11 MTV Music Videos From the Early '80s
The Birth of MTV—Nostalgic Videos From the Early Days
MTV was launched on August 1, 1981. I was 25 years old at that time. Music videos were not something Americans had much exposure to before that. In those early days, MTV was all music videos, 24-hours a day. No "Real World," nothing but music videos.
The channel played any music videos they could get for free. They started with only 250 songs. With the 24 hour format, that meant there was a lot of repetition.
Record companies in the US didn't have much faith in the project, and they were not willing to invest in producing music videos for it at their own cost, so most of the music videos MTV played early on came from Europe and Australia. Record companies there were already making short promotional films for their artists, which they were willing to provide.
The music I was used to was what people typically think of today as "classic rock." British new wave bands were not getting much radio play in America, but they gained new exposure through MTV. At the launch, MTV was available to a limited audience. It started in small American towns that didn't get much TV signal, they were more likely to be dependent on cable for their TV. I happened to be living in one of those at that time.
A friend of mine kept her TV tuned to MTV all the time, so I had a lot of exposure to it. The music I was seeing there was often very strange to me. I certainly heard music that I never would have if not for MTV. Here are some of the videos that I remember seeing in the early days, between 1981 and 1984. I would have thought it funny at the time that I would ever feel nostalgic about these cutting edge videos.
- "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" – Cyndi Lauper
- "I Ran (So Far Away)" – Flock of Seagulls
- "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" – Culture Club
- "Billie Jean" – Michael Jackson
- "Hurts So Good" – John Cougar (Mellencamp)
- "Once in a Lifetime" – Talking Heads
- "Down Under" – Men at Work
- "You Better Run" – Pat Benatar
- "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" – Eurythmics
- "Beast of Burden" – Bette Midler
- "Video Killed the Radio Star" – Buggles
1. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" – Cyndi Lauper
This quirky video was openly feminist, but it was something refreshingly different from what most people associated with feminism. Cyndi Lauper spoke a truth that most representatives of gender equality seemed to have forgotten about. Girls do want to have fun.
The song was written by Robert Hazard who recorded a demo of it in 1979. His version was from a male perspective, and girls wanting to “have fun” to him was code for “girls just want to have sex.”
Lauper's rendition of the song was very different. It appeared on her debut solo record, She's So Unusual, in 1983. In an interview with The Atlantic, she said of the song, “It doesn’t mean that girls just want to fuck, it just means that girls want to have the same damn experience that any man could have.”
She is an unashamed feminist and has never been afraid to say it loud and say it proud, and she did just that in this joyful video featuring girls of every race and class.
2. "I Ran (So Far Away)" – Flock of Seagulls
This song was played in heavy rotation. To me, and to many people I think, the most memorable thing about this band was the hair. "I Ran (So Far Away)" by UK new wave band A Flock of Seagulls, was released in 1982. It did better in the US (topping out at #9) than in their home country, where it failed to make the top 40.
I could not find the original video that MTV played back in the day, but I felt like I had to use one that showed that crazy hair style, even though this is not the video with the best sound.
3. "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" – Culture Club
"Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," by the British new wave band Culture Club, is from their debut album Kissing to Be Clever. The single was released in late 1982, and was a #1 hit in the UK. It was a huge hit in the US also, thanks largely to MTV.
The androgynous style of dress and sexual ambiguity of lead singer, Boy George, created a stir on both sides of the pond. The song itself has been described as harking back to the classic torch songs of yesteryear.
I could not find the video I remember from the early days of MTV. I don't think the "official video" with a courtroom scene is it. I seem to remember George just swaying and singing with the band while wearing a green caftan, but hey, it was a long time ago. This is a pretty good video of him doing his unique little dance move.
4. "Billie Jean" – Michael Jackson
"Billie Jean" was the second single from Michael Jackson's sixth studio album, Thriller, released in 1983.
It was a game changer for both Jackson and MTV. He was the first black artist to be featured on MTV, and that turned out to be a great decision for both of them. Jackson had previously been known mostly for being the diminutive front man for the Jackson Five. He had been struggling to launch his solo career.
Jackson had the moves nobody else had. Watching him perform a song was just as important as listening to it, so video was the perfect medium for him. I was tempted to use the video for “Beat it” or “Thriller,” but “Billie Jean” is really where it all started. I think it is not overstating it to say, MTV launched Michael Jackson into super stardom.
In turn, the success of the song and the album helped establish MTV's cultural importance and make music videos an essential part of pop music marketing.
5. "Hurts So Good" – John Cougar (Mellencamp)
When this video came out, he was known as John Cougar. It was a name that had been forced upon him by his manager. "Hurts So Good," was the first single from his fifth album, American Fool. It was his first top 10 single, and it was the hit he needed to take charge of his career and his name. On his next album he was John Cougar Mellencamp, and eventually the Cougar was dropped completely.
MTV played a huge part in this song's success story. Before the network launched, few American acts made videos because there was nowhere to show them in the US. Because he was promoted in Australia and Europe, Mellencamp had been doing videos since 1978.
Usually the videos were simple affairs, but for "Hurts So Good" they put extra money and effort into the video. They did a shoot with bikers, playing up the S&M interpretation of the song with depictions of women in leather and chains. This was just what MTV was looking for. They put the video in hot rotation, giving the song a huge boost.
6. "Once in a Lifetime" – Talking Heads
"Once in a Lifetime," by the American rock band Talking Heads, was produced and co-written by Brian Eno. It is the lead single from Talking Heads' fourth studio album, Remain in Light, it was released on February 2, 1981.
The video was heavily played, and it is compelling and hilarious. David Byrne's depiction of a twitchy Middle American preacher in horn rims, is iconic.
Despite all of that, the single only reached #91 on the Hot 100 in the US. I guess we were not quite ready for it.
7. "Down Under" – Men at Work
Men at Work is an Australian rock band formed in 1979. Their most famous song, "Down Under," was originally released in 1980 as the B-side to their first local single, "Keypunch Operator," but the most well known version was from their album Business as Usual, released in 1981. The song was a #1 hit in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
Were it not for this song, and the silly video, I might never of heard of a Vegemite sandwich.
8. "You Better Run" – Pat Benatar
"You Better Run" was written and first recorded by The Young Rascals in 1966. American singer, Pat Benatar, covered the song on her second album, Crimes of Passion, in 1980. The song was the album's lead single, it peaked at #42 on the Hot 100. It also has the distinction of being the second music video ever played on MTV.
It is a wonderful dichotomy to see this petite and lovely woman coming on so tough. She once said something to the effect of, “Other girls say, if you hurt me I will die. I say, if you hurt me I will kick your ass.”
9. "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" – Eurythmics
"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" was written and performed by the British new wave music duo Eurythmics. It is the title track of their second studio album and was released as a single in early 1983. It was a worldwide hit, and their first single to be released in the US.
The music video gave the song a tremendous boost that helped propel the song to #1 on the Hot 100 in the US.
10. "Beast of Burden" – Bette Midler
No Frills is the sixth studio album by American singer Bette Midler, released in 1983. The promo video for the song, made during the early MTV era, featured Mick Jagger in a cameo role.
No Frills was Midler's second lowest-charting album in the US. It peaked at #60 on Billboard. However, it was her best-selling studio album in Continental Europe and Scandinavia. The "Beast of Burden" single was a Top 10 hit in most parts of Europe.
11. "Video Killed the Radio Star" – Buggles
The first video ever played on MTV. It was written in 1978 by Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley. It was first recorded by Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club for their album English Garden and later by the Buggles. It was released as their debut single on September 7, 1979, and was included on their first album, The Age of Plastic.
Upon release, the song did well in international markets, but it only reached #40 in the US. It is considered an MTV one hit wonder.
The early days of MTV were an interesting time for popular music. It all seemed very strange and new for me then, now it feels a sort of quaint in a way. Little did I know back then that I was witnessing musical history.
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© 2019 Sherry Hewins