Saturday, February 18, 2012


I had originally review this last fall, when it was first out, but in a cheaper, incomplete edition.  That version featured four of the Stones' appearances on Sullivan, but this time we get all six, and really, I don't understand why they bothered with the first, as you'll want to have all six.  It is certainly a nicer package now, with a booklet, photos and reproductions of cool stuff like union contracts for the musicians.  But the two missing shows are essential, as they are the first (1964) and last (1969) appearances on the show.

Fabulously, these are the entire Ed shows, including the vintage commercials (Hai Karate aftershave, anyone?), and the variety show in all its classic absurdity.  I had never heard of dancer Peg Leg Bates, but there he was, dancing WITH A PEG LEG.  The prosthesis that allowed him to tap dance was quite on display, and you have to give him great credit for developing this skill, but it's simply a visual shock, and not the first.  The Ed Sullivan Show was a hodgepodge of old and new, a holdover from the days of vaudeville, with circus performers, comics, puppeteers, even dramatic readings.  It tried to be everything for everybody, which is why Ed (who also produced the show) kept trying to put modern stuff in "for you kids", like the Rolling Stones, as he had with Elvis and The Beatles.  But it was clear where his heart lay, at home as he was with stage veterans and old showbiz royalty.

There was a reason Sullivan tried to get old and young, parents and children.  It was still broadcasting then, not narrow-casting.  With only a small number of channels available, shows wanted something for everyone, and this was way before you could change the channel with a remote.  So the whole family wanted something they could all watch.  And while the kids might role their eyes during Robert Goulet, it would be the adults turn to cluck during Mick Jagger's mugging and preening.

Don't think Ed was too square though.  His fawning over old-school celebrities and stiff stage patter belied a man willing to change attitudes along with the times.  Appearing on the most popular show on television hugging singer Ella Fitzgerald, and then kissing her hand probably did much for race relations.  And there's one moment, after watching the somewhat bizarre circus spectacle of a ferocious tiger riding on top of a horse, when Sullivan uttered words that might have come out of David Letterman's lips in the same theatre 40 years later:  "He ain't gonna get me on no tiger or horse, neither one of them.  Next week, in fact, I think we'll have the horse ride the tiger."

Now, to the Stones.  The first show, from 1964, is quite a spectacle, mostly in its absurdity.  In addition to Peg Leg, British actor Laurence Harvey recites The Charge Of The Light Brigade, a trio of Korean sisters sing Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, trying to stifle their accents, comedian couple Stiller and Meara, parents of Ben, and the father of George Costanza (on Seinfeld at least), did their stand-up, and a young Itzhak Perlman blew everybody off the stage, Stones included.  Their rough blues on Around and Around seemed out of place, but everything on the show did.  Time On My Side is a little smoother, and the group is starting to look like stars.

You can actually watch the band grow in stature and performance on each show, from '64 to '69.  By May 1965, they are leading off the show, torquing up the danger on The Last Time.  In February of 1966, they are huge pop stars, and Satisfaction is delivered with relish.    Their second appearance that year, in September, sees them as pop dandies, with Lady Jane and Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?  I can barely understand that period, so  Ed must have been perplexed too.

The most famous appearance comes in 1967, when the group had to censor themselves by singing Let's Spend Some Time Together.  Not that it bothered them, Mick making a big deal out of singing the new words and rolling his eyes at the camera.  The group was taking the opportunity to reach its fans on TV, and didn't care about the rules of an older generation.  Plus, it's a great performance, as is Ruby Tuesday from the same show.

The last hour here is a mixed blessing.  In 1969, the Sullivan show was still a major force in TV, and apart from the horse-tiger act, it was an A-list showcase, featuring Fitzgerald, Rodney Dangerfield, a young Robert Klein and of course, our little Italian mouse friend Topo Gigio.  As a piece of TV, it's actually quite watchable, and trivia lovers should note that Fitzgerald sings a number by one Harry Nillson, Open Your Window.  You'll flip for the Stones' set list, comprised of Gimme Shelter, Love In Vain, and Honky Tonk Women.  And then you'll moan with sorrow when you discover it's lip-synch'ed.  At least Jagger's mic is live, so he's actually singing along to the track, and the band all try to give a performance. 

So, there are two good reasons to get this set:  To see the Stones, and to see full Ed Sullivan shows.  You get it all, from Senor Wences to The Muppets to Flip Wilson, Red Skelton and Phyllis Diller all in their primes.  I can assure you it's fascinating to watch these shows, but if you're younger than 40, you might need a 60's interpreter.

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