Reality Killed the Video Star

As any averagely skilled trivia enthusiast can tell you, the first music video to air on MTV was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” To learn the identity of the videos and artists that immediately followed, though, you have to get on some Ken Jennings–style next-level shit. Indeed, as we found out, several of the artists involved in MTV’s first hour can’t even name their fellow members of the network’s inaugural class, and one didn’t even know until recently that his band was part of the hallowed group.

One reason for that is because MTV only existed in a handful of markets when it launched on August 1, 1981. Another is that the 24-hour music channel debuted shortly after midnight (EST) on that day—when the members of Great Britain’s Buggles, for example, were sound asleep. But there were some big names in that first group, including—make a note for your next bar trivia contest—Ms. Pat Benatar, whose “You Better Run” was the second video aired. Unlike the Buggles, Benatar was watching.

The rest of the first ten looks like this: Rod Stewart’s “She Won’t Dance With Me,” the Who’s “You Better You Bet,” Ph.D.’s “Little Suzi’s on the Up,” Cliff Richard’s “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket,” Todd Rundgren’s “Time Heals,” REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run,” and Styx’s “Rockin’ the Paradise.”

We know, we know: Ph.D.? Cliff who? To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the cable station—which was an all-music outlet until so-called reality shows like The Real World and Jersey Shore crowded out videos completely—we contacted some of the artists from MTV’s first hour to get their memories about the dawn (and pre-dawn) of MTV.

“We really didn’t know much about MTV. To us, it was just another cable channel. By the time the , we’d already moved on to [the progrock band] Yes. In many ways, the Buggles was something that we didn’t conceive to be a long-term thing; it was more like a stepping-stone. It’s strange that we’ve actually done a few gigs as the Buggles over the past few years. It works pretty well live.”

“I was just sitting in a hotel room in Oklahoma in awe. Not only were we on MTV, they were literally playing [us] round-the-clock. It was a phenomenon. ‘You Better Run’ is still fabulous to watch, because we were in a factory on the docks on the west side of New York. I remember the director brought over one of those giant fans and turned it on. My hair’s blowing and he says, ‘Okay, just go!’ And I say, ‘What? I don’t go.’ Then they shut the fan off.”

[Editor’s note: Ph.D. was a British blueeyed soul trio that had a Top 10 hit in the U.K. with “I Won’t Let You Down.” Their MTV video was for “Little Suzi’s on the Up,” a track that never charted. Ph.D. re-formed in 2006 and released a comeback album, Three, in 2009.] “We remember people saying, ‘Oh, you were on MTV.’ And we were like, ‘Wow, what’s MTV?’ The video was terrible, probably the worst video ever made. We made the craziest thing we could think of, [not knowing] people would still be watching 30 years later. Maybe we’d have taken it a bit more seriously at the time, but we didn’t. We didn’t really want to be involved in [making videos], so we thought we’d make one so stupid that no one would ever watch it. But, unfortunately, every one did.” [And of course, it lives on, on YouTube.]

“My first experience with MTV was about a year before [it] went on the air. I was in a meeting with five executives from Time Warner, in this fancy restaurant in Manhattan. They weren’t very rock-looking at all. They were telling me the concept [of MTV]. They wanted to have lead singers in rock bands intro ducing the videos and would I be interested in doing some thing like that? I heard them out and everything, then went, ‘Guys, I’m a lead singer in a rock band. I’m in a diff erent city every day. There’s no way I can be in New York introducing videos for four or five hours a day and still be in a band.’ They all looked at each other like, Oh, my God, we hadn’t considered that.

“I was not aware [that ‘Rockin’ the Paradise’ was among the first videos on MTV]. I stumbled upon it when I was at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. I saw something that said ‘MTV’s First Hour.’ The first time I heard anything about MTV was at the very end of ’82. Tommy [Shaw] lived in Michigan and had a satellite. He said, ‘There’s a music channel where they play just videos of bands. Can you imagine?’ ”

“Over the years my memory had changed it to ‘Too Much Time on My Hands’ [being] our first one on there. I’d told that story onstage before. Nothing messes up a good story like the facts.”

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