MuchMusic vets look back on 25 years of music TV
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, August 28, 2009 7:09AM EDT
TORONTO - It was Aug. 31, 1984, when J.D. Roberts, his hair styled in a bushy mullet, and Christopher Ward -- sporting pleated pants, a shiny grey jacket and a goofy smile -- introduced "Canada's first 24-hour music channel" with the help of some decidedly low-budget special effects and the promise of upcoming videos by the Spoons, Human League and Culture Club.
Yes, it's been nearly 25 years since MuchMusic launched with Rush's "The Enemy Within," followed by an interview with singer Geddy Lee and a Day One playlist that also included the Fixx, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes and Slade.
OK, so maybe one or two of those bands didn't exactly stand the test of time. But hey, in those early days, no one really thought the upstart station would ever survive for 25 years of scrutiny anyway.
"I didn't think about it lasting 25 minutes," Ward told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.
"Maybe because it was so overwhelming and so new, we weren't thinking about what it was going to become. It was just trying to keep it as entertaining as possible in the moment."
A quarter-century later, those moments -- created spontaneously, with no scripts to speak of -- have left an indelible impact on those who grew up basking in Much's glow, the music fans who curated self-recorded VHS cassette compilations and scribbled down the names of tunes played during the station's countdown of top videos.
"It was huge when I was growing up because that was one of the first outlets I had to listen to music that was not my parents' music," said Edmonton hip-hop artist Roland Pemberton, a.k.a. Cadence Weapon.
"That was my first experience seeing Nirvana on TV. Seeing a video for `Lithium,' I was like: `I want to do that."'
SIGN ON: MuchMusic hits the airwaves in 1984. The first video shown on the fledgling network is "The Enemy Within" by Toronto rock stalwarts Rush.
MUCH MOVES: MuchMusic shifts operations a few blocks west on Toronto's Queen Street to its now-iconic building in 1986.
CIRCUS IN TOWN: In 1988, MuchMusic launches the throbbing live dance-party program "Electric Circus," which goes on to air for 15 years and broadcasts several annual specials from Parliament Hill in the late 1990s.
MUSICAL RIDE: MuchMusic hits the railway for the first MuchMusic Video Awards in 1990, travelling coast-to-coast and hitting 10 cities via train.
ELECTRIC ELECTION: In 1993, VJ Master T greets Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by saying: "Yo, Brian! What's up?" Much wins a Gemini for '93 federal election coverage.
BEHIND THE SCENES BROUHAHA: A showdown between Canadian TV personality Mary-Jo Eustace and Tori Spelling -- who had taken up with Eustace's ex-husband -- marked the 2006 MMVAs, creating another memorable moment in the history of the reliably unpredictable show.
Much was launched some three years after MTV pioneered music-video television in the United States. The brainchild of British-born producer John Martin and Citytv impresario Moses Znaimer, MuchMusic -- available only on satellite initially -- began by broadcasting a six-hour block of live programming each day, which would then be re-run.
Early promotional materials broke down the typical hour of MuchMusic programming as follows: 10 to 12 music videos, eight minutes maximum of commercials, news, gossip, concert info and time with the VJs.
For a fledgling, shoestring operation -- "we weren't allowed to order Post-it notes!" recalls David Kines, who was with the station from 1983 through 2007 -- filling a half-dozen hours a day was no small order.
"At the time, I was like: `OK, it's only six hours, that shouldn't be a problem, right?"' Ward said. "Now when you think of that, it's kind of TV by the pound."
"We were all naive, and we were all very young. ... We just didn't know any better, we thought we could do anything," said Roberts, now the anchor of CNN's "American Morning," over the telephone from his New York office.
"And sometimes we'd get involved in a project and we'd say: `Oh my God? What have we gotten into here?'
"Almost without fail though, every time we tackled a project, somehow we would get it done. Whether it took spit and bailing twine and coercion, or whether it was a well-oiled machine, we would eventually get it done. ... By and large, we succeeded."
That success was owed largely to the passion with which the staff approached their developing craft.
"What they looked for then are people who live it, who breathe it, who are characters, who would be doing this if there was no MuchMusic, which is who I was," said Erica Ehm, a VJ from 1984-94, in an interview at her Toronto home.
"We were breaking and forging new ground at the time. ... We were the ones doing the difficult work, which is developing new ways of doing things -- not so much me, but there were people who were editing, directing and producing who really created a new style of television.
"It was insane -- I know people who used to edit all night long, but they would come up with incredible, cool, groovy stuff."
Also cool and groovy at the time? Some outlandish fashion trends that, looking back, induce the odd cringe.
"I might've had big shoulders, I might've had purple streaks in my hair, I might've had some shirts that looked like an exotic pasta dish," Ward said with a laugh.
"We tried to just embrace it. It was a very fun time in fashion too. It was very whimsical. That's where you're going to see it, on rock 'n' roll television."
Ehm agreed, and recalled wearing studded jackets and a collection of hats adorned with big flowers: "That time was, for me, very sexy. I used to wear bustiers and things that were really fitted and then kinda princessy skirts but with big work boots -- so it was like a feminine take on punk and new wave, but still pretty.
"I think I had a very unique sense of style, that was part of it. Television is visual, so I had to, in my mind, create the brand of Erica, which is: `What the hell is she going to be wearing today?"'
But surely the network hired experts to outfit the trendsetting VJs?
"Did we have stylists? Are you kidding? I used to do my own makeup!" said Ehm. "At MuchMusic, they did nothing for you. They gave you the camera and said 3, 2, 1: Go."
Roberts was only a VJ for two years but the image of his youthful face beaming out from under a mullet has proven enduring.
"I had Bono in last year, talking about the United Nations assembly, and I showed him a picture of the first time we met in 1981 (on `The NewMusic')," Roberts said. "We both had mullets. He couldn't believe the hair."
Indeed, many of the people involved with the station in those early days can recall favourite memories with startling accuracy.
Ward remembers an interview with speed metal group Motorhead, when the band members were each discreetly taking pulls from 40-ounce bottles of hard liquor tucked beneath their chairs. Later, Ward tried to offer a life-size Motorhead poster to viewers but the band decided to eat it instead.
Kines recalls a 1985 interview with the Red Hot Chili Peppers when Anthony Kiedis and Flea, both shirtless, opted to clip the sharp metal teeth of the Much microphones around their nipples.
One of Roberts's most memorable moments actually left a physical mark. He was sitting on a production console when Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider ran and tackled him. One of the sharp points on Snider's spike-studded belt dug into Roberts' elbow, leaving a scar that lasted for "six or seven years."
Artists, too, have cherished memories of Much.
"They'd always have a bunch of kids in the studio, it was always a great time," Green Day drummer Tre Cool told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.
"I stole one guy's motorcycle who worked there. I just kind of took it, and went for a ride around Toronto, and someone saw me and made a genuine offer for this motorcycle. I thought: 'Eh, mayyybe."'
In fact, many say that MuchMusic had an immeasurable impact on the Canadian music scene in general.
"There really was an explosion of Canadian music culture (when Much launched)," Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy said. "There just was all of a sudden this meeting of audiences desiring to see more homegrown products, and those homegrown products being exposed by MuchMusic."
Even abroad, Much had an influence.
"It's like a staple," Cool said. "I remember back when satellite dishes were quite new, we would watch MuchMusic because it was cooler than MTV.
"`Listen to the accents! They're cool, man -- you can cuss!"'
And for those who were there at the beginning -- those passionate kids who felt ground breaking under their jelly shoes and Doc Martens -- the 25-year anniversary stands as another reminder that the all-nighters were well worth the trouble.
"I remember starting the whole thing off -- we wanted this thing to be a success," Roberts said.
"To see it 25 years in the future, still an enormous success, it really is quite heartening."