If you read this blog regularly, you are probably old enough to remember when TV stations signed off the air at night, although you don’t have to be all that old. It was the early 90s before 24/7 operation became the norm in most places across the country. Before that, it wasn’t unusual for stations to go dark at midnight or 1AM when the networks’ nightly feeds ended, given the difficulty of selling advertising in that time slot and the perception that the audiences would be tiny.
In the early 1970s, it dawned on a producer named Burt Sugarman that there might be more viewers to harvest than the networks realized. Half of the people watching TV late at night watched Johnny Carson on NBC, and surely not all of them wanted to turn off their TVs when the show was over. Sugarman hatched the idea of a Friday night music show featuring the best acts he could get, but NBC turned it down. So Sugarman taped a pilot, sold the show to a sponsor, and bought the airtime himself. The August 19, 1972, broadcast of what Sugarman christened The Midnight Special was a hit, and caused NBC to take a second look. In February 1973, the show began its regular run, Friday nights at 1AM Eastern.
Highlights from the show have been available on DVD for a couple of years, and I had the chance to watch a bunch of them recently. Nearly everybody who was anybody appeared on the show. As far as I know, producers never landed any of the solo Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who, but they snagged a wide variety of acts nonetheless, including some who were not your typical TV fodder, from Black Oak Arkansas to King Crimson to Aerosmith (in 1974, two years before they became major stars) to AC/DC (in 1978). Country, R&B, and disco acts also appeared. Most performances were recorded live at NBC in Burbank, although some were taped elsewhere. There was no lip-synching—acts on The Midnight Special sang live, although sometimes to recorded backing tracks. Acts were not discouraged from changing things up or stretching them out, as the Edgar Winter Group does on this amazing nine-minute clip of “Frankenstein.”
The overexposed color on the Winter clip was what passed for avant-garde video technique in 1973. Some of the clips look mighty odd for more prosaic reasons. The show’s director frequently filled the screen with head shots of performers, and if a band had multiple members, it often called for a split-screen head shot, as in this clip of Orleans doing “Dance With Me.”
The close head shots were often unflattering, highlighting enormous, greasy noses or the evidence of past skin trouble. Many performers wore no makeup at all, TV makeup or otherwise. (The best made-up performer I saw was David Bowie, at the end of his Ziggy Stardust phase.) But clips were just as likely to show too little as too much, weirdly shot with a focus on whoever was singing at the expense of the players. (In the Orleans clip above, four members are shown in the wide shot, but only three get significant screen time.) Sometimes, that could be a good thing—many of the top bands of the 70s featured dumpy, poorly groomed players who were anything but telegenic. Often, it’s frustrating, as in this Heart clip that focuses on Ann Wilson and ignores Nancy completely.
Any 70s TV show is going to feature hilarious fashions, and The Midnight Special is no exception. I can’t find the video at YouTube, but Aretha Franklin did the show wearing a yellow dress that made her look like a half-plucked Big Bird. The strangest getup I saw belonged to Todd Rundgren, who opted for an unfortunate butterfly costume to sing “Hello It’s Me.”
Music video didn’t kill The Midnight Special, although it would have done so within a couple of years. The last season featured many more country and light pop acts than rock stars, along with movie clips and celebrity profiles, as producers flailed around trying to find a formula that would stay relevant. In the end, The Midnight Special was a casualty of the changing landscapes of music and of television in the early 80s. Audiences for both were fragmenting, and going for mass appeal was no longer the way to score big ratings, even after midnight. On March 27, 1981, the final original episode of The Midnight Special aired on NBC. It was replaced in May by another underrated television classic, SCTV Network 90.
I believe the DVD release of The Midnight Special is one of the most valuable in history. Much more immediate than listening to the original recordings or seeing the top artists of the 70s as they are today, The Midnight Special preserves the most popular and influential music ever made (and some of its most ephemeral, too) in its natural habitat. Students of history are rarely granted that privilege.