For the past 25 years I’ve regarded July of 1991 as being significant for two reasons. First, it was the month I chopped off the “mullet” hairstyle I’d been wearing since 1986 and began to grow out what might be termed “grunge hair.” And, just as significantly, it was the month I attended the first Lollapalooza festival when it came to Sandstone Amphitheater near Kansas City on July 30th.
I went so I could see Jane’s Addiction, my favorite band at the time. (Given how intensely I experienced music at that age, Jane’s Addiction looms very large in my musical past.) The other, less-familiar-to-me bands on the docket — Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Ice T, Butthole Surfers, and Rollins Band — were just a bonus I got for the $20(!) price of admission.
Much has been made, in retrospect, about the importance of audiocassette mixtapes during that era. But what is less discussed when recalling that era is the influence of VHS-dubbed MTV shows like Yo! MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball, which budding music fans taped, re-watched, and passed along by hand in pre-Internet America. Indeed, in July of 1991, my best psychic preparation for Lollapalooza was an episode of 120 Minutes (MTV’s “alternative” music show) that my friend Craig recorded for me one week before the festival made its Midwest debut.
I never had cable television growing up, so my overall memory of 120 Minutes is pretty spotty. (For example, until I started writing this, I could have sworn the show was called 120 Minutes Into the Future, but I can find no proof that this was ever the case.) I know I didn’t care much for Dave Kendall, the show’s arrogant, faintly weaselly host, and it felt like its rotation favored British alt-pop bands like Jesus Jones and the Candyskins over the heavier American fare I preferred at the time.
Still, in the years before the rise of the World Wide Web (when a person couldn’t just access specific music videos whenever he or she felt like it) that VHS copy of the 120 Minutes Lollapalooza Special became a cherished object. Not only did I watch and re-watch it in the days before the concert, I played it dozens of times (often in the company of friends) in the years that followed. And, while I haven’t set eyes on the tape since I lent it to a girlfriend late in 1993, I can still remember all the songs and videos from that episode.
In hindsight a VHS cassette seems like a ridiculously inefficient way to store and view videos — but it did force a certain discipline on the viewer, since there was no simple and accurate way to skip past songs you didn’t particularly want to listen to. Sixty-five percent of the 120 Minutes Lollapalooza episode had nothing to do with Lollapalooza bands, so (for lack of accurate fast-forwarding) I invariably watched and re-watched tolerable Brit-pop songs by James and The Wonderstuff and catchy Reagan/Bush-era political tracks like REM’s “Talk About the Passion“, and “Dr. Jeep” by The Sisters of Mercy. Some videos, like “Temptation Eyes” by Blake Babies, and “The Whole Truth” by Wartime I grew to despise. Other tracks, like the Butthole Surfers’ Hurdy Gurdy Man, simply perplexed me.
That said, all of the videos from that tape immediately take me back to the emotional texture of being alive in July of 1991 (including the anticipation I felt at what I was about to witness at Sandstone Amphitheater).
Here, divided into Lollapalooza and non-Lollapalooza offerings, are five songs/videos that have stuck with me through sheer dint of having watched and re-watched them so many times on VHS between 1991 and 1993.
Lollapalooza 1991 Tie-In Videos
Jane’s Addiction, “Stop!” I was slightly disappointed that 120 Minutes featured “Stop!” instead of “Been Caught Stealing“, which was a funnier and more iconic video. (That’s how hard it was to access individual music videos back then, especially if you didn’t have cable at home — I was a huge Jane’s fan, yet I’d only seen the “Been Caught Stealing” video once or twice in the year since it had debuted.) Still, I loved the song, and I enjoyed watching the video for the simple fact that I could see what the band members looked like (shirtless and very sinewy, from the looks of it).
There is no real visual aesthetic here — it’s the kind of video one might shoot/edit with an iPad in 2016 — just outdoor concert scenes, footage of band members surfing, shots of a skyscraper, etc. Gangterland novelist Tod Goldberg, whom I would go on to befriend two decades later, is the mock-turleneck-clad youngster in the crowd behind Dave Navarro at 00:49.
Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”: I went on to become a fairly enthusiastic Nine Inch Nails fan in the years that followed, and sometimes I forget that I first heard them via the 120 Minutes VHS tape (I didn’t get a copy of Pretty Hate Machine until I dubbed a friend’s CD that fall). “Head Like a Hole” rocks hard, which is why I liked it, but I was also intrigued by the dirty, wire-strewn aesthetic of the video: the creepy baton-twirling stock footage; the mannequin heads; the dual drummers (with some kind of splatter-sludge on the drumheads); Trent Reznor’s weird dreadlocks. This was an era when part of the charm of watching MTV was the trippy art-school imagery of the videos, and this one certainly reflected that.
Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Kiss Them For Me”: This song and video bewitched me. It didn’t really sound like anything off the Once Upon a Time compilation (my only other exposure to the band), and to this day I’m not really sure what the song is about. I just know listening to it makes me happy.
Siouxsie’s diva persona in this video was so convincing that it was years before I realized she had post-punk-pioneer bona fides (again, I can’t underscore how hard basic alt-culture information was to come by in the pre-Internet Midwest). Upon re-watching the video, I’m half-convinced that the Banshees’ background-wardrobe influenced the look of the “nihilists” in the Cohen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski.
My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, “Sex On Wheels”: I’m a sucker for music that exudes ironic humor, and the brash psychedelic campiness of this video killed me from the get-go. The song rocks, and the lyrics are a hoot: “History is written by winners baby / So let’s make a little of our own tonight / If you’re thinking that my idea for fun is a drag / Then you’ve never been to paradise.”
I eventually bought the Thrill Kill Kult’s Sexplosion! album, but I’d reckon I’ve only listened to the non-Sex-On-Wheels tracks once or twice in 25 years. This is one of a handful of songs (Cypress Hill’s “Hits from the Bong” being another notable example) that can lift my spirits under most any circumstances.
Poopshovel, “One Pass Away”: This video confused and delighted me when I first saw it. Musically, the song is a straightforward, face-shredding punk anthem, but the video consists of dudes striking old-timey football poses in the snow (and half of the band members look less like punk-rockers than the kind of guys who might chop wood for a living). And, the more I listened to the song, the more it sounded like they were name-checking recent Green Bay Packers players (Sterling Sharpe, Don Majkowski, etc.).
Years later, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I learned that Poopshovel hailed from Madison, Wisconsin, and that “One Pass Away” was a tribute to a November 5, 1989 Packers-Bears contest known as the “Instant Replay Game” (wherein Green Bay defeated Chicago when a touchdown-negating penalty was overturned by the booth). It is undoubtedly the greatest punk song ever written about a regular-season game between two late-1980s NFC Central teams.
Postscript: I had a fantastic time at that first Lollapalooza, and the headlining set by Jane’s Addiction was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (in part because I loved that band in a way that is unique to the way you love bands when you’re twenty years old).
As for the other acts, Siouxsie was excellent, as was Ice-T and his thrash-metal side-project Body Count. Of the bands that played in the 90-degree heat earlier that afternoon, Henry Rollins put on the best show. Nine Inch Nails’ performance felt overwrought and completely out of synch with the crowd, and the Butthole Surfers’ set was noisy and listless (despite the fact that Gibby Haynes staggered around the stage with a shotgun, shooting blanks into the air).
Somehow, I have no recollection whatsoever of Living Colour playing that day.
 To its credit, 120 Minutes did debut Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video later that year — but even then the song found its real footing in MTV’s regular daytime rotation later that fall.
 This video was included on 120 Minutes because it was a side-project of Lollapalooza performer Henry Rollins. The linked video, which includes a lead-in interview between Kendall and Rollins, is the only segment of YouTube footage from that 120M episode I’ve been able to track down online.