Geoff Pevere: Music on Television 1969
In the course of watching practically everything I own for the purposes of launching some truly insane encyclopedic websites – one on westerns, one on crime movies and TV, one on cult entertainment and one on rock culture – I spent nearly fifteen hours recently in 1969. My Lord, what a fucked-up year.
For the rock culture site, I pulled out two DVD collections I’d had for years but not yet watched. (One of the reasons I’m starting these websites, apart from pure obsessional perversion, is so that I am compelled to actually look at just about everything I’ve accumulated over the years.)
The first of these was a two-disc compilation of performances from the Johnny Cash TV show that ran from ’69 to ’71, and the second a two-volume collection of moments from one of the biggest televisual flops of its day: ABC’s Music Scene.
While the Cash show is incomparably better, Music Scene is actually every bit as riveting. Created by Stan Harris and Ken Fritz fresh from their dumping by CBS over The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the program also featured David Steinberg – whose irreverent evangelical sermons were instrumental in getting the Smothers Brothers show canned – as one of six hosts. Yes, six hosts, and that’s just the first indication that the program, designed to showcase musical performances from artists currently charting high on all genres of Billboard lists, was doomed from the get go. From the very first episode, the show has no idea what to do with so many people, and so it tries everything. Along with musical performances by James Brown, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young and Three Dog Night, the show included manic countercultural-themed sketches by the hosts, commentary on the current political situation, and even poetry readings before a live studio audience.
The stunning thing for me was realizing that I’d completely forgotten that I’d seen practically every episode. Music Scene ran on Monday nights in a forty-five minute experimental slot just before a proto-Lost hippies-stranded-on-an-island show called The New People (also doomed), and the entire ninety minute package was ABC’s attempt to single-handedly create a programming devoted to flower-power era kids.
While it failed spectacularly in a matter of sixteen weeks (culminating in an appearance by Groucho Marx that marks one of the best kiss-off final shows I’ve ever seen), Music Scene remains fascinating for the ultra-vivid snapshot of an era it provides. Not simply for all the digs and jabs against Nixon, Agnew and the war in Vietnam it included, but because of the sheer surrealistic variety of the music on display: where else would one see Sly and the Family Stone on the same show as Tony Bennett, or Buck Owens and Janis Joplin? Or witness Mod Squad‘s Michael Cole reading Rod McKuen one week and Groucho arching his eyebrows over Bo Diddley’s name the next?
In its addle-brained faith that everything belonged because music dissolved all differences, Music Scene might have erred on the side of excess – within four weeks, it had dumped all hosts but Steinberg, but continued to try blending Edie Gorme with Buffy Ste. Marie, but it captured something fundamentally optimistic about its day. It was a belief in music as a unifying force, a belief only rendered more poignant in the context of a show that was falling apart.
Meanwhile, on the same network on a different night, the very same experiment was being conducted with electrifyingly different results. It was The Johnny Cash Show, and it began as a summer replacement series two months before Music Scene showed up DOA. Made at a time that the Man in Black was at the height of both his musical powers and crossover popularity – the San Quentin album was a triumph, and the finally amphetamine-free Cash’s live shows were selling out everywhere – the program began with exactly the kind of genre-busting throwdown Music Scene would attempt with such infinitely less impressive results: Cash’s first guest was Bob Dylan, and from there he invited a truly astounding array of guests to the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville where Cash had insisted the show be based: Bill Monroe, Louis Armstrong, George Jones, Joni Mitchell, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Loretta Lynn, Stevie Wonder. Cash also made a point of dueting with as many of his guests as he could, in the process reinforcing exactly what Music Scene had tried and failed to bring home: the idea of music as a common thread binding everyone with ears to listen and hearts to feel, a force of shared emotional power in an otherwise dangerously divided time.
Not that any of this was felt that way at the time, at least not by my twelve year-old self. Indeed, if you’d have asked me back then, I probably would have preferred the disastrous Music Scene to the sublime Cash show, but only because it seemed somehow closer to my middle-class suburban white-kid countercultural inclinations. Plus it had Three Dog Night on a couple of times, and everyone knows they were the greatest band ever if you were twelve and me in the fall of ’69. No, they were just part of the general flow of torrential pop cultural activity at the time, no more or less exceptional than Top-40 radio, afternoon talk shows, Marvel comics, Mad magazine or a double bill of Planet of the Apes and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. One took them all in if one was me, and it’s only all these years later that one looks back and fully appreciates just how explosively crazy things were way back when. But the thing that sticks is the sheer evangelical faith in music both of these programs embraced and endorsed. They actually believed that Chet Atkins belonged on the same stage as Eric Clapton, Ray Charles needed to be heard by the same people as were listening to Bill Monroe, and that The Archies could share air time with The Beatles. Imagine that.
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