Chronological Whiplash

When I sat down to watch a couple of old Saturday Night Live episodes the other night, I didn’t expect them to show me a page of history turning. But they did.

The fourth season premiere, which aired on October 7, 1978, features my favorite SNL opening of all time: a 1940s-style big-band broadcast featuring Garrett Morris singing “I Love You,” a song based on the NBC chimes, with Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner as backup singers and Dan Aykroyd as the network announcer.  There’s nothing funny about it, although younger viewers likely found the incongruity of it amusing. Older viewers would have had actual memories of those days. After all, a trip from 1978 to 1944 is exactly as long as the trip from 2012 to 1978.

The Rolling Stones were billed as host and musical guest. (Mick Jagger appears in a sketch with Aykroyd as Tom Snyder; Ron Wood and Charlie Watts are at the counter in an Olympia Diner sketch.) The band also gets the rare honor of three musical numbers, all in a row: “Beast of Burden,” “Respectable,” and “Shattered,” all from their most recent album, Some Girls. They’re pretty ragged, and Jagger sounds like he’s fighting off a cold, singing in a raspy honk. But a live Stones TV performance in 1978 would have been an extremely big deal regardless.

(The Stones’ performance has been bootlegged as part of a mid-70s compilation of TV appearances with the awful title Sucking Don on Saturday Night Live, which also includes two sets shown on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1973 and 1974, as well as the SNL rehearsals. It was widely available online, at least until the feds took down Megaupload. Similarly, SNL video is nearly impossible to find except on Hulu, but it’s behind a paywall. This is purportedly the audio of the Stones’ performance from that night, although it could be rehearsal takes, too.)

So in the fourth season premiere, SNL nods at popular music’s past and showcases popular music’s present. The season’s second episode, aired one week later, is another matter altogether. Host Fred Willard starts by doing part of his monologue as Elvis Presley, in the grave for a little more than a year, another nod to a shared-but-dimming past. That night’s musical guest, however, is like none SNL has ever featured before: Devo. And with their appearance, the show rockets into a new world.

It’s easy to imagine how somebody who dug the Stones the week before might have reacted to Devo, onstage in matching yellow latex outfits and square eyeglasses, staring straight ahead and moving mechanically only when necessary—especially when it becomes clear they’re performing the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Later in the show, a performance of “Jocko Homo” begins with a short video clip about the coming of de-evolution, and by the time Devo is finished, it’s pretty clear that what we’ve seen has nothing to do with the past or present, and is all about the future—and a uncertain and unsettling one at that.

The October 14, 1978, episode of SNL also points to the future in a quieter way, with “Scotch Boutique,” a sketch that appears right before Devo’s second number, near the end of the show. Willard and Radner have opened a store that sells nothing but Scotch tape, and the sketch revolves around how customers don’t quite know how to take such an odd place. A customer played by Morris asks, “Do you sell any recording tape here?” “No, just the sticky kind,” says Willard. “See, I told you,” smirks Bill Murray as he and Morris walk out.

Scotch Boutique was a ridiculous concept in 1978. Today, specialty stores like it exist on almost every corner. Battery stores, cupcake stores, stores selling printer ink—they’re all modern-day versions of Scotch Boutique, predicted by SNL more than 30 years ago.

From the vantage point of 2012, watching time pass from big band to Devo and from Tom Snyder to Scotch Boutique is enough to give a viewer chronological whiplash. When you sit down to watch a couple of old episodes of Saturday Night Live, you don’t expect them to show you a page of history turning. But they can.

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One response

  1. I recall seeing Devo that night. Ten seconds in, my companion and I looked at each other, mystified, then turned back to the TV, jaws fairly well dropped. I think that was when SNL began to drift away from being appointment television for us. (That process culminated a couple years later with the new cast, featuring F-Bomber Charles Rocket.)

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