Sometime in the mid-eighties trawling music videos on New Years Eve, I stumbled upon an odd video by a band called Ministry. America may have got MTV in the early ’80s but north of the 49th it was hard to find anything other than top 40 in a world where music videos were grouped together and shown on the CBC 30 to 60 minutes at a time more like visual radio. It was a time where Motley Crue was called metal and one hard rock band a month seemed like a triumph.

One New Years day as I tired of parades and Bowl games I switched on the VHS tape that had caught 8 hours of music videos playing on a station that knew no one was watching. It would account for a few odd post punk bands, some metal and “Over the Shoulder” by a guy out of Chicago. At this point unbeknownst to me this single guy who went by the name of Ministry had already morphed from a synth pop band to industrial dance. At that time though there was no Internet to tell me the genre of every artist or song.

It used mechanical sounds arranged as synth pop or dance music with modified vocals over top. I liked new wave, punk, metal, what would be called thrash metal and even some pop friendly dance. This music and vision was at the same time unknown yet totally familiar. As if someone had taken all the parts out of Human League, DOA and Slayer and reassembled something that sounded nothing like any off it parts. Time went on and the tape was lost, but an indelible impression had been made in my mind.

A few years later and I was into role-playing games and miniature wargames. Through the magic of Warhammer 40K I met someone who would become my musically guru. Kerry Houle was the poster child for loveable delinquents. I was lucky enough to meet him after and before he had created his best stories. It was hard to know what stories were true and to what extent, but he was a genuine person in his expressions. I didn’t care so much about the validity of the details as I did the emotions. I assume every cool rock song based on something cool is that kind of mix of exaggerated event with real feelings.

This loveable skinhead who had introduced himself to my very English grandmother with a 4 inch safety-pin through his ear and a cheeky smile had dropped two things on my that would change the way I looked at music. One was the Dead Kennedys compilation “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” and the other was Ministry’s “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste”. The first reconnected me to punk rock by both searching for bands i had missed and preparing me for a journey that would lead everyone to Nirvana.

Since my fateful day with Al Jourgensen on a supermarket, I had heard Stigmata, but was very seriously into thrash and crossover at the time. A neat song had been lost in literal noise and a headspace that had again shifted. But those two divergent albums freed my mind from a path that had been seeking harder and faster for far too long.

Ministry wasn’t short on either hard or fast. I will put up Thieves to and speed metal song around and show why it beats a whole genre pretty much at its own game. (Ironically that song would be the blue print for the next two decades of Ministry.) I was at a place where I needed something that was different, but familiar.

Through other friends we quickly tossed around Nine Inch Nails, Nitzer Ebb, Skinny Puppy and Pop Will Eat Itself. Strange friends with very dissimilar tastes trading tapes and soon CDs that pushed us out to our limits, but enough to meet and share. From the CD came an interest in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Jane’s Addiction and connection with Beasties and hip-hop friends.

Things were happening. I remember when I heard REM on commercial radio. I did a double take. I listened to a lot of college radio in high school and university. It was full of crazy and weird stuff that you’d never hear on corporate radio outside of specialty programming once a week, I’m looking at you Metal Shop. If it sounds weird to hear REM on commercial radio was a big thing then I can already estimate your age, unless you just don’t like Michael Stipe… jerk.

Yes, there was a time when the dinosaurs of now soft rock, REM, were only heard by hipster young adults and people too stoned to change the dial to a “real” radio station. And when bands like REM stopped being called a punk or new wave band and were referred to as an alternative band you could feel the change in the air. Of course not every one was aware of it.

Just as Jane’s Addiction was planning its farewell tour, which you better know as Lollapalooza, a little know Seattle band was about to release the biggest album of the ’90s if not since The White Album. That isn’t to say there weren’t many great albums released between these, but rather each signalled a huge change that no one saw coming.

Smells Like Teen Spirit was everywhere. People who had made fun of you for listening to alternative music traded in their mullets and leather jackets for flannel jackets and facial hair. It really cannot be stated how big Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was. Single after single eradicated the last of the hair metal bands. Every rock station was either playing music meant for reception rooms, Hooty and the Blowfish, Spin Doctors, I’m looking at you; or worse classic rock.

The search was on for the next Nirvana, like there was a secret laboratory that produced alternative bands which could unite dissimilar fans and create a new movement. Oh ya, that laboratory was called Seattle, the home of Nirvana. The Seattle sound or what would later be called grunge for its messy sound and messy appearing bands was the new thing.

By the time my favourite band, Ministry, came around with the next Lollapalooza there was two other Seattle bands on that bill, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. As my friend and I found out too late to get away from Lush or Jesus and Mary Chain, the Seattle sound was becoming massive.

But Soundgarden wasn’t new to me. They had shown up on metal shows pre-dating the grunge impact. Soon any band that was hard, but not addicted to hair spray became part of the alternative mainstream. Hearing Green Day on the top rock station in my city during prime listening hours was a bigger shock than hearing either REM or Nirvana. The former progressed from a post-punk band into mature artists at the right time. The latter seemed like a phenomena. But the gates were busted wide open and now real punk rock could be heard on mainstream radio.

At this point I’d like to say that continually referring to this music as alternative when it was in fact the mainstream was ludicrous. I was hanging out at a club where the DJ would mix mainstream “alternative” with real alternative, hard, soft, fast, slow. David Hawkes was my last great musical guru. Again a mix of the familiar with the new. I increasingly got into very divergent paths of harder and faster. As Ministry morphed into a metal band, I searched for other electronic bands that had the soul of punk rock. Lords of Acid, The Prodigy, Future Sounds of London, sub-sub, Orbital, Underworld, …

If Pearl Jam had taken alternative music and repackaged it for a classic rock audience then Creed and Nickleback came along and got rid of that pesky alternative altogether. Soon enough there were simulacra of the mid-90s bands that would re-integrate a more classic hard rock and metal sound into the now spent sound of grunge. Bands like Rage Against the Machine and Tool would inspire nu-metal with the suburban friendly mix of rap and metal almost exclusively played by white suburbanite dudes. It was almost as if after Kurt Cobain’s suicide the whole “alternative” thing just started to collapse on itself.

Or as I like to think of it, we got wiser to what was available to us. I may not have liked Korn or Limp Bizkit, but there was no way a decade before you would have heard anything that sounded like the love child of The MC-5 and Black Sabbath on mainstream radio. Nirvana didn’t kill hair metal, boy bands or R&B flavored dance music, it woke a few people up that there was something beyond the radio and record stores that should be given a chance.

And now when I listen to commercial radio I see that in some respects the ’90s never happened. There is a new set of classics that were once new and ground breaking, but now has all the impact of 25-year-old wallpaper. That band that stopped me and made me notice them became a thrash metal band and some how in my middle age having seen a few cycles, I’m strangely OK with that. Now rather than trawling New Year’s Evening music videos I get my new music from video games.

Iain McGregorMusicalternative,featured,metal,Ministry,music,music videos,Nirvana,Pearl Jam,radio,REM
Sometime in the mid-eighties trawling music videos on New Years Eve, I stumbled upon an odd video by a band called Ministry. America may have got MTV in the early '80s but north of the 49th it was hard to find anything other than top 40 in a world...