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Prime Time's Lonely Rock 'n' Roll Land

June 03, 1990|STEVE HOCHMAN

Elvis' pelvis on Milton Berle... Elvis (no pelvis) on Sullivan... Beatles on Sullivan... The Stones on Sullivan... The Doors on Sullivan... The Who on the Smothers Brothers... "Shindig"... "Hullabaloo"...

Some of the greatest moments in rock 'n' roll history were also great moments in prime-time television history. But save for such isolated instances as Michael Jackson dazzling the world with his moonwalk on the 1983 "Motown 25th Anniversary" special, they all took place more than 20 years ago.

Why doesn't prime time rock any more?

"What we gave was very special to the viewers," said Jack Good, a British producer who talked ABC into letting him create "Shindig" at the crest of the Beatles-led British Invasion. "You either got it on 'Shindig' or not at all. But who wants it on prime time now? You can't go into an elevator or bus or restaurant without hearing rock. Enough is enough! It would take a genius to put anything on in prime time that would work now."

To be truthful, rock is heard-if not seen-more now in prime time than ever before. "The Wonder Years," "thirtysomething," "China Beach" are just three of many shows that move to a rock beat, as do many of the commercials shown during them. And that's not to mention rock's 24-hour availability on MTV and VH-1. But real performance-oriented presentations of rock have pretty much been limited lately to late-night TV and to occasional specials and awards programs such as the Grammys and American Music Awards.

Anthony Eaton, producer of the International Rock Awards, which will air Wednesday from 9:30 to 11 p.m. on ABC, points to rock's altered role as part of the social fabric.

"Rock 'n' roll was a giant force for social change back then," said Eaton, who in recent years has overseen prime-time specials featuring David Bowie, country act the Judds and Prince's Trust concert. "But today it's hard to top the Berlin Wall coming down. Rock 'n' roll seems almost tame by comparison."

Don't forget that the Rolling Stones had to change "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" to perform it on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The Doors ignored the Sullivan producer's edict that the line "we couldn't get much higher" be excised from "Light My Fire"--and the group was promptly banned from the show.

"Shindig"--which premiered Sept. 16, 1964, on ABC with a show featuring Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers and "discovery" Bobby Sherman--sought to capture that youthful energy and aggressive, even sexual unpredictability. The show proved so successful that in its second season (launched with an appearance by the Rolling Stones) 'Shindig' went to two nights a week, having already inspired NBC to come up with 'Hullabaloo' and prompting the popular variety shows of the day such as the Kraft Music Hall and the Hollywood Palace to giie rock increased weight. But today ?

"Elvis would go on a weekly variety show," said John Hamlin, ABC's vice president of special programming. "Madonna doesn't want to do that. Today's stars look at their careers in different ways."

Even the major awards shows have had to use special awards and tributes to lure the biggest names on stage. In February the Grammys honored Paul McCartney, while the American Music Awards last year devoted a healthy chunk of air time to a Michael Jackson tribute. The International Rock Awards has its own Living Legend honor, this year going to Eric Clapton. Clapton, along with Bowie and Melissa Etheridge, are among the scheduled performers. Sam Kinison will host.

But there may be a new wave of rock coming to the small screen: NBC just tried out the hip-hop-oriented "Rock the House" performance and dance show, while the Disney-produced "Hull St. High" (recently piloted) and Steven ("Hill Street Blues") Bochco's "Cop Rock" musical fantasies are fall entries on NBC and ABC, respectively.

All are potentially exciting projects, but it's not the kind of electrifying programming that could tempt Jack Good back, either as a viewer or producer.

"The thing about TShindig' was when you made a mistake it stayed on," Good said, stressing belief that unpredictability is an essential element of good rock 'n' roll. "Mistakes are wonderful. I love mistakes. In order to get rock on television with me involved, everything would have to be liveI with a strict rule that nothing could be edited."

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