Forty years ago this week, MTV launched with a graphic of astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon, planting an American flag, with the network’s neon logo replacing the stars and stripes. There was a lot of symbolism in that image. The debut of a cable channel devoted exclusively to playing music videos was—to its creators, at least—an epochal television moment, on par with that 1969 moon landing. Plus, what better way to capture the upstart ethos of MTV than ripping some photos from the public domain, then slapping rock guitar over them?
Perhaps more importantly, the image implied that MTV’s premiere was a global event, uniting the whole world in awe (even if its initial hours were only broadcast in New Jersey). Yet for a worldwide phenomenon, the channel had an incredibly narrow scope. Drawing from a limited well of videos, those first hours were dominated by just a handful of artists, many of them from New York and England. A place like Texas may as well have not existed—which is ironic, considering that, without the Houston-born and Dallas-raised Michael Nesmith, MTV itself might never have existed.
You likely remember Nesmith from the Monkees, the made-for-television rock band whose eponymous show could be today regarded as a precursor to MTV. Their songs were accompanied by short proto–music videos—and in the beginning, with a few exceptions, the Monkees didn’t write their own music or even play their own instruments. Their very existence predicted the way personality would take precedence over artistry in the MTV age. Nesmith bristled over that last bit. He was an actual musician and songwriter who couldn’t wait to break free of his contract. Once he did, he set down a defiant path of always doing the most uncommercial thing he could think of.
Take the video for “Rio,” from his 1977 solo album, From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing. The record label wanted a nice promotional clip of Nesmith singing along to the music, like the kind that was in many of the Monkees episodes. Instead, Nesmith and director William Dear created a surrealist montage of disjointed images: black and white shots of a tuxedo-clad Nesmith, crooning into a microphone; Nesmith dancing with a woman in a red dress; Nesmith soaring through space, held aloft by ladies wearing giant, Carmen Miranda–esque fruit hats.
Nesmith would call his “Rio” clip the “first music video,” though everyone from The Beatles to Queen to Cab Calloway would probably take issue with that. Still, “Rio” was groundbreaking because it showed how “out there” those videos could be: they didn’t need to just be live performances committed to tape. Nesmith recognized that songs can create their own impressionistic narratives through even the most disconnected images (and if you can have some photogenic women dancing around you, all the better). He would later expand on this idea with 1981’s Elephant Parts, an hour-long medley of music clips and comedy sketches that went on to win the first-ever Grammy for Video of Year (the forerunner of today’s Best Music Video and Best Music Film categories). To Nesmith, the music video had the potential to be an entirely new medium of entertainment.
In Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Nesmith recalls that he hit upon the idea for a show, or even a full-blown TV channel, dedicated to music videos. Nesmith called his idea PopClips, and with financial backing from All in the Family creator Norman Lear, he turned it into a pilot in 1979. He hired comedians such as Howie Mandel, Charles Fleischer (the future voice of Roger Rabbit), and Jeff Michalski to introduce music clips and provide interstitial banter. They were the first video jockeys, or “veejays,” although it would be another few years before anyone would call them that.
The PopClips pilot proved a tough sell to television programmers who’d been raised on music shows like American Bandstand. They didn’t see how music could work on TV without live performances or dancing teenagers. But eventually, Nesmith got an audience with John Lack, the chief operating officer of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company. Lack ended up giving PopClips a test run on Nickelodeon, where it proved to be an immediate hit with the kids. Lack wanted more, but he also wanted to overhaul the program, give it more of a professional, Top 40 vibe—and that’s when Nesmith bailed. “My plan had always been to build it and sell it,” Nesmith said. “They paid me a nice number. That was my exit.”
According to Lack, it was the success of PopClips that inspired him to go to Bob Pittman, a former radio programmer whom Warner hired to run its nascent, 24-hour film service, The Movie Channel. Lack told Pittman to start developing a similar channel for music, and the two men used the proven success of PopClips to sell their idea to the board of directors. When they finally got the go-ahead, Lack claimed in I Want My MTV, he went back to Nesmith and offered him a job as a creative consultant at the fledgling MTV. Nesmith turned him down. He said he didn’t like Bob Pittman, Lack recalled, and he didn’t like the direction they were headed. MTV would go on without him.
Success, of course, has many fathers, and the history of who “invented” MTV is today as murky as that of the first true music video. “The word ‘invent,’ it’s inapt,” Nesmith said in I Want My MTV. “It’s a gradual coalescence of different things, a confluence of energies. It’s one of those ideas that nobody really thinks up.” Even PopClips wasn’t an entirely original concept. Nesmith was inspired by other music-video shows he’d seen while touring Australia and New Zealand in 1976, including Sounds Unlimited and the seminal Radio with Pictures. In fact, before PopClips debuted, USA Network had already premiered Video Concert Hall in America, which showcased music videos three years before MTV made it to the air.
Rocker Todd Rundgren, another early adopter of the music video format, claims in I Want My MTV that he, too, had created an early prototype for an all-day music video channel, also with a video jockey host. He’d even pitched it to Bob Pittman, who rejected it, Rundgren says, only to come out with MTV eight months later. “It’s just an idea that was too damn obvious at that point,” Rundgren says.
The fact that there were so many people circling the same foregone conclusion is why Nesmith has long downplayed the idea that he “invented” MTV. In a 1985 interview, Nesmith said he prefers to be thought of as the “architect,” not the father of MTV. If anything, he said, he’d helped develop the music video into an art form—one that had, by his estimation, already fallen into crass commercialism only a few years into MTV’s run. It was as though Nesmith had designed a beautiful building, only to have Van Halen come in and trash the place.
Although MTV would prove to be incredibly lucrative, it’s easy to see why Nesmith was so sanguine about letting it go. After all, he definitely didn’t need the money. In 1980, a year before MTV launched, he’d already inherited many millions from his late mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, who’d invented Liquid Paper while working as a secretary at the Dallas-based Texas Bank and Trust. Nesmith has long had the privilege of doing whatever he feels like, whether it’s producing movies (including the cult films Repo Man and Tapeheads), or leading the advancement of home-video distribution and virtual reality through his Pacific Arts Corporation. He’s driven more by curiosity than the desire for further fame or fortune. If those were all that mattered, he could have just stayed with the Monkees.
Still, even those recognized as “fathers” of MTV have acknowledged the debt they owe to Nesmith. As Steve Leeds, former head of MTV’s on-air talent, said in I Want My MTV, most people credit the channel’s creation to Bob Pittman, MTV Networks’ original CEO. “No,” Leeds says. “It’s John Lack and Michael Nesmith.”
In the years following MTV’s launch, Nesmith would continue to criticize the way the channel had yet to live up to its artistic potential, although he would still play a small part in its development, including by producing the videos for Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” MTV also ran a Monkees marathon in 1986, creating a brief resurgence of popularity for the band. That year, Nesmith dropped by the network for an interview with veejay Martha Quinn, in which Quinn admitted that she’d never seen the entirety of Elephant Parts. In fact, Quinn didn’t seem aware of any connection between Nesmith’s pioneering work with music videos and the birth of the channel that had made her a household name. Nesmith, ever the Southern gentleman, didn’t tell her.
Eventually, Texas would become a part of MTV as well—through ZZ Top’s standard-setting trilogy of Eliminator videos, through Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, and through all those local bands, from the Fabulous Thunderbirds to the Toadies, who ended up in heavy rotation. But it’s worth remembering that one of our own was there from the very beginning. Like the engineers in Houston’s Mission Control who first figured out how to blast Buzz Aldrin into space, Michael Nesmith didn’t get to plant that MTV flag himself, but it might never have gotten off the ground without him.