[21 September 2007]
Those of you who were born in the ‘80s and ‘90s are spoiled. The music video and cable booms happened to coincide (probably not coincidentally), and the result is that, via VH-1, BET and MTV, people now have access to “see” music and the people who make it 24 hours a day.
As someone who was born in the mid ‘70s and who didn’t have cable TV on a full-time basis until he was grown and living on his own, the TV “music” show was the only way that I’d get to spot my musical idols on the tube. By the mid-to-late ‘80s, there were video shows like New York Hot Tracks and Friday Night Videos, but the real money was on shows that combined “live” performances with shots of young kids dancing to the latest hits. While Soul Train and Solid Gold were great shows (and the former was probably more influential in the long run), the granddaddy of these shows was American Bandstand. Originating in Philadelphia in the mid-‘50s and running until the late ‘80s, the show was hosted for much of it’s run by the ever-youthful Dick Clark, and offered viewers an hour long lesson on the hippest music and dance trends of the day.
While we can still cross our collective fingers and hope that some enterprising man or woman eventually releases a DVD package of some of the series’ greatest performances, the good folks at Time-Life (you’ve seen the infomercials, don’t lie!) have put together the exclusive Dick Clark’s American Bandstand 50th Anniversary Collector’s Set”, a twelve disc (12 DISCS!!!) collection that basically serves as a primer on great pop singles, starting at 1957 and ending around 1983-1984 (actually, Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” from 1985 is the most recent song included here). It’s hard to argue with the inclusion of any song on this set, though it’s obvious that there are many important genres and artists excluded from this collection.
Considering Bandstand’s focus was on danceable pop and soul, it should be no surprise that there’s no hard rock or metal included here. Punk and new wave are largely excluded as well, which is a shame since one of the most memorable Bandstand performances I can recall seeing was from John Lydon and Public Image, Ltd. Rap, which to be fair was still in its infancy when Bandstand went off the airwaves, is likewise nowhere to be found here.
When it comes to artists, it’s also no surprise that the biggest acts of the rock era, most of whom steadfastly refuse to license their music to compilations, are not included here. While there’s plenty of British Invasion rock here, you won’t find the Beatles or the Stones. No James Brown. There’s no post-puberty Michael Jackson here, and you won’t find Prince or Madonna either, although both artists got their national launch on this show (you can watch YouTube video of both of their post-performance videos pretty easily, and you’ll get a kick out of Madge expressing her desire to “rule the world” and Prince being characteristically truculent).
OK, so that’s what’s not included in this compilation—let’s jump to what is. The discs are all themed, though looking at the track listing, there’s not a hell of a lot of rhyme or reason to be found. You’ll find a sampling of British Invasion rock from Gerry & the Pacemakers and Herman’s Hermits. You get some of the best of the early rock era as well. This was one situation where they were able to license all the right songs—Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”; “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” from Little Richard; “The Twist”. Hell, they were even able to license a couple of Elvis tracks—”Don’t Be Cruel” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” both appear here. If you’re like me, and the original rock era is a bit before your time, this is a perfect starter point to get acquainted with the classics.
Elsewhere, you’ll encounter lots of Motown (though you won’t find cuts from later Stevie or Marvin, some of their great early hits are here), tons of ‘70s AM radio classics (“Bad Bad Leroy Brown”, “Maggie May”), disco hits from Chic, Gloria Gaynor, and Donna Summer (after all, what’s any historical compilation without “I Will Survive”?), and early ‘80s pop nuggets from Rick Springfield (“Jessie’s Girl”), Hall & Oates (“I Can’t Go for That”), and Kool & The Gang (“Celebration”). These tracks reflect Bandstand’s last gasp, before shows like Solid Gold made it redundant and before MTV made it irrelevant.
Almost all of the tracks here are included in their original single versions, and the beauty of these pop classics is that they retain their special quality despite decades of airplay—something we may not be able to say about “SexyBack” and “Fergalicious”. Little things like Tina Turner’s “we neva eva do nothin’ nice…and easy…” at the beginning of “Proud Mary” still bring a smile to my face, even thirty-five years after they were a hit. Thankfully, original recordings are used here, with the only hiccup being that “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers is used in it’s inferior 1990 remake version as opposed to the classic original.
While it looks like the songs were arranged haphazardly upon first glance, it’s obvious that the album’s sequencers were having at least a little bit of fun. There’s a high-energy sequence that links together Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time”, Sam Cooke’s “Shake”, and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again”, making for a 15-minute tutorial on dance crazes. It’s also not hard to imagine someone smirking as they placed the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple” after the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, a song it ripped off so directly that even the Jacksons’ relatives thought the song was theirs.
Yeah, box sets tend to burn a hole in the old pocketbook, but if you’re a true pop music fan or historian, getting greatest hits compilations from each of these artists is gonna set you in the hole pretty deeply anyway. Collecting three decades of pop music history into 12 discs is no small feat, but the folks at Time-Life have done right with this compilation, which would be a great pick-up even without the tie in to American Bandstand. Now, let’s see if someone can get to putting some DVDs out!