I Want My MTV: An excerpt from Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s MTV oral history
I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution is a hugely readable and fun new oral history of the first decade of MTV. Veteran music writers Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum interviewed many of the era’s major players, putting a microscope on the biggest, weirdest, and most memorable videos of the time, and we’re thrilled to present the following excerpt.
“Wannabe Cecil B. DeMilles”
As 1984 ended, Rolling Stone renewed its attack on MTV, even in a year when their cover stars included Duran Duran, Madonna, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, the Go-Go’s, Huey Lewis, Tina Turner, and David Bowie– all staples of MTV. In a barbed essay, film critic Kenneth Turan (a baby boomer born in 1946) described music videos as “Orwellian” and complained that filmmakers were being forced to keep up with MTV, which was “creating a generation of gratification-hungry sensation junkies with atrophied attention spans.” He also saw a societal threat in “the non-stop video parade of pouty cuties wearing low-cut leather bikinis or skintight skirts, their bodies sometimes chained but always concupiscent,” adding, “videos offer nothing but sexual stereotypes.”
By 1985, the record industry’s recovery was clear, as evidenced by headlines inBusinessWeek (THE RECORD BUSINESS IS SOLID GOLD AGAIN) and Variety (RECORD BIZ MAKES A STRONG COMEBACK: BUYERS RESPOND TO NEW MUSIC). ABusinessWeek reporter wrote, “Much of the credit for the turnaround may belong not to the industry itself– or to better product– but to the popularity of Music Television (MTV).” InThe Washington Post, CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff said, “MTV has been a shot in the arm for the record business. If somebody had asked me three years ago, ‘What do you think of an idea like MTV?’ I would have said they were crazy. Fortunately, nobody asked me.”
PETE ANGELUS, director: Videos changed the music business completely. It brought the business back to life. It created stars out of people who normally would never have been seen. Because the revenue streams increased dramatically with labels, more money was handed out. That doesn’t necessarily mean something is going to be more creative, it just means that more money is handed out. Some artists took advantage of that and did memorable work. There were some exceptional videos, and some fucking car accidents. And sometimes a car accident cost as much as an exceptional video.
LES GARLAND, MTV executive: I got word that Pepsi had bought the first spot in the 1984 Grammy telecast and they were gonna play a new Michael Jackson Pepsi ad. I’m like, “Michael Jackson belongs to MTV, not the Grammys.” I wasn’t gonna let it happen. So I called Roger Enrico, the head of Pepsi, and said, “Roger, I’ve got a major problem. This Pepsi Michael Jackson spot that’s gonna run in three weeks on the Grammys? That should run on MTV first.”
“Well, Garland, I’ve already made a deal with the Grammys.” I go, “Wait a minute. You know how we do world premieres of videos. What if I world premiere the commercial? And what if I give you 24 promos a day for two weeks leading up to it? Would that interest you?”
He goes, “How much do you want for this?” I said, “Nothing.” He goes, “What? You’re telling me you would promote a commercial 24 times a day for two weeks before playing it? Garland, I like your style. Done.” So it played for the first time on MTV.
BOB GIRALDI, director: I got the ad campaign for Pepsi, because I had a relationship with Michael. The money was big, but I really don’t think he wanted to do it– the father had signed the Jacksons to it. I believe they were embarrassed to do television commercials. I didn’t like the Pepsi people telling me what to do. “Tell them to take their sunglasses off.”You made the deal, you go tell them. The vibe on the set was brutal, with everyone trying to get a piece of the biggest superstar in the world.
When we did “Beat It,” Michael came in the van with us to scout locations. I remember saying, “I’m hungry, let’s stop for a pizza.” Michael said, “Oh good, I’ve never had a pizza.” This is a 25-year-old man who’d never had pizza. Now he wasn’t accessible like that. He was a superstar, but then he became a deity.
There was an explosion on the set. Sparks hit him, ignited the pomade in his hair, and went traveling down his body. Am I responsible for the accident? Yes, as the director, I guess so. Did he blame me? I think so. His bodyguard, Miko Brando, blamed me and we went at each other. I feel bad for the pain it caused him. There was a little relief for the pain because the next day, Thriller returned to number one.
TOM MOHLER, manager: We did talk at one point with Bob Giraldi about doing a Billy Squier video. His fee was over $100,000. We all said, I don’t think so.
BOB GIRALDI: For Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” I came up with the idea of a blind girl and Lionel as a teacher. “Hello” is one of the top videos ever, still to this day.
LIONEL RICHIE, artist: I just figured that the video would be a simple love story. And then Bob leveled me to the floor when he said, “Here’s my big pitch. You’re a teacher, and you’re gonna fall in love with a blind girl.” I admit, I hesitated for a moment. But you don’t hire Picasso and then tell him how to paint.
The funniest story about “Hello” is that I kept going back to Bob over and over again saying, “Bob, that bust of me does not look like me.” “Bob, the bust does not look like me.” Finally, Bob came over to me and said, “Lionel, she’s blind.”
BOB GIRALDI: With Lionel, we used to have day shoots. He would show up at 9 p.m. I’d say, “Rich, you know how much money I just spent waiting for you?” “Oh sorry, Bob. I overslept.” Overslept? Until nine in the evening? I wasn’t very patient with that.
DEE SNIDER, Twisted Sister: By the time we made “I Wanna Rock,” [actor] Mark Metcalf was on his high horse. He cost more money, he had more demands, and he showed up coked out of his brain. He’d been up all night– he was wired, on edge, and in a lousy mood. After he messed up a take, [director] Marty Callner said to him, “Listen, we gotta do this again. You gotta stop screwing up.” And Metcalf said, “Or what? You don’t look so tough.” Now Marty is a pit bull, a tough little motherfucker. He said, “Really? Let’s go outside.” Everybody went quiet on the set. They’re all looking at Metcalf, wondering if he was going to take on Marty. And Metcalf, smartly, backed down.
Marty yelled, “Action.” And that moment, when you see Metcalf screaming at the fat kid in the classroom, and spit is flying out of his mouth? That was immediately after he had backed down in front of the entire cast. Of course, he took it out on the poor kid. He was on fucking fire. And Marty goes, “Cut! That’s the one.” We got a historic performance out of Metcalf. People have been talking about the spit flying out of his mouth for thirty years now.
MARK METCALF, actor: The line “What do you wanna do with your life?” was Dee’s work. People still come up to me and say, “Do the line, do the line,” and they’re not happy unless I spit on them.
GREG GOLD, director: I got a gig with Bill Parker, who had a monopoly on producing and directing R&B videos. I was hired as an assistant director, and Dominic Sena was the director of photography. Bill’s vision was always greater than his budgets. He had a thing for transportation: Every video had a huge party in a zeppelin, or on a boat, or on a train. We did one for Rick James and Smokey Robinson, “Ebony Eyes,” that started out in a plane in a storm, so I had to get a vintage plane and have the grips shake it. Rick and Smokey are in a flight and they get shipwrecked on an island. Of course, Bill picked the hardest beach to access on the West Coast, El Matador Beach in Malibu. We pitched tents for Rick and everybody to hang out in. I’m not going to comment about what went on in those tents, but I will say that part of our budget went toward a case of Cristal champagne.
DOMINIC SENA, director: I’d shot a million videos between ’81 and ’83, and I was carrying a lot of these directors. Some of them would fall asleep in their trailer, and I’d keep making the video without them. Finally I said to an AD named Greg Gold, “We might as well do this ourselves.” So we raised $25,000 and made a video, and got representation from Beth Broday at Fusion Films. We said, “Let’s go to Istanbul!” So we wrote a concept that revolved around Istanbul and went there for a week. Videos were great excuses to travel.
GREG GOLD: We wrote a treatment for an English group, Vitamin Z– the idea was, they’re in Istanbul to write their next song, and they go to a cafe filled with men smoking from hookahs, and some kid steals their wallet. They chase him through the city, only it turns out the kid was returning their wallet, not stealing it, and they see the poverty the kid lives in.
We got to Istanbul, and after we’d scouted locations, we got called into a meeting with the head of the local production company. He said, “In order to get permission for you to come here, we had to rewrite your script.” Midnight Express had made the Turkish people look like animals, and they were paranoid about Westerners shooting there. So we read the treatment he’d submitted: “Vitamin Z arrive in beautiful Istanbul, have tea at the beautiful cafe, and walk in the beautiful park.” We were so punch-drunk from traveling, we just started laughing. We refused to do anything different than we had written.
DARYL HALL, Hall & Oates: Videos began to attract wannabe Cecil B. DeMilles, who had almost unlimited budgets and did whatever they felt like. “Adult Education” is a perfect example. We brought in a director I didn’t know [Tim Pope], who was newly hot. He didn’t have a clue what to do with the song. The plot? I couldn’t tell you. It’s some sort of primitive de-virginizing ritual. Everybody was dressed in kind of faux primitive war paint, John Oates shook some kind of magical stick, and there was a virgin laying on a table. That’s all I know.
KEVIN GODLEY, director: Some video directors made little versions of movies. I never felt that worked; it’s not an ideal medium for telling a story. We saw it as something that existed outside cinema, with its own set of unknown rules. You don’t have to tell a story. You don’t have to abide by any rules at all.
AIMEE MANN, artist, ‘Til Tuesday: The director of “Voices Carry” really loved a scene inThe Man Who Knew Too Much, the Alfred Hitchcock movie– there’s a scene at a symphony concert at this big moment when somebody’s going to get assassinated. The video is about a girl who’s trying to be heard and has to suppress her feelings because her boyfriend’s an asshole. The director had an idea to emulate Hitchcock, where I’d get up and make a scene in public at the symphony. It certainly resonated with women, even though it was done in broad strokes.
PHIL COLLINS, artist: “Against All Odds” was a nightmare. I was standing in two inches of cold water, in my Wellingtons. The shoot started at 6 p.m. and was supposed to finish around midnight, but the crew had a problem with the tracking for the camera. Come 6 a.m., I was still there, still standing in two inches of cold water.
BETH BRODAY, producer: The Cars shot “Magic” at the Hilton family house in Beverly Hills. Kathy Hilton rented us her house. I think Paris was in school. In the video, Ric Ocasek walks on water across a swimming pool. “Oh-oh, it’s magic.” Get it? We built a Plexiglas platform that sat under the surface of the water, so Ric could walk out to the center of the pool and back. On the first take, he walked onto the platform and it collapsed. It took hoursto rig the platform to hold him. I thought somebody was gonna decapitate themselves, because the platform was clear and you couldn’t see it. I was scared to death the whole shoot.
DAVID ROBINSON, The Cars: My own mother saw “Magic” and said I wasn’t in it. I had to play it for her, pause the video, and say, “Look look look, that’s me.”
VALERIE FARIS, director: A lot of bands would get what we called shot counters– that’s our phrase– where every guy in the band counts how many shots he’s in and there’s a whole negotiation: “I’m only in 15 shots and you’re in 20.”
BRUCE ALLEN, manager, Loverboy: Guys would sit there with stopwatches to make sure they got enough camera time. The drummer wanted as much camera time as the front man.
STEWART COPELAND, The Police: I grew to understand that videos were mainly about getting our singer’s face out there. Because it was so pretty. That’s the way it goes. Drummers learn that lesson pretty early in life. Guitarists never quite learn that lesson. Drummers and bass players, we’re over it.
GERRY CASALE, Devo: It got to a point where the contract would say, “You shall feature the lead singer 35 percent of the time in medium close-ups or close-ups.” And when you’re hiring extras, you might be told that the singer’s girlfriend didn’t like the girl you’re putting in the video because she’s too pretty. She’s jealous and thinks the singer’s gonna screw her, so you can’t have that girl. Or, if you put guys in the video, they couldn’t be better looking than the band. These are all things I was told.
KEVIN GODLEY: I gave a vitriolic speech at the 1985 VMA awards, slamming the fact that everything was becoming predictable, and saying we must hang on to this beautiful thing we’d created and not bow down to commercial pressure. Big music videos were starting to look the same. It wasn’t as quite adventurous as it had been. I wouldn’t say the rot had set in. But the beginning of the rot had set in.
NIGEL DICK, director: When I worked at Phonogram Records, I commissioned a video for Tears for Fears called “Mothers Talk.” The band hated the video. Just hated it. Their next single was “Shout,” and we all decided that I’d direct it. The label was happy I was now producing and directing, because they didn’t have to pay the 15 percent production company fee or the 10 percent director’s fee. I made “Shout,” and the U.S. label rep hated it. He said, “Well, this is a piece of crap, isn’t it? We’re gonna have to remake this for America.” As you can probably deduce, that never happened. It became a big hit.
CURT SMITH, Tears for Fears: The downside of videos is, they’re a reminder of all the bad fashion you went through. Our videos are kind of embarrassing, especially “Shout,” but they’re an endless source of amusement for my children: “Oh my God, you’ve got braids in your hair!” They laugh hysterically. It’s not like we looked worse than anyone else. There were people that looked even worse than we did. So on a scale, we were somewhere in the middle.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was like an American driving song, one of those things you’d hear on the radio. So we went to LA, to the desert, we got a car– an Austin Healey 3000– and we drove. That’s pretty much the whole concept. The shoot was a disaster. I remember Nigel being in tears on the second night. He had to lug equipment around. He couldn’t get anyone to clean the car, so he was there with a sponge cleaning the Austin Healey.
I slept in a camper bus out in the middle of nowhere for a couple of nights, and I had to be up at 4 a.m. so we could get the sunrise shot. We had an accident while we were filming the dirt bikes and four-wheel off-road vehicles, and one kid flew off and smashed his head. He was out cold. The video producer, an American girl, stood there and chanted some Buddhist stuff. We’re frantically trying to find an ambulance while she’s chanting.
NIGEL DICK: [Tears for Fears singer] Roland Orzabal told me what he envisioned for “Head Over Heels”: “I see myself in a library, there’s a beautiful girl, we’ll grow old together, and there’s all this random stuff like a rabbi and a chimp.” And I’m rapidly scribbling on a piece of paper: “Chimp. Rabbi.”
CURT SMITH: When Roland pulls out the drawer and all the cards fly out at him? That was a ripoff of Ghostbusters. We were in the middle of a huge tour, and the album was getting more successful. I remember I was asleep in the dressing room and someone woke me up to say that “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” had gone to number one in America. Then we finished the video. It was hard to find time to celebrate.
DAVID MALLET, director: The Queen video where we really nailed it was “I Want to Break Free,” where they’re in drag. We didn’t stop laughing for three days. We were ill from laughing. Freddy Mercury was desperately shy. It was a hell of a job to get him out of the dressing room. I’d say, “Come on, Fred, don’t be silly, let’s go.” He’d say, “All right darling, all right.” He called me Mistress Mallet. He used to shout, “Come on girls, Mistress Mallet’s here.”
MICK KLEBER, record executive: David Mallet is one of the top video-makers of all time. He directed Heart’s “What About Love?,” which was a huge video with a lot of killer imagery– big explosions, cauldrons pouring molten steel into molds while Nancy Wilson played a guitar solo.
ANN WILSON, Heart: David Mallet had a nickname: Miss Mallet. He was a perfectionist, and he wanted things his way. I think that video may have been the moment when the idea of feminine naturalness was at an all-time low. The heels were at an all-time high, the corsets were at an all-time tightness. That was when we got our first hair extensions. The idea was to transform us into porn kittens.
NANCY WILSON, Heart: We took our clothing cues from Purple Rain and fromAmadeus, which we watched a million times. I was rocker-cising on top of a fiery spiral staircase. We had so much hair and hairspray, and there’s fire coming at us. It’s like, Why did we say yes to this again?
LIMAHL, Kajagoogoo: I’m going to tell you something, but I’m not going to name names. In one of my solo videos, the director came to my hotel while I was in Sydney, to discuss the video, and we ended up having sex. There was kissing and it was quite passionate. We both ejaculated. He was a famous director and he was considered very important. I was thinking,Oh my God, I’m having sex with him. I mean, at that point I was pretty famous all over the world.
Of course, when he was directing me on the set with lots of people around, there was a twinkle in his eye, and in mine, because we knew what had happened a few nights before. The video was great.
KEVIN CRONIN, REO Speedwagon: “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was directed by a guy who married my seventh-grade girlfriend, Sherry. Her husband, Kevin Dole, was an aspiring video director and she suggested that he contact me. Kevin had been doing commercials and was very into pixilation. All the big-name directors wanted this video, but I wanted to give him a shot. Everybody around me was like, “Oh great, you want to hire your first girlfriend’s husband to do this huge video?” When I saw “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” I was mortified by my hair. I was like, “We can’t release this. I’ll be a laughingstock.” There was casual footage of us at the piano, in T-shirts and jeans, and they used that for the video.
KEVIN DOLE, director: “I Do’ Wanna Know” was a fun song, so I wrote a goofy video in which all the REO members dressed in wacky outfits, acting as the family of a loony kid– who, for better or worse, Kevin asked me to portray. So I shaved my head, donned makeup, and did my best. It turned out to be a big hit on MTV.
LOL CRÈME, director: We wanted to give the Go West singer an image for “We Close Our Eyes.” He had a great voice, great presence, but terrible teeth. We said, “You have to get your teeth fixed.” We were brutal. We thought this was the sort of thing despot directors did. He fixed his teeth, we styled him, gave him a grease-monkey look, and it helped enormously.
HOWARD JONES, artist: When I was playing clubs as a one-man synth band, I had a mime, Jed, who danced onstage. That’s about as un–rock n’ roll as you can get, really. Jed’s in the “Things Can Only Get Better” video, doing a Charlie Chaplin character, and I also had a magician– people had never seen that before.
GERRY CASALE: The best story is the Jane Siberry video I directed, “One More Colour.” She wanted to walk a cow on a leash. This was her demand. So we went to a cow wrangler in Simi Valley and settled on one cow she seemed comfortable with. The location was way out in Saugus, where they shot Roy Rogers westerns. It’s time for the cow to be there and the guy doesn’t show up. He’s MIA, nowhere to be found. We’re pissed off. Suddenly we see dust in the distance of a long dirt road, he’s driving very fast, and his truck has an animal trailer hitched to it. He jumps out of the truck and he’s really mean, like, “Don’t even fuckin’ talk to me.” He’s sweating and he looks crazed. As a guy who had done coke myself, I knew he was totally coked up.
He goes to the trailer and at least thirty of us are watching him. We see him looking into the trailer, and he goes, “Fuck! Goddamn it! Fuck! I lost the fucking cow!” And he jumps back into the truck. When he’d turned off the highway, into the dirt road, the cow flew out the back of the trailer. Eventually he comes back with the cow, and the whole left side of it is skinned and bleeding from pavement burns, like if you had a bike accident. He goes, “It’ll be okay. Just shoot the cow from the other side and the blood won’t show.”
ANTON CORBIJN, director: I had a low opinion of music videos. I had no desire to make them. Photographing musicians was my first love. But bands said, “You do our photographs and our album covers, why not do this, too?” U2 had done a video for “Pride” with Donald Cammell, who was a proper filmmaker. The band was afraid it was too cinematic, almost too devoid of street vibe. So Bono asked me to have a try. I had to do it near Heathrow Airport, before they boarded a plane to Japan. I was given a couple of hours in the basement of a hotel. I did it in one shot, mostly close-ups of their faces. It’s terrible. Island Records sent it out and then recalled it. And the manager, Paul McGuinness, swore that I would never be allowed near U2 again with a film camera.
PAUL MCGUINNESS, manager, U2: Anton made one video where he shot U2 in a photographic homage to the cover of Meet the Beatles, where the band are lit only from the side. When we looked at it, we immediately realized it was really terrible.
From I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.