Watching MTV’s Sunday night alternative staple 120 Minutes while parents had long been asleep was mild suburban rebellion at best, but for a generation of music lovers, it was the essential place to discover left-of-center bands and artists that you couldn’t find anywhere else. PJ Harvey. The Violent Femmes. Morphine, the Sundays and Lou Barlow. All were there, delightfully weird, decidedly ours. Our own private rebellion, musically speaking. On Thursday (Mar. 17), MTV announced that it will bring 120 Minutes back to the air, along with a web version, titled 120 Seconds, each hosted by one of the original 120 VJs Matt Pinfield.
Barring college radio, a CMJ subscription or cool older brother, hosts Lewis Largent, Dave Kendall and Pinfield were surrogate curatorial authorities on alternative artists, ensuring that bands shunned elsewhere received steady rotation on the show. “At 120 Minutes, you didn’t really get the sense that money or favors dominated the playlist like mainstream commercial radio,” Bob Mould, former frontman for Hüsker Dü/Sugar and 4-time guest-host of the show, tells Hive. “You felt that these are actually music people who really cared and weren’t shilling something for the majors.”
“Once upon a time, 120 Minutes was just about the only place you could see a bit of underground rock, certainly the only outlet that ever showed Galaxie 500 videos,” adds Luna and Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham. “I used to stay up late Sunday night to watch the show. One time they had Luna on as guest performers and even let me guest host. I wore a bunny suit, which made it hard to see the teleprompter.”
For artists like Wareham and Mould, as well as “underground” music fans, 120 Minutes became a destination spot in front of a glowing set, with mounds of junk food surrounding fanzines and liner notes. A nod to the alternative when the alternative actually existed.
“MTV was the gold standard at the time,” says Mould. “We made these videos and hoped that they would take notice and when they played your videos. We were all excited about that. 120 Minutes was pivotal and had a lot to do with elevating my career and keeping it going.”
Of course, in the mid-‘90s, nobody could predict the sea change that the Internet and file-sharing would have on music consumption and distribution. Like actual record stores, it’s odd to think that 120 Minutes was the last of its kind; a relic of a bygone era whose name alone smacks of pre-Web hubris (you want me to devote how many minutes to one show?). “Now I have seven minutes to hear 38 new MP3s and I’ll keep one of them,” says Mould, only half-joking. If Radiohead’s new album The King of Limbs can barely get a 2-week life cycle these days, do us mortals even have a shot? 120 Minutes played the same video for weeks on end, a concept as sadly obsolete as a show about videos itself.
In a culture of ravenous music consumption, hosted through an infinite amount of blogs, Twitter feeds and external hard drives, 120 Minutes can fondly be remembered as one of the last places where we could all assemble — physically separated but musically together — and enjoy the same thing at the same time.
“The show really invested in careers,” notes Mould. “The 1990s may have been the last time you see that investment. 120 Minutes elevated new artists and framed them as career musicians. But even now, my attention span is shorter. It’s a whole different game.”
Now with the return of 120 Minutes and the more web-friendly 120 Seconds, the series looks to carry on the traditions that music fans loved back then, only with the help of many glowing screens.
120 Seconds debuts Friday, March 18 here at MTV Hive.