Back in the mid-‘90s, VH1 was in a rut. While MTV was the hip older brother, VH1 struggled to find its voice. Then Pop-Up Video, Divas, and a few other kitschy programs saw the network attract a wider audience. It wasn’t until Behind The Music that VH1 became must-see TV for music fans.
Narrated by the unmistakable Jim Forbes, the program chronicled the highs and lows of musicians. Though somewhat formulaic with its structure (artist is picked on as a kid, moves to big city, artist meets collaborator, artist has success, something bad happens, artist bottoms out, artist figures it out, artist rebounds), the stories remained captivating.
Starting in 1997 with its profile of Milli Vanilli, the show became a go-to show for dedicated music fans with its iconic title card that featured silhouettes of a band with the words fame, fortune, glory, success, heartbreak, and passion scrolling across the screen. It was later immortalized on Saturday Night Live with its Blue Öyster Cult spoof, which famously featured Will Ferrell on cowbell.
Many of the stories highlighted on Behind The Music were known within a small circle of insiders. In fact, the series was the first time that many of the tales became wider public knowledge. In honor of the show’s 20th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at some of the wildest and most shocking moments in its storied history.
Billy Joel gets swindled for nearly nine figures
Original Airdate: November 9, 1997
One of the earlier Behind The Music episodes chronicled the surprisingly sad saga of the Piano Man. Though everything seemed swell on the surface — including a celebrated marriage to Christie Brinkley — fans learned that Billy Joel was too trusting of his financial advisors. As he shot to fame in the ‘70s, Joel entrusted his then-brother-in-law Frank Weber to manage his growing bundle of money. Unsurprisingly for anyone who has a brother-in-law, this wasn’t a good idea. Overall, Joel lost around $90 million depending on what tally you’re going by.
Poison detail how they snag groupies
Original Airdate: July 11, 1999
Glam metal bands were consistent subjects of BTM. For a while, Poison was the toast of the Sunset Strip. The quartet took full advantage of their big, radio friendly singles and their good time vibes and their good looks. During their shows, each member had signals they shot to their roadie denoting which woman they wanted to acquaint with backstage. Between Bobby Dall licking his fingers and pointing at a woman to Rikki Rockett throwing his drumsticks at a potential suitor to Bret Michaels doting off during a drum or guitar solo to point out his potential squeeze, Poison took debauchery to another level.
The Mamas and the Papas’ love square stokes jealousies
Original Airdate: January 18, 1998
L.A. folk rock outfit The Mamas and the Papas had one of the more influential sounds of the free spirited, psych pop era of the ‘60s. Their music hid the internal problems that came from their sexual exploits. Though married to guitarist/chief songwriter John Phillips, Michelle Phillips was having an affair with Denny Doherty, which was immortalized in the group’s 1965 song “I Saw Her Again”. If Phillips thought that would be enough to quell his wife’s cheating, he was wrong. She also cheated with Gene Clark of the Byrds, but her dalliance with Doherty earned scorn from Cass Elliott, who had the hots for him. Eventually, these combustable emotions eventually blew up and broke up the band.
Slash is rescued from the dead in a hotel
Original Airdate: July 4, 2004
The drug problems that plagued Guns N’ Roses were highlighted throughout this episode with Slash’s exploits in focus. Axl Rose called him out for “Dancing too much with Mr. Brownstone” on-stage when the band opened for the Rolling Stones in 1989. That was only the beginning. On the band’s massive Use Your Illusion tour, John Reese, the band’s then-tour manager was summoned by the front desk of a hotel where the band was staying and alerted that Slash was found unconscious by the elevators. Sure enough, he was, and his skin tone was blue. Reese thought the guitarist was dead meat. Miraculously, the paramedics arrived, gave him a shot of adrenaline, and resuscitated the guitarist. Disaster was averted temporarily and GNR soldiered on with their tumultuous tour.
MC Hammer blows through $33 million
Original Airdate: August 24, 1997
At the time of his Behind The Music episode, MC Hammer’s fortunes waned considerably. His career was on the brink due to an ill-fated foray into gangsta rap, and was lampooned by the rising rappers of the time. Hammer was suddenly a punchline after building a mini-empire at the beginning of the decade. On this episode, Hammer detailed of how he ran through and squandered $33 million on a number of luxury items and shockingly poor investments that left him deep in debt. A pivot to religion, the tech business and making music occasionally proved to be a nice bounce back, even if he never saw the heights of his early ‘90s fame.
Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield describe Cliff Burton’s death
Original Airdate: November 22, 1998
On tour behind Master of Puppets, Metallica was sprinting to the top of the thrash world. A brush with black ice in Sweden almost destroyed everything. Bassist Cliff Burton wanted to sleep in guitarist Kirk Hammett’s bunk on the early morning hours of September 27, 1986. Hammett wasn’t in the mood to swap spots. The dispute was settled over a card draw, and Burton won. Begrudgingly, Hammett moved to the front of the bus to get a night’s rest. It turned out to be a lifesaving move. The band was awoken when their bus crashed flipped after slipping over black ice. Hammett made it out, but Burton didn’t. Seeing the bassist’s leg sticking out from under the bus (he was thrown from the bus and it subsequently landed on top of him), the guitarist frantically summoned his bandmates and crew to lift the bus. They succeeded in getting everyone out alive … except Burton. The chaotic scene has haunted Metallica ever since.
Fantasia opens up about her suicide attempt
Original Airdate: August 24, 2010
American Idol winner Fantasia had it all. Despite the fame that came with winning the country’s biggest singing competition came the pressures of her relationship with Antwaun Cook, all of which almost killed her. She overdosed on aspirin and sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, but ultimately failed. The painstaking details of her describing the incident remains one of the more raw moments of the series.
Motley Crüe’s Vince Neil kills Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley
Original Airdate: December 13, 1998
In an episode full of juicy anecdotes and one Pamela Anderson sex tape, tragedy was the force that loomed large for singer Vince Neil. In late 1984, there were fewer bands bigger than Motley Crüe. Even by ‘80s standards, they lived fast and partied hard. On a liquor store run following a day of partying with members of Hanoi Rocks, Neil lost control of his super pricey De Tomaso Pantera and collided head-on with another car. Razzie, who was riding with Neil, died, and the occupants of the other vehicle suffered brain damage. Even though the episode aired a decade and a half after the incident, Neil’s recollection of the incident was tough to watch. Ultimately things didn’t change much for the singer, who got nailed twice more for DUI in 2007 and 2011.
Leif Garrett paralyzes a friend in a car accident
Original Airdate: June 10, 1999
At one point, Leif Garrett was the heir to the ‘70s teen idol throne. First an actor with pretty boy good looks, Garrett saw his career soar with a covers album and then a collection of disco songs. Then came the drugs. Starting when he was 14, Garrett fell into a deep drug addiction. Only 17, Garrett and friend Roland Winkler were out on the town a high Garrett crashed his car, which led to Winker’s paralysis. The incident loomed large over Garrett’s life, and was never quite able to shake that haunting moment. At the end of the episode, however, things took a positive Turn. Garrett and Winkler had a memorable reunion that seemed to put all of the demons and guilt that troubled the singer in the 20 years, to rest.
Milli Vanilli break down their epic con
Original Airdate: August 17, 1997
The first episode in the series was one of its most memorable. Prior to Milli Vanilli, there hadn’t been quite a con pulled on the music listening public. They detailed all of the indiscretions of their career in such painstakingly honest detail that it wasn’t impossible not to feel for them. Between their manager Frank Farian putting them up to the lip sync task to their infamous Grammy victory to finally getting caught when their tape messed up, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan became sympathetic figures whose hopes were that this documentary would finally put their sins of the past to rest and restart their career clean. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Pilatus committed suicide the night before the band’s promotional tour for Back and In Attack was set to begin, and sadly was the end of the German duo.