At 12:01 AM on August 1, 1981, a truly groundbreaking change happened in the music industry when the fledgling cable network dubbed MTV signed onto the airwaves for the first time. Although the channel is now mostly devoid of actual music videos, MTV ushered in the dawn of the music video age, and created overnight stars with airplay saturation of favored videos. It also made stars of its VJs – a new subset of beloved DJs that we could actually watch.
Here are 25 pieces of trivia about the start of a new MTV generation broken down into three categories – The Sign On, The VJs and The Videos.
The MTV Sign On
1. The now famous music score that backed the original opening segment and became the signature sound of the channel was created by Jonathan Elias. He is also credited with composing the Yahoo “yodel” and the Columbia Pictures logo theme that have been lodged in your brain for years.
2. The first voice heard on the channel was from an MTV exec who helped develop the channel, John Lack. After astronaut Neil Armstrong rejected their request to use “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as their sign on, they settled on “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”
3. The original MTV opening sequence used footage from the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia and the Apollo 11 moon mission. In 1986, that footage was retired when the doomed Challenger launch resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts.
4. At first, only residents of northern New Jersey who had a certain cable carrier were able to watch the new channel. It took several years for MTV to be carried nationwide. The first VJs actually road on a bus to a bar in New Jersey to catch their own debut.
5. The channel went through several names before landing on MTV – TV-1 (which they found to already be trademarked) and TV-M, which they eventually reversed.
The MTV VJs
6. In the definitive account of MTV, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (available here on Amazon), the authors quote MTV co-founder Bob Pittman on how the first VJs were chosen: “We need a Black person, we need a girl next door, we need a little sexy siren, we need a boy next door, we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair.” Remember, this was 1981!
7. Those roles eventually went to J.J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, and Mark Goodman, who all became stars in their own right. Among the rejected auditions are ones from Richard Belzer and Carol Leifer.
8. Martha Quinn’s slot was originally offered to legendary WNEW DJ, Meg Griffin. She had auditioned with her husband Joe (who didn’t get an offer), but decided to stay solely with radio.
9. The original VJs were all replaced and/or moved on from the channel by 1986 or 1987, although Quinn was rehired in 1989.
Where are they now?
10. Sadly, J.J. Jackson died in 2004 from a heart attack. He had returned to a successful radio career in Los Angeles.
11. Martha Quinn also went back to radio, hosting numerous shows for Clear Channel, SiriusXM and others. She married in 1992 and lives in Malibu, also hosting shows on SiriusXM.
12. Nina Blackwood hosted numerous rock TV shows after her departure in 1986. She currently has radio shows on SiriusXM.
13. Alan Hunter left MTV in 1987 and went on to host and act in a variety of TV shows. He then became a successful movie producer, founding Hunter Films in his hometown of Birmingham, AL with his brothers. He also currently hosts a show on SiriusXM.
14. Mark Goodman appeared in many TV shows and movies as an actor after his 1987 departure from MTV. He also returned to radio and currently has many shows on SiriusXM.
15. For the definitive first hand account of what the MTV VJ experience was from the inside during 1981-1985, the four surviving VJs teamed up in 2013 to write VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave (available here on Amazon), chronicling their experiences and dishing up the dirt on their interactions with tons of music stars.
The MTV Videos
16. MTV Program Director Steve Casey fought hard for the first video that aired on the new channel – The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The Buggles had yet to break through in the U.S. (they never really did), but of course the theme of the song was a no-brainer for the channel. Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were in The Buggles, and interestingly, famed film composer Hans Zimmer, (Academy Award noms for “Inception,” “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight” and many others) was in this video.
17. The first female video that aired (and the second overall video) was “You Better Run” from Pat Benatar.
18. The first video featuring concert footage was REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run.”
19. The videos that received the most plays on the first day were April Wine’s “Just Between You and Me,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and The Who’s “You Better, You Bet”. They were all played five times that day.
20. The most played artist on the first day of MTV was Rod Stewart with 16 plays. Rod had 11 music videos at the time, and the channel was hungry for any good content.
21. The first videos played on MTV that featured a Black artist were The Specials “Rat Race” and The Selecter “Celebrate the Bullet.”
22. The first country video played on MTV didn’t come until 1986, when the channel aired Dwight Yoakam’s “Honky-Tonk Man.”
23. MTV’s first heavy metal video was Iron Maiden’s “Iron Maiden.”
24. The first rap music video played on MTV was Blondie’s “Rapture.”
25. In total there were 116 videos included in the first MTV broadcast. Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” was the last one shown.