Interview Date: 01/18/2011
Run Date: 01/26/2011
Nearly everything I learned about music as a tween, I learned from MTV. Seeing these strange videos of these exotic bands from all over the world, I was entranced. We sure as hell didn’t hear these bands on the radio in Middle America, that’s for sure, and seeing those videos at that time permanently shaped my tastes and interests. So when author Greg Prato decided to compile an oral history of the network, including interviews with several of my favorite musicians (Thomas Dolby, Todd Rundgren, Geoff Downs, Joe Elliott, Dave Wakeling, Glenn Tilbrook) along with dozens of others, needless to say he had me at hello. The book, “MTV Ruled the World,” covers a variety of subjects from the channel’s humble beginnings to the controversy over their decision early on to avoid playing black artists. There is even one hilarious chapter dedicated to music videos that served as career killers. (You can browse Prato’s books here.)
I spoke with Prato immediately after finishing the book, where we discussed bad videos, aging musicians who still consider themselves far more relevant and in-demand than they really are, grunge, and football. Yep, football. In fact, football is how this book came to be, if you can believe that.
Bullz-Eye: For those who may not be familiar with you, why don’t you tell the people a little bit about yourself.
Greg Prato: Sure. I’m a writer for a few web sites, but now I’m primarily a book author. I’ve written for All Music Guide, Rollingstone.com and Classic Rock Magazine, amongst other places. I’ve written six books so far, the latest of which were “The Eric Carr Story” and “MTV Ruled the World,” and I’ve also done books about the grunge movement called “Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music,” and I also did a book about guitarist Tommy Bolin, who played in the James Gang and Deep Purple, called “Touched by Magic,” and a book about Shannon Hoon, the singer of Blind Melon, called “The Devil on One Shoulder, and an Angel on the Other.” The last book I did is a compilation of my articles called “No Schlock, Just Rock,” that came out a few years ago.”
BE: When did you come up with the idea for “MTV Ruled the World”?
GP: I came up with the idea almost exactly one year ago. I was watching the Jets playoff game, because I’m a very big fan of the Jets, and the idea just came to me as I was watching the Jets win a playoff game, if you can believe that. Somehow, someway, that’s just how it happened. And I mentioned it to some friends who were watching [the game] with me, and they all said, ‘That sounds like a very good idea.” So shortly after that I started setting up some phone interviews, and I’m pretty lucky because I write for certain [publications], a lot of publicists know me, and they were able to put me in contact with people. And now with the Internet being so prominent, you can just go on a band’s web site now and send them a message saying “I’m working on a book,” and send them clips of my writing, and usually you can get a phone interview. I started writing it in January, and I was also writing the book about Eric Carr about the same time, and both books were completely ready and finished by December of last year. So in less than a year, I was able to complete two books.
BE: You clearly had a list of topics you wanted to discuss with your interviewees, but were there other topics that spontaneously came up over and over as you were talking to people?
GP: Yeah. It’s pretty much the same with the list of questions I ask. I usually start books by having a list of questions, and then as the interviews go on, I kind of wing it, pretty much, and then I rarely even look at the questions, because each person is different. I can’t really think offhand what a topic was that I didn’t have on the list, but what I tried to do with this book is you get some of the background of the channel, and I go over some stuff that’s out there already in previous books about the channel. But what I really tried to do was have a good amount of info that hasn’t been tackled in previous books about MTV. I have a chapter about how people felt there weren’t enough black artists being played on the channel early on…
BE: And we’re going to get to that.
GP: …and I have a chapter about how women were portrayed in videos. I also have stories behind the filming of some of the biggest videos of the era, Live Aid, the US Festival, the PMRC, and of course things that relate directly to the channel; its forming, it policies, the first Video Music Awards in 1984. So yeah, it’s the story of the channel from 1981 through about 1986, but it also mirrors what was going on in the entire music industry as well.
BE: What were your favorite bands and videos from the period?
GP: For the majority of the ‘80s, I was pretty much a metal head, but when MTV first came on the air, I was listening to a little bit of everything. Early on, I was pretty big into Men at Work and Joan Jett, but then after that I listened to pretty much exclusively heavy metal like KISS, AC/DC and Ozzy, and later Motley Crue and also Van Halen. But looking back today, I listen to a wide variety of stuff, and there definitely were a lot of great videos at that time. Bands like Devo, the Police, Prince and Michael Jackson, I think it was a pretty special period as far as making videos, bands leaving their mark on the channel and vice versa.
BE: I was surprised to see that the chapter on party animals and the “Big ‘80s” was one of the shortest in the book. I’m guessing you actually got some great stories, but they were all off the record.
GP: (Laughs) Yeah, I did get one great story, but the person thought about it for a while and I got a note saying, “Can you leave that part out?” So unfortunately I can’t talk about it, and now it’s going to be lost over the sands of time.
BE: You had mentioned earlier about the chapter discussing MTV’s approach towards black artists. It was an interesting chapter, because the trenches were pretty deep on that one. After hearing both sides, where does your opinion fall on the matter?
GP: You know, I see both sides. You have to remember that at that time, MTV was trying to mirror a rock radio station, and at that point, rock radio was pretty segregated. I think the only black artist they played prominently was Jimi Hendrix. But forget about hearing James Brown, or Stevie Wonder, or Prince. They were too busy playing Journey and Zeppelin…
BE: Not until Purple Rain came out.
GP: Right, right. So yeah, as a writer, I always try to show both sides of the story, so for that chapter, I got feedback from people like Chuck D from Public Enemy, and Dave Marsh, who’s a pretty well-known journalist. Also Jello Biafra, the singer from the Dead Kennedys.
BE: We’re going to talk about him, too.
GP: Yeah, okay. But then I also spoke with some of the VJs, like Nina Blackwood, and some of the people that formed the channel, who all explained that it wasn’t done on purpose, but then people such as Jello said it was. So we may never find out for sure what the truth is, but I can see both sides [of the argument]. I can see that MTV was trying to mirror what rock radio was playing at the time, but then by the same token, it’s not really a good enough excuse not to play artists such as Prince and Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, particularly Michael Jackson and Prince. They’re making the greatest music of their careers. It would have been a braver stance for the channel to stand up and say, “We’re going to try and mirror rock radio, but we’re also going to play black artists that are really doing great stuff.”
BE: I think Nina’s comment summed it up perfectly. When they started up, disco was dead. They were just trying to get that channel off the ground, so I can see why they would make it a predominantly white channel. It’s just a business move.
GP: I’m sure they didn’t set out to say, “We’re just going to be a straight white channel.” They were just playing rock artists, and at that point, there weren’t many black rock artists. There was Bad Brains, but they were a punk band, and I think they just had one or two albums out at that point, and not on a very big label. And that’s obviously before Fishbone and Living Colour, and Prince wasn’t as big of a name as he would be with 1999 and Purple Rain.
BE: Was there anyone that you desperately tried to land an interview with but just could not get to talk?
GP: Yes, but I am not going to give them the satisfaction [of naming them here]. There were a few people I was trying to contact, but I was given the runaround. I was led on by several people who said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll do it. Call me back in a week.” And then, “Call me back in a week.” Not good manners to do that. But I will say that if there is an artist in the book that you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, I’m surprised they’re not here,” nine times out of ten I did try to get them, and was either turned down or was given the runaround, and I just had to move on.
BE: There are three people that do not appear here that I have to ask about, and I’m sure you can guess the first two off the top of your head: Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman.
GP: Um-hmm. Okay. (Pause)
BE: (Laughs) Nothing?
GP: Not only did I reach out to them, but Alan Hunter and Nina did as well, and they didn’t even respond to their messages. So if their fellow former co-workers can’t even get through to them, there’s no chance of me getting through to them. But even though I didn’t speak to them, I think I got the definitive story, because I talked to a lot of other people who worked on the channel behind the scenes, as well as Alan and Nina, so they talk about Mark and Martha and what their personalities were. And there were some pretty funny stories about them without them being interviewed.
BE: Martha Quinn: Belching Queen
GP: Yes, and I was also a fan of the story of Mark getting attacked by a strange limo driver.
BE: I thought it was great that you included [video directors] Steve Barron and Bob Giraldi in there, but there was one director I wanted to ask you about, and that was Russell Mulcahy, who was the first name director of the scene.
GP: I’m pretty positive I reached out to him, and for whatever reason, he doesn’t have contact info, or what the reason was, but I also got a third director who was my favorite, and that’s Pete Angelus, who did clips for Van Halen and David Lee Roth. I think he’s probably the most underrated director from that era. He was able to get a sense of humor through in those videos like “Hot for Teacher,” “California Girls,” and “Yankee Rose.” A lot of the videos at the time took themselves very, very seriously but come off kind of goofy, like [Don Henley’s] “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.” That video is pretty stupid when you see it now, as well as my favorite video of all time, which is Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite.”
BE: We’re going to get to that one, too!
BE: You’re stealing all of my questions.
GP: I give Pete Angelus a lot of credit, because he saw how ridiculous and silly these videos were getting, and he figured, “Well, instead of being totally serious, why don’t we goof a little bit?” So you get these great videos for “Just a Gigolo,” where he’s goofing on these specific artists who were taking themselves too seriously.
BE: I liked the fact that your chapter dedicated to Duran Duran was mostly positive. I was expecting a bunch of snark when it came to them, but I’m glad to see that didn’t happen.
GP: Yeah, it’s funny, because like I mentioned, at the time, when I was watching the channel, I was into bands like Ozzy and AC/DC, so I really did not like Duran Duran. I remember at the time, if you were a guy, you were into heavy metal bands, and if you were a girl, you were into Duran Duran kinds of stuff. So at that point, I absolutely hated Duran Duran, but over the years – I guess because pop music has gotten so bad today – I actually respect a band like Duran Duran because they write their own music and they play it and sing it. But yeah, I did reach out to Duran Duran, and was given the runaround, and I just couldn’t wait any longer, because it was important that I meet the deadline. That is a band that I would have liked to have spoken to, because they were such a face of the channel.
(Excised from the conversation: my own dealings with Duran Duran's publicist. Suffice it to say that I haven't had much luck scoring an interview, either.)
BE: You had mentioned Jello earlier. I was surprised to see him here, because you had to know going in that his responses were going to be of the ‘Fuck those guys’ variety, right?
GP: That was precisely the reason why I got him for the book. I am a huge fan of the Dead Kennedys; they’re probably my favorite punk band of all time. And they also wrote a song in the ‘80s called “MTV Get Off the Air,” so that’s why I got people like Jello, and Dave Marsh, and Chuck D. While there are parts of the book that show MTV positively, there are also the other things we’ve talked about. Their policies on black artists, the portrayal of women in videos, their double standards on letting some bands get away with more stuff than other bands. By reaching out to Jello, I thought I’d be able to get someone who saw past MTV’s sheen and saw it for what it was, or what it was to him. And I think he had some valid points, but then again I think some of the other people who defend the channel had some valid points, too. You could say that I’m probably somewhere in the middle, but then again, I’m just the author conducting the interviews. I’m letting these people tell the story, and…
BE: You’re just directing traffic.
GP: Right, exactly.
BE: I have to admit that when he said he’s never heard a Van Halen song before, I said out loud, “Bull, shit.” How is that even possible?
GP: Right. But you know, I despise pop music and mainstream rock music so much that I’ve sheltered myself to the point that I couldn’t tell you more than one or two songs that Nickelback has done, because I hate that style of music so much. I couldn’t tell you more than one or two songs that Jay-Z has done. I can see that there are people out there that totally reject what’s being played. But me personally, I’m a huge Van Halen fan. So who knows, maybe if I ever met Jello, I’d sit down with him and play some Van Halen and tell him, “I think you’re wrong about them.” Maybe he’d like it, maybe he wouldn’t. I don’t know.
BE: And I’m not trying to knock Jello here, because I think Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is one of the best punk albums ever made.
GP: Yes, absolutely.
BE: I just thought it was amusing that this guy from California had said he’s never heard Van Halen.
GP: I wouldn’t be surprised if now there are more people rejecting what’s being forced down our throats, because it’s such pure garbage.
BE: Well, it’s easier to form your own cocoon now. There isn’t that general consensus that there was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or even the ‘90s.
GP: That’s true. With sites like YouTube, you can put together your own video playlist. You don’t have to count on someone making a playlist for you.
BE: “When Bad Videos Attack”: best chapter ever. I never thought about any of those videos killing careers, but you were dead right about “Rock Me Tonite” from Billy Squier. That was a career killer.
GP: It was, absolutely. If you think back to that time, before that album came out, he was one of the top rock guys. The year prior to that, I remember people going to school and saying, “I’m going to see Billy Squier play tonight, and Def Leppard,” who were the opening act. But then I remember at school the next day, everyone saying, “Wow, I saw Def Leppard, and they blew away Billy Squier.” (Laughs) So yeah, I don’t know, maybe that was a little foreshadowing there or whatever, but to Billy Squier’s credit, he was not the only one doing that type of thing. Pete Angelus talks about “Dancing in the Street,” which stars David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Now, I’m a huge David Bowie fan, and also Stones, fan, but that video is absolutely atrocious.
BE: They shot it in one night, right? (Note: Not only did they shoot the video in one night, they shot the video and recorded the song in one night.)
GP: I don’t know the story behind that video, but the song sucks, the video sucks, everything about it…Pete has a great quote: “You mean to tell me that a girlfriend, a director, a manager, a friend, no one pulled them aside and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’”And that pretty much sums up how I feel about videos like “Dancing in the Street,” “Rock Me Tonite,” and especially one of the greatest videos ever: “Party All the Time,” by Eddie Murphy.
BE: Oh, God. That video is just terrible.
GP: Yeah, those three videos are way up there [on the list of worst videos ever made]. Of course, you can also add Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” which I was able to speak with Bob Giraldi about. But those three videos, they’re so bad that they’re actual classics.
BE: The one thing that surprised me was how many people were piling on [Pat Benatar’s] “Love Is a Battlefield.” I guess I was entertained by the fact that they used a remix of the song, and it was fun for me to watch Pat Benatar dancing. But if you’re a rocker, you see her as a rock girl, and that seems like a sellout move on her part.
GP: Yeah, I think it’s the part of her dancing, but the other part that people skip over is that MTV is just as guilty as those bands, because back then, they were playing those videos over and over. Now, when you watch VH-1 Classic and you see the “Worst Videos of All Time,” and these videos are way high on the charts and everyone’s saying how bad they were, MTV, back in the day, played these songs over and over and actually made these songs hits. You go back and listen to “Party All the Time” and you’re like, “This is the worst piece of shit.” Meanwhile, I was looking at an issue of Rolling Stone the other day, where they have the Top 10 from 1985, and that was actually a Top 10 single back then!
BE: Yes, it was.
GP: Which I couldn’t believe. Who would buy that horrible song?
BE: He tries to hold that long note at the break, and he’s at least a half-step flat.
GP: Again, Pete Angelus has some very funny stuff to say about that video. “Wow, man, these guys take that concept really seriously. Partying all the time.” The lyric is stupid, the video is stupid, it’s so indulgent…Of course, I think it’s fantastic, but I think it’s fantastic for all the wrong reasons.
BE: The way that a car crash is fantastic?
GP: (Laughs) Right, exactly.
BE: I loved seeing Joe Elliott plug the literal video for “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I love all those literal videos. I’m sure you’ve seen them.
GP: I did not even hear about that until I spoke to Joe. You can say, “Def Leppard put out some cheesy videos,” but give Joe Elliott credit: he has a self-deprecating sense of humor, and he’ll come right out and say, “Look, I’ll be honest, we put out some shit videos back then, but we put out some other videos that aren’t bad.” And I think that’s what puts Joe Elliott separate from these other people that still take themselves way too seriously. He’s more with it.
BE: He’s self-aware.
GP: He can laugh at himself a little more, and admit that some of those videos back then haven’t really aged that well.
BE: I liked that covers record [Yeah!] those guys did a few years ago.
GP: I gotta tell you, for me, Pyromania and Hysteria are definitely a guilty pleasure. I still find myself listening to those two albums.
BE: I don’t feel guilty about listening to either one of those records.
GP: (Laughs) Even though I now listen to a wide variety of stuff, I really do not like hair metal...it’s my least favorite style of music ever…I’m not sure if you consider Def Leppard that type of band…
BE: No, they were a glam band. I don’t consider any of the early ‘80s rock bands hair metal.
GP: I see them more as an arena rock band. They didn’t have anything in common with Poison, who I absolutely hate.
BE: They’re terrible.
GP: Yeah, absolutely horrible. And it’s so sad that Kurt Cobain didn’t do a good enough job of exterminating all those horrible bands. He did sort of a good job, because they were gone for most of the ‘90s, but as soon as the 21st century came along, everyone lost their minds and started listening to that shit again.
BE: You just made me think of two things. One, I used to get in arguments with my friends where I would tell them that New Order could out-rock Poison.
BE: Which they think is the most ludicrous notion in the world, and I’m like, “No, really, they do. They out-rock Poison.”
GP: You know, it’s actually funny that you bring them up, because my wife, back in the ‘80s, she listened to all that good stuff, like New Order, the Cure, Depeche Mode. And I wasn’t listening to them at that point. I was listening to Motley Crue and KISS and Metallica, and now I hear [the ‘80s alternative bands] on Sirius, and I think, “Wow, this stuff is really, really good.” And I feel like I screwed myself, because I could have seen all these bands live at their peak, but instead I was going to these big-ass shows in these big-ass arenas and stadiums. But I absolutely agree: New Order can definitely out-rock Poison
BE: The other thing you made me think of is when Nevermind broke – I read this in the updated liner notes to Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend when they reissued it – they talked about how all the A&R guys were calling their bands on the road and saying, “Come on home. It’s over.”
GP: (Laughs) Well, that was the beauty of grunge – and I talk about this in my book “Grunge Is Dead,” which came out in 2009 – there are several times in the history of music where you can pinpoint a change, not only musically but culturally. In the ‘60s, it was the hippie movement, in the ‘70s it was the punk movement. And then with the grunge bands circa 1991, where whatever you were listening to prior to that point almost becomes obsolete. You wake up, and everything goes from black and white to 3D, or Technicolor. That’s what happened to me when I started listening to Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, all those great bands.
BE: I never thought of Pearl Jam as a grunge band. To me, that was just a convenient tag to separate them from mainstream rock. They’re just a rock band.
GP: I personally think of all those bands the same. To me, good music is good music. I like Pearl Jam as much as Nirvana, but my favorite grunge band will always be Soundgarden, because that was the first grunge band I really got into. They’re also the grunge band I still listen to the most.
BE: So what did you think of [Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell’s hotly debated, Timbaland-produced solo album] Scream, then?
GP: (Laughs) I’m proud to say that I never heard that whole album from start to finish. I saw the videos, and couldn’t believe what the hell I was watching. I couldn’t even stomach [listening to the entire album].
BE: I thought it was fascinating, and a ballsy move on his part. I won’t say it’s a great record, but there is something about it that made me think, “Wow, I can’t believe he had the guts to do this.” You have to give him credit for that.
GP: I give him credit for trying something daring. It reminds me of what Bowie was doing back in the ‘70s when he was going from style to style. But one of my other favorite singers, [Faith No More singer] Mike Patton, put out a similar project a few years ago called Peeping Tom. That, to me, is a good version of what Chris Cornell was trying to do with Scream.
BE: There was one other thing I wanted to talk about that I gleaned from the book: Ringo’s the diva? Really?
GP: (Laughs) That is a pretty funny story. For him to supposedly have his PR people clear the hallway, and you couldn’t look at him, and you couldn’t ask for his autograph, that kind of behavior is exactly what punk rock tried to blow away. Human beings are human beings. Just because you played drums on some stupid album doesn’t mean you should be making demands when you’re at a fucking station. I can understand if Ringo Starr is at a restaurant eating dinner, and someone bothers him, that’s different.
BE: But Ringo’s public image is that he’s the affable one.
GP: Right. I can tell you from my profession, when I do these interviews, some of the people that you think would be jerks turn out to be incredibly nice and likable, whereas other people that you’re fans of, and you have a certain image of them in mind, you talk to them and they’re jerks. You can really never tell.
BE: I’ve talked to a couple of the people that you interviewed in the book. I made the fatal mistake with Dave Wakeling of getting too close in my questions about Saxa. He totally threw the gauntlet down on me. It was pretty funny in retrospect.
GP: I have to say that he was a good interview for the book. For me, the best interviews were the people that were brutally honest and just told it like it was. Dave, Joe Elliott…Stewart Copeland had some interesting things to say, as did Gerald Casale, the bassist for Devo.
BE: I’d love to talk to him. I was a big fan growing up.
GP: He was a great guy. I’m a huge Devo fan. I’d probably put them in my top 10 favorite bands ever. In that first year, MTV didn’t have a huge pool of videos to play, and Devo was played heavily back then.
BE: What did you think of their new record [Something for Everybody]?
GP: I didn’t hear the whole thing, but from what I heard, you know, I don’t think they’re ever going to be able to top their earlier classic stuff, just because it was a certain time and place and they fit in so well back then. Supposedly they’re still very good to see live. The song I heard, it was okay. It wasn’t horrible, but it’s definitely not on par with “Freedom of Choice” or “Girl U Want.”
BE: The single was not the best thing on the album. It’s better than you think. And they killed at Lollapalooza last year. You would have been impressed with the set list. They pulled out “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA.”
GP: Oh, wow. The thing with Devo is, similar to Pearl Jam, I’m not that familiar with their latest albums, but I know they’re still a fantastic live band. So they both go in that category of bands that you may have lost track of over the years, but you count on being blown away by their live show.
BE: So what are you working on next?
GP: I’m working on a couple of books right now. I’m working with Carmine Appice, the drummer who was with Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Ozzy, on his autobiography, and it is going to absolutely blow people’s minds. He’s not holding back. He tells the whole story of the legendary mud shark incident that happened with Zeppelin. And he gets into graphic detail. And he has great stories about touring with Jeff Beck, touring with Rod Stewart, hanging out with John Bonham, his friendship with the guys from KISS…it’s a great, great book, and we’re just about done with the first version of it. We’re going to start shopping it around, so I’m very excited about that. And then I’m going to take a little break from music, and in the summer, I have my first non-music book coming out. It’s about the 1980s-era New York Jets, which is called “Sack Exchange: The Definitive Oral History of the 1980s New York Jets.” I interviewed guys like Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau…
BE: Gastineau, I was trying to think of his name. He had that big mane of hair.
GP: Yeah, he had the mullet and he also had that great mustache. I also spoke to some players that played against the Jets. It’s going to appeal not just to Jets fans, but fans of ‘80s football, because we talk about some of the toughest players to play against, the toughest teams, and steroid use at the time.
BE: I’m a Patriots fan, and that game on Sunday [the divisional match-up between the Jets and New England] just stung. The Jets had their number from the very beginning.
GP: You know what’s really weird? I really wanted the Jets to beat the Patriots, but for some reason, when the game was over, I felt really bad for Tom Brady, and I can’t explain why.
BE: Yeah, why?
GP: (Laughs) Maybe because, to me, I think of him as a class act type of guy. He’s not boisterous; you don’t see him dancing after a big score. But of course I’m glad the Jets won. I’m just concerned that that was the Jets’ Super Bowl, and that they’ll screw up against the Steelers this weekend. (Note: As it turns out, he was right to be concerned: the Jets lost to the Steelers 24-19.)
BE: The way I see it, they’re playing with house money. Even if they lose to the Steelers, the season’s a win, because they took out the Patriots.
GP: I also don’t think the Steelers are that great. They were lucky to beat the Ravens this past weekend, and they didn’t look good at all against the Jets last month.
BE: See, there you go. It’s all coming together. It’s your year.
BE: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Any chance I get to talk about MTV, I seize the opportunity. It’s the kind of book I wish I had done myself.GP: Cool, I’m glad you dug it. Thanks, I definitely appreciate it.