MTV’s ‘120 Minutes’ Turns 30: Remembering a Gen-X Musical Touchstone

MTV’s ‘120 Minutes’ Turns 30: a look back at the crown jewel of MTV programming on its 30th anniversary.

Last week marked a nostalgic milestone for fans of alternative music: MTV’s 120 Minutes turned 30.

The 30th anniversary flew under the radar, fitting for a show that felt like a secret society for seekers of a left-of-center “alternative” to the hair metal and vacuous pop of the 80’s.

Consequence of Sound wrote a lengthy and informative history of the series, which you can read here, but I felt obligated to give a personal account of why this show had such a formative effect on my love of music.

Click here for my list of 40 Most Underrated TV Shows

Launched on March 10th, 1986, the series showed the latest videos from cutting-edge Postpunk, New Wave, Industrial, Punk and Gothic groups…classified as “college rock” before the term alternative would become the 90’s catch-all term.

It was two glorious hours every Sunday from midnight til 2am, which was tough for those still in high school–I had to either turn the volume way down to not wake up the folks (and risk running late to school the following Monday), or set the VCR and watch it the next day. It was worth the effort.

Where else could you see music videos, live performances and interviews from the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Sisters of Mercy, New Order, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Ministry, Sonic Youth and The Cult in the mid-80’s? This was it–until USA’s Night Flight launched in 88.

In addition to those groups, 120 Minutes offered a grab bag of obscure groups that wouldn’t make the leap to bigger success, giving acts like The Screaming Blue Messiah’s, Flesh For Lulu (my personal favorite) and Kommunity Fk a brief time to shine.

For those unlucky souls without access to college radio, 120 Minutes was your lone fix. And for those who had access to those late night transmissions (I heart you KTCU) it was an excellent supplement. 

And a chance to see your heroes in the flesh, with some appropriately eccentric videos (The Church’s bewitching Under The Milky Way and New Order’s wonderfully odd True Faith my two personal favorites).

It was like a special club, a portal to another world of shadowy bands across the globe…who felt quite foreign from my central Texas locale.

When Nirvana hit the mainstream in the 90′s, 120 Minutes got a bigger profile and taste-maker status. Once the underground gets in the spotlight, it became a tad less special, but I watched it all the same. By that time I was in college, and  it was mandatory viewing for my dorm mates and I (and a much welcome study break).

The show rotated hosts over the years, starting original MTV VJ’s Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter and the late JJ Jackson amongst others. Eventually the wisecracking Kevin Seal, became a recurring host (from 87-89). 

During the 90’s incarnation hosts included series creator Dave Kendall, VJ Lewis Largent, and the gravelly voiced pop culture authoritarian Matt Pinfield. 

Watching them hold court in entertaining (and sometimes awkward) interviews with the likes of They Might Be Giants, Smashing Pumpkins, Johnny Rotten, The Ramones, Mojo Nixon and Trent Reznor (in a bizarre Christmas themed episode) proved just as compelling as the videos.

And it was more than just a show: 120 Minutes became its own micro-cottage industry: releasing CD compilations, and even a tour, featuring PiL, Big Audio Dynamite, Blind Melon and Live.

It was a fond destination for American Anglophiles in the mid-90’s, giving us our Britpop fix, and showcased the burgeoning electronica movement of the late 90’s.

By the 00’s, 120 Minutes was relegated to sister network MTV2, during the flagship channel’s shift from music videos to reality TV, and it was cancelled altogether in 2003 (a Pinfield hosted revival lasted from 2011-2013).

MTV has become a sore spot for Gen-Xer’s, the music portion is non-existent, save for the dreadful VMA’s which focus almost exclusively on auto-tuned pop. YouTube is now the only place to see the truly weird and quirky.

But 120 Minutes, like MTV’s other genre specific show Headbanger’s Ball served its purpose, mainlining kids with the coolest stuff before the internet could offer it wholesale. But that made it special…part and parcel of skimming record store bins and disciveting new bands through magazine reviews. While it seems like hyperbole to say it was life-changing…it kinda was.

Happy 30th/RIP 120 Minutes. You are still sorely missed. I don’t know if I could’ve stayed sane in college and high school without you. 

For those feeling nostalgic, you can watch the ENTIRE archive of 120 Minutes here, and I’ve included Amazon links for their ‘Never Mind The Mainstream’ CD series below.

About SLIS

Middle Aged Gen-Exer obsessed with Alternative rock, metal, cult movies, comic books and cable TV.

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