Back in the early days of MTV, the channel didn’t just air videos from well-known AOR, classic rock, and new wave acts. An annual contest called MTV’s The Basement Tapes pitted videos from unsigned bands against one another, and let viewers choose one winner, who would earn a record deal. (Sound familiar?) More notably, from 1983 to 1987, the channel aired an underground music show called I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge, which (naturally) skewed toward bands signed to the label. But inarguably the king of all underground ’80s and ’90s music was 120 Minutes, which aired for (of course) two hours weekly starting in March 1986.
To commemorate the occasion, Consequence Of Sound tracked down early host/producer Dave Kendall, who actually came up with the idea for the show’s concept and convinced MTV to air it. “By far the most important thing about 120 Minutes was that it acted as a distribution channel for organic musical produce, if you will,” he says. “The only other outlet for non-mainstream music at the time was a few local college radio stations, because unlike in the U.K., mainstream U.S. radio stations were not open to new ideas.”
As the exhaustive 120 Minutes playlist archive run by Tyler C. reveals, the show went for the odd and obscure from the get-go: In fact, an April 1986 episode hosted by original MTV VJ J.J. Jackson starts with Lou Reed, ends with Peter Frampton, and in between aired clips from The Go-Betweens, Cactus World News, Vanity, and The Blow Monkeys. “Back then the word ‘alternative’ wasn’t being used,” Kendall says. “There was just a hodgepodge of styles: punk, post-punk, gothic, synthpop, new romantic, ska, psychedelic, garage rock, etc. What all the music had in common was passion and a desire to be original and creative. There wasn’t a word for it.”
The Consequence piece highlights how smart and well-written 120 Minutes was, as well as how gloriously unpredictable (or cranky) guests could be. (In fact, Kendall singles out Sex Pistols/Public Image Ltd frontman Johnny Rotten and calls him “a major pain” who talked smack about him on the radio. “Rotten had been my idol as a teenager, and here he is ridiculing me to the nation! So ungrateful!”) Later-era host Matt Pinfield gets a shout-out, of course, but the piece ends with 120 Minutes’ demise and Kendall’s thoughts on how such a show would fare—or not fare—today.
“There would simply be no need for 120 Minutes now, in the same way that there’s no need for a Music Television channel now,” he says. “Well, there is one—YouTube. Now everything is available if you can sort through the clutter. It’s about curation now, and you don’t need ‘professionals’ to do that.”
Of course, YouTube has actually done wonders to preserve the memory of (and live performances on) 120 Minutes. It helps that the show was rather astute at highlighting soon-to-be-popular (or, at the very least, influential) artists. But in hindsight, looking back at some of the more insane episodes—Lou Reed giving no fucks while interviewing a New Music Seminar co-founder in 1986, or the infamous Donal Logue-Greg Dulli 1996 co-hosting job, where both of them spend the time chain-smoking and cracking each other up—underscores just how renegade and weird 120 Minutes was, both when it started and long after it was established.