This month marks 35 years since the launch of one of the most influential networks in television history: MTV. It was the rocket launch that signified the beginning of a major paradigm shift, a new medium for music consumption that would change music itself, all presented by on-air talent who were only slightly less confused by it all than the viewers themselves.
MTV marked the occasion this month with the launch of MTV Classic, a re-branding of VH1 Classic promising to cater to all of our '80s, '90s, and early 2000s MTV nostalgia that present-day copyright laws will allow. (In other words: hope you like Black Eyed Peas, Daria with the music swapped out, and Beavis and Butt-head episodes made no earlier than 2011!)
What’s somewhat lost in the flood of MTV memories is how strange a lot of the video choices were from the network's earliest days. You probably know the first video ever played on the network (The Buggles' “Video Killed the Radio Star”) and if you play bar trivia, you can probably name the second, (Pat Benatar's “You Better Run”). But MTV's initial 24 hours, in particular, stand as a reminder than in 1981: a) music videos were super low-budget; b) there weren't many of them, so pretty much anybody could get a video played; and c) for some reason, there was a lot of Rod Stewart.
Having recently acquired a DVD of MTV's first four hours completely unedited, I can tell you firsthand how weird some of the choices on that first day really were. Because I know you probably don't have 24 hours (or even four hours) to kill, here are the oddest videos from MTV’s first day on the air, Aug. 1, 1981.
Styx – “Rockin’ the Paradise”
The least weird video on the list (and the 10th video MTV ever played), I’m putting it here to set a kind of weirdness baseline. Prior to MTV, this was the path that “theatrical” rock was on in the '80s. It’s probably weirder today than it was on that August night, but something about it just smells funny.
Ph.D – “Little Susie’s on the Up”
The fifth video ever played on MTV and the first by a name you won’t recognize, British new wave trio Ph. D. Let’s call this MTV’s first real “what the hell did I just watch?” video.
Split Enz – “History Never Repeats”
Here’s a video where you can tell there’s a solid idea beneath the surface, and had it been made two years later, with a bigger budget, it might have been a masterpiece. But given the limitations of the medium, we’re instead given something really strange from New Zealand's Finn brothers, who would go on to achieve greater success with Crowded House.
Michael Johnson – “Bluer Than Blue”
The first really outright depressing video MTV ever played (complete with blue lights) this is also probably the first (and last?) time someone drew up a video treatment that's literally just a lonely guy in his apartment post-breakup. Believe it or not, this was a No. 1 adult contemporary hit in 1978, proving that even back in the good ol' days, there was still no shortage of crappy music on the radio.
Lee Ritenour – “Mr. Briefcase”
I’m not sure exactly how long MTV had jazz-guitar videos in their rotation, but “Mr. Briefcase” as the 20th video the network ever played is a really random and standout selection.
Robert Palmer – “Looking for Clues”
Remember how cool Robert Palmer always looked in those “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” videos? He wasn’t quite there yet in MTV’s 23rd video, “Looking for Clues.”
Rupert Hine – “Surface Tension”
“Hey, I just figured out my camera can do this one thing.” “Great! Let’s make a video!”
Blotto – “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard”
Imagine being a local band from Albany, New York, using your home camcorder to make a music video for your very goofy but very fun regional hit. Then suddenly, it's beamed into homes all across the country next to the biggest names in music. Such is the legacy of Blotto, who tragically broke up in 1984, just three years after achieving MTV immortality.