Video Killed The Radio Star
MTV launched new artists and helped others revive their careers. We talked to some musicians who experienced that era.
Front man for Huey Lewis & the News
Key videos: “I Want a New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll"
Even before MTV's launch, Huey Lewis’ band dabbled in music videos. The form was starting to take hold as a promotional tool, and Lewis credits low-budget lip-synching with helping his band secure its first record contract. But despite his preppy looks, which seemed tailor-made for the ‘80s, Lewis didn't fully embrace this new visual medium.
"It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we didn't sign up for this.’ In our day it was an audio experience, and now we had to make videos.” But make them they did. After a bad turn working with a professional director, the band took control, ditched the conceptual stuff and used their surroundings, and sense of humor, to their advantage.
"We pretty much let San Francisco be the production in our videos. I let the seagulls chew the scenery, as it were. I was very conscious and worried as MTV went on, because we didn't necessarily look like rock stars. It was a worry, but I figured we'd just make up for it with humor and ideas. Don't be afraid of funny."
The results were more than 7 million in sales for 1983's Sports album, as America embraced the good-times music and image of the News.
Huey Lewis and the News released their 10th studio album, Weather, in 2020. And, yes, they made a video for the song “Her Love Is Killin’ Me.” Lewis, 70, was recently diagnosed with Ménière's disease, which left him unable to hear music. He hosts '80s Radio on Apple Music and appears in TV acting roles.
Singer and guitarist for ZZ Top
Key videos: “Gimme All Your Lovin',“ “Sharp Dressed Man"
Texas trio ZZ Top were FM rock radio staples before MTV, but music videos gave the band a second act. It didn't hurt that their long beards offered them a unique visual identity. Add in some attractive model-actors and a now-trademark red hot rod and you've got an image that's hard to eliminate from your memory.
Billy Gibbons says it worked because the band appear alongside the action in the videos, playing music and occasionally showing up as spirit-like figures who give the characters a little push. “Hats, beards and shades kept us under wraps, allowing us to cheer the hero onward,” he says. “We were sideline action observers, not unlike the viewers.” The band's Eliminator album, released in 1983, became “diamond certified” in the U.S., meaning it sold more than 10 million copies. What's notable there is that it was the band's eighth album.
"Let's put it this way,” Gibbons says. “If you knew us, you got to see your old friends. If you hadn't yet known us, it was making some new friends. We started as a concert and recording attraction for about a dozen years, and when MTV came along, it just added to the résumé."
Gibbons, 71, is planning to resume a ZZ Top 50th anniversary tour when pandemic restrictions are lifted. The band is also working on a new album.
Acclaimed producer of Janet Jackson, the Human League and many others. Then a member of The Time
Jimmy Jam experienced MTV's diversity struggles firsthand. Although his early ‘80s band, The Time, shot videos, they initially failed to get airplay on the network. Still, he harbors no grudge. “Pop radio and rock radio weren't playing a lot of Black artists,” he says, “so to me, it was no different than that.” But by late 1982 and into ‘83, MTV was starting to embrace diversity, showcasing videos by Michael Jackson and Prince. “I remember that everybody was so happy when ‘Little Red Corvette’ made MTV — that was a huge deal around the Prince camp,” Jam says. The Time was touring with Prince then, and Jam noticed the change. “The first time we played Chicago, it was predominantly a Black audience,” he recalls. “When he went back the following year, it was a predominantly white audience. I know MTV had a lot to do with that because it expanded his base."
Later, Jam worked with Janet Jackson, coproducing her chart-topping, multiplatinum album Control with Terry Lewis in 1986. He remembers her highly choreographed videos playing a role in the album's success. “Janet, who was very much a visual person, who grew up loving musicals — for her to be able to show her persona, her talent for dancing, it brought the songs to life."
Jimmy Jam, 62, is prepping an all-star collaboration album for release. Jam & Lewis, Vol. 1 will feature new songs from Toni Braxton, Babyface, Mariah Carey and others. And, yes, the project will be supported with videos.
Bassist-songwriter for the Go-Go's
Key videos: “Vacation,” “Our Lips Are Sealed"
Although in retrospect, the Go-Go's seem an ideal candidate for music videos, the bubbly image the band offered on MTV belies their SoCal punk attitude. “I was really annoyed that we had to spend a day making a video,” says Kathy Valentine. “It sounded like a commercial. In general, I don't think artists really jumped at the chance to make a video for their music. The whole advertising, marketing, commercial part of the business is not really what artists go into the arts for."
That daylong shoot may have been annoying, but in reality it was a quick job, made possible by some leftover video budget from labelmates The Police. The resulting video for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” mostly the Go-Go's driving around Los Angeles in a convertible and then splashing around in a fountain, wasn't exactly punk rock, either. It was better.
"I was conscious of what our image would be, even though we hadn't made a video before. To me, the inane kind of mindlessness — this was not really representative of our band,” Valentine says. “But it turned out, the driving around seemed to capture some kind of California carefree girl thing that didn't work against us.” In fact, the video led to radio airplay, which led to album sales, vaulting their 1981 debut album, Beauty and the Beat, to number one.
For their second album, the Go-Go's received a larger budget and shot an iconic video for Valentine's song “Vacation,” in which the band portray water-skiers in formation.
To Valentine, even more important than career success is the influence a band of women had on a generation of MTV viewers. “A 13-year-old girl might not be able to go down to the nightclubs and see the hot bands from L.A.,” she says. “There were little girls that saw us on MTV that would not have seen us any other way."
Kathy Valentine, 62, published a memoir, All I Ever Wanted, last year. She plans to tour again with the Go-Go's when possible.