(Pictured: Aerosmith on The Midnight Special.)
If you read this blog regularly, you are probably old enough to remember when TV stations signed off the air at night, although you don’t have to be all that old. It was the early 90s before 24/7 operation became the norm in most places across the country. Before that, it didn’t make economic sense to stay on all night, given the difficulty of selling advertising in that time slot and the perception that the audiences would be tiny.
But how tiny were they, really? In 1972, producer Burt Sugarman realized that half of the people watching TV late at night watched Johnny Carson on NBC, and surely not all of them wanted to turn off their TVs when the show was over. Sugarman pitched NBC on a late-night music show featuring the best acts he could get, but NBC turned it down. So Sugarman taped a pilot, sold the show to Chevrolet, and bought the airtime himself. The August 19, 1972, broadcast of what Sugarman christened The Midnight Special was a hit and caused NBC to take a second look. In February 1973, the show began its regular run, Friday nights at 1AM Eastern.
Over the next eight years, nearly everybody who was anybody appeared on the show. None of the solo Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who ever appeared, but the show welcomed a wide variety of acts nonetheless, including some who were not your typical TV fodder, from Black Oak Arkansas to King Crimson to Aerosmith (in 1974, two years before they became major stars) to AC/DC (in 1978). Country, R&B, and disco acts also appeared, as did standup comics including Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, and Freddie Prinze. Most performances were recorded live at NBC in Burbank, although some were taped elsewhere, most famously David Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, his last performance as Ziggy Stardust, recorded in London and aired in November 1973. Most acts performed live, although sometimes they sang live to recorded backing tracks, and every now and then somebody would lip-sync. Acts were not discouraged from changing things up or stretching them out, as the Edgar Winter Group did on “Frankenstein,” which runs nine mind-blowing minutes. Fleetwood Mac’s extended “Rhiannon,” in which Stevie Nicks transforms into a rock goddess, is also an all-timer.
It wasn’t just the artists who were encouraged to experiment: if you watch the “Frankenstein” video, you’ll see that the director got into the act, too. Some of the directors’ choices don’t look so great now. They frequently filled the screen with head shots of performers, and if a band had multiple members, they often called for a split-screen head shot, as when Orleans did “Dance With Me” in 1975. The close head shots were often unflattering. Many performers wore no TV makeup, and many of the top bands of the 70s had members who were dumpy-looking and/or poorly groomed. The close head shots could be frustrating. In the case of Orleans, the three singers are shown close up, but the poor drummer bangs away anonymously in a wide shot. (I keep thinking of his mom, staying up late, excited to see him on TV, and then seeing that.) In this performance by Heart, the camera focuses on Ann Wilson and ignores Nancy Wilson completely.
Any TV show from the 70s is going to feature fashions that are hilarious now, and The Midnight Special is no exception. Aretha Franklin performed “Respect” in a dress that made her look like a half-plucked Big Bird. Todd Rundgren opted for a rather unfortunate butterfly costume to perform “Hello It’s Me.” (In their defense, of course, we all wore stuff back then that seemed like a good idea at the time.)
It wasn’t MTV that killed The Midnight Special; it was the changing landscapes of popular music and television, and the fragmenting of the audience. Beginning in the fall of 1980, the show featured many more country and light pop acts than rock stars, along with movie clips and celebrity profiles, as producers flailed around trying to find a formula that would stay relevant. In the end, going for mass appeal was no longer the way to score big ratings, even after midnight. On March 27, 1981, the final original episode of The Midnight Special aired on NBC. It was replaced in May by another underrated television classic, SCTV Network 90.
Clips from The Midnight Special are valuable not just to fans but to students of history. The show preserves a lot of the most popular and influential music ever made (and some of its most ephemeral, too) in its natural habitat. Historians don’t often have the luxury of seeing the past exactly as it was.
(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2008.)