The book “I Want My MTV” - a highly recommendable oral history of how the TV station popularised the video clip, having a major influence on the music industry – inspired us to make a list of some legendary videos made during the channel's golden age, starting in the early 80s.
In the 21st century we can hardly imagine a pop song without its video: if it's not the band making one, some fan will upload theirs to YouTube. But it wasn't always like this. Although the idea of putting images to music can be traced back all the way to the start of cinema, video clips as we know them today didn't become fashionable until 1981, when MTV appeared, a TV channel only a handful of visionaries placed their bets on.
In the highly recommendable book “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution”, published in the USA in October 2011, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum wrote an oral history of the TV station. It’s full of anecdotes about the main figures from the golden age, between 1981 and 1992, the year MTV decided to venture into reality shows.
PlayGround is going nostalgic now: we're giving you an overview of the most emblematic videos from those wonder years, the ones that established the video clip as a phenomenon that is both artistic and cultural. Perhaps you'll discover something new.
1. The Buggles: “Video Killed The Radio Star” (1981)
The first video MTV ever broadcast. Now it seems like an obvious and even prophetic choice, but at the time, nobody gave two cents for the video clip.
2. Duran Duran: “Girls On Film” (1981)
British bands had more videos than American ones, which is why MTV enthusiastically embraced the new romantics. “Girls On Film” became a favourite of both the public and many of the bands that would later appear on the channel. It's also one of the few videos that didn't suffer from the control and censure that would later take hold of MTV; over time, feminists like Naomi Wolf would complain about the objectification of women in video clips.
3. Culture Club: “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” (1982)
Another Briton who became big in America thanks to his videos was Boy George. George explains in the book how this video turned out to be prophetic: he plays the role of a marginal person taken to court.
4. Herbie Hancock: “Rock It” (1983)
One of the controversies that keeps arising throughout “I Want My MTV” is the accusations of racism. Don Letts says that, although he had an interview scheduled and confirmed, when he came to the studio the people from the TV station told him they had to cancel, explaining: “We didn’t realize you were black”. “Rock It” was the first electro video on MTV, in 1983; the video only shows Hancock on the slant, and on a TV screen.
5. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (1983)
Incredible but true: MTV initially refused to play Michael Jackson's clip for “Billie Jean”. CBS threatened to pull back all of the label's videos if they didn't show it, and they won. As a result, MTV gained an audience they had neglected until then.
6. Michael Jackson: “Thriller” (1983)
After the success of “Billie Jean”, the directors of MTV decided to co-finance a video for the first time. The millions of dollars needed for “Thriller” came out of the pockets of Jackson himself, alongside the TV station – who from then on decided to openly say yes to black music. Fun fact: in the book, Cee Lo Green says that the first time he saw the video he ran out of the room.
7. Madonna: “Material Girl” (1984)
One of Madonna's first hits on MTV… and the video in which Sean Penn and the blonde ambition got to know each other. It was directed by Mary Lambert, who would later also direct “Like a Virgin”. Because of the clip, Madonna got tagged as a ‘material girl’, even though the video actually tried to prove the opposite: it's about a young girl who cares more about the person than their money. The clip made Madonna famous, and she chose Beastie Boys as the support act for her subsequent tour. In the words of Adam Horovitz: “The audience’s hatred for us worked in her favor”.
8. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancer In The Dark” (1984)
The Boss was no friend of the camera, and he liked video clips even less. No matter how much people tried to convince him that the video was key to reach a wider audience, he didn't feel comfortable in front of a camera, nor did he like the idea in general. Jon Landau, who was responsible for shooting the clip, brought Brian de Palma to a concert of the “Born In The U.S.A.” tour, and the video was shot right then and there. The girl dancing on stage is a very young Courtney Cox.
9. Queen: “I Want To Break Free” (1984)
Seeing Freddy Mercury with that wig and in heels, you wouldn't think he felt uneasy, but he did. Director David Mallet says they couldn't stop laughing for three days, the time it took to shoot the video. Mercury felt ridiculous dressed up like a woman and hardly dared to leave the dressing room.
10. Run DMC: “Rock Box” (1984)
When Profile Records told Run DMC their video was being shown on MTV, they didn't even know what the label was talking about. They were shooting their clips with Video Music Box and New York Hot Tracks in mind, the rap channels of that time. “Rock Box” was followed by “Walk This Way”, their collaboration with rock band Aerosmith, and “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” by Beastie Boys. From that moment on, hip-hop was added to the channel's register, and Yo! MTV Raps started, with “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff.