Tuesday, 18 January 2011

R.I.P. Don Kirshner

As a kid in the late 1960s and 1970s, I didn't appreciate all that Don Kirshner had done for the pop music that I loved. Of course I loved The Monkees and The Archies, and later in life I would come to discover the history of the Brill Building and the amazing artists it once housed. Eventually, I would come to see how it all fit together. Yet, back when I was starting to explore music on my own, Don Kirshner was just this funny-looking guy with bad hair and an incredibly strong New York accent, who happened to host a show which I got to watch on weekends during the summer holidays. I loved it, and it challenged me, but I didn't appreciate at the time just how special the show was. The performances were usually live, sometimes of questionable quality and sometimes unspeakably great. They were always real and honest. This, along with Burt Sugarman's equally amazing "Midnight Special," left an indelible mark on my mind, and both were arguably, to some extent, the precursors of both David Sanborn's lamentably short-lived "Night Music" and Jools Holland's long-running "Later."

Here's one example of what made "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" so special - The Steve Miller Band perform a new, unrecorded song, called "Fly Like an Eagle." How many bands in these days of industrialised music would be allowed, encouraged even, to play a fairly rough version of an unknown song for six minutes on a gig set to be aired on national TV? And what producer in his right mind would have left it in the final cut for broadcast?

I think one of the reasons for the success of "Rock Concert" was its ability to recreate the atmosphere of a large venue gig, on a similar scale to the real thing. For the kids in the hinterlands of rural America, it must have been astonishing to switch on the TV and find themselves in the midst of a raucous Black Sabbath arena gig, which they could probably have never managed to get to in reality.

To his credit, Don Kirshner was not shy about going against the grain. If you can feature heavy rock acts that fill arenas across the country, why would you expend valuable airtime on uncommercial, heretical freaks like the New York Dolls? Because artistically it's the right thing to do, and it makes commercial sense in the long run, that's why. How many frustrated, misunderstood rockers in the middle of nowhere suddenly found new courage in the wake of seeing this?

Similarly, with the likes of REO Speedwagon, Journey, and Styx in the ascendant, Kirshner gave the Ramones 10 minutes of exposure in 1977. Decidedly not consensus-led thinking.

Goodbye, Don Kirshner, and thank you.

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