Happy Birthday MTV!

6 08 2011

In the 1970s, there was Countdown. Countdown! (Pause for the theme song playing in my head.)

My first awareness of “fandom” came from Countdown. 6pm, Sunday night. A studio full of girls in tight jeans and t-shirts with flicked back Farah Fawcett hair, liquid eyeliner and blue eye-shadow screamed as bands of young men in equally tight jeans and flicked-back hair pranced up and down lip-synching to their latest hit.

My first album, Screamer, 1975. These girls look like the Countdown audience only older. They seemed so sophisticated!

For the slow songs the well trained audience waved their hands in the air in rhythm. Ian “Molly” Meldrum in his ubiquitous hat, presiding over the goings-on, occasionally assisted by a guest presenter – on one occasion a youthful but rather stiff Prince Charles, as comfortable in this role as a fish out of water.

Countdown was amazing, for a ten-year old. Now, when Rage occasionally replays old Countdown shows, I can see that the audience average age is about 12 years old (they all seemed so grown up and cool at the time). The band age seems to be somewhere between 16 and 21. The lip-synching is sometimes painfully obvious – a half-naked Iggy Pop barely bothers putting the hand-held microphone near his mouth. But then Iggy’s interview with Molly features him jumping in his seat, playing juvenile pranks and blowing raspberries at the audience. Molly tries to maintain the facade of an interview but succeeds instead in looking positively ancient. He was actually in his early 30s. Countdown music and interview videos are available here and are worth a look, when you have several hours spare.

However, amazing as Countdown was, the arrival of the 1980s brought with it a new, cooler version, Music Television – MTV. Launched August 1st 1981 in New York City, it had a smooth commercial American feel to it, and made celebrities out of its younger hosts.

The biggest difference with MTV was its focus on the rock-video. In the mid to late 1970s bands had started to use the video as both a sales-tool and a form of expression. Instead of music clips that focussed on the band playing their song, now we had clips with the band actually acting out the song, wooing the girl, dancing, swimming, flying – limited only by their imaginations and the special effects of the time.

While music purists criticised this commercialisation and the resultant focus on the sales pitch over the music values, this was part and parcel of the 1980s – the middle of a massive bull-market, the worship of business moguls and their conspicuous consumption required that our lives were saturated with glossy sales-pitches.

Did MTV change the world? Probably not. Michael Jackson’s Thriller album probably would not have been so big – but it was a pretty amazing album from a houshold name breaking out into a solo career. He would have done OK anyway.

Did it change the segregation of music artists on television? It probably contributed, but this had already begun with the Motown artists, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, The Pointer Sisters, The Jackson Five, and many more.

MTV certainly did enter the modern consciousness, and pop culture. And the music business recognised that it needed to be catering for this new sales avenue, with increasingly over the top, clever and artistic videos. Dire Straits sang “I want my MTV”, to be answered by the Dead Kennedys “MTV Get off the Air”.

Countdown is remembered with affection for its corniness and its successor, Rage (Rage, Rage, Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra-Rage!) for its edginess and focus on independent music.

But MTV was the soundtrack of my teenage years. And for that, it has a special place. Happy 30th birthday MTV!

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