Mephisto, Kirshner, and Me

When you are a kid, the hours after bedtime are uncharted territory. Back when bedtime was 8 or 8:30, my family would sometimes visit a cousin of my father’s, who had kids about the same age as we were. Our parents would play euchre and visit, we’d fool around doing kid stuff—and sometimes we wouldn’t get home until after midnight. Geek that I am, one of the memories I have of those nights is seeing what was on TV so very late—Surfside 6 and Hawaiian Eye, the sort of thing a small-market local TV station might have run after the late local news on a Saturday night around 1968 or so.

When I got a little older, late-night TV became part of the weekend routine. After the 10:00 news on Friday nights, the fun started with Creatures From Dimension 13, the umbrella title for the horror movies on a Rockford station. I saw ’em all on Creatures From Dimension 13: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, all the classic Hollywood monsters. At midnight, you’d flip over to Channel 15, because if you were a kid in southern Wisconsin and you were up at midnight on Friday night, there was only one show you were going to watch: Lenny’s Inferno. The show had started as Ferdie’s Inferno in 1966, and changed its name sometime around 1970 or so. It was named in both cases for its sponsor, first Ferd Mattioli and later for his brother Len, owners of local TV and appliance store (now a chain) American TV. The show featured plenty of horror movies, but also episodes of Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and even Flash Gordon serials. It was hosted by the ghoulish Mr. Mephisto, who improvised humorous bits around commercial breaks, sparring with a disembodied voice that came from a box on his desk. The show ran until 1982.

There were other options on other channels. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was one—a show people are recalling this week with the news of Kirshner’s death at age 76. While The Midnight Special is more celebrated, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was just as important in bringing rock to TV, particularly acts that weren’t going to make it onto prime time.

According to the episode list at IMDB, the show premiered in September 1973 with the Rolling Stones, the Doobie Brothers, and Earth Wind and Fire. Jim Croce was booked for an October episode but died in late September, so the show on which he was to appear was turned into a tribute to him. In the first season alone, the show welcomed a range of acts from Van Morrison, Johnny Winter, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Foghat, Kansas (a Kirshner discovery), and REO Speedwagon; the latter three were  not yet the major stars they would become. But the show was even more eclectic than that: Steeleye Span, Weather Report, Roy Wood’s Wizzard, Fancy, and Fanny appeared in the first couple of seasons, the latter two on the same show, of course. The show’s most infamous guests appeared early in 1975—Black Sabbath, a band that was never going to get on TV anywhere else in the States, played for nearly half-an-hour. Sometimes acts performed especially for the show (Sabbath did), and sometimes the show featured performances filmed elsewhere.

Starting with the third season in the fall of 1975, the show booked fewer rock acts—it was more likely to feature pop and disco acts, although rock bands still appeared. There was also a weekly standup comedy spot. The show’s greatest coup in this period was to premiere a couple of clips from Led Zeppelin’s concert movie The Song Remains the Same, which may have been the first time Zeppelin ever appeared on an American TV show. But even if Rock Concert never again rocked as hard as it did during its first two seasons, it kept putting on acts you wouldn’t see anywhere else, until it went off the air in 1982.

I wrote about Kirshner at WNEW.com in November 2008, and was pleased to receive an e-mail from his assistant thanking me for the piece and promising to show it to him. I’ll say again that it’s an injustice that Kirshner isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a contributor. For the children of the 1970s, few did more for our rock and roll education.

Top 5: It Only Takes a Minute

I’ve been a DJ for most of my life, whether it was the imaginary radio station in my bedroom when I was 11, college radio, the years I spent getting a full-time paycheck, or the more recent years I’ve done my four and hit the door. Even during the nine years I was out of radio entirely from the mid 90s to the mid 00s, I couldn’t help talking over records in the car like my Top-40 heroes of old. So why did it take me until yesterday, after five-plus years at this blog, to shut up and play the hits?

This first one is one of the best autumn songs I know. On this live version (the song was originally on the radio this week in 1974), some famous folks show up at the end to provide backing vocals and rock some 70s fashions.

Billy Preston’s original “Nothing From Nothing” is one of the most economical records in pop history, streaking out of the gate and taking less than 2:30 to get to the fade, and I’ve always wished it went on longer. On this live performance from the 1980s, it does—about 6 1/2 minutes altogether, as Billy introduces his band.

The fall of 1975 may have marked the peak of Top 40 misogyny—on the chart at the same time you had Elton John’s “Island Girl,” a song about a prostitute that tries to take an admiring tone but misses (and is racist to boot), and Elton’s collaboration with Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood,” in which Neil sings that “woman was born to lie” and “the bitch is in the smile.” And that fills this video with all sorts of contradictions. His backup singers both appear positively thrilled to be part of this smackdown of their gender, and Sedaka comes off as such a dweeb that it’s clear either one of them could kick his ass.

An alternate viewpoint—quite nearly an answer song—was on the radio at precisely the same time. It’s here. Meanwhile, back here on the show, the Brothers Johnson get on down in a video that seems to have been partly shot through a lens smeared with chocolate pudding.

Veteran TV director Louis J. Horvitz would have gotten away with it if the clip below didn’t include a credit roll from its original source, an episode of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert broadcast in October 1975. But now we know he’s responsible for giving us as many shots of the Tavares brothers from the back as from the front, and we know how much he loves the circular wipe. LOUIE FOR CHRISSAKES STAY ON A SINGLE SHOT FOR MORE THAN FIVE SECONDS DAMMIT

Mighty good song, though.