Music

Smells Like MTV: Music Video and the Rise of Grunge

Bob Batchelor

MTV’s central role in delivering grunge to a national audience in the early 1990s demonstrated the network’s power as a creator and definer of culture, and the reaction of many of grunge’s iconic figures against the video medium revealed the gulf between principle and reality.

The first 10 seconds are iconic: an ashen ambiance, dirty Converse canvas high tops bouncing to the beat, white gym socks, sullen cheerleaders, a modest guitar intro that quickly builds into a ripping sonic assault, and then a peek at a rock star out of the pages of Dr. Seuss -- the striped shirt and straggly hair of Kurt Cobain.

In 1991, it seemed as if Nirvana burst onto the scene, changing music forever. Based on the out-of-nowhere success of the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, dorm rooms and bedrooms across the United States were covered in posters of the band and blown-up images of the cover of its second release Nevermind (a male baby underwater chasing a fishhook with a dollar bill used as bait). Seemingly overnight, fans and critics hailed Nirvana as one of the most important bands in history. Grunge swept the nation.

In retrospect, the rags-to-riches story holds up pretty well, though there certainly was a straightforward “hidden” message on the Nevermind artwork: the innocent, naked baby contrasted with the lure of money on the end of the hook. This notion of selling versus selling out would haunt Cobain for the rest of his short life, as it would other grunge rockers who shot to fame in the early 1990s.

The independent label ethos that led to regional success and became a kind of guiding influence for groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam directly conflicted with the major recording label desire to sell millions of CDs. The rubber met the road when it came to music videos.

In this vein of art versus commerce, it is impossible to discount MTV’s role in breaking Nirvana nationally, just as it had been launching bands for the previous decade. Perhaps for the first time in music history, however, hearing Nirvana on the radio or buying Nevermind on CD was much less important (almost nonexistent) in relation to seeing the band on MTV.

The notion that music television established grunge is antithetical to the movement’s basic roots, which were derived from an underground aesthetic. The reaction of many of grunge’s iconic figures against videos -- from Kurt Cobain appearing on MTV dressed in a bright yellow prom dress to Pearl Jam’s refusal to do videos after its debut album Ten -- reveals the gulf between principle and reality.

However, the popularity of music videos and the power of the network forced grunge bands to enter the video world and the broader mainstream culture, even if they may have despised the situation internally. The road to fame led through MTV, and getting music out meant playing the MTV game, even if coerced.

Video Kills the Radio Star

The history of the music industry is fueled by innovation and technology. From Thomas Edison’s invention of the cylinder phonograph in 1877 to the advent of MP3s and digital music in recent years, each subsequent invention builds upon its predecessor, thus revolutionizing music performance and how artists and music are sold, and guides or influences consumer response. The intersection of performance (the music and musician) and audience response (people listening and/or purchasing) defines the business.

As innovation enabled music to become a visual aspect of culture, artists responded by transforming into performers across media channels. Fans not only enjoyed seeing their favorites, but soon were comfortable with the cross-platform approach and even expected to have opportunities to view artists. Seeing the Beatles or Elvis Presley in movies or on The Ed Sullivan Show, for example, became more routine in a culture dominated by film and television.

Throughout most of the 20th century, though, despite the power of the viewing screen, radio and albums still ruled in terms of how people most often accessed music and musicians. Gradually, however, with the proliferation of cable television and more TV options for viewers to choose from, the situation began to change. Then, in 1981, the collective demand rang out from the Police to Pat Benatar hyping the new station: “I want my MTV!” The revolution was on.

In the decade from 1981 to 1991, MTV grew into a creator of youth culture. First, the cable network rode a wave of telegenic British groups and musicians, such as Duran Duran. Then, it put burgeoning pop stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson into heavy rotation. In the mid- to late-1980s, the network then turned to glam metal, promoting the music of Motley Crue, Ratt, and Van Halen to the hearts of mainstream America. MTV grew into the epicenter of the music industry, with its VJs becoming household names (remember the feathered-hair omnipotence of Adam Curry?) and its shows like Buzz Bin and World Premiere Videos driving fans to record stores.

As the 1980s bled into the 1990s, a new vibe bubbled to the surface, as teen Gen Xers grew into more socially-conscious and thoughtful college students and young adults. While hair metal remained popular, MTV shifted gears to a new sound represented by the first alternative, college-radio band to launch into superstardom: R.E.M. In February 1991, the underground favorite released “Losing My Religion”, [video] a pop- and mandolin-infused single quickly placed in heavy rotation on the network. As a result, R.E.M. skyrocketed from breakout band to global domination, which cemented the marriage of MTV and alternative music.

Later in 1991, MTV’s championing of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” showcased darker, more angst-ridden music. While the “grunge” label already existed, soon commentators and others called the whole post-Nirvana alternative movement grunge, packaging it for easy consumption by the Middle America buying public. MTV played an instrumental role in making this music mainstream, since many music fans received their first exposure to Nirvana and other grunge bands from the cable channel rather than conventional or niche radio.

So, while MTV may have supported musicians in the past, it seemed that a new era began with R.E.M. and Nirvana. Into the foreseeable future the “next big thing” would come from MTV, rather than well up from independent or underground sources. MTV executive John Canelli explained to the New York Times in late 1992: “We have a pretty big role in spreading something from underground to the heartland. We’re always looking for whatever the next thing is.”

Ironically, it seemed almost natural for grunge bands to hit the mainstream based on MTV playlists. In some cases, as with Nevermind, fans could not hear the song anywhere else. Jason Pettigrew, editor-in-chief of Alternative Press, recalls the video’s impact, despite little radio airplay and the meager number of CDs and albums shipped, explaining, “The ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video got traction and radio finally perked up and said, ‘shit, we better program this.’” More important for music at large, Pettigrew says, “Overnight, the vacuity of the hair metal scene was replaced by slackerness and teenage angst.”

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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