For almost 15 years, my Dad was obsessed with taping music videos. He actually kept track of every single one he ever recorded on Beta & VHS by writing them all down on these tiny pieces of three-ring paper that he kept in this tiny brown binder. The list was alphabetized by artist. Under each name were the video titles (not always the correct ones) and the corresponding cassette(s) they were recorded on. Some were recorded multiple times because he either loved them so much or just wanted to record right to the end of a blank tape. (In 2004, most of them (we’re talking hundreds of tapes) were finally thrown out after years of collecting dust.)
When he started doing this in the early 80s, he would set the timer for programs like Friday Night Videos on NBC and City Limits on a local Toronto station called City TV. Hosted by aspiring songwriter Christopher Ward (and occasionally featuring a young comic named Mike Myers), City Limits aired every Saturday & Sunday in the wee hours of the morning. Every episode was six hours long.
The mix of performers pantomiming to their singles was always eclectic. In between videos featuring mainstream acts like Phil Collins & Pat Benatar were more cutting edge outfits like Depeche Mode and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Looking back, it’s amazing the show was able to showcase so many different clips during their epic weekend broadcasts. There weren’t many videos being produced during this period.
So you can only imagine how initially thrilled my Dad was when MuchMusic launched on August 31, 1984. Unfortunately, The Nation’s Music Station began as a Pay-TV service (my Dad wasn’t going to give our local cable company more dough) so, he only taped videos during their free preview weekends, a semi-regular sales tactic employed to attract more subscribers.
Just a few years later, Much became part of our regular cable package. And every day until the fall of 1995, Dad was constantly watching hoping to catch something he hadn’t already recorded before. When he wasn’t watching, he asked me to take over so he wouldn’t miss anything.
Of all the video shows Much aired in its early years, there was only one he couldn’t miss: the Hostess Sneak Previews. Usually hosted by Steve Anthony, a blond, curly-haired goofball who drove my Dad nuts, it was the best place to see the latest clips. Even after the cancellation of CBC shows like Video Hits & Good Rockin’ Tonight and another City-TV program called Toronto Rocks, among numerous others, he would continue to suffer through Anthony’s “paper hell” schtick (there were no teleprompters) just to add the newest titles to his growing collection. (He must’ve taped tens of thousands of clips over the years.)
I’m not sure now why Dad lost interest in them altogether, but about a decade later, MuchMusic itself would drastically cut back on fully honouring this part of its mandate. For most of the first half of its existence, with the exception of Erica Ehm’s Fashion Notes, every program it aired dealt exclusively with music. Besides the regular hours devoted to random videos, there were specialty shows devoted to specific genres: Outlaws & Heroes (Country), Rap City (Hip Hop), X-Tendamix (Dance), Soul In The City (R&B), Clip Trip (International), Pepsi Power Hour (Heavy Metal), MushMusic (Adult Contemporary), French Kiss (French Canadian), Indie Street (unsigned bands), The Wedge, The Punk Show and the revamped City Limits (Alternative Rock) and the Coca-Cola Countdown (Pop).
On Saturday nights, there were the Big Ticket Concerts. On Saturday afternoons, there was the all-request show R.S.V.P. (Requested Songs for Video Play), which was spun off into Daily R.S.V.P. during weekday broadcasts. There was Much West (featuring Terry David Mulligan with his giant cellphone covering Canadian music on the West Coast) and Much East (the two Mikes covering the East Coast). There was the daily artist Spotlight which featured videos & interview excerpts of the biggest names in the business, past and present. And then, on Mondays, there was the MuchMusicMovie which only featured musicals like Quadrophenia and Purple Rain.
Today, as Much celebrates its 30th Anniversary, only two of these shows remain on the air: the weekly Countdown (minus its original sponsor) and the Much Movie (which isn’t restricted to music-themed features or a specific day any more). Yes, they still play videos for a couple hours every afternoon. But for the most part, today’s Much is nothing like yesterday’s MuchMusic. There are far more sitcoms, dramas and reality shows, totally unrelated to music, dominating its daily schedule.
It’s sad, really. When Moses Znaimer, the founder of both Much and City-TV, ran things, the channel mattered. There was a serious mission to honour not just music in general, but Canadian musicians specifically. MuchMusic went out of its way to push homegrown talent like Platinum Blonde, The Tragically Hip, The Northern Pikes, Jann Arden, Sloan, Alannah Myles (who found great success collaborating with Christopher Ward), Chalk Circle, I Mother Earth, 54-40, The Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, The Tea Party and countless others to national success, while existing stars like Neil Young and Rush continued to flourish.
Thanks to its VideoFact program (since renamed MuchFact) which helped fund videos for indie acts, bands like The Pursuit Of Happiness, Moist, Maestro Fresh-Wes and The Age Of Electric were all able to get major label deals. French Canadian performers like Celine Dion, Roch Voisine and Mitsou would’ve never broken out of Quebec without the nationwide platform that the channel provided for them. And because Much was dedicated to breaking acts from various genres, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette and The Rankin Family were all able to build their own audiences through the excessive airings of their respective videos.
In the last decade or so, it’s hard to think of Much as the influential tastemaker it once prided itself on being. Beyond the breakout successes of Billy Talent, Sam Roberts, Metric & The Arcade Fire in the early Aughts, the channel is now far more interested in promoting Fresh Prince & Simpsons reruns and teen sudsers like Degrassi than pushing the next great Canadian act. (Sorry but Hedley, Michael Buble, Carly Rae Jepsen & Justin Bieber just don’t count.)
To be fair, Much’s decline isn’t entirely its own fault. Part of the problem, of course, is the Internet. Thanks to YouTube and countless imitators, music fans can become their own video programmers by simply scouring extensive lists of clips online at their leisure and playing them in an instant. Since the channel rarely plays classic videos from the past anymore, if one wanted to see, say, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood right this second, one could do so right now with absolutely no difficulty (as long as one has a fast ISP). And if one was desperate to see something brand new that’s just been released, well, it wouldn’t take one long to find that clip online, as well.
But what’s lost in that process are passionate TV programmers and VJs urging you to check out an artist or a band you’ve never heard of who they think you’ll really dig and follow for years to come. There’s no steering you towards the dangerous, the exciting and the unexpected any more. (Yes, Much has videos on its website but it’s really not the same.)
In fact, when Much does play videos during their afternoon Videoflows, there are no VJs introducing them at all. It’s up to you to find out more about the current artists they still bother to play. Unfortunately, few of them are worth caring about. (What the hell happened to rock and roll? Is it truly dead?)
Today’s music fans have a plethora of choices when it comes to seeing videos on the Internet. During my childhood, there was no on-demand, only request shows and no guarantee of that request being granted on-air. (I was able to get a Rush video played on Toronto Rocks once when Christopher Ward guest hosted, though.)
Still, it was fantastic to watch a channel that played nothing but videos for hours and hours, exposing you to a world of music you never knew existed, reminding you of established acts you had forgotten about and introducing you to artists who would become lifelong favourites. (It’s why my Dad became a major fan of the Crash Test Dummies.)
As it celebrates 30 years on the air in Canada, that’s the MuchMusic I wish still existed.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
CORRECTION: City Limits was actually six hours long, not five like I originally wrote. The correct running time for the program has been added to the original text. My memory is not as good as I thought it was.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, August 29, 2014