Matt Pinfield On 10 Of The Greatest Alt-Rock Videos of the '90s

by Greg Prato

To the younger people reading this, it may seem unfathomable that back in the '90s, most music fans looked to MTV to be turned on to new music and artists. This was before the channel digressed into a cesspool of reality programming.

But I can speak from first-hand viewing experience: This was certainly the case, dear readers. And if you were to think of the phrases "MTV" and "alternative rock of the '90s," the man who will automatically come to mind is Matt Pinfield, who hosted MTV's popular alt-rock specialty show, 120 Minutes (as well as a variety of other programs on the channel), and now has his own podcast, 2 Hours with Matt Pinfield. In 2016, he released an autobiography, All These Things That I've Done: My Insane, Improbable Rock Life.

Matt remains impassioned about '90s alt-rock. He was up for the challenge of looking back on 10 of the most popular alt-rock videos of the decade, giving his thoughts/memories on each, listed in semi-chronological order. Dates listed are when the videos were released - in three cases, the song was released the previous year: "Man In the Box," "Jeremy" and "No Rain."
"Been Caught Stealing" - Jane's Addiction
1990, directed by Casey Niccoli

I think it's an incredible video. A lot of times, people don't realize that Jane's Addiction changed the LA music scene - things before that were very different.

They were very polarizing when they came out. People who were more into the jangly R.E.M. sound didn't really get them at first, or the hair metal stuff that was going on at the time. So, there were changes that were taking place.

Jane's are important for so many different reasons, but the thing about the "Been Caught Stealing" video is it shows the sense of humor and playfulness and the complete lack of fear that the band had. Like, "Let's have a good time, let's do something that's crazy." It's a classic video from that period of time. There wasn't much like it - although a lot of people definitely have tried to use some of those ideas. (Songfacts entry)

"Man In The Box" - Alice in Chains
1991, directed by Paul Rachman

I love the video. The thing about that video is that it's got a very frightening side to it - the sewn-up eyes. I think it was a great calling card for the band, even though it wasn't their very first single ["We Die Young" was]. It was one of those things that had some incredible shock value in it, but it was also saying, "Here we are." It was a perfect video for those guys. And the song is an incredible track. (Songfacts entry)

"Give It Away" - Red Hot Chili Peppers
1991, directed by Stephane Sednaoui

That video is a work of art. It was another way to introduce another one of the most important records of the 1990s. I remember there was one radio programmer telling the record label that the song wasn't a hit and shouldn't be a single. Which obviously, proved to be way wrong. [Laughs]

That was a breakthrough record for them. The thing that was so unique and adventurous about the Chili Peppers was they wanted to make their videos very artistic. They were having fun, but there was certainly so much thought put into what was going on. Those guys had all the paint all over them - you can imagine people seeing them for the first time, going, "Who the fuck are these guys?" That was when they really broke through to the mainstream.

But I loved the video - it said so much about the character of the band members. (Songfacts entry)

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Nirvana
1991, directed by Samuel Bayer

That's an incredible video. It changed Samuel Bayer's life, actually. Everybody involved with it, it changed their lives, right?

But Samuel Bayer was the director. The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, you can never underestimate the impact - and I don't think anybody does - and how much that video and song together completely changed the landscape of what was to come in music. I'm not saying it wiped the floor clean, but in a lot of ways, it did. It made people feel OK to be disenfranchised youth. For a minute, you see Dave Grohl playing that incredible drum beat, and you're like, "What is this?" And Kurt and Krist. There's something about that video - it's just one of my favorite videos ever.

That song, video, and record certainly changed my life, as well, because it opened the door for people not needing to have a certain look. You could do what you wanted to do. On a personal level, it certainly opened the door for me to do television, because I was in radio. (Songfacts entry)

"Jeremy" - Pearl Jam
1992, directed by Mark Pellington

It's one of the greatest videos of all time. Mark Pellington is a friend of mine, and he directed the video. That was a perfect storm, that video. You had this song that was absolutely topical and no one had approached a subject matter like that. It was a song about a school shooting way before everything that is going on now in the world. For that period of time, nobody else in the rock and pop landscape had tried to address a song in that nature, and Mark Pellington did the most incredible job of bringing that song to life in that video. It's another one of the greats from that decade. (Songfacts entry)

Matt answers the question, "How much of a role did MTV play in the breaking and popularity of alt-rock in the '90s?"

"It played a huge part in it. An absolutely huge part. I was a programmer then, and I saw how much it changed the trajectory of these artists, and really kick-started their careers. And I was one of those people that were picking videos for MTV at the time. There was a 10-person committee, and I was on that committee.

MTV and alternative radio changed many careers in that period of time. I think MTV drove the ship in so many ways. You didn't have the internet then, so that's where you went - you watched MTV, and you watched 120 Minutes, Headbangers Ball, and Yo! MTV Raps. And if you were in a certain part of the country like North Dakota, you didn't have [outside influences]. Tom Morello is an example. Before he was in Rage, MTV affected him - being in Libertyville, Illinois. So yeah, MTV was an integral part of the success of alternative music and all those bands."
"No Rain" - Blind Melon
1993, directed by Samuel Bayer

I love the song and I love the video. They are a great band. I know that was not the original choice for a single, but my friend who ran a radio station in Vermont - of all places - started playing that song on the radio. That was in the days when you could still break songs. This is before Clinton fucked us all over by signing the Telecommunications Act in the mid '90s - people didn't know how that was going to fuck up radio when he did it, because that meant that the corporations could buy the small stations, swallow them up, and make it more about programming from a corporate office as opposed to the gut feeling that somebody has, or love for a song and knowing what's great trapped in their market.

"No Rain" is a perfect example of how that transpired. This guy, Jim McGuinn, who was on radio in Vermont [the station WEQX] played the record, and said, "This is a song I'm going to play." And then, all of a sudden, other stations picked up on it, and the record label issued the single, because "No Rain" became so big.

The video with the bee girl is something that is completely unforgettable. It's fun, it shows the band incredibly in cool, bright light. And the song is so infectious. (Songfacts entry)

"Black Hole Sun" - Soundgarden
1994, directed by Howard Greenhalgh

I think it's one of the greatest videos of all time, and one of my favorite songs. Soundgarden was such an incredible part of my life, and was such a part of that whole period.

"Black Hole Sun" I thought was such a great video because it was so frightening and confrontational. Just the art in that video and the effects and stretched faces - it definitely freaked out a lot of young kids who were watching MTV at the time.

But the song of course was undeniable. It was just a great video - it was absolutely colorful and all the production that they did, it holds up as one of the best videos of that decade. (Songfacts entry)

"Sabotage" - Beastie Boys
1994, directed by Spike Jonze

It's a great video. It's an incredible video. It's funny, Mike D and I, for years, would always talk about blaxploitation movies from the '70s that we loved. In that period of time, you didn't have DVDs, so the only way you could get those movies was if you were buying them [on video cassette] on 42nd Street at one of those "karate movie shops."

So, he and I used to talk about them and collect that stuff - we were fascinated with all that '70s culture. And the band was obviously, too. So, it made perfect sense for them to do a Starsky & Hutch/Quinn Martin homage. Quinn Martin was a TV producer who did all these cop TV shows, like Cannon and all these other things. So, it made absolute sense.

Once again, it showed a band's sense of humor and playfulness, and not being afraid to have a good time. It was a change of direction as far as the song goes: It was full-on rock inspired, that '70s rock feel on that song. I felt there was a lot of Zeppelin in it. That's why I think it's such a great take-off on all those great '70s cop shows and those blaxploitation movies. (Songfacts entry)

"Closer" - Nine Inch Nails
1994, directed by Mark Romanek

Another incredible video. My next phone call after I talk to you is to the guy who did the art direction on that video!

"Closer" is another one of those videos that the beauty of that time was music that was in rock that was also alternative and a lot of it became popular - almost pop. It's nothing like it is today. If something like that came out today, Top 40 would stay so far away from it.

The video itself was a perfect companion to the song that was already a classic. Any other decade, any other time, that would not have become a big radio hit, because people would have shied away from it. But it's classic. You had all this incredible imagery in it. I use the word "confrontational" and a lot of young people were impressionable, who might also see that as frightening, but that's what rock and roll is supposed to be. Dangerous. I think it should be confrontational, and if that makes it dangerous, that's a good thing. (Songfacts entry)

"Buddy Holly" - Weezer
1994, directed by Spike Jonze

Again, the period when videos were so fun and so absolutely creative. The idea of taking a song like that and using the Happy Days TV show as a background, that was one of the first times anybody had done something like that, although Nirvana did the same kind of thing with "In Bloom" (1991) when they were looking like a '60s band.

As you've seen Weezer's career go on, it really summed up who they are. Whoever came up with the actual idea of putting that in a Happy Days video, it made total sense. Because Happy Days is one of those shows people still knew about in the '90s because it was back in the '70s and people remembered watching not only when it was new, but in repeats that were on so much in that period of time. It was an absolutely brilliant idea - especially in a song that is only a little over two minutes long [2:39]. It was perfect. (Songfacts entry)

Honorable Mentions:

"Midlife Crisis" - Faith No More

"Everybody Hurts" - R.E.M.

"Sober" - Tool

"Human Behaviour" - Björk

"Today" - Smashing Pumpkins

"Backwater" - Meat Puppets

"Doll Parts" - Hole

"Interstate Love Song" - Stone Temple Pilots

"Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" - Primus

"No Surprises" - Radiohead

Further reading:
Interview with director Paul Rachman
Fact or Fiction: Early Days of MTV
Scott Weiland: Memories of a Rock Star
Interview with Kim Thayil of Soundgarden
Interview with Brad Smith of Blind Melon
Interview with Chuck Mosley of Faith No More
Interview with Gavin Rossdale of Bush

More from Matt at

July 11, 2018

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