Some old dogs learned new tricks when MTV came on the air 40 years ago. And some had the tricks already in their repertoire.
They say that video killed the radio star, but some of those rock artists who were doing just fine on radio, thank you, were ready for their cameo – and then some. Many such artists hailed from the U.K. and Europe, where video was an established form of promotion for at least a decade and a half thanks to outlets available to air them. But there were also some acts on this side of the pond who were ready to meet the new boss.
Eventually, most anyone who was serious got on board as MTV’s impact expanded and other video outlets appeared on the U.S. landscape. But during MTV’s earliest days, these were the 10 classic rock acts that benefited most from the new channel’s inaugural blast.
The “Heartbreaker” was already a hitmaker, but her British-founded label, Chrysalis Records, knew about video and was ready to make Pat Benatar an early adapter. The company chose her cover of the Young Rascals’ “You Better Run” from Benatar’s sophomore album, Crimes of Passion, setting the singer and her band up for performance shoot on the Manhattan’s west side docks. Guitarist (and future husband) Neil Giraldo was against it, but Benatar wrote in her memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place that everyone else “was incredibly excited to be part of this new method of bringing music to the future.” She was pissed off by the director’s suggestion to use fans (for maximum hair-blowing) and poses, but her attitude wound up working to the clip’s benefit. “You Better Run” was the second video aired by MTV, right after “Video Killed the Radio Star,” making Giraldo the first guitarist to appear on the channel.
The Midwestern rock troupe and its team had the temerity to make some videos from 1980’s chart-topping Hi Infidelity for the overseas market, including “Keep on Loving You” and “Take It on the Run,” so it was locked and loaded for MTV’s launch. REO Speedwagon also has the distinction of having the first full concert to air on MTV, though the Aug. 8 show from Denver had to overcome some technical difficulties during its first airing.
Yeah, he was an arena-filling superstar already, but MTV was good for Sir Rod and boosted him to even greater stature. His clip for “She Won’t Dance With Me” from 1980’s Foolish Behaviour was the network’s third video, and he had others (“Sailing,” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” “Passion,” “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” and more) ready to go. It was the beginning of a long and beneficial relationship on both sides.
Going solo from Led Zeppelin was certainly a daunting proposition, but the group’s frontman found a friend in America’s hot new music channel. MTV aired Robert Plant‘s rendition of Elvis Presley‘s “Little Sister,” with Rockpile from the 1979 Concerts for the People of Kampuchea during its first day. And when he started to come with his own artful clips — “Burning Down One Side,” “Big Log,” “In the Mood,” “Little By Little” — the stairway to video heaven was wide open and welcoming.
The British trio had videos from three albums already when MTV signed on, with a fourth (Ghost in the Machine) on its way in two months. Good looks, good humor and charisma made the Police a fine fit, and it’s fair to say that MTV’s embrace helped set the table for the massive success of Synchronicity in 1983. And MTV was of no small assistance to Sting when he launched his solo career in 1985.
Like the Police, expatriate Chrissie Hynde and her British crew were indoctrinated into the video world and had the goods for MTV. “Brass in Pocket,” “Message of Love,” “Kid” and “Talk of the Town” all aired during the first day, and MTV stayed loyal well for the blast-off of 1984’s Learning to Crawl and well into the ’80s.
Timing is everything, they say. Sure, the Who was well-stocked with videos dating back to its earliest singles. But it had also released a new album, Face Dances, just four and a half months before MTV switched on, meaning clips for “You Better You Bet” and “Don’t Let Go the Coat,” as well as for “Rough Boys” from Pete Towshend‘s recent Empty Glass solo album, were available as “current” fare. The Who’s performances from Concerts for the People of Kampuchea also aired, making the established troupe an early MTV fixture and the channel a supportive partner for the It’s Hard album in 1982 and the Who’s first farewell tour that year.
That timing thing? Ask these guys about it, too. MTV’s launch came just in front of Queen‘s Greatest Flix, a companion to 1981’s Queen’s Greatest Hits album that compiled the 18 of the band’s videos to that point — including a clip for “Killer Queen” filmed especially for the collection. The quartet’s advanced creativity made for plenty of entertaining moments, and as radio support ebbed for Queen’s ’80s and ’90s releases, MTV remained a valuable support system.
It helped that Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight” was already a big and fairly current hit and had a really cool, understated video to go with it. Genesis had a small arsenal of clips as well, and when budgets got bigger both entities made conceptually ambitious and often humorous videos that the channel couldn’t deny, leading to favored nation status for at least another decade.
Video was part of the A Wizard, a True Star‘s artistic arsenal well before MTV hit the air. It didn’t exactly make Todd Rundgren a video star it was a domestic home for his surrealist “Time Heals,” which was the eighth clip aired during the channel’s first day. With no real love from radio, MTV was something of a port in the storm for Rundgren (and Utopia) as he brought clips for “Bang on the Drum All Day,” “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” and other singles.