“Billboard debuts weekly chart of alternative rock,” Billboard announced in a page 1 headline in the Sept. 10, 1988, issue.
On that date, Billboard introduced the weekly, 30-position Modern Rock Tracks chart, with the goal of, per the story written by Sean Ross, “surveying progressive commercial and noncommercial rock stations, in response to industry demand for consistent information on alternative airplay.”
The ranking, then fueled by 29 “influential” reporting radio stations, joined the then-seven-year-old, 50-position Album Rock chart. While Album Rock was then ruled by the likes of Van Halen, Def Leppard and Robert Palmer, its new sister survey arrived populated by such more experimental acts as Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Erasure and INXS.
(Album Rock is now named Mainstream Rock Songs, while Modern Rock segued to Alternative Songs about a decade ago, per evolving industry terminology. Alternative Songs expanded from 30 to 40 positions as a sixth-birthday present, on Sept. 10, 1994, and adopted Nielsen Music data in the early ’90s.)
No. 1 on the first Modern Rock ranking? Siouxsie & the Banshees‘ “Peek-a-Boo.” The London band, fronted by Siouxsie Sioux, notched six further entries on the chart, through 1995, including second No. 1 “Kiss Them for Me” in 1991. (“Peek” hit No. 53 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 and “Kiss” reached No. 23.)
Not that everything was modern about the first Modern Rock chart: the quirky “Peek” sports the lyrics, “Golly, jeepers / Where’d you get those peepers? / Peepshow, creepshow / Where did you get those eyes?” Given the lines’ similarity to the 1938 song “Jeepers Creepers,” the band gave co-writing to that tune’s writers, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. (So, while not entirely new, “Peek” was certainly alternative in spirit, given its innovation in reworking a premise from a half-century earlier.)
Digging deeper into the origins of the chart, as Ross further explained, “Earlier [in 1988], Billboard reported that as mainstream rock outlets tightened their playlists, more labels were turning to alternative stations for airplay. Since then, the importance of those [alternative] stations has been borne out in the [Billboard 200] No. 1 album success of Tracy Chapman, the multi-format reach of Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers and the continuing sales and/or concert success of such acts as 10,000 Maniacs, Depeche Mode and The Cure, which still receive spotty play in other formats.”
Also reflecting the alternative genre’s adventurous ways, original Modern Rock reporter CFNY Toronto became the “first Canadian station to report to a Billboard chart, because of its influence in upstate New York.”
Meanwhile, three of the chart’s initial reporters remain on its panel, which now boasts 66 stations: KROQ Los Angeles, XTRA San Diego and KITS San Francisco.
Check out the entire first survey below.