“Ladies and gentleman…rock and roll.”
That’s what anyone with cable TV who happened to be up at midnight on August 1, 1981 — 40 years ago this Sunday — heard, as MTV: Music Television signed on the air for the very first time. At the time, it wasn’t even available in most major markets, including MTV’s home base, New York City. And that first day was a little rocky.
“The plan was that Mark Goodman would begin the welcome,” recalls original VJ Alan Hunter of MTV’s first moments. “After you had the Buggles and Pat Benatar videos, Mark comes on and says, ‘Hey, welcome to this thing called MTV and here are my pals'” And it would roll down to JJ [Jackson] and Martha [Quinn] and Nina [Blackwood]. And I was the last guy to say, ‘and I’m Alan Hunter.'”
But because the guy loading the videotapes screwed up, Hunter ended up being the first VJ we ever saw, saying, “…And I’m Alan Hunter.”
“No one really noticed, it was late at night,” Hunter laughs. “There was so many technical glitches that first day…MTV was duct-taped together to start, to be honest.”
But MTV soon took hold across the country — especially in the Midwest, where Hunter and his fellow VJs would find hundreds of people waiting to greet them at in-store appearances.
“They would ask for an autograph and say, ‘I watch this 24/7 in the dorm at college,’ or, ‘in the basement of our friend’s house down the street who has cable’…kids [were] going crazy for it,” Hunter recalls. “And they were beginning to ask for the music that they were seeing on MTV.”
Flooded with requests for songs by MTV faves like U2 and Duran Duran, radio eventually responded and previously unknown bands became superstars. But hey, don’t expect any gratitude from Duran Duran, whose stylish videos were a highlight of MTV’s early years.
“We tend to look at it the other way around,” Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon tells ABC Audio. “We think, ‘How much does MTV have to thank us for the popularity that they had in the 1980s?'”
Keyboardist Nick Rhodes snarks, “Yes, at least with Duran Duran, we didn’t have to resort to game shows in the end. We stuck with the music!”
Indeed, MTV stopped being the place for music videos literally decades ago.
“When I look at MTV’s daily schedule, all I see is Ridiculousness,” laughs Hunter, referring to the viral video clip show. “I think they’re struggling to try to find where they’re going.”
But whatever MTV is today, its impact is still being felt. Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of the oral history I Want My MTV, explains, “It changed record labels because now a certain type of band was more profitable. It changed the TV industry and the movie industry because they all wanted to emulate the fast cutting [and] bright colors. It changed fashion design. It changed advertising. It had a wholesale effect…all over popular culture.”
And the quintessential MTV Video? Tannenbaum says it’s Van Halen‘s “Hot for Teacher.”
“It has all the things that are supposed to make a video good. It’s got a guitar solo. It’s a band with long hair, chicks in bikinis,” he says, adding, “If you were trying to illustrate to an alien from another planet what MTV was about, you would show them ‘Hot for Teacher.'”
Here were the first 10 videos played on MTV:
“Video Killed the Radio Star” — The Buggles
“You Better Run” — Pat Benatar
“She Won’t Dance with Me” — Rod Stewart
“You Better You Bet” — The Who
“Little Suzi’s on the Up” — Ph.D.
“We Don’t Talk Anymore” — Cliff Richard
“Brass in Pocket” — The Pretenders
“Time Heals” — Todd Rundgren
“Take It on the Run” — REO Speedwagon (interrupted after 12 seconds due to technical difficulties)
“Rockin’ the Paradise” — Styx