Just as the 1966 debut of the Batman TV series wasn’t my introduction to superheroes on TV, neither was the debut of The Monkees later in ’66 my first televised rock ‘n’ roll experience. For that, we have to go back to at least February 9th, 1964; sure, I’d just turned four years old a little over three weeks before that, but trust me: that Sunday night, everyone saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Even before Smilin’ Ed introduced these four young men from Liverpool who called themselves The Beatles, I’m pretty sure I’d seen Chubby Checker twistin’ on TV when I was three, and I may (or may not) have seen The Four Seasons on some show, somewhere, singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
Still, The Beatles’ TV debut was seismic. Every televised rock ‘n’ roll moment I saw after that, from The Monkees through Elvis Costello & the Attractions on Saturday Night Live, and all points in all directions, is filtered in my mind through a memory of John, Paul, George, and Ringo singing “All My Loving” for an American TV audience that felt its hair growing longer and its soul growing freer before that first song was through.
In between February ’64 and September ’66, my specific memories of rock on TV are limited and hazy, at best. Aside from one-off fictional combos like The Mosquitoes on Gilligan’s Island or the actual band The Standells on The Munsters (both of which I’m sure I saw in prime time, but really only remember from reruns in the ’70s), there was The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon series, and there was Dick Clark‘s rockin’ pop showcase Where The Action Is! on weekday afternoons. I know for a fact that I saw at least some episodes of Where The Action Is!, but while I remember watching it, I don’t remember what I saw and heard; I wouldn’t take note of the Where The Actions Is! house band–the fabulous Paul Revere & the Raiders–until rediscovering them in the ’70s. I must have seen American Bandstand, and Hullabaloo, and Shindig! in this time frame, but I can’t swear it’s so.
So The Monkees show was also seismic. The cultural impact of the show remains underrated, but The Monkees probably did more to bring long hair and the burgeoning youth movement into the American middle-class mainstream, into acceptance, than any other single source. Yeah, even more than The Beatles themselves. Throughout 1967 and into the time of the TV show’s cancellation in ’68, The Beatles were getting weird by middle American standards; they did drugs, LSD, and were no longer the cuddly moptops we’d seen running from screaming fans in A Hard Day’s Night (a 1964 movie which was televised on election night in 1968). But The Monkees? Couldn’t call ’em clean-cut exactly, but they weren’t perceived as a threat to the status quo: smilin’ and laughin’, too busy singing to put anybody down. Even with their long hair and their beads and peace signs, The Monkees seemed…normal. The Monkees was the most quietly, successfully subversive TV show on the air in 1967. And it got away with it.
The above is a mere tangent to today’s discussion. While Micky, Davy, Michael, and Peter were subtly moving the needle to the left, they were also an engaging rockin’ pop group, playing their great songs on TV, every week. You wanna talk about rock ‘n’ roll on TV? You’d better have a lot to say about The Monkees.
The only other rock-on-TV moment I can specifically recall from this ’66-’68 span is seeing The Jefferson Airplane sing “Somebody To Love” on American Bandstand. When The Monkees faded to black in ’68, I didn’t really see much more rock ‘n’ roll on the telly for a while thereafter. I guess you could count the animated exploits of The Archies, whose agreeable bubblegum music was way better than anyone should have expected from a Saturday morning cartoon soundtrack, but Riverdale’s Phenomenal Pop Combo wasn’t quite the same as a flesh-and-blood combo, even an initially manufactured combo like The Monkees.
Things changed a bit in the ’70s. I was actively listening to AM Top 40 radio, and starting to see bands on TV. The bands had never gone away from the TV screen, of course; they were still making appearances on variety shows and talk shows, but I just didn’t see ’em. But I did see the TV special James Paul McCartney in 1973, I saw Wings‘ video for “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on The Flip Wilson Show, Smokey Robinson on The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour, and the new late-night rock ‘n’ roll showcases Midnight Special, ABC In Concert, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Those three shows gave me opportunities to see artists ranging from The Rolling Stones to The Isley Brothers to The Bee Gees, and even ’60s acts like Herman’s Hermits.
Opportunities continued to broaden when I was in high school: The Bay City Rollers and The Patti Smith Group on The Mike Douglas Show, Alice Cooper on both The Smothers Brothers and The Snoop Sisters, The Rubinoos and Fanny on American Bandstand. A British import called Supersonic offered me my first televised glimpse of my # 1 Pop Dream Suzi Quatro, as well as appearances by The Hollies, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, and that loathsome lizard Gary Glitter. NBC’s Saturday Night offered a Simon & Garfunkel reunion, and a one-off duo of Paul Simon and George Harrison, and–best of all!–THE KINKS!! Even more TV rock stars would appear during my college years: The Rutles. Todd Rundgren, Devo, The Sex Pistols, Bowie, Michael Nesmith, KISS, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Cheap Trick, The Records, Iggy Pop, The Clash, yadda und yadda. In the early ’80s, my access to TV was limited, but there was Rick James and Fear on SNL, and The Ramones on, of all things, Sha Na Na. There was a video for Joey Wilson‘s sublime, elusive “If You Don’t Want My Love” on some long-forgotten video hits show. And then there was MTV, a rant for another day (if ever).
As home video became a thing, I acquired a lot of old rock ‘n’ roll favorites, to peruse again at my leisure. I have all of The Beatles’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. I have a Blu-ray set collecting the entire series of The Monkees. I have officially-licensed Hullabaloo DVDs, a bootleg DVD set of the complete Shindig!, and an assortment of other televised rock ‘n’ roll goodies, both legit and less so, from The Raspberries to The Dave Clark Five. And it’s all on YouTube anyway, for anyone to click and view at a moment’s notice.
While I miss the feeling of rock ‘n’ roll on TV as a unique and special event, I can’t deny that I dig the convenience of being able to see a Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich or (especially!) Suzi Quatro clip online whenever I wish. Expedience trumps nostalgia. But that desire was built on a bedrock of memories, fond recollections of sprawling before the tube to witness The Beatles sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and all that came after that. Thanks, Mr. Sullivan. Set your antenna. Turn it up. Watch the music, and let it rock.
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