Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 19, 2011)
When people think of music on The Ed Sullivan Show, most folks immediately conjure up visions of the Beatles’ February 1964 debut. Of course, the Fabs weren’t the only rock act to ever play Sullivan, and their most noted “rivals” – the Rolling Stones – appeared on the show more than a few times.
On this two-DVD release called All Six Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Rolling Stones, we can see the Stones’ evolution over their first few years. The package includes their initial appearance on October 25, 1964, as well as additional Sullivan performances on May 2, 1965, February 13, 1966, September 11, 1966, January 15, 1967, and November 23, 1969.
When the Beatles did Sullivan their four times, three of those occurred over consecutive weekends in 1964. Their fourth and final show took place in September 1965; that offered a broader picture of how the band had changed, but since three-fourths of the programs aired over 15 days, you don’t see much of their evolution.
That’s definitely not the case for the Stones’ package. Even if we ignore the 1969 “outlier” show, we see enormous differences between the fall 1964 Stones and the January 1967 version of the band; they made radical changes over those 27 months.
As was the case of the Beatles package, the programs come nearly uncut. We don’t just find the Stones’ performances; in addition, we get the other acts who appeared. The discs even toss in the original commercials to replicate the experience as fully as possible. Some edits clearly occur, as we see occasional awkward fades that indicate missing footage. We do get the vast majority of the original broadcasts, though.
This becomes more valuable here than it did during the Beatles’ release. If you look at the roster of talent at those shows, you won’t find many names that endure; the Beatles were the prime – and virtually only – attraction for today’s viewers.
That’s not the case here. Most of the other performers are essentially forgotten in the mists of time, but we find appearances from Itzhak Perlman, Stiller and Meara, Phyllis Diller, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, the Muppets, Louis Armstrong, Joan Rivers, Petula Clark, Flip Wilson, Robert Klein and Rodney Dangerfield. We even see actors such as Laurence Harvey and Hal Holbrook give dramatic readings.
All of those appearances are fun, and they make these shows more memorable than the Beatles’ episodes. There was little that I found enjoyable when the Fabs weren’t on-screen, but all of these other talents add value to these Stones-based programs. I suspect that’s because the Stones weren’t the same level of attraction as the Beatles, so the Sullivan bookers needed to work harder to ensure good ratings.
I checked out the full episodes in hopes that I’d find something entertaining other than the Stones. Even with so many notables, however, it’s hard to locate genuinely enjoyable material. None of the now-forgotten acts offer much of merit - though it’s tough to argue there’s not some bizarre value to the one-legged tap-dancer – and even the “names” tend to be more miss than hit.
Actually, the dated nature of some comedic routines can make them a bit painful. Phyllis Diller’s “I’m so ugly” shtick seems more pathetic than funny, though it doesn’t help that she essentially bombs with the teen studio audience. Totie Fields attempts some similar territory but casts a broader net; she’s still not very funny, and it’s shocking to realize that she was only 34 at the time, as she looks like she’s about 50.
The early Muppets deliver some fun, at least – even if Sullivan thinks they’re created by “Jim Newsome” – and although her routine is pretty dated, Joan Rivers shows her comedic talent. Flip Wilson also manages a pretty clever routine about Christopher Columbus.
Rodney Dangerfield has his delivery down well but suffers from some lackluster material, at least when he treads lame territory like complaints about female drivers. When he goes into his trademark “I don’t get no respect” realm, he fares better. (As an aside, it’s interesting to see that Dangerfield and Diller explore some of the same low self-esteem shtick but his works better; for some reason, his jokes feel less self-loathing than hers, perhaps because he doesn’t so directly insult himself.)
Some of the fun here comes from the ads. It’s intriguing to think that material we find so annoying in present day becomes delightful decades later. The commercials are interesting to inspect and add value to the set; they’re like little time capsules to “date” the shows.
A few non-Stones musical performances go pretty well. Dusty Springfield sounds pretty good in 1965, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Louis Armstrong. Tom Jones is pretty awful, howeber - the hyperactive, obnoxious male dancers don’t help him – and I’m not wild about Petula Clark.
For prospective purchasers of this set, of course, the Stones offer the main attraction, and we get a nice sampling of their work. Here’s the song breakdown:
October 25, 1964 (53:23) : “Around and Around” and “Time Is On My Side”;
May 2, 1965 (51:16): “The Last Time”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, and “2120 South Michigan Avenue”;
February 13, 1966 (51:09): “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, “As Tears Go By”, and “19th Nervous Breakdown”;
September 11, 1966 (52:29): “Paint It, Black”, “Lady Jane” and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?";
January 15, 1967 (53:19): “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”;
November 23, 1969 (50:43): “Gimme Shelter”, “Love in Vain” and “Honky Tonk Women”.
One look at that song list shows that the Beatles got a lot more Sullivan credit than the Stones did. The Fabs played 20 tunes on their four shows, while the Stones only got to perform 17 times across six programs. It seems somewhat surprising that this didn’t change over the years; I would’ve expected Sullivan to give the band more air time as it became clear they were in the same league as the Beatles.
In a nice touch, the disc allows us to go with “Play All” to see solely the Stones’ songs. I think it’s fun to go through the shows as originally broadcast, but that’s not something I’d want to do with frequency, so it’s great that we can focus solely on the Stones.
While their Sullivan appearances lacked the social impact of those by the Beatles, that doesn’t mean they’re not fun, and the Stones’ performances are almost certainly higher quality than the Fabs’. As delightful as it is to see the Beatles in this context, I can’t say that they ever sounded great on any of their four shows.
The Stones fare better and show their skills from their first time on Sullivan. “Around and Around” and “Time Is On My Side” don’t demonstrate the band’s peak, of course; while the Beatles were great from the start, essentially, I think the Stones needed a few years to really blossom as a studio band. Still, their best early material still holds up, and both of these songs sound fine. They get energetic performances, and it’s an interesting contrast to observe how much scragglier than Stones looked when compared to their more polished Liverpudlian rivals.
No, the 1964 Stones weren’t exactly outlaws, but they lacked the same “cleaned up” look. Indeed, when we see them in the context of the show’s other acts, we can start to understand why the Stones were viewed as so “dirty” and outrageous at the time; after so many “straight” performers, the Stones look like they’re from an alien world.
In terms of performance, we don’t get much from the 1964 Stones, as their screen time adds up to less than six minutes. They sound good, though, even with a weird screechy falsetto Keith adds at the end of “Time”. Mick also gets a quick meet and greet with Ed Sullivan, though don’t expect much; they shake hands and that’s about it.
Clearly the Stones were viewed as a bigger draw when they returned about a half a year later, as the May 1965 Sullivan allows them their greatest showcase. (Unfortunately, “2120” comes under the show’s end credits, so we don’t see the band the whole time, and the announcer speaks over part of the song.)
In terms of performance, I think the Stones fare less well on their second show. They come across as a bit more tentative and lack the same combustible feel they boasted in 1964. Some mix problems don’t help; for instance, during “The Last Time”, occasionally I could barely hear anything other than vocals and drums.
Others’ mileage may vary, of course, but for me, I think the 1965 show will end up in the “nice to have but not that much fun to watch” category. The band’s lack of fire combined with some of the technical issues make it less than endearing, but it’s still great to have for archival purposes.
With the February 1966 show, Sullivan went from black and white to color, and the Stones seemed to respond to the change. They get the program’s opening slot and deliver a raucous “Satisfaction”, with a vivid vocal from Mick. Charlie looks baked in the background, but a lively Jagger helps compensate.
“As Tears Go By” doesn’t work as well, partly because the constant screaming from the audience disrupts the song’s quietness. The band then goes straight into “19th Nervous Breakdown” to finish the Stones’ appearance on a positive note. Well, a relatively positive note: like I mentioned earlier, Charlie looks awfully stoned, and his playing reflects it, as he’s uncharacteristically sloppy. Still, Jagger’s on fire so this is still another good take. This is probably the best of the six shows.
When we jump ahead seven months, we get three more tracks from the Stones – well, some of them, at least. In an unfortunate change from earlier shows, the band doesn’t play fully “live” here. Mick’s vocals are real but everything else is canned – even backing vocals, as we can tell when Mick accompanies himself on “Shadows”.
The lack of live performances make the September 1966 show a disappointment – especially since I’d like to hear a truly live “Shadows”, a great song that never got much play over the decades. I’d prefer live versions of all three, but for me, that one’s the most painful loss. The Stones played “Black” skillions of times over the years, and I never cared for the stiff, affected “Jane”, so I don’t care as much about those.
While it’s too bad that the band doesn’t actually play live here, it’s still enjoyable to see the episode. At least we get true live vocals from Jagger, and it can be fun to see the band fake it. Charlie might be sober this time, but he doesn’t seem to be happy to have to mime; he barely attempts to play the right beats. The lack of live performance makes this one a disappointment, but it remains fun.
With the 1967 show, we find the Stones’ most controversial appearance. Apparently offended by the title “Let’s Spend the Night Together” – risqué stuff back then! – Sullivan asked the Stones to sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”. The Doors would later refuse to alter “girl we couldn’t get much higher” in “Light My Fire”, but – contrasting their “bad boys” reputation – the Stones changed their line/title to get on the air.
Though not without comment. Some – but not all – of Jagger’s declarations of the title line come with exaggerated eye-rolling to connote the stupidity of the alteration. And absurd it was; the song was already all over the charts and radio, so what good did it do for Sullivan to have them clean up the tune for his show?
The eye-rolling helped the Stones keep some of their dignity intact, but it seems like a weak protest. Allegedly the band attempted to come out later in Nazi uniforms, but I’m not sure I believe that – especially since the Stones’ insouciance supposedly provoked a lifetime Sullivan Show ban yet they appeared again two years later.
Remove the “Some Time…” controversy and this is a spotty performance, partially due to the continued absence of live instrumental work. That’s not going to change – the 1969 show will deliver canned musical backup too – but it remains a disappointment. The vocal performances aren’t great either, mostly because Mick and Keith don’t appear to try too hard; they deliver sloppy renditions. Like the 1966 piece, this is cool to see for historical value, but it’s not great in musical terms.
Finally, we see the Stones’ final appearance – one that shows a change. Earlier in 1969, the band fired Brian Jones and replaced him with Mick Taylor, so we see a new guitarist here. (Jones died in July 1969, but he was already out of the band when that happened.)
Alas, as I mentioned earlier, we still get canned musical tracks here – and more, as we find nothing live during “Honky Tonk Woman”. Jagger delivers live vocals for the first two, though backing singing – including Merry Clayton’s legendary turn in “Shelter” – is canned. For reasons unknown, even Jagger mimes “Woman”. It seems strange that every other Jagger vocal to date was live on Sullivan but he was stuck lip-synching the final song.
Though not as obvious as “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”, we find some censorship-esque changes to “Shelter”. You’ll not hear the famous “rape/murder” refrain, and Clayton’s noted solo goes bye-bye via an awkward edit. Some might claim her bit got cut because she wasn’t there to sing/lip-synch it herself, but I think the vocal went away due to its content. I’d hoped the Stones’ last Sullivan appearance would be the best, but it’s ordinary at best due to the lack of live performance.
Actually, that ends up being my biggest complaint with this package as a whole. As a diehard Stones fan, it’s cool to be able to see their six Ed Sullivan Show appearances, and I like the presentation since it features entire episodes. However, the lack of many truly live performances makes these shows more worthwhile for curiosity value than anything else. They’re cool to own but not with great repeat viewing value due to the presence of so much pre-recorded audio.