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On October 25, original Much VJ Christopher Ward will release his new book Is This Live? Inside the Wild Early Years of MuchMusic: The Nation’s Music Station, which details the many colourful, unpredictable moments of live music television in the 80s and 90s.
Today, Much is excited to introduce you to the Is This Live? digital hub, which is home to 50 video clips of wild and memorable moments that are detailed in the book. These vintage moments—which include one of Tupac’s last interviews, a love-struck Kurt Cobain, the on-air debut of Mike Myers’ Wayne Campbell character and countless revelations from music icons—highlight the off-the-cuff, rock ‘n’ roll rebellion of MuchMusic in its early days. Without the kind of access to celebrity we have today, those decades saw viewers glued to their televisions to ensure they didn’t miss an appearance or performance from their favourite artist—and we want to show you what that was like.
Below, Much’s very first VJ, JUNO Award-winning songwriter and author of Is This Live? Christopher Ward talks about the legacy of early music television and his decision to unearth these memories.
You touch on this briefly in the book, but what made you really decide to sit down and pull together all of these Much memories? It was a big undertaking.
In recent years, so many conversations turned to the early days of MuchMusic. It was those of us who worked there and had those experiences in common, but also random people I’d meet who treasured their memories of that time. The meaning of it seemed to grow with time and it started me thinking about how to chronicle it.
What has it been like for you, writing about these moments from your past, as well as digging up the old footage?
I’m wary of the seduction of nostalgia, because I’m always focused on doing something new. Of course, sitting in the tape library in the basement, looking back at bits and pieces of our TV past, I laughed out loud so many times at the craziness of it. I realized that stitching together the events of 25 to 30 years ago would be a serious challenge, and something I’d never done.
How do you feel about the footage living online in our little Is This Live ‘hub’?
Knowing that this time in Canadian broadcast history won’t be an aging collection of half-remembered stories and YouTube clips makes me very happy. That said—there are some shirts that I regret.
At Much, you met a lot of fascinating artists and characters who, like you, went on to do great things. What has that been like, looking back on those encounters? Having had conversations with people who are now considered iconic?
Writing the book and screening the footage was a reminder of how intense a time it was, and how there was a parade of neophytes and legends every day at Much. It was a kick seeing LL Cool J host the Grammys and remembering how he freestyled for us as just a teenager. But, there are the tragedies too, like Whitney Houston, one of the most extraordinary singers of our time. We got to be part of the story of Canadian artists like the Hip, Jann Arden, Blue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan—artists whose lives and careers changed overnight once their videos were seen on Much.
If someone had never watched Much, or was too young during the height of music television, what would you want them to understand about that era? I always have a hard time explaining how big a role it played in my upbringing.
For someone who is too young to remember those times, but who is curious about Much’s musical history, it might be fun to check out the stories in the book and on the hub. I grew up getting together with my friends and listening to our 45s after school, and the Much generation used to hang out watching videos. I think we gave true music fans a look at their favourite artists and their work in a way that was brand new and fascinating. This all happened in recent memory, yet before the internet, if you can imagine such a time! And it was before the advent of celebrity culture, while contributing to its rise.
What do you think Much meant to people in the 80s and 90s?
To a great extent this is still true, but in those days, the artists that you loved helped you form an identity. Like Arcade Fire says in “Suburban War,” “the music divides us into tribes.” In the 80s and early 90s, there became this immediate connection for music fans that hadn’t existed before.
What do you miss most about hosting music television?
The camaraderie of creating this unruly beast, fresh daily. We were very loose in the way that we went about it, but we had a sense that it mattered to the viewers and we were dedicated to being that bridge between the artists and their fans.
What do you like about Much nowadays?
I like that Much still feels immediate and connected to the viewers—that it’s rolling with the changes and not precious about who it is. And the fact that Mariah Carey is still on there from time to time—well, that’s just a bonus.
You worked at Much and as an accomplished songwriter. What role does music play in your life today? What does music mean to you?
Music is still oxygen for me. My daughter is 20 and when we get together, it’s not long before we’re talking about The Staves, Grimes and Bob Moses. She gave me the new James Bay vinyl for my birthday! And I’ve got a guitar in every room.
What do you hope people get out of reading Is This Live?
I hope it reminds them of how it felt when Much began, and at the same time, gives them some surprising and entertaining looks behind the curtain at how it was made and the people who made it.