Music videos from "alternative bands" (or, as we called 'em then, "college rock" bands) weren't very commonly seen in the late '80s and early '90s, primarily because many of the bands would be lucky to get shunted into the last half-hour of "120 Minutes." But just because you never saw the videos doesn't mean they weren't made. Most bands took it upon themselves (and whatever film-school friend they had) to shoot clips for the songs that dominated the airwaves of university radio stations and, given the artistic circles that most of the bands ran with, a surprising number of the videos were pretty good. Cheap, but good.
The only way to see most of these clips was on the TV at your local record shop (remember those?) or on the occasionally released video compilation. Atavistic -- now a decent-sized punk/jazz record label -- got its start as a "video label" by throwing together these clips and selling them in packaging that fell just below the professional threshold set by bootlegs. (The fact that live concerts from the likes of The Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth were also part of their "catalog" didn't alleviate the confusion.) "12 O'Clock High" was released as two such videotapes in 1991 and, unknowingly, the tapes captured a halcyon moment in the history of "underground" rock. Thanks to a new DVD from Atavistic that compiles all 28 videos from the two tapes, it's that much easier to get all misty-eyed about the era.
After punk and new wave had waned, an entire ocean of bands emerged that was inspired by the independent idealism of those movements, but without the rigid sonic rules those genres demanded. Any band -- as long as they were interesting, marginally talented and willing to tour their ass off -- was welcomed into the fold. And whether a pop band, a punk band, a mutant classic-rock act, an art project gone awry or any combination thereof, they'd generally get some airtime on your local college radio station and billing at your local club. To be clear, this was not some communal love fest; success was a goal, but it was success on an entirely different scale than today. Sure, a band like R.E.M. or Sonic Youth could sell tens of thousands of records, but that was rarefied air in those pre-"Nevermind" days. The goal for most of these bands was to sell enough records and tour enough to keep their rent paid and their instruments out of pawn long enough to make the next album. And, with a relatively ethical support system in place via fanzines, radio stations and club promoters (okay, forget the "ethical" part), it was very possible.
With that in mind, it's not so hard to believe that the two "12 O'Clock High" videotapes were originally released 13 years ago, and many of the videos were shot a year or two before that. That's a long, long time ago, according to the shifting sands of style, but, upon viewing the DVD reissue of the tapes, what's most telling is how little things have changed.
Of the 25 bands here, a dozen of them are still going in some form or another. The Flaming Lips, Mudhoney, American Music Club, Bad Brains, Lee Ranaldo, Afghan Whigs, Pussy Galore: Names that by all rights should be consigned to the dustbin of alt-rock history since none of them (save the Lips) ever achieved anything remotely near "mainstream success." And while the now-inactive other half of the lineup includes bands both influential (Savage Republic, Halo of Flies) and totally unremarkable (Big Trouble House), all of these videos demonstrate an easygoing stylishness that most corporate "alternative" bands would pay big money for. Whether it's the art-drenched warehouse shots for Live Skull's "5-D" or all the scratchy superimpositions of Jens Jurgensen's clips for Pussy Galore or The Flaming Lips, these videos were "arty" because the people making them were artists, not profit committees.