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Music With Your Eyes: A Chat with Original MTV VJ Martha Quinn
In August of 1981, a new revolution took over the airwaves: music cable channel MTV.Music television?
Ridiculed and pilloried by the press and rampant naysayers, MTV seemed doomed to fail – but how wrong they were!
With the launch of MTV, viewers never looked at music the same way again. The original gang of MTV VJ’s (sans the late J.J. Jackson)—Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn along with noted scribe Gavin Edwards–have teamed up to pen an engaging and candid new book, VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. Pulling no punches, the book – using an oral history-type structure – colorfully details the fascinating back story behind the inner workings of the pioneering music channel.
As the youngest VJ, Martha Quinn captured the hearts of viewers with her girl-next-door charm, infectious enthusiasm and natural on-air personality.
Rock Cellar Magazine sat down with Martha for a look back on the golden years of MTV and her take on the new book.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You were the youngest of the original VJs. Bring us back to how you got the job for MTV.
Martha Quinn: What is that they say? “Luck is preparation meets good timing.” I got myself through college doing television commercials and working at the college radio station. I was the first Chicken McNuggets girl, which is ironic because I’m now a vegan.
I was not only one of the first MTV VJ’s but the first Chicken McNuggets girl. (laughs)
Richard Neer, a DJ on WNEW was teaching a class saying things like, “Okay, if you play Led Zeppelin at 10:20 and The Eagles at 10:25, what do you think would be good to follow it up with?” Those were the kind of courses I took. So I was familiar with being on camera and talking about music. Then I was a college intern at WNBC radio, where Don Imus was just before Howard (Stern) got there.
After graduation I was in the city visiting and had gotten off the bus because there was really bad traffic. I thought I would whip in and say hello to everyone at WNBC and just see what’s happening. I went in and there was a guy in the office from L.A. It was Burt Stein; he went on to form Gold Mountain Records with Danny Goldberg. Burt happened to say, “Hey, what’s Bob Pittman doing?” Bob Pittman had previously been the program director at WNBC. And this other guy in the room, Buzz Brindle, who was assistant program director at WNBC said, “Oh, he’s doing this MTV thing.”
And then Buzz looked at me and said, “Martha, that’s what you should do, you should be a VJ.”
And I was like, “What’s a VJ?” And he said, “Well, it’s like being on the radio but it’s on television.”
So now in that time, remember, nobody had ever heard the term “VJ”. But at that time being on radio and on television I was thinking, “Okay, I get it; it’s a 24-hour WKRP in Cincinnati. They’re filming the radio station.” So I say, “What do I do during the records?” At that time it was not a stupid question. He said, “No, it’s this other thing, it’s videos.” And I was like, “Oh God, I can’t do that. You know who would be great for that? This guy, Evan Davies, who is now on the air at WFMU in New York.” And he goes, “No, no, no, you should do it.” He calls Bob Pittman and it turned out to be the last day of auditions. I whipped down there and auditioned for the job in the outfit that I woke up in in the morning. I had spent the whole day working at my desk clerk job at the Weinstein dormitory; I had graduated but hadn’t quit my desk job yet because I had no other job.
So I was auditioning in the outfit that I had to get up to go to work at Weinstein Dormitory. It was a good thing that I didn’t know what was at stake. I’m not good in audition situations. I mean, I was okay doing commercials because I did hundreds of auditions and I was kind of used to it. But for something that really mattered, let’s say an audition for a TV show, I would be so nervous. I wasn’t auditioning for Chicken McNuggets but I would be so nervous auditioning for something that really mattered. So I’m glad I didn’t know…and somehow I got the job.
RCM: Working on the book, which was a collaborative effort with your fellow VJs Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter and Nina Blackwood, were there any revelations about them that you learned while working on the project?
MQ: Oh my God, there were so many things I had no idea about. I had no idea when we started at MTV how much more money Mark Goodman was making than me. (laughs) I guess I knew it couldn’t be what I was making. I didn’t even know that Alan (Hunter) made more than me. I thought we made the same amount of money. I think Mark was making either $75,000 or $80,000 and I was making $26,000 a year. In the book Mark waffles between those two numbers but it wasn’t $26,000, that’s for sure (laughs).
But I didn’t care.
MTV was one of those jobs where I felt, “I can’t even believe they’re paying me for this. This is amazing!”
I was hoping to get some kind of job in radio. I’d actually landed the weekend job on a Riverhead, Long Island radio station where it would have cost me more money to commute and find a place to stay than I would have made. But I felt, that was okay, it’s some kind of inroad. I don’t know what I was thinking; I don’t know how I thought I was gonna pay my rent. But then MTV came along and I was getting $26,000 a year so now I could pay for my own apartment.
RCM: Thinking back to your early days with MTV, recall the moment when you first realized the VJs had become stars.
MQ: MTV was notoriously conservative with their funds in the early days and that’s because MTV literally had no money. It was a big start-up, no one was advertising with us. Everyone said it would never work. Meanwhile, we’re paying for these satellites and we’re paying for this huge studio crew. So it was a huge start-up and we had no money. So what us VJs would do is rent a Ford Tempo and I would drive around Manhattan and pick everyone up and we’d go across the bridge over to New Jersey to Brendan Byrne Arena to see whoever was playing—The Kinks, Judas Priest, Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen.
We didn’t have VIP parking or anything so we’d park back in lot G, section S, row 127 and start walking up to the arena. We’d all come out of the car, all of us VJs and you can’t miss us, JJ, Mark, Nina (Blackwood, Alan (Hunter), we’re all completely distinctive. It would be like seeing the cast of Gilligan’s Island get out of a car. People would be like (adopts heavy New York accent), “Hey, J.J. Jackson! Martha Quinn!” We were like, “Oh My God!” ‘cause this wasn’t happening to us in Manhattan at the time. At some point J.J, went into the MTV brass and said, “You guys are gonna have to pay for us to some kind of better car to drive out to New Jersey.”
I wish more than anything I could go back to those Ford Tempo days and just be a fly on the wall for one of those drives. Motley Crue talks about sharing an apartment on the Sunset Strip and splitting one stolen ham sandwich. Those were the good old days and I kind of wish I could go back to that moment.
RCM: From your perspective, what artist/group was able to benefit the most from MTV?
MQ: Well, there are a whole lot of those starting with A Flock of Seagulls, The Stray Cats, and The Fixx. All of those bands probably never would have been played on anything other than college radio stations, but they were now suddenly played on mainstream radio. The Buggles are another one.
Video Killed the Radio Star came out in 1979 and all of a sudden once MTV started and that video was being played over and over, people were walking into record stores in Arkansas saying, Do you have this record by The Buggles?” and they were like, “What?!”
RCM: How about Duran Duran?
MQ: You know, I always hesitate on that one because I don’t think they’re as obvious an answer only because they were really onto something before MTV came along.
Everyone says, “MTV made Duran Duran” but you know what, Duran Duran made MTV too.
They were really perfect for each other. It’s not like they were nobodies before MTV came along. They were already recording their first album. They’d already had a huge movement behind them in England so there was a lot of wind on their sails as it happened. It’s kind of the same thing with me getting the job at MTV. It was a confluence of fate and meeting each other at the right time. So I don’t think Duran Duran are as obvious an example as those other bands I cited.
RCM: Despite the press, which unfairly maligned MTV’s coverage of Live Aid, that was a shining moment for MTV and its VJs. Take us back to that day.
MQ: When I think about Live Aid I remember seeing all of these people going by backstage like Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Sean Penn, Bob Dylan, Ron Wood, Rob Halford and just being like, “Oh my God, this is absolutely the greatest moment ever!” Being a music fan I was thinking, “How is it possible that I’ve gotten so lucky to be backstage here?” It was really wonderful.
RCM: Jack Nicholson knew who you were.
MQ: Yeah. (laughs) I said, “Hey Jack, I’m Martha Quinn” and he says (imitates Nicholson’s voice), “I know who you are.” I was like, “Oh my God!” I was not far from graduating from high school and that was a pretty amazing moment for me.
RCM: You also witnessed some of the live performances that day, what were the standouts for you?
MQ: Obviously Led Zeppelin, who were completely ridiculously great. It was a rock and roll moment to be treasured. Queen, even though they weren’t in Philadelphia but playing in London, gave a performance that was amazing. When Madonna came out on stage with The Thompson Twins that was miraculous. I’m seeing Power Station, Duran Duran. There were so many moments; they almost blend all together with how incredible it really all was.
RCM: Knowing you’re a big Beatles fan, in the book you recount how you finally scored an interview with Paul McCartney after losing the opportunity years back to Mark Goodman.
MQ: Eventually my time did come and I got to interview Paul but that really irked me. Us VJs didn’t fight except for J.J. (Jackson) yelling at me and Nina for keeping the dressing room a mess (laughs.) That was his only bone of contention with us. His little station in the dressing room looked like The Gap and mine always looked like Filene’s Basement at five o’clock in the afternoon of a fire sale. His always looked completely perfect. I was supposed to interview Paul McCartney but then found out I had another engagement to interview The Police and so they gave the McCartney interview to Mark. Then my interview with The Police got changed.
After that happened I was hoping they would come to me and say, “Okay, you no longer have a conflict, we’re gonna give you back the Paul McCartney interview.” But they didn’t so I just sucked it up even though I was devastated. Mark started going after me about my Bob Dylan interview insinuating that somehow I had orchestrated it so I would do that interview but that was ridiculous – like I’d have the power to do that. I probably stood up for myself more than I ever have and this is my famous line which Mark does not remember. I said, “Mark, I would have killed to interview Paul McCartney but I would have not killed you.” He told me, “I didn’t even know you said that to me, that’s a pretty good line.” I was like, “You don’t remember that!?”
It was one of the best moments in my life. And eventually I did get to interview Paul McCartney, so it did work out in the end.
RCM: In the book, you recall while growing up, you and your best friend Carol played Beatles albums incessantly. How aware was he of MTV and the VJs?
MQ: It turns out that he was really aware. I said something to him about the Concert for Kampuchea. There’s a moment where he walks up to the microphone next to Pete Townshend and it’s them looking at each other. I forget what the clip is but I think it’s Lucille.
I was talking about that video and I said, “I wonder what they think when they look at each other? Are they thinking, ‘I’m a giant in rock and roll and you’re a giant in rock and roll’”? So I recounted to him and said, “I wonder what he thinks when he looks into Pete Townshend’s eyes?” and he said, “Yeah, I saw you talk about that on MTV.”
I was blown away that even in the smallest way I was part of Paul McCartney’s consciousness.
And you know, I think that John Lennon would have loved MTV. He was so early with filming Imagine and always filming his music. He loved pop culture. I think that he would have really loved MTV and been all over it.
RCM: You also scored an exclusive by hanging out and interviewing Bob Dylan backstage at Wembley Arena in London, what do you remember about that experience?
MQ: Dylan was amazing to me. You can watch the interview on YouTube, it’s really good. When I was going to interview him , I was waiting around backstage for him to be ready and one of his kids came up to me and said, “Hey, have you ever seen Dont Look Back?,” which I’d purposefully avoided seeing because as I understand it in the movie he makes mince meat out of some reporter. I was like, “No, I haven’t seen it” and they were like, “Oh, uh huh…well, you’ll see.” So I was wondering what in the world it was gonna be like.
It was one of those moments where the second I saw him I knew he was gonna be great, he’s not gonna be weird at all. I had a totally different experience than Nina Blackwood did with Frank Zappa. For her, he stands out as one of the worst people she ever interviewed and he stands out to me as one of the best people I ever interviewed so it’s funny how chemistry and timing really comes into play. Perhaps Frank would have done the same to me if I was in that exact moment with him. Who knows what kind of mood he was in?
When I eventually did interview him we co-hosted a “Basement Tapes” show together and I was at his house so that probably helped a lot. I’d already spoken to him because I tracked him down to ask him a trivia question. I think it may have had to do with Flo & Eddie being on The Mothers’ Live at the Fillmore album. So I’d already spoken to him on the phone. He was so great. I still follow one of his kids on Twitter just to keep up. I was pretty friendly with the family for a while and my cousin wound up working for them for a while. Frank was so smart and so warm; I couldn’t have had a more opposite experience that Nina’s.
RCM: So while working at MTV you interviewed a Beatle, Dylan and Zappa. I’d say you did more than okay.
MQ: Yeah, me too. Gavin Edwards, who co-wrote the book with us, said there was a period of time when MTV was the center of the universe and it’s really true, especially for those of us who grew up with rock and roll. It was literally the center of the universe. Eventually they split all the duties where the news department started doing interviews. It became more of a well-oiled machine. MTV was becoming much more corporate, but there was a period of time where we were all that was happening and that was pretty special. That was an amazing time.
RCM: Reading the book, in regard to your interview with Van Halen’s David Lee Roth, you regret how you handled yourself. What would you have done differently if had a chance to do it again?
MQ: You know, I actually having a worse memory of the interview than it actually was. When I go back and watch it I don’t think it was that bad. There were a couple of times that I cracked a smile but what I didn’t get at the time was that the whole beauty of David is he goes off in a million different directions and eventually winds his way back around.
I didn’t really get that. I thought that was a lot of razzmatazz and I would be the person who was going to pierce through that blustery exterior and bring him to his knees and make him go, “Oh my God, why have I been acting like this all my life? With you, Martha Quinn, I’m going to be a person you’ve never seen.” It’s not like when somebody goes onto Barbara Walters and everyone knows who she is and they have a lot of respect for her. He didn’t know me from Adam. So I was so determined to pierce that exterior. He’d make all of these jokes and they’d cut to me (laughing) and I was dead stone face. (laughs) I don’t think I could even do it now because now I so enjoy him and love that side of him; now I think I would just crack up. But then I wasn’t thinking like that. I think that’s the folly of youth, which is, “No, I’m going to be the one to get him to be real and drop the artifice.”
RCM: I don’t think anyone’s been ever able to do that so you shouldn’t feel bad.
MQ: (Laughing) I don’t think David Lee Roth’s therapist has been able to do that.
RCM: There are a few folks who take credit for launching MTV. From your perspective, who was the key architect who deserves the credit?
MQ: At the time I always understood it to be John Lack who then brought Bob Pittman in. It was very much John Lack and Bob Pittman. John Lack doesn’t get as much press as Bob Pittman but I’m sure if you interviewed Bob Pittman he’d also say John Lack too. John’s the guy who said, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!” There’s a reason that he is the guy whose voice launched our channel.
RCM: MTV wielded the power to resurrect acts with long dormant careers like The Monkees, who had broken up in the late Sixties. Reruns of their old TV episodes on MTV and heavy promotion by the network helped made them bigger than ever and prompted the band to reunite and embark on a series of successful tours.
MQ: Yeah, that’s right. I do remember that and feeling very proud that the first record I ever personally bought was a Monkees record. It wasn’t a Beatles album because I had older brothers who already had Beatles albums.
So the first album I ever bought was a Monkees album and I was totally excited MTV would be a part of that and have the power to make them big again.
I don’t know that MTV would ever do that again now. Would they ever go back and try to do something like that?
RCM: You were unfortunately the VJ who was elected to interview The Police near the end of their career. The band was acting somewhat confrontational. During the interview, there was an on-air tussle between Sting and Stewart Copeland, which to viewers seemed equal parts horseplay and real, which clearly reflected the underlying tension in that band.
MQ: That’s one of those things where I wish I could go back in time and handle things differently. I’d tell the guys in the band, “Hey guys, I didn’t set up this time to do the interview. Stewart, your brother, Miles Copeland set it up. I didn’t set it up where you’d come right offstage and I’d interview the band. This was not my idea.” At one point they said to me, “Martha, this isn’t a good time to interview us, we’ve just got offstage.”
I don’t even remember what I did but all I can think was, “Oh my God, MTV is gonna fire me! They’re gonna fire because me because I’m losing the interview.” That had a lot of do with the fact that I was very young and didn’t have a lot of qualifications. J.J. Jackson, for example, would never have put up with that. J.J. would have said, “You guys do what you want, I can pull these cameras in one second if you want me to.” He would have handled it with some gravitas but I was a young girl constantly afraid that I was gonna lose this job and I thought it was the best job I ever had and I didn’t know what I would do without this job. I felt for so many years that it was my fault and it is my fault in that I could have handled it better but the guys in The Police were being such dicks. They really didn’t have to do that.
I’m sure if you asked them about it now they would go, “Yeah, we were dicks.”
They were young too. Everybody was young and they were hyped up after doing their show. It was bad and it was Miles Copeland’s fault, who was the band’s manager.
RCM: Along with the other original VJs, the late J.J. Jackson was an essential part of the team. How do you remember J.J.?
MQ: When J.J. Jackson walked into MTV he was already a rock and roll heavyweight. He was already credited by Led Zeppelin for helping to launch their career in the United States and that’s no small potatoes. In the late ‘60s he was driving the members of Led Zeppelin around Boston in his old station wagon showing them around town when they were playing at the Boston Tea Party. He had been onstage with Jimi Hendrix. J.J. was already a legendary DJ in Boston on WBCN.
He had moved to Los Angeles and became the first guy to ever interview Bruce Springsteen on television. He was a real solid rock and roll heavyweight. In a way I liken J.J. working on MTV is a little bit like Jimi Hendrix opening for The Monkees. I don’t think he was showcased on MTV as the rock and roll heavyweight that he really was.
He was Kurt Loder before Kurt Loder was Kurt Loder but nobody knew it.
MTV didn’t use him in that way and it would have been great if they had. Once the news department started doing interviews they shouldn’t have had some P.A. doing some of them. They should have pulled out J.J. and had him do all of the interviews, he should have been the person who sat down to interview Kurt Cobain. It should have been J.J.
RCM: If you could go back and relive one day at MTV, what would you choose to relive again and why?
MQ: I have thought about that and the answer to your question is, and you’re gonna think I’m so weird, but I’d go back to the day that we shot the Billy Squier Christmas video, Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You.
It was everybody from MTV all together in that video. It was the staff, it was the crew, and it was the VJs. You can really see every single person that they filmed had the passion in their eyes for the music.
We were rebels with a cause.
Because MTV chose to film the secretaries as well as the VJs and the camera people, MTV hadn’t become yet, “Oh, we’re stars and we’re only gonna show the stars. We’re not gonna show a secretary on a video that’s gonna air eight million times a day, we’re showing everybody. We love everybody.” We were all united, all for one and one for all. Once MTV started getting bigger, that passion and unity started to become more like a job. But there was that period of time where it was not a job. It was a time where every single person who walked through the doors and walked past that logo in the lobby was thrilled and passionate about being there and that video shows it.