Books: I Want My MTV

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A new book, I Want My MTV, written by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum and subtitled The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, goes on sale tomorrow and it’s plain fun for those of us who remember those songs and images in the early 1980s. Even for those who weren’t around or don’t like rock, TV or music videos, it’s light and informative, strictly as casual reading material, with quick, profanity-laden snippets about the cultural influence of Music Television, otherwise known as MTV.

Most of the major videos, rock stars, 80s’ bands and personalities are here, and the book is an unstructured, disorganized mess without a single narrative. It’s composed of short, compiled paragraphs of interspersed interview excerpts with executives, producers, artists and others, so I advise readers to flip through and make good use of the index (which lacks music video titles). For all its flaws, one gets a sense of the early days of this remarkable cable television channel, created by media executive John Lack, who says here that he conceptualized MTV as “video radio”, an idea he pitched over and over.

Today, MTV bears no resemblance to its free airplay origins, which revived and/or propelled the careers of The Police, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, and Duran Duran, among others including comedian Denis Leary, choreographer, singer and ex-American Idol judge Paula Abdul and, notably, movie director David Fincher (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), who started in videos (see his innovative work on bringing The Motels’ Martha Davis to life in billboards in their video for “Shame”). MTV and those five original “veejays” tapped into and catapulted an exciting and energetic New Wave of rock and pop music and I Want My MTV (the free channel’s original slogan) shows it off here with delightful abandon. Much of the material amounts to gossip about sex and drugs, though Stevie Nicks talks openly about trying to kick the cocaine habit in Corona del Mar while shooting Fleetwood Mac’s classic 1982 video for their song “Gypsy”, and the candor and straight talk is striking about some of the most iconic and exceptional videos. For example, just after director Russell Mulcahy talks about Elton John‘s “I’m Still Standing” being “super, super, super gay”, he refers to the homoeroticism of Billy Joel’s “Allentown”.

The next entry is Billy Joel talking about “Allentown”: “I watched it the other day for the first time in a while. Now, Russell was a brilliant director. But I didn’t realize until I watched it again how gay that video was. It’s really gay! There’s a shower scene with all these good-looking, muscular young steel workers who are completely bare-assed. And then they’re all oiled up and twisting valves and knobs. I’d completely missed this when I was doing the video. I just thought it was like The Deer Hunter.” There are dozens of these tales, with Pat Benatar talking about learning the dance for “Love is a Battlefield”, Rod Stewart refusing to come out of his trailer, Christine McVie in her trailer for hours, and many more about classic tunes and videos. Among those interviewed: Journey, Cindy Crawford, Timothy Hutton (he directed “Drive” for The Cars), Janet Jackson on her late brother Michael, Chris Isaak, Guns N’ Roses, Conan O’Brien, Hall & Oates, Tom Petty, Phil Collins, Michael Mann and Jerry Bruckheimer. After an initial rummaging, I Want My MTV probably belongs in the bathroom for every adult (it’s not for kids) to enjoy, but there are some hilarious and interesting facts here about the modern history of rock, television and our dumbed down culture, which is not entirely MTV’s fault. In the early days, the best music videos were original, enjoyable and occasionally inspiring pop and rock short films.