Martha, Martha, Martha! 35 Years Later, Original VJ Quinn Remembers MTV's Early Days

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

“Whenever I hear the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ I get goosebumps. I practically want to cry, every time. Every. Single. Time.”

So says Martha Quinn, one of the iconic five original MTV VJs, as the history-making cable channel that launched her career (not to mention the careers of hundreds of pop artists) celebrates its big 35th birthday.

On Aug. 1, 1981, Quinn — who was just 22 years old at the time, and had only been working at MTV for two weeks — and her new co-workers piled into a rented bus to go watch the station’s midnight debut at a watering hole called the Loft in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The now-iconic “moon landing” theme music blasted for the very first time, the Buggles’ one-hit wonder hit the small screen … and the music business and pop culture in general were forever changed.

“I remember waiting for a school bus. When MTV started, we didn’t have a big budget at all — no budget for limousines or anything like that — so they rented a literal yellow school bus that drove the crew and VJs out to this little bar in New Jersey, because there weren’t many places that carried MTV. You couldn’t even get it in Manhattan then. [Original VJ] Mark Goodman, I believe, took a limo, because he did not want to ride with these ‘little people,’ because he was the WPLJ disc jockey at that time, which was a big New York rock station,” Quinn chuckles. “Anyway, as we watched the launch that night, we were all sobbing. It was the most emotional night. It was like having a baby being born.”

While Quinn says she “thought that we were onto something from the very beginning,” it took some time for the rest of America to catch up with Fort Lee. Quinn, a very recent New York University graduate, even kept her day job at the NYU dorms for a while, just in case her MTV employment was short-lived.

“The world was just not going along with us,” she recalls. “Everyone was against us. The advertisers didn’t want to advertise with us; the record companies, by and large, didn’t want to provide videos; the cable companies didn’t want to carry us. My favorite story about that is, remember those famous MTV commercials that said call your local cable operator and demand, ‘I want my MTV’? Well, the reason that campaign started was cable companies did not want to add us. So MTV bought airtime, commercials. They had people like Pete Townshend and Billy Idol telling viewers to call their cable companies — and cable companies were getting inundated with calls. Then the cable companies would phone up MTV and say, ‘You’ve got to pull those commercials!’ So … we bought more.”

Eventually, the marketing blitz worked. All the kids in America wanted their MTV, and eventually, they got their wish. Quinn, the youngest VJ and therefore the most relatable to MTV’s teen audience, soon became the network’s most popular crew member and America’s shag-haired sweetheart — which, she says, surprised her, because she thought her fellow VJs Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, and J.J. Jackson “were the coolest people I’d ever met in my life. You know how in movies like American Graffiti, there’s always that little kid that wants to get in with the gang? That was totally me. I loved those VJs so much. And to this day, the four of us are such good friends [Jackson passed away in 2004]. We are family.”

Quinn soon gave notice at NYU, and ended up working her “dream job” during MTV’s entire first decade — making history with Live Aid, the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, and countless A-list interviews. In a full-circle career move, she has reunited with her old MTV boss Bob Pittman, who hired her in 1981 after a chance encounter at New York’s WNBC radio station; Pittman, now the chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, recently recruited Quinn for the iHeart80s radio station. But she admits to Yahoo Music, “People say to me, ‘Will you ever have a job as cool as being an original MTV VJ?’ And the answer is obviously no. When am I ever going to have the chance to be a part of something groundbreaking and revolutionary like that? And you can’t be a part of it on purpose. We didn’t know that it was going to be revolutionary at the time.”

As MTV hits the big 3-5, Viacom is banking on the current ’90s nostalgia craze by rebranding its VH1 Classic channel as MTV Classic, a new 24-hour network that will run a binge-worthy loop of Daria, Beavis & Butt-head, and Total Request Live reruns. But here, Quinn reminisces about some of her personal favorite true “MTV classic” moments, from the network’s earliest days.

A Very Billy Squier Christmas

“Number one, my top, very favorite MTV moment is ‘Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You,‘” says Quinn, referring to the holiday singalong that she and her fellow staffers taped with stadium rocker Billy Squier in 1981. “If I had to go back in time and revisit one day, like if I could get into the DeLorean and go back to one moment, it probably be this. What you see in that video, it was recorded within months of our launch, and we were all so starry-eyed, such believers. We were rebels with a cause. Everyone you see in that video, they’re the technicians, the secretaries, the executives, the production assistants. We were all one big happy family, fighting for MTV. We believed so strongly in the power of rock ‘n’ roll. And you can really see it there.”

Three years later, Squier, one of MTV’s early darlings, would release his polarizingly pastel, new-wavey “Rock Me Tonite” video, which many people — including Squier himself — claim destroyed his career in less than four minutes and 49 seconds. But Quinn shrugs, “I don’t remember that video being poorly received at the time. If I were Billy Squier, I would launch the Rock Me Tonite Tour. I would go out on tour with a giant huge bed on the stage, and I would come out in a pink tank top and dance my ass off. Because that was a super-fun video and a super-great song. I would just say, ‘Take this, haters!’ And it would be a smash.”

When Bob Met Bono

“In 1984, I had the opportunity to interview Bob Dylan. He said he would do it if we sent a crew to Wembley Stadium in London, and he said, ‘I want [the interviewer] to be Martha Quinn.’ I don’t know how I wasn’t nervous. I was there sitting with him, doing his makeup, and I was completely calm! I would be way more nervous today,” says Quinn.

As surreal as it may have been for 25-year-old Quinn to help a rock legend like Dylan apply ’80s-appropriate guyliner, that wasn’t the wildest thing that happened that day. “After the interview, his assistant came up to me and said, ‘Bob wants to know if you want to fly with the band to Ireland for their show there tomorrow.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have my passport with me!’ So I had to run back to my hotel in a cab and then race to Heathrow. The plane was waiting on the tarmac. I went leaping onto the plane; my head was spinning,” Quinn recalls. “And I flew to Ireland with Bob Dylan and his band and saw his show at Slane Castle — where there was a young kid who was in a new band and working for a local music newspaper [Hot Press]. The kid went to interview Dylan. And that was the first time that Bono ever met Bob Dylan. I was backstage and I saw the whole thing happen.”

Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love With David Lee Roth

“In my area of New York, where I grew up in the late ’70s, you were either a fan of Black Sabbath, Van Halen, or Earth, Wind & Fire,” laughs Quinn. (Interesting side note: The clearly well-rounded Quinn landed her VJ gig with an audition that consisted of her talking about EW&F for four minutes.) “And so when a chance to interview David Lee Roth came down the pike, I was so excited. All I could think about was everyone back home freaking out.”

Quinn, who also confesses to crushes on Rick Springfield, Corey Hart, and other heartthrobs of the day (“all of them, really!”), may have kept calm and carried on in the presence of Bob Dylan. But she was a bundle of nerves when it came time for her sit-down chat with notorious charmer Diamond Dave. She tried her best not to let him see her sweat.

“We all know David Lee Roth is Mr. Jive Talker, and I was thinking, I’m going to pierce through to his soul, and he’s going to drop that façade and say, ‘Oh my God, Martha Quinn, where have you been all my life?’ And we would ride off into the sunset,” she giggles. “You can see in the footage that I’m not even laughing at any of his jokes. I was so intent on not being razzle-dazzled by him. Now I know that the best thing about David Lee Roth is his razzle-dazzling. So there was no sunset-riding for me and Dave.”

But later, at the first VMAs in 1984, Quinn finally got a “lovely moment” with the goofy Van Halen frontman. “I opened the show, and when I was leaving the stage, I tripped onstage. I remember there was an audible gasp from everyone at Radio City Music Hall, and I was mortified to the max,” she says. “I was so embarrassed. I could barely function. I couldn’t take it. And being young, with every single person I ran into that evening, I would say, ‘Oh my God, did you see what happened?’ — instead of just playing it cool.

“I said to David Lee Roth, who’d been sitting in the front row, ‘Oh no, did you see me trip and fall?’ And he said, ‘Ah, darlin’, welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You know how many times I’ve done that? That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about!’ He just singlehandedly pieced me back together and made me feel OK. So I totally did have my real, genuine moment with David Lee Roth after all. He was so kind and so positive, so gentle. I’ve always been very grateful for that.”

Quinn, a self-described “rocker chick,” also reveals that her favorite music video of all time isn’t the above-mentioned network-launching Buggles classic, but “Jump” by Van Halen. “At the time, in the mid-’80s, storyline music videos were big, like A-Ha’s ‘Take on Me’ and Duran Duran’s ‘Wild Boys,’ or really produced videos like Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer.’ And what I loved about ‘Jump’ was you really got to just see the band. It was the pure joy of the rock ‘n’ roll experience.”

So, did Roth ever figure out that Quinn had a crush on him? “Oh, I can imagine it was pretty obvious,” she quips.

Under the Cherry Moon — In Sheridan, Wyoming

Another one of Quinn’s ’80s crushes was the late Prince, whom she only met briefly — when she was bizarrely dispatched to a Holiday Inn in Sheridan, Wyoming, to report from the scene of an Under the Cherry Moon movie premiere for an audience of elated MTV contest winners. “There’s a video floating around somewhere of Prince where I’m interviewing a contest winner and he walks up, and it’s so obvious that I’m completely throwing myself at him,” she groans. “It’s too embarrassing. But you know, that’s when you do when you’re young.” (Quinn asked Prince, “So how do you feel?” His answer: “With my hands, Martha.” Now that’s some classic MTV.)

“Prince’s death was different to me from Glenn Frey’s or David Bowie’s,” Quinn now says wistfully, “in that he was really of the MTV generation. Purple Rain was ours. He was not our older brother’s favorite artist. He was ours. That was a really direct hit to the MTV generation.” Musing about other early-MTV icons who have recently passed, like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Quinn says, “It just sucks. It’s like, ‘No! Everybody stay here!’ I need to start sending crates of broccoli to all my ’80s artists. Everybody needs to stay healthy.”

Martha Meets the Boss, Acts Like a Boss

“When MTV first started, so many of the more established artists, like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, were saying, ‘No, we don’t need to make videos,'” remembers Quinn. Obviously, Dylan soon came around to the concept of MTV. And Springsteen did as well – possibly with some encouragement from Quinn herself.

“I am pretty sure that I am responsible for launching the second phase of Bruce’s career — the career that got launched with the Born in the USA album,” Quinn jokes. “Because I ran into Bruce in a restaurant when he was recording that album, and he said to me, ‘Hey, aren’t you the girl I see on MTV?’ And I said, thinking very quickly on my feet, ‘That’s more than I can say for you! When are you going to make some music videos?’ And sure enough, he made videos. So I really think Bruce should be thanking me!”

However, when it came time for Springsteen to shoot his career-rebooting “Dancing in the Dark” video, he famously hired then-unknown actress Courteney Cox to play the giddy fan that hops onstage with him for an “impromptu,” slightly dorky ’80s dance-off. Clearly, Quinn would have been perfect for that role. “That [casting] was kind of a knife in the back, if you want my opinion,” Quinn laughs. “I’m just sayin’!”

Paul McCartney Spills the Tea

One of the reasons that Quinn and her fellow VJs were so beloved by the channel’s early audience was it was obvious that they were true superfans, just like the avid viewers at home. And even after a decade on MTV, that hadn’t changed much for the now-seasoned Quinn.

“In 1991, I interviewed Paul McCartney at Capitol Records in Hollywood,” she recalls. “I’m a diehard Beatles fan, and it was the only time that I’ve brought an album to an interview to be signed. And the craziest thing happened. He was drinking tea during the interview, and afterwards, I looked down at his teacup and I saw there was still tea in there. So I picked up the cup … and I drank it. I was like, ‘I am going to drink Paul McCartney’s tea. I don’t even care if I get a bacterial infection! I am going to drink it.’

“And no one was looking … so I picked up the cup, saucer, and spoon, and I put them right in my purse. I still have them. They’re behind glass, in a cabinet, to this day. And I’ve never washed them.”

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