August 1, 1981. 12:01 AM. That’s when the world changed. “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”
MTV debuts on cable TV (which at the time had only about 25 channels) with little to no fanfare. Based in New York City, the channel employees and executive had to be shuttled over the river to New Jersey to watch the debut as the channel wasn’t initially available on NYC cable. Some in the group knew they were seeing something special. Some were just hoping to make rent the next month. What resulted was a paradigm shifting, industry altering phenomenon.
Over the past month, I read two books covering the history of MTV. The first one was I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution which is basically an oral history of the channel’s first ten years (from conception in 1980, through the channel’s heyday as an all music channel until 1992 when it aired its first reality show). The books contents are derived from interviews with over 400 artists, directors, executives and channel staff members. It’s full of nostalgia, interesting tidbits and tons of useless 80’s music trivia. The story of every major band, performer and video from the 80’s is covered and I found it hard to find stopping points because each story led directly into another almost non-stop. Full disclosure on my part: I bought this one on Audible and listened to it. At just a little over twenty hours long, it’s a bit of a commitment but a wildly entertain one.
The other book I read was VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. It’s a slightly different take on the history of the channel as it’s told from the viewpoint of the five original VJ’s: Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn (along with the late J. J. Jackson). It chronicles their early careers and how they landed their spots in history (the term “VJ” didn’t even exist before they hit the air), their lives and experiences while hosting the music revolution and, ultimately, how they each were ushered out the door and what their lives look like now. It’s written in an interview style were the VJ’s relay their stories in the first person. The book is funny, eye opening and, at times, poignant (not gonna lie…when Alan Hunter, the last VJ standing, tells the story of how he signed off his last shift and walked away I had a lump in my throat). Full disclosure: I actually read this one (bought it on Kindle). Although, truth be told, if there was an Audible version with the VJ’s doing the actual narration I’d buy that in a heartbeat!
It was interesting going through both books at the same time. The stories, personal accounts, and facts in each support and embellish the other. I have to say, while I fully enjoyed both, my favorite had to be VJ. I’m a child of the 80’s. Born in ’70, graduated high school in ’88. I realized, while reading VJ, that not only did I grow up with the channel, but I grew up with five of the coolest people with the coolest jobs…and I considered them my friends. They were all our friends. Almost forty years later, you find yourself getting to know them a little better while you read the book. Each of the VJ’s recount their final on-air appearance and when Alan Hunter, the last VJ standing, described how he signed off the air for the last time and walked out I’m not even the slightest bit ashamed to admit I got a little choked up.
Both books are well worth your time and money. I would even suggest doing it the same way I did: listen to the first, read the second. For me, having watched the VJ’s for so long and also currently hearing them every day on XM and iHeartRadio, their voices were what I heard in my head as I read and gave it a little more personal feel. If you do pick one or both of them up drop me a line on Twitter and let me know what you think.