Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Very MTV Christmas

After seeing some of MTV's newest train wreck Jersey Shore, I couldn't help but lament the sad turn that cable television has taken. I recognize that showing music videos 24/7 was a novelty which lost its luster by the mid-80s, and there are still some all music channels if you are willing to buy into some of the premium packages, but the charm of the old MTV went beyond just music with pictures.

The Video Jockeys, or VJs as they were called, provided a homey sort of connection between the viewer and the pop music world. Because they came into your home every day, and because they were talking directly to you like a radio personality, you felt as though they were a part of the family. As MTV became more popular and rock stars scurried to get air time, not only through their videos but in person, the VJs were the people who provided the conduit to our favorite musicians. Since the VJs felt like family, and they brought the musicians into our homes, I think the audience felt closer to the rock stars as well. And I don't mean in the sleazy paparazzi way of today where we see them stumbling out of clubs at 3 a.m., but in the way they wanted to be presented and the way we wanted to see them: as musicians.

This homey connection to MTV was never more strongly felt than at Christmas time when MTV would put together a special Christmas video featuring a musical performer and the MTV VJs and crew. The first such video appeared in 1981 (their first year of operation) and featured Billy Squier. As you watch, you'll see Tim Kazurinsky who was a new member of SNL at the time. Nowadays, both Billy Squier and Tim Kazurinsky are probably not very well known to the general public, but they were hip stars at the time:

The following Christmas, the MTV Christmas video featured Joe "King" Carrasco. Again, not well known today, but at the time he was a hot property thanks to his song Party Weekend. The video is a Christmas variation of that song, incorporating his musical style with well known Christmas songs.

In 1985, Pee Wee Herman and Bryan Adams did a little Reggae Christmas video.

The one that sticks out in my mind the most was in 1986 when the Monkees provided a Christmas medley. There's a bit at the end that was a pretty big surprise at the time.

During 1986, the Monkees were having a huge comeback with a new single and a tour. Unfortunately, Michael Nesmith claimed that he was too busy to participate. I think it had more to do with the fact that he didn't want to participate if he didn't have complete control over the project, but whatever. His appearance in this Christmas video was quite a shock at the time and made it all the more special for us Monkees fans out there.

You'll notice also that some of the VJs had changed by 1986. Nina Blackwood and J.J. Jackson had been replaced by Grace Slick's daughter China and the ever annoying Downtown Julie Brown. This was the beginning of the end for the old MTV. Soon they would be running compartmentalized segments like Yo! MTV Raps and Headbanger's Ball with specific hosts for each show. The original free-wheeling format gave way to a tighter, more network-like structure, forever killing the special charm of the channel.

When I was young, I never wanted to be one of those old fogeys who always talked about how things were better in the olden days, and I don't believe I am since I don't subscribe to that notion...entirely. But around Christmas time, it's nice to look back at things that were so special in their time and can never happen again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Vincent Price Narrates A Christmas Carol

When cable television first hit Baltimore County in the early 80s, I was fascinated by all the old, obscure stuff the fledgling cable channels would dig up to fill air time. Each Christmas, The Christian Broadcasting Network (which later became The Family Channel) would air an extremely old television version of A Christmas Carol narrated by Vincent Price. The production budget must have been under $10 and the story is hopelessly truncated, but the sheer cheesiness of the whole thing made me fall in love with it. I especially like how Vincent Price is pretending to read directly from Dickens' text, but much of what he is saying does not appear in the book. It's just exposition created to fill in the bits of the story they didn't have time for or couldn't afford to shoot. The whole thing feels like you're watching a local church group production.

Each year, I would seek out this little treasure, but by the mid-80s, CBN had become too sophisticated to run such an old, rickety gem. I was certain I would never see it again, but thanks to the wonders of teh internets, here it is again. It certainly won't put Robert Zemeckis out of business, but it's kinda fun: