The Saturday Night Gospel of Headbangers Ball

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.

Ray Van Horn, Jr., circa 2014

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.

34 thoughts on “The Saturday Night Gospel of Headbangers Ball

  1. It’s probably no surprise that I was more of 120 Minutes kind of guy, but I recall checking out HBB more than a few times, if only to keep up with my dirtball friends and hold up my end of the smoking area convos. It was fun to watch, but I have to admit I preferred the harder tunes than the bands with the religion of “the bigger the hair, the closer to God”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • No question, man, the heavier and faster, the better. I have a soft spot for the early-to-mid ’80s popular metal and hard rock acts, but I was more of a thrasher, punk wannabe, doom, power metal, death metal and just overall heavier material kinda guy. “Death to false metal,” though I was a longtime Kiss fan. Unfortunately, they were forced to play by the new corporate rules to water down in the late 80s, though “Creatures of the Night” and “Revenge” remain Kiss’ watermarks for heaviness. Once Bon Jovi got huge, it was all over. Though I really liked (and still do) “Runaway,” once the Slippery When Wet album came, then Def Leppard’s unforgiveable Hysteria album…metal in the U.S. had no prayer of hanging in the mainstream without paying a hefty price. I still hold Def Leppard’s High ‘n Dry album with the highest regard possible as I do the lowest disdain for Hysteria.

      Once metal died off here until the late 90s, I explored other forms of music and was greatly turned on to alternative, then industrial, techno, dance, rap and hip hop. Later, I just went for any and all music that had some sort of integrity. I still operate by that measure. I’ll give anything a try regardless of genre, as long as it’s not processed cheese whiz.

      120 Minutes became my jam all through college and I had two different girlfriends beyond the one I mention in this post, who were alternative heads. The Cure and Depeche Mode vaulted into my all-time top 10 bands and I always say if you never made out with a girl to the Mode’s “Strangelove,” you haven’t lived. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • “Processed cheese whiz”. LMAO. Unfortunately, that’s most of what is out there it seems, although I’m enjoying the neotribal and retro-shoegaze out of Northern Europe these days. And some of the alt-folk out there has got a nice authentic-feeling edge to it that’s been blunted in other genres.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Right, I am starting to get waves of the shoegaze revival and if anyone can outdo or match Lush or Ride, bring it on! Anything tribal gets my attention, though I want to see a return to Afrobeat with a small modern polish…so long as they don’t use today’s hip hop drum machines which suck the rod. I can’t hack too much of modern rap and hip hop for the stupid, spindle-sound drum machine, much less there being little of importance to say. My kid got me into Chilidsh Gambino and a few (nowhere near all) XXXTentacion tracks. Alt folk, I really want to dig in. Interesting how The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons took off, but I l was getting into Rachel Yamagata, Holly Golightly, JJ Grey and Mofro. There’s a bunch of alt folk which caught my attention and I forget many of them, blah! I think Death Cab For Cutie plus And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead opened Pandora’s Box in that realm. I just went all over the place on you, dude, sorry!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sweet, thanks for the recommendations! I’ve lost touch somewhat being out of the music industry and having a brand new life altogether. My son pushes a lot of tortuous audile excrement at me, but he also digs a lot more than he used to and he pulls out a lot of gems. He does it to impress me, seriously. That’s gold, right there.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That picture of you sitting amidst stacks of CD’s, face shining–I have similar pictures of myself but in the stacks at Notre Dame library and the Library of Congress, surrounded by miles of books, and couldn’t be happier. Different medium for us but the same joy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ohhhh, nice!!!! What this picture doesn’t show is four shelf towers and two squatty shelves, all filled with books, plus six other media racks. I made my own labyrinth and definitely the same joy. When I got divorced and now engaged, I dropped more than 3/4 of my media and books upon moving in with my fiancee. It hurt like hell, man, lol! Worth the cause, though, and all of the important stuff I’ll revisit over time are still with me. I get you, Jacqui, I really do. FYI, my fiancee is former Navy, i.e. your book on Midshipmen. I work 15 minutes from Annapolis and live 40 minutes away from it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a great read, Ray. We didn’t really get to watch HBB much because we were raising babies during its era, and we were out long before it came on. We wouldn’t have made it without MTV during those late nights when a kid wouldn’t sleep, though. I (Kellye) enjoyed the post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is very cool of you, guys! HBB was a way of life for us 80s metalheads, but definitely, MTV was my lifeline all the way from the beginning when I was age 12. I was hooked from day one when it launched. I wasn’t there for The Buggles opening it, but I caught a Yes video later that day then it was on. Pure addiction. The early 80s, I had to catch some MTV before school, after school, summertime, weekends, whenever I could get the TV. My parents had control a lot, but they understood my ravenous appetite for MTV then. I like all forms of music, so it was fostered by 80s pop, rock and soul when MTV launched…then I was suckered by new wave and then, of course, heavy metal. One of the stories in my book, “Coming of Rage” has a precise moment of my life with Iron Maiden’s “Flight of Icarus” on MTV. Thank you for reading and being so nice with your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a romance writer (unpublished), I imagined all kinds of scenarios after Mick deleted the partial text to Destiny. If your intent was to leave us wanting more, you did it, my friend. Oh, and I adore Atlas! That’s as far as I’ve gotten, but I loved Chasing the Moon and I’m looking forward to Watching Me Fall!
    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for this feedback! What I will offer is the band interview scenario is authentic as it was taken from an actual event on one of my assignments. I had worse happen in my music career, but this was just enough of a bad night to coax the angst from Mick. I was laid off at the same time as this story, and taking all I could get to bring in money. All of that was brought in from my actual life, including Atlas! : ) The indecent proposal is fiction. I wanted to put Mick into a dilemma with a bad marriage, desperate for work, and rattle his world some. I wanted to explore his moral fiber and push him into a choice many would take the easy way out. I am proud of the choice he made, and hope readers agree. I really did name that rat Atlas since he came out so many times at the venue I describe when I was covering shows. Hope you like the rest of the book and thank you again for buying and reading!

      I hope you find a market for your romance fiction! Never give up!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • OMG, small world! I was then and still am, LOL! Both my fiancee and I are title processors in two different companies and we’re both writers. I’ve been in the title racket 26 years (mortgage lending for 3 before that), the same for her. We first met in the late 90s in title and were close friends. We ran into each a couple more times at other title companies until losing touch and finding one another again early last year.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Many congrats & best of luck!!! I love anything to do with books & would be thrilled if you’d write a guest blog post for my site! My blog is for anyone who loves writing, books, and all the arts. If you think it might be fun or helpful to have my followers (who total about 10k across my various social media) meet you, here’s the link for general guidelines: https://wp.me/p6OZAy-1eQ

    Like

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