When MTV launched in 1981, most American artists weren’t producing music videos. Artists with videos ready to play saw heavy rotations in the earliest days of MTV. MTV has morphed into a whole new format without music videos, but it should thank Generation X and these iconic bands for its initial success.
One band totally prepared for MTV with multiple videos ready to air was Styx, with three videos from their Paradise Theatre album.
The Best of Times from Styx
Written by founding member, vocalist and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, and inspired by the opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from Charles Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities, The Best of Times held the No. 3 spot in the U.S. for four weeks. From the same album, Rockin’ the Paradise was the 10th video to debut on MTV and reached No. 8 in the U.S. Too Much Time On My Hands also played frequently during MTV’s earliest days, showcased the band’s storytelling and acting talents, and reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The band has experienced member changes over the years, but still tours and records new releases, as recently as 2021. Check out their official website for more info.
Researching these early days of MTV has taken me back to so many fun memories! This video from Robert Palmer makes you wanna get up and dance, and totally leaves you with that “emotional afterglow.”
Looking for Clues from Robert Palmer
From Palmer’s Clues album, Looking for Clues was written and produced by Palmer himself, and reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 100. The 23rd video to debut during MTV’s first two hours, the video tells the story of a lovesick guy looking for clues to help with a girl. The recipient of numerous nominations and awards from Grammys to MTV Video Music Awards, Palmer passed away in 2003 at a young 54 years old. Check out his official YouTube channel for more of his classic videos from the ‘80s.
In 1981, music videos weren't yet trending in the U.S., but Rod Stewart was another artist at the ready for MTV’s launch.
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy from Rod Stewart
From his Blondes Have More Fun album, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy reached No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K. This unique "video-within-a-video" was one of three from Rod Stewart to debut during MTV’s initial launch. Sailing from his Atlantic Crossing album and She Won’t Dance With Me from his Foolish Behaviour album also aired in the first two hours. Stewart still tours and records new releases, as recently as 2021. Check out his official website for more info.
A classic should-I-stay-or-should-I-go love story, this performance will forever be etched in the memories of Generation Xers.
Stop Draggin' My Heart Around from Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Written by Tom Petty and drummer Mike Campbell, Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around was gifted to Nicks for her first solo album, Bella Donna. The single held No. 3 in the U.S. for six weeks and played 25th during MTV’s launch. The story performed as a duet truly captures the perspectives of both men and women when struggling in a relationship. A two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stevie Nicks still tours, with upcoming dates scheduled with Billy Joel. Check out her official website for tour dates, tickets, and more.
One of the best-selling music artists of all time, and with over 80 million records sold, Tom Petty passed away in 2017 at the age of 66. His career spanned five decades—from 1976 to 2017. Petty’s legacy includes three albums on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, as well as two songs on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, including American Girl at #169 and Free Fallin’ at #219.
This iconic video from Talking Heads captured our attention in a big way with strange, trance-like dance moves and religious rituals.
Once In a Lifetime from Talking Heads
From their Remain in Light album, Once In a Lifetime only reached No. 91 in the U.S., but has since received prestigious recognition. Accolades include NPR’s 100 Most Important American Musical Works of the 20th Century, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock, and No. 27 on Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Although the band broke in 2002, its official website offers history, videos, and merchandise, as well as links to follow on social media.
This black-and-white performance video from The Who touches any listener, at any age, in any generation.
You Better You Bet from The Who
A song we can all relate to. Who hasn’t been told “you better” after telling someone close “I love you”? From their Face Dances album, You Better You Bet was written by Pete Townshend as a love song for his girlfriend and reached No. 18 in the U.S. Touring in 2023 and still recording as recently as 2019, check out The Who’s official website for dates, contests, The Wholigan Fan Club, and cool merch.
We’ve highlighted some of the most iconic videos from MTV’s first two hours, but in no way covered all the artists who ushered in MTV. You can watch the first two hours in its entirety in this video.
Part 1: The Artists Who Ushered in MTV