At 12:01 a.m. one summer night in 1981, a rocket ship took off on television. A voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!” and five fresh faces—Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and J.J. Jackson—were introduced to America. The video for the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” began to play, and a brand new 24/7 cable entertainment channel called MTV was born.
Those five faces guided America through the rock and roll of the ’80s, when Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen, Twisted Sister, Kajagoogoo, and everything in between ruled the airwaves. The video jockeys, as they were called, became celebrities on par with the rock stars they interviewed—and occasionally dated or partied with. Mark says he found out years later that they were cast as types: “J.J. was the benign black guy, Nina was the video vamp, Alan was the jock, and Martha was the girl next door that every executive wanted to fuck.”
In their new memoir, VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, Nina, Mark, Alan and Martha (J.J. passed away in 2004) tell stories from their six years as young America’s cultural guides, ranging from the good to the bad to the David Lee Roth. Anecdotes include the time Alan did coke in a trailer with the aforementioned Van Halen frontman, and Mark listened to Roth’s bandmates tell misogynistic stories about making girls do headstands on toilets. We hear about a jealous Marianne Faithfull spilling her wine on Nina because she was getting Joe Cocker’s attention. And the VJs’ crappy salaries and signs of blatant discrimination are also divulged: in their first year on the job, Alan made $27,000 and Martha made $26,000, though they were equally inexperienced. When discussing the way MTV had exclusive control over the VJs’ income—no endorsement deals or side gigs allowed—the words “indentured servitude” get thrown around.
But mostly, VJ is about the times when, as the book’s co-author Gavin Edwards says, “MTV was a logical acronym instead of a cruel joke.” The Daily Beast conference-called all four surviving first-wave VJs to talk about the indelible mark they left on pop culture, getting coked up during the New Year’s Eve special, and why MTV just ain’t about the music anymore.
TDB: It’s a shame there are no VJs anymore.
Nina: Well there’s no music anymore!
Mark: Not on TV, anyway.
TDB: How would you describe the impact on pop culture that you all had?
Nina: Well, basically—
Mark: Lots of people were dressing like Nina.
Nina: Oh god. Well, basically, when I moved from New York to L.A., people were saying “What happened to Nina?” “Oh, she took some job at some cable music program.” Cable was in its infancy, so it wasn’t like it is now with 200-something channels. [MTV] grew as cable grew, little by little. Initially MTV wasn’t available in New York, so on a day-to-day basis we didn’t know how big we were, but when they would send us out on personal appearances, we were mobbed! We’d go, “Wow, this is really taking off!” And then once we hit New York, it was like, “See ya later.”
Alan: MTV became the epicenter for almost everything in media after a couple of years. It focused people, it homogenized the country in a way—that is to say, kids in Idaho knew what was going on with fashion in New York. It was really a bonding collective that MTV was the glue for.
TDB: MTV has obviously changed since then—
TDB: It has! When do you think the turning point was?
Mark: When Martha left.
Alan: [laughs] I was gonna say when the five of us left, but I’ll give it to Martha.
Nina: I think really when the first nonmusic program started. I had left by then.
Martha: Al, I think you said this the other day on Twitter, or somebody said, “Why does MTV concentrate on reality shows?” And Al said, “Because it makes them lots of money.” And not to say that they’re a commercial, money-hungry vehicle, but they’re a corporation. They found that growing and changing and adding new programs worked for them.
Mark: Ultimately, there would be no reason to play videos on MTV. That’s why you’re not seeing them now. What’s the point of showing videos like that when there’s Vevo and YouTube? It’s not necessary.
Alan: They were ahead of their time. The novelty of the video jukebox wore off earlier than 1987, really. They started putting programming on to sell advertisement on a 30-minute show like Remote Control. I maintain that it started earlier, when Spring Break, the 1986–87 spring-break reality show with people doing silly things to themselves, started to be more popular. Those were really highly rated shows for MTV.
Mark: They realized that they could do that for cheap too. It was cheap programming and people flocked to it.
TDB: One of the more interesting parts of the book was reading about what MTV was willing to spring for with you guys and what it wasn’t. For the younger VJs, decent starting salaries seemed out of the question, or even separate dressing rooms. Some of you even describe not getting the pay raises that were already in your contract. What do you think was behind that?
Alan: They had the penny-wise-and-pound-foolish mentality that a lot of corporations do. On one hand, they cheap out on talent as much as they can, but they blow lavish amounts of money on Mark Goodman’s hair. I thought that was the funniest story.
Mark: And it was worth it!
Nina: Well, bottom line too, you have to remember, is the channel didn’t make any money. It was a losing proposition at the beginning. So, yeah, it was kind of bad when I’d ask for a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine and they’d go, “We can’t afford it.” They didn’t really have that kind of money at the beginning, so you can kind of understand it.
Mark: The amazing thing is, we were just talking about this, they didn’t have money for our salaries or for wardrobe or for 47 other things, and yet they spent boatloads of money shipping scripts around to all of us in the middle of the night.
Martha: By the same token, some of my favorite memories of us all working together are when we were all sharing one dressing room, when we were all cramming into the Ford Tempo to drive out to Brendan Byrne Arena to see Pat Benatar or the Kinks or something. I treasure those times so much—I wish so much that we had cellphones and could have had pictures of ourselves in the car. Kind of like when you talk to Guns N’ Roses or Mötley Crüe, what they always talk about is sharing an apartment on Sunset Boulevard. Those are really the bonding times together, and we had that before they decided to spend money. That pre-money era really bonded us.
TDB: Mark and Alan talk a few times about being coked up while on-air.
Mark: I can tell you this, I was never—oh, you’re talking about New Year’s maybe. That was New Year’s. Yeah, because never, ever was I ever high on the air—in the studio.
Alan: Is that true, Mark? Are you saying that on the record?
Mark: I am saying that on the record! And I will stand by it! New Year’s, come on, it’s New Year’s.
Alan: What I thought was interesting to hear from people who watched us is they thought we were enmeshed in the rock-and-roll lifestyle that we purveyed. Look, we didn’t hang about all day long on the isle of Montserrat with Sting and the Police, but we lived in the best city in the world, New York, and MTV was the epicenter of almost all entertainment by 1984 and ’85. But we had a job ... It was like school for us, MTV was a Monday-through-Friday gig predominantly, and I treated it pretty reverently. Most of us did. The weekends are when we blew it out. We were good boys and girls, but we did party.
TDB: And Nina said she tried coke once and hated it.
Nina: That was way before MTV. That was back in Ohio a long time ago, and I was on the phone with the emergency room, I thought I was gonna die.
Alan: Are you supposed to do this up your nose or is this a suppository? Is that your question?
Mark: Oh god, Al. Al has drawn the line and crossed it in one fell swoop!
TDB: I know you guys didn’t get to choose which videos you played, but why do you think there was such a delay before videos from black artists like Michael Jackson got aired on MTV?
Nina: It wasn’t so much a black and white issue, it was more about genre and rock and roll. There haven’t historically been that many black artists that were played on radio rock channels, and consequently there weren’t that many that fit in the so-called rock genre at the beginning of MTV. I never saw it as racist.
Alan: We also had Gary U.S. Bonds and—
Nina: Joan Armatrading.
Alan: And Garland Jeffreys. We had black artists.
Mark: The people who were writing the channel—Bob Pittman as the head of it all—they were radio and record-label people. In 1981, there was still A&R radio, and that was rock radio. Rock radio didn’t play Michael Jackson and wouldn’t have played Michael Jackson even with Eddie Van Halen on guitar. But I also say in the book that J.J., who was Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll, pointed out that we were playing, let’s say, Culture Club. Well what’s the difference between that and some R&B act except they were white? He pointed out that it’s the same music and yet one we play and one we don’t. That said, the reason we started playing it is not because the music was getting more popular but because the record labels were leaning on us and they owned our programming. They were leaning on us, and they were saying, “Look, we want these artists played on your channel.”
TDB: And now you’re all DJs on Sirius XM’s ’80s on 8 show, right?
Alan, Martha, Mark, Nina: Yep!
Martha: I love so much saying every day, “I’m Martha Quinn taking over for Mark Goodman!” Or, I have to tell you, Mark, every time when I hear you say, “Coming up, America’s sweetheart!” I melt! Because it’s so fun for us. I’m so thrilled every day.
Alan: We’re all joined at the hip. Our cachet is that as a group we’re pretty powerful, and it’s a pretty cool thing for Sirius to have us all together. It’s one of the top channels, and I think it’s because people have a fondness for the whole package of the ’80s—the music and the people who brought it to ’em.