30 Years Ago: MTV’s Headbangers Ball Premieres With Motorhead Mirth
On April 18, 1987, Headbangers Ball premiered on MTV. According to an unofficial fan site, the inaugural show featured clips by Cinderella ("Somebody Save Me"), Dokken ("Dream Warriors"), Whitesnake ("Still of the Night"), Accept ("Balls to the Wall"), Kiss ("Tears Are Falling") and Poison ("Talk Dirty to Me"), among others.
The first episode was co-hosted by Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister and Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor, who were in fine, humorous form as they introduced and announced videos from Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard, as well as an interview with a then-new Tesla.
Lemmy started one segment wearing swimming goggles and said, "This is Jacques Cousteau from Motorhead. This is the underwater version of heavy metal. So heavy -- I mean, look at the Titanic, that was heavy metal." In response, Taylor shrugged his shoulders and quipped, "It sunk. The Titanic was so heavy, it sunk." Later, the pair did some slapstick comedy involving Taylor hitting himself in the head with a metal dustpan, and had to be cajoled into reading off Motorhead's tour dates for the upcoming week.
Other early Headbangers Ball episodes were just as loose and unpredictable, mainly because of their metal star hosts. The Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams did a segment with a gigantic video of live maggots crawling around on something projected behind her, while King Diamond did his interstitial segments in front of an altar-like display of burning candles and a skull.
During the same episode, he read "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in an ominous voice, and also memorably turned around to reveal the letters MTV on the back of his cape, which promptly burst into flames as a segue into another video.
On Oct. 24, 1987, a young Guns N' Roses made their first-ever appearance on MTV and ended up destroying the set at the urging of the somewhat-outclassed VJ, Smash.
W.A.S.P.'s Blackie Lawless co-hosted with bandmate Chris Holmes -- on a show where they premiered the Ghoulies II theme "Scream Until You Like It" -- and Headbangers Ball's second episode was co-hosted by the somewhat-improbable duo of future radio star Howard Stern and Mountain's Leslie West.
Despite the show's lighthearted nature, there was an air of legitimacy surrounding it, even as it worked to find its footing and voice. Ozzy Osbourne introduced his new guitarist Zakk Wylde on the show, while both Ace Frehley and Ronnie James Dio cut professional figures as hosts.
On Halloween 1987, Headbangers Ball took the form of a special show featuring concert footage of Helloween, Armored Saint and Grim Reaper.
Headbangers Ball premiered after a tumultuous few years for metal videos both at MTV and in pop culture. The PMRC released its notorious "Filthy Fifteen" in 1985 — a list featuring plenty of metal — while Billboard notes that in February 1985, MTV president and CEO Bob Pittman told the publication the channel had "pulled way back on heavy metal," especially bands "having only a heavy metal appeal."
Still, in September 1985, Billboard reported MTV was going to be a "testing" a weekly show called Heavy Metal Mania starting in October, which was due to air every Thursday at 10PM. Like Headbangers Ball, this show featured artist interviews, news segments and tons of metal videos. The show ended up largely being hosted by Twisted Sister's Dee Snider.
By May 1986, Heavy Metal Mania had moved to a monthly format, according to a Billboard special section on heavy metal that featured MTV's senior vice president of programming Les Garland discussing the channel's fraught relationship with heavy metal. He singled out Heavy Metal Mania as a sign of MTV's support of the genre, but also noted the channel had actually reduced the number of heavy metal videos it played well before the PMRC had raised objections to the genre.
"Basically, we found that our playlist wasn't balanced, that there was too much heavy metal," Garland said, adding that the three or four metal videos airing in some hours was "inspiring a negative reaction" in weekly audience tests.
Still, by 1987, the channel couldn't ignore the growing mainstream popularity of the genre, and launched the 90-minute Headbangers Ball. In addition to the rock-star hosts, MTV VJs such as Kevin Seal, "Downtown" Julie Brown, Adam Curry and then Riki Rachtman also hosted the show, some more permanently than others.
By the time Rachtman came on board, Headbangers Ball had expanded to two hours and was a staple of MTV's programming, so popular that it even spawned a 1989 tour with Anthrax, Exodus and Helloween. The show ran until 1995 — but by then the kind of hard rock that crossed over into the alternative realm (e.g. Soundgarden, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots) had infiltrated the playlist.
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