Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: "The Rolling Stones' Ed Sullivan Shows" DVDs

After The Rolling Stones made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on October 25, 1964, the host famously grumbled, “I promise you they'll never be back on our show. It took me 17 years to build this show and I'm not going to have it destroyed in a matter of weeks… I was shocked when I saw them.” The Stones, of course, would go on to shock funky, old Ed five more times throughout the ‘60s. SOFA Entertainment is now following up on last year’s terrific collection of The Beatles’ appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and doing the same for The Stones. While the complete collection of six episodes on two discs is not due for release until November 1st, an abridged single disc edition missing the band’s first and final “Sullivan” appearances comes out next Tuesday.

Whether or not fans should drop their dollars on one of these DVDs is no moot point. You love The Stones, you need to check them out on “Sullivan” not just to scream and shout to their performances but to dig the context. These days “The Ed Sullivan Show” may be most famous for its Rock acts, but that was never the show’s central purpose. It was an extremely old-fashioned variety program catering to corny circus acts, awful comedians, and bland crooners. Seeing the filthy, furious Rolling Stones storm the stage at 1697 Broadway is like watching a hurricane wipe out Little Town USA. Not that everything on these discs but The Rolling Stones is unwatchable. Some of the shows deliver serious nostalgia value. A lot of the vintage advertisements are more entertaining than the actual acts. Some of those acts are genuinely impressive. However, a lot of this material requires a quick thumb on your remote’s “next” button.

The first show is the one that most riled Ed, although he’d have additional gripes about The Stones in shows to come. The shrieking crowd really seems to get under his skin here. Contrast Ed’s scowl when faced with The Stones' crowd to the delight and surprise he exuded when The Beatles elicited the same reaction several months earlier. The Stones rage through their definitive cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around”, exit the stage to make way for a visibly nervous Stiller and Meara and Phyllis Diller, who makes a bunch of depressing and painfully unfunny self-loathing jokes, then they’re back to save the day with “Time Is On My Side”. Mick’s apparently unwashed hair sends Ed into a tizzy. Bill Wyman’s screeching falsetto brings the number to a strident conclusion. Fabulous.

Ed didn’t hold to his promise that “they'll never be back on our shew” very long. The Stones were back just six months later on May 2, 1965, to promote their latest single (“The Last Time”) and U.S. L.P. (The Rolling Stones Now!). At first, Brian Jones’s lead guitar is too low, so we don’t get enough riffing on “The Last Time”. The mix is a lot better on “Little Red Rooster”, so there’s plenty of his slippery slide. A raving rendition of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” notwithstanding, Ed seems to prefer a woman who balances wine glasses on her head, which he describes as “one of the greatest acts we’ve ever had on this stage in seventeen years.” Yeesh. Elsewhere we get four weird minutes spent ogling Michelangelo’s Pietà, Tom Jones sporting a proto-mullet and the tightest pants in Wales, and a special cameo by Roy Orbison! The Stones ride out the credits with an impromptu “2120 South Michigan Avenue”.

Most of the supporting acts on the February 13, 1966, show aren’t even good for a laugh. There’s a comedian who isn’t so much a comedian as a boring old fart with a bunch of “kids today don’t know how good they have it” rap. Sorry, daddy-o, but that kind of talk is why we pulled the plug on grandpa. We want The Stones. Then there are some naked guys painted gold and writhing in a dog pile. While I applaud the act’s groundbreaking homoeroticism, it’s all tease and no climax. We want The Stones! And though you’d have to be a drooling degenerate to not find Hal Holbrook’s recitation of Abe Lincoln’s second inaugural speech utterly riveting, WE WANT THE STONES!!! Well, we get them in three spectacular, full-color performances. First up is a jangly “Satisfaction”. Ed had his censors bleep out “Trying to make some girl” upon the original airing, but Jagger’s offending lyric is allowed to be heard in all its offensive glory on this DVD. Certainly, Mick and Keith’s unplugged performance of “As Tears Go By” was more to Ed’s liking, but he may have had another heart attack had he been able to decipher the lyrics to “19th Nervous Breakdown”. Fortunately, he couldn’t and we get an uncensored version of The Stones’ most recent hit. Mick Jagger is MICK JAGGER for the first time, strutting around like a Derbyshire Redcap and singing right into the camera lens to let you know exactly who is under whose thumb.

For some reason, the previous appearance was the last to display The Rolling Stones in the raw. When they returned the following September 11th, their backing tracks were canned, only allowing Mick and Keith’s vocals to transmit live. Oh well. It’s still a joy to see the guys aping along with a triad of incredible songs from their mid-‘60s golden era. Brian looks ultra cool cradling his sitar during “Paint It Black” while wearing an all-white get up. But then…then he outdoes that outfit with the pinstriped gangster suit he slips on for “Lady Jane” and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” Honorary mention to Charlie Watts, who looks righteous with his catfish moustache and the wire-framed shades through which he leers at his glockenspiel. The supporting acts are better, too, with Jim Henson’s Muppets bopping along with “Rock It to Me” by The Bruthers (ringers for Question Mark and the Mysterians). Louis Armstrong does his nice, ragtime rendition of “Cabaret”. Joan Rivers and Red Skelton are a lot more amusing than most of the comedians on these shows. Robert Goulet is awful, but this episode may be the most consistently entertaining one in the bunch. Points deducted for The Stones’ canned instruments, though.

The band is once again shouting along to prerecorded tapes on the January 15, 1967, program, but this appearance is historically significant enough to make up for any artistic cop-outs. Actually, the appearance is all about artistic cop-outs. Jagger can insist he never sang “Let’s spend some time together” all he wants, but the proof is right here on this DVD. Sure, he rolls his eyes to convey his displeasure and occasionally garbles the words, but there’s no denying that he caved to Ed’s longstanding “No sleepovers” policy. Mick suffers another blow when he gets thrown by the cold-start of the “Ruby Tuesday” tape. Fortunately, Brian’s green silk shirt, fellatio-style recorder miming, and big hat provide adequate distraction. We’ll call it a draw between Ed and The Stones. The guys’ appearances are bunched at the conclusion of this episode, rather than spread out as they are in the others, so feel free to skip ahead. The Muppets are back, but not as interesting as they were in the earlier show. The horrific spectacle of 44 nuns singing “Kumbaya” will likely pummel the last remnants of Christianity out of you. Petula Clark is the only other performer to really recommend on this episode, but that’s mostly because it’s hilarious to hear the men in the audience screaming for a change. She sings Bob Lind’s sappy hit “Elusive Butterfly” in her technicolor dreamcoat, then gets in her trademark mini to take part in a dance routine to “Colour My World”, complete with goofuses in bobbie uniforms and dolly birds swaying under a Carnaby Street sign. London swings!

Things really changed by the time The Rolling Stones made their final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on November 23, 1969. Puffy-eyed Brian was gone; baby-faced Mick Taylor was in. Most of the performances are now completely canned. Mick mimes awkwardly to “Gimmie Shelter” and “Honky Tonk Women”. A jarring edit removes Merry Clayton’s solo in “Shelter”. Despite being far more nitty gritty than anything in “Satisfaction” or “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, the “I laid a divorcee in New York City” line is clear and complete in “Honky Tonk”. Oh, how times have changed. The only live scrap is Jagger’s vocal on “Love in Vain”, which the band apes on a set decorated like a psychedelic cave. Ella Fitzgerald, however, is allowed to actually sing both her numbers. I guess even Ed realized you can’t dub Ella. Good for her. Someone should have dubbed Rodney Dangerfield’s tired shtick about how his wife can’t drive and has a big mouth with something that was actually funny.

While it’s interesting to see The Stones doing something as innocuous as lip-synching on “The Ed Sullivan Show” just two weeks before the infamous Altamont Free Concert, it isn’t their most essential moment. Still, you don’t want to be without that debut performance, which is only on the two-disc edition of these DVDs. It may not shock you as it did Ed Sullivan all those decades ago, but it will probably get your ass wiggling. And though all of these episodes have great time-capsule value, you may find yourself utilizing the very considerate “Play All Rolling Stones Songs” option to cut right to the good stuff. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of Stonesy good stuff on these discs.

Preorder 4 Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Rolling Stones and 6 Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Rolling Stones at
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