March 13 – MTV’s Unlikely Superstar

While we readily think of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club having their careers “made” by MTV, one of the biggest career-boosts the video network ever gave was for an unlikely artist. On this day in 1993, Eric Clapton‘s Unplugged hit #1 in both the U.S. and Canada. Later Nirvana would also top charts with their album gleaned from the MTV show, but that wasn’t nearly as surprising as Clapton. After all, Clapton’s career pre-dated MTV by close to two decades, and he was not one of the aging artists who really jumped in to the deep end of ’80s video revolution , unlike say George Harrison or Paul Simon.

The concept of MTV Unplugged was simple and effective – take artists usually known for rock performances and have them play their songs in a stripped-down fashion using largely acoustic instruments. In Clapton’s case, he performed mostly using an acoustic Martin guitar. “Slowhand” did his set in England in early 1992, performing 20 or so songs for the crowd, of which 14 made the CD. It included quite a mix of material, including old Blues standards like Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” and Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” as well as some of Clapton’s own songs, most notably “Layla.” and “Tears in Heaven.” The latter tear-jerker was written for his four year-old son who’d fallen to his death in 1991 and was released on the Rush soundtrack before Unplugged hit shelves.

It was quite a different sound for the rocker many consider the best rock guitarist of all-time, decidedly more laid back than some were accustomed to (although when you think about it, many of his familiar tunes like “Lay Down Sally” were anything but raucous rock numbers). Critics were of mixed opinions. Entertainment Weekly graded it A- calling it “A charmer…(with) just the right combination of intensity and giddy fun”.

Rolling Stone, in an article on his career at that point compared him to The Beatles and The Stones and thought this record “A delight because of its atypical focus” although noting it was a “mere shadow of his electric virtuosity.” Others like crusty New York critic Robert Christgau yearned for more rock and remembered wistfully his hard rock days “relegated to the mists.”

No matter what the critics thought, the public loved it. It ended up going diamond-status in both the States and Canada, 4X platinum in the UK and when all was said and done, selling well past 20 million copies , making it his biggest-seller ever and handily reviving his career which had been rather in the doldrums. The Grammys agreed as well. They gave it the Album of the Year trophy and picked the unplugged “Layla” as Best Rock Song, an award many might have thought it should have won 20 years earlier…when it was a rock song!

September 6 – Back When People Wanted Their MTV

Recently we looked at MuchMusic’s arrival in Canada and how that helped shape the musical tastes of the nation through much of the ’80s, just as MTV did in the U.S. Video was huge and influential back then, so it was to be expected that soon the format would have its own awards. MTV obliged, with the MTV Video Awards, beginning in 1984 (with The Cars winning the Best Video trophy that year, in case you’d forgotten.)

Recently Huffington Post astutely noted the “stature of the ceremony has declined” with declining attendance in person and the lowest ratings on record, three years running. Indeed, in 2020, Nielsen reported only 1.3 million people tuned in for them, down nearly 90% from the over 12 million who watched as recently as 2011. It failed to even make the Top 10 for specialty cable programs the week it aired. But it hasn’t always been that way. For awhile, the MTV Video Awards and their little “spaceman” trophy were a big deal to both the public and the industry. And they usually took place right around back to school time. Case in point, in both 1989 and 1990 they were held on this day at the Universal Ampitheater in L.A. to great fanfare and millions of eager eyes and ears. Arsenio Hall hosted both years. And in case you’re wondering, yes, that’s no misprint. The Awards were held on the same date, despite falling on different days of the week.

The ’89 awards in particular reflected the changing state of music, giving out trophies for best Heavy Metal video and best Rap video for the first time. Guns’n’Roses took home the former for “Sweet Child of Mine” while future movie star Will Smith took home the best Rap one under his Fresh Prince moniker for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Paula Abdul and Madonna – two of the hottest ladies on the scene at the time, commercially at least – each took home four awards, but for relatively minor categories like choreography or production. The big winner of the night was ol’ Neil…Young’s video “This Note’s For You” was the Video of the Year, although quite oddly it didn’t win the video for Best Video by a Male Artist. Elvis Costello took that home for “Veronica.” R.E.M. who would clean up two years later for “Losing My Religion” were given a nod for “Orange Crush” , the Best Post-modern Video. Rap-metal fusion band Living Colour won the Best Group Video and Best New Artist one for their “Cult of Personality.” And a cult of personality it was that night there. Mick Jagger presented an award, then had the Rolling Stones perform live. Madonna, who really made a name for herself and the Awards five years earlier with her stage performance of “Like a Virgin” was back, doingg “Express Yourself” slightly less controversially; Cher performed, Bon Jovi too and Axl Rose joined Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to run through “Heartbreak Hotel.” Nielsen didn’t yet keep track of MTV’s viewers in the ’80s, so we have no definitive tally of how many people tuned in, but judging from the buzz and the uptick in sales of many of the artists right afterwards, it’s safe to bet “far more than 2019’s 1.3 million!”.

The ’90 Awards were more of the same. Once again it was a bit of a ladies’ night, with Madonna and Sinead O’Connor both winning three, though for Madonna it was her second-straight year of being nominated for Best Video unsuccessfully. Sinead grabbed that and the Best Female Video for “Nothing Compares 2U” while Don Henley took the male equivalent for the “End of the Innocence”. The B52s and their “Love Shack” were named the Best Group Video and they switched to MTV’s Australia affiliate to give Midnight Oil a Best Video there for “Blue Sky Mine.” And in the type of choice that doesn’t seem great decades down the road – the type of blooper most Awards shows in any entertainment field seem to have – Michael Penn got the nod for Best New Artist, over the Black Crowes and Lenny Kravitz to name just a pair. And once again, the stars came out for the show. Kim Basinger and Oliver Stone were among the non-musicians who trotted out to hand out trophies, while Janet Jackson (getting a “Vanguard Award” essentially for lifetime achievement at age 24), Phil Collins, INXS, Sinead and Faith No More were among the live performers.

It catapulted Dire Straits and Peter Gabriel to the level of sales and recognition they’d probably long-deserved, it also made a star out of Lita Ford and acted as a double-edged sword for the likes of Culture Club, vaulting them to superstardom but at the same time likely keeping them from getting the serious respect they deserved for the actual music they made. Like it or not, music videos shaped the soundtrack of the ’80s and around 30 years back, this week was their equivalent of Christmas morning.

August 16 – A True Blue Smash

It was a nice birthday gift for today’s birthday gal, Ms. Ciccone (she turns 63 today by the way)… Madonna scored her fourth #1 single in the States this day in 1986 with “Papa Don’t Preach.” It knocked Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” out of the top spot and followed her third album, True Blue‘s first single, “Live to Tell” to the top.

The song had a somewhat more mature feel both in sound and lyrics than some of her previous hits. The composition borrowed from Vivaldi in the strings which open it, and of course the lyrics tell the story of an unmarried teen girl who finds herself pregnant and in trouble with her family besides being “in trouble.” Co-writer Brian Elliot came up with the basic idea after over-hearing some teen girls have a conversation about being pregnant and wondering if the mother-to-be should keep the baby or not. It just fit right in with my personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authority,” she explained, “whether it’s the pope, the Catholic church or my father and his conservative patriarchal ways.”

Indeed, if it was a different approach to songwriting than she’d shown before, it did follow along with her ways of creating controversy which she’d highlighted with her earlier hit “Like a Virgin” and wedding dress performance of it at the MTV Awards. The Catholic Church, which she was raised in, didn’t like the song and urged its flock to boycott her because “Papa Don’t Preach” was seen as advocating teenage and premarital sex. On the other hand, many liberal women’s organizations objected because by saying she was “gonna keep my baby” they thought she was speaking out against abortion. It’s a wonder it got to #1, and did so in the UK and Canada as well as her own country.

Then again, it is a pretty good single! Rolling Stone at the time thought the album only so-so but called the song “magnificent” and later, Slant would note “with (it), Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist.”

The consummate artist would score three more #1 songs before the decade ended and another four in the ’90s.

May 25 – Were Norwegians’ Videos Popular? A-ha!

A-ha! It was a good night in 1986 for Norway’s most popular band. A-ha cleaned up at the MTV Video Awards, winning eight of the astronaut-shaped trophies in the third edition of the awards. Only Peter Gabriel the following year would win more in a year.

While “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” a #1 hit in Britain, took a couple it was their creative and unique (for the time) “Take on Me” that drew the most attention and hardware, winning six including “Viewer’s Choice” and “best concept video.” It did lose out to Dire Straits however for the then-coveted “Video of the Year.” A-ha’s video with its mix of drawn comics and live action certainly helped the band gain notice over here- the song was the only #1 hit ever in the U.S. by a Norwegian act and helped the Hunting High and Low album sell upwards of 10 million copies worldwide. It’s enduring popularity can be seen by the fact that it’s been viewed over one billion times on Youtube, long after MTV gave up on airing music videos.

Most of us in North America heard little more from the photogenic Scandinavians, but they’ve remained immensely popular at home and elsewhere. They’ve had eight #1 singles in Norway and earned a reputed $50 million in 2010 from sales of a greatest hits album and a tour in Europe. Meanwhile, they played a concert for almost 200 000 in Brazil in 2015 and even in Britain they’ve scored three gold or platinum albums and 14 top 20 singles, most recently in 2006 with “Analogue.” Perhaps you’d need to be “hunting high and low” to find a place other than the States and Canada where A-ha aren’t still stars, in fact.

May 19 – So, This Record Got Peter To The Big Time

So, one of the best albums of the decade came out 35 years ago. Peter Gabriels fifth album, So, was his big breakthrough – and for most of the world, the first album of his to have a title! It arrived this day in 1986.

He never cared much for the idea of having a conventional title to an album and fought the record company over them putting the moniker “Security” on his previous one. Resigned to having to name it he said he “decided to go for the anti-title”. Gabriel recorded the album at his home in England with producer Daniel Lanois and quite an assemblage of talented backing musicians including drummers Stewart Copeland (the Police) and Jerry Marotta (Toto) and guitarist Niles Rodgers (Chic, David Bowie’s band). The album continued to show Gabriel’s musical growth and while in some opinions, the most commercial of his works, it showed his growing fascination with world music and tiredness with mainstream Western rock, nowhere more glowingly than on “In Your Eyes”, with African star singer Youssou D’Nour singing along. He had D’Nour open a number of his concerts for the album, in an effort to expand the public’s musical tastes. Then there was the Japanese bamboo flute used on the smash “Sledgehammer”, something not heard on every ’80s single!

Critics at the time largely liked the result. The New York Times felt “only a handful of Western musicians have managed to use exotic rhythms and instruments with so much ingenuity” while across the land, the L.A. Times were dazzled by the “amazing variety of tones, moods and topics “ delivered with a “consistently powerful level of expression.” Varied it was, from the bombastic, arena rock opener “Red Rain” to the funky dance hit “Sledgehammer” to the slow, positive-message in a downer duet of “Don’t Give Up”, with his fellow artsy-Brit singer Kate Bush. The results were stunning artistically and commercially. It eclipsed his previous album sales by a long stretch, hitting #1 in the UK and Canada and #2 in the U.S. where it went 5X platinum and gave him his first #1 song on these shores, “Sledgehammer.” The imaginative videos for “Big Time” and especially “Sledgehammer” helped new audiences find Gabriel (“Sledgehammer” remains the most-played video ever on MTV) and John Cusack’s serenading his gal with “In your Eyes” in the movie Say Anything helped cement So‘s place in pop history but the reason the album hit #1 comes down to it being a great record!

It’s held up quite well through the decades, being given retroactive 4-star ratings from allmusic and Mojo and listed among the 200 greatest albums of all-time by Rolling Stone. Although he never quite matched the success of it and waited six years to follow up So, he doesn’t mind. He told Rolling Stone “commercially (waiting that long) wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I”ve never really worried about that” and added that when one’s hot being too prolific can make the masses get bored of you quickly.

March 13 – Clapton Plugged Into New Market By Unplugging

While we readily think of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club having their careers “made” by MTV, one of the biggest career-boosts the video network ever gave was for an unlikely artist. On this day in 1993, Eric Clapton‘s Unplugged hit #1 in both the U.S. and Canada. Later Nirvana would also top charts with their album gleaned from the MTV show, but that wasn’t nearly as surprising as Clapton. After all, Clapton’s career pre-dated MTV by close to two decades, and he was not one of the aging artists who really jumped in to the deep end of ’80s video revolution , unlike say George Harrison or Paul Simon.

The concept of MTV Unplugged was simple and effective – take artists usually known for rock performances and have them play their songs in a stripped-down fashion using largely acoustic instruments. In Clapton’s case, he performed mostly using an acoustic Martin guitar. “Slowhand” did his set in England in early 1992, performing 20 or so songs for the crowd, of which 14 made the CD. It included quite a mix of material, including old Blues standards like Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” and Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” as well as some of Clapton’s own songs, most notably “Layla.” and “Tears in Heaven.” The latter tear-jerker was written for his four year-old son who’d fallen to his death in 1991 and was released on the Rush soundtrack before Unplugged hit shelves.

It was quite a different sound for the rocker many consider the best rock guitarist of all-time, decidedly more laid back than some were accustomed to (although when you think about it, many of his familiar tunes like “Lay Down Sally” were anything but raucous rock numbers). Critics were of mixed opinions. Entertainment Weekly graded it A- calling it “A charmer…(with) just the right combination of intensity and giddy fun”. Rolling Stone, in an article on his career at that point compared him to The Beatles and The Stones and thought this record “A delight because of its atypical focus” although noting it was a “mere shadow of his electric virtuosity.” Others like crusty New York critic Robert Christgau yearned for more rock and remembered wistfully his hard rock days “relegated to the mists.”

No matter what the critics thought, the public loved it. It ended up going diamond-status in both the States and Canada, 4X platinum in the UK and when all was said and done, selling well past 20 million copies , making it his biggest-seller ever and handily reviving his career which had been rather in the doldrums. The Grammys agreed as well. They gave it the Album of the Year trophy and picked “Layla” as Best Rock Song, an award many might have thought it should have won 20 years earlier!

February 9 – Madonna’s Very First Time On Top…

…of the charts, that is.

Not everyone was amused but enough were that the shape of pop music – and the fashion of nightclubs – would never be quite the same. Madonna hit #1 on the album chart for the very first time this day in 1985 with her second album, Like A Virgin. It enabled her to soar from a semi-popular pop and dance singer to a household name and recording superstar inside of a year…and perturb ever so many religious organizations.

While her first, self-titled album had done quite well and spawned some hit songs like “Borderline” and “Lucky Star”, few thought she’d become an industry heavyweight. Except Madonna herself. Never short on confidence she said the debut told people “my work, my dedication… had paid off. Now it was time to solidify my future.” To do that, she wanted more control over her music, like writing more of her own material and producing her own records. But Warner Bros. (the owner of her Sire label) weren’t as sure. Never short on a quote either, Madonna said at the time “Warner Brothers is a hierarchy of old men . It’s a chauvanistic environment to be working in, because I’m treated like this sexy little girl.” Umm, ok. No idea where they might have gotten that idea in their heads, Madonna.

Anyway, they wouldn’t allow her to totally produce her sophomore album, but did give her some say in who would. Although she said her first album taught her “you can’t trust men,” she opted for Nile Rodgers, who’d just done David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. And she and Nile were equally happy. She said “I was just so thrilled…I idolized Nile because of the whole Chic thing. I couldn’t believe that the record company gave me the money so that I could work with him.” For his part, Rodgers said he’d seen her early on in her career and was impressed. “I loved her stage presence…I kept thinking to myself, ‘damn, she is a star!’ but she wasn’t at that time.”

Rodgers was a good choice as they seemed to like each other and share similar musical sensibilities. Plus seeing as how she was such a big fan of Chic, Rodgers enlisted his bandmates Tony Thompson to drum and Bernard Edwards to play bass while he himself added much of the guitar work and even orchestrated one track, “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.”

That stage presence Nile mentioned was called into play early for this record. Before it was even released, she debuted the title track in memorable form – and wedding dress – at the MTV Video Awards in 1984. From there, the steady succession of danceable singles, including the title track, “Angel” , the gold and gold-digging “Material Girl” and “Into the Groove” (which initially wasn’t on American releases but was on the “international” version of the album) quickly made her a household name and in the opinion of the book Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay, “the last word on fashion for women and young girls of that era. The epitome of cool.”

Perhaps befitting the changing musical tide, Like A Virgin knocked Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. out of the top spot, and would spend three weeks there. It also hit #1 in Canada and kept on selling. In the UK it lasted 152 weeks – just about three years – on the sales chart. In the U.S. BMG reported they sold 882 000 copies through their music club, which was at the time I minor rival of Columbia House. When all was said and done, the Material Girl could be a lot more material, after the album attained diamond status at home and Canada and 7X platinum in Australia. It’s sold past 21 million copies to date… and that pales beside the follow-up, True Blue.

January 19 – Palmer Found Clues Love Songs Sell

Another birthday, this one for a guy who had some luck…but not all of it – Robert Palmer. The suave Brit singer was born this day in 1949, but sadly passed away from a heart attack at age 54. In between he packed a lot of living into his years.

Although British, he grew up fascinated by American soul and R&B music which he heard as a kid listening to U.S. Armed Forces Radio over there. By 1970, he’d signed with Island Records and put out three records with a long-forgotten band called Vinegar Joe. By ’74, still with Island, he’d gone solo, relocated to the U.S. (later he’d live in the Bahamas near Island’s Compass Point Studio and then Switzerland before passing away in France) but didn’t have much success until his 1979 album Secrets went platinum in Canada thanks to “Bad Case of Loving You” hitting #1 there. Soon after he’d hit it big in the US as well with Riptide, multi-platinum in both the States and Canada, and his rather controversial videos which made him a big MTV star.

While he had the results of a rock star – including 15 top 40 hits in Canada (if you include his stint with Duran Duran-spinoff Power Station) and a dozen in the U.S., he neither looked the part nor played it. Known for his debonair suits and coif, (Billboard noted in his obituary that he had been name the “best-dressed rock star of 1990”) he said he “loved the music but the excesses of rock’n’roll never really appealed to me…I couldn’t see the point in getting up in front of a lot of people when you weren’t in control of your wits.” And that was something Robert usually was when it came to his career. Although some, like allmusic opine that while his “earliest work (was a ) skillful assimilation of rock, R&B and reggae sounds; his records typically sold poorly” but that his later albums were hits due to the leggy models in the videos rather than the songs, most felt that a debatable point. His latter albums were perhaps less experimental but still were quite solid pop-rock blends, which appealed to the masses and critics. He won Grammys in both ’87 and ’89 for Best Rock Male performer. No “Sweet Lie” that!

August 31 – Much Music (And Videos) On The Tube

Canada could watch their music too! A few long years after the U.S. capitalized on the video phenomenon with MTV, Canada got its own music video channel- Much Music. It began this day in 1984, with a Rush video – “The Enemy Within”.

Up until then, government regulations kept MTV out and meant Canucks could only see music videos on short weekly shows like the New Music. Not surprisingly, the station (then run by CHUM, Toronto’s most popular AM hit and FM rock radio stations at the time) was an instant success, winning millions of subscribers. While it helped the careers of already-established artists like Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner, and helping ’80s acts like Howard Jones and The Fixx become popular in the Great White North, it also was mandated to play a certain percentage of Canadian content, which gave a boost to new Canadian acts like Men Without Hats, Honeymoon Suite and Blue Rodeo. Among their popular VJs were Erica Ehm, J.D. Roberts- who went on to be “John Roberts”, the American news anchor- and Chris Ward, who wrote “Black Velvet” for Allanah Myles – which was a pretty big video hit on the station, we might add.

Unfortunately, much like its U.S. counterpart, it grew tired of music videos and currently operates simply as “Much” – no music!- and has a schedule heavier on comedy than music, with many stand-up routines and reruns of Married with children and Seinfeld.

August 16 – Madge Was Preaching To The Choir

A nice 28th birthday gift for Ms. Ciccone… Madonna scored her fourth #1 single in the States this day in 1986 with “Papa Don’t Preach.” It knocked Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” out of the top spot and followed her third album, True Blue‘s first single, “Live to Tell” to #1.

The song had a somewhat more mature feel both in sound and lyrics than some of her previous hits. The composition borrowed from Vivaldi in the strings which open it, and of course the lyrics tell the story of an unmarried teen girl who finds herself pregnant and in trouble with her family besides being “in trouble.” Co-writer Brian Elliot came up with the basic idea after over-hearing some teen girls have a conversation about being pregnant and wondering if the mother-to-be should keep the baby or not.

It just fit right in with my personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authority,” she explained, “whether it’s the pope, the Catholic church or my father and his conservative patriarchal ways.”

Indeed, if it was a different approach to songwriting than she’d shown before, it did follow along with her ways of creating controversy which she’d highlighted with her earlier hit “Like a Virgin” and wedding dress performance of it at the MTV Awards. The Catholic Church, which she was raised in, didn’t like the song and urged its flock to boycott her because “Papa Don’t Preach” was seen as advocating teenage and premarital sex. On the other hand, many liberal women’s organizations objected because by saying she was “gonna keep my baby” they thought she was speaking out against abortion. It’s a wonder it got to #1, and did so in the UK and Canada as well as her own country.

Then again, it is a pretty good single! Rolling Stone at the time thought the album only so-so but called the song “magnificent” and later, Slant would note “with (it), Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist.”

The consummate artist would score three more #1 songs before the decade ended, including “Open Your Heart” from the same True Blue album. At 25 million copies worldwide, it was her biggest non-compilation success.