Other than Saturday morning cartoons, I didn’t watch much television as a child. Then again, there wasn’t much on the tube back in those days. Game shows, soap operas, and news dominated the broadcast channels, and cable programming was still in its infancy. I don’t remember when our family jumped on the cable bandwagon — somewhere in the early-to-mid 80’s — but the channel that immediately grabbed my attention was MTV. As stated in my introductory post, access to music that moved me was extremely limited; having sudden access to 24×7 music of all varieties was akin to unearthing buried treasure: I was rich.
While I could turn on MTV and watch music all day long, the sometimes random nature of what would be playing meant I had to wade through a lot of songs I had no interest in. This issue was alleviated as the channel grew and actual shows were created.
No show had a greater impact on me than Dial MTV, which was the channel’s daily top-ten video countdown. I remember my afternoons revolving around the show when my school days were over. I was the first stop my bus made, and I would charge into the house, throw down my bag, and turn on the television to get the music rolling. After grabbing a quick snack, I would hop on the phone and start dialing 1-800-DIAL-MTV, hoping to cast my vote for which video I thought was the best at that time. And folks, this was no easy feat. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only made a connection twice — the first time I got through, I actually hung up by accident, having been so programmed to hear the busy signal, hang up, and immediately dial again (talk about being crestfallen!); the second time I voted for “18 and Life” by Skid Row (not a good song, but in my shock of getting to talk to an honest-to-God person, it’s what I said). Regardless of my failure to be a voice of the people, the show played the best music available at the time, shuffling videos in and out as new songs became available and fans lost their shit. All these years later, I can still remember the elation I felt when one of my favorites won (“Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard or “One” by Metallica) as well as the near hatred for songs that “usurped” the list (“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor or “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston).
Over time, MTV introduced genre-specific programming. My favorite of these was Headbangers Ball, which focused solely on heavy metal music. It was a more difficult show for me to watch because it aired late in the evening and I wasn’t able to stay up most of the time, but I watched it religiously on the weekends. While there were a couple of hosts, the one I remember most is Riki Rachtman, both because of his exuberance and his nearly overpowering mane of hair.
[Nothing said metal like copious amounts of hair.]
The show not only played videos from metal bands, but also hosted many of the biggest names in the industry, both for interviews and on-screen jam sessions. If I’m remembering right, these were usually hit-or-miss. I remember some of the guys from Guns ‘n’ Roses giving an “interview,” if you could call it that. Mostly they looked strung-out (except for Slash, who was still at the stage in his career when he would do everything in his power to have his hair cover his face and mumble an answer to a question). I also remember the guys from Nirvana showing up, usually with Kurt wearing some ridiculous outfit. But mostly I remember the music. I’ll never forget seeing the frenetic energy and jaw-dropping video of Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” for the first time. To this day it still blows me away when I watch it.
There was a time when I also became a fan of rap music, thanks in no small part to Yo! MTV Raps, hosted by Fab 5 Freddy. If it was hard for me to come by rock and metal music in rural Minnesota during the 80’s and 90’s, it was virtually impossible for me to hear rap music. While groups like N.W.A. were already a thing, I have to imagine Yo! MTV Raps had a *huge* impact on the industry in that it brought a somewhat niche market (at the time) to a mainstream audience. Suddenly people like me could listen to the giants of the rap scene – Ice Cube, Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and on and on. Like Headbangers Ball, the show would conduct interviews as well as impromptu rap sessions with guests. This may seem like no big deal in today’s music scene, but Yo! MTV Raps was way ahead of its time and laid the groundwork for the rap explosion that was to follow.
One last show that became must-see television for me was MTV Unplugged, which presented concerts by the biggest bands and singers of the era in stripped-down, intimate settings. Some of the standouts from these sessions were from bands that had songs tailor-made for the show’s format. The best example of this may be Pearl Jam’s “Black,” which Eddie Vedder absolutely *crushed* with his vocals.
While a close second would be Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity.”
But there were artists who had wonderful sets from start to finish, a few of which got the deluxe treatment when MTV released the concerts on CD. 10,000 Maniacs, performing one of their last concerts prior to the band splitting up and Natalie Merchant heading out on her own, hit a home run with their Unplugged installment. Eric Clapton had probably the most successful concert in the history of the Unplugged series, and it’s not hard to see why. As an example, he transformed his classic rock song “Layla” to the point that it was almost unrecognizable in the slower format. And, I’ll maintain until my dying breath that if you don’t feel Clapton’s pain when he sings “Tears in Heaven,” then you have no soul.
Not surprisingly, Nirvana’s session is my favorite from the series, for a couple of reasons. First, the set list had a few of their hits on it, but had a bunch of cover songs, allowing fans to hear new material from the group. Also, if my memory serves me, the concert showed an evolution in Cobain while he was singing. The show opened with “About a Girl,” Cobain mumbling “This song is off our first record. Most people don’t know it,” and finishing by almost mocking the crowd for giving him applause — eyes wide, mouth sneering, hands clapping like a seal. Yet as the night went on, Cobain warmed to the crowd, cracking jokes and telling stories. I’ve always found it to be an interesting transformation that played out before the camera.
These are the shows that shaped my taste in music for close to a decade of my formative years. Hell, they made me who I am today. I haven’t listened to much new music in the last couple of decades, and I think it’s because I’m still trapped back in the 80’s and 90’s, during the years when music ruled the television and MTV was the place to be no matter the day of the week. It really was an amazing time, and I’m sad that other generations weren’t able to experience music the way I did. Then again, music is widely available in all manner of delivery mechanisms these days; if only it was worth listening to…
Until we meet again…