MTV went on the air on August 1, 1981. For better or worse, everything changed soon after. As has been stated many times, by us and lesser experts in the new wave field (which is situated not far from Wrigley Field), the unexpected ascension of European music in America in the first half of the eighties can be directly attributed to the fact that MTV did not have enough homegrown rock videos to fill out it’s 24/7 rotation. We looked at the network’s playlist for its first full day of existence — what a weird and fascinating mish-mosh of staid and unexciting American radio staples and oddball clips plucked from the ether! And yet it was that oddball stuff that would point the way to a vast sea change in pop culture. In honor of this momentous anniversary and the long-gone days when there was a literal M in MTV, we pick our favorites among the 116 videos (16 of them from Rod Stewart!) that were played on Day One. (To listen via Spotify or follow our playlists, click here.)
“Video Killed the Radio Star,” the Buggles (First video played on Day 1 of MTV)
I was probably sleeping when, at 12:01 a.m., the cable channel commenced their broadcast with a 1979 single that mocks the radio star of the fifties while embracing the TV era that was about to make them redundant. I probably got to see the video a couple of days later, and that was the first time I’d have heard the song too. Now the two are inextricably linked: the little girl morphing into the tinsel-haired alien, the exploding radio, and the multitude of synthesizers, and the pretty, tinkle-y melody that belies a sneering lyric.
“Looking for Clues,” Robert Palmer (23rd video played)
Wait! This video — a weird sort of Mardi Gras parade of costumed characters in a hallway — isn’t the one I remember! The one I recall seeing in the early days of MTV featured Palmer “looking for clues” through an oversized magnifying class. Does anyone else remember this?!
“Rapture,” Blondie (48th video played)
It’s often said that “Rapture” is the first charting rap single. I guess that makes this the first rap video ever played on MTV. Also, this is the first rap record performed by a white female vocalist to go to number one — and the last, until Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy.”
“Boys Keep Swinging,” David Bowie (60th video played)
We spend so much time deifying Bowie these days that it’s hard to imagine him having a sense of humor. This video proves that he did.
“Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads (63rd video played)
This was the first video I ever saw on MTV. I was clicking the channels on this new contraption that came with the cable TV when I saw this bizarre, sweaty, bespectacled man swimming across the screen. I called my friend Maria and told her to turn on channel 24. We laughed and laughed. It would be years until I’d realize the song was an ode to middle-age crisis.
“Cruel to Be Kind,” Nick Lowe (66th song played)
This has to be one of my top 10 favorite songs of all time. Maybe even top five. And the video is absolutely adorable. This is the first instance of something that would happen a lot: A hit by a Brit who was much more popular in the U.S. than in his homeland. It’s off of his album Jesus of Cool, which had a different name in America: Pure Pop For Now People.
“Johnny and Mary,” Robert Palmer (85th video played)
Long before the term “culture vulture” was employed as a pejorative, long before we coined the phrase “new-wave adjacent,” Robert Palmer was speeding through styles and genres. He hopped onto the icy synth-pop bandwagon before there even was a bandwagon. “Looking For Clues” is perhaps his best known song from his brief respite in new wave, but “Johnny and Mary” is far and way his most beautiful. Rich, deep, regretful and, amazingly, never really a hit.
“Kid,” Pretenders (77th video played)
As you might imagine, there was A LOT of Pretenders on the Day One playlist. “Kid” I feel, perhaps wrongly, gets short shrift in the Chrissie Hynde canon, but it was the first of her songs that really got to me. Definitely the best song delivered from the point of view of a sad whore to her neglected son to be played on Day One! (Unless I never fully understood the meaning of that April Wine song played 56th.)
“Prime Time,” The Tubes (89th video played)
In our book and in many other places, Devo griped, with some justification, about being the band that was MTV before there were an MTV, and when there was an actual MTV, they were too bizarre and alienating for them. But before Devo, The Tubes were MTV before they were MTV. The Tubes had a huge grotesque theatrical live show, built around their classic “White Punks On Dope” and the equally classic “Don’t Touch Me There.” By the time, they hooked up with Todd Rundgren to make this gorgeous record, from a TV-Is-turning-us-all-into-mindless-pleasure-receptacles concept album, their outlandish edges had been sanded down. A year or so later, they would be no different from Journey and singer Fee Waybill would be the best man at Richard Marx’s wedding.
“Rat Race,” The Specials (61st video played)
Completely un-American sound, completely un-American subject matter and it would be many years before more bands with multi-racial line-ups were allowed past the nervous gatekeepers of MTV. But on Day One the watching few got an eyeful of the Specials ar their most un-crowd pleasing.
“Tomorrow Night,” Shoes (86th video played)
LM: “Who? Are you serious? It’s over!” Okay, this lilting powerpop song didn’t point the way to any pop cultural upheaval but it’s one of my all-time favorite records and I was amazed to see that the Shoes, from Illinois, popped up no less than four times with four separate songs on Day One.