Shall I tell you about my life?

I’ve found that many, possibly a majority, of American fans of Fleetwood Mac are unfamiliar with the name Peter Green.  And that’s a shame, even an outrage, and I hope this post this week helps open a few eyes to his importance to the band’s history, and to rock and blues music in general.

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Green, who passed away July 25 at the age of 73, was the brilliant, influential guitarist and founder of the British blues band that he chose to call Fleetwood Mac, named after the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John (Mac) McVie.

He was an enormously crucial figure in England during his tenure with the band, which ran for only three years from 1967-1970.  In 1969, Fleetwood Mac was the biggest group in England, selling more records there than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  In the U.S., though, Green and his band were known only to blues aficionados and rock music

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L-R: Fleetwood, Green, Spencer, McVie

geeks.  The first three albums — “Fleetwood Mac” (1968), “Mr. Wonderful” (1968) and “Then Play On” (1969) — were all Top Ten hits in Britain, but they barely made the Top 200 here.

Same was true for their singles, “Albatross” (#1), “Man of the World” (#2), “The Green Manalishi” (#10) and “Oh Well” (#2) — huge hits in England that failed to chart in the U.S. (except “Oh Well,” which stalled at #55).   It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, after another incarnation of Fleetwood Mac became international superstars, that Green started earning more recognition here, even though relatively few of the band’s new fans took the time to go back and listen to Green’s pivotal contributions on those early LPs and singles.

His time in the limelight was relatively brief because of inner demons that haunted him almost daily and got worse as time moved on.  He had low self-esteem and suffered from mental illnesses that were made far worse from experimentation with drugs, especially LSD.  Green didn’t like the idea of being paid for his talent, choosing instead to withdraw from the public eye and society in general.  Just as Pink Floyd had Syd Barrett, Fleetwood Mac had Peter Green, two creative leaders who went mad under the pressure and left before their bands ended up going mega-platinum.

Still, Green’s legacy is in his recorded works, which has become far more widely images-244appreciated in recent years.  I certainly knew the highlights of his work in the Sixties, but I confess to missing out on many of the deep tracks and live recordings in his catalog, which I’ve immersed myself in all week.  The guy had such a marvelous economy of style with his Gibson Les Paul, and I urge you to treat yourself to a focused listen to the playlist I’ve assembled below.

A measure of his reputation today is the number of top flight media outlets that have prominently featured obituaries this week about Green’s life.  It was not just Rolling Stone, NME and Guitar Player that ran articles in recent days; Green was also lauded in lengthy tributes by NPR, CNN, the BBC, Bloomberg, The Atlantic and The New York Times.  Even The Economist ran a piece that dares to call him “Britain’s greatest blues guitarist.”

Green was in that generation of young post-war Brits who were energized by the American rock and roll records they heard on “pirate radio” because the BBC wouldn’t play them.  “I was passionate about my love for American music, for rock and roll, and somehow it went from that to the blues,” Green said years later.  “The music drove me to learn guitar.  I really wanted to spread the word about this music.”

He met Fleetwood in 1964 when he joined a local London band called Peter B and The Loons.  “When Greenie (as his friends and admirers called him) settled in and trusted us to back him, his playing became a voice no one could ignore,” Fleetwood wrote in his “Play On” autobiography.  “He could be running through a blues progression we’d heard a thousand times, but when Greenie played it the old notes sounded new.  His tone was wailing, high and lingering.  It gave me shivers every night.  Still does when I hear the records.”

In the summer of 1966, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (the premier blues band at the time) suffered a mighty blow when virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton left to form the power blues images-247trio Cream.  Mayall, having heard Green at blues festivals, invited him to fill the void many naysayers thought couldn’t be filled.  Imagine their surprise when they heard Green’s beautifully crafted guitar parts on the group’s 1967 LP, “A Hard Road,” or the stunning solos he served up in concert.  Green actually added value to the band because he also played a mean harmonica, and more important, he contributed original blues songs and sang them, something Clapton wasn’t doing yet.

When Green was given free studio time one day to record demos of five originals, he invited Fleetwood and McVie to play behind him.  Recalls Fleetwood, “One instrumental number was a dirty bit of Chicago-style electric blues, and it came out fucking hot.  ‘I’ve got a name for that one,” Greenie said with a knowing grin.  ‘I’m calling it Fleetwood Mac.’  I said, ‘You mean, as in John and me?  Why would you call it that?’  He answered, ‘Easy.  Fleetwood Mac is the name of my favorite rhythm section.'”

images-249Green had said he always wanted to play his own music in his own band, and so it was only about eight months later that he broke away from Mayall, coercing Fleetwood to follow him.  Bassist McVie had been with Mayall longer and chose to remain, but he was soon convinced to join Green, who was so thrilled to have both men in the lineup that he named the band after them, just as he did with the demo.  Jeremy Spencer, a slide guitarist and singer who also did spot-on imitations of several of the early rock and roll pioneers, rounded out the original lineup, and Fleetwood Mac was born.

The foursome became known for their exhilarating concerts, full of Green’s both fast- and slow-tempo blues, uncanny Elvis takes by Spencer, and a dose of naughty images-255vaudevillian humor from Fleetwood to spice things up.  They toured relentlessly around England and Europe, and Green’s reputation as a real boy wonder (he was 21) on guitar only grew.  In early 1968, they released their debut LP, “Fleetwood Mac,” which came along at just the right time on blues music’s arc of popularity in Britain, reaching #4 and remaining high on the charts through the end of the year.

The band’s first single, “Black Magic Woman,” didn’t fare as well, stalling at #37 (although a little more than two years later, Santana took Green’s unnamed-8song to #4 in the US where it remains a staple of classic rock).   Fleetwood Mac’s second LP, “Mr. Wonderful,” came out only seven months after the first, and although it did well, peaking at #10, it suffered from muffled production and a sameness to the tracks.  Still, with two albums in the Top 30, Fleetwood Mac was one of the hottest bands going.

It was right around this time that Green started telling Fleetwood that he had grown uncomfortable with the fame the band was now getting.  “Peter didn’t want to be a star, but he did need to express himself,” wrote Fleetwood.  “He had a real presence, off-stage and on, that made people take notice of him.  He didn’t want to be king of the castle, although by shining so brightly, he couldn’t avoid it.”

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Kirwan and Green

Green’s strategy was to bring in a third guitarist, someone with a style that would mesh well with his, someone who could also write great songs and sing, therefore taking some of the pressure and spotlight off Green.  They found that person in 18-year-old Danny Kirwan, who joined the band just in time to participate in their first #1 single, a beautiful instrumental called “Albatross,” which was a radical left turn from the strict blues/rock repertoire.

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Spencer, McVie, Fleetwood, Kirwan and Green in 1969

“Peter was the type of creative person who needed to evolve,” said Fleetwood.  “Once he became comfortable doing a chosen form, his nature was to mutate.  The truly talented players did that, and did it well.  Look at The Beatles.

“So we added Danny, and he and Peter found a natural fit, with Danny’s sense of melody on rhythm guitar really drawing Peter out, allowing him to write songs in a different style than he’d been able to previously.  Rock songs just poured out of him.”

images-256The third LP, “Then Play On,” the last to include Green, was dominated by Kirwan and his songs, vocals and subtle guitar playing, with Green happy to play a secondary role.  The songs he started writing seemed incrementally darker; the next hit single, Green’s “Man of the World,” had lyrics that offered plenty of red flags about his deteriorating mental condition:  “Shall I tell you about my life?/ They say I’m a man of the world/ I guess I’ve got everything I need/ I wouldn’t ask for more/ And there’s no one I’d rather be/ But I just wish that I’d never been born…”

It was a classic psychological battle he was fighting in his head:  He was eager to get his blues music out there, to play guitar and sing his own songs, but he was uncomfortable with all the attention and, eventually, even the money their success brought in.  Like with many bands of that era, dabbling in recreational drugs was all the rage, and Green turned out to be fond of LSD, despite the deleterious effect it was having on his fragile psyche.

Fleetwood:  “The complicated mental illness that seized him in 1970 had transformed him from the friend and co-pilot I’d loved so dearly to a mystery I still can’t fathom. Unknown-474Since the onset of his condition, he had struggled morally with the fact that his gift — his beautiful, singular guitar playing — was something that could be commodified.  He refused to acknowledge that his playing should be celebrated, let alone rewarded.  Rather than let that happen, he started refusing to play.”

Green, who was born Jewish as Peter Greenbaum, began wearing robes and wanting to have long discussions about Christianity.  He fell in with a manipulative cult in Germany, and soon wanted to sell his guitars and give away all his money, living simply off the land.  He finally left the band for good in May 1970 after the release of Green’s last song, the harrowing acid-rock excursion “The Green Manalishi,” full of extreme guitar and anguished howling.  “Losing Peter was like taking the rudder out of a images-246sailboat,” said Fleetwood.  “As a band, we were still afloat, but we were drifting, with no map and no land in sight.”

Green went through institutionalization and rehabilitation in the 1970s, living reclusively and avoiding his old mates, who had soldiered on with a revolving door of different guitarists, each with their own set of emotional issues.  Even the lineup that recorded the hugely successful “Fleetwood Mac,” “Rumours,” “Tusk,” “Mirage” and “Tango in the Night” albums between 1975-1987 had major relationship problems that were great fodder for songs but detrimental to the band’s emotional well being.

Ironically, Green returned to the business in 1980 and ended up making a half-dozen pretty decent solo albums, the first two (“In the Sky” and “Little Dreamer”) reaching the

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“In the Sky” LP

mid-30s on the UK album charts.  After another decade of obscurity brought on by depression, he resurfaced in 1997 in the form of Peter Green’s Splinter Group, which included musicians like Nigel Watson and Cozy Powell who helped Green rekindle his career once again.  The Spotify playlist below includes healthy servings of the best of both phases of his post-Fleetwood Mac music.

This past February, Fleetwood organized “A Tribute to Greenie” at the London Palladium, with Pete Townshend, Billy Gibbons, David Gilmour, Noel Gallagher, and Kirk Hammett all taking the stage (although Green did not).

As Premier Guitar put it this week:  “If a true sign of a guitarist’s impact on his art are the players who carry the torch of his influence, Green’s acolytes are an impressive lot.  They include former Rolling Stones member Mick Taylor, who replaced him in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers; Clapton himself, who has praised Green as “one of the best”; Aerosmith’s

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Green in 2005

Joe Perry; Genesis’ Steve Hackett; the Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson, and Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell.  Gary Moore, who bought Green’s Les Paul from him shortly after Green left Fleetwood Mac, owned it for 36 years before selling the instrument at auction.  Since then, it was purchased by Hammett, who paid $2 million and has used it in recent live performances.

The late B.B. King once said of Green, “He had the sweetest tone I ever heard.   He was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

Stevie Nicks, who joined the band in 1975 as it rocketed to superstardom, had this to say:  “It was, in the beginning, called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.  I thank you for that, Peter.  You changed my life.  When Lindsey and I were invited to join the group, I went out and bought all the albums and listened to them, and I was very taken with Peter’s guitar

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Fleetwood and Green, 2005

playing.  It was one of the reasons I was excited to join the band.  My biggest regret is that I never got to share the stage with him.  I always hoped in my heart of hearts that that would happen.”

Fleetwood added, “No one has ever stepped into the ranks of Fleetwood Mac without a reverence for Peter Green and his talent, and his belief that music should shine bright and always be delivered with uncompromising passion.”

Rest in peace, Peter.  Your legacy is intact.

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Rock music and TV: Strange bedfellows

For decades, and still true today in some ways, rock music and television have had what Keith Richards describes as “a very weird, unnatural marriage.”

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The Beatles’ debut on “Ed Sullivan”

From its inception, rock and roll was rebellious, brazen and controversial.  Television, on the other hand, was mostly bland, familiar and non-threatening.  They had very little in common.

Just as Hollywood and the movie industry ignored, mocked and dismissed rock and roll for many years, television also showed it little respect, at least at first.  Almost everyone in positions of power in TV — the network executives, the program producers and writers, the censors in the “Standards and Practices” department, the established stars and show hosts — all showed a very obvious disdain for rock and roll throughout the ’50s and much of the ’60s.  With only a few exceptions, it would take TV well into the ’70s before they recognized the growing appeal and marketability of rock, and even longer to acknowledge its artistic merits.

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Clark interviews Brian and Carl Wilson and Mike Love

If anyone deserves credit for being a pioneer in bringing rock and roll to the small screen, it would have to be the late Dick Clark, “America’s Oldest Teenager” and host of the hugely popular, long-running American Bandstand.”   Its roots were in Philadelphia, where a radio DJ named Bob Horn played records while local teens danced on camera, interspersed with

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Jim Morrison and Dick Clark size each other up

short music films.  In 1956, Clark took over as host and, later, as producer and owner of the franchise.  It became nationally syndicated with a TV audience of more than 20 million, airing live on weekday afternoons, with teen dancers rating the records, and recording artists lip-synching to the recorded versions of their hits. “American Bandstand” moved operations to LA in 1964, where six shows were pre-taped every six weeks and broadcast in most markets on Saturdays, in color beginning in 1967.   The show evolved as tastes changed, from pioneer rockers (Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley) to California rock (The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean), from hard rock (The Doors) to soul (Stevie Wonder), disco (Gloria Gaynor) to hip-hop (Run-DMC).  Against all odds, on a fleeting medium like television, it lasted for 35 years, its final show airing in 1987.

The legendary Ed Sullivan, that curmudgeonly but savvy impresario who ruled Sunday nights for 23 years (1948-1971) with The Ed Sullivan Show,” gets a nod for bringing

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Elvis’s 1st appearance on “Ed Sullivan”

high-profile rock singers to mainstream audiences before anyone else, beginning with Elvis Presley in 1956.  Granted, he was rather patronizing, and insisted on limiting footage of “Elvis the Pelvis” to above-the-waist shots only.  But in the segregated late 1950s, he also was bold enough to defy the status quo by showcasing both known and unknown black artists like Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson and Fats Domino.

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Sullivan welcomes The Supremes

Over the years, the list of rock groups who appeared on Sullivan’s show was fairly broad, from Buddy Holly to The Doors, from The Beach Boys to Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, from The Bee Gees to Ike and Tina Turner, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Janis Joplin.  All these acts performed live, Unknown-454with no lip-sync’ing, as was customary ON TV at that time.

And, of course, Sullivan is best known for being almost exclusively responsible for introducing America to The Beatles by featuring them on his show on three successive shows in February 1964, thereby opening the floodgates known as “The British Invasion” of English rock artists and forever changing the face of popular music and pop culture.

By the mid-’60s, pop/rock started showing up on a number of other traditional variety programs.  Musical variety platforms like ABC’s Hollywood Palace (1964-1970) gave airtime to some of the tamer bands like The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Lovin’ Unknown-456Spoonful and the top Motown acts (Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder).  Even so, The Rolling Stones’ American TV debut  in June 1964 came on “Hollywood Palace” (as did the debut of The Jackson 5 in October 1969).

Conservative entertainers like Red Skelton and Dean Martin didn’t like rock music, but saw the wisdom in “giving the kids what they want” and

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The Kinks on “Red Skelton”

reluctantly included a few of the more “vanilla” acts on their eponymous variety shows on CBS — The Dave Clark Five, Jan and Dean, Johnny Rivers, Manfred Mann, Dionne Warwick.  The hosts, in their introductions of some bands, couldn’t resist making condescending remarks about their long hair and amplified sounds:  The Kinks, The Stones, The Animals (1965); The Four Seasons, The Fifth Dimension (1967);  Iron Butterfly and Three Dog Night (1968-1969).

41942308_10156780401513023_4827213245481746432_nFor a year or two, the prime-time TV lineup included shows for the teen market exclusively devoted to pop/rock artists.  ABC’s Shindig (1964-1966) and NBC’s Hullabaloo (1965-1966) managed to bring more than 150 different artists to TV audiences:  Sam Cooke, The Who, Sonny & Cher, The Righteous Brothers, James Brown, The Yardbirds.  “Hullabaloo” used safe guest hosts like Petula Clark, Paul Anka and Sammy Davis Jr. to make the program more palatable to parents who sometimes watched with their teenagers. “Shindig” featured dancers called The Shin-Diggers (including notables like Unknown-457Teri Garr) and a house band called The ShinDogs, comprised of future-star session musicians who were members of the “Wrecking Crew” — Glen Campbell, Billy Preston, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell.  “Shindig” taped some episodes from London, with Beatles manager Brian Epstein as the emcee.  Neither show lasted long; “Hullabaloo” gave up its Monday night time slot in 1966 to a rock and roll comedy, fashioned after The Beatles’ film “A Hard Day’s Night,” about a madcap pop group called The Monkees.

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“Upbeat” host Don Webster with Monkees Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz

And there were other locally based rock/pop programs that eventually were syndicated.  Where the Action Is,” another Dick Clark production filmed on the beaches of Southern California, enjoyed a brief arc of popularity in afternoon TV, with Paul Revere and the Raiders as the house band.  The syndicated showUpbeat,” born as “The Big Five” on WEWS in Cleveland, lasted seven years (1964-1971).  At first it focused on regional talent like The James Gang, Mitch Ryder, The O’Jays and The Raspberries, but eventually featured some of the biggest names in counterculture rock — The Jefferson Airplane,

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Otis Redding on “Upbeat”

Steppenwolf, Love, Pink Floyd, even Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.  The show also had the dubious distinction of airing Otis Redding’s final performance in December 1967 before he died in a plane crash the next day.

British TV had its own unique relationship with rock music.  “Top of the Pops was a mainstay on the BBC from 1964 until 2006, an amazing 42-year run unmatched in

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Bowie on “Top of the Pops”

television history.  Each show offered performances by bands with that week’s top charting singles, concluding with the week’s #1 single.  Famously, the debut show included both the Beatles and the Stones.  The Old Grey Whistle Test,” which ran on BBC2 from 1971 to 1988prided itself on avoiding chart-topping artists in favor of edgier, lesser known bands — Bob Marley and the Wailers, The New York Dolls, Judas Priest, Meat Loaf, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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Tommy Smothers helps The Who destroy their instruments

By 1968, as revolution filled the air around the world and down the street, two TV shows attracted attention with hosts clearly sympathetic to the rock music world:  The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Late Night With Dick Cavett.”  CBS didn’t like Tommy Smothers or his leftist politics and soon cancelled the show (“CBS smothers Brothers,” read the headline), but ABC

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Jimi Hendrix chats with Dick Cavett

gave Cavett a lot of leeway as he tried to compete with Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”  Carson, Merv Griffin and other talk shows very rarely booked rock groups at that time, but Cavett not only gave rock bands a place on TV to perform but also a forum to sit and chat about edgy topics like politics and drug use.  Artists like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, David Bowie, George Harrison and Paul Simon all sat for articulate, meaningful interviews in addition to their musical performances.

When the Seventies arrived, so did several rock and soul music showcases that lasted for a decade or more, and they offered an important difference:  Lip sync’ing was abolished in favor of live performances.  Rock audiences had complained about the antiseptic nature of rock music on Sixties TV, where it was obvious the bands’ electric guitars

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Denny Dias and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan on “Midnight Special”

weren’t even plugged in and the vocalists weren’t singing into the microphones.

Three late night programs gave a much-needed shot of credibility to television’s treatment of rock music.  In Concert (1972-1975), The Midnight Special (1972-1981) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (1973-1981) all aired in late-night weekend time slots, hosted by personalities that knew about and appreciated rock music.  These shows featured many excellent performances by major rock and pop artists such as Genesis, Steely Dan, Blondie, Elton John, Rod Stewart, The Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith, Kiss, The Cars, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton.

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The Stylistics on “Soul Train”

And then there was Soul Train,” the syndicated ratings behemoth that focused on soul and rhythm-and-blues while dabbling in funk, disco, jazz, gospel and hip-hop as well. Born in Chicago in 1970, it found immediate success there and the first few syndicated markets it tried (Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, Philadelphia) and then relocated its operations to LA in 1972, with nationwide syndication that lasted until 2006.  The show, dubbed “the hippest trip in America,” was a highly influential sounding board for many dozens of urban artists, from The Stylistics to Bill Withers, from Barry White to The Ohio Players, from Gloria Gaynor to The Commodores.  The Philly instrumental band MFSB, with The Three Degrees on vocals, had a huge #1 hit in 1974 with the “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which served as the theme song for “Soul Train” for three years.

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Devo on “SNL”

The debut of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 brought more edgy, under-the-radar acts to network TV, including such mavericks as Randy Newman, Gil Scott-Heron, Leon Redbone, Frank Zappa, Dr. John, The Talking Heads, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Devo and The Grateful Dead.  Another inroad came with live sports coverage, including “Monday Night Football,” where ever-younger producers started using brief snippets of rock songs when they took breaks for commercials.

The paradigm really shifted dramatically in the early 1980s as cable television spread from the rural valleys to the suburbs to the nation’s largest cities, challenging broadcast TV norms.   A cornucopia of “Narrowcast” channels offered entire networks devoted to cooking, or Congress, or fishing, or Christianity…or rock music.

Unknown-472Music TeleVision, soon known far and wide as MTV, rocked everyone’s boat, rewriting the rules and pumping new life into everything from filmmaking and choreography to fashion and hair styling.  Oh, and incidentally, music.  Rock music fans suddenly had their own channel, a place they could go 24 hours a day to listen to — and watch — rock bands playing rock music.

When MTV went on the air in August 1981 with the symbolic song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, there weren’t many music videos out there, so the ones that

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Peter Gabriel’s award-winning “Sledgehammer” video

existed — a strange brew of Rod Stewart, Pat Benatar, Men at Work, REO Speedwagon, Andrew Gold, Devo — were aired ad nauseum.  But it didn’t take long for artists and record companies to grasp the new dynamic, and within months, most major pop single releases were accompanied by down-and-dirty music videos of the band performing its hit in various locations.  Within a year or two, the budgets exploded and the videos involved serious directors (David Fincher, among others), outrageous concepts and huge casts of dancers and extras.

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Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video

Michael Jackson’s iconic 13-minute video for “Thriller” brought MTV’s largest audience ever.  Keith Richards amended his earlier assessment:  “Since the beginning of time, rock and roll and TV have never really hit it off.  But suddenly it’s like they’ve gotten married and can’t leave each other alone.”

 

Interestingly, by 1992, MTV chose to phase out music videos in exchange for more profitable, non-music programming, alienating their music-loving viewers.  “They don’t play music videos anymore,” whined rocker Sammy Hagar.  “How dare they still call themselves MTV!” Cynics said the acronym now stood for Money TeleVision, and they had a point.

These days, rock music has infiltrated TV in multiple ways.  Rock songs play almost continually in the background of drama shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”; rock bands appear regularly on every talk show from Jimmy Fallon to Jimmy Kimmel; rock anthems by The Who are used as theme music for the “CSI” franchise; even most commercials use rock tunes to sell their products.

In recent years, the business models of both television and pop/rock music have been battered and shattered to such a degree that it almost makes this essay seem quaint.  But it’s fascinating to note that TV and rock music, once like oil and water, are now pretty much inseparable.

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Did your living room have one of these in the ’60s?