The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
The first Super Bowl I watched on TV? That’s easy: the 1980 matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Rams were my first favorite football team, thanks in large part to it being Warren Beatty’s team in the 1978 comedy Heaven Can Wait. (The fact I was picking football teams based on movies was a strong indication where my life was going.) Unfortunately, quarterback Vince Ferragamo and the real-life Rams didn’t fare as well as Beatty’s Joe Pendleton and Co., losing to Pittsburgh, 31-19.
That, I remember.
The halftime show? Not a thing.
It was not the Bee Gees, Donna Summer or some other chart-topper from those days, as we have now. It was two groups that seem unlikely in today’s era of blockbuster, big-name Super Bowl shows: Up With People and the Grambling State University Marching Band.
Both were Super Bowls mainstays during that time. Up With People, the Denver-based educational organization with a performing arm, was the halftime act at five Super Bowls during the 1970s and ’80s.
Yes, there was a time when the Super Bowl was about the football game, and the halftime show was an afterthought, or so it seemed. Today, anticipation for the things surrounding the game — Super Bowl ads, Beyoncé’s halftime show this year — rivals anticipation of the game itself and makes the Super Bowl a certifiable pop culture phenomenon.
A few years back, when the Super Bowl was getting slagged by many for booking Jurassic rockers including the Rolling Stones and The Who for the halftime shows, it could have been worse.
If you doubt that, YouTube is here to testify.
Take, for instance, the 1977 halftime show, when the game was played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The competitors were the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders. The show was produced by the Walt Disney Co. and featured a marching band, cheesy singers in Mickey Mouse sweaters and “the new Mouseketeers!” including a sprite named “Lisa!” whom we would later come to know as Lisa Whelchel — Blair on the long-running sitcom The Facts of Life and runner-up on the recent Survivor: Philippines. The show also was supposed to include a crowd-participation card trick, though here in the Herald-Leader’s features department, we can’t figure out what that was supposed to be.
Probably the most unwatchable clip we could find on YouTube was a two-minute snippet of Up With People playing Super Bowl V in 1971. As an NBC sportscaster announces “Up With the People,” the bright red- and yellow-clad group plays, dances and clearly lip-syncs to Someone Smiled.
(Beyoncé, if you lip-sync on Sunday, there is a precedent.)
It’s not that the Super Bowl halftime shows were devoid of stars.
In 1973, the University of Michigan Marching Band performed with guest Andy Williams warbling a version of Barbra Streisand’s People. Two years later, the Grambling State Marching Band played a tribute to Duke Ellington; his son Mercer Ellington and the Duke Ellington Band rolled into New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium on an A-Train float.
Ella Fitzgerald even made a Super Bowl halftime appearance in 1972 with Carol Channing and trumpeter Al Hirt. We could not find video of that, which might be just as well for the artists’ reputations. Channing also appeared at Super Bowl IV in 1970, and Hirt was on hand for the first Super Bowl, in 1967, along with the Grambling State and University of Arizona marching bands and the Anaheim High School drill team.
No matter how much announcers told us these were “marvelous” and “spectacular,” when you look at videos of some of these shows, it’s hard to imagine many of them kept people from heading to the refrigerator or bathroom or concession stand.
I distinctly remember watching the Cincinnati Bengals’ first Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers in 1982. But if I have a memory of the Up With People halftime show, hosted by Kentucky’s then-first lady and CBS sportscaster Phyllis George (above), I have mercifully repressed it.
For better and worse, Super Bowl halftime shows started to become memorable and engage contemporary star power in the 1990s. They were still trying to fit the performers in higher-concept ideas of halftime entertainment — see the Disney-esque appearance by New Kids on the Block in 1991 (which was actually not shown during the Super Bowl broadcast due to coverage of the Gulf War, which was just starting) and a mismatch of Olympic figure skaters and Gloria Estefan to celebrate winter in 1992 — Miami Sound Machine’s Gloria Estefan? Winter?
The first time I can recall hanging in to watch a Super Bowl halftime show was 1993 (above), also the first time the performance doubled as a rock concert, this time starring Michael Jackson in all his self-aggrandizing glory. He was still charting hits, things had not gotten too weird, and when he moonwalked across the stage, it was 1983 again.
Jackson’s stand was the performance that changed the Super Bowl halftime show forever, setting the template for what happens annually now: a performance by one of the biggest names in pop. There were missteps along the way. The next year, 1994 in Atlanta, was the first of several in which the stage was so overloaded with stars (I can only find an ad for that one) — including Kentuckians Naomi and Wynonna Judd — that it turned the event into a mishmash. That most notably happened in 2004, when Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake created the infamous wardrobe malfunction that briefly exposed Jackson’s breast to the world.
In the 21st century, the shows have been at their best when left to one brilliant artist: Prince’s showcase of his greatness in 2007 and U2’s moving post-9/11 appearance in 2002 (above). It doesn’t always work, but that it frequently does is one of the biggest reasons we keep tuning in to this game every year, even if our team is not playing.
There is a game, isn’t there?
My friends and family are used to me chaffing at icons of my youth being declared “classic.” Even at 44, it still doesn’t feel like movies I saw in theaters when they opened or albums I bought on vinyl with my paper route money should be in the same category as black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movies or Beatles records I thought of as classic when I was a teen.
But a couple decades have passed since the 1980s, and I have to start acknowledging and maybe even appreciating that some of the things I enjoyed as new in my youth are now taking their rightful places among the icons.
I worked an editing shift Sunday night, so I was not able to take in the spectacle that is our annual Halloween-season Thriller parade in Downtown Lexington. But I did buzz by CentrePointe on a dinner run to hear the moments from the video when Michael Jackson transforms from an unlikely movie date into a monster and see a young dancer acting it out on stage.
It took me back to the night in 1983 when I went over to my best friend’s house to watch the premier of the video on MTV — we did not have cable, but Lee’s parents did. We had heard about this bizarre new video Michael Jackson was releasing — a 15-minute mini-movie for a five minute song. What? How do you do that? Play the song really slow?
Jackson did it by pulling together the kind of forces only a reigning King of Pop can including writer and director John Landis, whose 1981 hit movie An American Wearwolf in London heavily influenced the Thriller video. Jackson gave it more cinematic heft with incidental music by movie maestro Elmer Bernstein, makeup by horror master Rick Baker and, of course, that voiceover by Vincent Price. And Jackson surrounded his infectious hit with a fun little story about a girl, played by Ola Ray, dreaming she went to a horror movie with what turned out to be a monster.
Or was it a dream?
It was an instant classic, a video that redefined the then-very young genre of videos.
So yes, call this icon of my youth a classic. It isn’t one because I’m old. It earned the designation.
The Kentucky Derby is now less that two weeks away and the guest list is starting to take shape for the annual Barnstable-Brown Derby Eve Gala, April 30 at the Louisville home of Patricia Barnstable-Brown.
Tito, Marlon and Jackie Jackson, members of the Jackson 5, which featured the Michael Jackson, will be guests at the party that has previously hosted Jackson sisters Janet and La Toya. In honor of the visit, Barnstable-Brown said the event will feature a tribute to the Jacksons’ music with songs like ABC and I Want You Back.
This is the 22nd year for the Barnstable-Brown Gala, which benefits diabetes research at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville. Recent party guests have included Paris Hilton and Brooke Shields.
Feb1Filed under: Music, Uncategorized; Tagged as: Al Green, American Idiot, Black Eyed Peas, Broadway, Elton John, Grammy Awards, Green Day, Jeff Beck, Jutin Timberlake, Lady GaGa, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Les Paul, Loretta Lynn, Maxwell, Michael Jackson, Neil Portnow, Paul McCartney, Pink, Stevie Nicks, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band
In one way, the Grammy Awards clearly got it: People don’t tune into the Grammy Awards for awards. They want to see the performances. And in the last few years, they’ve made the show a must see with performances like the Jutin Timberlake-Rev. Al Green pairing and Sir Paul McCartney’s rave last year.
But this year, instead of letting magic happen, Grammy tried to make it happen. Usually, it didn’t.
The night started with Lady Gaga, one of the night’s most anticipated performers, appearing to give a theatrical, over-the-top performance of “Poker Face,” but it turned into a duet of “Your Song” with Elton John. How did so much outrageousness become so, eh?
And that called the tune for the night. Green Day’s exhilarating ”21 Guns” seemed to turn into “525,621 Guns” with the Broadway cast of “American Idiot.” Green Day and “Rent” — two great things that do not go great together.
Taylor Swift, one of the evening’s big winners, was grossly ill served by a duet with Stevie Nicks and medley of their songs.
The problems with this show were exemplified by the Michael Jackson tribute, a 3-D sing off of his “Earth Song” that did nothing to illustrate the King of Pop’s magic, which was shown several times on the Grammy Awards.
There were some bright spots, like Pink’s mesmerizing and acrobatic performance of “Glitter in the Air,” the return of Maxwell and Jeff Beck’s tone-perfect tribute to the late Les Paul. But there are a few things Grammy needs to do if it wants to maintain a reputation as most watchable awards show:
~ Not everyone needs to be paired with a older artist. Gaga and John was inspired, though poorly executed. But Nicks and Swift? Leon Russell and Zac Brown Band? No.
~ Enough with the medleys. Numerous times it was disappointing to hear acts like Black Eyed Peas get out only part of a hit. Pick one song, and play it.
~ Enough with the productions. BEP’s staging was impressive, but Grammy seemed to constantly be trying to wow us. Chill.
~ Three hours! Grammy pulled an Oscar, meandering through its last hour, including a nauseating lecture by Recording Academy president Neil Portnow. Tighten up and finish by 11.
~ Show a little respect to the lifetime achievers. Loretta Lynn got a total of 12-words on the show acknowledging her honor. Same for Leonard Cohen. Think of the great tributes that could have been put together in their honors.
~ Performers, leave your F-bombs backstage. The networks get fined if your R-rated words go out across the country, so they are not going to let them air. The result is a performance marred by silent hiccups, so we are not talking about how great you (Eminem and Lil Wayne) were. We’re talking about how weird all those yawning gaps of silence were while you were dropping your f-, s- and other assorted profane bombs. So bring your radio versions to the stage, because you ain’t gonna win this fight.
Grammy, most of your nominees made it there by being great performers. For a great show, let them perform, and stop getting in their ways.
Thriller always gets all the props, but in many ways, the Beat It video (above) was Michael Jackson’s masterpiece — a gritty little drama with the classic Michael look and moves. You can look at this and see where a clip like the mini-movie of Thriller came from.
Last night, I wrote about how time has not been kind to Jackson’s public image and many young people today are probably mystified as to why there’s so much fuss about the gloved one.
The thing is, his legacy is a matter of multimedia history: the videos, the albums, even a few film appearances. Beat It is the first video I would send people to. And as iconic and historic as Thriller was, I’m one of many who would call the Off the Wall album that preceeded Thriller Michael’s best. It was the coming-of-age album for the former child star, and bash disco if you want, but Jackson did it as well as anyone.
Fortunately, he didn’t pursue film with as much verve as other pop icons. But even there, The Wiz features a nice little performance by Jackson, and it was one of the keys to launching his career.
Those are a few of my favorites, evidence of his greatness. What are some of yours? Comment below and share.
Jun25Filed under: Music, Rupp Arena, Television; Tagged as: Billie Jean, Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, Don't Stop the Music, Ed Sullivan Show, Eddie Van Halen, Elvis Presley, Lexington Center, Mecca, Michael Jackson, Motown 25: Yesterday Today and Forever, Rihanna, Rupp Arena, South Park, The Beatles, The Jeffersons, Thriller, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', WGVN-1580 AM
The last time we had the conversation, I was driving the kids to school.
Don’t Stop the Music by Rihanna came on the radio, and I mentioned that it used a Michael Jackson sample — Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, complete with a little bit of M.J.’s “woo-hoo!” in the background.
My daughter, a music nut who has a fairly loaded iPod, was genuinely astonished.
Michael Jackson recorded something good?
We’ve had this conversation before, because Michael Jackson as the King of Pop is kind of hard for them to grasp.
The Michael Jackson they know is a surgically made-over oddity who lived like a little boy and shouldn’t have been allowed around little boys. There are probably a lot of people like my kids, maybe even a generation older, who are a little mystified as to why he is so widely mourned.
Maybe you had to be in front of your TV on May 16, 1983, when Michael Jackson moonwalked across the stage on an NBC special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that is hard for us to have now, in an era of 500 channels and nothing on. The next day, everybody was talking about that unreal move, about the single glove, about what he was really trying to say in Billie Jean.
We wondered: Was this what it felt like when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show?
The thought occurred to us again on Dec. 2 of the same year as several of my friends and I gathered in the living room of a friend who had cable to watch the nearly-15-minute video for Thriller on MTV.
Fifteen minutes?! The song on the album was only six minutes.
That was Michael in his prime: a thriller, an innovator, a seasoned star perfectly positioned to take advantage of a quickly changing media market, and possibly the last truly galvanizing star in pop music.
Were rockers too cool for him?
Not Eddie Van Halen, the pre-eminent rock guitarist of the day, who lent a scorching solo to Beat It, one of seven Top 10 singles from the nine-track Thriller album.
Even if your primary tastes tended toward other genres, you knew about Michael Jackson and probably had the Thriller album. It was selling a million copies a week at its peak.
Jackson sent a thrill through Lexington when his mother announced that The Jacksons’ 1984 tour would start in Rupp Arena. Fans flooded Lexington Center, area radio stations and the Herald-Leader with calls from people looking for ticket information.
Alas, contract negotiations broke down between the tour manager and Lexington Center, and the concert never happened. Pair that with the Elvis Presley concert that Rupp had scheduled shortly after the King died, and you have a pair of dream concerts that Lexington never saw.
Jackson recorded other hugely successful albums — Bad and Dangerous — before the Jackson train started running off the rails. There was his rapidly changing appearance, his self-aggrandizing gestures, his disappointing albums and his failed tours. And then there were the allegations of child molestation that landed him in a humiliating trial. He was acquitted, but the damage was done.
The Michael Jackson the world came to know was synthesized in an episode of South Park called The Jeffersons, in which a creepy man whose face is falling off arrives in town with his strange son.
Jackson spent the past couple of decades trying to reclaim his 1970s and ’80s fame, and maybe it would have been best if he had just enjoyed that. We did.
Lexington enjoys it every Halloween, when the dancers from Mecca restage the Thriller dance downtown.
We enjoy it when a 21-year-old pop princess uses one of his legendary riffs in a new hit.
WGVN-1580 AM let listeners re-enjoy it last night, going all-Michael Jackson all night. When Jackson’s howl ushered in Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, my fingers reflexively cranked up the volume.
In later years, Michael Jackson didn’t do himself a lot of favors, as the bizarre image of him grew.
But kids, have no doubt: He was great.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich