ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gregg Harrington is a podcaster, freelance journalist, musician and amateur screenwriter, known primarily for co-hosting the ’80s horror podcast Neon Brainiacs along with local filmmaker and actor Ben Dietels. When he’s not talking about Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, he can be heard playing drums in the heavy grunge revival band, Pummeled and masterminding the straight edge power violence band, Rabid Pigs.
The importance of the radio has waned in the 21st century. The evolution of on-demand content via the Internet and other venues where we take in what we want when we want did a pretty swift job of dismantling the tastemaker privileges of the radio business. You can even hear it when you listen to the radio: Pittsburgh’s local “alternative” station has become an amalgamation of a handful of grunge bands, modern pop and one-hit wonders from the early 2000’s. You can hear Nirvana, Imagine Dragons, Pantera, New Radicals and Three Doors Down back to back. It’s weird. It’s also weird to think of a time where stations dictated what bands were huge and had more of a hand in curating local concerts and festivals.
One bastion of the importance of radio is 1994’s rock comedy Airheads, directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers, Meet the Applegates). While Lehmann is known more for television directing these days, he certainly hit a home run with me in my adolescence with Airheads. Wearing out my VHS of it and later watching it over and over on Comedy Central glued each line of dialogue to my brain. Boasting an impressive cast and an even more impressive soundtrack, Airheads finds itself acting as a time capsule, capturing the hostile takeover of grunge, usurping the tight grip hair metal had on the American music scene, and recording a time where radio play made or broke local bands. Our absentminded heroes, played by Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler do a bang-up job embodying the spirit of musicians trying to “make it” in the 90s.
Down on their luck rock band the Lone Rangers are trying as hard as they can to get noticed around the Los Angeles music scene to no avail, so they resort to breaking into the local radio station, KPPX Rebel Radio, to force the station’s lead DJ, Ian The Shark (Joe Mantegna), to play their demo. When things go south due to the meddling of station manager Milo (Michael McKean), the gang pulls out an arsenal of toy guns that look extremely real and take the entire radio station hostage. From there, hilarity ensues. The chaos of the whole situation is fueled by the police presence outside and the shenanigans inside the station and over the airwaves, culminating in a feeding frenzy of a music video shoot in the parking lot and, later, in jail.
The musical touchstones of the film are many. For starters, Airheads revolves around the emerging single by the Lone Rangers (“there’s three of you, you’re not exactly lone”), “Degenerated”, which was originally performed by the New York punk band Reagan Youth. Kind of strange to think about that since the Lone Rangers are supposed to lean more towards Guns N Roses than east coast punk music. The movie version features Brendan Fraser on vocals with White Zombie’s guitarist Jay Yuenger and bassist Sean Yseult on the track as well. Speaking of White Zombie, for the club scene in the middle of the film, they can be seen performing “Eat The Gods” at the Whisky. Funny enough, the role of the live band was initially offered to Cannibal Corpse, but after the producers found out they had already appeared as a club band in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, they opted to go with White Zombie instead. It’s been reported that Metallica and Testament also turned down an offer to portray the band in that scene as well. The movie’s background is also doused in music ephemera, mostly of the punk and extreme metal variety. Stickers and posters can be seen with the logos of Cro-Mags, Obituary, and more. I’ve always felt this clashed with the Lone Rangers’ leanings more towards Sunset Strip glam metal, but I appreciate it nonetheless.
Airheads’ soundtrack is also pretty great, which is not surprising given the amount of 90s movie soundtracks that have lived on in the public consciousness (Judgment Night, Singles, Spawn, etc). Kicking off the movie is a re-recording of the Motorhead track “Born To Raise Hell”, which features guest spots from Ice-T (Body Count) and Whitfield Crane (Ugly Kid Joe, Life Of Agony). The original appeared on the band’s 1993 album Bastards. It’s a Motorhead song so you know it kicks ass. It’s also a great song to put over the opening credits, which is composed of the names of cast and crew along with time-lapse animations of random scenarios like making a sandwich and changing guitar strings. There are a few interesting cover songs on the soundtrack as well, including 4 Non Blondes covering “I’m The One” by Van Halen and, even more surprising, Anthrax covering the Smiths deep cut “London”. Coincidentally, Anthrax is also featured on the August 1993 cover of R.I.P. Magazine being read by Carter (David Arquette) during the film. Primus, Prong, the Ramones and the Replacements also make appearances as well.
As far as the movie itself, while it may not have gotten the best reviews or box office return, Airheads has lived on as a great music comedy, which I find to be on par with a film like This Is Spinal Tap. The villain-type characters portrayed by Michael McKean and Judd Nelson are spot-on, and the litany of secondary characters led by Joe Mantegna, Ernie Hudson and Chris Farley knock their performances out of the park. Plus, how many 90s comedies were made featuring three former Saturday Night Live cast members, two Ghostbusters, and a handful of MTV’s mover and shakers? Airheads is a truly fun watch and a visit back to a simpler time where people were radio stations were so influential, they were worth breaking into and taking hostages to get airplay.
You can stream it on Amazon Prime.
We also discuss Airheads as part of our “Exploring: Eddie Van Halen on Film” and “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s” features.