Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Music: The 1960’s: Ed Sullivan’s Rock ’n’ Roll Classics (PBS, aired March 7, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS pledge-break special featuring 1960’s rock performances from the Ed Sullivan Show, and as usual it was merely a loss leader for the wonders and joys you were promised if you bought the four-DVD set of the show’s longer version for a humongous contribution to KPBS. They showed 19 songs in what amounted to an hour’s running time — I suspect at least some of the performances were internally edited (though the editing may have been done “in the day” to crowd more acts into Sullivan’s variety format — the pledge-break announcers boasted that in this compilation  you could see just the rock acts without the plate-spinners or Topo Gigio, though when I bought the DVD boxed sets of the original four Ed Sullivan Show episodes featuring the Beatles, I was fascinated by the whole Gestalt of how their performances were originally presented; as I wrote when Charles and I watched them, “What’s fascinating about watching this now is the context of the program and in particular the unwitting clash between the Beatles and the entire apparatus of old-fashioned show business that they would essentially blow out of existence. … One doesn’t often get to see the revolutionaries who are about to tear apart the ancien regime starting their revolution on the ancien regime’s own turf; watching the Beatles on Sullivan seems as if the French Revolution had started with the peasants storming Versailles instead of the Bastille.”

The compilation KPBS broadcast last night featured 19 songs by 14 acts (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Young Rascals and the Doors got two songs each), and it was strongest pretty much where you’d expect: the Beatles (doing “I Want to Hold  Your Hand” from the third in their sequence of three Sullivan broadcasts on February 23, 1964 and “She Loves You” from the legendary first show on February 9 — you can tell because they used different set designs), the Rolling Stones (doing “Satisfaction” and blessedly shown in color — in 1969 Mick Jagger told an interviewer they preferred to play Sullivan rather than the newer, hipper shows because “he’s so old, he’s funky!”), the Animals (doing “House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” — the latter introduced as a typical sample of “British blues” even though it isn’t a blues song and it was written by two Americans, Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin), the Doors (in their infamous appearance during which Jim Morrison was instructed that by order of CBS’s censors he was not to sing the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” in the Doors’ star-making hit “Light My Fire” — they gave him a substitute line to sing and he behaved during the dress rehearsal but sang the song come scritto on the actual show, leading to a confrontation between him and a screaming producer who said they’d been ready to offer the Doors three more appearances but by disobeying orders, the band had blown it: the more pragmatic Mick Jagger, told similarly that he had to change the title line of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together,” had fudged it by mumbling something intermediate between the two), the Mamas and the Papas (a nice medley of “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming” — though I suspect at least part of their performance was pre-recorded since there seemed to be more vocal parts than four people could have produced “live”) and the Beach Boys (including a 1964 clip of “I Get Around” featuring Brian Wilson on bass in what would be one of his last live performances before he had a nervous breakdown on a plane and dropped out of performing with the band in favor of staying at home, writing the songs and working with the legendary “Wrecking Crew” studio band to cut the backing tracks to which the other Beach Boys would add vocals when they got back from the road; it also included the 1968 version of “Good Vibrations” sans Brian that showed the electronic noises on the record were not a classic theremin but a variant invented by Paul Tanner called an “Electro-Theremin,” which is a console with a strip that is controlled by the player rubbing it — in that sense it’s closer to the ondes Martenot, which is a rubbed strip the player controls with one hand and a piano-style keyboard played with the other: the keyboard controls the pitch and the strip controls amplitude and volume, though the Electro-Theremin doesn’t have a keyboard and instead the player controls the pitch by turning a knob).

Others included the Four Seasons doing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (I can’t listen to this group without recalling the Forbidden Broadway parody of them: “Walk like a man/Sing like a girl”), Gerry and the Pacemakers doing the lovely ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” (not the same song as the one of the same title written by Wilbert Barranco and recorded by him with singer Ernie Andrews, and a decade later covered by Ray Charles), the Young Rascals doing “Good Lovin’” and “Groovin’”, Herman’s Hermits doing “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” (the narrator of the compilation claimed that they got their record contract because someone at MGM Records thought lead singer Peter Noone — called “Moon” by Sullivan when he introduced the group — looked like President Kennedy), Diana Ross and the Supremes (doing “You Can’t Hurry Love” with a cornball big-band ending; when Charles and I watched Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the documentary about Motown’s great studio group the Funk Brothers, I noted that Motown owner Berry Gordy’s campaign to make the Supremes acceptable to white audiences “was so successful that the Supremes became the artists who played the Ed Sullivan Show more often than any others — and the clips of their Sullivan appearances are an ironic reflection of how great the Funk Brothers were: their vocal performances are fine but the efforts of Sullivan’s old white big-band era leftovers to reproduce the Funk Brothers’ grooves are embarrassing and pathetic”), Tommy James and the Shondells playing “Crimson and Clover” (with some odd attempts by Sullivan’s director and camerapeople to create faux-“psychdelic” effects that come off as just embarrassingly crude), The Turtles doing “Happy Together,” and what was probably the most galvanic number on the whole show: Sly and the Family Stone doing a wild medley of “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music” (in which they actually invited people from Sullivan’s audience to come on stage and do what the song said), “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Hey, Music Lover” from 1968.

Not only was it O.K. by then for Sly’s racially mixed band to show themselves on screen in all their Black and white glory, but the clip had an infectious energy and drive and one recalls with regret how thoroughly Sly sabotaged his own career to the point where he ended up living out of an old bus until he was dredged up by the Grammy Awards producers, who presented him in a tribute to his old songs and for which he dressed in a bizarre outfit that made him look like a gold lamé version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It also made me wonder — again — why his sister Rose Stone, who sang lead on quite a few of the Family Stone’s records, didn’t quit her brother’s act when he was doing his drug-fueled meltdown; she could have had one of the great solo soul careers if she’d gone out on her own. What’s appealing about watching these clips is not only do they show some of the greatest 1960’s rock acts in the venue that made mass audiences aware of them, even in a context like this that doesn’t show the more traditional variety acts that were also part of the Sullivan show, we know they were there and we get back to an era in which shows were truly “broadcast” rather than “narrowcast” — instead of the current practice of meticulously tailoring each movie, TV show or recording to one and only one audience niche, the portmanteau shows and movies of years past sought to build as broad an audience as possible by including at least one element someone would like.