Years ago while I was writing in the music industry, I had the opportunity to pitch a resurrection plan to an MTV executive I’d grown chummy with from visits on assignment to New York City. Said player in the tale will remain anonymous. We’d shared a passion for the network’s weekly devotions offered in the name of heavy metal music, Headbangers Ball. Prior to this, I’d had the chance to talk to VH-1 and metal journalist legend, Eddie Trunk for a few minutes and I’d scored an all-time favorite interview with original MTV veejay, Nina Blackwood. It was a high time of my writing life, when my home office was nearly half the basement in a rancher, and all the free, promotional media I was sent for review consideration surrounded me in a literal labyrinth.
Welp, after two runs of the beloved Headbangers Ball (the much heavier reincarnation spanning through the early 2000s), the proposal I’d come up with was nixed and sent into the ether with other woebegone MTV segments from pre-reality show yesteryear: Remote Control, Liquid Television, Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes. I think about this presumed yes from time-to-time, and realize I might’ve been huckstered into submitting a blind faith prospectus to a lost cause.
Last week, I finished the final draft to a new novel in the hands of a prospective literary agent, a retro partial autobiography centering on my teen years, in which metal music was figurative. I mention Headbangers Ball a couple times, set during the original show’s run beginning April of 1987.
My novel’s core protagonists observe the same weekly ritual old school heavy metal addicts did back then. Saturdays at midnight, MTV. Be there or be a poser. Adjust all weekend plans to accommodate. Clear the parents from the room with the biggest and loudest television. Pop a beer if you were of age. Sneak it after said parents went to bed if you weren’t.
Headbangers Ball (or simply, “The Ball” to metalheads of all generations) was not merely a two-hour show devoted to heavy music. It was a secular religion. Jerry Falwell and his money-grubbing televangelists had their say on the tube six hours later on Sunday mornings. At the strike of twelve, however, cathodes were controlled by counterculture music for outcasts. Or so it was in the beginning…
You could say the great debate to Headbangers Ball in the late Eighties was whether it would ever have a proper VJ to field the band interviews and transition the showcased heavy metal videos. So many fans of the day screamed bloody murder at the show’s questionable-fit first hosts, Asher “Smash” Benrubi, Kevin Seal and Adam Curry. O.G.V.J. fashionista “Downtown” Julie Brown gave it her best, wubba wubba wubba, but it wasn’t until L.A. rock scenester Riki Rachtman made the show his for five years. This, despite being notoriously hazed by bands on the set while learning the ropes and being roasted by viewers as metal music changed and then evaporated in the U.S. for a while.
The show had become such a Ball of confusion MTV had visible trouble differentiating Black Sabbath from Blind Melon, Faster Pussycat from Four Non-Blondes. As if the Bon Jovi, Poison and Warrant clones hadn’t done enough damage to the show and to the scene itself. Guns n’ Roses became the darlings of The Ball, so much to the point I cringe and sweep away “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child ‘o Mine” anytime they manifest. None of it can hold a candle to Appetite for Destruction deep cuts, “It’s So Easy,” “My Michelle” or “Think About You,” and I’ve embraced my minority opinion.
Like my peers of the day, I can bitch how watered down the halcyon Headbangers Ball became. I can also advocate MTV for giving multicultural bands like Living Colour, Bad Brains, Death Angel, Loudness, E-Z-O and Suicidal Tendencies a lot of love. Still, a reliable succession of video clips by industry icons Iron Maiden, Krokus, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest, Megadeth, Warlock, Queensryche, Overkill, Anvil, Metal Church, Anthrax, Twisted Sister, Motorhead, Scorpions, Dokken, Heathen, Ratt, Madam X, Nuclear Assault and Testament soon turned into a commercial rock marathon. Defenders of the faith had to seek their true metal fix through a haze of Aqua Net and tight-bottomed female models, at times blocking the views of shredding arpeggios and tom rolls. Sex sells, it’s not just a business truism. Whitesnake rocked much of the time, but Tawny Kitaen, ’nuff said…
Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (my most hated song in the rock universe) and the stripper-worshipping Motley Crue prompted corporate record labels to sign limp-noodled, synth-driven hair rock which pushed the acts we were screaming for toward the back end of the two hour program. It’s no wonder Nirvana and Soundgarden became what they were; once Headbangers Ball lost its soul, the metal devout had to wait until the final 20 minutes of the show to see videos by genuine heavies like Prong, Sepultura, Ministry, Kreator, Saxon, Annihilator, Exodus, King Diamond, even goofballs like Killer Dwarfs, Dangerous Toys, Butthole Surfers and Scatterbrain.
The show queefed from a gaseous AOR virus more concerned with fueling the great party than the rock itself, and it wasn’t only grunge which bumped off Headbangers Ball and metal music for a spell. Its primary audience grew up and went to college or their future adult lives, many falling away from the scene until a nostalgic pining for love of grit brought them all back for a second run “death to false metal” crusade. With it came the short-lived metal-only channel, MTV X, then Jamey Jasta of the blistering Hatebreed, whose run as host of the revivified Headbangers Ball more than atoned for its poofy-haired sins. Sadly, Jasta and his successor, Jose Mangin, would be swept away with the monster, neo-inception of The Ball to a point of seeming finality. It was nice seeing modern underground metal icons like Enslaved, Fear Factory, Mastodon, Deftones, Between the Buried and Me, Static-X, Ishahn, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Unearth, All That Remains, Behemoth, Devildriver, Amorphis, Belphegor, High On Fire, Cradle of Filth, H.I.M., Keep of Kalessin, Norma Jean, Atreyu and their many likenesses have a near-mainstream habitat to make their cases for metal immortality.
Instead of grumbling about the show’s mistreatment over the years, I’d rather reflect on what it meant to me, personally. Maybe it rings true with others who were there. I can’t understate how important it was for me to be home at midnight every Saturday. I could be off in my estimation, but I believe I missed Headbangers Ball only thrice from 1987 through 1990, those being due to vacations away from home.
I was 17 in ’87 and conveniently my curfew was midnight. I was dating and working in a grocery store, hanging with friends well into the late hours. No matter what the activity, I had to be home for The Ball. I made sure my girlfriend was dropped off by 11:30 p.m., which kept me in good graces with her religious, conservative family, considering their daughter was then in love with a hairball. Any parties I was invited to, the same deal. I was out by 11:30, and only in one instance when everyone was lit up including my ride, I managed to talk my way into putting Headbangers Ball on the house t.v. to many people’s chagrin. A horns-up moment if there ever was one.
Movies, I usually went to on Friday nights with friends or my girlfriend. If it had to be a Saturday, I would go no later than a 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. showing. I was that obsessed with Headbangers Ball. I couldn’t get enough of hearing the samples of S.O.D.’s thrash cuts behind the title screens and commercial breaks before those changed to Prong. I taped the song videos, six VHS tapes worth. I was so OCD I wrote down each clip I’d recorded in a notebook so I wouldn’t have repeats. I’d watch them again during the weeknights I was off from work and summer days.
Stupidly, I did not record the interviews, which most people look at me like Wile E. Coyote with his jaw slamming to the ground after the Roadrunner tears away from him at hyperspeed when I confess to this. Yeah, Ray Van Horn, Jr., who would go on to interview many of the bands who appeared on Headbangers Ball, hadn’t taped one single show interview. When I think of how laced out Guns n’ Roses were on their debut appearance on The Ball, and how badly Dave Mustaine of Megadeth dicked wtih Riki Rachtman, I feel foolish. It was prime music television, a lost art.
I would make no bones in verbally pushing my folks out of the living room to surrender the t.v. to me for Headbangers Ball. As a father myself, I now shake my head and laugh at this memory of being such a royal pain to my parents. They would make a sport of it, waiting all the way until 11:59 p.m. before heading off to bed. It was so snarky and I would begin to shake with anticipation until that remote was in my hands and I heard S.O.D.’s “Milano Mosh” spool the show to life.
I can remember what joy it was to see MTV give more extreme bands like Slayer some play, then Morbid Angel, Coroner, Mercyful Fate, Dark Angel, Cryptic Slaughter, Destruction, Carcass, bands you had to really know the scene to appreciate. I also recall the day of abhorration when Celtic Frost’s “Cherry Orchards” premiered. Any dedicated metal fan was there and none of us will forget the abject terror of the moment. White Lion’s “Wait” was preferential. Well, maybe I’m getting carried away.
Up through high school graduation and my 18th birthday, I had many occasions where I would come home to catch Headbangers Ball and then go back out to meet my friends until 4:00 a.m. Everything changed in college, but I was still there, holding the torch and praying for a Voivod video that only seldom came.
Salad days, man…
–Ray Van Horn, Jr.