[30 October 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”
Those were the immortal words of John Lack at one minute past midnight on 1 August 1981. The occasion was the launch of MTV, a 24-hour television channel aimed at doing nothing but airing something called music videos, the first of which famously being the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Clips of a space shuttle launch were shown. An odd theme song was played. And mainstream America was poised to finally have one destination dedicated strictly to the art of music transmitted through TV airwaves.
It was a monumental moment in the evolution of popular music. Regardless of what your opinion on MTV may be today (i.e., what would eventually come of the “music” portion of “music television”), the initial idea behind the network was paralleled by only ESPN, another niche venture that eventually spawned an entire subculture of subject fanaticism. MTV transcended the idea of popular music and made it such a gigantic element of popular culture that the world of big business record-making would never be the same again. Sure, Jersey Shore is very literally one of the low points in American television, but when considering the bigger picture, it’s impossible to dismiss precisely how important the network was in getting this form of entertainment on TV.
Though contrary to what most people under the age of 30 might like to believe, the first few minutes of MTV being on the air was not the first time music found success in broadcast television. In fact, it wasn’t even the second, third, or 50th time. Not even close. No, you see, the marriage between musical performance and moving pictures began decades before the first Joan Jett video premiered or the initial Video Music Award was given out. Indeed, the notion that the boob tube could be yet another promotional tool in the big, old record-selling machine originated far before large-haired 20-somethings appeared on boxed sets and an entire country started exclaiming “I want my MTV!”
The rise and implementation of such a phenomenon is dissected within the pages of author Murray Forman’s One Night on TV Is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television, a recollection and examination of what exactly went into the first days of that ground-breaking marriage between music and television, far before the first episode of 120 Minutes even aired. The book takes an impressively researched look at how much effort went into making sure this combination could even get off the ground, let alone explode into the massive fixture it is today, by focusing on the technological and developmental advancements of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s as it related to utilizing this particular form of media.
Take the Kirby Stone Four, for example, who as Forman cites from the magazine Down Beat more than 50 years ago, was “probably the first musical combo to be developed into a name act solely as a result of their work on television.”
“In several cases, previously unknown or struggling artists gained new-found prestige as a direct result of their television appearances,” Forman argues in his book’s second chapter. “The Kirby Stone Quintette was one of the first beneficiaries of television’s new promotional possibilities. After the band’s guest appearances on several early television shows, CBS announced the November 8, 1949, debut of It’s Strictly for Laughs, a thrice-weekly musical variety series (appearing between 7:00 and 7:15 in a then-standard fifteen-minute program slot) featuring music and comedy sketches starring the Stone ensemble… Stone, a trumpeter and valve trombonist of moderate talent, expressed unbridled faith in television. His group was working, but it was certainly not a top-billing act and television harbored unknown potentials.”
As the author goes on the point out, the TV exposure allowed Stone and his band to enjoy a string of growth in popularity as the attendance at the group’s nightclub sessions grew exponentially. The Strictly for Laughs engagement also helped get the act in larger venues whenever it toured and the move even eventually aided the quintette in landing a record deal with MGM. “We could have knocked around in clubs for 10 years and never have been seen by the number of people who have seen us on television,” Forman cites from a yesteryear interview. “One night on TV is worth weeks at the Paramount.”
And that particular phrase runs far deeper than a mere book title.
With the changing media landscape as a backdrop, televised music has offered generations some of their most memorable pop culture moments. From Elvis’ controversial performance of “Hound Dog” on the The Milton Berle Show in 1956, to the Beatles’ television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, all the way up to 2003, when Britney Spears and Madonna shared a kiss during a telecast of MTV’s Video Music Awards, and finally reaching into the current day, when websites across the world stream such massive music festivals as Lollapalooza or Austin City Limits, one thing has been clear: The more exposure artists can have by way of video performance, the more relevant they become within their field of expertise.
Not only does that relevancy translate into more record sales or a heightened level of notoriety within the popular culture lexicon, but it also allows a certain level of connection that was not afforded to the casual music fan before music was compounded with television. As the author himself admits, “These singers and musicians and the many others who ventured into television with them left a deep and lasting legacy. Their broadcast performances prepared the nation for music on television, establishing the presentational forms that have influenced subsequent generations of musical performers and audience members.”
Think about it: Where would the pop music universe be without the help of television? So often, we are subject to such stories as how inspiring it was to see the Who’s Keith Moon blow up his drum kit on TV for someone like Dave Grohl, who himself has proven to be a fairly important musical figure in the current generation’s artistic evolution. Or, how about the amount of people who have cited Michael Jackson’s television repertoire—all the way from the iconic video for “Thriller” to the live-performance TV specials that showcased how much bigger-than-life his concerts could be—as a means of motivation for chasing their dreams. The breadth of the affect the combination of these two mediums has had on the way consumers experience music can’t even be measured at this point because it seems impossible to think of a world without the marriage of those two components of modern day artistry.
In fact, it’s not unfair to wonder if Elvis, the Beatles, the Who, or any other iconic musical act would have gained the same type of historical presence had the television platform not been available for these legends to use. Without it, those hips wouldn’t have been so polarizing, those haircuts wouldn’t have been so cutting edge, and that explosion wouldn’t have single-handedly introduced the punk-rock attitude to the mainstream. These were moments that didn’t just help shape the perception of artists—these were moments that helped millions of people understand how utterly powerful the expression of music can be.
“The visual material also confirms that, despite the rudimentary nature of television in its formative phase, its content and character was heterogeneous and, at times, extremely sophisticated in its formal construction,” Forman writes during his book’s introduction. “Images reveal many of the mannerisms and cultural mores of the immediate postwar era, thus exposing wider aspects of social value and meaning—elements of social significance—and the role of music as a communicative force.”
Such was the case for the Kirby Stone Four, a group of guys who saw the type of exposure being on television could bring and almost immediately found themselves confronted with the amount of impact such a phenomenon offered. Without them, would there have still been an Elvis Presley or a group of lads called the Beatles? Probably—those guys were simply forces of nature that refused to be stopped and conventional wisdom suggests that they, along with the Michael Jacksons, Madonnas and Britney Spearses of the world, would have garnered a fairly successful life in music, even if the television world ceased to exist.
But would the launch of MTV in 1981 have been such a flash point in the most recent generation of popular culture, had those four dudes never decided to give the television world an honest shot? Well, as Kirby Stone once said so elegantly: “One night on TV is worth weeks at the Paramount.”
And as history would prove, he was right.