Forty years ago tomorrow, August 1, a small band of misfits pulled a trigger at midnight in a New Jersey bar and MTV came into the world. Say what you want about it, but MTV grew to have a profound impact on music, art, movies, fashion, culture, and even haircuts. Not just in the United States but all over the world. Today’s MTV is unrecognizable to anyone old enough to remember the original. They don’t play much music these days, for starters. But, in those early years, MTV was revolutionary, a dazzling new video wonderland seeming to signal that some exciting new future was on its way.
We had no television experience or money. We developed the now celebrated MTV logo for just $1,000. The signature top-of-the-hour rocket launch and moon landing we took free from NASA. Ripping off man’s greatest moment had a nice subversive appeal. We tapped into alternative animators and artists like Warhol. Everyone thought we would fail. But we few crusaders, we knew we were crafting something irresistible.
Only 800,000 homes, about the size of Indianapolis, could see the launch. People say they remember seeing the first hour of MTV. Don’t believe them.
We carefully labored over that first hour. We thought it would be a historic moment, like Columbus discovering America or something. Maybe no one would see it, but it would count in the long run.
We picked 14 songs from our slim library of 165 videos. Here they are. It’s worth noting that video never did kill the radio star.
Tom Freston is a media-and-entertainment executive, a co-founder of MTV, and the board chair of the ONE Campaign, an anti-poverty organization