Under the Radar

Relive the '70s With 'The Midnight Special'

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Time-Life has just released a couple of new DVD box sets for legendary late-night music show The Midnight Special. There's a 6-DVD set with 8 1/2 hours of performances and documentary footage that's available in stores($59.95 list) and there's an expanded 11-DVD set available for $99.95 at the Time-Life website with over 16 hours of viewing.

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Kids should know that The Midnight Special was pretty much the only place their grandparents could see live music on TV back in the '70s. Producer Burt Sugarman insisted that everyone perform live and, while some singers used backing tapes in later years, all the rock groups were playing the songs for real in the NBC studios just down the hall from the Tonight Show. The sound mixes were always much better than the ones you heard on Saturday Night Live as well.

Putting live music on TV was such an untested idea that NBC made Sugarman take all the financial risk and produce the show himself. That means that he walked away with all the rights and, while there have been earlier attempts at Midnight Special home video releases, this package is the most comprehensive to date.

"Most comprehensive" is a relative term though. There were literally thousands of performances during the show's decade-long run and a complete set would require hundreds of DVDs. These disks include highlights from selected programs. That might be an editorial decision by the producers, but it's far more likely that it's caused by licensing issues with the publishers who control the songs performed on the show.

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Within those limitations, you get a lot of spectacular footage. Both sets include six identical DVDs that feature live performances from the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Cars, Linda Ronstadt, Hall & Oates, Peter Frampton, AC/DC, Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, Blondie, War, Robert Palmer, Charlie Rich, Ted Nugent, The Kinks and dozens of others.

The 11-DVD set adds two more music DVDs with REO Speedwagon, the Charlie Daniels Band, Steely Dan, Heart, Donna Summer and others. There's also a DVD of comedy performances from Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal and George Carlin. The set rounds out with two full DVDs of documentaries in addition to the documentary features at the end of each of the music DVDs.

Seeing all these old singers, many of whom are still working 40 years later, learning their craft in front of a national audience is really amazing. A few of them are better than you'd ever imagine, but most of the performances also make you appreciate just how good all the kids who show up these days on Conan, Fallon, Seth Myers, Letterman, etc. really are. Most of them would hold their own against the boomer heroes on display here.

At the end of a viewing binge, anyone old enough to have seen the show live will likely start remembering details about how they spent their Friday nights back in those days. You'll also remember performances you saw on the show back then and wish they were included in this set. What's actually here, though, is great stuff.

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