The mid-nineteen-nineties was not a time without irony. You may recall that, back then, “alternative” rock had not only gone mainstream, but, in certain regions, had even become the most popular genre of music on the radio. That was certainly true in the Seattle area, where I grew up. And if you wanted to start a rock band there, as writer Adam Cadre remembers, you knew what steps you had to take: “get a record deal, make a video, get it on 120 Minutes, have it become a Buzz Clip, wonder why massive success doesn’t ease the aching void inside.”
If you got into bands like 10,000 Maniacs, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., The Replacements, the Pixies, the Offspring, or Sonic Youth in the mid-nineties (to say nothing of a certain trio called Nirvana), chances are — statistically speaking, at least — that you first saw them on 120 Minutes.
At the peak of its popularity on MTV, the show defined the alternative-rock zeitgeist, introducing new bands as well as bringing new waves of listeners to existing ones. Though most strongly associated with the nineties, it premiered in 1986, hosted by three of the first MTV VJs, J. J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter. 36 years later, you can relive the entirety of 120 Minutes‘ seventeen-year run (with a brief revival in the twenty-tens) on Youtube.
A user named Chris Reynolds has created a playlist that appears to contain every song ever aired on 120 Minutes. (Those have been documented by The 120 Minutes Archive, previously featured here on Open Culture.) Among the playlist’s more than 2,500 videos are songs — Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off,” The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” Fishbone’s “Everyday Sunshine,” R.E.M.’s “Stand” — that will take you back to the pop-cultural eras 120 Minutes spanned. But there are even more — Manufacture’s “As the End Draws Near,” Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Jennifer She Said,” Helmet’s “Milquetoast,” Cause and Effect’s “You Think You Know Her” — that you may well have missed, even if you rocked your way through the eighties and nineties.
The 120 Minutes Archive Compiles Clips & Playlists from 956 Episodes of MTV’s Alternative Music Show (1986-2013)
Watch the First Two Hours of MTV’s Inaugural Broadcast (August 1, 1981)
Watch Nirvana Go Through Rehearsals for Their Famous MTV Unplugged Sessions: “Polly,” “The Man Who Sold the World” & More (1993)
Nirvana Refuses to Mime Along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Top of the Pops (1991)
William S. Burroughs — Alternative Rock Star — Sings with Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, REM & More
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
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