The 40 Best Videos From MTV’s First Day
At the stroke of midnight on August 1, 1981, MTV employees congregated around half a dozen TV sets in Fort Lee, New Jersey. No cable operator in Manhattan yet carried the inchoate station, so celebrations were held at a bar and restaurant called the Loft. The first night was, as network co-founder and executive Bob Pittman put it, “a total, unmitigated disaster.” It didn’t matter. History had been made.
In its nascent stage, MTV looked a lot different from what one might see on, let’s say, August 1, 1984. Most noticeably, there was an overabundance of British rockers represented. This phenomenon led to a second “British Invasion” and a popularization of the genre known as “new wave.” In a 1983 Rolling Stone article, Parker Puterbaugh wrote, “[O]n July 16th … no fewer than 18 singles of British origin charted in the American Top Forty, topping the previous high of fourteen, set on June 18th, 1965.”
The explanation is rather simple: When bands couldn’t (or preferred not to) mime their song on the British music program Top Of The Pops, they would send in a pre-filmed video. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song some argue is the first modern music video, was recorded for the program because the band felt the song was too complex to lip-sync. The “Video Killed The Radio Star” vid debuted on that show in 1979, three years before it became MTV’s first clip.
MTV didn’t invent the music video. Australia was airing promotional band clips as early as 1974 on its shows Sounds and Countdown. In the US, there was the unhosted series Video Concert Hall (1978-1981), followed by cable programs such as PopClips (hosted by former Monkee Mike Nesmith) and Hollywood Heartbeat (hosted by former Fleetwood Mac member Bob Welch). Both pre-date the network, though each had a relatively short lifespan (1980-1981 for both). So while video clips had a televised history, MTV created demand for even more of them.
And 40 years ago this week, it became the first network devoted to music videos. MTV played 116 videos on the station’s first day. The broadcast, while overwhelmingly white, ran the musical gamut: country, heavy metal, new wave, rap (albeit by Blondie), and reggae were all represented. Stereogum has ranked the 40 best.
Rod Stewart - "Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)"
This guy had 11 videos on the first day. I’ll throw him a bone. He croons to a blonde in front of his heath in a mansion. It looks swanky. We don’t see her face. Just her silky hair. Rod’s in a chair. It looks like the cover of Never A Dull Moment. He takes her to bed. Sexy.
Stevie Nicks - "Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around"
R.I.P. Tom Petty
Rupert Hine - "Surface Tension"
Weird. Rupert is singing underwater. His feet kick in the green glare of the water. Cool concept that never really takes off.
Michael Johnson - "Bluer Than Blue"
Sad song. Johnson lies on the couch. He’s upset. His curtain blows in the wind while he tries to persuade himself that actually being alone has its perks.
Robert Palmer - "Johnny & Mary"
Palmer looks like an old-timey reporter at his desk. He watches some weird mines. He gets better at music videos later on.
Fleetwood Mac - “Tusk"
I like it when Stevie twirls the baton. Looks like fun.
Lee Ritenour - "Mr. Briefcase"
“It’s a rat race, Mr. Briefcase,” Ritenour sings. He signs a record contract in blood. Businessmen are killing him.
Split Enz - “One Step Ahead”
Singer Neil Finn takes us on a Night Gallery-like tour of a room where his bandmates play in silhouette behind colored dividers. Second verse, they’re in a black room with angular white scaffolding. It looks proto-emo.
Michael Stanley - "He Can’t Love You"
The Michael Stanley Band’s Kevin Raleigh clocks in as janitor at an industrial factory. He fantasizes about getting with a nurse while he works. A package falls on him and now he’s in a body cast in the hospital. Sometimes dreams do come true.
Fischer-Z - "So Long"
Singer, who looks like the Ken doll version of Bryan Ferry, wants to know where his girl is. So, he hires a detective — a Bogart look-alike — to track her down. Turns out she’s living in France. Bummer.
Pretenders - "Kid"
Chrissie in a green suit superimposed over a spinning carnival ride. Don’t get dizzy.
Robert Palmer - "Looking For Clues"
Palmer is toy-size in this one. He dances atop a xylophone Big style (before Big was a thing). There’s a puzzle and when it’s completed it features Palmer’s face in black and white.
Pat Benatar - "I’m Gonna Follow You"
A rocking mid-tempo number where Benatar walks down a tunnel covered in green lights and hangs outside subway stops like she’s waiting for a perp to follow. She meets her double. It’s got a Brian DePalma feel to it.
Ph.D. - "I Won’t Let You Down"
A redhead dude follows a pretty woman and holds her boxes. Some other guy is trying to sabotage them, but like a Spy vs Spy cartoon he always fails.
Ramones - "Do You Remember Rock 'N' Roll Radio?"
Ramones gather around a TV set. They’re playing live inside of it. Channels cut out and play vintage footage of Beatlemania. Joey bangs on the box. Pretty much a gimmicky version of “band plays live.”
Gerry Rafferty - "Bring It All Home"
There really should be more animated music videos. That’s all I’ll say.
Split Enz - "I Hope I Never"
Pretty boy singer is wearing a suit with a shawl around his neck. He looks like me at my Bar Mitzvah. He seems sad. He walks around a resort with nice foliage and stumbles across people dancing in pink smoke.
Bootcamp - "Victim"
Band is in court. Singer takes the stand. He apparently does a bad job because Bootcamp ends up in jail.
David Bowie - "Fashion"
OK, what? Bowie sings in a nightclub, people dance in a ballet studio, strange masked people wait in line for soup, a woman holds up a huge pill. It doesn’t make sense. But who can resist a Bowie video?
The Buggles - "Living In The Plastic Age"
The blackface hasn’t aged well. Otherwise, neat and experimental.
J. Geils Band - "Love Stinks"
Wouldn’t you think love stinks if Faye Dunaway had done away with your marriage? That’s the predicament J. Geils Band lead singer Peter Wolf found himself in one year before he co-wrote “Love Stinks.” (He and Dunaway divorced in 1979.) The song starts off with a simple, but memorable, drum beat. In the video, a bride and a groom walk down the aisle with their backs toward the camera. When they turn around, they’re wearing gas masks. You can’t get any more on-the-nose than that. Chuck Statler, who did early video shorts for DEVO, directs this one. His artsy, pedantic style imbues humor into the song’s cynicism.
Elvis Costello & the Attractions - "Oliver's Army"
In the early morning, when Elvis Costello appeared on MTV, sporting a dark blue blazer and pink shirt, holding a blue drink and lip syncing, no black musicians had yet been featured. This video, however, has the dubious distinction of being the first time the N-word appears on the station. Costello came under attack for his use of the pejorative “white n*****,” a term the British occupying Northern Ireland called their Catholic neighbors. If you can see through that nastiness (you can read more about it here), the song is an anti-imperialist anthem with a somewhat commercial video. Shot by Chuck Statler on location while the band was touring in Hawaii, the tropical locale (palm trees, volcano) works well against the uptempo jubilance of the track, while the 4AM strip club interior shots balance out the bleakness of its lyrics. Statler — given the sobriquet “the godfather of the music video” by MoMA, a title he seems slightly baffled by — also worked with longtime Costello collaborator, Nick Lowe on the “Cruel To Be Kind” video.
Rainbow - "Can’t Happen Here"
There’s a popular genre of YouTube videos that feature a slideshow of images, put together by fans, that correspond with the song’s lyrics. (Think: “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with all its reference points animated.) Rainbow, the British band formed by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, takes a similar approach for their video “Can’t Happen Here.” Between shots of the band rocking out, the images follow the political patter song’s words. For example, Joe Lynn Turner sings “Supersonic planes for a holiday boom” and we see a supersonic jet on a runway, “Rio de Janeiro in an afternoon” and we get beaches in Brazil, “People out of work but there’s people on the moon” and Apollo 11 footage, the same used by MTV. If this copy isn’t selling the video, I’m sorry. It’s high octane blitzkrieg to the senses has to be seen to be believed.
Phil Collins - "In The Air Tonight"
Stuart Orme began working with Phil Collins in 1980 on the video for Genesis’ “Turn It On Again.” (Genesis is primed to have a big comeback moment — you heard it here first.) The following year, they teamed up again to bring to life the Face Value album cover and pepper in some brooding shots of Collins in an empty room. In between Collins’ black-and-white face singing verses, there is something of a story line. Collins said the goal was to make that part scary, but that “it didn’t turn out that way at all.” It’s true that it’s a bit too cheesy to cause any real fright, but there’s a patina of disconcertion. The hallway filled with doors creates some drama. What’s behind door number 1? It’s locked (no grand prize). Door number 2 opens. Now, the author of the Wikipedia article on the music video section of the “In The Air Tonight” Wikipedia page says Punxsutawney Phil Collins sees his own reflection and we get eight more weeks of drum solos. But I’m convinced he never enters room number 2. It doesn’t matter either way. The unnerving tone makes it hard to look away from. Only complaint is Collins should have utilized the gated drum fill (“duh duh duh da duh da duh da da da”) to create tension or at least do something to draw attention to it.
Todd Rundgren - "Time Heals"
In November 1980, Todd Rundgren complained to Billboard magazine: “You’re not expanding your audience when you tour; you’re only playing to your most hard-core fans.” His solution: Finding new fans through promotional videos. Two years earlier, in 1978, he used the money he got from producing the wildly successful Meatloaf album Bat Out Of Hell to open his own video production company, Utopia Video Studios. He hoped that by retaining the rights to the videos, he could later sell them as a package. A savvy play for someone with as inimitable a vision as Todd. The video for “Time Heals” is a paean to Surrealism: Magritte and Dalí paintings become backgrounds for clunky computer animations and a dancing sequence in which Rundgren, dressed in all black, boogies inside the desert from The Persistence Of Memory.
Nick Lowe - "Cruel To Be Kind"
The video opens with Nick washing his pits, shaving his face, and straightening his tie. He’s getting ready, but for what? Once the verse begins, he meets up with his bandmates and with a yellow guitar he pantomimes playing while his shoulder-length coiffed hair covers his eyes. Most early videos, even if they have some semblance of plot, feature the band bobbing up and down in rhythm to the music. You gotta kill time somehow. Lowe’s limo driver, the musician Dave Edmunds, whom Lowe collaborated with (and ultimately had a falling out with, arrives in a Mercedes to chauffeur him to the main event: Lowe’s wedding to Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith. The couple has their photo taken and the chef brings out their cake, but not before he scoops a big piece out with his fingers in order to give it a taste. Lowe, an underrated power-pop maven, has an off-color sense of humor that compliments the song’s cheeky yet pessimistic lyrics. The footage was shot during the couple’s actual reception, which took place on August 18, 1979 at the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood. The video took so long to film that Lowe was late to his own ceremony. But hey, you gotta be cruel to be kind, right?
Ultravox - "Passing Strangers"
Russell Mulcahy said that when he first started directing videos, bands didn’t request a concept. Instead, they’d send him a cassette with the song. “I’d listen to it with my eyes closed, come up with some ideas and write something down. We’d shoot the video the next day or two days later,” he said. Later, he’d define Duran Duran’s visual lexicon, but first he made cinematic classics for British synth-pop band Ultravox. “Passing Strangers” is shot in black and white. There’s a couple on the run. From what, it’s not exactly clear. These early videos tend to be more stylistic barrages of images than cohesive packages. The chase is thrilling regardless and in the finale, a bomb goes off behind the couple Wizard of Ozing the picture into color. It’s a neat effect.
The Vapors - "Turning Japanese"
The Chinese-born photographer and performance artist Tseng Kwong Chi is today best remembered for his series “East Meets West.” It’s composed of pictures — selfies the artist snapped, while costumed in a thrifted Mao suit and mirrored glasses — taken in front of famous landmarks, such as the World Trade Center and the Eiffel Tower. What he found is people treated him better when he dressed up as his Asian character; they assumed he was a dignitary. People project onto the East because the West has mystified it for so long. That’s what Vapors’ songwriter David Fenton claims is the theme of “Turning Japanese”: It relates the alienation experienced after a breakup with the feeling of not belonging those in diasporic communities face. If they weren’t trying to be racist, they got it pretty wrong with the video. Kabuki theater-style samurai and geisha fill the screen, gripping swords and fans. It’s obvious imagery, but offensive nonetheless. Russell Mulcahy, who would go onto direct cult-film Highlander, adds a sense of sensibility here. The jump cuts add urgency and the set creates mood.
Ph.D. - "Little Suzi's On The Up"
British new wave band Ph.D begins its video (one of two from their catalog played on the first day) with keyboardist Tony Hymas stepping on stage, unfurling a roll-up piano pad, and banging on it like it’s ebony and ivory. Thus, the brand is established. Let the gags begin. Singer Jim Diamond works as a butcher. He dreams of dancing with Suzi while spinning around with a pig cadaver in the meantime. A bald man with an eye patch and score cards rates the living and dead partners. He’s a recurring bit throughout. Suzi’s at a salon getting ready for her big night. She dances with the hair dryer. The judge rates her from a hooded drying machine. Diamond presses his tuxedo and imagines himself as Fred Astaire. He gets on his motorcycle and picks up Suzi, who comes running out in a white tutu and blue bodice. They arrive at the Hammersmith Palais, dance in the competition, and win. Their prize: a jar of pickled eggs. I love a happy ending!
Pretenders - "Brass In Pocket"
In the first 24 hours of MTV’s broadcast history, 116 videos were played, with some repeating, to make up 209 spins. Many acts that appeared that day didn’t just have one video. Rod Stewart had 11. The Pretenders had five. “Brass In Pocket” is the most high concept. Chrissie Hynde is a waitress at a diner, but she yearns for more. When the rest of the band comes in to eat, she sees her chance for escape. She primps her hair and winks at the boys. They’re handsome and Chrissie wants their attention. She’s gonna make them, make them, make them notice. When three women walk in and greet the boys, her hopes are dashed. They drive off in a pink Cadillac and Chrissie watches glumly as they go off into the sunset. This one proves that a video doesn’t have to be flashy to be memorable.
Blotto - "I Wanna Be A Lifeguard"
Ever heard of Blotto before? Me neither until I watched this silly video. (Having a sense of humor is an absolute advantage in this medium.) With the help of two video production students at SUNY Albany, who filmed the band for a senior project, the Blotto boys got a leg up on the competition by appearing on TV. Previously, their surf rock power-pop song — imagine if Ween did an homage to DEVO — was popular on local radio, but the MTV exposure led to bigger opportunities, such as opening for Blue Öyster Cult on their North American tour. The video is directly inspired by the lyrics: A schlub, working at a shoe store in the mall, yearns for more than dealing with customers. From there, the drama reaches its natural conclusion for a song called “I Wanna Be A Lifeguard.” He quits and goes to the beach. It’s an over-the-top hidden gem and, yes, the lead singer has “white stuff on his nose” throughout.
David Bowie - "Boys Keep Swinging"
As early as 1972, David Bowie, always ahead of his time, was making promotional clips for his songs. In July 1979, Rolling Stone called the format “the newest selling tool in rock,” mentioning “Boys Keep Swinging” in the process. After debuting the song on the Kenny Everett Video Show that year, he poached the program’s director, David Mallet, and went to work shocking audiences for neither the first nor the last time. The clip for “Boys Keep Swinging” begins with Bowie, dressed dapperly in a suit, but at about the 50-second mark, once the refrain of “boys” begins, three Bowies appear in drag. There’s a blonde Bowie, a raven-haired Bowie, and a redhead Bowie. The former two conclude the video by triumphantly ripping off their wigs and smearing their makeup. Bowie later explained that this was a “well-known drag act finale gesture which I appropriated.” He’d encountered drag at Romy Haag’s Berlin nightclub. “I really liked the idea of screwing up make-up after all the meticulous work that had gone into it,” he continued. “It was a nice destructive thing to do – quite anarchistic.”
Hilly Michaels - "Calling All Girls"
After watching 94 music videos in a row, I was certain I had seen it all. Then came drummer Hilly Michaels’ “Calling All Girls.” The song itself is a bit derivative. The lyrics deal with rock star excess, which two years earlier was done to better effect by an actual rock star (Joe Walsh), but the visuals are to the eyes what the ear-candy melody is to the ears. Using a Richard Hamliton-esque collage style, the Pop art product assaults the perceptions with its cartoony flurry of images. At the video’s conclusion, after all the girls have been called to a banquet of ice cream, a food fight erupts. It’s fun from frame to frame.
The Selecter - "Celebrate The Bullet"
Released in early 1981, a few months after John Lennon’s murder, BBC banned “Celebrate The Bullet,” believing it was a pro-Mark David Chapman track. Attempts to recover from this misunderstanding stalled when Ronald Reagan was shot a month later — at least, that’s the apocryphal story. The British 2 Tone ska revival band, along with labelmates the Specials, was one of the only biracial groups shown on MTV’s first day. “Celebrate The Bullet” begins with a guitar solo, a leitmotif that sounds like a Carlos Santana lick. Singer Pauline Black walks around a brick-walled locale that looks like either a haunted castle or hell. At one point, the bassist keeps his cool composure while a murder of crows flaps around his face. It’s the kind of video where the viewer feels more than thinks, one with atmosphere and attitude.
Blondie - "Heart Of Glass"
“We started making videos in 1976,” claims Debbie Harry in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. Blondie, she says, would make clips in order to promote the songs in England and Australia. In fact, Blondie wasn’t only early to the video game, the band was the first to release a video album — 1979’s Eat To The Beat had an accompanying clip for each of its 12 tracks. Not part of that album, “Heart Of Glass” came out the same year with a clip directed by Stanley Dorfman, who also helmed Bowie’s “Heroes” video. “Heart Of Glass” is an abject lesson in sex appeal. Nothing really happens in the nearly four minutes that elapse. It opens with an infrared shot of the World Trade Center and ends that way too. In between, Harry — big mouth, blonde bob — looks bored and eternally cool in her Stephen Sprouse dress. She says she wanted to dance around but was told to stand still. Instead, her face is captured in a tight shot, Harry’s beauty plays as the main attraction. Harry herself put it more bluntly: “My nipples are showing in ‘Heart Of Glass.’ Maybe that’s why people liked the video so much.”
The Buggles - “Video Killed The Radio Star”
A question worth pondering: Is “Video” innately memorable or is its reputation inflated by its provenance? Somewhere in between is the answer. Many of these videos are incomprehensible. Early videos were often slapdash efforts filmed in a single day and “Video” is not an exception. There’s a young girl playing with a radio, which then blows up once the chorus comes on. She then travels to the future and there’s a woman in a tube. It’s ambitious. There’s an abandoned studio set and stage costumes; explosions and a woman flying like Peter Pan. It looks a tad like an expensive middle school production, but it actually cost $50,000 dollars (approx. $149,447 nowadays). The video was chosen to be the first played on August 1, 1981 because of its obvious symbolism.
Ultravox - "Vienna"
It’s rare that any of the early vids fit into a genre. The majority of them are just “look at us, we’re playing our instruments” or “look at us, we’re playing live.” Not so for Ultravox, who enlisted the help of director Russell Mulcahy. (Mulcahy’s name appears again and again. In fact, “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also done by him.) “Vienna” is gothic with elements of noir and occasional horror. Heavily inspired by the 1949 film The Third Man, the action in the video isn’t made more legible with multiple viewings. (Why does the woman shoot the man at the end?) However, that incomprehensibility doesn’t detract from the eeriness. Half was shot in central London — including the stunning interior shots of the old Kilburn Gaumont Theatre — and the other half in the song’s titular city. It’s a real trip. The montage at the end, during the solo, and the ensuing chase scene have Hollywood pedigree. It’s art.
Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"
In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (a book I have not read), Catherine Earnshaw is abandoned by her love, Heathcliff, and dies while giving birth to another man’s child. Kate Bush also hadn’t read the book, when, at age 18, she saw the movie on the telly and immediately went to work composing what would become her debut single. When it was released in March 1978, the song shot up to number 1, making Bush the first woman to top the UK charts with a self-penned song. Another accolade: Bush may have been the first and only woman to star solo in an MTV video on its maiden day. In this “Wuthering Heights” video — there are two versions — Bush is wearing a white dress. This is the first version made for British audiences. The second, more well-known version made for US audiences has Bush in a red dress. Both feature Bush’s limber swaying, her choreography somewhere between drunk ballet and interpretive dancing. The “white dress” version trades the wily windy moors for an indoor set replete with fog and bad special effects. Bush’s intent was to look like a ghost and this one is definitely more haunting than the other. However, if the TikTok teens are gonna bring back the dance, they’ll pilfer the moves from the “red dress” video. In hindsight, it’s the better of the two. But “white dress” is still arresting. Bush, who delayed the release of the “Wuthering Heights single because she didn’t like the cover art EMI chose, is as dedicated to her aesthetic as her sound.
Blondie - "Rapture"
Roughly six months before it aired on MTV, Debbie Harry premiered the “Rapture” video on Solid Gold, a popular music program. “Blondie and some of our friends put together a number to show you what rapping and the street scene is like,” Harry told the audience, who were likely hearing about this burgeoning genre for the first time. Pre-MTV, video shorts were a racket for a select few directors. You’ll see the same names appear again and again. “Rapture” was helmed by photographer Keith MacMillan, aka “Keef,” who also filmed the bulk of Kate Bush’s videos, including one for “Wuthering Heights.” “Rapture” became the first rap video on MTV and it wouldn’t be until three years later that an actual rap group (Run-DMC) appeared on the channel. With a cast featuring dancer William Barnes, decked out in all white, as The Man From Mars, Jean-Michel Basquiat as a DJ, Fab 5 Freddy as a tagger, and a goat named Mona as, well, a goat, it’s a low-concept video that recreates all the excitement of the early ‘80s Lower East Side. Harry recently told The Post she didn’t love the video at the time, but has come around to it. A melding of uptown hip-hop and graffiti culture with the downtown arty cool of SoHo lofts and Bowery dives, “Rapture” is a revelation even if it sounds slightly primitive today; or, as Freddy put it, the song “la[id] the mainstream foundation for the hip-hop cultural revolution that was soon to follow.”
Talking Heads - "Once In A Lifetime"
Iconic. On the cymbal crash that opens the song, David Byrne, dressed like a preacher, blasts onto the screen from below, breathing like he’s on a plane and he hates flying. At this point in his career, he’s fascinated by televangelists (see his 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts) and when he begins the talk-singing first verse, he’s gesticulating like it’s Sunday mass. Playing behind him is a green screen projection of people in trances and archival footage of African tribal rituals. Byrne is jerky and spastic. He gets down on his knees and then duck-walks across the set. He looks like a T-rex marionette doll. The choreography is provided by Tony Basil, who would later achieve her own MTV hit with “Mickey.” Basil says Byrne came up with the moves himself, she just helped stylize them a bit. Like many early MTV videos, there’s little to nothing happening in this one, yet Byrne’s presence — his flamboyant flailing — is something you won’t forget once you see it.