In case you haven’t heard, VH1 Classic recently became MTV Classic. What does that mean to you? For starters, it means less album-oriented rock and more…well, rock. It also means more ’80s and ’90s music, more alternative, and more animated programs that you haven’t seen since you were in high school.
Before anyone gets alarmed that MTV Classic isn’t available in HD, keep in mind just how little that matters. None of that old programming has been remastered in high-def (which would be insanely expensive), but it’s still very cool. MTV Classic is showing a wide array of vintage programming, no doubt with plenty more to come. That’s why we compiled the top 15 shows you absolutely have to see — if only to round out your musical and pop-culture education.
Honorable Mention: First Hour
Trivia buffs already know that the first video ever played on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. Can anyone name any other song by The Buggles without looking one up? Didn’t think so. The early days of MTV programming were repetitive, with much of the music being provided by Rod Stewart, Pat Benetar, Bowie, the Rolling Stones (not the good stuff—stuff like “Hang Fire” and “Waitin’ on a Friend”), and even Cliff Richard. By the way, Cliff, Mork from Ork called. He wants his terrible rainbow-filled ’80s wardrobe back.
MTV Classic is presenting MTV’s first hour of programming totally intact. They’ve even included some vintage commercials. Remember when Dolby was king and 3M was desperate to compete with the Trapper Keeper? No? That’s okay. You can still meet the original five VeeJays, watch The Buggles, and wonder how in the world this thing called MTV ever caught on. Notice too that MTV founder and brainchild Michael Nesmith (yes, the guy from The Monkees) is never mentioned.
15. Headbanger’s Ball
MTV Classic has made it apparent early on that they’re sort of skipping over the ’80s programming and heading straight for the ’90s. This is clearly evidenced in the episodes of Headbanger’s Ball that they show. So far, they’ve played nothing featuring Kevin Seal or even original VeeJay Adam Curry. Riki Rachtman is probably the Headbanger’s Ball host fans remember best. He’s also arguably the coolest, depending on how you define that.
But MTV, if your plan is to play the classics, PLAY ALL THE CLASSICS!! There’s plenty to love in “The Ball,” including performances and interviews from the enormous stars of the era. Wanna see what Cannibal Corpse, Rob Zombie, Bruce Dickinson, or Iron Maiden were talking about 25+ years ago? Now you can, and you don’t even have to sit through a YouTube ad to do it. We hope they’ll be busting out The Ball’s road trip footage too. Van Halen in Cabo, Danzig at Oktoberfest, or Tijuana with Anthraxx would all be awesome to see again.
14. Clone High
We’re not sure how highly this show ranks on the vintage scale, but lots of fans are thrilled that Clone High is coming back to TV. Never seen it? Then you’ll want to know that it’s an MTV animated show that began in Canada. It features a cast of historical figures as teenagers in the same high school. It’s hilarious, satirical, and probably smarter than most of its audience at the time.
That’s why it was cancelled after a single season but went on to garner a strong fan following and repeated requests for more. Which makes sense, considering that Clone High was created and developed by the team that brought you everything from the Jumpstreet movies, Friends, Boy Meets World, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and the awesome Lego Movie. With only 13 episodes in existence, who knows how long MTV Classic will air these lovable clones. That probably means you should set your DVR so you don’t miss them.
13. Pimp My Ride
Before Xzibit was known as a guy with massive tax problems that’s been memed more than any other MTV alum, he was lauded as a rapper and the host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride. After fans got over their disappointment that this wasn’t a Cribs-style show about pimps and their cars, they began to really dig this half-hour-long program featuring regular people getting their dream cars.
But wait. Pimp My Ride wasn’t about car giveaways. Rather, the guys at West Coast Customs (and later, Galpin Auto Sports) would take sad, horrible cars and totally restore them before installing an insane amount of speakers, TV screens, and fun accoutrements that fit the lifestyle of the driver. Viewers have seen cars outfitted with hot tubs, bubble machines, water dispensers, and even flames that leap out of the tail pipe — though they were only allowed to do that once.
It’s no secret that MTV Classic is showing a few things that started out on not-your-kids-music channel, VH1. One such program is Storytellers, which is a lot like Unplugged but with more talking. This show has always been aimed at an older, more mellow audience, which is why it began with oldster musicians like Ray Davies, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Garth Brooks, and Sting. Even when they brought in modern acts like Black Crows, Counting Crows, or Sheryl Crow (sensing a theme here?) the vibe was consistently low key.
Storytellers focused more on the artists themselves rather than just the music, which is cool for budding musicians looking to humanize their heroes. The show offered just under 100 episodes, every last one of them well worth your time. Especially awesome eps of Storytellers include Pearl Jam, David Bowie, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Melissa Etheridge, and Natalie Merchant all telling tales of their lives, careers in music, and how their songs came to be.
Even if you harbor a strong dislike for Carson Daly — and many, many people do — there’s still plenty to love about the show that began as MTV Live. The network mooshed a few shows together, including MTV Live, Total Request, and Dial MTV. The resulting juggernaut became one of MTV’s most reliable shows, ratings wise. Sadly, that also meant Carson Daly had become a household name.
Everybody and their English cousin ended up on Total Request Live, later shortened to the hipper TRL. If MTV networks love anything, it’s abbreviating their show titles in order to capture the offhanded brevity of youth…or something. If you tuned in back in the day to hear Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, or catch up with the hot boy band of the hour, this is the show for you. If you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to those people, TRL is pretty hilarious now. Remember back when you couldn’t pick Justin Timberlake out of a lineup? (Sigh), simpler times…
Another show famous for launching a mediocre performer to stardom, Jackass and Johnny Knoxville are now household names. The show spawned at least 4 spinoff shows, a couple of movies, a video game, and dozens (if not hundreds) of trips to the emergency room. Had they wanted to, we’re confident that the creators of Jackass could have made a spinoff of emergency room doctors responding to the stories of how people hurt themselves imitating stunts they saw on Jackass. Now that’s entertainment!
The show was produced by MTV after a bidding war ignited between them, Comedy Central, and Saturday Night Live. Jackass taught MTV viewers valuable lessons about the best way to get maced, what not to do with a shopping cart, and where not to put fireworks for optimal results. The gang even showed us how to take a bullet with grace and dignity. Just kidding. Nothing and no one on Jackass comported themselves with dignity or grace. But c’mon, that’s not what anyone was there for. MTV Classic is showing the old eps, as well as the movies. Enjoy!
9. 120 Minutes
Can anyone really explain what makes music “alternative?” We can all name examples from the genre. But when it comes to defining it, we’ve got nothing. Starting in 1986, 120 Minutes attempted to answer that very question. Featuring alt-rock bands like Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, or KMDFM, 120 Minutes introduced viewers to new bands, a new genre, and a new way of looking at youthful music — mainly for suburban white kids. Also found on the show are more forgettable acts like Slow Drive, Bronski Beat, and Kitchens of Distinction.
120 Minutes sometimes gave world premiere status to new videos they were confident would make a splash. These included “Been Caught Stealin’” by Jane’s Addiction, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by…well, you know who it’s by. This show was originally hosted by the five original VeeJays, then a few random people, then Matt Pinfield, who became the name most associated with the show.
8. The Real World Season 1
This writer has a very specific memory of the first time I watched The Real World. A friend called me up at home (people used to talk on phones attached to walls in those days) to tell me that one of our high school classmates was on MTV. Turns out, it was Andre Comeau. We’d been in Fiddler on the Roof together, because high school. He had been cast in a “reality” show (what the heck is THAT? we all thought) called The Real World.
Apparently, the “real world” is where MTV pays your rent and you get to hang out playing pranks on your housemates all day. The Real World has gone through major changes over the years, and introduced viewers to people and concepts considered to be ahead of their time. If you remember Puck as a VeeJay, or wept openly when Pedro Zamora died, you’ll probably dig seeing reruns of The Real World. MTV Classic has promised to show all existing seasons of the show—which has since become the longest-running show in the history of the network.
Should MTV follow up on that promise, keep a sharp eye out for the release of season 3, which counts a young aspiring comic writer named Judd Winick (best known for bringing Jason Todd, aka the Red hood, back from the dead) amongst its cast.
7. Behind the Music
The stereotype of a famous musician is a poorly socialized womanizer who loves booze, drugs, fame, and a garage full of cool cars and vintage motorcycles. Behind the Music is the show that took those stereotypes and…let’s face it, proved most of them right. It’s through this show that we learned about the bickering, love triangles, drugs, alcohol-fueled accidents, and emotional trauma that made the music industry what it is today. Or at least what it was in the ’90s.
You’d think after ’60s legends all overdosed or turned into Grace Slick that ’80s musicians would learn from those cautionary examples. But no, ten minutes of hearing Leif Garrett talk about his life proves that theory false. Behind the Music began with controversial performers like MC Hammer and Milli Vanilli, they eventually left us fascinated by Quiet Riot, Bay City Rollers, Ratt, Donny & Marie, and a bunch of other bands we didn’t realize we gave a damn about.
6. Aeon Flux
Everybody loved the experimental animated series Liquid Television, but MTV Classic has not yet announced its return. However, they are giving us classic animated eps of the LT standout show Aeon Flux. If you haven’t seen it, or you’ve only seen the sucktacular film, you should know that characters Aeon Flux and Trevor Goodchild are the protagonists (though sometimes antagonists) in a dystopian future where everything is clean and sterile and falling down clumsily rarely gets anyone’s attention.
Aeon Flux became a comic book, a live-action movie starring Charlize Theron, and a video game. Peter Chung, Korean animator and the show’s creator, endeavored to create a narrative that made viewers consider the world of action heroes more deeply and in greater detail than blockbuster films. Whether or not he succeeded is up to the viewer. What’s most amazing about Aeon Flux is how the main character kept on dying and coming back. Anyone would swear she was Superman.
5. The Maxx
If you’ve ever read a comic book, you’re probably familiar with the name Alan Moore. If not, drop what you’re doing and go buy a copy of Watchmen. Done? Good. The Maxx began as a ’90s comic book written by Moore, along with Sam Keith and Bill Messner-Loebs. The main character is sort of like Spawn. He’s brooding, dark, violent, and fiercely protective of those he deems worthy. The Maxx’s main adversary is a serial rapist named Mr. Gone. In addition to a cartoonish reality, characters sometimes retreat to “the outback,” which represents their subconscious mind. Rape survivor Julie (who has a compelling back story, considering) becomes a goddess in her own outback, and is protected by The Maxx.
4. Pop-Up Video
Another great show that began on VH1 was a concept eventually stolen by other music networks, not to mention movie distributors, and the showrunners of USA’s Up All Night. We all know the concept: videos are shown while “pop-up” balloons materialize on the screen, revealing little-known factoids about the video’s inception, production, stars, and the difficulties associated with all of it.
Did you know Chris Isaak ended up dating the model from the “Wicked Game” video? Not aware that Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is not patriotic, or that “Every Breath You Take” is about stalking, not romance? If you watch Pop-Up Video, you’ll learn all that and more.
MTV Classic promises airings of all the seasons of the show. They also make new eps every now and then, so the more you watch, the better chance we have of getting new eps. Your mission is clear. Make it so.
3. Beavis and Butthead
A few seconds of those trademark laughs and we all know what show we’re talking about. Fans were elated to hear that MTV Classic was showing Beavis and Butthead again. Their inexplicable ability to remain cool has perplexed fans and Don Henley alike. The concept? Two losers with zero parental supervision and the palest grasp of basic life skills get into minor adventures, try unsuccessfully to “score” with chicks, and make it through a day at school without ending up in McVicker’s office. (Principal McVicker, by the way, is named for the rock opera “McVicar” written by the great Pete Townsend).
Mike Judge gave us a show that was stupidly hilarious, dangerous to imitate, and pretty dang unkind to frogs. It also started a few fires, but we’re not sure Judge, Beavis, Butthead, or even MTV can really be blamed for that. The problem? So far, MTV Classic is only airing the “new” shows from 2011. Not only is 2011 not classic, but that new crap isn’t really the Beavis and Butthead anybody wants. We’re not so sure the rumored live-action version is, either.
Before anyone complains that a spinoff is higher on our list than the original show, we urge you to sit down and watch a few episodes of Daria. While Butthead and Beavis have their appeal, Daria Morgendorfer is a wonderful character — the kind people can actually related to. She’s smart, creative, honest, and annoyed with how much BS she’s expected to deal with in a given day.
Her family is normal, which is to say fairly dysfunctional. Daria’s friends and classmates may be real enough to give you flashbacks. The music is great, her adventures are funny, and her teen angst is pitch perfect. Even Daria’s mom turns out to be awesome every once in a while. If you’ve never watched Daria, or if it’s been a while, treat yourself to an afternoon with Daria, Jane, Quinn, Trent, and all the other residents of Lawndale. It may be a “Sick, Sad World,” but it’s a great watch all the same.
If the true purpose of MTV is to bring us music in a way we’ve never seen before, no show does that as well as Unplugged. The show was raw and honest for several reasons. Obviously, all of the performances were acoustic — at least in the beginning. Small spaces and intimate audiences gave viewers a closer look at artists we thought we knew.
Seeing a band you liked on Unplugged was also a good way to see if they were all flash, or if they really had talent. Take away all the stage shows, pyrotechnics, huge screaming crowds, and flashing fresnell lighting, and we’re left with people, unplugged instruments, and music. Man…the music. It wasn’t long until MTV started offering Unplugged performances for sale, since they turned out to be better than a lot of big studio albums of the day. Noteworthy eps include Eric Clapton, the Page/Plant reunion, Oasis, Hole, and Jethro Tull.
What have YOU been watching on MTV Classic? What shows do you hope they’ll bring back? Tell us all about it in the comments.