MTV has been around so long that it's a cliché to chide the network for no longer playing actual music videos. This year marks the channel's 30th anniversary, and to celebrate the occasion, veteran music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum have assembled the authoritative oral history on MTV's first decade, which they consider the music video channel's golden era. For I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (Dutton, $29.95), Marks and Tannenbaum conducted more than 400 interviews with rock stars, wannabes, VJs, executives, directors and washouts. The compulsively readable book charts the telegenic New Wave revolution, Michael Jackson's explosive Thriller videos, Madonna's voracious sex appeal, hair metal's vapid ascent, the rise of rap and MTV's first cautious steps toward reality programming. The authors chatted with Brian Braiker for USA TODAY.
Q. A lot of people you spoke with were awfully forthcoming.
C.M.: Everybody who agreed to talk to us has really fond memories of that era. From what they can remember they had a good time. (Laughs)
R.T.: I wasn't surprised. The music business is full of crazy characters and maniacs and drug addicts and geniuses. One of the reasons the book is so much fun to read is everyone is on a budget these days. The '80s was one of the last crazy times in the music business.
Q. And early on, they started a music video channel when there were no videos, really.
RT: MTV was based around promoting a product that barely existed. Who does that? MTV's business plan was that someone else would give them videos for free and they would air them. But hardly anyone was making videos. That's not a business plan, that's chutzpah.
Q. Is there any one artist you can point to and say without that artist MTV may not have made it?
RT: Absolutely: Michael Jackson is the man who saved MTV. The irony is that for the first couple of years the network was on the air, they hardly ever played black musicians. MTV executives would say they weren't discriminating against black people; they were just programming rock.
Q. Like a radio station.
RT: Which is kind of a persuasive argument until you understand that a lot of what they were playing wasn't just rock 'n' roll. They were also playing ABC, which was a white R&B act. So, if you can play a white R&B act, why can't you play a black R&B act? I think that's part of what made people angry about MTV. So Michael Jackson starts making videos for Thriller in 1982 and at that point MTV is probably three bad months away from being shut down.
CM: It also showed how mercenary MTV was, and I mean that as a compliment, by going from in January 1983 not really playing urban videos to November '83 not only playing it but saying "come back in 10 minutes, we're going to play Thriller again." Whatever worked, worked. They were happy to swallow their pride.
Q.What's the first instance of MTV being a kingmaker?
CM: Most of the acts of the English New Wave: Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, Duran (Duran) probably, Stray Cats. All of these bands, their image is what sold them first in America.
RT: John Sykes and Tom Freston, two of the important early MTV employees, go on a business trip to Tulsa, Okla., and they discover that Duran Duran records are selling. But Duran Duran haven't played in Tulsa and the radio station isn't playing them. They call back to the New York office triumphant because Duran Duran was selling in Tulsa. That effect began to spread throughout the country.
Q. Do you have a favorite video or couple of videos?
CM: I became really enamored of those videos that just didn't make sense. You could tell the stars were either having a laugh or out of their minds on drugs or both. The one I watched over and over again is the Bonnie Tyler video Russell Mulcahy directed, Total Eclipse of the Heart. It's spectacularly nonsensical and over the top and dramatizes all the best and worst virtues of MTV in that era where one image piles on top of the other where they not only made no sense, but were counterintuitive against one another. And there's crazy sexuality and melodrama.
Q.Was there anyone that was really bitter, whose career didn't end up where they expected and maybe blames MTV?
RT: What surprised me was that some of the more minor bands didn't want to talk about it. Like a-Ha. Ninety-five percent of a-Ha's career is one music video. They have a love-hate relationship with Take on Me. It's a great song but it's a magnificent video. The video came to overshadow their band and their career.
CM: Some of the hair metal people have feelings against the way that their reign ended. And they blame MTV rightly or wrongly for that. No artist likes being told they're no longer cool, and MTV was a very visible way to be told that.
Q.Is there someone who talked to you who surprised you?
CM: They're not as sexy as the stars, but the people who founded MTV. Particularly one guy I liked named Les Garland. He out-excessed all the rock stars. He also made the company a lot of money. His enjoyment of the lifestyle was tied into his job requirements. That's also typical of the era. It's missing, absent almost entirely from popular music these days.
Q. Is that excess to be mourned, or are we all going to live a little longer for its demise?
CM: Probably both. As a writer, it's to be mourned. Because who wants to hear stories about people going to the gym and then checking their eTrade accounts online?
Q. Is there a corollary today to MTV as a cultural power broker or is that moment gone?
RT: There is no centrifugal point in the culture any more. If you were 12 years old in 1982, your popularity in school was determined only by whether or not your parents had MTV. That was the last time we were all more or less unified.
Q. Where are the original VJs now? Are they happy people?
CM: It was the greatest job in the world. They loved it.
RT: I think some of them are a little envious of the money and the opportunities that MTV stars have now. But I think if you said to Martha Quinn would you switch places with Snooki, she'd say not for all the money in the world.
Q. Is there anyone who should be nervous about this book coming out?
CM: I hope there are, or we didn't do a good job as journalists.
this book sounds like its going to be very interesting