'More Than Words' at 25: Nuno Bettencourt Recalls Battle to Release Extreme's No. 1 Hit

Tony Mottram/Getty Images
Nuno Bettencourt, Paul Geary, Gary Cherone and Pat Badger of Extreme photographed in 1990.  

Listen to exclusive song performance from "Pornograffitti Live 25" CD/DVD, coming in October.

It's been 25 years since acoustic monster ballad “More Than Words” turned Extreme into a household name with its iconic black-and-white video prominently featuring singer Gary Cherone and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped the Boston-based rock band’s 1990 sophomore album, Extreme II: Pornograffitti, go double-platinum.

But that might not have ever happened if Extreme hadn’t battled to make the track a single -- believing in it so much that Bettencourt even quit the band at one point to get it released.

“Our label at the time [A&M Records] didn’t want to release 'More Than Words' as a single because there was nothing on the radio like that at the time," Bettencourt tells Billboard. "The label said, 'Who's going to play it?' Everybody was doing big power ballads at the time, and this was more like an Everly Brothers or Beatles track. But we fought for it.”

Prior to Pornograffitti, Extreme had some modest success with its 1989 self-titled debut that included the funk-metal singles "Kid Ego" and "Play With Me," which was featured in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Porno's first two singles, "Decadence Dance" and "Get the Funk Out," didn't do much to move the needle in terms of widening the band's audience. Then Bettencourt went to bat for “More Than Words,” which he co-wrote with Cherone, and everything changed.

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"Nobody ever knows how big a song is going to be," says Bettencourt of the track’s longevity. "But I knew the day we wrote it that something special was there.”

Despite being surrounded by naysayers -- “People everywhere were like, 'You're out of your f---ing minds releasing this'” -- Extreme refused to give up. “We fought for it because when we performed it for an audience, they told us it was a hit. Onstage, before we even got a word out, the whole crowd would be singing it -- before it was even a single! So that right there told us: ‘Go for it, take that risk.’ And thank God we did."

But even Bettencourt couldn't have predicted just how big of a hit it would become. It fueled the band's career through another top five song ("Hole Hearted") and two more albums in the '90s; survived the departure of original drummer Paul Geary and a hiatus that lasted more than a decade where Cherone briefly fronted Van Halen and Bettencourt pursued various side projects (including a seven-year stint as Rihanna's touring guitarist); and allowed the band to re-emerge in 2008 with its first studio album in 13 years, Saudades de Rock. (Extreme expects to release its next studio album in 2017.) Its popularity remains ubiquitous enough that in 2015, Jimmy Fallon and Jack Black did a shot-by-shot send-up of the song’s video for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

In 2015, the band -- currently comprising Cherone, Bettencourt, bassist Pat Badger and drummer Kevin Figueiredo -- marked Pornograffitti’s anniversary by performing the career-defining set in its entirety on tour. On Oct. 14, Pornograffitti Live 25, recorded and filmed at The Joint at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas in May 2015, will be released on CD/DVD along with a bonus documentary. The package is part of Loud & Proud’s four-part Metal Meltdown concert DVD series, which also includes Twisted Sister, Skid Row and Great White.

Billboard has an exclusive clip of Extreme's Live 25 performance of "More Than Words.” Watch it below:

"Initially," says Bettencourt, "I wasn't looking forward to performing Porno live night after night because it's difficult to re-create an album and it's weird to sit down and do 'More Than Words' as the fifth song in a show because you're playing all the songs in order. But once we got a few shows under our belt, it was fun."

Ever since its release, the acoustic ballad has been a staple at every Extreme show -- and Bettencourt doesn't take a single performance for granted. "It's not even a song to me anymore; it's a moment,” he says. “When we perform it live, I'm not performing; the audience is. I play a bit of guitar for them, and they sing it.”

Beyond his high-profile stakes in "More Than Words" and everything that came along with being one of the band members who was prominently featured whenever the video was played, Bettencourt raised his own personal profile to guitar-god status with Pornograffitti's impressively fast-paced, nimble-fingered guitar solo "Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee," an interpretation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's late-19th-century orchestral piece "Flight of the Bumblebee.”

"It's not as difficult as it seems," he says humbly of his onstage showpiece that stemmed from finger exercises he used to do. "It's always impressive to listen to and watch, but if I broke it down for people they'd go, 'That's it? That's all you do?'"

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But fellow guitar virtuosos Tom Morello and Brian May sing Bettencourt's praises in Pornograffitti Live 25's bonus documentary, titled Rockshow. May -- one of Bettencourt's all-time heroes -- is particularly complimentary, effectively calling the Extreme guitarist a living legend.

Bettencourt doesn't want to hear it though. He so far has refused to watch the DVD -- if only because the praise might make him weep.

"I don't know how much they paid him…" he quips upon hearing May's flattering words. "It's f---ing ridiculous and feels incredible to hear those things. But you can't think too much about it, can't read too much into it, because it'll blow your mind.

“Someone sent me a little clip of Brian, but I can't watch the whole thing because I'd probably cry,” he continues. “When I watched what little I did, I was just visualizing myself in my bedroom back in f---ing Hudson, Massachusetts, trying to learn Queen songs when I was 11 years old. Back then, I could have never imagined that I would meet him and perform with him, let alone have him say those words about me. You can't make that shit up. Well, you can," he says with a laugh. "But then it would only be a dream."

Someday, he admits, he might skim the documentary to see what May and Morello said about him, but he will never watch himself perform live -- "Ever," he emphasizes.

"I've never watched a clip on YouTube. I don't watch any of the DVDs we record,” says Bettencourt. “I don't watch anything. I can't stand it. I like to leave the moment where it is. I don't want to sit there and go, 'Oh, I should have done that.' Or, 'Why did I play that so badly?' I was told I made mistakes at the Hard Rock performance that they wanted me to fix, and I was just like, 'F--- it. It is what it is.'”

He has no problem, however, listening to his own recorded music. In fact, he kind of enjoys it. "I was at this grocery store called Ralphs the other day near my home in Los Angeles trying to buy salsa or something, and I heard 'More Than Words.' I looked over to my left at a woman who was kind of humming along, then looked to my right at a guy singing some of the lyrics, and I went, 'All right, my job is here is done,'" he says with a laugh.