On August 1, 2011, Bob Pittman, the original programming boss, visionary, and indeed, soul of MTV (and one of my mentors), generously threw the party of reunion parties for MTV’s 30th Anniversary at his compound in Mexico. (Yes, it was John Lack's idea for WASEC to launch a 24 hour music channel, but it Bob who completely realized its execution.) I had couldn’t make it, but a couple dozen of our original colleagues showed up (including my long time creative partner, Alan Goodman) made the trek to Bob’s town, location of the tequila company he owns, for 48 hours of memories of rock’n’roll, media revolution, and debauchery.
Bob put together this reunion booklet (that’s my oldest friend, Frank Olinsky, one of the MTV logo designers, on the front cover), and to my delight, not only did it have a lot of my great friends, but a picture of my wife-to-be (we didn’t meet until 11 years later), Robin Sloane, who put on a party at her employer, Epic Records, for the first Gold Record (yes, it was Adam Ant) spawned by an MTV video.
In the immortal words of John Lack: Ladies and Gentlemen…rock and roll! The people here are the ones who remember what the first hour really looked like after those words, vs. the doctored tape we quickly put together. I can still feel the panic all these years later, and I’m sure you can too. That said, it was 30 years ago — and some of you are older now, so your memories may not be that good. (Sykes and Garland, I’m looking at you.)
30 years ago, we launched something that did what very few have ever done — we created the most powerful cable network in history, and a brand that’s become a familiar part of popular culture around the world. We didn’t set out to do that, of course, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you connect with a group of people who share a belief and a vision in the strength and promise of an idea. Our historical legacy was this shared creative vision, one that set the course for the wildly inventive MTV brand and set the culture for its decade of success.
There aren’t many people who can honestly say they had a profound impact on everything from the music industry to popular culture, embedded with a slogan — “I Want My MTV!”— into the public consciousness, created a cultural and media icon, changed graphic design and video production and reinvented the idea of what television could be.
Indeed, we even changed ad sales and marketing — we broke every rule of that time and usher in a whole new way for advertisers to use television. We’d love to claim that yeah, that’s exactly how we planned it! But all we knew was that we were part of a unique culture, working with people we loved, and combining our fresh approach to entertainment with a dedication to our mission. That combination enabled MTV to push the boundaries of what television could be, and reinvented youth culture while we were at it. We had no respect for experience and most of us had never done the jobs we were given. And remember how often we said, only half-jokingly, no one over thirty has any good ideas? Ahhh, the confidence of youth!
What an incredible moment in time. And even today, with so much time having passed and so many more work experiences under our collective belt, I can honestly say that our team and what we accomplished was (and still is) amazing. We are bound together forever as “the MTV family.”
Although we’ll definitely have a lot of fun this weekend —driven at least in part with what I promise you is the smoothest tequila in the world— I hope we’ll also take a minute to reflect on the memory of a few who were essential to our success. Steve Ross, the CEO of Warner Communications, believed in us every minute from the moment we first showed him the idea. For me personally, he guided an important part of my career, at MTV and after, that I can only repay him by showing that same kind of attention to others on the front side of their career curve. David Horowitz, Co-COO of WCI and then CEO of MTV Networks was our rabbi. Patiently listening, counseling and supporting us all along the way, he seemed to know everything — except how to push the correct button on his phone to pick up calls! And finally, there JJ. One of the 5 faces of MTV to the world — how many people connected to MTV thru him? And how many people in the music industry instantly respected us because of his strong and long background in the business? I know we’ll raise a glass —or two, or three— this weekend to all of these men, critical parts of our MTV family, whom we think of often and miss sincerely.
I’m also delight that my “MTV soul mates,” the two other former CEO’s of MTV Networks still hanging around, are here with us this weekend. Tom and Judy took the original idea we built and brought it to heights none of us could have imagined. Finally, I have to thanks John Lack, my first boss at WASEC and the man who found me in radio, fought his boss to get me to the company, and consistently support me with faith and confidence. Without him, I might still be in radio. Hmmm, wait a minute…
Thanks for joining us in Mexico to celebrate MTV’s 30th — and to celebrate all of you. You are the team that made it all happen, and I am forever grateful and honored to have been part of it. It certainly changed my life — and I suspect yours as well.
Enjoy the weekend — and please promise me that, for 48 hours, you’ll listen to nothing but Stray Cats, Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Tina Turner, Howard Jones, ABC, Thompson Twins, Specials, Madness, Pretenders and all those other artists burned into our memories!
To everyone who, in the spirit of our 30th reunion celebration, has contributed to this book. Many thanks to Leslie Leventman, who volunteered her time and talent to work on this project as a labor of love. And a special thanks to my lifelong business partner, Mayo Stunty, who I met at MTV.
Editor-in-Chief/Class Historia: Leslie Leventman Art Direction/Design: Darlene Cordero; MTV Class of 1993-1998 Editorial/Photo Coordinator: Jackie Tigue Production Resources: Leslye Schaefer, Leigh Valesquez Contributor: Wendy Goldberg Administrative Assistant: Laurie Scollar
John Lack was the first Chief Operating Officer of MTV Networks, and one of our great storytellers. In this interview for BBC’s Witness (“history as told by the people who were there”) John shares his memory of the MTV launch, 30 years later.
So it was extremely gratifying when my friend, Rhino Records founder Richard Foos, agreed to indulge me in the 1990’s with a (now out-of-print) four CD boxed set of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons themes, underscores, sound effects, and other audio ephemera and artifacts of our historic studio. It was compiled and produced with passion and knowledge by cartoon writer/producer Earl Kress.
I’ve posted about my worship and respect for the under appreciated HB music director and composer HoytCurtin but, a few years ago, I finally got around to scanning the great booklet Earl put together for the set. It not only includes a listing of all the sound in the box, but has great essays by Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, David Burd, Bill Burnett, and Barry Hansen (Dr. Demento). Plus Marty Pekar conducted an interview about the studio’s unique sound effects library with Joe, Bill, Greg Watson, and Pat Foley. (As we get around to it, you can look at separate transcripts of the essays here.)
Unfortunately, the box is out of print and difficult to find, so as a public service I’m posting the three musical volumes here. (The fourth volume has hundreds of the fantastic H&B sound effects. The Top 10 effects are included at the end of volume 3.)
Hanna-Barbera’s Pic-A-Nic Basket of Cartoon Classics Rhino Records
Credits from the liner notes:
Compilation Produced by Earl Kress Executive Producer: Robin Frederick Volumes 1, 2, & 4 remastered by Bob Fisher at Digital Domain Volume 2 remastered by Bill Inglot & Dan Hersch/DigiPrep Art Direction: Coco Shinomiya Design: Burning Bush Studio Photos: Courtesy of Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc. Vintage artwork courtesy of Hanna-Berbera Production Art
The producers would like to acknowledge the incredible talents of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
Not for commercial use.
Copyrights and masters of these out of print recordings are by their respective owners. If this recording is re-released, or the copyright holders object, I’ll delete the posts.
I was roaming around some MTV stuff that was done by Fred/Alan, the branding and advertising agency Alan Goodman and I started in New York in 1983. It occurred to me that while our first blush of innovations happened right at the beginning of the decade, three years in Alan and I had already quit. But, it wasn’t the end of my story with MTV, by any means. We continued a direct relationship with the company for another nine years (and I’ve been consultant to them again for 13 years as of 2010) and did some pretty good work. Click over here to see some of it.
I WANT MY MTV! took the phenomenon that had taken over the imaginations of young America and supercharged it into a famous brand with just about everyone in the country. I just googled “I Want My MTV” and it popped up almost 4,760,000 results. Pretty amazing for an advertising campaign that ceased to exist 22 years ago.* Pretty potent.
The whole thing was the work of my mentor and friend Dale Pon. He’d been my first boss in the commercial media, at WHN Radio in New York when it was a country music station. He’d recommended me for my job at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, as the production director of The Movie Channel, and eventually as the first Creative Director of MTV: Music Television. We’d fallen in and out over the years, but in late 1981, when it came time for us to hire an advertising agency again —at first, our big boss had vetoed Dale as not heavy enough for a company like ours— with a lot of help from my immediate supervisor Bob Pittman, I was able to convince everyone that Dale understood media promotion better than anyone else in America. Besides, didn’t he have “insurance” with his partner, legendary adman George Lois?
No one had ever encountered an adman like Dale, because he had the unique ability to be completely and analytically strategic, and be wildly —and smartly— creative at the same time. An almost unheard of combination, especially in media advertising. Sure, he had a volatile nature, in advertising that was often a given (look at his partner). But it was his strategic, creative abilities that really set him apart.
We’d already done our first trade campaign, the “cable brats,” to the discomfort of most of the suits in the corporate marketing group (Bob and his team, me included, were in programming). But Dale didn’t buy into the efficacy of trade ads anyhow, so now were onto the big show, television advertising. The only problem was that we all recognized that an effective campaign would cost about $10,000,000. Our budget only had $2,000,000, and if we didn’t spend it quickly the corporate gods would probably take it away in the fall.
Looking back, the core creative ended up being the most straightforward part. Dale’s closest friend and creative partner, Nancy Podbielniak had written the cable brats copy and had a tag line “Rock’n’roll wasn’t enough for them — now they want their MTV!” That rung a bell in George Lois, someone who never missed a chance to abscond with someone else’s good idea, and decided to rip off his own knock off of a Maypo campaign from the 1950s and 60s (animator John Hubley originated it as a set famous animated spots, and George had unsuccessfully knocked it off usin g sports stars) and presented a storyboard that completely duplicated his version. Rock stars like Mick Jagger were saying “I Want My MTV” and crying like babies, implying they were spoiled children being denied. No one was buying it until Dale let me know that there was no way he’d ask Pete Townshend or Mick to cry for us. “Pride! They need to show their pride in rock’n’roll! They’ll be shouting!” After a little corporate fuss we were able to sell it in.
AMERICA! DEMAND YOUR MTV! Now, it was the next part that was completely and utterly brilliant. Because Dale came from the school that great creative was all well and good, but unless it could move the business needle, what good was it? In this case, the needle wasn’t ratings (cable TV didn’t have ratings in 1981), but active households, distribution for MTV. Cable operators were all relatively old guys who thought The Weather Channel was a better idea; they’d turned a deaf ear to their younger employees who were clamoring for us instead.
To dramatically simplify the strategy Dale organized, he decided to only advertise in markets where:
• There was enough penetration to justify a modest ad spend.
• But where there were critically large cable operators on the fence about taking MTV.
• And that we could afford a 300 gross rating point buy (three times heavier as any consumer products agency would suggest) for at least four weeks in a row (the traditional media spend would call for pulsing 10 days on and 10 days off).
The “G” in LPG/Pon was Dick Gershon. Along with data from our affiliate group, he crunched and crunched and crunched until he came up with a list of markets and dates we could afford. It was 20% of what we needed, but everyone figured if we could really start to knock off a bunch of cable systems, get them actually launch our network, the domino effect would solidify MTV’s hold on the market forever.
Strategy in place, the creative was back on the front burner. The basic campaign was a great way to get famous rock stars endorsing our channel, but where was the close? What would actually make the ‘ka-ching’ we needed? Luckily, back in the day there was only one way to for a homeowner get anything from your reluctant jerk of a cable operator (they figure they held all the cards, why should they do anything to make life better for their consumers?). And what was it that young adults loved to do? Dale knew immediately.
No one alive in front of a television set in the summer of 1982 could ever forget Pete Townshend, with the wackiest haircut of his career, shouting at the video camera:
"America! DEMAND your MTV! Call your cable operator and say, “I WANT MY MTV!!”
We shot the spots wherever the rock stars would have us for 20 minutes (they still weren’t really sure this MTV: Music Television thing was going to be good for them). Our director and producer, Tommy Schlamme and Buzz Potamkin, got together with some puppeteers to choreograph the ‘dancing’ stereo television. I asked my partner to go into the studio to edit the music sections when they weren’t rocking enough, and —poof!— famous advertising.
Nothing to it, yes?
….. * For comparison, “I Want My Maypo" posts 112,000 results on Google. Or "Where’s the beef?", another famous 1980’s campaign for Wendy’s returns 176,000 (or if you only use that phrase, which has been appropriated for all sorts of uses, you get 2,640,000).
My mentor, Dale Pon, had suggested me for my job at MTV Networks (née Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company). He was the creator of distinctive, innovative, and successful campaigns for radio stations across the United States, was a creative and media wizard, if a little, um, intense, and had worked at WNBC radio with my boss Bob Pittman, MTV programming chief. Dale had recently started an ad agency, LPG/Pon with advertising legend George Lois.
John Lack, our executive vice president, was very close to Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency for American Express, our half owner. My first exposure to the idea that advertising could be actually be smart came from reading founder David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” (If fact, it was one of four books I gave to my young staff members.)
I wanted Dale to do the MTV advertising, convinced that only he understood how to promote media, a completely —completely— different beast from tradition consumer products. John wanted Ogilvy. They were the classy choice, and I had to admit it would make us feel, well, bigger. Better? Not so sure.
John won; he was the big boss, and Bob wasn’t going to fight him on this one yet. I became the MTV point person, but that was only a little good, because we had a corporate infrastructure above us that thought they should control the communications of the networks. From the first day it was a complete struggle.
We get to the first meeting, and the account team wants to convince us (me) that they deserve the account. They wheel in their resident hipster copywriter, wearing his green and yellow satin tour jacket. He says something about Bruce Springsteen. I point out that Bruce made the decision to rock not to write ads. This relationship was not going to end well.
Our first big fight was over the logo. Big agencies, especially O&M, wanted to control everything about the marketing of a product, which often included actually creating and naming a product. That was not going to happen with us. We’d battled for months about the name (reaching the no-one’s-happy compromise of MTV: Music Television) and I’d already been working on the logo with my childhood friend Frank Olinsky and his studio Manhattan Design for almost a year.
So an Ogilvy meeting happens where I tell them about the logo and why it’s awesome (this is after weeks of disagreement with our company suits who succeeded in killing the thing once before we swept it out of the fire). They all stare at us silently while the senior account guy pulls out a xeroxed “Ogilvy’s Rules for a Great Logo.” Checking off the points one by one I proudly point out that we’ve broken eight of the 11 rules. Perfect for rock’n’roll network!
After that the ads they did for us generally sucked. It was bad enough they kept trying to make logo look “good,” but they said nothing and lacked everything. No snap, crackle, or particularly, pop.
When it came time to do a TV ad, they came up with some thing with fancy computer generated purple grids that was supposed to be cool. I didn’t really know what a “national” commercial as supposed to be (I’d only produced local radio station spots for Dale) and everyone else seemed to think it was OK, so I went along.
When it came time to make the spot I was in the production company’s office (what was a production company anyhow? That’s how green we were) in the Hollywood Hills and I hear the producer say to the agency, “What do you want me to do with this logo?”
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"We don’t do comic book stuff here. What do you expect us to do with this piece of shit logo?!"
You can imagine the screaming match that ensued, enough to make a wrestler blush. We came to an impasse, they made their junky (expensive) commercial, and somehow I became fast friends with the producer Sherry McKenna (now, the co-founder of Oddworld).
The commercial ran, no one noticed, we fired the famous Ogilvy and & Mather, and the company reluctantly agreed with Bob and me that we engage Dale and LPG/Pon.
MTV had been on the air for six months and we’d fired the storied Ogilvy & Mather and hired Dale Pon’s LPG/Pon (a joint venture with George Lois) at my insistence. Now they were presenting their first trade campaign for advertisers and cable operators and my first big decision was being called into question.
America is fast becoming a land of Cable Brats!
"It’s audacious! Outrageous! Just like you guys." George Lois was a big talker, a big seller, and a bit of a smart ass, loudmouth. He was also smart. Even though I knew he designed the “cable brats” thing, but my brilliant mentor Dale, who’d never steered me wrong creatively or strategically, was behind the whole thing. His ex-girlfriend, and now one of my best friends, Nancy Podbielniak, had written the copy. Besides, I agreed with Dale that generally trade advertising was a waste of time and bigger waste of money. Consumers were where it’s at, and weren’t all the tradesmen we were hopping to reach consumers too? If we had a knockout punch of consumer advertising our job would be done. I knew he was keeping his powder dry for the big show.
America is fast becoming a land of Cable Brats!
There’s an incorrigible new generation out there. They grew up with music. They grew up with television. So we put ‘em both together — for the Cable Brats, and they’re taking over America! They’re men and women in the 18 to 34 age range advertisers want most — plus the increasingly important 12 to 17 segement. The Cable Brats buy all the high volume, high ticket, high tech, high profit products of modern America. They’re strong-willed, cunning, crazily impulsive — an advertiser’s peerless audience. They look and listen and they want their MTV. And they buy, buy, buy.
Rock’n’Roll wasn’t enough for them — now they want their MTV. (The exploding 24-hour Video Music Cable Network (and it’s Stereo!)
George was certainly right. It was audacious, and it was a touch outrageous. Somehow, the tone wasn’t quite right, but after the crap Ogilvy had done for us, it was way better.
Besides, hidden in there was the sand grain that was going to lead us to our pearl.
Most of the mentors I’ve written about have been work companions and no one I’ve worked with has had the same impact as George and Lilliana Seibert. It would have been their 60th anniversary today (George passed away in 2002) so it’s a great day to honor them.
Yes, Lilliana and George are my parents. And yes, most people can point to their parents as the prime influence on them, but I’m not going to completely bore you with too much personal biography. This blog is focused on work and my folks were my first bosses at their suburban pharmacy. The takeaway from my first work experience has shaped most of what I’ve done since. I picked up my complete love of work with them, and found out that for me “work to live” is not an option. “Live to work” is much more like it. I didn’t become a workaholic —I like my personal time as much as anyone— but I absorbed the real joy of the process of work itself.
I worked* in their store for more than 20 years. Along the way I picked up the building blocks of everything I’ve done ever since (as my parents had from theirfathers' local stores). Of course, there was the simple stuff that lots of kids learn at home, like responsibility and politeness. And small business basics. But working with them side by side went a lot deeper. The measures of an outfit's viability. The service of a local enterprise to it's customers and the community.
When I got into the television business it didn’t dawn on me that lessons learned in a mom & pop drugstore would have any direct usefulness. But, one day in 1985 my partner and I were sitting down with the president of Nickelodeon, and I was trying to convey a particular scheduling strategy, where we’d take a bunch of our network IDs that we’d run the sprocket holes off of and just switch them to a different daypart. It would save money on new ID production, and the network would get new dose of freshness.
"How do you know about this stuff?" The president knew I was as relatively new to television.
I explained to her a lesson my mother had taught me at the store. A basket of sale lipsticks had stopped moving, so my mom just placed the basket at the opposite end of the counter. An hour later they were selling again. Transposing the exercise to media placement seemed like a good idea to me, nutty as it was. By the way, it worked on television too, and it was only the first of dozens of surprising tips I could put to good use.
Two decades in the family store netted me oceans more than can recounted here. Not to short shrift our home at all; my two sisters and I had a wonderful, warm life together with my parents. But, suffice it to say, when it comes to work, I was one lucky dude.
* The Harbor Pharmacy opened in suburban New York in 1954, and I started “working” right away. Babysitting was expensive and though most of what was given to me was busywork I took it as seriously as a child could. Stocking shelves was my first important duty, but I rapidly ascended to checking out customers (a classic cash register is way better than a toy for a boy). Accompanying the delivery “boys” (men from 16 to 60) on their rounds was the highlight of my day (not theirs, I’d bet), and my driver’s license led to my next promotion. By the time of my last stint in 1977, I was writing and designing their local Pennysaver ads.
** A quick word about the modern American Gothic photograph up top. Early in our pharmacy’s life a trade magazine was writing a story and sent an art director to supervise the photography. My father, a complete and proud professional, felt the proper attire for a business owner was a shirt and tie, which he wore at work every day for over thirty years. But, the art director thought that the appropriate pharmacist’s attire was the same lab smock it had been for decades. He insisted my father conform. It irritated Dad forever.
At 19 I was determined to become a record producer rather than a chemist (my plan since I was six). I’d played music since I was seven, The Beatles had infected me at 12, and the excitement of recorded music completely enveloped me by the time I was working at my college radio station. I was the only one to jump at the chance to record visiting jazz musicians, even though my interest was popular music. When Gunter Hampel, a German avant-garde multi-intrumentalist, released an album I had engineered, and put my name of the cover (!), I was was hooked.
It was an explosive era of independent record labels and my new friend, local record retailer Tom Pomposello, and I decided we’d start a label. We’d release great, underappreciated blues and jazz, and not incidentially, Tom’s solo music too. Our 1972 debut album on OblivionRecords came from tapes I’d recorded when Tom guested with country blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell. We had an great time and released some amazing music. Five more releases and our lack of capital, lack of acumen, and insufficient entrepeneurial zeal closed the label in 1976.
For most of the jazz ‘producing’ was a misnomer, it was actually ‘recording supervision.’ I mean, what was an a rock’n’roll playing, 26 year old kid from the suburbs going to tell a master musician to do? Play faster? Better? The records weren’t always what I would’ve wanted, but they reflected the vision of the artist. That was my job.
All the magazine articles about producers celebrated activist visionaries like Phil Spector, but artist oriented folks Jerry Wexler, George Martin and Alfred Lion were the ones I admired most. They became the kind of models I carried forward with me to filmmaking.
Alas, I never found my way into the pop world I coveted. And therefore, no surprise, I couldn’t make a decent living the way I was going. I slowly, reluctantly, started to morph the dream.
In late 1971 my new friend Tom Pomposello and I decided to start a record company to record his music, and so I could become an instant record producer (it was easier than convincing some big company to let me do it). He was 21, married with a small child, and owned a local hippie record store in Huntington, New York. I was 19, single, a college student in New York City. By the time it was over, five years later, we had six world class releases.
We both emerged from the pop and rock fans of the 69s, but had broadened. Tom loved the blues. I loved jazz, especially the avant garde variety. We both wanted to do more to promote artists we believed in.
It seemed like a smart move not to start with the unknown Tom’s record —especially since we hadn’t figured out exactly what it would be yet— but we had a viable, commercial tape we’d recorded of college concert star Mississippi Fred McDowell (with Tom on bass guitar) at the Village Gaslight in Greenwich Village. With the sales of this sure fire hit, we’d be on our way to the big time of indie labels [wink]. Our agreement was to make blues records for Tom and jazz records for me. We had a passion for underexposed American music and we were certain we’d be the two to bring unknown artists to prominence.
The only question that lingered was where we would get the outrageous sum of $1800 to press the first 2000 copies? Tom came to rescue by bringing in our third partner Richard (Dick) Pennington, a friend of his from, uh, somewhere (I never actually found out). Dick stepped right up with enthusiasm and verve and stayed until our fourth album when he and Tom fell explosively out over something neither of them ever revealed.
My Oblivion Records partner Tom Pomposello and I were incredibly proud of our discography of releases. We were two young guys in the thrall of the world’s music explosion everywhere around us and we wanted to be part of it. (Just click on the covers and you’ll be able to play the complete collection.)
Not only our first record, but our most celebrated and successful. Fred McDowell had become a country blues world touring sensation in the late 60s and early 70s, and Tom, budding suburban bluesman, became his pupil and bassist. This was Fred’s last recording before his untimely passing.
Our only single came during Tom’s last trip to Mississippi when he asked Fred McDowell to locate harpist Johnny Woods, Fred’s sometimes duet partner. They found Mr. Woods at his farmhand living quarters, and in true field recording style, Tom took out his trusty Panasonic cassette machine, gave Johnny one of his Hohner harmonicas, and recorded two songs. Then he whipped out his Kodak Instamatic, posed Johnny in front of Fred’s Pontiac. Now we had enough for a record.
When Marc Cohen (now Copeland) first showed up at my college radio station he played an awesome mainstream alto saxophone. So he shocked me the day he came in with a trio wired up and echoplexed I felt like I’d seen a future first defined by the Tony Williams Lifetime. We made a deal and he brought back a quartet, and before it was branded we called his music ‘electronic jazz.’ No jazz-rock here, just plugged in supercharged jazz.
Tom really wanted to discover a bluesman. Which was really hard to do in New York City. So a talented blues hustler called Charles Walker kept turning up musicians and songs and we kept recording them, for more than a year. Our smallest selling album, with one of my favorite tracks.
Never paying much attention to mainstream jazz singers, I initially paid no attention to the hubbub surrounding a session I missed one summer in 1972 at WKCR. But then I heard the tape. Joe Lee Wilson was great.
The record caused a sensation and became a turntable hit at the biggest New York jazz station, but we were too inexperienced and broke to work it properly. A great record faded again into oblivion.
Tom Pomposello, my great friend and the artist that inspired our record company. And our final release. Recorded in bits and pieces over four years in dozens of locations, with Tom’s truth telling slogan •file under: Suburban Blues.
Hi there! My name is Thomas (Honest Tom) Pomposello. I’d like to cordially inform all my friends that I am the Huntington Tea Party’s candidate for Receiver of Taxes in the 1971 local elections. If things are as they seem, this year promises to be one that will be full of surprises in Our Town. So may the best man lose (why should this year be any different?), and I’ll see you all at the polls.
Yours intact, Honest Tom Pomposello
P.S.: Here are a few of my numerous qualifications - -
• I AM INDISPUTABLY THE LARGEST PERSON TO RUN FOR THE OFFICE OF RECEIVER OF TAXES IN THE LAST 40 YEARS. At 6’0” even in boots with one-half inch heels and 267½ lbs. without those same boots, it would seem that this be more than an unfounded claim. However, in the interest of fairness, upon request I can present factual data. (Actually the closest contender I suppose would be Mrs. Rosemary Bacon who held the office from 1936 - 1938; but even though she did tend a bit toward the chub, in reality she is little competition for me.)
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE WHO HAS THE UNCONDITIONAL SUPPORT OF MISSISSIPPI FRED McDOWELL. I’m not sure what actual value this has since Fred can’t even vote for me (being an out of state resident and all that) but you’ve got to admit, it certainly does look impressive.
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE WHO FRED SEIBERT WOULD EVEN CONSIDER PUTTING ON HIS RADIO SHOW. I’ve been of Fred’s show three times now, twice by proxy.
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE WHO IS REALLY CLEAN-CUT. My mother says so.
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE MATURE ENOUGH TO REMEMBER BOTH THE “RUDY KAZODEE" AND "CRUSADER RABBIT" TV SHOWS. In fact, in college I did my Honors Thesis on this very subject.
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE WHO IS NOT ASHAMED TO ADMIT THAT WHEN I TAKE SHOWERS, I DRAW CLOSED THE BATH CURTAINS. Perfunctory.
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE WHO REALLY TAKES THIS ELECTION SERIOUSLY. I need not prove this to you further - - simply re-read my above qualifications.
• I AM THE ONLY CANDIDATE WHO WOULD DELIBERATELY PUBLISH A FACT SHEET THAT IS IN ACTUALITY HALF LIES. Perhaps I should re-phrase that. I am the only candidate in this election who would ADMIT to deliberately publishing a fact sheet that is in actuality half lies.
When I started out recording in the late 60s, my goal was to make hip and popular music. You know, like The Beatles. Since things rarely turn out the way one hopes, I spent most of my recording experience in jazz, particular avant-garde jazz. While it’s music that reminds many of heavy traffic mixed with fingernails on a blackboard, for me it provided a thrilling window on expansive thinking. These were experiences that made sure I’d work hard to never be complacent. There’s no trade I’d rather have for those times.
Almost 40 years after the fact, it’s hard for me to imagine I was lucky enough to work with one of the great, world class talents like pianist/composer Cecil Taylor, who, along with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, was a leading figure in the resetting of jazz expectations for over 50 years. Especially considering that I was 22 years old. But often, cutting edge artists on the fringes of mainstream culture like Taylor don’t always command the attention of the leading recording institutions, and it’s the young, passionate fans (like I was) that can fill the breach.
Cecil’s (temporary) manager enlisted me to record and “produce” only since I could access some premium tape decks and microphones, and because I’d work tirelessly for his music. We recorded the "Return Concert" in November 1973 at The Town Hall in New York, and later in the winter traveled to Washington D.C. and crashed in a friend’s place to record a show at the Smithsonian. I spent months pouring over the tapes prepping them for release on Cecil’s own label, Unit Core Records (only the Town Hall show was released, as Spring of Two Blue J’s).
In the Village Voice, America’s leading jazz writer Gary Giddins called the album Cecil’s finest, and later said “it offers an improvisational coherence his earlier work only hints at.”
I still have to pinch myself about my brief association with an artist like Cecil Taylor at one of the great peaks of his career.
As I remember, Mr. McGrath’s reporting was fairly complete and, all in all, accurate, in and of itself often a rarity in media reporting. He made me and the work my teams did look good, which made my mother and father very happy. Me too.
To call such a buddy a “mentor” might seem an overstatement (he’ll probably find it silly), but it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be in the career I have without Nick Moy.
The son of two pharmacists, I entered school planning on a career as a chemist. Six weeks in I turned to my lab partner and said, “I like the Beatles more than this.” And a lifetime obsession was over, synthesized into a new one. Marching over to the college radio station, I volunteered and began indulging in media overload. Though my tastes veered towards pop, rock, and soul, the station specialized in classical, folk, news, and jazz. It couldn’t be helped, my knowledge instantly exploded.
Nick, his wife Sherry Wolf, and I have been great friends since we met at WKCR-FM in 1969. When Nick and I became roommates four years later, our conversations ranged from politics to music, and though he was the station’s best announcer and classical DJ, his interests exceeded expansive, with a deep grasp of mainstream jazz, R&B and funk, and a solid understanding and attraction to the avant-garde.
More conservative in life approach than me (understatement; I was an undisciplined jumble of nerve endings shooting off in every direction at once) Nick was always open to new ideas, with non-judgmental encouragement to the dumbest thoughts, and an eager companion to almost anything I would cook up. By 1973, we were rooming together in Morningside Heights, where I was running my half of a record company out of our apartment and the college radio studio. Nick had a real job in the public policy world, working for weasel-to-be Dick Morris, making $5000 a year. I was barely earning a dollar, picking up day work here and there while I tried to make the record company a success, and recording anyone and anything, mainly new jazz musicians, usually for no fee.
Most roommates, even friends, would have thrown me out. But, Nick picked up the rent when I didn’t have it (pretty often), bought the groceries and cooked them up (not a horrible burden; I think I was only eating one meal a day then). My temporary quid pro quo was that every once in a while I’d get us some free passes to a club or a record company showcase (we saw everyone from Tom Waits to Charlie Rich to Cecil Taylor.) I think my credits helped him get the Grammy discount for piles of new LPs every month, which enriched us both. From disco to Bach, our apartment was the required stop for our friends to check out the new culture. (One day, percussionist Andrew Cyrille came by for me to record his African drums for his first album. Luckily, we weren’t evicted.)
For five years, Nick Moy was right there for me. Smart as a whip, he prodded my thinking further than any place it had ever been. Funny and dry, he rarely was without a quip when it was needed. Patient and supportive past measure, he was virtually my patron, giving me the room I needed to develop my skills, insights, and fortitude, the space necessary to make my way in a world that I wasn’t sure really existed.
There’s a straight line from my life with Nick right through to cartoons and the internet. Over the years, we tried to keep track, and eventually (very eventually) I paid Nick back the money he laid out for me. But, just the money, the other stuff was beyond value.
It’s hard to call Ralph Ginzburg a mentor of mine. I’m not sure he talked to me more than once, and after a few months on the night shift at his magazine Moneysworth, he had me fired. But a mentor to me he indeed was. Without either of us knowing it, the path I started at Ralph’s would continue for 15 years.
By the time I went to work for his publication in the summer of 1976, Ralph was on his last publication. He was notorious for being convicted and jailed for obscenity relating to his hard cover magazine Eros (though there were some who said he was less obscene than just completely annoying). Moneysworth was to be his last hurrah.
I worked in the production department. Ralph was around often, talking loudly and smartly about everything from design to circulation to advertising. All I had to do was absorb it all. It was the place I saw first hand and up close how design, language, marketing, and promotion worked in the real world.
Ralph showed me (inadvertently) the practical meaning of graphic design (the only things I knew were from reading my girlfriend’s book about Milton Glaser); he talked so much, and so eloquently about Herb Lubalin, I felt like I’d actually worked with him myself. And watching him lay out his trademark full page New York Times ads (like the ones above and below) was an education by itself, about design and typography.
But, it was really in the area of writing, strategy, and direct selling that I got my Ginzburgian education. I won’t belabor the details, but let me tell me you… He’d sit down directly at the typesetting machine (like a big IBM Selectric) and, in real time, type out the kind of ad that’s posted here. He’d intone the sentences out loud as he thought of them. He’d explain why he was writing what, even as he was typing something else entirely. He’d explain his philosophy of selling, direct selling, through the ads, why certain words worked better than others to grab subscriptions, and why he used the extra thick dotted lines around the return coupon.
I made a lifelong friend at Moneysworth. And I learned a lot. It doesn’t get any better even though I was fired. Ralph Ginzburg was a MF, in every way.
I was the first Creative Director of MTV: Music Television, joining the parent company (then called Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company) May 5, 1980. My boss, Bob Pittman asked me to oversee all of the original production and programming for the fledging cable television channel (who had even heard of cable TV as anything other than a service for rural audiences?) though I’d never seen a television camera.
The first job? Establish a vocabulary, “voice,” and look for the thing. The first move? Hire my oldest and best friends, Alan Goodman and Frank Olinsky.
In my MTV office, 1981. Photo by Alan Goodman
As far as I can remember, the article below was the first written on the MTV logo (designed by Manhattan Design —Pat Gorman, Frank Olinsky & Patti Rogoff— in their office in a second story spare room behind a tai chi studio, above Bigelow Chemists @ 8th Street & Avenue of the Americas in New York); it’s from June 1982, about 10 months after the network launched. My favorite part is the illustration of the what was essentially the “first” MTV logo (illustrated above). Notice the section in the article on Nickelodeon was about their redesign, but that was only two years before Alan Goodman and I oversaw a the next change (designed by Tom Corey and Scott Nash) that lasted over 25 years.
It’s funny, but for all the influence the MTV graphics have had, not much has been written about them. Probably because we were all media people, rather than directly from the graphic design community, we never really worked the press on behalf of ourselves.
But the Oscarwinning animator Jon Canemaker is also a dedicated historian. He wrote his thoroughly researched story in the September/October 1992 Print Magazine about the logo and its animation ten years after the channel’s debut.
You can read the original article (complete with illustrations) above. Here’s the entire text:
Over the Edge with MTV
By John Canemaker
The decade-old video music channel has profoundly influenced pop culture, in part through its dealing, innovative animation.
The broadcast phenomenon known as MTV was launched in 1981 by Warner Communications and American Express with a certain amount of skepticism and worry about its potential fur success. Robert Pittman, then Warner/Amex’s 27-year-old director of 24-hour cable service programming (now president and CEO of Quantum Media), had sold his corporate bosses on a concept for a video music channel “with no programs, no beginning, no middle, no end.”
After a decade, there is no doubting MTV’s enormous success and impact on popular culture. It has influenced fashion. graphic design, music, and movies, as weil as our attitudes about television and advertising, and even our concept of time. The idea for a TV music service was not new, hut Pittman’s vision and its execution were. “We realized that almost all TV was narrative in form,” wrote Pittman in the Los Angeles Times last year. “The appeal of music, however, has nothing to do with that structure. Music is about emotion and attitude—it makes you feel. It moves you. Within the creation of MTV. we changed the form of TV to fit the form of music, as opposed to trying to fit music into a narrative structure.
In opposition to the practice of the big three television networks, which broadcast a variety of fare to attract the widest possible general audience, MTV would “narrowcast,” targeting an audience between the ages of 12 and 35—that is. baby boomers and the generation that came after them. The music would be their music: rock-‘n’- roll, and all that that implies.
"It was meant to drive a 55-year-old person crazy," MTV Chairman/CEO [Tom Freston] told the Washington Post in 1989. Conceived as a free-form, open-ended visual showcase of rock-‘n’- roll. MTV needed a graphic image that bespoke youth and anti-authority/anti-establishment attitudes, something forever-changing, ever-evolving, and totally cool—on-the-edge and in-your-face. The famous MTV logo—numerous 10-second animated station identification spots seen throughout each day for over a decade—conveys all of the above.
Constantly layered and manipulated, the basic blocky M overlapped by a thin, spray-painted TV remains the same, a logo that is now among an exclusive pantheon of instantly recognizable symbols, such as Coca-Cola bottles, Mickey Mouse, and the CBS eye.
The development of the logo and other MTV graphics, and the extensive use ol animation on MTV, was both organic and pragmatic, according to Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman, partners in the advertising agency Fred/Alan, Inc., which produces on- air promos, sales films, and network identifications for MTV, Nickelodeon, and VH-1, among other clients. Seven years ago, Seibert and Goodman were the team that defined, as Seibert recently explained, “the voice, the sound, the content, the ideas behind MTV the reasons it was important.
Both men come from recording and radio backgrounds: Seibert produced jazz records before Robert Pittman hired him in 1980 to create promotions and programming for the 24-hour Movie Channel, the Warner/Amex cable service that preceded MTV. When Seibert volunteered lo work simultaneously on the proposed music video channel, he brought on Goodman, who had run the copy department for five years at CBS Records’ in-house agency, which made album covers, advertisements for radio, and “promotional films that became known as music videos.”
"We grew up in a time when rock-‘n’-roll was characterized by album covers, as was the culture of out generation," says Seibert. "These rovers defined what we liked to look at, as well as what we believed in. We milted to create little animated album covers for the new generation."
"The MTV logo and animation," says Goodman, "had so much to do with accidents, with ratings. and the limits of technology at the lime, rather than any artistic vision we had." For example, the 10-second running lime of the ID logos resulted from the inability, of the old 2" videotape carts (custom-altered to play in stereo) to cycle cassettes faster. Ten seconds was "interminable" to Seibert and Goodman, who originally wanted three- to four-second IDs, as short as those heard on radio.
They needed an ID that would be memorable to viewers who, in pre-electronic ratings days, wrote down what they watched on TV in a diary. “We were competing against 10, 20 channels and knew We were going to compete against 50, although they didn’t exist yet,” says Seibert. “We knew we had to create an MTV not for 1980, but for 1990 We had to reach out of the TV set, shake every viewer, and say ‘Watch us!”
In developing the image, they considered the nature of rock-‘n’-roll—always in a slate of evolution—and its audience, which is always growing up with it and out of it. A certain anti-establishment attitude was apparent among the young turks who created MTV, must of whom, like Pittman, Seibert, and Goodman, were in their twenties. “We didn’t want in follow,” explains Seibert. “The hell with that. We wanted to lead with our generation. Why hire some designer or art director who graphically defined the last generation? Let’s create our own look.”
A kinetic, out-sized symbol glimmered undefined in their imaginations, but because neither idea man could draw, Seibert and Goodman sought a graphic design studio. There was only one such place, they felt, that could make their ideas visible: Manhattan Design, a small office run by friend (Frank Olinsky and Pat Gorman) behind a Ti Chi workshop in Greenwich Village. “Their studio was as big as this table. You tell Warner Brothers and American Express that this is who is going to define their logo—they had a cow!” Seibert exclaims.
Manhattan Design produced about 500 logo designs. “They kept coming back with more.” recalls Goodman. “The closest to being accepted was a squeezable musical note grabbed in the ass by a Mickey Mouse-style hand and the notes came out of the fingers. We liked it mainly because it was active. The notes were secondary. Our logo, we thought, should have action, unlike the CBS eye.” Goodman had, in fact, contacted the “CBS logo policeman,” who lead him a list of rules pertaining to the CBS symbol, e.g., it never moves; it never changes: and it can never be put on gym bags or hats, only on pens (or salesmen and top clients. Goodman went down the menu and said, ‘We’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to do this.”
The big M design was on the bottom of a pile of the last 10 sketches submitted, with the TV originally graftitied in, punk- like. “We said that one’s it. Go and develop it more, Frank came back with lots of color treatments. ‘Here’s one.’ he’d say, ‘that looks as if the M hadn’t shaved and the TV was shaving cream: here’s one where it’s a taxi with yellow stripes; here’s one with the bottom like linoleum; here’s one all spattered.’ We liked each one better than the last,” says Goodman.
"It filled the screen and was dimensionalized from the first. It reminds us of Superman comics and the 20th Century-Fox logo. It’s grand, big. The spray-painted TV implied action. There was the M and something was done to it. The shadow implied dimension and 3D image. It was more than a 2-D image. It was a logo that willingly accepted juvenile delinquency!"
At the same lime the logo was being developed, Seibert and Goodman were creating short snippets of sound to match the as-yet-undefined IDs. “For the most visually stunning network ever lo launch, we decided to make it sound-based. Build the pictures on top of it, like cartoons,” relates Goodman. With no idea how the music would be used, they kept working with musicians until they liked what they heard for 10 seconds and added it to a master reel.
"Again, it was pragmatic." Goodman explains. "We’re sound guys, We started in radio and we know music. TV is a talking toaster, if it doesn’t sound right, who cares what it looks like." Seibert concurs: "II we put brilliant sound together with medium-to-good pictures, we’d have something great. If we put great sound with great pictures, everyone would salute."
Seibert and Goodman pinned the different versions of the MTV logo on the wall for days and thought about them. Minutes before their big presentation meeting with the powers-that-be at Warner/Amex, “we decided to use them all at once, all the time.” Seibert recalls. One of the marketing heads (an older man) balked (“I hate this! It’s a piece of junkl”), but he was overruled. “Running on pure adrenaline and instinct.” the creative team had six weeks before launch date to come up with nine videos versions of the logo.
They chose animation as a medium for yet another practical reason. Explains Seibert, “Virtually all the videos at that time were in live-action. We knew our M had to be different to stand out.” The pre-packaged sound biles were to be handed out to selected animation studios. The only problem was that Seibert and his colleagues didn’t know any animators. “We knew Disney’s name, that was all,” he recalls. They tailed in 100 sample reels from trade paper ads and “hated one more than the other.”
A few rock- ‘n’ -roll spots using Xerography (Xeroxed photos manipulated under the camera frame-by-frame) appeared on a reel from a small company in San Francisco called Colossal Pictures. “All of a sudden.” says Seibert, “everything else was Doc Severinson and this was Little Richard. These guys had the beat! They got it! We jumped up and down. ‘It can be done!’” They sought reels from other little-known independent animators, instead of large established cartoon shops, who wanted a package of spots for big bucks.
"Anything else that anyone was doing, we weren’t going to do," says Seibert. Indeed, this idea became a kind of rallying cry. They surveyed the standard cel techniques used in the studios and went in the other direction- finding animators who specialized in alternative frame-by frame designs using clay, cut-out, puppets, and pastels, crayon, or watercolors on paper. "We wanted to do what everybody else was absolutely ignoring." Budgets were small and schedules tight, but the independents eagerly undertook the work, for MTV offered a rare national showcase for personal, quirky, non-traditional animation.
Colossal Pictures filtered a group of West Coast animators through their company to MTV, to join a growing number of colleagues from the East and points north, including Eli Noyes, Broadcast Arts, George Griffin, Jerry Lieberman, and Joey Album in New York, Olive Jar in Boston, and International Rocketship in Vancouver, “We wanted on-the-fringe people, like us, People we felt comfortable with,” says Seibert. “To this day, we have our closest relationships with the animation community.”
Ironically. “Man on the Moon,” one of the most famous of the earliest animated logos, with a now-familiar electric guitar riff, was animated by Buzzco, a commercial animation studio. “At the time.” says Seibert, “we shared space with Buzz Potemkin, head of Buzzco, and we liked him. We said to him we felt MTV was as big a TV event as ever happened; it was going to change TV that much. We had this idea of copying the biggest TV event in world history—the man walking on the moon—usurp it to ourselves, the juvenile delinquents of MTV,” Potemkin agreed to produce the spot, which used public domain NASA footage of a rocket blasting off, cross-dissolving into stills of the 1969 landing on the moon. The American flag was cut out and various types of MTVs were substituted. The original piece, intercut with coming attractions, was 10 seconds, so Seibert and Goodman looped one of their prepackaged, free-form music pieces (a guitar solo) three times.
Over the last 10 years, the popularity of animation on MTV has been enhanced by top rock performers using the medium creatively in videos. The increased number of videos using animation, and using non-traditional frame-by-frame graphics, is a direct result of the audiovisual impact of the off-the-wall I0-second logos.
Among the more memorable videos in terms of imagery and an impressive variety of unusual animation techniques are “Sledgehammer,” in which Peter Gabriel’s face and body and other three-dimensional objects are pixilated; “Opposites Attract,” which features Paula Abdul’s tap adagio with a cartoon alley cat (modeled nostalgically on Gene Kelly’s workout with Jerry the Mouse); “Harlem Shuffle.” which intercuts Mick Jagger with Bob Clampett-like cartoon cats: “Hard Woman,” in which Jagger appears with a computer-generated female; and “Leave Me Alone,” in which Michael Jackson combines photo animation and Xerography of himself and Elizabeth Taylor in a surreal Jacksonland amusement park.
MTV’s decade of continuous showcasing of all kinds of animation has been an important component in its public acceptance, which is at an all-time high. Always on the lookout lor things other people are ignoring. MTV itself continues lo compete with its own brand of on-the-edge animation.
John Payson, director of creative, and Abby Terkuhle, VP-creative, are currently responsible for all MTV on-air promotions, as well as the overall look and packaging of ongoing and new programs, contests, and image productions, including network IDs and an breaks. Their commitment to animation on MTV is strong.
"Animation is a direct line from the director’s brain to the screen." says Payson. "It’s become a viable adult entertainment medium. There’s no limn to what the imagination ran do." adds Terkuhle, who keeps abreast of current animation designs and artists by attending international animation festivals around the world. The team produces a dozen or more logos annually, though now says Terkuhle. "we have global talents to lap into, including MTV Europe. MTV Asia. MTV Brazil, and soon," international affiliates that have been established with MTV’s growing success.
Three years ago, Payson and Terkuhle look steps to develop and expand MTV’s animation offerings in a number of imaginative ways. They commissioned “short form” pieces (films longer than 10 seconds) to play between videos, such as the serialized “Stevie and Zorn” by Joe Zorn, “Brute” from Britain’s Mike Smith and Malcolm Bennett, and “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions.” from Henry Selick on the West Coast.
With MTV U.S. and MTV Europe, they sponsored an international competition for IDs, and, more recently, animated public service announcements addressing world problems and solutions. Over 600 entries were received, 10 of which will be aired on MTV affiliates throughout the world.
Showcased on late-night weekends is a series originally produced for Nickelodeon. ”The Ren & Stimpy Show.” an anarchic throwback to the wild, stretchy squashy old-Style Warners/Bob Clampett animation beloved by boomers, who have made the show an instant cult favorite.
Most provocative of the current animation projects, however, is MTV’s “Liquid Television,” a half hour animated variety series combining “underground animation, over-the-edge graphics, and stories from beyond the fringe.” Colossal Pictures (the original MTV animation supplier, now a large and diversified animation/live action producer) shopped a proposal for an animated magazine first to HA! and then to MTV. With changes, “it was perfect for us,” says Terkuhle. “sort of a melting pot of different animators showcasing what we were doing in short forms and IDs in a half-hour show.”
Now in its second season, “Liquid Television.” with both self-contained and serialized segments, pushes the edge in animation looks, content, and format. Techniques are dazzlingly eclectic, ranging from traditional cel, 3-D puppets, and clay, to computer paintbox. Fifty-seven different segments composed the first “Liquid TV” shows, with nine Colossal Pictures directors creating segments and 13 other directors providing more. According to the trade journal R.E.R, “All of these pieces had to be woven into a continuous tapestry of animation and sound by Colossal/Music Amex Audio Post-Production,” which is based in San Francisco.
The programming is varied; there are the violent “Dangerous Puppets,” who beats the Stuffing out of one another: and “Aeon flux,” an action/intrigue, slick-looking cel animation serial, described as “non-stop death” by Advertising Age. “Stick Figure Theatre” presents reductions of scenes from famous movies, plays, newsreels, and music videos, performed by a forgotten troop of line drawings from “the other side of the inkwell.” “Invisible Hand’s” is a multi-plane animation by underground comix artist Richard Sala. “Art School Girls of Doom” uses live-action against collaged backgrounds. Clay animator David Daniels’s “Buzz Box” uses the so-called “stratocut” technique, which involves slicing through a lump of clay that has sequential images inside of it. “Ms. Lydia’s Makeover,” by director/writer Gordon Clark, employs Macintosh Photo Shop and Quantel Paintbox to present “Eastern European expert” Ms. Lydia, who weekly enhances the physical features of well-known celebrities with a “beauty computer,” and whose personal credo is “the better you look, the more you see.”
"We’re more into animation than special effects," Payson told Advertising Age recently. "We’re more interested in animation per se—that direct line to the unconscious. We think simple, which is something I always strive for. Effects for effects sake are not what we’re looking for."
"Liquid Television’ is the greatest," comments Alan Goodman. "Payson is brilliant," says Fred Seibert, "and we could never produce what Abby [Terkuhle] produces. ‘Liquid’ is never going to get big ratings on MTV because for the general audience it’s just a little too out there. But it’ll do well enough, and it maintains the image MTV has to have. Even if they don’l watch it, they have to know its there, they have to know MTV is pushing the boundaries."
John Payson concurs: “One of ihe things we’ve had to overcome in ibis country it the perception thai animation is for kids, light and fluffy .mil Saturday morning. I like to think MTV is helping to overcome that misconception. We’re able to show the potential lor this kind of storytelling. We’re a small part of a renaissance, something really exciting in the industry-at-large.”
Our early 1980 logo choice came before the channel was even named, so we opted for a pure graphic. Manhattan Design thought it was symbolized “fresh squeezed music.” We thought it was fun.
We also liked the idea that musicians (like Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick) could interact with the logo. The network would hold onto the idea even when the logo evolved.
Finally, in the spring of 1981 we settled on a compromise name that no one really liked (really. “MTV” sounded clunky to some and reminded others of the really popular MTM production company), and Manhattan Design quickly tried to integrate the squeezable note into the call letters. Alan and I just as quickly decided we needed to go in another direction. Did I mention we needed to do it quickly?
MD partner Patti Rogoff came up with the “M”. Frank Olinsky drew this “TV” because of the prevailing “new wave" design trends. "M" good, "TV" *gong*.
I barely remember this version. MD’s Pat Gorman says in the article that it was because of “nervous higher ups.” She could be right.
MD’s Frank Olinsky spray painted the “TV”, drips and all, in the Manhattan Design stairwell. The “M” was painted later when someone was worried about the big M not reading. Or something like that.
Here’s a compilation of the very first two years of MTV animated logos.
From the minute I went to work for Bob Pittman (he was 25, I was 27) at the Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company in May of 1980, he told me about the company’s plan for a television channel that would be exclusively rock videos and how he envisioned the TV equivalent of radio jingles: network identifications (‘IDs’) short, wacked out pieces of animation that would reveal the network logo. Not like the staid CBS Eye (“You’re watching CBS.”) but rock’n’roll wrapped up into a little picture explosion.
As soon as we started working on what would become MTV: Music Television a month later I started thinking about these IDs and realized they could be the album covers of the new generation of music fans. For baby boomers the album cover came of age with the first AmericanBeatles album representing every phase of their cultural development. I had bemoaned my lateness to that party, but my self-importance hoped the MTV network IDs could serve the same purpose.
Little did I know they’d achieve an almost equal prominence, and more. For me and Alan Goodman, my first partner in the enterprise (and countless more), they led the way for how we would become the first people to ‘brand’ American cable television networks throughout the 1980s. First as employees at MTV, then for our clients at Fred/Alan, we made over 1000 more of these 10-second visual operas for networks ranging from Nickelodeon and Comedy Central to TMTV in Japan and Lifetime. We worked with some of the greatest indie animators the world had to offer (some we’re still doing projects with today) and started a lot of companies on their way. These IDs might have been the most fun I had during the years we were doing television branding. (And for me, inadvertendly, they began what was to become a late life career change into producing cartoons.)
Not for nothing, I need to stress the crucial role of Manhattan Design's innovative MTV logo on the amazing work of each and every designer, artist, and filmmaker involved in making these films. Not just for the years we were directly involved, but for the last three decades. Without the initial inspiration of their groundbreaking conception, no one would give a flying hoot about any design that’s come out of MTV.
Update: I just got around to editing a new compilation of the IDs, using better quality video sources and adding more spots.
Everything’s always hard at a start-up. Even T-shirts. Believe it or not, even at MTV.
The first time doing everything is torture, and in an organization, it’s organizational torment. No matter who’s in charge of what, everyone wants a say in everything. After all, we want to put our best foot forward to the world, don’t we? So, even a T-shirt (maybe, especially a T-shirt) becomes a matter of earth shattering importance.
I don’t think we’d even launched the channel —we’re probably talking July, 1981— when we realized we needed a T for some trade show or other. And honestly, we didn’t know how MTV worked yet. The vibe hadn’t really started, and we hadn’t finished much of any of the actual on-air work yet. The VJ’s were rehearsing and a set had been built (definitely not the vibe), and we had a logo (barely), but we didn’t really know how the logo worked yet. We knew about the changing colors and all, but nothing else. Our network IDs would explain it to us, but they were still being produced, and our promos were still a mess. The graphic identity was unformed and we wouldn’t understand our own work for over a year.
I’m not sure who designed the shirt, maybe Manhattan Design, the visionaries behind the logo. Alan Goodman, my key creative partner, had written the copy (“You’ll never look at music the same way again.”) for our first pitch tape that spring, and in lieu of anything else (“I Want My MTV” was still a year away) it was our key shout out.
This shirt only lasted for a couple of minutes before the "real" t-shirt came into being. (Don’t ask me why the new one was better, but it lasted for a year or more.)
What’s in a T-shirt? Not much, but, really, everything. We all love this thing.
There were very few “ideas” for spots I could claim as mine at MTV. Identifying talent and strategy were my strengths, and I felt from there everything else would flow. But this spot was different; it’s the one for which I feel complete ownership.
Bob Pittman wanted there to be a signal identification at the top and bottom of each and every hour of MTV: Music Television, where the VJ would identify the most important music videos in that half hour. We agreed it would be voice over animation, with stills IDing the songs.
But, what should the animation be? It had to be memorable, repeatable, and not drive a viewer completely crazy. After all, it was going to play almost 17,000 times every year. And we had only 90 days until launch.
It seemed to me MTV had the most stuck up and conceited view of ourselves. We were completely enamored of the fact that we had no TV shows on our TV networks (a new “show” every three minutes, when a new video started). That was world changing, right? (Well, not really. CNN beat us to it. But we conveniently forgot about that.)
My mentor Dale Pon had introduced me to the treasure trove of free images and film from NASA, a public government entity which we all “owned” as US citizens. It would be an inexpensive source of public domain video for us. As a start-up —no one was really sure this thing would work except us— we needed all the financial short-cuts we could find.
"Space is very rock’n’roll," said senior producer Marcy Brafman.
This spot was going to be our most important. There would be over 30 changing video pieces every hour (music videos, promos, VJs, and commercials) and this would be the only thing all day that was constant. It would get a lot of scrutiny.
So, I thought the “top of the hour” spot should do it’s job and reflect our conceit, be inexpensive, and use our ever changing logo. Oh right, it had to have that indefinable rock attitude.
I thought the simplest way to combine all that stuff was to steal the shine from an already existing piece of video. Let’s take the most famous television moment ever and fold, spindle, and mutilate it to our nefarious purposes.
Our brainstorming turned up some famous, or really infamous, stuff. The biggest one we thought about was the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting by Jack Ruby that was live on television in 1963. Aside from it’s wrongness, it occurred to me that it was only an American moment. We were claiming that MTV would be “the world’s first video music channel.” We needed a world moment.
Right then it came to me. In the summer of ‘69 I was traveling behind the Iron Curtain with my family on the day of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. The streets of dirt poor Sofia, Bulgaria were chocked with walkers looking for apartments with televisions to witness this seemingly impossible achievement of man. Truly, the most memorable worldwide event in TV history.
Let’s cop it, I figured. The worst that could happen is that a generation of kids would grow up wondering why NASA photoshopped in an American flag with MTV’s used to be.
Alan Goodman and I enlisted Buzz Potamkin’s Perpetual Motion Pictures (soon to be Buzzco) to put together the spot. David Sameth produced for Buzz, Candy Kugel illustrated and directed (logos originally designed and illustrated by Manhattan Design), and music was by John Petersen and Jonathan Elias at Elias/Peterson.
By the way, this version of the spot never ran. The day before launch the lawyers informed me we needed, and would never receive, permission from astronaut Neil Armstrong to use his quotation. For launch night only —midnight, August 1, 1981— one of our big bosses did a voice over. John Lack, the executive vice president of our parent, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, who’s idea had been the seed from which MTV grew, announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, rock’n’roll.” John, a huge music fan was proud of his role in jump starting this phase of the evolution. And from 1 a.m. until the very end, the rocket blast sounded with only a ‘beep beep beep’ in place of Mr. Armstrong.
The spot ran more than 75,000 times, more than 15,000 each year, through variations of animation and music. Now, it’s sense memory DNA is left in the “Moonman” award from the VMAs (the idea of Manhattan Design's Frank Olinsky, I believe); no one in the audience knows why it exists. It was only retired, tragically, on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger Shuttle exploded in mid-air. The end of the first space era.
This story’s shorter. A couple of months after the network launch, Bob promoted me to Vice President, MTV’s first (a big deal in those pre-title inflationary days); I was probably whining too much about how hard I was working. He put together a huge congratulatory event and asked Alan to make some video just for the party. He asked director Steve Oakes and producer Peter Rosenthal at Broadcast Arts in Washington DC to modify one of the awesome claymation spots they’d made for us. They put a plasticine me in the spot and ignobly ran me over. I got what I deserved.
My promotion party, October 1981. That’s my boss, Bob Pittman, to my right.
I came upon this photo on Flickr of the first MTV bumper sticker (part of a 1981 pre-launch promotional package that included a duffel bag, poster, buttons, and this) and a few trivia things about pricked by attention, completely aside from the fact that it was ‘the first.’
The first approved MTV logo design & colors
• The logo:
Like with everything at the beginning of a venture, everyone thinks they’re an expert. And when it came to the MTV logo, which broke almost every rule in the book, there were even more opinions as to what was wrong with it, and what could be changed to make it right.
In this case, there were many who believed you couldn’t read ‘Music Television’ on the logo design. And that would be tragic; people wouldn’t know what we were! So, they asked me to have the designers to “fix it.” Manhattan Designcame up with a decent solution, which was only used this once; expand and extend ‘Music Television’ BIG, for those who couldn’t read.
• “On cable.”:
Almost no one in America knew what cable television was in 1981, and if they did, they thought it was synonymous with HBO (or “the Home Box” as many put it); fewer than 500,000 homes could get MTV when it launched. We had to tell people where to see this weird all music television thing. Was it on CBS? Channel 13? Where?
• “In stereo”:
"A television is a metal box which a crappy speaker in the side," said the company’s first president.
Hard to believe, but no television sets could play programs in stereo in 1981. We were selling MTV to a generation that only wanted the quality of stereo (hell, we were that generation) and we knew it was a technological must.
We went really far to do this do. “In stereo” was one of the top “promises” we made on the air, producing hundreds of wacky promos to prove our point. Since no TV’s had two speakers, we created our own kit where you could link your stereo record player to your set (“You Can Make Your TV Stereo!!!” named by Alan Goodman), which was sold locally through the cable operator (another way for them to make some dough during a time that was no so assured in the cable biz).
And the music itself. The videos came to us with an believably bad, mono, audio track; it hadn’t mattered to the music companies up until then, the videos were mainly for play on international television stations, even more technically backwards than ours. Andy Setos, the head of the engineering team, went in an re-synced every single one of the clips from a stereo audio master, and, if necessary, took an LP (an LP!!) for the sync. Geez.
On May 5, 1980 I lucked into my first job in television —cable television— at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC). Within 30 days programming head Bob Pittman started putting together the team to launch ‘The Music Channel’ (the working name for what eventually became MTV) and had me add to my existing duties as the head of promotion for The Movie Channel and work on music television too.
We had an incredible team to develop the image and vocabulary for the network. Against all odds, the unique logo, network IDs, and promos set the look and sound for the media over the next 20 years. Eventually, my departments included promotion, studio production, programming, advertising, and creative services.
Mike was first hand proof that talent, planning, vision, drive, hard work, and sheer force of will could combine to accomplish dreams beyond anyone’s expectations. He didn’t have any particular interest, I think, in showing me much of anything really, but he was an incredible role model, trying to keep his family’s heads above water, struggling against all odds to be viable fringe artists in a highly commercial world. It was a time in my life that would never be repeated, and one that made a huge difference to me.
Mike would probably recoil at the whole idea of mentorship —by now, we’re probably more like friends or something— but I don’t know what else to call it. He was already a young legend in avant-garde jazz when, as a naive 18 year old, I crashed my first professional recording session he was producing, his then wife Carla Bley's “Escalator Over the Hill,” He patiently figured I was a friend of one of the superstar orchestra’s if he even noticed my presence. I went on to play their records on college radio, and then he and Carla trusted me right out of school to work at their innovative artist record distribution service (itself an outgrowth of their incredible, idealistic collective, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, JCOA). I wasn’t too impressed with the job I did, but a few years later Mike asked me to be the sound man and assistant roadie on Carla’s first big band tours. It was an unforgetable experience not only for the music, but for the pride with which Mike managed the unruly, artistic bunch they’d gathered. I repayed them after a year by ducking out days before our first European tour (a real loss on my part), but it didn’t stop us from staying friendly for the 30 years since.
Thanks Mike, you made a real difference in my struggle to become a professional adult.
…… It wouldn’t be right to talk about Mike without mentioning some of his stunning work. His music isn’t for everyone (on his website he quotes one reviewer saying “’Silence' is possibly the least listenable record I have ever heard”) and requires a dedicated listener, but the rewards are great. Aside from his playing and composing, Mike was no slouch as a producer either. He always knew to not only get the very best musicians, but that it didn't hurt if they had name value for sales (check out Robert Wyatt, Jack Bruce, Don Cherry, Jack DeJohnette, Pharoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and Don Preston, among many others). Here's a few worth checking out:
Somehow or other I ended up in Joe’s office (above the West 71st Street Bagel Nosh) in 1976 asking for a gig “producing” records (like I even knew what that was). Joe, in his always enthusiastic way, happily gave me an immediate assignment (I think it was the first Linc Chamberland LP), and for the next three or four years I was a willing student in his unintended record business class.
(For those who won’t read the Wikipedia entry, Joe started Muse in the early-70s after a long stint at Buddah Records where he started an in-house jazz label Cobblestone. It was a label of jazz “blowing” sessions, meaning it was primarily mainstream jazz artists who’d come in the studio and in two union sessions –six hours– record enough material for a complete album. Muse Records was among the last of its breed, in a day where themostreveredmainstreamers had gone corporate. The result was an unparalleled 20+ year archive of jazz in America from 1972-1995. And Joe continues to add to the legacy with HighNote Records.)
I won’t bore you with all the things I got out of those “lessons,” but suffice it to say that Joe had forgotten more than I would ever know. How to pick an artist? How to promote? What to ignore? How to negotiate? What’s important, what’s not? When’s a good time to take a chance? Who was Juggy Murray? What was ‘producing’ anyhow?
Joe introduced me to the real world. Without him I never would’ve gotten to work with 24 track recording, or get to meet the legendary Rudy Van Gelder. To say nothing of the artists like Hank Jones, Willis Jackson, Jaki Byard, or the others. And, he didn’t mean to change my musical tastes —I’m sure it was of no consequence to him whatsoever— but I walked in dedicated avant gardist and walked out a lifelong soul jazz devotee. (Soul jazz didn’t only sell better and longer, but was a lot more fun.)
There was a lot of history in Joe that I just soaked up and it was always fun dropping by the office just to listen to him on the telephone, working it with an artist, a studio, or maybe a distributor or radio station. Things that were second nature to him were golden to my uneducated ears, and I just couldn’t get enough. My only complaint is that I wanted more. More projects, more time, and more money. Mainly more projects, because they were just so much fun. But, I was going broke on the $250 a record he was paying me, though I now know if he paid me anything more he would’ve gone out of business. Lesson #1, being a survivor in the independent record business is never easy, and probably requires you to disappoint almost everyone wanting a better payday.
It was at a disastrous Muse session in Brooklyn that I called my friend, Muse liner notewriter, and future partner Alan Goodman to come and help me figure out whether to stop trying to make a living at record producing and try my hand in the then revolution of cable television. You know who won.
Working with Muse Records was a once in a lifetime, unforgetable experience. Not all the records I worked on for Joe were wonderful. And some were beyond fantastic, truly world class. But, no matter the project, it was a rare privilege Joe Fields allowed me.
Joe was, and continues to be, a generous man. Thanks guy, I couldn’t be a producer without you.
A little known fact about MTV Networks (originally called Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, a second little known fact) was that its original strategy called for the eventual launch of ten networks. They thought about games and sports, in addition to music, movies, and kids; their fourth one was to be shopping. As the company’s creative director, my team went to work in the Spring of 1982.
Before Home Shopping Network there was to be ShopAmerica, the world’s first all shoppping TV channel. After all, the half owner of the company was American Express; that’s why they invested in cable television, after all.
There are a lot of network development levels that are too boring to go into (and the minute HSN launched it was clear how our strategy would have failed), but since I’ve always loved working on logos and branding I hung onto our attempts for ShopAmerica. George Lois and my mentor, Dale Pon, art directed for their agency LPG/Pon.
The ME Tapes: Sonicnet.com campaign compilation, 2000 (from VHS)
MTV got Sonicnet in the middle of another transaction they thought would be more important. But as the internet heated up in the business world’s consciousness, Sonicnet.com became something they thought to pay attention to. Which meant that, as president of MTV Networks Online, I was trying to help make the thing successful.
MTV had also acquired a then-unique personalized radio application. Coupled with Sonicnet, we decided an ad campaign would supercharge the site, something large media folks like us thought was necessary. It wasn’t.
Sisqo, kd lang, Moby, Johnny Resnick, Don Henley, Beenie Man, Sheryl Crow
Over a few objections, I hired my brilliant, challenging mentor Dale Pon to create our campaign. Dale had done our the iconic “I Want My MTV” for me in the early 1980s and constantly proved himself to be the most creative and effective media ad man in America. The stunningly talented and perfectly musical director Tim Newman was already on our online staff (after turning his back on a career that included some ofthe greatestmusic videos of all time), so he was really the only person who we thought could direct the spots.
Gang Starr, SheDaisy, Blink 182, Moby, Charlotte Church, Ruff Ryders, Eve, Sting
You can see for yourself that Dale knew how conceive big ideas to bring out the best from stars, and, he really knew how to reach for the stars (like Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Joshua Bell, Jewel, Pat Metheny, Sheryl Crow, Beenie Man, Gang Starr, Faith Hill, Lindsey Buckingham, Don Henley, Al Jarreau, Alice Cooper, Blink 182, Kenny Wayne Shephard, Bon Jovi, Buck Cherry, Charlotte Church, Christina Acquilera, Dwight Yoakam, The Ruff Ryders, Eve, Johnny Resnick (The Goo Goo Dolls), kd lang, Buck Cherry, Kelis, Lindsey Buckingham, Melissa Etheridge, Moby, Seal, Sisqo, Static X, SheDaisy, Hillary Hahn, Charlotte Church, Yo Yo Ma, and Sting.)
James Brown, Christina Acquilera, Sting, Yo Yo Ma, Dwight Yoakam, Isaac Hayes, Sheryl Crow, Blink 182
At the time, it seemed like a horrible mistake. And like mistakes sometimes can, it led to a new, uncharted, wonderful life.
It was the beginning of the peaking of “the internet” 1.0, which, honestly, I wanted nothing to do with “the internet.” I liked email, I liked Amazon.com. But I also liked the career I had staked out producing cartoons and media consulting. I was 48 years old, gotten married again, had a couple of kids. And felt like I’d finally settled into to doing something pretty well. I didn’t really want to start over with something new, no matter how exciting. Really.
However, to make a long story short, I succumbed. In 1999, after seven years in Los Angeles, my family and I moved to New York, and I became the president of MTV Networks Online, which included MTV.com and Nick.com. Joining a constantly innovating media as part of an established media company —no matter how fresh they may have been back in the day— was exactly the wrong way to go. And “go” I did. Within a year I was back to producing and consulting. But, I’d never be the same again —the whole world wouldn’t be— and, at least I got a head start on all of my old media pals.
But, great things came out of the experience. For instance, the campaign for MTV’s website Sonicnet.com (which I’ll write about elsewhere). I got some new friendships, especially my partnership with engineer/thinker Emil Rensing (which eventually led to us foundingNext New Networks). Most importantly, I gained a new perspective on everything media, right into the belly of the beast of the new I tried to avoid. My innate curiosity paid off once again.
I’ve been starting companies since I was a kid, some of them successes and many of them failures. (The first serious one was in 1970, the blues and jazz record label Oblivion Records with my great friend and partner Tom Pomposello [and, for a bit, Dick Pennington]; it was a classic creative success and business bust.) I’ve been through music recording, TV & film production, advertising, and food journalism. Even underground comics and chocolate bars.
Rounding the corner at 50 years old I promised myself (and more importantly my wife, my most incisive —and most beautiful— business advisor) to focus on my cartoon business which had been taking off with its first big hit. Mostly, I’ve stuck to that priority. (“Mostly” because, as a long time media executive, I treated our cartoons in the broader context of media which led us, like everyone else, into the internet.) Right now, we’ve got several companies in our direct portfolio.
I’ve already failed at book publishing twice. In 1997 I impulsively tried to help save a publisher I’d admired from afar and bought a controlling interest in the pioneering underground comix company Kitchen Sink Press when they were in trouble. Nothing about my involvement helped their troubles. Then, in 2005, a partner and I started Bolder Books for Boys & Girls, a picture book venture with Random House Kids. We released two really nice books, but I found the interaction with major publishers frustrating and ultimately unproductive.
The sirens of books keep calling. In the spring of 2013 we launched Frederator Books. Digital only, kids at first, we’ll try again.
In 2007, after Channel Frederator broke new ground as the internet’s first cartoon podcast, I founded the media company Next New Networks; right now it’s America’s most successful independent internet TV company. At first with my partner Emil Rensing, and then with co-founders Herb Scannell, Tim Shey, and Jed Simmons, we’re on our way to launching 101 online TV networks, for specialized communities ranging from automotive to fashion to entertainment.
Sawhorse Media are young, New York based content and journalism innovators, who are already on their way to great success with Muck Rack the Shorty Awards. I’m proud to be their first investor and board member.
Justin Johnson is an independent filmmaker who was the first creative employee at Next New Networks in the 2000s (intro’d to me by Elepath's Jake Lodwick). He was the world’s first video blogger and has innovated in the medium since he was 17 years old. Towards the end of his Next New tenure he created the very cool iOS app Video Time Machine, which aside from being a lot of fun starts to point the way towards an internet television future.
Alan Goodman and I met at WKCR-FM, our college radio station, in 1970; we’ve been the greatest of friends and collaborators ever since. We tagged team each other on personal work projects for the next 10 years, and Alan was the person I turned to for guidance the night I made the decision to turn away from record production and move into cable TV. Six months later Alan joined me at MTV Networks.
For three years we helped turn the television world upside down and then we’d had enough. In April 1983 we booked the corporate life and set up Fred/Alan, Inc. (figuring all of our clients would have to be old to get the joke). At the start we thought the company would produce TV shows and movies; in fact the precipitating event that caused us to quit our jobs was a deal to make a music video show for The Playboy Channel.
The First TV Branding Company But the thing that capapulted Fred/Alan was what turned out to be our innovative network branding work for MTV; no one had really thought about television the same way before. In quick succession we were able to develop and launch all the key MTV networks (Nickelodeon, VH-1: Video Hits One, HA! The TV Comedy Network, Comedy Central); and we virtually invented Nick-at-Nite, the very first oldies network). Most successfully, Fred/Alan was able to take Nickelodeon from worst to first in the ratings within six months and established their brand around the world (Alan and I have separately maintained relationships with Nick ever since).
Fred/Alan morphed into a full service advertising agency, adding media buying, print production, and account management to our creative and strategic capabilities. It was the first agency to brand itself as a demographically specialized company.
In 1989 we moved back into television series, setting up Chauncey Street Productions with our old friend Albie Hecht, and went on to produce hundreds of TV episodes for A&E, AMC, CBS, Comedy Central/HA!, MTV, Nickelodeon, and others.
But after a while we couldn’t take it anymore. Our branding approaches had become commodified as our more motivated former employees, the clients we had trained, and every graphic design firm all became media branding experts. We were turning down lucrative offers to buy the company since we knew it would require years more of servitude.
After many years together, Alan married my sister Elena in early 1992, and in February we announced the closing of Fred/Alan. Albie bought Chauncey Street, and Alan went on to become a successful writer/producer.
Willis Jackson single handedly pulled me away from the avant garde and towards the soulful, bluesy expression of jazz that was popular in the African-American neighborhoods of mid-century America. He didn’t try to, he didn’t mean to, he didn’t want to, it was just that he was so damn good.
In 1977, less a producer than a ‘recording supervisor’ (my credit on Single Action) I arrived at our first session together (In The Alley), and my first session for Muse Records, with virtually no information on what we were recording or who was playing. Willis was tough and a little paranoid and had no idea what to make of the skinny suburban white guy from the record company. He didn’t want to talk to me unless he had too and so I barely knew what was happening minute to minute during the six hour session. Until that day I’d never heard any of his music (it wasn’t cool enough within the jazzbo circles I traveled in) and when I looked into the studio I thought I’d been time warped into the 1950s: five African Americans 20 years older than me in conked processes and starched white shirts and ties. They hit the first tune and Willis looked up at me and asked if they had enough to fill the record, knowing full well he didn’t; he started packing his horn up to psyche me out. By the end of five tunes I told him we were eight minutes short; he revved up a blues and kept it going until I faded it to make the length.
By the end of the six hour session I’d stopped making fun (in my head) of the tenor saxophone/organ based soul jazz, and realized why it spoke to so many millions of people. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise but a human one. They were playing songs that people knew and loved, with a feeling that anyone could understand. I was late to the party, but it wouldn’t be over for me even 30 years later.
I got a call in 1977 from trumpeter, composer, Carla Bley major domo Mike Mantler, asking whether I’d be interested in going on the road for the first tour of The Carla Bley Band as sound man and back-up tour manager. Mike single handedly ran the whole shebang, but one man could only do so much. Since he’d be playing in the band, someone needed to do the rest during the shows. I’d known Carla and Mike for much of the decade and we’d already worked well together at their non-profit New Music Distribution Service. Carla was an clearly an extraordinary composer (her “Ida Lupino" continues to be a favorite of mine in almost every interpretation), an irrepressible personality, and probably a great bandleader. Besides, they were offering me the most money I’d ever made.
I’d always wanted a road gig, but the closest I’d ever gotten was turning down the Blue Öyster Cult (mine was never really a rock’n’roll personality), so I had a hoot. Over a few tours I got to work daily with musicians as great and diverse as Roswell Rudd, Terry Adams, Don Preston, Blue Gene Tyranny, Philip Wilson, George Lewis, and Gary Windo. Never too crazy, never too normal, it was an unbeatable experience to tour North America before I quick-turned into media full time.
Prepping for our first European Tour I commissioned a tour T-shirt from my high school friend, designer Mark Larson. As they were coming off the press and we were heading up to Woodstock for rehearsal, my freelance radio boss Dale Pon called and demanded I move with him to Los Angeles to re-launch a radio station. Over a three hour period he cajoled and screamed and persuaded me to change the rest of my life. I hated to miss the shows, and Mike and Carla were none too happy with me, but the future beckoned.
When I thought I might make a living as a record producer I kept obsessive track of my sessions, hoping they’d add up to a career. When I morphed into a television producer, I forgot just about everything. I’ve tried to recreate my record life here, but I’ll update it as I remember more. (Just click the linkable titles, and you’ll be able to play the entire records.)
When I was made President of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons in 1992 the wolves came out of the woodwork. Insults started hurling in my direction immediately:
“The animation is so crummy.”
“They ruined the business.”
“How come the same tree keeps showing up in the backgrounds?”
What a crock!
Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones were two of my favorite characters of all time, and along with Yogi, Magilla, Quick Draw and the others for me the studio had defined a silver age of cartooning. It annoyed me to no end the conventional wisdom though otherwise.
It took me a while to realize that throughout the history of the company, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had spent their time producing cartoons and pretty much ignored their image, the result being that their competitors defined what the world thought of them. It was past time for a change.
When Bill Burnett joined the company as Creative Director, his first assignment was to write a series of essays which would define some of the unique qualities that made Hanna-Barbera a special place that made special cartoons. He did an incredible job and we used his essays whenever we could to re-position people’s thoughts about the studios.
Ted Turner sold the company before we could get more than a handful finished. Here they are; I hope they’ll explain some of the reasons I care so much for Hanna-Barbera.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally heard Hanna-Barbera criticized for “cheapening” the art of cartoons by inventing a technique for television called “limited animation”.
Here’s the true story: When theatrical cartoons were on death’s door, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera single-handedly (or, rather, double-handily) rescued cartoons from oblivion. As a cartoon blues man might say, “If it wasn’t for limited animation, we wouldn’t have no animation at all.”
Seven Oscars weren’t enough. In 1957 Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were veteran cartoon directors with over forty years experience between them. These two men had created the cartoon cat and mouse team, Tom & Jerry. (That’s tantamount to having “invented” Abbot & Costello.) They had won seven Oscars with Tom & Jerry, more than anybody else in cartoon history.
But in the mid fifties none of that mattered anymore. Television had arrived. The theatrical market for cartoons had dried up. And MGM, where Hanna and Barbera had risen to the rank of executive producers, suddenly closed up shop without warning. Overnight, Bill and Joe found themselves out of work, along with virtually all of their cartoon colleagues in Hollywood.
Never say die. But these two cartoonists refused to go gently into th-th-th-th-that’s all folks. They started a studio, and figured out a way to make cartoons viable for television. You think that’s easy? Consider this: The “full animation” cartoons that Hanna and Barbera made at MGM took six months per seven minute episode, with budgets that often exceeded $60,000. Now they had to create thirty minutes of cartoon material every week, with budgets that were half the size of what they used to spend to make a single short!
They had a plan. How did they do it? They called upon the “planned” animation technique they had developed to test out new Tom & Jerry cartoons at MGM. Instead of making twenty or thirty thousand drawings, a planned or “limited” cartoon only used 2 or 3 thousand drawings. Now Hanna and Barbera had to make this “planned” approach work for them on actual cartoons. They adopted the minimalist cartoon style which was becoming popular at the time, with its simple lines and suggested backgrounds, and turned it to their advantage. They made backgrounds that could be used in multiple scenes; cloud formations that worked whether the action was going up, down, or sideways; characters with “muzzles” so only their mouths had to be animated; characters that blinked a lot, to enhance the illusion of motion.
Shooting stars. And to keep the entertainment value of their TV cartoons high, Hanna and Barbera turned up the burners on their imaginations. With Tom & Jerry they had worked with the same characters over and over, dreaming up different cat and mouse gags each time. Now these men in their late forties responded to the challenge of their careers by bringing out an avalanche of vivid, hilarious, new cartoon stars and stories.
Ruff & Reddy, Pixie & Dixie, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw (and his alter ego El Kabong), Topcat, Magilla Gorilla, Snagglepuss, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Space Ghost …the list goes on and on. (Oh, and let’s not forget the most successful television cartoon team of all time, The Flintstones.)
In the list above I’ve barely scratched the surface of what sprang from the imaginations of Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, and the other great cartoon talents they assembled at their studio in the fifties and sixties.
Stories, characters, ingenuity, and a dedication to the cartoon cause. That’s how Hanna-Barbera rescued cartoons from death’s door. Anybody who says different will have to answer to El Kabong! (I wouldn’t risk it if I were you.)
"Limited Animation…Unlimited Imagination" Essay #1 (of 15) Original essay written by Bill Burnett, Creative Director, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, 1993-1996
Among the many amazing accomplishments of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera is the fact that, in their late forties, after years of doing Tom & Jerry cartoons at MGM, they created a new studio with a distinct house style. The vivid Hanna-Barbera color palette, character designs, layout, background art, sound effects and music are unique and instantly recognizable. How many other studios can make that claim? (Answer: Only two—and they both feature rodents with big ears.)
What’s more, when Bill and Joe opened their studio doors in the late fifties, the Hanna-Barbera style emerged pretty much full-blown. It bore no resemblance to the work these two cartoonists had done in the past. And yet, there was next to no transition time, no period of trial and error. Certainly the style improved over the years. But a Huckleberry Hound from the fifties could wander into a frame next to Magilla Gorilla in the sixties and not feel out of place.
Imagine a musician, or a novelist, or a fine artist totally reinventing themselves that late in life. It’s almost unheard of. And yet Hanna and Barbera pulled it off, and in the process created the largest cartoon library in the world!
"Is There A Style In The House?" Essay #2 (of 15) Original essay written by Bill Burnett, Creative Director, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, 1993-1996