Various Artists

Ed Sullivan's Rock 'N' Roll Classics [Box Set] [Video/DVD]

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Prior to going off the air in the early '70s, The Ed Sullivan Show often gave rock musicians some of their greatest media exposure. This mammoth nine-volume DVD box set (also available in VHS) has nearly 150 rock & roll clips from the program, spanning the mid-'50s to the early '70s, though the substantial majority of these are from 1964-1970. There's much to praise about this package simply due to the sheer bulk of vintage footage of numerous rock & roll greats, including (and this is just a partial list) Elvis Presley, the Beatles (whose 1964 appearances, perhaps the most famous rock television appearances ever, are heavily excerpted), the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, the Mamas & the Papas, and Buddy Holly. The discs (about an hour each in length), too, are broken up thematically if you're in the mood for certain subgenres, with divisions for the British Invasion, Motown, '60s rock, love songs, and other styles (including a whole disc devoted to the Temptations and the Supremes). The majority of it's in color, although there are a good number of pre-1965 black-and-white items. There are some great clips here, like the Beatles' February 1964 live American television debut; Elvis Presley doing "Hound Dog," and not solely from the waist up (though some "waist up" clips are here too); James Brown dancing like a fiend on "Prisoner of Love" and a "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"/"I Feel Good" medley; a preteen Michael Jackson dancing through some of his own amazing steps with the Jackson 5; Sly & the Family Stone dancing into the audience; the Temptations switching off lead vocals on "I Can't Get Next to You"; Santana coming to a boil on "Persuasion"; the Doors doing "Light My Fire"; Bo Diddley shaking through "Bo Diddley" in 1955, in one of the first nationally televised appearances of an out-and-out rock & roller; and Buddy Holly doing "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue" on some of the only TV he did before his death. There's some more middle-of-the-road pop/rock that's not nearly as exciting, like Tom Jones, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, Oliver, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Carpenters, B.J. Thomas, Petula Clark, and Paul Anka. But even those clips have their interest for both archival value and entertainment pleasure, not to mention some frightfully corny sets and early video tricks, like superimpositions of romantic scenes and psychedelic effects. It's also cool to see the occasional non-megastar song, like the Searchers' "Needles and Pins," Lulu's "To Sir With Love," and Jay & the Techniques' "Keep the Ball Rolling." You can also gauge the changing mood of the times by the camera work and set design; while most of the clips prior to the mid-'60s are just straightforward shots of the musicians and the stage, from 1965 onward they get increasingly gaudy, sometimes using specially created scenarios and special visual effects (particularly for the psychedelic numbers). All those good things notwithstanding, there are some surprising shortcomings to the set that make it less of an ideal viewing experience than it could have been. Most importantly, there's exuberant-to-the-point-of-aggressive, and not extremely enlightening, narration by Jay Thomas between the clips. Also, different parts of the program are prefaced and linked by an annoying pseudo-'60s instrumental jingle that you'll be sick to death of hearing after the 50 or so times it plays over the course of the nine volumes. There are super-brief interview excerpts with musicians (and some of their colleagues) from time to time that add very little. Beyond the formatting, some might be surprised to find how many of the songs were lip-synced rather than played live, whether in whole or sung live to a backing track. It's not just the more lightweight groups or non-instrument-playing soul singers who do this; even the Rolling Stones used backing tracks. It's also disappointing to find that many of the songs were truncated into shorter versions, presumably necessitated by time restrictions when these needed to be fit into the original live broadcasts. What's worse, there seems to have been some editing done to the clips that were originally broadcast to compress them into a shorter running time in this reissued DVD/VHS format. This is particularly evident at times during the Beatles' 1964 songs, with "All My Loving" missing its second verse, for instance. Finally, a few clips are duplicated in different volumes (and once, in the case of the Jefferson Airplane's "Crown of Creation," actually duplicated within one volume), although that occurs seldom enough to be a major irritant. As for special DVD features, there are few. The trivia track, which displays trivia in yellow subtitles as the footage plays, is fortunately optional, as the information bites range from reasonably interesting and informative to (more often) mundane and even inane. The selected discographies are virtually useless; you'll find far more depth in that regard in a number of standard rock reference books and online sources. There's just a bit of bonus footage in volume nine, which has a fairly interesting interview with one of The Ed Sullivan Show's directors, John Moffit, and the only in-camera interview of Sullivan that still exists, filmed in 1958 (and also including his wife, Sylvia Sullivan). Overall, mind you, it's still a tremendous bounty of visual rock & roll history, and entertaining in what matters most, the footage itself, which does take up the overwhelming portion of the discs. Note that just two of the nine volumes in the box, volume one (with an assortment of hitmaking acts from 1965-1967) and volume two (with another assortment of hitmaking artists, from 1968-1970), are available separately.