Even as Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Mick Jagger strutted their stuff at Dublin’s Point, there was a sense that the station itself was having its swansong
Thirty years ago, on August 1, 1987, Ireland’s pop-watchers finally got what they were looking for. With U2’s Joshua Tree sitting pretty as the planet’s number-one album, the advent of MTV Europe was the sprinkling on the cake. Irish TV choice was transformed that year with the dawn of satellite broadcasting. MTV Europe, Sky Channel and Super Channel came at us all in a rush, with the latter offering an almost identikit starter menu of pop videos and reheats of ancient Star Treks, Mr Eds and The Munsters. Overnight, the Irish skyline bristled with newfangled satellite dishes, although many urban homes got theirs piped by cable.
I was enlisted as MTV’s first Irish correspondent, and it really did feel like being part of the future. Even the pay cheques seemed avant-garde. Vividly coloured and highly embossed, you’d wonder whether to cash them or frame them, a dilemma that always passed quickly.
The trouble was, while MTV existed in some fabulously hi-tech future world, Ireland was struggling to catch up with the present. My task was to file stories on happening acts. I just had to source good yarns, write them up and send them in with nice visuals. Simple, right?
Not so. Almost all the acts signed three or four years earlier in the frenzy to find “the next U2” had been dropped by their labels, mostly on account of being pretty awful. Once bitten, twice shy, the labels had locked away the cheque books. There were more wannabe pop stars than ever, but without industry backing, they couldn’t make videos, which were horrendously expensive.
So for most Irish acts, getting any MTV exposure at all meant pitching a story and supplying colour slides, just like the ones your auntie would show from her holidays. With the internet still a twinkle in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, stories had to be typed and faxed — if you could find a fax machine— and the photos sent by snail mail.
Ironically, with U2 newly installed as the world’s biggest band, anything Irish was suddenly in huge demand. In particular, MTV couldn’t get enough of the latest antics of The Joshua Trio, especially after Bono told Rolling Stone they were his favourite band.
A jazzy combo, their mission was “to bring the music of U2 to a wider audience”. Band chaplain Fr Ted Crilly would deliver homilies during the interval. I hit the U2 pilgrimage trail with the Trio for MTV. Stops included the Ballymun Towers (apparently built on magical ley lines), Bono’s childhood home where the Trio paused for prayer, and Mount Temple School where they expressed outrage that Larry’s 1976 note founding U2 was not preserved on the noticeboard behind bulletproof glass like the Mona Lisa.
Some assignments were lavish, some dog rough and some plain weird. A weird one was The Cranberries, on the cusp of fame, but opting to meet me in a parked Hiace van in total darkness while I sat in the front passenger seat unable to see the band behind me. I managed to file a story that singer Dolores was miffed at one UK mag describing her as “a dolphin in the sea and a load of fish came out”. She elaborated: “People will come to our gigs and be disappointed — she’s not a dolphin lads, lets go.”
Another MTV assignment took me to a cabaret venue in the middle of nowhere. There, around 1am, a two-hit-wonder took the stage before a heaving throng of very dazed and confused 14-year-olds (this was the permissive society, Irish style). The performer was today’s serial celebrity big cheese Sinitta, accompanied only by a reel-toreel tape machine. In what would be a low point in a career that has known many lows, the machine chewed up the tape just minutes in, and Sinitta had to beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the dressing room as an ugly crowd got even uglier.
It seemed that even the MTV cleaning staff were on the guest list when Eurythmics booked out every five-star hotel in Cannes, and the beach at nearby Juan-les-Pins, for an extravagant album launch. Newly married to Irishwoman Siobhán Fahey from Bananarama, Eurythmic Dave Stewart told me he’d asked The Furey Brothers to play their wedding because the Ballyfermot siblings had taken him under their wings as a wayward teen.
Back in the 1970s, the Fureys were touring Britain “like gypsies”, he recalled.
“So myself and a friend, Brian, went off to stay with them in Scotland. We were all living in a disused railway station. Finbar and Eddie would teach us songs. Staying with the Fureys was part of the learning process.”
A St Patrick’s weekend Irish festival in Denmark was tailor-made MTV fare, but involved an incursion into SAS survival guide territory. Creature comforts included a bare floor to sleep on, and cold running water. The obvious solution was to stay up for four nights in a row.
The red-eye Sunday morning flight out of Copenhagen hadn’t even taken off when the Irish contingent were offered an upgrade to the vacant business class section. We assumed it was because we were VIPs, but when the taxi driver at Dublin Airport ordered us to wind down the windows, we twigged it was because we smelled so bad the other passengers had demanded our removal.
MTV Europe arrived just months after RTÉ’s spirited alternative had gone off air. MTV had started up in the United States in 1981, and while the rest of Europe waited impatiently for the phenomenon to cross the Atlantic, Montrose raced ahead of the pack and in 1984 began airing a homespun version entitled MT-USA with the slogan ‘Music Never Looked Better’.
Hosted by Vincent ‘Fab Vinnie’ Hanley, the format consisted of an unheard-of three-hour block of videos broadcast on a Thursday night and repeated on Sunday afternoons. Despite the fact that the playlist was top heavy with US artists like Pat Benatar and Mötley Crüe, it became required viewing for the nation’s youth starved of alternatives.
MT-USA’s wildly successful run ended in early 1987 when Hanley became the first well-known Irish person to die from an AIDS-related illness.
Fab Vinnie brought knowledge and enthusiasm to a job which he made his own. In this, he was the polar opposite of an entirely new breed of TV creature birthed by MTV, the veejay. Unlike all TV presenters before them, most veejays were handpicked to be all style, no content and instantly disposable.
Andy Warhol’s 1960s prophecy that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes was made flesh. A handful of MTV Europe veejays have gone on to greater things — Davina McCall, Cat Deeley, Russell Brand and Bray’s Laura Whitmore — while the multitude swiftly followed Bros and B*Witched into the dustbin of history.
In parallel with giving us much shorter screen careers, MTV played a key part in shortening the attention span of humankind in general. The so-called ‘MTV style’ of quick cuts started out mimicking that new accessory of the 1980s, the TV zapper, and ended up giving us the modern language of cinema, TV shows and adverts. The world was suddenly in much more of a hurry.
MTV Europe even credits itself with a key role in the fall of Communism, with its overspill signals whetting the appetite of Eastern Bloc youngsters for a magical lifestyle just over the Berlin Wall. Perhaps. Ten years, almost to the day, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the MTV Europe Music Awards came to the Republic for the first and only time. But even as Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Mick Jagger and The Cardigans strutted their stuff at Dublin’s Point, there was a sense that the station itself was having its swansong. The musical content was being divested into ever more ghettoised spin-off stations, as the main MTV channel followed its Stateside parent down the road of dumb and dumber ‘reality’ shows and acne-free teen soaps. Today, yoof dramas on the main station run the whole spectrum from Teen Mom to Teen Mom 2 ,to Teen Mom UK. So, in the space of 30 short years, MTV Europe has shortened our attention spans, changed our media habits, and paved the way for a blight of cheap-and-stupid reality shows. What’s beyond argument is that, for better or for worse — and it often seems for worse — MTV has played a significant part in global culture’s operation transformation.
Beginning of the end: Britney Spears with her MTV Europe awards at The Point, Dublin in 1999.
Old guard: Vincent Hanley, a pioneer of music television in Ireland before MTV arrived