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In the fall of 1970 this reviewer had just turned eighteen; I headed off to college and to a new world with different tastes in music. We were too busy to waste time watching TV, so I missed out on a lot of consumer-level culture that didn't involve movies on campus or in Westwood. When I did catch a late night rock 'n' roll TV concert show, it would be with friends trying to make a 'simulcast' work, one where a local FM station carried stereo audio that NTSC (Never The Same Color) broadcasts couldn't offer. I don't think I ever saw the rock and pop performance show The Midnight Special when it was new; it was on too late at night. The stuff I did see was much more mannered, with flare lights blasting into the lens and playing havoc with the old 2" videotape. Perhaps what I saw was the competing show Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. What's offered in this 3-disc collection from The Midnight Special looks and sounds great, and will be quite a time capsule for boomers who remember it from 'the day.'
The Midnight Special debuted on NBC late in 1972 and continued for nine years and 353 episodes. It began as a one-off concert with the excuse of getting kids to vote. The networks didn't schedule anything after 1am but producer Burt Sugarman was given a deal as soon as the numbers came in. The show aired every Friday following Johnny Carson. The theme song was sung by Johnny Rivers, from his hit record. Each show had a celebrity host, with a frequent fallback being star deejay Wolfman Jack. The music ranged from rock and pop to R&B and country, with stand-up comics filling in here and there.
All of the performances on these discs appear to be recorded live. In later years, some acts reportedly used backup tapes with live vocals, then toward the end some full-out lip sync. Also included toward the end were promo performance films produced by the music labels, that were precursors of MTV music videos. The Hollywood TV commercial house I started working for in 1980 distributed these for Capitol records, so we had a lot of 16mm prints hanging around the shop for a while. We're told that for a year starting in 1978 the Midnight Special studio set was changed to reflect a disco theme, and then changed back as the craze curdled.
Most of the rockers and pop singers we see wear '70s fashions that only look good on tall skinny people -- all those flared pant legs. The fallback mode for guy rockers seems to be spangled jackets open at front with an exposed torso, and curly perm'ed hair. It's like they're all channeling Roger Daltrey. For the earlier shows producer Sugarman constructed giant neon signs with the performer or group's name ... that had to cost something.
As is the case with music guest performer compilation discs from Saturday Night Live, dozens of top name acts that appeared repeatedly on the show (like ELO, Aerosmith, Booker T & the MGs, Chuck Berry) are not represented here, almost certainly because they didn't sign over rights. Fans of Electric Light Orchestra can go here for detailed information on that group's many appearances.
Llast year Time/Life Star Vista put out much bigger Collector's edition from The Midnight Special, one with eleven discs and one with twenty. The 20-disc monster box retailed a year ago for $200.
The online sources I see don't offer a full list of the disc set's contents, so I figure readers might benefit from a full rundown. I spent the better part of an afternoon sampling the performances and watching/listening to more than half in their entirety. Like I said, most of this decade I had my nose in my studies and in editing rooms, so part of the novelty factor is seeing what these performers look like in action. So that's what Elvin Bishop looks like. Gee, Jim Croce looks like my brother.
Disc 3 - Comedy Routines:
Of we're struck by the dated clothing and the glitzy plastic sets, and of course by how young everyone looks. It's refreshing to see that many look like average people with musical talent -- the majority of new performers today seem to be packaged products instead, with beauty and a terrific body more important than what they actually do. It's great to see Heart rocking away like the sixties had never left us, and The Spinners doing their dance routines as they sing. Donna Summer's disco song comes with a dance exhibition that emulates a make-out session on the dance floor, while Frankie Valli's perf is one of the few that might actually be partially playback (I'm not the best judge of these things). The best of the entertainers really put across a special personality. Dolly Parton is both natural and 200% rehearsed at the same time, while Glen Campbell's voice and presence makes one like him immediately. Jim Croce and Albert Hammond are soulful and Steeley Dan looks like they're having a great time. Aretha Franklin's costume is so revealing that the cameras either stay wide or go for close-ups that don't show below the shoulders.
It's a good line-up. I'm no fan of Barry Manilow but he's pleasant enough, and I guess the producer felt obliged to put Rick Dees in there. Linda Ronstadt is a nostalgia item while Stephen Bishop, Yvonne Elliman and Mary MacGregor are fringe benefits.
Among the comics, Billy Crystal looks like he's thirteen years old and Redd Fox sticks with the clean material. Steve Martin, George Carlin, Jimmie Walker and Andy Kaufman are in their prime. It's a good little bit with Joan Rivers too, she'll certainly be missed. The comedy routines all run under seven, eight minutes, and are a good sampler -- I was never into David Brenner but he comes off well at this length.
Time/Life Star Vista's DVD of The Midnight Special is a nicely mastered disc set. All of the vintage video is in great shape. It's limited by the 2" format but looks consistently good for color and sharpness. Even old video dropouts are minimized, and I only noticed an electronic 'patterning' to the image once. The audio is mono but quite strong. On only a few perfs does the mix sound thin or unbalanced. The audio production on old TV shows was fairly consistent.
A folder inside has some liner notes from Burt Sugarman and a full contents list of the disc set. On a disc of this nature viewers will naturally want to skip around, so one quickly notices that the menus are easy to navigate and don't hold up the process with animation, unnecessary logos, etc. Very nice work.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Midnight Special DVD
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.