There was a time when music videos on cable television mattered. That time has passed.
Music video is more than ever now, ubiquitous, democratized, digitized, commodified, cross-platform and saturated into our screens. For good or ill…. and mostly good, I think. And we have MTV to thank for that.
Even so, MTV has much to atone for -- depending of course upon one’s relative position on their own personal musical spectrum and the relative fierceness with which that position is held. But there was a time when it mattered. Way back, in the Last Great Flourishing of the music industry right before it was eaten by the internet just about twenty years ago.
And the inside stories are actually, fascinating. I confess I am predisposed to liking an oral history of the inception and glory years of MTV. And this one is pretty great. The list of interviewees runs 18 pages long -- Adam Ant to Walter Yetnikoff and more. There is also a 13 page index. Nice.
I have not read this entire 600+ page book -- I dip in to read bits which turn out to be compelling every time. It is very music-business insidery, lots of business talk -- networks, parent companies, various power struggles but wrapped up in matters of taste and rock & roll and politics. And overlaid with plenty of drugs & sex -- quite frankly I was amazed at some of the quotations.
I really did initially expect a self-congratulatory orgy of packaged happy talk -- that’s not the case at all. The subtitle says it is the “Uncensored Story” and the book backs it up..
There is also a lot of talk about video production, and nuts & bolts making of this or that video -- with usually hilarious behind the scenes stories. There are lots of rock stars interviewed. Tons. Video directors, producers and designers have their say. The quotations are tightly edited and arranged roughly chronologically and thematically -- sometimes with multiple views of the same story for “rashomon” effect.
Have I mentioned the stories are hilarious? Lots of rock stars behaving badly behind the scenes. There is a great Keith Richards story about why he always orders TWO margaritas at once. A great Rod Stewart story about a party, including supermodels and legendary MTV executive Les Garland, a game of truth or dare and full frontal nudity, and subsequently getting tossed from River Cafe in Brooklyn.
The Les Garland stories themselves are amazing. But the whole book is an intelligent look at the creative process when married to the purely commercial television business -- and what that was like. Are you interested in Godley & Creme’s methodology? How the girls in Heart felt about being strapped into those harnesses?
They do not shy away from the ridiculous, sexy, sexist T & A aspect of practically everything on MTV. Various rivalries, internecine feuds, outright hatred are given their due as well. Sample quote from Sinead O’Connor about when “Nothing Compares to U” beat Madonna’s“Vogue” for the Video Music Award: “I was very pleased to beat the shit out of her that year.”
Personally I think this book is better than “Live from New York” the Saturday Night Live oral history book by Tom Shales, also billed as “uncensored.” They cover a similar territory but this book presents a much broader and deeper look especially on the business side. I did not expect to like it as much as I do. The title could be a tad more imaginative but this is a good book to spend a lot of time on the bedside table -- flip it open anywhere and there will be something funny -- and interesting….
Random example from just now -- flipped open to page 476…. a great bunch of stories about making Guns ‘N’ Roses videos with Axl Rose and Stephanie Seymour and why there are dolphins in the video for “Estranged.”
In short, don’t be put off -- like I was initially -- thinking, “how on earth can there be a 600-page book about M-friggin’-TV?” Take a look. It’s pretty good actually.