HARD RIFF

MTV Headbangers Ball: Waiting for “the Ball”

Anyone who has had the fortune to grow up in the 90s knows what waiting for MTV and Headbangers Ball was. It was in a different time, a time that went on slower. A time when MTV actually played music videos. There were no instant solutions for anything (except coffee). You couldn’t just type in the name of your favorite band and find every video they had ever made in seconds. If you went to a rock show, you went to participate, not to record videos that you will post later. People were mainly judged by character, and not being good at something was perfectly acceptable.

But, let’s not make this a critique of the world today. My main goal is to take a trip down memory lane, and, if possible take you with me. I want to honor a tv show that united probably millions of people all over the world. My intention is to gather as many people as possible around this article, just like Headbangers Ball used to. And, if I manage to create curiosity, and transfer at least a fraction of the emotions this iconic MTV show stirred in me to the younger generations, I’ll be happy.

The Art in Music

MTV and Headbangers Ball marked my generation (they call us GenX now). The music of the 80s and 90s was the art we were exposed to. Def Leppard, Pantera, Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses were our Picassos, Rembrandts, and Caravaggios.

I mentioned earlier that I consider I was fortunate enough to grow up during the 90s. It’s not the same old cliche story that people were generally better to each other, “the good old days”, etc. That too. But, the real advantage was the value we got out of music that, unfortunately, I don’t think my children will be able to get from music today. Apart from the fact that I truly believe that the music was of higher quality, there was poetry as well.

If you take and dissect lyrics by Alice in Chains, or Skid Row, or Pantera, you will find something that’s simply not very prominent in the music nowadays. You will find expression and poetry. You will find art.

Well, MTV and Headbangers Ball was the collective window that took us to that world of emotions. Every week people all over the world would sit down in front of a screen and witness some kind of beauty.

The Birth of Headbangers Ball

It is safe to say that by the mid-80s heavy metal was “the shit”. Metal was the undisputed #1 musical genre ruling the world. Although those were also the years when different political figures and associations put heavy metal under scrutiny, it only came out stronger. The heat that “conservative America” had put on metal backfired. The public hearings and media exposure designed to give rock music a bad name only generated more attention. Rebellious young generations were drawn to this exciting and fun music by the millions.

The Hosts of the Ball

MTV, which was truly a music television channel back then, embraced the trend, and in June of 1985 started airing “Heavy Metal Mania“. On April 18th, 1987, MTV replaced “Mania” with “the Ball”. The host was no other than Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.

DJ John Brent from the UK originally invented and used the name “Headbangers Ball” in the early 80s. By introducing Snider, MTV expanded the format by adding more band interviews. It was briefly hosted by Kevin Seal, then by VJ Adam Curry, and in the end, the Ball settled with Riki Rachtman at the helm.

Riki became the face of Headbangers Ball and most of us who waited and recorded each and every episode on our VCRs, associate Rick with rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal.

If you were from Europe, on the other hand, heavy metal and hard rock had a face of a lady – Vanessa Warwick.

Headbangers Boom

Headbangers Ball was one of, if not the most popular music show ever on MTV. It was on the air for nearly 8 years. In 1988 and 1989, MTV increased the duration of the show to 3 hours, and there was “Hard 60”, a daily version that aired for an hour every afternoon.

In the beginning, Headbangers Ball mainly focused on mainstream “audience friendly” hair metal. But, in the late 80s, and early nineties this began to change. More and more aggressive, non-mainstream metal bands started getting a fair amount of air time.

The “Ball’s” popularity was growing, and the show began reporting on North American band tours, instead of just doing videos and interviews. These tour reports directly influenced MTV Europe Headbangers Ball tours (began in 2010).

As the end of the 80s was closing in, heavy alternative acts were getting more exposure (Primus, Faith no More, Jane’s Addiction, the Cult). But then, the 90s came, and everything changed. All of a sudden “hair metal” became obsolete. It was almost a dirty word, and its final decline was evident. There was a new force rising on the horizon, and it took the world’s music scene by the horns. Even for us who were there, it was obvious that we were witnesses of something extraordinary. That new force came from Seattle. It was called Grunge.

The Ball Goes Alternative

The good old hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Poison, Quiet Riot, etc., which had been dominant for so many years were chased away by the new wave of alternative and grunge bands. The classic heavy metal mainstays like Metallica, Pantera, Megadeth, had to share the space with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam…

Soon, bands like Stone Temple Pilots, White Zombie, Blind Melon followed suit, and the Ball’s identity changed forever. After that, as a natural consequence, punk and hardcore bands got their share of airtime. The Ramones, The Offspring, Rancid, Bad Religion, and Sick of it All got to be on Headbangers Ball. Although I have heard many people lament the shift in the 90s, I personally think it was a great thing. I am a metalhead first, but I have always loved good punk bands, and in particular, great hardcore acts. But, from the moment I heard their first song, a special place in my heart was unrecoverably taken by Alice in Chains. So, I was really happy to have a show where I could watch Pantera, Metallica, Sick of it All, and Alice in Chains all at once. All the wonderful music I loved was now collected and served on Headbangers Ball.

MTV Cancels Headbangers Ball

In January 1995, without prior notice, the wise people of MTV decided to cancel the show that millions loved. Not only did MTV did not announce the end of the show to the viewers, but it turns out they never said anything to the team neither. Riki Rachtman was simply informed by phone not to come to work the following week.

Needless to say I, as well as the people that loved and watched the Ball for years were outraged. I remember feeling like if my girlfriend had cheated on me, or my friends betrayed me. No one ever truly explained why the show was so abruptly cancelled. I have always had the feeling that some very “wise” people decided it wasn’t profitable any more. I suspect that good old greed played a major role in cancelling one of the greatest music tv shows to ever be aired on tv.

Over the years MTV Europe has attempted to create similar shows (like Superock), but all have failed miserably.

Trying to Revive Headbangers Ball

On May 10, 2003, MTV 2 started to air the show again. The first episode was hosted by Metallica, and the trend of having artists as hosts continued for a long time. The format was very similar to the original (videos and band interviews) but lacked excitement. It felt too scripted.

Since January, 2007, Headbangers Ball simply became the title for a block of metal videos, and not an actual show. Starting in 2008, the show aired erratically, sometimes several hours later than its normal airtime, or not at all.

In September of 2015, Riki Rachtman spoke about a possible return of the original series: “It’s not gonna happen. I tried, I told them I would do it for free, they never even returned my calls.”

Meanwhile in Europe

Although the show didn’t air for years, there are European tours called “MTV Headbangers Ball”. This has been going on since 2016, with the exception of 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It traditionally takes place from late November to mid-December, and features four metal bands.

The Good News

I was ecstatic when I read the news! The Ball is back and so is Riki Rachtman! In March 2021, I read that Rachtman would be hosting The Ball, airing on Gimme Metal TV.

I’ll just let Riki give you the news in his own words:

Even though the first episode premiered on March 27, 2021, I have to be honest and admit I haven’t seen it yet. As I said I was overwhelmed with excitement when I first read the news. But, as time went by, I started feeling uneasy. I know it might sound strange, but then, it might make perfect sense to you.

The best way I can try to explain my mixed feelings is this: I feel like if a girlfriend who dumped me, and I never got over called out of the blue and wanted to meet. Although I’m excited, light-headed, and got my imagination running, I’m also older and realistic. What if she’s not the same person I remember? Has she changed so much that my memories will prove a young man’s naive vision? What if I open up, and get hurt again?

Do you know what I mean?

I am so passionate about music, and this show has meant so much to me, that I’m nervous about investing myself again.

Having said that, I’m going to open a beer, light a cigarette, and put on “the Ball” as soon as I finish this article.

Cheers!

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