1977â€™s Rolling Stoneâ€¦The 10th Anniversary was an unmitigated disaster
By Annie Zaleski
May 11, 2016 10:45 AM
A week before Rolling Stoneâ€¦The 10th Anniversary appeared on CBS, a blurb inThe Times-News touted that â€œa galaxy of celebrities will present a lively exploration of the world of rock musicâ€ in a special that â€œreflects the attitudes and culture associated with rock and its audiences. Comedy skits, musical performances, interviews, and animation provide an entertaining retrospective look at the phenomenal influence of this music.â€ The reality of the anniversary special, which aired on November 25, 1977, and had a budget of $1 million, was far, far different.
Produced by Steve Binder, Rolling Stoneâ€¦The 10th Anniversary lacked musical and comedy star powerâ€”mainly because Jann Wenner was unable to convince his A-list pals to be on the show, as Robert Draper detailed in his book, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History. The magazine also didnâ€™t have enough of an editorial presence. In the â€œCorrespondence, Love Letters & Adviceâ€ section of the January 26, 1978, issue, staffer David Felton revealed that he and Ben Fong-Torres left the writing crew after two months. He also apologized for the â€œembarrassing dearth of significant rock & roll talentâ€â€”â€œBecause of scheduling conflicts and, I suspect, because there never was a specific, meaningful product to sell, many stars never materializedâ€â€”and noted that CBS slashed half of the script before airing.
The show ended up an unmitigated disaster. â€œRolling Stone Special Embarrassing Bomb,â€ screamed Billboardâ€™s headline. The review characterized the show as â€œoverblown, pretentious, slow-moving, and generally cheapening to both rock & roll and the magazineâ€™s good name.â€ This wasnâ€™t hyperbole: After an opening skit featuring Steve Martin, who also co-wrote the show, the special unfolded with no real structure or focus. Beach Boys member Mike Love rambled about America, California, transcendental meditation, and â€œthe outer field of lifeâ€ in a painful, minute-plus soliloquy. Trippy animated interstitial footage appeared every so often, while in another segment, Martin Sheen read the (admittedly moving)autobiographical story of a Vietnam War veteran, who had penned the history for a 1970 Rolling Stone issue.
The performances seemed random, too. Power-pop band The Rubinoos end the show by covering â€œHound Dog Manâ€ in honor of Elvis Presley. Art Garfunkel joined Gladys Knight & The Pips for a song, while a fierce Bette Midlerperformance culminates with Jerry Lee Lewis guesting on piano for â€œWhole Lotta Shakinâ€™ Goinâ€™ On.â€ Late The Who drummer Keith Moon tells a story about a burst water bed, animating an awkward roundtable featuring Melissa Manchester, Phoebe Snow, and Billy Preston. Right after that, Moon appeared in a skit with Martin, where heâ€™s destroying a hotel room. (The footage later appeared in 1979â€™sThe Kids Are Alright.)
Perhaps the worst part of Rolling Stoneâ€¦The 10th Anniversary was an interminable, cheesy, and occasionally offensive Beatles medley. Ted Neeley (famous for his lead turn in Jesus Christ Superstar) mingled with a cast of Vegas-meets-cruise-ship dancers dressed up to resemble members of Sgt. Pepperâ€™s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as a troupe of dancing strawberries. (That routine, set toâ€”of courseâ€”â€œStrawberry Fields Foreverâ€ tickled Wenner, Draper confirmed, and caused then-picture editor Karen Mullarkey to vacate the mag.) A KISS-esque hard-rock band performed â€œHelter Skelterâ€ surrounded by recreated scenes of violent war footage. A man in a Richard Nixon mask sang â€œIâ€™m A Loserâ€ directly into the camera, right after cheerful caricatures of Soviet women cavorted in a replica of the Oval Office for â€œBack In The U.S.S.R.â€ About the only redeeming qualities were Richie Havens and Yvonne Elliman dueting on â€œHere Comes The Sunâ€ and Patti LaBelle wailing on â€œPolythene Pam.â€
The response to the special was brutal. In addition to Feltonâ€™s nearly two-column apology, the January 26, 1978, letters section of Rolling Stone featured a variety of negative reactions. â€œAlthough your intentions were no doubt good in the beginning, so were Hitlerâ€™s,â€ went one letter. â€œI was appalled and thoroughly disgusted with your TV special.â€ Said another reader, â€œWhat you did was produce something no self-respecting middle-class member of the silent majority would even think was as good as the Osmonds.â€ Jefferson Airplane, however, was more pragmatic. â€œCongratulations on your first television special,â€ the band wrote. â€œWe hope to be part of the next one.â€
Incredibly, there was a 20th anniversary special broadcast on ABC (with an appearance by Grace Slick, at least according to one source). Still, where the 1977 special is concerned, â€œRolling Stone blew it, what more can I say?â€ Felton admitted. â€œExcept that one, it will probably hurt Rolling Stone more than the viewers, readers or rock & roll.â€ That wasnâ€™t true, mainly because the special has been largely lost to timeâ€”until this great-quality, full-episode dub a YouTube user picked up at a flea market in 2002, â€œon a Zenith beta blank tape which was unlabeled.â€ As a huge bonus, the video features all of the sweet vintage 1977 commercials airing at the time on Sacramentoâ€™s KXTV: Look for the Natty Light ads with Peter Graves, a Budweiser ad featuring Lou Rawls, and Ella Fitzgerald in a Memorex short.