In the first couple years after MTV’s 1981 debut, the fledgling cable network more or less reproduced the 70’s album-oriented rock radio format with video accompaniment, to the exclusion of a number of emerging popular artists (a fact David Bowie bemoaned in ’83). In the mid-80s, the network diversified: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” broke the color barrier in 1984, and in the following years, the network moved toward edgier music with shows like Headbanger’s Ball in ’85 (originally Heavy Metal Mania) and, a few years later, Yo! MTV Raps.
In 1986, another show appeared that solidified MTV’s status—for a few years at least—as a genuine source for new, “alternative” music, before that term became an empty marketing word. Tucked away in a midnight to 2 A.M. slot, 120 Minutes initially “guided viewers through the late ‘80s college rock landscape, which was largely inspired by trends happening in the UK at the time.”
So writes Tyler at Tylerc.com, who hosts the hugely impressive 120 Minutes Archive, a recreation of the 27-year run of the two-hour music video, news, and interview show that broke many an “alternative” artist in the U.S. and gave many more a platform to promote their music, causes, and personalities. Enter the archive here.
I well remember staying up late, the volume turned down as low as possible so as not to wake the family, and catching videos for the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” (above) and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” among so many other bands art-pop, new wave, post-punk, industrial, etc. The show was like a video analogue to Trouser Press—and browsing the online database of that “’bible’ of alternative rock” will give you a good sense of 120 Minutes’ breadth. Though it featured a very healthy mix of hardcore, electronic, and new wave music from both sides of the pond, the show often seemed to be dominated by British bands like the Cure (whose Robert Smith once guest hosted), Depeche Mode, the Psychedelic Furs, and (second from top) Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’ post-Clash project, which Lou Reed discusses briefly in the clip at the top from his 1986 stint as a guest host. (See several more clips of his hosting here.)
In the 90s, 120 Minutes became a showcase for much more homegrown product as the “blender of post-punk, goth, industrial, and jangle-rock gave way… to a coalesced grunge movement” after the seismic debut of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, with the likes of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, the Dandy Warhols, and the Smashing Pumpkins taking over for much of the British new wave. Those who came of age in the 90s will remember the show’s host Matt Pinfield's obsessive, rock critic’s approach to “the rise and fall of alternative rock.” Soon, the show became a heavily eclectic mix: Brit pop arrived (along with the baggy Madchester of the Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, etc.), and “post-grunge bands, left of center singer-songwriters, west coast ska-inspired bands, and alternative hip hop acts” joined the playlist.
The mid-nineties seem like golden years in retrospect. Flush with cash, record companies threw money at anything vaguely Nirvana-shaped, which enabled a number of excellent bands and artists to break out of their local scenes and into larger studios and stages like the traveling circus of Lollapalooza. (The situation also produced a drag of derivative, dumbed-down awfulness.) Scroll through the playlists Tyler C has compiled for 1994, for example, a year I fondly, mostly, remember, to get a sense of the range of artists and genres the show embraced by this time—from the hammering industrial-metal of Ministry (above) to the hazy, ethereal psych-folk of Mazzy Star (below). Post-Nirvana "alternative rock" went so mainstream that the network eventually ran a companion show every weeknight called Alternative Nation, so named despite the fact that "alternative" came to mean precisely the opposite of the outsider status it had once described.
The boom times couldn’t last. As the millennium waned, so did the heyday of alt-rock music videos. Reality TV and bubblegum pop took over. “In the era of TRL," writes Tyler C, "the future of 120 Minutes on MTV was uncertain." As MTV relegated music videos—once its raison d'etre—to the margins, 120 Minutes became MTV’s “de facto rock show,” then moved to MTV 2, then off the air altogether in 2003 after a 17-year run. Then, as indie rock ascended to popularity, the show was revived for a 2003-2011 run as Subterranean and again as 120 Minutes until 2013.
Though Tyler C's exhaustive archive contains few actual clips from the show, it does document 120 Minutes' entire history, from its underground late 80s inception, through the mainstream 90s, and into the subdued 2000's, with playlists from each episode and, writes Buzzfeed, "histories of what bands played, descriptions of tours the show appeared on, and anecdotes where possible." You can watch full episodes of the show's last couple years with Matt Pinfield on MTV Hive (Many, like this one, broadcast from New York's Cake Shop).
The archive, Tyler told Buzzfeed, resonates with Gen X'ers because "it's all about nostalgia"—and I can certainly testify to that effect---and appeals to younger people "because that era of music in the '90s was so important. It was the age of EVERYTHING alternative." For those of us who lived through the decade, and who aged out of MTV's demographic around the time that Tyler aged in, it's also an opportunity to catch up with later seasons of the show we probably missed. They may be as essential someday---in their own way---as the ones we so wistfully recall.