The Drama You've Been Craving

This was like some strange dream. Baez? "Lovin' Feeling"? Spector?
Over 35 years later, their mid-'60s TV appearances are still some of the best examples of rock on TV. Painting by Cyril Jordan.
open a printable version of this article in a new window

view the archive of previous columns

Monday Oct. 30, 2000

Why Is Rock on TV So Bad So Often?

Back in the day, they knew how to shoot live rock 'n' roll. What happened?

By Michael Goldberg

I have often thought — especially when watching a band perform on Saturday Night Live — that television was one of the worst media for rock 'n' roll. Rock, experienced live, is larger than life. At the same time, it can feel intimate, as if the artist were performing just for you — there's something compelling about being part of an audience of fans as "their" band performs.

On TV, the artist is literally smaller than life. All too often, those in charge of the production don't seem to have a clue as to what makes an artist connect with an audience, and how to achieve that using the TV medium. Another problem is the sound, which for many is still small, tinny and ineffectual on TV when it should be loud and overwhelming.

At some point broadband will be in enough homes that millions will be able to watch streaming-video music performances live from clubs and concert halls all over the world via the Net. I hope that by the time that happens, some of the problems that have plagued TV rock performances for nearly 50 years will have been solved.

The Boss Said No

For years, Bruce Springsteen wouldn't appear on television, because he (and/or his manager) thought the small screen wouldn't do the Boss justice. When he finally did a "plugged" appearance on MTV's "Unplugged," it just proved his original theory was sound.

Still, some of the most powerful rock experiences I've had were on TV. The earliest was the sight and sound of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan's weekly Sunday night show. I'm sure you've seen some of that black-and-white footage — it's powerful stuff. The sound of their harmonies, the way they shared and leaned into a microphone, the way they dressed, wore their hair, even the look of their guitars... For some, those Beatles performances were life-changing experiences.

Others were just as potent: the Rolling Stones (when Brian Jones was still in the band) doing "Ruby Tuesday," also courtesy of Ed Sullivan. I remember seeing an early short film of the Beatles (over a decade before the advent of the "music video"), set to "Strawberry Fields Forever." Elvis' 1968 comeback show was amazing, as was Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, over 20 years later, which remains the best rock video I've ever seen.

Phil Spector Is In The House

The other night (Oct. 21), both the limitations and possibilities were again made clear to me. Flipping from channel to channel in search of something worth my attention, I suddenly found myself watching one of the most surreal rock 'n' roll performances I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot).

There, in stark black and white, was folk singer Joan Baez, circa 1966, singing the Righteous Brothers' great Phil Spector-produced hit, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." And who was that sitting at the grand piano behind Joan? Could that be... Phil Spector? My god, it was Spector himself, actually playing the piano, and leading a band of what appeared to be many of his Wall of Sound musicians, the ones who played on hits such as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

This was like some strange dream. Baez? "Lovin' Feeling"? Spector?

As a kid I thought the world of Joan Baez for two reasons: I thought that she was Bob Dylan's girlfriend for a while, which meant a lot in '65 and '66 when Dylan was the coolest guy in the world; also, she sang folk songs beautifully, and my girlfriend at the time had several of her records. All the same, she was way out of her league attempting the Righteous Brothers hit. She just couldn't sing it — maybe the key was wrong, or she just wasn't cut out for pop songs.

Just the same, the performance was impossible to turn off. The band behind her sounded incredible. And to see the impish Spector actually playing the piano! It was remarkable that this was preserved on film, not lost in the mists of history.

Even though Joan didn't cut it, I realized the next day what brilliant TV this was. The screen disappeared. I connected with what I saw on the little screen.

It wasn't just a Joan Baez performance, as it turned out. I found that I was watching "The Big T.N.T. Show" (1966), directed by Larry Peerce, featuring performances by Donovan ("The Universal Soldier"), The Byrds ("Turn, Turn, Turn," "Mr. Tambourine Man"), The Ronettes ("Be My Baby") and Ike and Tina Turner ("I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine").

Sure, there were moments that were camp (dancers in white go-go boots!) or just plain silly (teenage girls solemnly nodding along as Donovan sang bad poetry set to music). But mostly I was moved. And I was impressed with the way the artists were filmed. Someone who really knew what they were doing had been behind the camera.

The Wrong Way

A few hours later, Saturday Night Live once again demonstrated how not to present rock on TV. I don't think I've ever seen a great performance by a band on SNL — and I believe that includes an appearance by Nirvana! It's a combo of the set, terrible camera work and a total lack of drama or intimacy.

On this particular night, a band I like a lot, The Wallflowers, performed their hit, "Sleepwalker." As is always the case on Saturday Night Live, the band performed in a space that seemed too small. There was no room for them to move, and no drama. The lighting was wrong; the camera work, instead of adding to the band's mystique, deflated it.

Without recording-studio help, Jakob Dylan's voice sounded a bit ragged, and he missed some notes. And, yes, they just stood there and played the song in a not-very-exciting way. But I don't think that's it. I don't think the problem is with the band. I think that everything about the way SNL presents bands is off.

Maybe someone could send SNL a video of "The Big T.N.T. Show," or even "A Hard Day's Night." Or perhaps Larry Peerce is available?

Michael Goldberg is the Editor in Chief of ARTISTdirect.

(c) 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.