On August 1, 1981—35 years ago today—MTV went on the air in a handful of cable system across the country. You probably know that the first video played was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but did you know these behind-the-scenes stories from some iconic early music videos?
“Money for Nothing”
British band Dire Straits was in a career slump in the mid-‘80s, and in desperation the band’s manager asked an MTV executive how the band could get some exposure. The exec’s sarcastic response: write a hit song and make a hip video. Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler proceeded to write a song full of references to MTV. “Money for Nothing” was sung from the point of view of a blue collar worker complaining about how easy a job rock stars have, including a line about how “they play their records on the MTV.” The song’s hook: Sting singing “I want my MTV,” the network’s tagline. It worked: the band produced an innovative CGI video for the song and in 1986 won the third-ever MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year. (And Brothers in Arms, the album with “Money for Nothing” on it, sold nine million copies.)
Michael Jackson’s 1983 video was among the first music videos to feature a plot, rather than just consist of a musician lip syncing or pretending to play their instrument to the pre-recorded track. The video emphasizes the song’s pleases for inner-city gangs to get along. To add a touch of authenticity to the shoot, the 80 actors in the video’s climactic gang fight showdown were real-life members of rival Los Angeles street gangs the Crips and Bloods, and the video was shot in L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood. The leaders of the two gangs—who have a dance-off rather than a fight—were professionals, however: Vincent Patterson and Michael Peters (who was the video’s choreographer). They played bitter rivals, but in real life Patterson and Peters were dating.
Toni Basil, who had gotten her start as a dancer and choreographer on Shindig! In 1964, recorded the song “Mickey” in 1981. The song had a cheerleader kind of sound to it, so she choreographed a cheerleading routine. Basil even wore her old high school cheerleading uniform. (Fun fact: the part where two cheerleaders jump through the middle of the formation is illegal in cheerleading competitions now because it’s too dangerous.)