The Popdose Interview: Celebrating the Early Years of MTV With Greg Prato
With so many different tools for music discovery at our fingertips these days (particularly the many internet options that change continually as technology progresses) it’s easy to take for granted that things weren’t always that way. The emergence of MTV (which at the time stood for “music television,” remember that?) was a serious game changing development for music fans. For many years, it was the DJ on the radio and the knowledgeable clerk behind the counter at the record store who were the prime dealers of the latest musical drugs we so desperately craved as young and developing music aficionados.
MTV changed all of that and not only put a face on the DJs (to be referred to from this point forward as “VJs,” meaning “video jockey”), it additionally took music from being an often faceless experience to being completely in your face, 24 hours a day. With the release of MTV Ruled The World: The Early Days of Music Video, author Greg Prato has written a amazingly comprehensive oral history featuring over 70 interviews with both the talent from that era of MTV and a plethora of the A-list artists featured on the channel during the time period. Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Ann Wilson of Heart, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Daryl Hall and John Oates and Jerry Casale of Devo are just a few of the many artists that spoke with Prato for the book.
And that’s just one of the two books that Greg Prato published at the end of last year. The Eric Carr Story finally delivers the first extensive career summary and analysis of KISS drummer Eric Carr to be published in print (and additionally, it includes one of the final interviews with legendary KISS manager Bill Aucoin). The book functions not only as an in-depth exploration of his life and musical artistry, but also as a fascinating view of the oft-condemned ’80s period of KISS music and what it was like to be a KISS fan during the era. Greg and I conversed recently about both books and you can now read the results of that conversation here, so let’s dig in.
For those who are unfamiliar, what’s your background as a writer and what are you up to when you’re not writing books?
I’ve been a writer since 1997. I’ve written for All-Music Guide, RollingStone.com, Classic Rock Magazine – primarily those three. About three years ago, I started writing books. The first one was A Devil On One Shoulder, An Angel On The Other, which was a book about Shannon Hoon and also Blind Melon. And I’ve done a few books since then – in 2009 I did Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, for which I interviewed members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice of Chains – all of those bands. And my latest two books are The Eric Carr Story, which is about KISS’s former drummer and also MTV Ruled The World, which is about the early years of MTV from about 1981 through 1986.
You’ve now done a total of five books with Lulu.com – how hard was it for you to make that initial leap from being a journalist to the idea of doing a full blown book and how did you arrive at the decision to self-publish.
Well, I look at self-publishing as kind of the DIY stuff that was going on in the ’80s with all of the record labels like SST and those types of labels. It’s gotten to the point now that the only way you could even get in contact with a main publisher is if you have an agent – they won’t even return your phone calls if you don’t have an agent. And even someone like me, not to toot my horn, but I’ve written for RollingStone.com, All-Music Guide, so my name is somewhat out there. And even I couldn’t get major publishers to get back to me because I just didn’t have agent. I’m sure there are good agents out there, but the few agents that I’ve dealt with have been schlubs. [laughs]
So, like I was saying, I think self-publishing is really a great opportunity – it’s really giving the power back to the author, not just some publisher who’s just going to put in a minimal [effort], I mean not that all publishers are like this, but it also reminds me too a few years ago what it was like with the record companies. It was just a bunch of record companies that are getting big and fat on money and then suddenly the whole entire industry got turned upside down and now it’s totally changed. And I think the same is [true] with publishing, I think that self-publishing is a really great thing. As well as files, people are able to read stuff on Kindle and lots of those types of things. So I think that the book publishing industry may be in for some rough times, just like the record companies were. Because it seems like that they’re kind of a little bit too old school and going by old rules and you constantly have to I think keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on. And from what I’ve seen, most publishers are just sticking to old rules, which I think is going to come back to bite them in the ass.
Does it surprise you how much publishers and record companies just aren’t getting it? Meanwhile, folks like yourself and also today’s bands are figuring out that they don’t need the support of the big company and that there is a different way.
That’s really the beauty of the net. It’s really given the power back to bands, just to put music up on sites. And also for publishers, for instance, the book that I did about Shannon Hoon, I actually reached out to several places and they all said “no, it’s not a big enough market and it’s not going to sell that way.” Meanwhile, it’s sold very, very well, like I’ve been getting feedback still to this day about how people really enjoy that book, so it really just comes down to if it’s something that you really believe in and that you really want to see succeed, you can always find a way to make it thrive and also be successful. It’s just hard work and putting your mind to it. If I always listened to people saying “well, this book wouldn’t sell,” then I probably never would have been a writer. Sometimes you just have to listen to your heart and go with your gut feeling.
You conducted a huge amount of interviews for both books, but for the MTV book especially. Start to finish, how long were you working on the MTV book?
Well, the MTV book and also the Eric Carr book, I started both of these in January 2010 and I had them both finished and ready to be sold, the 1st of December 2010. You know what it was, I kind of figured that both books ran somewhat similar timelines. Like I know Eric Carr was a member of KISS from 1980 to 1991 and the MTV book ran from 1981 to about 1986. So there’s a few instances where I was able to get interviews for both books, like for instance, I interviewed Bruce Kulick, who was the guitarist for KISS during that time and I also asked him some questions about the channel and also filming certain KISS videos. So I was able to do that type of thing. I guess was in an ’80s frame of mind too, so I guess that kind of also helped both of those books, so that’s basically what happened with them.
What was it about each subject that led you to commit to doing a book about it?
Well, I’ve been a KISS fan for a very long time. I’m not like a huge, huge KISS fanatic, like I don’t love everything that they’ve done ever, but I will stand by, I think that they’re great songwriters and I don’t think they get the credit really for how many great classic songs they’ve written over the years. Although my favorite KISS era is always the ’70s and my favorite lineup is always the first four guys, Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter, I always liked the album Creatures of the Night and that’s an album that Eric Carr played on. I really think his drumming is what made that album so special, it’s like a great John Bonham huge mammoth sound that he had with his drums and that was really a return for KISS, back to just straight ahead loud heavy metal.
Because prior to that, they were futzing around with disco songs and pop songs and concept albums and it seemed like they really didn’t know what the hell they were doing. But that album, Creatures of the Night, it really got them focused again. And I’ve just always wanted to read a book about Eric Carr, because there were a lot of rumors and things circulating, because he died in 1991 from cancer and there were always rumors that he might have been fired from the band, he may have still been in the band, he may not have been on good terms with Gene and Paul. I was able to I think really get for the first time, the real honest truth story, because I know Gene and Paul have gone on record with some of their past books, but it’s just like a one sided story with them, so I figured it was time to get the other side of the story, which I think I was able to do.
And then the book about MTV, from 1981 to 1986 is always my favorite era of that channel and it seems like a lot of the books that were out about it, never focused solely on that. It was always about the beginning, but it would go through the ’80s and ’90s and even up to today and talk about Britney Spears and Milli Vanilli and all of this shit that I didn’t care about. [laughs] So I really just wanted to focus on that specific era, which I thought was when MTV, there were certain things that were really great about it, such as really introducing videos to the States. Because videos are being played already in like Europe and things since the ’60s and ’70s, but it was really I think what put music videos on the map stateside.
Just like anything, there’s good and bad and people have criticized the channel, that they weren’t playing enough black artists at the time and I can definitely see that. This book doesn’t just totally, it’s not from beginning to end saying how great the channel was, it’s saying that there were certain things that were great about it and certain things that weren’t, just like pretty much anything in life. We have a chapter about people, just talking about how the channel came together, stories behind some of the most famous videos and also people talking about how they felt women were portrayed in videos, which weren’t really that great with a lot of the bands – like some of the heavy metal bands in particular in the ’80s and also how the channel at first wasn’t really playing enough black artists. So there’s chapters on that too, so I think it’s a well rounded book I think, both of them.
The MTV book exposed a few things that I wasn’t aware of, particularly the information about Todd Rundgren having an MTV channel-like idea prior to the existence of MTV was interesting. Was that something that you were aware of prior to starting work on the book?
You know, I think I may have read that. It sounded vaguely familiar before I started speaking to people because I’m such a huge fan of Todd Rundgren, but it was really upon speaking to Roger Powell, who was Todd’s keyboardist and also speaking to Todd, I think they finally were willing to go on record and explain how they came so close to pretty much launching a channel that was just like what eventually MTV became. It was just videos and was going to have VJs and things like that. So yeah, to the best of my knowledge, I think this may be one of the first places that it’s really discussed. I think actually Roger Powell talks about that there’s one Todd book that it’s talked about [Powell makes reference in Prato’s book to A Dream Goes On Forever – The Continuing Story of Todd Rundgren Vol 2: The Utopia Years by Billy James]. I think as far as books about the channel though, I’m pretty sure this is the first book about the channel that it’s really talked about.
As a fellow Rundgren fan, it really strikes me how he’s had some ideas like offering music downloads on the internet that might have not been right for the times, but a few years later, he really looked like a genius. He’s really pioneered some interesting concepts.
There are very few people who I think that are as multi-talented as he is, as far as being able to play so many instruments, write great songs and also be a visionary with all of this type of stuff and also of course being a great producer. He’s produced so many hit albums and things like that. He definitely marches to the tune of his own beat, you could say.
There’s a few people that you didn’t get a chance to talk to for this book and knowing that Martha Quinn shares management with some of the people that you did talk to for the book, what’s the story behind her absence?
Yeah, I tried to interview Mark Goodman and also Martha Quinn. And in fact, Alan Hunter and Nina Blackwood, who were the two VJs I did speak to, they both even reached out to both of them, sent emails and I don’t know if they called, but they never heard back. They even sent me their personal emails and I even emailed Martha and also Mark and I tried to get in contact with them, I [also] tried through Facebook and didn’t hear back. From what I understand, I think Martha may be working on her own book, but I’m not 100% sure about that. With Mark Goodman, I’m not too sure why he didn’t get back to me. And also of course, I couldn’t speak to J.J. Jackson, because he passed away. I was able to get two really good interviews though with Alan and Nina, which I think adds a lot to the book. And it’s not that Mark and Martha aren’t mentioned in the book, they definitely are mentioned in the book and people talk about their personalities and memories about working with them. So I think even though they weren’t interviewed for the book, you definitely can get a pretty good taste of what their contribution was to the channel and what they were up to at that point, working for MTV.
The folks that you did talk to for this book are great and things go pretty deep with guys like Oran “Juice” Jones. Now that’s a song that comes up every now and then on my Ipod, but most people probably haven’t even thought of Oran “Juice” Jones since the ’80s! If I was putting together an MTV book, I don’t know that my first thought would have been that Oran “Juice” Jones is probably out there somewhere and I can probably get to him.[Laughs] Well, I have to say, I think that that video is an absolute work of art. I think that and also the Billy Squier video for “Rock Me Tonite,” those are probably two of my favorite videos. Those are absolute works of art that should be honored some place. I think that those two videos are just flawless, personally. And I think if people are not familiar with those two videos, they really owe it to themselves to go on the net and just really watch these videos carefully, because you’re going to learn a lot about life.
And if you didn’t see those two videos, I’m not sure that you can say that you actually saw MTV in the ’80s, because those videos were on all of the time!
Exactly. Basically, why I got in contact with Oran “Juice” Jones is because I wanted to speak to some rap artists from the time. I reached out to some and I was able to get a few and a few, I never heard back from or couldn’t get. And also again, with this type of book, I wanted to speak to some of the biggest stars, some of the one-hit wonders, people that liked MTV, people that hated MTV, people that worked for MTV, bands – I wanted to get a pretty wide variety of people. So that’s why I interviewed for this book, everyone from Stewart Copeland and Joe Elliott, all the way to Oran “Juice” Jones, Tommy Tutone – it’s a pretty wide variety of people.
Out of everybody that you talked to, who were you surprised to land and who was your most difficult subject to nail down for an interview?
Well, Stewart Copeland was a really great interview, as was Gerry Casale from the band Devo – he didn’t hold back anything – he was very honest and he had great story after great story and he was really, really funny. Also, Pete Angelus, who directed the Van Halen videos like “Hot For Teacher” and some of the early David Lee Roth solo videos, he was great and he told great stories, specifically about being on the set of the Van Halen videos – they were great. Also, the director of Michael Jackson’s videos – Bob Giraldi, he was a great interview as well. Those people in particular had a lot of great stories. Also, Jello Biafra had a lot of cool thoughts and things as to what he didn’t like about the channel, so he I think added to it. As far as who was hard to get – I know Rick Springfield was a little difficult to get, just because he was coming out with his own book at exactly the same time I was working on it, so I just think he was maybe concerned that we were going to go over a lot of the same stuff in his book. But I just explained to his PR person that it was just strictly going to be about the channel, it wasn’t going to be about his whole career. So once they found out about that, they had no problem with that.
Obviously ’81 to ’86 was kind of the glory period for MTV – based on the response to this book so far, would you have interest in doing a second up volume that covers through the early ’90s?
It’s possible, but honestly my favorite era was always that specific era, ’81 through ’86, because that was for the most part, before MTV got so formulated and so strict with their playlists as to like, they’d have shows like Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes. Back then, it was more similar to a Sirius satellite station or even like a free-form radio station, that you get a little bit of everything. You could just soak it all in, it wasn’t so much like well I’m going to watch from 5 to 5:30 and see rap videos or I’m going to watch from 3 to 4 and see metal videos, it was all just a huge hodge podge of styles and that’s what I think really made the channel so special originally. I mean, I won’t say that no, I won’t ever do a second book, because that’s always a possibility, but for right now I’m pretty satisfied with the book focusing on just ’81 through ’86 at this point.
I think one of the nice things about both of these books as that they’re focusing on subjects that haven’t been covered to death. Particularly Eric Carr, who I think some would argue has never gotten his proper due, so The Eric Carr Story does a nice job of covering that and at the same time, does a good job of covering the ’80s era of KISS, which has been a controversial area of discussion for music fans. To write a book about Eric and that era really is something that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, again I would say that ’70s KISS is definitely my favorite, but I think they had some pretty good songs in the ’80s, specifically that Creatures of the Night album, I still listen to today. I think my top KISS albums, I think 4 or 5 are going to be albums from the ’70s, but Creatures is definitely in that top 5 – it’s definitely a great record.
You’ve got quotes from his girlfriend and his sister – overall was the family fairly supportive of the book?
Yes. The first person I reached out to was Loretta, which is his sister, she was the first person. That’s usually what I do actually with the majority of my books, like the Shannon Hoon book, I reached out to the band. I did a book about Tommy Bolin and I reached out to his brother. With the book about Eric, I reached out to his sister, so these books will turn out a lot better if you can speak to their family and get their approval and that they could also help you out. It’s obviously going to be a lot easier with also getting interviews, pictures and things like that. So I spoke to Loretta first and she was a great, great help. And I believe she was the first person also I did a phone interview with for the book as well. From there, she would tell me people I should speak to, I would tell her [things] like I remember reading that Mike Portnoy for instance was a friend of Eric’s and I don’t know if she even knew that, so I was able to get in contact with him. The same was also true with Charlie Benante of Anthrax – I just remembered reading back then who Eric was friends with as far as people and bands.
Mentioning Mike Portnoy, it’s interesting watching Mike and other interview subjects dissect particular albums and controversial things like The Elder in a roundtable sort of fashion and the range of opinions that come out in that process.
That’s honestly something, that’s a compliment that I get with a pretty good amount of my books. People say that they find it very interesting that with a lot of my books, I always try to have both sides to the story, because I always feel like that there are two sides to the story. There’s always going to be someone thinking something is the greatest thing on earth and then there’s another person that’s going to think it sucks, so you might as well hear both views and then you can come to your own conclusion.
Your conversations with Bob Graw add a real fanboy perspective to the book and one of his quotes that really stuck with me was “if you wore a KISS t-shirt, you got punched.” There’s a lot of quotes from Bob throughout the book that you can really just pick your favorite. From reading his quotes, I’m not going to argue it, but what makes Bob the number one KISS fan – is that self-proclaimed?[Laughs] Bob is a guy that I’ve known since about 1984 and his loyalty to KISS has never ever wavered. Honestly, I’ve gone in out of liking KISS and not listening to KISS, but he’s always stayed very, very true to them. KISS is a huge part of his life, even to this day. I think in his house, he has one room that is nothing but KISS stuff. And as the picture of him that I have in the book shows, he has the KISS Army tattoo on his forearm, so if that’s not being a huge, huge KISS fan, I don’t know what the hell is. And he’s like a KISS encyclopedia – he knows years, track listings of albums, who was producing, who should have produced, who tried out in what year to replace what member. I was just lucky to basically have been friends with him, so it was easy for me to get him and tell him what I was doing and say yeah, I think you can definitely add to this book. Because I was speaking to a lot of people that personally knew Eric, but I think also it would be good to have a fan that was very knowledgeable about KISS and specifically that era to add their own thing. And I think he really added a special part to the book.
Yeah, I’d say so and sometimes that stuff in certain books comes off as the annoying super fan, but I think that Bob’s funny enough that it really adds a lot to the book.[Laughs] Right, absolutely right. I agree.
There’s a quote from Eric’s sister Loretta calling Bruce Kulick Eric’s other great friend besides Gene and that quote falls right after some pretty harshly honest words from Bruce about Eric from earlier in the chapter. When you were interviewing him, how did that stuff across in the moment?
With anything in life, even if you’re best friends with someone, there’s things you’re going to like about your friend and there’s things you’re not going to like that much. That’s really with about anyone in life, so just because he was a drummer in KISS doesn’t mean that Bruce may have liked some things about Eric and didn’t like other things. It really didn’t strike me that he was viciously slamming him or anything, he was just basically stating the truth. And again, that’s something else that I really appreciated that Bruce was willing to go on record with that kind of stuff, because I think I got a good amount – basically with every single book I’ve ever done, since I’m a fan of music, I always like to read facts that haven’t really been known or read quotes that aren’t really out there, just kind of like tidbits that aren’t really out there. I think with both of these books, I really was able to get a good amount of info that hasn’t been out there. With the KISS stuff, that’s kind of hard because there’s been so many books about KISS. But I think I was able to get a pretty good amount of stuff that hasn’t been circulated within the KISS community as far as facts about the albums and what Bruce Kulick’s view was on certain things. You know, with these books that are out there, it’s primarily Gene and Paul talking. I guess you get a more realistic human painting of who exactly Eric was from those types of stories and quotes, since they’re so honest.
That’s why I was surprised to read some of the stuff from people that as far as I know, are still on good terms with Gene and Paul.
Yeah, but I don’t think anyone really slams anybody that harshly, they are just basically stating what their views were and what they saw. And basically, like I said before, I always say that there’s two sides to every story, so just because someone says something about someone doesn’t mean that it’s totally the truth. I think that people will probably be able to pick that up.
Reading the commentary about how KISS visualized The Elder as their version of The Wall, if you were playing armchair quarterback as a KISS fan, would there have been a way to recast that in such a way that they would have found that success that Pink Floyd found with The Wall?
No, I think that in a perfect world, they would have never put out that album and they would have released Creatures of the Night, at that point pretty much I think is what they should have done. And it may have even been too late at that point. I think even Bob Graw talks about this and says [that it’s] too bad they didn’t put out Creatures of the Night back in 1979, because I think that’s what all of their fans wanted – they didn’t want them to turn into a disco-type band, they just wanted KISS to stay true to hard rock/heavy metal. So I think that’s what KISS should have done, that’s what I think in a perfect world probably would have happened. You know, I guess because of that specific album, The Elder, that’s what then led to Creatures, because that was a reaction against what they were currently doing, which was trying all of these different styles that didn’t suit them.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the band?
I can see why they want to keep touring – it’s kind of hard to turn away from something that’s so successful, playing to huge crowds each night. For me just as a fan, I personally always think of KISS as really Ace, Gene, Paul and Peter. So to have people wearing Ace and also Peter’s makeup is kind of lame, but I can understand that it’s about making money. And you know, Gene and Paul did stay with the band all of these years, so I can also see their point that since they stayed with it all of these years, they should be able to keep doing it. But at some point when Gene and Paul aren’t in it, there’s talk that they may even get people to replace them, so that will be something kind of strange. [laughs]
When you finished the book, did you walk away with a different perspective of Eric Carr?
It’s kind of hard to say. There was definitely a good amount of information that I didn’t know about before starting the book, about him and also KISS. I didn’t know for a fact that his relationship was so strained with the band towards the end. That’s something that I learned from speaking to everybody. Also, I didn’t know exactly some of the facts I got with the sessions behind The Elder and also Creatures of the Night. For instance, I spoke to Bob Ezrin, who was the producer of The Elder and he for the best of my knowledge went on record for the first time explaining what the storyline was about. Because I’ve never been able to understand what the storyline was to that album. So he was able to go on record with that. Did it change my opinion of Eric? I’ve always just thought of him as a drummer, not like a superhero. I always looked at him as just like a human being, so we all have our shortcomings, we all have our good points and bad points. Maybe people saying that he was the most outgoing of the KISS members, that he would always stay behind and sign everyone’s autographs, he’d go outside in the freezing cold and speak to fans – that probably just confirms that he was really a special kind of person. So that, I think the book definitely makes him out to be a good person. It’s not like he’s made out to be a jerk or anything like that.
Wrapping up, let’s go back to MTV for a moment – these days, what are the things that have replaced MTV as far as your outlets and ways of consuming music?
Well, without a doubt, absolutely I think Youtube is absolutely phenomenal. That’s really the only way I ever see videos or anything. I don’t even bother watching MTV anymore. Because I really hate those shitty reality shows – I can’t even stomach those anymore and that’s really all it seems like that they even play. Besides Youtube, Facebook and also Myspace really makes it easy for bands to basically put videos up, reach out to their fans and things like that. I think there will always be something out there similar to what the channel was like when it first went on the air, but MTV itself is not nearly what it was when it first went on the air. I think they even took the word “music” out of their logo recently, so that right there sums it up.
With music, are you good with streaming it or do you still want to own it?
As long as I can get it into my Ipod, I’m fine with it. I guess as you get old, it’s just about making space and if you have all of these CDs and records laying around, it’s going to take up a huge part of your house [laughs] That’s the beauty of these little small gadgets that you can have 1000s and 1000s of songs and albums and it doesn’t take up a whole room, it just takes up this thing that you hold in your hand.
Sure. And I’m guessing that the Ipod will fit easier into your KISS Kasket.[Laughs] Well, I will go on record right now saying I will not be buried in a KISS Kasket.
- Book Review: The Eric Carr Story by Greg Prato (seattlepi.com)
- Author Success Story: “Age of the Indie Author” (lulu.com)