Remember When: Seattle Hard Rockers Rail Won the First ‘MTV Basement Tapes’ Competition in 1983

While it’s common in the 21st century for artists to gain record deals and stardom by winning or becoming a runner-up on American Idol or The Voice, or for international bands to achieve greater success by competing in the Eurovision Song Contest, these were not ordinary paths to success back in the 1980s. Smaller-scale shows like Star Search and Stairway to Stardom were stepping stones to further notoriety, not a quick path to immediate success and a large media spotlight.

Videos by American Songwriter

During its second year on the air, MTV tried something novel: The MTV Basement Tapes competition. Music videos had become incredibly important to promote new and established artists, so the young network allowed artists to submit their own songs in video form and let viewers vote on their favorites. The first annual Basement Tapes competition took place over a few months in 1983. In each episode, the network picked new videos to play, viewers picked who they liked, and eventually a winner was chosen.

All Hail Rail

The group that won the first-ever MTV Basement Tapes competition was the Seattle-area rock quartet Rail. They received 36% of the 107,000 votes that were cast. While they were certainly new to most people across the country, the group actually formed when they were still attending Highland Junior High School in Bellevue, Washington, back in 1970. Drummer Kelly Nobles put out a small ad in the school newspaper asking “anyone who wishes to start a band to meet in Conference Room B.” He soon recruited guitarist/singer Terry James Young and guitarist Andy Baldwin. Two years later, Young switched to bass and they brought in guitarist Rick Knotts.

Rail worked hard building up their following in the Pacific Northwest through the ‘70s, and they released the Arrival album in late 1980 on their own Dynasty Records label. The group claims it sold 200,000 copies, and they opened locally for many famous names including Blue Öyster Cult, Nazareth, and Heart. An effervescent hard rock band tied in to the zeitgeist of their times, Rail supported Van Halen on at least two-dozen dates of their Women and Children First Tour in America in 1980. That’s no small feat.

What’s interesting to note about Rail’s MTV win is, by their own admission, their manager Maria Cooper went against their wishes by submitting their performance video for the song “Hello” from their debut album. But her gamble paid off as Rail clinched the crown.

Through their MTV win, the band secured a record deal with EMI and the Rail EP hit stores in August 1984, reaching No. 143 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart in October. Two videos were produced for the four-song EP for the high energy anthems “1-2-3-4” and “Fantasy,” which showcased their bright twin-guitar sound and Young’s impressively high vocal range.

While it was not a smash success, Rail got their music out to more ears and kept their career moving a bit more. After their dalliance with EMI, the quartet released the full-length Rail Three on Dynasty in 1985, the same year they teamed up for a few months with guitar legend Ronnie Montrose when he was seeking a new band to play with. The band split up by the late 1980s, but in the mid-’90s they reunited and released the Big World album in 1997. By the end of the ‘90s, the group remastered and reissued their past albums with enhanced packaging, and in 2022 they released a new album called V

A Golden Era for Hard Rock

Rail’s major label ascension came about at the tail end of a golden era for American hard rock, some of it bordering on metal. There were many bands that played no-frills melodic, high-energy rock and produced some great albums, including Y&T, Kix, Cobra (with future Survivor vocalist Jimi Jamison), early Ratt, Black ‘N Blue, and more. It’s certainly a great era worth revisiting, and you can check out Rail’s music on Spotify.

One wonders if Rail had arrived just two years earlier if things might have been a little different. By 1984, the seeds for the vapid hair-band movement were being planted, and visually savvy bands, regardless of musical pedigree, were drawing a lot of attention. That was a byproduct of the MTV revolution.

Hosted by the ever-perky Martha Quinn, The MTV Basement Tapes was an interesting concept that ran through 1986 (or slightly later, depending on some sources). Some of the music was good, some of it wasn’t, but it now offers an interesting time capsule of the VHS era and how artists had to be creative with low to no budgets. Future new age/contemporary star Yanni appeared with the Minneapolis rock band Chameleon on a 1983 episode, and Frank Zappa guest-hosted with Quinn on a December 1985 episode.

As for Rail, the foursome still plays live and they still sound good. The same lineup won the MTV competition—Young, Baldwin, Knotts, and Noble—are still rocking out decades later. Judging from recent concert clips, they still love putting on a show together. That’s a rare and joyous thing.

You can follow their current exploits on Facebook.

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