Extreme's 'More Than Words': The Oral History of 1991's Iconic Ballad

How Sebastian Bach and "Weird Al" Yankovic played a role in this stripped-down mega-hit

Extreme in 1991. Credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns

In the spring of 1991, the radio landscape was bursting with high-energy dance-pop and heavily emotional ballads. "More Than Words," a comparatively modest single by the Boston hard-rock band Extreme, stuck out — just two voices and an acoustic guitar, with harmonies that recalled the classic pop balladry of bands like the Beatles or the Everly Brothers. The song eventually hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, an outcome that surprised many — including the members of the band, who were ready to start work on a follow-up album when it began climbing the charts.

"More Than Words" was an anomaly in not just pop, but hard rock; acoustic guitars were standard in many a power ballad, but they were often surrounded by bombastic production and splashy solos. It even stood out in the context of 1990's Extreme II: Pornograffitti, a wide-lens concept album. Its spare harmonies served as a widening of space after four powerhouse songs augmented with horns, double-entendres, Gary Cherone's showmanship and Bettencourt's fleet guitar playing. The album's first two singles, the bombastic "Decadence Dance" and the horn-assisted "Get The Funk Out," were relegated to the late-night wilds of Headbangers Ball. An April 1991 profile of Extreme in Rolling Stone talked about how the band had been slogging it out and trying to find a commercial breakthrough — at the time, the album had sold about 300,000 copies. The piece ends with the band hearing "More Than Words" on a Boston radio station. "There are a lot of hopes pinned on this song," wrote Kim Neely, who noted that between the time of that interview and the piece's publication, the song had risen to the Number 10 spot on the rock charts.

The black-and-white video for "More Than Words" became an MTV staple and received one of pop's highest honors — being parodied by "Weird Al" Yankovic. In June 1991, it hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, bookended by Mariah Carey's pleading "I Don't Wanna Cry" and Paula Abdul's winsome "Rush Rush." 

These days, Cherone has been working with a band called Hurtsmile, Bettencourt has been Rihanna's tour guitarist since 2009 and Extreme are currently touring behind the 25th-anniversary reissue of Pornograffitti. In honor of this unique moment, we caught up with important players in the "More Than Words" story.

Nuno Bettencourt, guitar: It was literally on Gary's fuckin' porch in Malden. I remember we always demoed everything straight away. We wrote it and then just threw it down [on a] four-track.

Cherone: Nuno was on the porch strumming, he showed it to me, I ran in my bedroom and scribbled the first "More than words is all you have to do" — and it was obvious, after you read the first verse to go, "OK, that's the title." You think it's genius but it's an accident. We were just in a groove writing, and that was just another song. I think we might have played it at a club that week.

Bettencourt: I remember going home to Hudson, which was like 45 minutes away. I'm the youngest of 10 kids, and I have this older sister, Fatima, who really didn't pay attention to what I was doing in music, didn't like any of the bands I was in. I was listening to that track in my bedroom, recapping it, and she walks by — usually she never speaks to me — and stops at the door and goes, "Is that yours?" I go, "Yeah, we just recorded it." And she says to me — she doesn't know anything about the music business — "You better not play that for anybody, and you'd better get that copyrighted, because that's a huge song." And then she walked away. I was just like, "What?" And then I didn't even think anything of it.

"The first time we knew it was a hit was actually when Sebastian Bach told us."

Cherone: When I first heard Nuno's chords, it reminded me of "If I Fell" by the Beatles, one of my favorite songs of all time.

Bettencourt: All the ballads on the radio at that time were as heavy and as big as the rock songs. When they looked at us, they were like, "Well, this would be great if you guys added drums, and a guitar solo, and all this stuff." And we really fought — no, this is it. And it was really awkward because the other guys weren't on it as well. But it never bothered them, except for maybe when I was with [bassist] Pat [Badger] walking into the mall, and they see me and they go, "Where's the other guy?" Everybody thought we were a duo.

Carter Alan, Boston-based rock DJ: "More Than Words" never really sounded out of place to me. But there was that phenomenon back then — the power ballad by the big heavy band, like Ozzy Osbourne doing "Mama I'm Coming Home," Mötley Crüe doing "Home Sweet Home," Aerosmith doing "What It Takes" and "Janie's Got a Gun," Whitesnake. You have all these big heavy bands, overproduced with lots of echo — because that's what it was — and they're all doing power ballads. In a lot of ways, I felt "More Than Words" got lumped into the power ballad category.

Bettencourt: The song never really had a chorus, like, "Here comes the big sing-along part." It just meandered. . .So that's why I think everybody at the label had trouble with it, because they were like, "What is this?" It wasn't your typical production that was happening at the time.

Michael Wagener, Pornograffitti producer: I loved the song the minute I heard it. There was some discussion if it should be on the album, but I thought it would be very important to have it [there]. Most rock bands had ballads on their records at the time, and I felt that it was still an Extreme song and didn't stick out too far.

Bettencourt: The first time we knew it was a hit was actually when Sebastian Bach told us.

Cherone: Did he? 

Bettencourt: I remember we were in [the studio] with Dweezil Zappa and Sebastian Bach — people just pop in that you meet for the first time. And he listens to ["More Than Words"] and he goes, "This is fucking huge! It's a Number One. Number One." And then, what he does, he says, "I'm going to manage you guys." He wanted to be our manager because of that song. He started calling people. He says, "I'm going to manage; forget your manager, I'm managing you." He was so out of control. But he knew — he heard it, and we're like, "Really?"

Cherone: [By 1991,] the record [had been] out for nine months. We were doing a club tour in Europe. And the record company [was like], "Go get ready for the third record." We felt the record was over. We released "Decadence Dance," we released "Get the Funk Out" — which didn't do much except for Headbangers Ball.

"The great thing about it is it went to Number One. The sad thing about it is we missed it all."

Bettencourt: We were trying to push ["More Than Words"] to the record company. We were on tour trying to call them and tell them, "Listen, whenever we go to sing this song, we get drowned out by the audience. We're not telling you it's something special; they're telling us." This was pre-Unplugged. And they were like, "Where are we going to put this? Rock stations aren't going to play it, and it's too adult-contemporary. You guys aren't that." And we just said, "You've got to do it." And we pushed and we went to the president of the label, and basically — I think I was in his office one day and I threatened to quit the band if he didn't at least give it a shot as a single.

Wagener: It felt like a hit from the beginning, but one can never really predict how big a song will be in the end.

Bettencourt: Later we got a call saying, "All right, we're going in. We'll test it in a market." They tested it in Denver, I believe. We're like, "Great, it's never going to happen. They're just doing this to appease us so I don't quit the band." Because I had a bit of a fit. So then our manager calls and goes, "What the fuck you doing reaching out to the president of the label? You crazy?" And we got into a fight with him, so they at least did what they said what they were going to do. They tested it. And we're like, "All right, we're going back to the studio." It ends up being like Number Eight [on the station's call-in show] the first day. On a rock station, getting phones. So then the next day it's climbing; by the end of the week, it was Number One by Saturday. So they call us — the manager calls us — "Don't get your hopes up. They still want to test it in one more place." They still wouldn't believe it. So we were excited because I remember we went to MTV and we performed. They wanted us to perform on MTV with an audience, just about 30 or 40 people. And because of "More Than Words," we said, "We're a rock band. We don't want to just sit there and play the ballad," because we asked them, "Can we play some of the rock stuff acoustically?" Coincidentally. Not to say that we invented Unplugged, the show, but something happened format-wise because months later, almost a year later, the show popped up. Ironically enough, we were never asked back to play the actual show. Which was bizarre for us, because we actually had some unplugged stuff, purposely.

Cherone: I think ["More Than Words"] might have started on rock radio, but it quickly crossed over to pop. . .People were going into record stores thinking it was a duet, those two cute Italian boys, Portuguese boys or whatever, singing that lovely song — and then taking them to the hard rock/metal section and a record called Pornograffitti. "No, that's not it." "Yes it is." "No, that's not it."

We shot the video in the middle of a tour, I think. What we did musically, [directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris] got visually — black and white, no bells and whistles. The other guys were basically just hanging — we shut off the amps. So they got it. That was all them, to their credit. Turn off the noise. And the lighter was cute, and the dog. But I thought the visual did not take away from the music, and I think that's one of the reasons the video does not get old.

"Weird Al" Yankovic: After "Smells Like Nirvana," I wanted my next single from Off the Deep End to be an original: "You Don't Love Me Anymore," a dark, twisted acoustic love ballad. I was always trying to break away from being just "the parody guy" and I thought that particular song might actually get some traction. My record label balked a bit, though, because they figured I shouldn't confound people's expectations — if memory serves, I believe they said they would fund the music video only if the video itself were a parody, even though the song was an original. At the time, "More Than Words" was a very popular acoustic rock ballad — an MTV staple — and we mutually decided that some fun could be had with that. So I had my guitar player paint his nails black and put on a long Nuno Bettencourt wig, and we deconstructed that Extreme video in our own extreme way.

Bettencourt: We were in Europe or something, in Germany, in a shitty hotel in Europe. And the phone was ringing. We were half-asleep, and we get a phone call. "Listen," our manager's saying — the manager who told us it wasn't a hit in the first place. "Listen, Billboard called; the label called. They said as of tomorrow morning, when it comes out, it's going to be Number One." So we just ran down the hall in our underwear, banging on people's doors.

Cherone: Waking up the band, yeah. That was special.

Bettencourt: The great thing about it is it went to Number One and it blew up and it did great. The sad thing about it is we missed it all. We went away. We shot the video, did it and left. And then all of a sudden we're getting calls from our families — "It's all over MTV, you guys are climbing the charts." And we're like, "Fuck." It's the shit that we dream about and we're not even witnessing it. And then it started happening in the UK and some other places. But by the time we came back home, people were in our driveways, and fans were pulling up, and you couldn't walk anywhere. You'd go into CVS and everybody was staring at you like, "I think that's the dude. I think these are the guys." And it was really interesting. This is what it's like when you start having success and people all of a sudden think, "Oh, you must be good now."

Cherone: I remember being at Burger King, and this group of kids came up, and they were like, "What are you doing here?" I go, "I'm here to eat a burger. What are you doing at Burger King?" And they go, "You eat here?" "Yeah, I guess."

Bettencourt: There are a lot of artists that I know now, and that's the part that they loved. We didn't take very well to it. I thought it was exciting at first, but then it got really irritating, because you'd be having dinner, and everybody's going, "I hate to interrupt you, but I'm going to do it anyway." Now I know how to handle it, but when you're young, you look at it like, "Great. Now the door's open. Now we're going to get to work, and we want to write better songs and write more albums." And we looked at it that way, but all this other stuff that came with it was like, "This is interesting. I don't know if we're equipped for this." Nobody teaches you, you know?

Cherone: Back then, we felt like it was a door to conquer the world. Looking back now, back then we didn't enjoy it as much because we were trying to always write the next record.

Bettencourt: We didn't smell those flowers.

Cherone: And you spend your whole life trying to get it again. It doesn't always come, unless you're Paul McCartney. But those are the moments where you go, "It's something special." I just remember writing the lyric after you showing me the first part, the melody. And I think we sang it over with just the first verse, over and over again, and you told me to finish the damn —

Bettencourt: "Get the fuck back in there and finish this thing."

Cherone: We were writing at the time, always, and this was another song. And we'd go, "This one's better than the last five we wrote."