Remembering Headbanger’s Ball

I’m going with the anniversary theme again today, and this one wasn’t something I was originally planning on but it fell in my lap so I decided to run with it. On April 18, 1987, MTV aired the first episode of Headbanger’s Ball. The first episode featured guest hosts Lemmy Kilminster and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor of Motörhead. This was the start of an institution that ran for 8 years on Saturday nights on MTV.

While MTV had previously flirted with an all-metal show called Heavy Metal Mania, hosted by Dee Snider, Headbanger’s Ball would become the true home of metal through the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. It was blocks of all metal music videos, with interviews, live footage and occasional off-the-wall content sprinkled in.

Guests hosts filled the first handful of episodes, then MTV VJ’s began hosting the gig. Kevin Seal was an early host, then Adam Curry ran the show for a few years. In the ’80’s, MTV kept the programming mostly true to the music of the time – hair metal. There were heavier bands played at times though, and Headbanger’s Ball was the only time on MTV to see thrash, power metal and other forms not related to the hair bands.

For me personally I saw occasional episodes of the Curry-hosted shows, but it would be into 1990 when I became an every-week watcher of the Ball. By this point Riki Rachtman was the host and the show transitioned away from hair metal and into the more aggressive strains of the genre. The studio got a set designed by Rob Zombie at one point, the hours were expanded and Headbanger’s Ball was one of the most-watched programs on MTV.

The early ’90’s period of the Ball saw a slew of bands get airtime – thrash mainstays like Slayer and Megadeth, legends like Ozzy, and a lot of new blood from a lot of metal avenues came up on the show. The new grunge acts got some Ball time, like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. Rap metal like Biohazard was around before nu-metal was a thing. The “alt-metal” scene was very well represented on the Ball, with acts like Danzig and Type O Negative getting frequent appearances. And extreme metal also got in the act a bit, with Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel getting some airtime.

I don’t remember exactly when it was, I’ll peg it sometime in 1994, the writing kind of started to appear on the wall for the Ball. The show would lose an hour of true programming and that got swapped with something called The Countdown to the Ball. The countdown played ten videos that were popular elsewhere on MTV, stuff like Pearl jam and whatnot.

The end of the main era of Headbanger’s Ball came at the turn of the year in 1995. In typical corporate TV fashion, no announcement or farewell episode was given. Rachtman and the staff were simply called and told not to come back to work after filming what wound up being the final episode. MTV ran a show called Superock in the old Ball timeslot awhile later, before airing re-runs of The Real World 24/7 and giving up on music videos altogether.

I was one of many pretty upset with the sudden demise of the show. It was a fantastic place to learn about new bands and upcoming releases. Remember, this was just before the Internet became a household thing – this kind of information was not at everyone’s fingertips or instantly accessible. It was a few years before the Internet became a reliable source of news and commerce. Seriously, you should have seen some of the websites up in 1995 – it was unreal.

So Headbanger’s Ball went away. Metal went into a fairly dark place in the late 1990’s, but then came roaring back in the early 2000’s. And with it, MTV saw fit to bring back the Ball. It showed up on MTV2, again with guest hosts in the beginning but with a long run from Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta at the helm. The show has gone through various cancellations and renewals over the years both on MTV and online, so its status today is murky at best.

For me and many other young metalheads that watched over the 8 years that Headbanger’s Ball ran, it was Saturday night church of the metal variety. We got to see some videos that we knew would be played during the time, and we got to see a lot of stuff we never would have otherwise. This wasn’t MTV, it was a small subset of MTV that happened to catch on with a large fanbase and last even through music’s most seismic shift in 1991.

We also got to see a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have otherwise in the pre-Internet era – we got a candid interview with Ozzy Osbourne after No More Tears released. We got Megadeth skydiving somewhere “in the vicinity” of Area 51. Alice In Chains went down a waterslide, Soundgarden went bowling, and a bunch of acts went across the Iron Curtain to play the Moscow Peace Festival, with MTV and Headbanger’s Ball right there on the action. Even in more simple TV studio interviews, we got candid talk from bands all over the metal spectrum.

For the 2000’s MTV2 revival, I’ll say this – the show did a lot to put metal back into the consciousness, and also brought a lot of the 2000’s era extreme metal into a new light. The show would be hosted for awhile by Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta, still today an advocate for heavy music far and wide.

But nothing for me will replace the original. It was Saturday nights, skipping over the run of Saturday Night Live and choosing instead to wreck my neck for a few hours with first Adam Curry, then mainly Riki Rachtman and the truly heavy tones that came from his tenure on the gig. Riki today is doing spoken word tours across the country recounting any number of experiences, including Headbanger’s Ball, and I hope to catch one someday.

It was Saturday nights from 11 to 1, for me in the Central time zone. Then for awhile 10 to 1, then 11 to 2, then one day it all went away without so much as a thanks. But the work done by Riki and the Headbanger’s Ball staff, the fans of metal worldwide, and most importantly the bands themselves, lives on all these years later. Headbanger’s Ball was how we found this stuff and was our church, and is very responsible for a way of life that continues 28 years after the show originally went off the air. It’s one memory of sitting in front of the TV that I’ll truly never forget.

This is an apparently unofficial compilation of a bunch of HB highlights over the years. Worth checking out if the video stays up.

6 thoughts on “Remembering Headbanger’s Ball

  1. In Australia we never got this screened. We heard about it but never watched it. Although some music videos shows in Australia tried doing something similar, it was never really advertised properly or it was on at 3am or something stupid like that.

    Liked by 1 person

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