The two great cultural firestorms born in the 1950s—television and rock-and-roll—have been intertwined from the first time viewers and listeners tuned in and turned on to these new media, thereby setting the square world of the Eisenhower era on its ear.
Rock’s earliest TV presence of note was Ricky Nelson turning into a bona fide music sensation on his family sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet. After that, kids rushed home to catch the latest sounds and learn the newest dance moves by way of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Thus, by February 1964, when the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, the rock revolution stood as a culture-quaking powder keg and television lit the fuse that finally set it off in full.
Jumping forward a few years, as hard rock, acid rock, and proto-metal gurgled up from garages to top-tier stardom, TV at least attempted to keep pace. Sometimes, network execs even managed not to screw it up.
Here now are 10 examples of showcase-based rock series that did right by hard rock, heavy metal, and punk.
Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert
Syndicated (NBC in major markets), 1973-1981
Record biz bigwig Don Kirshner first alchemized TV and rock-and-rill into mounds of platinum as the original music director of The Monkees. After a falling out with the Prefab Four, Kirshner hit boob tube bubblegum paydirt again by getting animated with The Archies.
For more mature viewers, in 1972, Kirshner oversaw the weekly late-night series ABC in Concert, which kicked off with the schizophrenic lineup of Alice Cooper, Bo Diddley, and Seals and Croft.
A year later, Kirshner split from ABC to launch Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, a syndicated show that aired after Saturday Night Live in New York and other major markets (a fact that led to Paul Shaffer hilariously impersonating Kirshner’s lifeless, nasal delivery on SNL).
Usually simulcast in stereo on a local FM station, Rock Concert showcased live performances by a vast array of artists, and the show never shied away from the hard stuff.
Among those who beamed into America’s living rooms after being introduced in all-too-imitable style by Don himself (and sometimes his daughter) were Kiss, Rush, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Alice Cooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Blue Öyster Cult, Journey, Meat Loaf, New York Dolls, UFO, Grand Funk Railroad, Foghat, Starz, Steppenwolf, and the pride of Kirshner Records and Tapes, Kansas.
Supergroup is the true story of seven not-quite-strangers picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting all rock star.
Shot over twelve days and split into seven episodes, VH1’s Supergroup gathered up a louder-than-life roster of hard rock powerhouses and challenged them to create a new band.
Participating in the process were vocalist Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, guitarist Scott Ian of Anthrax, bassist Evan Seinfeld of Biohazard, rock royalty drummer Jason Bonham, and the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent. Veteran metal wrangler Doc McGhee served as the group’s manager.
That motley crew (which contained no members of Mötley Crüe) managed to whip up an ensemble called Damnocracy and they play a kickass concert in the final episode.
VH1 Behind the Music
VH1, 1997 – present
VH1 Behind the Music is not just most enthralling and entertaining rock and pop music documentary series in any medium; it largely inspired and informed our present Golden Age of nonfiction filmmaking.
Although it’s tough to top the episode in which Leif Garrett sits down with the estranged friend he crippled by driving drunk, the metal-themed Behind the Music installments proved to be instant classics.
On the surface, the stories seem the same—rag-tag underdogs starve in obscurity while trying to make it; immediately upon hitting the big time, everyone turns into Caligula; sex and (especially) drugs get in the way of rock-and-roll; personalities clash, backstage areas get trashed, everything goes to hell, and the original best buddies bust up; a few years go by and, as AC/DC put it, the original underdogs are back in the ring to take another swing.
The fun of Behind the Music, though, was in the individual details, whether it be Iggy Pop exposing himself to Ginger from Gilligan’s Island; Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of ants while partying with Mötley Crüe; or Poison guitarist C.C. DeVille, in his fantastically imitable Brooklyn accent, summing up his fall from glam-metal love god to cocaine-broken wreck holed up in his crumbling Hollywood compound thusly: “It started out as the House of WHORES, and ended up as the House of HORRAS!”
The Midnight Special
In 1973, NBC launched the weekly 90-minute live rock performance series The Midnight Special immediately following Johnny Carson on Friday nights, and the show lit up that spot with reliably awesome sights and sounds for nearly a decade.
Rock-and-roll radio legend Wolfman Jack most frequently hosted The Midnight Special through all of its eight seasons, except for a 1975-76 stretch when Aussie soft rock songbird Helen Reddy handled emcee duties.
As with Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which, curiously, also ran from 1973 to 1981, The Midnight Special showcased the biggest bands of the day playing live—no lip-synching, no trickery. Each week’s roster spanned a multitude of genres
Early music videos also figured into the mix, as did vintage clips of ’50s and ’60s rockers, and comedy routines from the hippest comics of the era, in particular Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Billy Crystal.
Hard rock, punk, and metal acts that guested on The Midnight Special include Kiss, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, Journey, Joe Walsh, Thin Lizzy, REO Speedwagon, Peter Frampton, The New York Dolls, T. Rex, Brownsville Station, Black Oak Arkansas, and Savoy Brown.
Adult Swim, 2006-2013
The berserk, angry, hilarious misadventures of death metal marauders Dethklok fueled the animated extreme rock fantasia Metalocalypse through four spine-snapping, skull-shattering seasons on the Adult Swim network.
It’s violent, it’s insane, it’s awesome, and it’s pure metal.
Set in a universe where Dethklok is not only the most popular band of all time but “the seventh largest economy on Earth,” the group’s members each exemplify a different heavy metal archetype.
Frontman Nathan Explosion is a brooding, Norwegian-style black metal figure with ass-length raven hair and an occasional penchant for corpse paint.
Lead guitar ace Skwisgaar Skwigelf is a towering Swedish death metal blonde, modeled in part after the elves in The Lord of the Rings.
Rhythm guitarist Toki Wartooth is a mountain dweller who bears perhaps more than a passing resemblance to Mikael Akerfedlt from Opeth.
Pickles, the percussionist, is a balding Wisconsin rocker.
Bass player William Murderface is a squat, potbellied, uproarious mess of bad tattoos, a Rudolf Schenker circa 1984 mustache, and a Klaus Meine circa 1984 haircut. On top of that, Murderface is rumored to be based on Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler.
The single greatest rock omnibus program ever aired, Night Flight ran throughout the wee hours on Fridays and Saturdays on the USA network.
Truly capturing the “anything-is-possible” element of underground music, art, and cinema in the ’80s, there was never anything akin to a “typical” Night Flight episode, but certain elements regularly turned up in various forms.
Among Night Flight’s most potent ingredients were band documentaries, concert films, movies set in the rock world, experimental shorts, ancient monster flicks, art films, campy sci-fi serials, wacky televangelist clips, banned cartoons, profiles of crackpots and visionaries, shock rock expeditions, and music videos that MTV wouldn’t dare show.
Some of the movies Night Flight turned into cult sensations were the proto-riot-grrl polemic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; The Firesign Theater’s J-Men Forever; the Aussie punk drama Breaking Glass; and Another State of Mind, a “get in the van”-style video documentary following original hardcore heroes Social Distortion.
The “Heavy Metal Heroes” segment focused on classic hard rockers and the burgeoning thrash movement. “New Wave Theatre,” a half-hour that usually closed Night Flight, showcased early-’80s Los Angeles punk, hardcore, and art rock outfits, hosted by the remarkable and multitalented Peter Ivers.
Even describing all this is selling Night Flight short. In retrospect, that this glorious experiment thrived for as long as it did and was as popular as it became seems nothing short of miraculous.
At long last, a Night Flight website has launched that archives much of the original material. It also keeps the show’s spirit alive by exploring, analyzing, and delivering the weirdest, deepest, most thought provoking, and most profoundly rocking elements of the Internet in genuine Night Flight fashion.
“Get Back in the Daze,” indeed.
That Metal Show
VH1 Classic, 2008-Present
That Metal Show delivers exactly what its title promises: metal musicians, metal fans, metal news, metal contests, metal guest stars, metal debates, metal interviews, and three metal-obsessed hosts with their minds on metal and metal on their minds.
Laid-back, up-close, and enormously personal, That Metal Show delivers the music’s most enduring icons and most dynamic up-and-comers alike in a manner that could never be achieved elsewhere. Huge stars talk to Eddie, Jim, and Don—and, by extension, the audience in the studio and the viewers at home—as though we were all longtime friends, just kicking back and catching up.
The roster of visitors to That Metal Show is jaw dropping. It’s star-studded to the point that one wonders what metal giants haven’t appeared on the series.
As testament to That Metal Show’s scope, mastery, and brilliance for putting even the most challenging personalities at east, when Guns N’ Roses front-maniac Axl Rose finally decided to do a TV interview in 2011, this is where he did it.
Could #1 belong to any other show? Of course not.
MTV aired Headbangers Ball on Saturday nights from midnight to 2am, thereby indoctrinating an entire generation into metalhead status with metal music videos, interviews with metal bands, and metal news, all of which contributed to a communal feeling as young longhairs across America sat, wide-eyed, and realized: “I am not alone!”
Growing out of Dee Snider’s once-a-month Heavy Metal Mania TV specials, Headbangers Ball went through a couple of hosts before hitting Sunset Strip paydirt with Riki Rachtman, owner of L.A.’s Cathouse rock club, which routinely featured many of the bands featured on “The Ball.”
Aside from exposing artists in virtually every metal subgenre to the most eager rock TV audience of the decade, Rachtman regularly mounted road trips that took bands out of the MTV studio and into all manner of unexpected situations.
Rachtman took Megadeth skydiving, for example, and downed steins of brew with Danzig during the Munich Oktoberfest. Most memorable of all, though, was Alice in Chains’ wet and wild excursion to New Jersey’s legendarily dangerous water attraction, Action Park.
“The Ball” launched on MTV at the peak of pop metal and surged through the changes in music through the next eight years. In January 1995, when metal had been usurped from the rest of the MTV schedule by alternative bands, the network yanked Headbangers Ball without ceremony or forewarning.
An era, truly, had ended.
Various iterations of Headbangers Ball have returned to MTV2 and other sub-networks through the years since, but it’s that original run that will stand forever as heavy metal’s greatest television moment.
Long may our memories bang.