In July 1981, my parents signed up for a pilot program called “Cable TV” from Time Warner that was being offered locally. We instantly gained seven new channels on top of the usual three. Such abundance!
TV was my life back then (see previous article) and all of the sudden, I had one All News/All the Time channel and two (two!) All Movies/All the Time channels (even the R-rated ones), and of course an All Sports/All the Time channel. And four others! It was overwhelming to suddenly have so much to watch, and I was in full sponge mode.
I was attached to the television every waking minute in those first few weeks of Cable TV. I sampled every channel at random intervals and soaked up all this new information. I watched my first R-rated movie, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase. I watched a lot of CNN, experiencing 24-hour news for the first time. I also watched hundreds of commercials for a brand new channel that would debut at midnight, August 1st.
I stayed up past my bedtime that night. I snuck into the den, and sitting about 18 inches from the screen, I carefully adjusted the volume so as not to wake my folks and miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
MTV debuted at midnight, as promised, and I was fully hooked within minutes.
More importantly, that night triggered an awakening in me. My musical knowledge at the time was nil. I knew the songs on the radio, old and new, and sometimes the artists who sang those songs, but it was little more than environmental wallpaper prior to the debut of MTV.
For the first time, thanks to the small credits in the lower left of the screen, I knew the artist’s name, the title of the record and the record label. Radio offered no reference beyond the DJ front- or back-tagging a track - but MTV offered actual metadata on the song. I didn’t know the word metadata back then, but I totally understood that I could dig into those credits for more information.
I set myself to digging and for the next few years, I learned everything I could about music. And not just the music I liked, but Capital-M Music.
I joined my junior high concert band, playing trumpet. I learned about Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. I learned to read music. I taught myself Beatles songs on the piano using my Mom’s sheet music. I bought other sheet music of my favorite songs and programmed them into my Commodore 64 with Music Construction Set. My taste expanded far beyond the bounds of radio as I started to notice correlations between the bands I liked and their record labels, their producers, and even session players.
Through it all, MTV was my point of reference and an endless font of discovery. I learned about Talking Heads, Missing Persons, Split Enz, and literally hundreds of other bands I had never heard before. I studiously uncovered what details I could find on every artist I saw on MTV. Pre-internet, this involved the Brute Force Method - flipping through every bin at every record store you came across and reading every word in a metric ton of magazines.
There were many bands I knew only from MTV, but MTV also allowed me to connect a whole lot of “Song A’s” with “Band B’s”. Songs I vaguely heard one day on the radio, or heard in a movie or TV show - stuff that was nearly atmospheric because it lacked obvious metadata - became known to me via MTV.
There was, however, one very specific instance where MTV helped me fall in love with a song, but did not provide metadata - turning this A+B process around and illuminating it for me in a new way.
In those earliest days of MTV, there must have been more hours in the day than videos and news to fill the airtime. I could be wrong, but every couple of hours, a video would start playing that wasn’t like the other videos.
These videos were always instrumental tracks and there was never any metadata - just a solo MTV logo floating in the lower left corner. These videos were collages of what appeared to be documentary or governmental films, long takes of nature scenes, aerial footage and timelapses -kind of stuff, but with hard cuts, a lot of randomness and none of his finesse.
There was one particular MTV PSA that had a fantastic soundtrack. It was a beautiful mashup of aerial nature shots, what looked to be NASA and US Government b-roll, and other bits of seemingly found footage. The music, though I didn’t know it at the time, was “YYZ” by Rush.
I became truly obsessed with this mystery track. I absolutely loved it. It scratched every musical itch I had at the time. In fact, that song was the first thing I ever recorded onto a VHS tape - also new in my family at that time.
Every time that particular interstitial played, I launched myself into a totally epic spasm of air-guitar/air-bass/air-drums - tackling all four parts simultaneously with arms and legs flailing wildly. For the next two years, I was never able to learn the artist behind my favorite song, but I committed every note, every drum strike, every string bend and synth burst to memory.
In the summer of 1983, I was in Huntington to visit my Dad for the summer. He had a truly epic vacation planned for us. We were to spend the following month on a grand tour of classic U.S. attractions - St. Louis Arch, Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore - all the way to San Francisco and back.
In preparation, Dad handed me two months’ allowance all at once and told me it had to last, but go ahead and get myself something for the trip. I hopped on my 10-speed and made my way over to the Hill’s Department Store. I really didn’t know what to buy because I didn’t know what I would want to buy on the trip, but I had a new boombox from my birthday, so I walked out with Kiss Alive II and Rush Moving Pictures on 8-track.
Moving Pictures was already a phenomenon in 1983 and I was definitely already a Rush fan. In fact, Signals was out by then, and its first hit, “Subdivisions” was all over MTV, as were the older videos for “Tom Sawyer,” and “Limelight.” But until the day I bought that tape, I still did not know the composer of my favorite MTV bumper song.
By now in this story, I’m guessing you can imagine my utter shock as “Red Barchetta” faded and those first staccato notes of “YYZ” launched from my speakers.
A small nuclear device detonated in my skull. Bright lines shot through my vision. Angels sang. Doves flew. I’m pretty sure that if you were sitting nearby, you would have heard an actual click.
I was giddy with excitement. I distinctly remember sitting on my bed with the 8-track player, surrounded by my 8-track collection, feeling quite proud of myself to have learned the song so thoroughly from nothing more than an occasional MTV interstitial. I closed my eyes and let the music that I knew so well play out, tweaking my face at each small pivot point and fluidly changing air-instruments at each milestone in the song.
I knew Rush because of MTV. I knew “YYZ” because of MTV. It was not quite a full-circle moment, not quite an epiphany, but a connection was made that held great meaning and importance to me.
That summer’s epic trip was morethan vacation, to be frank, but I practically slept on top of my 8-track boombox as we crossed the country. I had to keep the volume very low, so as not to disturb the rest of the family in our cramped van-plus-camper situation. But that did not stop me from committing the entirety of Moving Pictures to memory. To this day, I can anticipate every note, every drum strike, every string bend and synth burst.
Fond memories aside, I grew to loathe MTV in subsequent years - and I’m talking about pre-Real Life MTV, when they still primarily showed music videos. Over time, popular videos were shown every hour on the hour, ad nauseum, in a tight rotation that squeezed out anything outside the mainstream. Rush, and a whole lot of other bands that got MTV off the ground, gave way to the far more telegenic talent coming out of Hair Metal L.A. or New Romantic England in the mid- to late-eighties.
MTV tried to adjust by launching a couple of specialty shows to keep things at least a little fresh. Unfortunately, those shows ended up falling into the same most-popular-wins approach to the rotation as the rest of the day. The most accessible got promoted and then drilled into your skull while most of the rest were never seen again. Discovering anything truly new became impossible.
Nonetheless, in those earliest months, MTV provided me with a new and deeper way to connect to music - one that I didn't even know I needed in my life.
If I really love a song, I have to know it. The metadata is all-important.
Who wrote, produced and recorded that song? Which studio was it and who else recorded in that studio? Were there session players I might know? Who did the artwork? What label released it and what other artists are on that label? What kind of equipment did they use? Who was hanging out with them during the recording?
I don’t go all the way down the rabbit hole on every song that is important to me, but I really want to know that I can if I choose to.
MTV did that.