If you were around in 1972, television was a very different place. By midnight most stations were shutting down to the tune of the national anthem. After that there was a test pattern and a high-pitched ring that would fill your screen until dawn when programming would resume. Of course, there were also only three networks, and, if you were lucky enough to live in a large market, a handful of local stations. All good people were expected to be safely tucked into their beds long before 1:00 AM. It was a very different world from today when we get 24-hour programming on over 200 stations or more. Oh, and there was no home video, in case you thought you could just pop in a movie for your late-night viewing pleasure. Video games? Forget it. In just a couple of years you were going to get Pong.
The music business was also very different in 1972. It was the age of the singer-songwriter and rock bands who actually played instruments. Music was sold on vinyl record albums, and there was no MTV or VH1. If you wanted to see your favorite band perform, you went to a concert. There were dance shows that went all the way back to the 50’s with Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Soul Train. But these shows featured performances that were lip-synched to the familiar recordings. These were almost never live performances. If you were lucky, you’re favorite band might show up on Johnny Carson or Ed Sullivan before that. Downloading music meant you worked at a record store, and you were unloading boxes of albums from the back of a delivery truck. Even the Walkman was a decade in the future. Bands just didn’t have access to the fans the way they do today. All of that started to change on August 19, 1972. That was the day The Midnight Special arrived, and things would never be the same again.
I was a young teen in 1972 and throughout the eight years the show was on the air, I fell right smack in the middle of the target audience. It aired at 1:00 AM Friday night/Saturday morning, and staying up to watch was a right of passage for a kid my age. For the first time we got a close look at the bands we were hearing on the radio. Suddenly these musicians became personalities as well as musicians. We listened to them banter with the show’s host Wolfman Jack and with other celebrity hosts. The music was live; the show’s creator Burt Sugarman insisted upon that much. If you couldn’t sing the song live, you didn’t get to play on the show. The selection was also quite eclectic. One night you might hear country music star John Denver, folk hero Jim Croce and rock ‘n’ roll bands like Aerosmith or Ted Nugent. You might hear the soul sounds of Sly & The Family Stone or the instrumental hits from Chuck Mangione. One night there might be Electric Light Orchestra followed by The Miracles. One-hit wonders like Gary Wright and Minnie Riperton were treated like stars, and unknown bands would be given a shot at an international audience. Whatever kind of music you were into, it could be found here. Even if the night didn’t feature any of your favorites, it sure beat hell out of a test pattern, I’ll tell you that.
The Midnight Special plays out like a virtual who’s who of 1970’s music scene. The bands were eager to perform for little to no money, because it was their first real opportunity to reach their fans and perhaps create new ones. If you were on the radio in the 1970’s you were on The Midnight Special at some point or another. For a teen like me, this was the soundtrack of our lives. I never forgot sitting up watching the television while everyone else in the house was asleep. Sure, it was mono and a square 19-inch screen. I had to keep it low or catch hell from my old man. But there I was every chance I could get. In a clever strategy the TV Guide listings usually didn’t tell you who was going to be on. You had to watch to see if your favorites would make an appearance. God help you if you missed one. You’d hear about it for weeks.
The show featured a small but enthusiastic audience. We used to all wonder how they got in. There were three stages, and they were set up as modular units so they could be formed in odd shapes and sizes to fit the act. Helen Reddy hosted many of them, but it was Wolfman Jack who was the true master of ceremonies here.
Now you don’t have to stay up until 1:00 or worry about missing the best performances. Star Vista and TimeLife have put together a six-disc collection of the show for your enjoyment. If you remember the show, it’s like a time machine. You younger folks will enjoy laughing at what we had back then. But like all things in life, this set comes with some good news and bad news.
The good news I’ve already talked about. This is an amazing show and a milestone in both television and music history. The bad news is the presentation. It appears from first glance that the discs contain episodes of the show. This illusion is further completed by the cover art and booklet that list show numbers and airdates. This is all more than a little misleading. There are zero complete episodes on the discs. It’s not like they aren’t going out of their way to get you to think there are. In addition to the art notes the “episodes” have a show intro and roll end credits, all to make you believe the episodes are complete.
I tried to get an answer from TimeLife about this issue and was given the following quote from Jeff Peisch, Senior Vice-President Entertainment Programming and Marketing. ““There are several reasons why THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL DVD sets don’t feature complete episodes. As the series ran for 9 years, there are more than 400 episodes, and we simply couldn’t release them all. In order to best represent the show and the era, we selected songs and artists that best represented the times — and still resonate today — while showcasing the wide and unforgettable variety and quality of the performances from the series.” My requests for an interview were declined.
Let me give you my take on the answer. Yes, there are over 400 episodes. Of course, they could not release them all, at least not in an affordable package. As for still resonating today? Just one look at the selections and you’ll find songs nearly forgotten today. If it were the classic hits they were selecting, this wouldn’t have been the set list. Yes, there are a lot of iconic songs here but certainly not all of these selections fit in that group. I suspect it has more to do with licensing than anything else. I believe that most of the selections also had to do with artists who were willing to come back and talk about the show for extras. Many of these artists do. It’s a sampler set, to be sure, and there’s nothing wrong with releasing a sampler set. My issue is with the effort to make it look like full shows. I can tell you the company was totally unprepared for my question and took nearly two weeks to respond (hence the lateness of this review). The statement does not address the reasoning behind opening and closing credits to create the illusion of a complete show. I think it’s misleading, and that’s how I’m calling it here. That doesn’t mean I’m not recommending the set; I am. I just think you should be prepared for what you get. I was disappointed because I had this buildup of watching complete shows. Now your eyes are open.
I also want to add that I’m not calling out StarVista or TimeLife. We have reviewed many of their releases here, and they have put out some awesome stuff. I was quick to compliment them for keeping the iconic music on China Beach knowing how hard and expensive of a decision that must have been. They’ve done an incredible job of bringing back classic television that most of us might have thought lost. I would have liked to have spoken with Jeff Peisch to allow him to address these specific terms. Alas, that was not meant to be. I welcome that opportunity at any time. I also invite him to join us for an unedited interview here at Upcomingdiscs to address these issues, and I will give him all the time he requires to more completely tell his side of things. You guys have my number.
Let’s get back to the good news, shall we? You get a remarkable collection of performances here, to be sure. You also get some very good extras. There’s plenty of interview material from the likes of Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton, Helen Reddy, Loggins & Messina, Christopher Cross, Eddie Money, Todd Rundgren and Frankie Valli. There’s a wonderful tribute to the late great Wolfman Jack, who really was the consistent face of the series and offered so many wonderful moments. One of the things I’m upset were cut happened to be his interactions with the artists. Few of these remain in these cuts. Wolfman had a charm, and everybody loved him. He often got to present bands with their gold records for hit songs live on stage. These features certainly make this an important title to have. Do they make up for the edited episodes? Maybe.
Here’s what you get:
Take Me Home Country Roads – John Denver
Long Long Time & When Will I Be Loved – Linda Ronstadt
Hold Your Head Up High – Argent
Leaving On A Jet Plane – John Denver & Cass Elliot
Taxi – Harry Chapin
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue – Crystal Gayle
American Girl & Listen To Her Heart – Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
Feels So Good – Chuck Mangione
Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me – Mac Davis
Jesus Is Just Alright & Listen To The Music – The Doobie Brothers
Me And Mrs. Jones – Billy Paul
Medley – Hall & Oates
Everybody’s A Star – Sly & The Family Stone
I Got A Name & Bad, Bad Leroy Brown – Jim Croce
Nights On Broadway, Jive Talkin, To Love Somebody, Lonely Days & How Can You Mend A Broken Heart – The Bee Gees
Love Machine – The Miracles
Can’t Get It Out Of My Head, Evil Woman & Strange Magic – Electric Light Orchestra
Love Is Alive & Dream Weaver – Gary Wright
Over My Head – Fleetwood Mac
Medley & Inmates – Alice Cooper
My Best Friend’s Girl – The Cars
Hello, It’s Me – Todd Rundgren
Escape – Rupert Holmes
Sister Golden Hair – America
Lady Marmalade – LaBelle
At Seventeen – Janice Ian
Lovin You – Minnie Riperton
Radar Love – Golden Earring
Train Kept A Rollin & Dream On – Aerosmith
Keep On Truckin – Eddie Kendricks
Tell Me Something Good – Rufus
You Make Me Feel Brand New – The Stylistics
Come And Get Your Love – Redbone
Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love & Never Gonna Give Ya Up – Barry White
If You Love Me – Olivia Newton John
Heart Of Glass & One Way Or Another – Blonde
Shake Your Grove Thing & Reunited – Peaches & Herb
If I Could Read Your Mind & Sundown – Gordon Lightfoot
Midnight On The Oasis – Maria Muldaur
Your Mama Don’t Dance – Loggins & Messina
Will It Go Round In Circles – Billy Preston
Brother Louie – Stories
Frankenstein – Edgar Winter Group
Superfly – Curtis Mayfield
Behind Closed Doors – Charlie Rich
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
Cisco Kid – War
Bad Case Of Loving You – Robert Palmer
It’s A Heartache – Bonnie Tyler
Angie Baby, Delta Dawn & I Am Woman – Helen Reddy
Bad Blood & Love Will Keep Us Together – Neil Sedaka
That’s The Way (I Like It) – KC And The Sunshine Band
Baby Hold On – Eddie Money
Midnight Train To Georgia – Gladys Night And The Pips
Devotion – Earth, Wind And Fire
Takes Two To Tango – Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles
Long Cool Woman – The Hollies
Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You – Frankie Valli
Dance With Me – Orleans
Make It With You – Bread
Lonely Boy – Andrew Gold
Rocky Mountain Music – Eddie Rabbitt
For The Love Of Money – The O’Jays
Nothing From Nothing – Billy Preston
You Make Me Crazy – Sammy Hagar
Let’s Get It On & What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Cat Scratch Fever – Ted Nugent
Sin City – AC/DC
You Really Get Me – The Kinks
Whatever issues exist here, what is presented looks about as good as it could. The sound is actually impressive. Honestly, it sounds better here than it did on our 19-inch Zenith in the 1970’s. There is a larger set, but we were not given those extra discs to review. I assume they contain more of the same. We’ve all come a long way from those days. But thanks to this release, it’s time to once again “let the Midnight Special shine its ever lovin’ light on me”.