Interview: Greg Prato Author of MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video

Long before The Osbournes and Punk’d and Jersey Shore, MTV was, well, MTV—Music Television, emphasis on the music. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the channel’s launch, Greg Prato explores its early heyday with a collection of interviews with the executives and bands who were part of the cultural revolution that was MTV.

Greg Prato

Shelf Unbound: You call 1981-85 the “golden years of MTV.” What videos stand out for you as the best from this period?

Greg Prato: The best would include:

Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now,” “Down Under,” and “Be Good Johnny.” All three videos showed off the group’s sense of humor, and proved that you didn’t have to take yourself too seriously in the video making world (something that unfortunately, not a lot of other artists would pick up on, as videos got more and more over-the-top and bombastic as the decade went on).

The Police’s “Spirits in the Material World” and “Every Breath You Take.” When I interviewed original MTV VJ Alan Hunter for the book, he had a great quote about the “Spirits” video—“To me, the ‘Spirits in the Material World’ video played at 2:00 in the morning really provided the kind of atmosphere that almost made MTV hallucinogenic in that first year. Coming in from a night on the town, to hear that song, and those chords in the beginning, kind of gave me chills.” And “Every Breath” because of its striking visuals (courtesy of directors Godley and Creme).

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller.” Up until Michael Jackson, for whatever reason, MTV was not playing very many black artists. But that all changed with the arrival of these three classic videos, which kicked off “the dance craze” in videos (meaning having a mandatory choreographed dance scene) and also sinking serious dough into making videos, and trying to make them come off like mini-movies … for better or for worse.

Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” and Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize.” Heavy metal up until this point had a dark and sinister image associated with it. With these three videos in particular, heavy metal crossed over and reached the masses and showed that, surprisingly, the genre could have an undeniable melodic side (and in Def Leppard and Quiet Riot’s case, that heavy metal musicians could be “cute,” to boot!). 

Shelf: I think everyone of a certain age remembers how revolutionary MTV was at the time. What was your first MTV experience like for you?

Prato: Up until my town got MTV (the summer of 1982), rock radio made absolutely no sense to yours truly. Up until that point, the only rock bands I was familiar with were Kiss and Queen. I’d read about bands like Led Zeppelin, the Ramones, and Van Halen, but each time I tried to find them on the radio, all I seemed to get was commercials or some lame/bland stuff. Once I started watching MTV, suddenly everything started to come into focus and make more sense from a musical standpoint. 

Shelf: Would Madonna have become Madonna without MTV?

Prato: Absolutely not. Madonna’s look and fashion sense was every bit as important as the music (in fact, some would say even more important). And to Madonna’s credit, she seemed to know exactly what she was doing (in a calculated way), as each subsequent video caused a greater splash than the previous one.

Shelf: Your pick for best music video from the golden years? Worst video?

Prato: I’m going to be bold and say that the best video was also the worst video. Of course, I’m talking about Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite.” If you’re unfamiliar with this amazingly mesmerizing video, you really owe it to yourself to go to YouTube pronto [click here to watch the video]. It’s often pointed to as the video that killed Mr. Squier’s career dead in its tracks (you’ll understand why after you see it). But like a car accident on a highway, you just can’t help but stop and stare at it. Over and over. And over. And over.

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