MuchMusic: The Revolution will be televised

August 31, 1984 was when MuchMusic signed on to fulfill its promise of a 24/7 music video service for Canada. The Nation’s Music Station’s creation involved a fascinating nexus of people and events—and this special edition Retrontario newsletter will take you back.

Channel 79, Cable 7

After he launched Citytv in 1972 with a love song about Toronto, founder Moses Znaimer made music a central tenet of the station’s identity, alongside news and movies.

City’s early days included music series like Stevedore Steve’s Big Time City SlickersMusic City and Boogie. But the channel also aired videos to fill time as far back as 1975. Later, it broadcast PopClips, an U.S. show produced by Mike Nesmith, then formerly of the Monkees.

The new era, the new music

Toronto radio owner CHUM Limited gained effective control of Citytv in 1978. (The company was renamed ChumCity by 1981.) To consummate the coupling, Saturdays at 11 p.m. found Citytv and CHUM FM simulcasting concerts, billed as The New Music.

The debut episodes featured Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan, as well as the Downchild Blues Band, Carole Pope, Canadian Brass, Max Webster, and the Madcats.

A re-tweaking of The New Music for the fall of 1979 involved two newbie hosts from 1050 CHUM: Jeanne Beker and J.D. Roberts. The conceit was a TV version of Rolling Stone magazine, blended with the post-punk ethos of Britain’s NME. Interviews were interspersed with the increasing availability of music videos.

The concept was pitched to Znaimer by John Martin, an exuberant ex-pat from Manchester, who was driving a taxi in Toronto at the time.

The New Music rapidly became a cult series across Canada, and bootleg videotapes found their way to New York City—legend has it, they came into the possession of Robert Pittman, a young media executive who was test-piloting his own take on the format at the time: Album Tracks, which aired on WNBC-TV in the late-’70s. (Pittman went on to launch MTV.)

I want my MTV

Music video culture was legitimized with the launch of MTV on August 1, 1981. Canadians with their own satellite dishes could access the service, although Toronto had a rotating carousel of low-budget video-oriented shows that aired on Channel 47, the multicultural station—which was ironically also “MTV.”

Znaimer talked to Pittman about bringing his MTV to Canada. Airing it on Citytv in overnights would circumvent the need for initial CRTC approval. The plan fell apart, however, and Znaimer moved on to a homespun approach.

The second wave

May 4, 1983 was when the CRTC opened the door for MuchMusic, with a call for applications for specialty licences. This would become the second wave of pay television in Canada, three months after the initial group of stations went live: First Choice, Superchannel, C Channel and Quebec’s TVEC. (ChumCity’s original application, for a movie channel called Premiere, was turned down by the CRTC.)

By the end of 1983, two of those new ones were gone. First Choice and Superchannel were broke, but survived thanks to a CRTC bailout scheme. The services were allowed to merge: First Choice took the eastern half of Canada, and Superchannel took the west.

So, this second wave invited proposals for narrowcast programming. This time, Znaimer zeroed in on the reference to music as a suggested genre. With the word “Much” as a statement of intent—not to mention an anagram of CHUM—Citytv began to plot Canada’s first full-time music TV service…

Testing the waters

Citytv created shows to prepare the production side for the reality of such an endeavour. The four concepts below helped to illustrate how ChumCity could handle managing Much.

CHUM 30 (1983)recapped the AM radio station’s pop chart, by playing videos of the new, rising and top-ranked singles for a weekly hour. The mostly-off-camera voice of the show was DJ Roger Ashby, who moved to the FM side a year before 1050 CHUM changed direction. (But a CHUM FM 30 show aired on Citytv from June 1986 until January 2008.)

City Limits (1983) was a more avant-garde approach to the celebration of music video, focused on edgier alternative bands and late-night vibes—since it ran between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. Hosted by singer-songwriter turned Second City regular Christopher Ward, it capitalized on its meagre budget by presenting the show from Citytv’s control room.

Some recurring sketches starred Ward himself—others included a young Mike Myers honing his Wayne Campbell shtick. And it became the main incubator for the future of MuchMusic:

I Am a Hotel (1983) was Leonard Cohen’s experimental 30-minute “video album,” shot at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. Six of his songs (including “Suzanne”) were presented in a “unique, multi-disciplined form of entertainment”. Cohen became the unlikely conduit for a taster, designed to show the CRTC what ChumCity was willing to boost:

Toronto Rocks (1984) was an after-school show first hosted by John Majhor—who was poached four months into his job at CFMT’s Video Singles. Thanks to Majhor’s amiable approach, it was the ritual that provided many adolescent Torontonians with their first taste of the video revolution. Also, it had what was then possibly the smallest set in TV history:

Like a bat outta Hull

Four other applicants aspired for permission to create a Canadian answer to MTV: The Music Channel, by Rogers Radio Broadcasting Limited and Molson Limited; Canadian Music TV (CMTV), led by Montreal real estate developer Gilles Chartrand; two applications by concert promoter Donald Tarlton in conjunction with Astral Communications; and Michael Sheridan, a Toronto artist who had almost no broadcast experience, but was advocating programming with puppets, so that the content could be easily versioned into other languages.

(Quickly enough, it became apparent that the race for the license was essentially between ChumCity, Rogers/Molson, and Chartrand.)

Perhaps the most powerful commitment within ChumCity’s application was their promise of offering up a wide range of different musical genres, involving an assortment of Canadian performers. And because the world of music videos was so limited at this point, increasingly dominated by the corporate rock acts chasing MTV exposure, MuchMusic would stimulate music video production in Canada. 

(The application reel which ChumCity presented the CRTC can be seen here.)

Contact your local cable company

The CRTC licenced MuchMusic on April 2, 1984. Carrying over his belief from Citytv, that there was no story without people, Znaimer needed to find MuchMusic VJs: Christopher Ward and J.D Roberts were the obvious two, along with Jeanne Beker at the RockFlash newsdesk. Gradually, they were joined by Michael WilliamsCatherine McClenahan (who lasted just a few weeks) and Erica Ehm.

After the original VJs settled in, Znaimer explained his casting decisions to the Globe and Mail: “The policy that worked through Citytv and through MuchMusic is that you don’t pick people and try to fit them into a role. You cast someone who’s already on the inside and then let them tell people what it’s like.”

Graffiti magazine had a cover story celebrating Toronto’s new VJ superstars: Shirley McQueen and J. Gold of CFMT’s Something Else, Samantha Taylor (who went from CFMT to CBC’s Video Hits) and John Majhor of Toronto Rocks, along with the first five VJs of MuchMusic—captured in the weeks when Catherine McClenahan was working there:

Three times the satisfaction

August 1, 1984 was originally supposed to mark the debut of MuchMusic. But it was pushed back 30 days due to ongoing technical issues with cable operators. Much was to join First Choice*Superchannel and TSN as part of the “Satisfaction 3 Pack,” which retailed for $15.95 a month (MuchMusic moved to basic cable in 1988.) A free Labour Day weekend preview was heavily promoted during August.

August 31, 1984

MuchMusic went on the air at 6 p.m. on August 31, 1984. After bursting through the screen, VJs Christopher Ward and J.D Roberts mingled with luminary guests while throwing to music videos from the floor. The first new one was a premiere of Rush’s “The Enemy Within.” But that one aired after an early music-to-film synchronization short from 1923: Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake in Snappy Songs.

August 31, 1984: Moses Znaimer presses the button launching the debut MuchMusic broadcast

Also on that first shift were new videos by the Cars, Elvis Costello and Van Halen—plus, a world premiere from Burlington’s ascending new-wavers the Spoons: “Tell No Lies.”

The launch as described in the Globe: “Moses Znaimer obviously wanted to capture the excitement of a party for the debut of Canada’s first pay-TV rock video station. It was classic Citytv: turning the cameras inward on the station itself, making the reporters part of the story, winging it and seeing what happened.”

By early 1985, it was clear that MuchMusic was flourishing—without the growing pains shown by other business models. With over a half-million subscribers harvested in six months, there was a lot to celebrate. Znaimer was bullish on the future of what he saw as “short-form television,” even though VJ star J.D. Roberts decided that he’d rather be in news.

For an oral history of the entire first decade of MuchMusic, check out Christopher Ward’s Is This Live?: Inside the Wild Early Years of MuchMusic, the Nation’s Music Station.

This article first appeared in the August 30, 2019 edition of the Retrontario Newsletter.

With major thanks to Marc Weisblott of 1236 for editing and encouragement.

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