"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Legacy of Teletunes

Watch this video:
It's a European band called Hypothetical Prophets from 1982. YouTube calls this song "Person to Person," but I knew it as "Personal Announcements," featuring lyrics taken from personal ads. This critique of the non-personal nature of modern relationships concludes with a wicked last line (if you can make it that far). The music is minimalist electronica and suffers from the fairly common poor production of the time. And the video images date it even more. But oh, how cool this was for me as an impressionable young lad trying to find himself through music.
Back in the 80's and into the 90's, one of Denver's local public broadcast stations (formerly KBDI Channel 12, now Colorado Public Television 12) aired a video show called Teletunes, actually predating MTV's first broadcast. It ran until the late nineties, but by then I was no longer a viewer. It had done it's work on me throughout most of the 80's and I didn't need it any more. (You can learn more about the show's history in a Westword article from 1999.)

Like so many great things, I discovered Teletunes by accident. For those geezers out there who remember, television was a different animal back then. PBS stations were actually a viable entertainment choice for a teenager, if only because on Saturday mornings, once you were too old for He-Man and Smurfs, you might look for something different. As you turned the dial past the crap offered on ABC, NBC, CBS and the two other local stations on the air, you might come across something a bit interesting on PBS. I came across Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime."
I hadn't seen many music videos before then. We didn't have cable, and my only experience seeing MTV was a few times at a friend's house after school. So when I came across David Byrne's skinny nerd dancing like an epileptic in front of a green screen, I was hooked on Teletunes. Every Saturday morning, when I didn't have an early soccer game, I would usurp the television and watch two hours of music videos. Then, when we got our first VCR, I taught myself to set the recording timer and started recording the show every Saturday and Sunday morning. When I had the time, and when none of my siblings was bugging me to watch the My Little Pony or Ghostbusters cartoons, I would sit and record videos. I filled many a blank video cassette this way, but sadly have only been able to hold onto one of them over the years.

Teletunes didn't show the big production videos by Michael Jackson and Madonna. They played what they called "progressive alternative" music. Videos by REM and Depeche Mode and The Cure were staples. They once claimed that Devo's "Beautiful World" was the best video ever. Ironic lyrics sung over juxtaposed images of beauty and destruction: What would Kanye have said about that?

Devo-Beautiful World by adiis

Eventually I realized that I didn't care much for the videos themselves. Most of them were produced on a shoestring budget and even the ones that were technically proficient (say, Peter Gabriel's claymation "Sledgehammer") were still just boring. I especially couldn't stand any video with the band on stage lip-syncing and fake-playing their instruments while the crowd screamed at them. I blame MTV. What started as ground-breaking didn't take long to turn stale. Like everyone else, I was entertained by the huge concept videos; who doesn't get a kick out of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" video? But most videos were not like this. And everybody knows that MTV quickly lost any interest in music. This resulted in bad music being hyped by brainless videos.

Thus, I watched Teletunes not for the videos but to discover cool music.

There were the Hypothetical Prophets (who, admittedly, were not the greatest band), but I also encountered some exceedingly non-traditional stuff like the Residents and the Art of Noise and Tom Waits. Proto-goth Kommunity FK and early no-wave Sonic Youth. Or cool dance music they'd never play on the radio like Cabaret Voltaire or Moev. This isn't the music that is today associated with 80's alternative. But it helped form the person I am today.

Now watch this video:

It's a passable 80's synthy-poppy song, but if I ever meet Bill Paxton, I have my opening line: "I loved you in Martini Ranch." Watch this video closely and see if you can recognize a couple of other middling sex symbols from the 80's.

Without Teletunes, I never would know this information. I've recently come across The Teletunes Nostalgia Blog. Most of the songs posted are from the nineties, which is after I'd gone to college and found other ways to get in touch with swell new music, but it's still a great trip down memory lane.


  1. So I started reading this and thought, "Oh yeah, Teletunes! I remember the first thing I ever saw on there -- The Talking Heads' 'Once In A Lifetime!'"


    The other indelible memory I have of Teletunes was seeing Liz Phair's video for "Stratford-On-Guy", and thinking I NEED THIS ALBUM RIGHT NOW. Made me a Liz fan for life. Well, up through Somebody's Miracle, anyway.

  2. We didn't have anything like Teletunes. I can tell you that when I watched MTV as a little girl they actually played music videos...

    Now it's only this reality TV stuff.

    And then I watched CMT because I loved the videos. Now it's just like MTV, but the Country version. It's so depressing.

  3. @ Paul: I think they played "Once in a Lifetime" every week. They probably had a rotation of twenty or thirty videos for the first few years.
    And, seriously, what happened to Liz Phair? She turned into Avril or something.

    @ Chanel: I blame MTV for a lot of things, not just the decline of the video as art form. It is depressing.

  4. Re Heads: Oh. That makes it seem less amazing. Still, I'm struck by the fact that it was the vivid memory for both of us.

    Re Liz: The standard joke is, "She sold out, but nobody was buying." Really, I don't mind her later stuff, but it's so unlike (and inferior to) her early stuff as to give it a "Paul is dead" quality.

  5. How about Classis Neuvo's "Guilty" what a great song! Also remmber Kim Wilde, Commander Cody, Kraftwerk, just to name a few. Alsok was a huge fan of U2's "Gloria". I dug that song from seeing the video LONG, LONG before the masses even knew whom U2 was!