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

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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