UPDATE: We have a winner! Congrats to Brett M. of Sunnyvale, CA. Thanks to all who played! – RS
My kid made a time machine out of Legos. Can’t get him to clean his room, even for bribes approaching ten dollars, but he took the pieces from those Lego City sets we got him and mixed in parts from an X-Wing fighter, the Krusty Krab, and some anime thing I’ve never heard of, and he made a time machine. Five feet high, with a seat made of old velour pillows. Set it up next to my ratty old comfy chair in the living room. Didn’t make a new comfy chair. Made a time machine.
One evening recently, when he was in the basement with a couple other neighborhood ruffians, creating new plastic compounds out of leftover latex paint and some pocket lint, I squeezed into that time machine and pressed a couple buttons. The thing belched and started vibrating and, no shit, sent me sideways through some sort of cosmic slot-car warp, toot sweet ‘n’ post haste. I think I blacked out for a few minutes. Woke up in a TV studio audience, watching Helen Reddy in a macramé, midriff-baring top and bell-bottom jeans, singing “I Am Woman.” I admit, I was looking at her breasts. I saw nothing, and was still ashamed.
The machine leaned forward and dropped into a wormhole, and I emerged some moments later in the same studio audience, watching Kevin Cronin—eyes bugged out like a frightened koala in a UFO’s high beams—lead REO Speedwagon through a half-live/half-not-live version of “Keep on Loving You.” I relaxed for a moment, as I always do when hearing that song, before the machine rocked backwards, through another wormhole, and I found myself face-to-leering-caveman-mask with Ted Nugent as he threw down the ridiculous Motown metal stomp that is “Cat Scratch Fever.” I started clapping along, before getting sucked back into the ether once again.
This happened eight or nine times. I frugged to WAR doing “Cisco Kid,” heard the Bee Gees whucka-whucka through “Jive Talkin’,” and found myself sexually and intellectually aroused by watching Linda Ronstadt play an Everly Brothers song like Andrew Gold had written it (and Andrew Gold was playing guitar!). Gordon Lightfoot sang me a lullaby, Joan Baez warbled a Band song, and I think I accidentally drooled on Olivia Newton-John. Last thing I remember was Orleans playing “Dance with Me.” Before that point, I hadn’t realized Orleans actually existed—I’d thought they were simply a legend, like Ichabod Crane or the moon landing.
I later awoke, sprawled out on my living room floor, Lego detritus everywhere, with my son and his friends standing over me, glaring menacingly. My head rested on something bulky and vaguely cardboardish. I rolled over, and there it was— an enormous 11-DVD box set, containing dozens of performances from the old Seventies TV music standby The Midnight Special.
My memories of The Midnight Special are vague at best—I wasn’t quite eleven years old when it went off the air in 1981—but there are definitely hallmarks that are familiar to me, particularly those big red letters that spelled out the performers’ names at the back of one of the three stages the show employed. As an REO fan, I recall the band’s impossibly long name spelled out in those red letters in a photo inside their first A Decade of Rock and Roll collection (I also recall the so-close-you-can-count-nose-hairs zoom-in shot of Kevin Cronin during their 1978 performance of “Roll with the Changes.” Sadly, this is not included in the DVD box). Any popular music was fair game to be featured on the show, from John Denver’s pageboy haircut (accompanied by Denver himself, and by Cass Elliott) on the show’s pilot episode, to the stadium-filling rock dawgs like Aerosmith and Nugent, to disco floor-fillers like the Bee Gees, Village People, and Chic.
And the strangest combinations could grace any given show. Take the episode from June 1978, which featured host Crystal Gayle, along with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Chuck Mangione. Imagine being Tom Petty—pissed-off, twentysomething Tom Petty, bristling with energy and barely tapped rock power—waiting for Crystal Gayle to finish mewling “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” before he can begin playing “American Girl,” stalking around his little stage like a panther, or a Sith Lord waiting to disembowel a Jedi. And when he gets his cue, and he’s throwing out the amphetamine groove to the show’s perpetually floor-bound audience (couldn’t NBC afford chairs?), Chuck Mangione waits on a third stage, thinking only of his evening’s escapades to come, defiling groupies with his flugelhorn, if only this blonde-haired punk would stop making his racket long enough for him and his band to light into “Feels So Good.”
Talk about cognitive dissonance. Then there’s the episode from October 1976, when the perpetually orange Paul Anka asks the audience to give a round of applause for what appears to be Kristy McNichol; after she opens her mouth, though, you realize it’s Peter Frampton. Or 1975-vintage Neil Sedaka in his mom-jean bell bottoms and sparkly “Smoke the Best Colombian” shirt, dad dancing and leering at his background singers (one of whom I believe was his daughter) as they all whackadoodle through “Bad Blood” like the Vegas act they were destined to be. Or Charlie Rich in 1974, singing “Behind Closed Doors” while moving backward on a rotating stage, looking like he’d just come down after a spell whittlin’ sticks on Walton’s Mountain.
There are also those performers who appear to have materialized from interstellar spacecraft. Earth, Wind, & Fire are the cosmic funk alien welcoming party we all remember, and with “Devotion,” they bring the harmonious message of peace, love, and brassiere unclipping, as Philip Bailey hits notes that would one day herniate a hapless Mariah Carey. Real-life alien Edgar Winter’s tale of “Frankenstein” is performed with enough cheesy neon filters as to hurt the eyes, even as one’s ears are satisfied. Labelle’s NASA-approved outfits provide the gitchy-gitchy to their music’s ya-ya as they drop “Lady Marmalade” like a proton dance bomb.
The stuff I know I’m going to watch repeatedly, though, are the sets from Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, and Alice Cooper. The Aerosmith represented here is Get Your Wings-era Aerosmith—coked up, fucked up Aerosmith, perhaps the very best of all possibly Aerosmiths—barreling through an inexplicably shortened “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and a mind-expanding “Dream On.” The bruthahs Gibb, do their Gibby thing on the aforementioned “Jive Talkin’,” and also “Lonely Days” and a smokin’ “Nights on Broadway,” and I respond by practicing my Barry falsetto and my Robin gargle. And Alice Cooper—well, what can be said about Alice Cooper? This is 1979 Alice, blasting through a medley of “Eighteen,” “Only Women Bleed,” and “Billion Dollar Babies,” then having his mouth taped shut by Wolfman Jack, before ending the proceedings with the underappreciated From the Inside closer “Inmates (We’re All Crazy).” It beats his Muppets appearance, great as that was.
There’s so much in this Midnight Special box that you’ll appreciate, if you dig Seventies music. At a hundred bucks and eleven DVDs, there’s some commitment required to get it and get through it all, but if this stuff puts as big a smile on your face as it does mine, it’ll be worth the C-note and the 16-hour investment.
Hop in the time machine and off you go …