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Remembering MTV’s Headbangers Ball

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“Your Kind of Metal”

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Ryan McKenney is my favorite blogger right now. On We Craft in Darkness, the Trap Them vocalist has been documenting the recording process for their new album. He provides exactly what I want in a studio diary: casual but articulate insight into musicians’ minds. I don’t want footage of gear and goofing around. I want a glimpse that makes me want to know more. So after some videos, photos, and text, I know that Trap Them are quirky but thoughtful and committed musicians – and that I must get their new record.

McKenney’s other blog excites me even more. Blind Is Fine details his obsession with “golden age” hip-hop (late ’80s, early ’90s), which is also one of my great loves. Like metal journalism, hip-hop journalism has exploded in the past decade. Everyone wants to be a teacher, but I don’t like to be taught; I learn. Like McKenney, I’m a student of hip-hop, not a teacher. His passion as a fan is refreshing in this age of institutionalized hip-hop writing.

One big theme of Blind Is Fine is the importance of Yo! MTV Raps to McKenney’s love for the music. In this post, he draws a parallel to the show’s metal contemporary, Headbangers Ball. This resonates profoundly with me, as I watched both shows avidly. So this is the metal equivalent of McKenney’s post – a love letter to Headbangers Ball.

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King Diamond hosts the show

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As love letters go, it’s not an ardent one. Headbangers Ball was why they invented the phrase, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”. Before the Internet could tell us about every metal band, we had radio, magazines, and TV. As wondrous and diverse as Top 40 radio was in the late ’80s/early ’90s, it was not a place for real metal. (Hair metal, of course, was big then.) With magazines, I got glimpses of metal through the occasional issue of Circus or Hit Parader. Living in remote areas at the time, I didn’t have the friends or the connections to know about things like ‘zines and tape trading. So that left TV.

I discovered MTV in general before I discovered Headbangers Ball. Being a sponge for music, I enjoyed pretty much whatever MTV had to offer. Since I was too young to go to concerts, seeing moving images was the next best thing. Actually, it was probably the best thing. The music video was still a young artform, so every week brought new visual ideas. The combination of live action and animation in Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” video was a big deal then.

But being naturally drawn to the dark side, I liked Headbangers Ball the most. At the time, anyway, it seemed dark. Looking back at its playlists (see here (the gold mine), here, and here), I realize now that it showed very little actual metal. In its original run from 1987 to 1995, hair metal dominated the early years (the show aired hair metal until as late as ’92), and alt-metal characterized the later years. A good amount of content had nothing to do with metal – Nirvana, Candlebox, Bad Religion, Smashing Pumpkins. Headbangers Ball basically devolved from “anything with long hair” to “anything with loud guitars”.

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Riki Rachtman w/ Chris Barnes & Chuck Schuldiner

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However, the real metal that did show up often blew my mind. Metallica’s “One”? Megadeth’s “Hangar 18″? Judas Priest’s “Painkiller”? Amazing, amazing videos that made me buy the albums and treasure them to this day. As McKenney said about Yo! MTV Raps, part of the appeal of seeing videos was knowing that one might never see them again. It’s incredible to think of how many videos were made (typically with five-digit budgets), only to be aired only once on MTV. So my recollections of Headbangers Ball are hazy, since I was seeing a lot of stuff for the first and last time. I’m pretty sure I saw a Wrathchild America video or two without knowing what the hell I was watching.

Obviously, Headbangers Ball was deeply flawed. Corporate powers programmed its content, host Riki Rachtman was annoying at best, and in terms of being able to see videos when one wants, YouTube is a much, much better alternative. There’s no need for such a show today. (I’ve never seen the Jamey Jasta-hosted version of Headbangers Ball, and have no interest in doing so. Metal Injection began with much of the charm of the original Headbangers Ball, but has evolved to a stream-on-demand model.) If a time machine were invented, I wouldn’t recommend that people use it to revisit the late ’80s/early ’90s.

I would recommend, however, that people appreciate Headbangers Ball footage from then (some of which is available on YouTube) as an amusing and occasionally important historical document. Where else could you see Testament and Britny Fox featured on the same show? Where else could a playlist have Anthrax, Slaughter, Corrosion of Conformity, Warrant, The Four Horsemen, Accept, and Blind Melon in succession? It was a strange, unique time, and I’m glad to have experienced/survived it.

Below are five videos from Headbangers Ball that made a big impression on teenage me.

— Cosmo Lee

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Overkill – “Horrorscope”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DO-8FhJVOU

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This video combines two of my favorite metal video clichés from that era: the post-apocalyptic outdoors setting and the overly-lit, overly-huge indoor stage. (“Old metal videos on overly-huge stages playing to nobody” could be a post in and of itself.) The solo section is mind-melting! Where did Overkill get such brains??? This was – and still is – one of the heaviest things I’ve ever heard.

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Pantera – “Mouth for War”

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I still remember the night I first saw this video. A short-haired singer on Headbangers Ball, a song so streamlined it made Slayer sound flabby, and a finale more brutal than anything I’d heard before – it felt like a page had turned.

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Sacred Reich – “Independent”

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In hindsight, this was like what Pantera was doing, only not as good. (There was even a third-tier version of this, a song called “Let It Go” by Aversion. Could someone please upload that video to YouTube???) But teenage me thought this was so bad-ass. Early ’90s indicators: typewriter font, flannel, Doc Martens, tribal tattoos, bare midriff + hi-rise jeans. So dated, so good!

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Dream Theater – “Pull Me Under”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saiVkeI9_EQ

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If you watch this video with the sound off, Dream Theater looks like some German thrash band. (Dig James Labrie’s Napalm Death shirt.) I hadn’t yet instituted my “no keyboards” rule for metal, so Dream Theater were OK. I got the CD. The drummer in my high school cover band loved it. (Hi, Ted!) He was your stereotypical drummer who loved Rush. We covered “Freewill”. We did not win any battles of the bands. I still can’t bear to hear the song (“Freewill”, that is, not “Pull Me Under”).

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Corrosion of Conformity – “Dance of the Dead”

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I went out and bought the tape. (I don’t know why I didn’t get the CD.) If teenage me had been paying attention, I would have noticed the Black Flag and Saint Vitus shirts (and maybe the Einsturzende Neubaten sticker), which would have saved me a few years of living without Black Flag and Saint Vitus. Instead, I was too busy thinking that this was the most bad-ass shit ever.

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