billking (billking) wrote,

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I want my, I want my, I want my ... grandaddy of MTV

Thirty years ago today MTV debuted on those few cable TV systems that had signed up for what they thought was largely an untested idea: wall to wall video music clips played by "veejays" in a sort of "Top 40 radio on TV" format.

The concept quickly caught on and more and more cable systems started adding the channel, prodded along by a classic advertising campaign in which viewers were urged to call their local systems and tell them, "I want my MTV!"

It was about a year, I think, before our cable system added MTV to its channel lineup, but the concept was far from new to me even in August 1981. In fact, it went all the way back to the spring of my senior year of high school 11 years earlier and a pioneering program launched on an Atlanta independent UHF station: "Now Explosion."

There were a few differences between what "Now Explosion" did starting March 14, 1970, and what MTV was showing more than a decade later: MTV relied primarily on "music videos" and concert clips provided by the record companies (who were credited onscreen), and its hosts/veejays appeared on-camera.

The "Now Explosion" hosts, former Quixie in Dixie deejays Bob Todd and Skinny Bobby Harper, were mainly unseen voices introducing the songs, just like in Top 40 radio.

And in 1970 there weren't nearly enough music videos (or "promo films," as they were known at the time) to fill hours of programming, though the "Explosion" had a few promos (I remember Glen Campbell dressed up like a soldier in a clip for "Galveston").

So the "Explosion" producers made their own clips of the songs, most featuring go-go dancers and psychedelic light show-style effects. Some of these were quite striking, including one memorable clip for Tom Jones' "Daughter of Darkness" that used an effect where the screen ended up filled with multiple versions of the same dancer doing different moves to the song.

Most of the dancers were comely young women in miniskirts or bikinis, though there were male dancers, including one rather large young black man known as "Sweet Baby James." To keep the programming fresh despite repeated plays for the most popular hits (a la Top 40), the producers generally made multiple, differing clips for each song and would rotate them.

There also were some clips shot in Atlanta and in the studios of various stations around the country owned by the Atlanta station's parent company, featuring the artists lip-syncing their hits, such as the Jaggerz doing "The Rapper" and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition doing "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)". There were even a handful of live performance clips, including one of Tony Joe White singing "Polk Salad Annie."

And the channel produced some of its own concept music videos, such as one with hometown star Joe South walking along a dusty road to "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home," another with hippies in Atlanta's Piedmont Park for the Plastic Ono Band's "Instant Karma," speeded-up shots of Atlanta traffic to Ides of March's "Vehicle," and footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech accompanying Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that years later Atlanta radio legend Harper (who died in 2003) told me he assembled from films he borrowed from the Atlanta Public Library.

Initially, "Now Explosion" aired as a 28-hour block of weekend programming on WATL/Channel 36, and it was absolutely addictive! I'm not sure if it aired all through the night (most stations still signed off in the early hours of the morning in those days) but I vividly remember sitting up into the wee hours raptly watching the show.

Back in 2000, Miriam Longino, a longtime friend from college, did an article on the "Now Explosion" for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that traced the history of the concept, which was the brainchild of a Philadelphia businessman named Bob Whitney. The videos were mostly produced by Atlantan R.T. Williams, who would go on to become a mainstay of Superstation TBS, and featured a lot of the camera zooming in and out, splitting the screen up into multiple images, and surreal chroma key effects. The dancers, Todd told Miriam, were mostly girls that he and Skinny Bobby "picked up down on Peachtree," referring to the hippie district on Atlanta's main drag.

The "Now Explosion" had only been on the air a few weeks when a dispute erupted between the producers and the owners of Channel 36. In a pre-emptive strike, Harper told me, the "Explosion" staffers raided Channel 36 in the middle of the night, took the videotapes and trucked them down to Florida.

The next weekend, the "Explosion" showed up on a different Atlanta UHF station, WTCG/Channel 17, which had recently been bought by a young outdoor advertising exec named Ted Turner. (Eventually Channel 17 would go national on satellite as the Superstation, but that was long after the "Now Explosion"). Channel 36 tried to keep its own version of the show going under the name "Music Connection," but WATL itself went off the air not long after that and didn't return for about six years (when it pioneered another innovative concept — a television equivalent of talk radio).

Under Turner, "Now Explosion" lost its live feel (in the early days the deejays had taken requests and done dedications using a text crawl across the bottom of the screen) but widened its reach, with the canned version sold to 111 UHF stations across the country, including New York City's WPIX. But the mounting costs of producing the footage finally proved too much and new production of the "Explosion" ceased after nine months in November 1970 (though Channel 17 continued to use segments of the show for fill-in and wee-hours programming for at least another year or so).

Miriam's story noted that the "Now Explosion" tapes wound up in a garage in Coral Gables, Fla., where they were reportedly destroyed in a flood around 1972. But Bob Thurgaland (Todd's real name) kept a one-hour tape of some of the clips and they're now in the University of Georgia's media archives.You can read more about the "Now Explosion" and watch some samples here:

But wait. There's more to the story of Atlanta-based MTV precursors.

"Video Concert Hall," produced in Atlanta, was a nightly unhosted compilation of record label music videos that was syndicated to several cable outlets, including USA Network, from 1978 to 1981. At the time, I was The Atlanta Constitution's pop music critic, and I did several stories on the show. One of the producers was a friend of one of my wife's coworkers and I remember riding down to a pasture somewhere south of Atlanta where they showed me the giant satellite dish used to uplink the program.

Of course, then along came MTV (which itself grew out of a "Pop Clips" program former Monkee Michael Nesmith produced for Nickelodeon), and "Video Concert Hall" soon went away.

But Atlanta continued to be a sort of nexus for music video. A low-budget would-be local cable rival to MTV called the Video Music Channel started in July 1982 and eventually moved over to yet another struggling local UHF station, Channel 69, where it aired 24 hours a day until the mid-1980s.

And Ted Turner wasn't finished with video music, either, after "Now Explosion" went away. The "Night Tracks" block ran late-night on weekends on the Superstation from 1983 to 1992, and briefly gave birth to another full-time national cable MTV rival in the Cable Music Channel, which lost money for Ted for about five weeks before he threw in the towel and sold out to MTV.

So, yeah, Aug. 1, 1981, was a significant date in pop music history, even if the channel itself has devolved into mostly bad reality programming. But for those of us in Atlanta, MTV was a johnny-come-lately.

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