life films: Meat Loaf’s ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ was often screened before The Rocky Horror Picture Show during midnight runs, for example.

However, it was MTV who made music videos a necessary format for bands to embrace if they wanted to compete for success and popularity. Visuals became just as important as the musicality or catchiness of a song, but for those who did it well, the videos often complimented the songs in tasteful, artistic, and truly exciting ways. Occasionally, good videos could propel otherwise bad songs to greater sales. A number of ’70s acts, unsure how to adapt to the new landscape, stalled out under the pressure to make successful videos. MTV affected all reaches of music, and MTV stars soon became the leading voices of chart-topping pop music.

Today, on the 40th anniversary of the network’s launch, we’re going through all the material that came up during the first-ever half an hour of MTV, 12:00am-12:30am. That includes videos, studio breaks, advertisements, and promotional materials. Considering how new and raw the channel was meant that there were occasional slip-ups and technical difficulties that befell the launch, but all in all, it’s a fascinating look at the moment when music and video became inextricably linked.

0:00 – Launch

SMPTE colour bars fill the screen. For anyone in suburban New Jersey who was up late, this was the image that had been on this specific channel for hours. But just after midnight, a voice quietly asks: “Are we ready?” and, with that, the screen goes to black, and after a quick unintended preview flash, the initial introduction to MTV runs. 

Footage of the Columbia orbiter launch, along with the launch of Apollo 11, is shown. As a montage of the Apollo 11 moon landings is played behind an anonymous upbeat rock song, the picture hones in on the American flag that now sports vibrant flashing colours. With a number of different styles, the flag displays the MTV logo, and we’re off and running.

0:01 – ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ – The Buggles

Once the main introduction fades, another moon is shown. But this one belongs to the first video ever shown on MTV, The Buggles, and their track ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ begins to play. 

Emblematic of what would curse many ’70s artists in its wake, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was about a wave of nostalgia that wiped everything in the past away with modern technology. How appropriate, then, that ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ did just that.

0:04 – First MTV Promo

As if to reintroduce themselves to anyone who might have caught the tail end of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ through channel flipping, the second piece of content ever aired on MTV was a promotion for MTV. 

Positioning itself as “the latest achievement in home entertainment” with a bit of tongue in cheek flair, the promo also briefly utilises the next piece of MTV history: a short two-second clip of Pat Benatar’s ‘You Better Run’.

0:05 – ‘You Better Run’ – Pat Benatar

Just as ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ conceptualised what the network saw as their own modus operandi, ‘You Better Run’ broke ground on what would be the network’s preferred method of implementing their new global takeover: sex appeal. 

Clad in spandex and surrounded by an industrial backdrop, Pat Benatar burns holes in the camera with her stare alone. But it’s when she kicks into the searing shouts of ‘You Better Run”s chorus where she makes her biggest impression. Nobody likes coming in second, but Benatar is the first thing on MTV that could ever be called “badass”.

0:08 – First in-studio segment

Alan Hunter is the first face and voice we see in an MTV live segment, and in quick succession, we get introduced to the first five VJ’s: Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, and Mark Goodman. 

Goodman gets the proper introduction to MTV’s format: 24 hours, in stereo, “combining the best of TV and the best of radio”. Goodman makes a bold claim before throwing it over to the network’s first commercial break: “Starting right now, you’ll never look at music the same way again,” he comments.

As it turns out, he would be right.

0:10 – First advertisements

After the groundbreaking hoopla of getting the format off the ground, now came the reality of MTV having to shill themselves out to whoever wants to market themselves on this doomed-to-fail network. 

That would be, in order, Majestic Portfolio, Superman II, and Dolby Labs. The latter would end up becoming essential to the MTV experience in more ways than one.

0:11 – Return to MTV Studios

The live segment returns roughly seven seconds before Mark Goodman gets the go-ahead, creating what would not the first bizarre instance of dead air on launch day. What follows is a clunky reiteration of the networks M.O. and nothing more.

0:12 – ‘She Won’t Dance With Me’ – Rod Stewart

The third video from MTV would feature the artist with the most videos being shown that first day: Rod Stewart. 

Rod the Mod had an astounding eleven different videos shown on the first day of MTV, with the first, ‘She Won’t Dance With Me’, also representing another groundbreaking moment for the network. 

Stewart gets credit for saying the first two curse words on the network with the lines: “I wanna dance and I want her ass/I wanna to fuck her, she’s no relief”, going uncensored.

0:14 – Another MTV Promo

Boy, did it seem like MTV was worried that people were going to instantaneously forget about them. A sub-ten second promo featuring a guitar smashing through a TV screen. Next.

0:14 – ‘You Better You Bet’ – The Who

Other than Stewart, The Who represent the first legacy act looking to take advantage of this novel music television concept. The Face Dances era of the band, with Stewart’s former Faces bandmate Kenney Jones on drums, busts out its newest single, ‘You Better You Bet’. 

A certified jam, ‘You Better You Bet’ is a black and white performance video, one that is great in its own right but also can’t help but make you wonder what Keith Moon would have been like with a constant-cocaine platform like MTV.

0:18 – Dial Position Sticker Promo

Goodman returns, cross-legged, to hawk a sticker for stereos that indicates exactly where MTV would be on your stereo dial. This concept of dial position stickers is perhaps the most confusingly ’80s-centric aspect to the first hour of MTV, even beyond the wild hair and adverts for Superman II.

0:19 – More ads

Mountain Dew and Interfaith Hunger Appeal get to take up additional space, but inexplicably, so do REO Speedwagon. The fair weather FM stalwarts announce that they’ll be playing a concert on the network on August 8. Speedwagon would also make less-enjoyable history a few minutes later.

0:20 – ‘Little Susie’s on the Up’ – Ph.D.

The early days of MTV favoured pasty British rock and new wave, and now we’ve come to the first non-legendary act of the hour (OK, maybe the Buggles aren’t legendary, but they were part of something legendary at least). 

Ph.D. track ‘Little Susie’s on the Up’ is such a bizarre entry in this list: the music sounds like Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen, while singer Jim Diamond sounds like he’s doing a parody of Rod Stewart’s raspy howl. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Stewart was the first guy to have a bad repeat follow him on MTV.

0:23 – ‘Brass in Pocket’ – The Pretenders

I needed a palate cleanser after ‘Little Susie’s on the Up’, and boy did I get it. A stone-cold classic appeared out of nowhere as the first notes of The Pretenders’ ‘Brass in Pocket’ rang in, signalling that MTV had someone cool in the quality control department. 

All the videos shown so far have their artists performing in some musical capacity, but ‘Brass in Pocket’ is the first video to completely abandon miming to instruments, instead taking the narrative form of Chrissie Hynde working a thankless waitressing job. ‘Brass in Pocket’ is also, up to this point, far and away the best song played by the nascent network.

0:26 – ‘Time Heals’ – Todd Rundgren

With an artistically inclined music video, Todd Rundgren classed up the joint with his synth-heavy number ‘Time Heals’. 

The production on both the song and the video is incredibly dated, but it shows Rundgren as the forward-thinking innovator that he is, always looking to be at the forefront of new and exciting technology. ‘Time Heals’ isn’t a great song, but what ‘Time Heals’ represents for Rundgren is far more important.

0:30 – An attempt of REO Speedwagon’s ‘Take It On the Run’, followed by the first major technical difficulty

In what would be the perfect metaphor for all the AOR rock bands who wouldn’t be able to cut it amidst the glitz and glam that MTV was ushering in, a live concert rendition of ‘Take It On the Run’ by REO Speedwagon plays… for roughly ten seconds. 

Suddenly, as if to protest both the shitty song it’s currently playing and the entirety of dinosaur FM rock itself, the screen goes black, and the sound cuts to a single, highly irritating frequency (not as irritating as the song, but I digress). 

This is how MTV’s first half an hour ends: with a technical difficulty and big F.U. to the rock bands who would soon become obsolete. REO Speedwagon would survive, but most of their peers wouldn’t, so when MTV decided to cut off the failed video and go directly to the next one, it represented a far deeper message than anyone could have thought at the time. The ’70s were over, the ’80s were here, and MTV was in charge.