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BEHIND THE MUSIC EPISODE GUIDE

Part 1


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Behind the Music is one of the few shows that I have ever made a point to watch every week.  Certainly as the show declined and began profiling contemporary artists who had a new album out that week they were trying to sell it became harder to dig (I want to like you Hootie, but I can’t!).  But at its peak this was prime addictive TV.  It was low and silly but also clever and thoughtful.  It explored the weaknesses and human frailties of people who are oft seen as above the rest of us, and despite its inaccurate tabloid reputation, in fact featured less sleaziness than empathy.

The show was born after a successful VH1 documentary on heroin abuse sparked interest in a documentary series.  VH1 had always had a rap of being the refuge for the baby boomers.  It was the Woodstock generation’s MTV, where James Taylor would always have a home.  But as that boomers aged out of wanting to watch the channel, and as the children of the 70s and the 80s became too old for MTV, the executives at VH1 wisely decided to create a show that could appeal across demographics. Jeff Gaspin, VH1 vice prez, and producer Gay Rosenthal had the idea to do a sympathetic profile of Milli Vanilli, the shamed lip synchers who disappeared from the public eye and consciousness, but whose story had to be interesting.  The reason the first episode of BTM is so good is because they worked so hard at it.  They tracked their subjects down with detectives and then spent two months wining and dining Milli and Vanilli, convincing them that they were not going to railroad them.  BTM was establishing their longstanding policy of complete cooperation of the artist, and though the stories would certainly feature embarrassing elements, they promised to be respectful. 

The table had been set for a show like this.  In the 90s Ken Burns had made talking head documentaries a respected art form, and cable already had precedents with A&E’s venerable Biography (on the air since 1987!) and E! Network’s sleazy True Hollywood Story (which premiered in late 1996).  But to really figure out why BTM became a landmark TV show in the 90s, look at how it related to other iconic 90s shows.  Much like Seinfeld and The Simpsons, Behind The Music is really a triumph of writing.  Certainly it is hackneyed writing at times, but the key to the shows is a tight, formulaic construction that mixes up clichés with clever, florid writing, scripted to have power and force when delivered in the dire tones of announcer Jim Forbes.  The formula is set in stone like some kind of ancient Kabuki play (or more accurately, like a Christian morality play, as BTM often imposes a moralistic structure of vices receiving punishment and redemption coming from repentance…or you could compare the rigid structure to that other 90s fave, Law and Order).  There is a humble beginning, a meteoric rise, a devastating fall and a redemptive mini rise at the end.  The formula made it ripe for parody, but it also made the show structurally sound and guaranteed fascinating episodes as long as they stuck to artist with amazing stories. 

Unfortunately, success crept in. As BTM became the network’s top rated show, putting VH1 on the map and establishing it as the hip cable destination it is today, the corporate culture of Viacom took over.  As the record biz began to realize that the show was impacting record sales, things changed. Their Behind the Music doubled Def Leppard’s weekly record sales, and for artists with miniscule sales like Vanilla ice is increased sales exponentially.  It also helped sell thousands of copies of artist back catalogue the week after a show aired, The high ratings it boasted (for cable, that is, three million or more viewers per new episode in 2000) and the direct connection to album sales made the series move away from obscure, interesting artists, and into marketable new subjects like Alanis Morrisette and Green Day, despite the artists not having much history.  In 1999 producer George Moll boasted, “We’re moving away form heritage artists.”

The next year VH1 explored Behind The Music as a brand, saturating the market with CDs, books and videos under the BTM banner.  Instead of following the model of A&E, whose Biography show will easily reach its 20th anniversary in a few years, VH1 lost focus and doomed the show.  In 2003 less than a handful of episodes were produced, and by April of 2004 only one new show has aired.  Because the structure poorly served trendy, new artists, VH1 developed shows that worked better, like Driven, which has family friends describe the early days leading up to stardom (and which purposely does not interview the overexposed subject).  Also, BTM’s occasional ”year” shows, which had talking heads discuss numerous events from a given historical year, begat the new trend on the channel; shows in which comedians and stars flippantly deliver scripted, empty quips about pop culture. 

The network, thanks to BTM, became a hip destination.  However, it is now too hip to feature a show that at its best involves old people revealing their pathetic humanity.  A sad fate for one of my favorite shows.  But at least we’ll always have Leif.

One note, I am very unsure of many of these dates,  VH1 often changes their schedules at the last minute, and it seems that legal issues sometimes shelve a show for years (like the Badfinger episode) so just because I found TV Guide listings or press releases from VH1 for air dates doesn’t mean they are right.  Sorry.

Contributing writers: CB – Chris Butler, EB – Elliot Brennan, EF – Erica Feldman, EH – Emil Hyde, EO – Eric Ottens, GPG – Gary Pig Gold, JA – Jake Austen, JB – John Battles, JP – James Porter, JR – Jon Resh, KB - Ken Burke, MF – Mike Faloon, SL – Skippy Lange, TA – Tim Aher

 

MILLI VANILLI (8/17/97) (JA) This was one of the best BTM episodes because it was the one that they put the most effort into, and because it really was an example of what this show could be at its finest: a fascinating, respectful human story that makes you care about the protagonists even if you are not a fan of their music.  This is the story of two muscle-bound Euroboys, living in Germany at the end of the 80s.  One is a vacant eyed Afro-Parisian named Fabrice Morvan.  The other, Rob Pilatus, the child of an African American GI and a Caucasian German stripper will prove to be the classic tragic mulatto.  The pretty boys decide to become stars and work out athletic dance routines that accompany the cover songs they sing at nightclubs.  Impressed by their dancing and looks, the evil German record producer Frank Farian, has them tour to support a record he made with studio musicians and middle aged singers (Rob and Fab are not on the actual record).  It should be noted that this was not an uncommon practice in the Bubblegum 60s, and more importantly, the record they are dancing to was profoundly mediocre.  Anyone could have sung and rapped that record, it just so happened that these guys didn’t.  What follows is a whirlwind trip to the top, as their album somehow becomes a global smash, ten times platinum, and their looks and moves (and the fact that spandex was an acceptable fashion statement) make them MTV darlings.  Though BTM acts like a concert in which their DAT starts skipping and they are exposed as lip synchers was a big deal, many acts (especially dance acts, as Downtown Julie Brown tells us in this show) mime live, and the audience didn’t seem to care.  But trouble erupts after they win the Grammy for best new artist. “All we wanted was to not get the Grammy, and we got the goddamn Grammy,” laments Rob in his melancholy, heavy accent.  Soon, despite them making him millions, and despite the appeal of the act being primarily visual, the awful producer decides it is his duty to reveal their charade. We then see the amazing footage of the press conference, During the event, in which the sad boys, who can hardly speak English, face a hostile press without the support of their evil svengali or their record label, Rob pleads pathetically for empathy, stating that if he hadn’t gone this route, “We would still be in Munich, I would still work at the McDonalds.”  They try to regroup and record an album with their own vocals, but Rob (likely on drugs) has a poor attention span in the studio, and when they debut on Arsenio only Fab is better than average, and the album only sells several thousand copies. It’s downhill from there, though Fab eventually rebounds and pulls himself together, developing his talent and becoming a singer/songwriter in an earthy neo-soul mold.  But while suddenly beautiful Fabrice, who actually looks younger than he did in Milli Vanilli, has become centered and focused, Rob has had a much harder time and looks haggard.  Though they were good friends before, they had to stop hanging out, partly because Rob felt he increased his chances to be recognized and ridiculed if the two of them were together.  Though staged scenes of a troubled man walking on the beach should be hokey and false, they aren’t in this case, you really can see how upset and disturbed he is.  Originally the show ended with us hearing of his drug abuse (he went through rehab 11 times) sadly the show was updated later when he returned to Germany to work with Frank again (who bailed him out of jail) and then killed himself with a drug overdose in a hotel room.  Though the never repentant Frank should have earned redemption, I suppose, for reaching out to Rob, he apparently didn’t do too good a job.  This show ends with us pondering the pathetic fate of a guy who it seems would have been better off still working at McDonalds in Munich.  Formally this show is spot on, with the arc of rise, peak, lurking devastation, hard fall and (for Fab) redemptive rise fully realized.  They make decisions to show the boom microphones and lights on occasion during interviews to demystify the process (later they would go another direction and have numerous interviewees be surrounded by candles, creating a mystifying atmosphere).  And one odd note, the announcer, Jim Forbes, for some reason tried to go by the fake name “James Jude” in this early episode. (JA)

 

MC HAMMER (8/24/97) What is most notable about this episode is that BTM had not yet established their formula despite the near-perfect premiere.  This show has the wrong announcer (a nasal-voiced guy) and the rhythm is off.  The set up is v-e-r-y- long, almost fifteen minutes. The repetition of information is more redundant than the stylized redundancy BTM is known for.  And the writing is much worse than what BTM viewers would become familiar with (the show ends with, “win or lose this time around, when it comes to everything he’s accomplished, well, as Hammer might say, you can’t touch this”). The talking heads commenting on Hammer are pretty interesting.  A thoughtful Black journalist, Chuck D. and Mrs. Hammer are all very insightful.  Arsenio Hall, on the other hand, seems very invested in being Arsenio Hall and all his comments feel like either pre-written testimonials or stand up routines (and his credibility is a little strained when he calls Hammer, “the Michael Jackson of Hip Hop”).  Best of all is M. C. Hammer’s barber, Diamond Ken, who is the go to guy for VH1, getting more screen time than anyone, despite the fact that he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. What this show is mostly about is how a sweet, god fearing, nerdy family guy with few vices rose from nothing to making and blowing zillions of dollars with his excessive spending and his generosity.  The rise of street dancer Stanley Burrell, who befriended pro baseball players and had them bankroll his independent rap career, is based on savvy and talent.  With all the early footage it becomes clear that though M. C. Hammer was never a great rapper he actually was a brilliant dancer and because of that artistry he deserved the attention and success he got.  After he becomes a mega-success he blows tens of millions by buying a far too big house (this show is sort of set up as an anti-MTV Cribs) and by hiring everyone from his ghetto to be in the act/entourage.  At one point they show his concert and the stage is covered with almost a hundred unnecessary “dancers” and standers-around, which led to a $500, 000 a month payroll.  What happens when he loses the money is that he declares bankruptcy, but he never becomes spiritually bankrupt, or mentally off kilter and is never o[destitute.  His low is making a horny song with him in Speedos in the video.  Not exactly crippling your friend in a drunk driving accident or burning down your mansion out of spite. My favorite character in this show is Oprah Winfrey’s image.  When Hammer first appears on her show, bragging about his success at the height of his glory bloated Oprah is not quite ready for the 90s, wearing an outfit that basically looks like clown clothes.  Hammer, in his absurd parachute-pants superhero outfit, looks normal in comparison to her.   On a later Oprah show, where Hammer nobly explains his bankruptcy and tells everyone that he can’t be called broke or poor when there are actual broke or poor people out there, stylish Oprah looks awesome.  She appears on screen for about one minute in this show and her development is as compelling as Hammer’s!  And as the show raps up, Hammer looks great and feels positive about his future.  Here we get our first look at a true BTM cliché: the artist in the studio making a comeback record that obvious to everyone but the artist, is going nowhere.  But we also get to experience that great BTM feeling where we hope beyond hope that somehow this will work out and our new friend will stay happy! (JA)

 

BOY GEORGE (8/31/97) This episode in some ways feels like the first real BTM because it is the debut of the true Behind the Music announcer Jim Forbes.  The story opens with a poor Irish Catholic kid from the UK ghetto dressing in his mommy’s clothes and being a proud freak as a kid.  His regular guy brother seems to have always sort of admired George’s boldness and doesn’t speak judgmentally about the poofster sibling.  After seeing Bowie when he was 12 George becomes a New Romantic, joins the punky dance scene, supports himself as a DJ and a thief and forms a band.  This is where it gets interesting.  Jon Moss is the drummer for Culture Club.  A beautiful son of a millionaire, Moss becomes the love of George’s life, and all the songs written for Culture Club are about their relationship.  They clearly had an intense love affair, but when interviewed today Moss, acting macho and manly, brushes off everything.  He wont say they didn’t have a relationship, but he also wont verbalize in any way shape or form that he was gay at any point in his life.  He isn’t denying anything, but he just downplays it and tries to change the subject.  He was engaged to a woman when they met and he is a father now, and he left George for a woman back in the day.  “Karma Chameleon,” and many other songs, were about Moss’ confusion, and informed that he still is in denial George calls Jon, “a sad little liar.”  That’s one of the interesting things about this episode; the band was a huge, global phenomenon, but everything about Culture Club was hinged on something as small as the relationship between two lovers.  The non-gay guitarist didn’t really get to enjoy his rock stardom because of this, explaining, “It wasn’t my idea of being in a band, I didn’t really want to be in some gay drama…where are the drugs? Where are the girls?”  Though the girls were not forthcoming, after Jon left George the drugs were plentiful.  The most vivid imagery in this show is George on heroin performing at a charity concert with some kind of crusty cold cream on his face (he clearly doesn’t know it’s there), nodding off while being interviewed and talking gibberish like a schizo street person.  One shot shows visibly disturbed Sting and Sade posing for photographers with George, and the BTM announcer very explicitly tells us when to watch as our Boy actually passes out while still standing up mid sentence.  With his family putting pressure on him he tries to get straight and finally a bald, sad and gaunt George pulls himself together after three friends OD, one in his house.  The show ends with a fairly together George (not the happiest guy in the world) lamenting that though he’s over Jon he wished Jon would acknowledge their love they once shared.  We also see Jon completely shrugging off and denying any profound memories of their relationship. Like many episodes it’s repetitive and tells things in many more words than necessary, but this also really shows why this series is excellent because it covers fascinating human mistakes and weaknesses in a way that is removed from tabloid sleaziness because of the sympathetic nature of the documentarian’s lens and the total involvement of the subject, a subject (in this case) who has good perspective on his past problems. (JA)

 

FLEETWOOD MAC (9/7/97) Fleetwood Mac’s history from 1967 to 1974 (the year Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined) could be an entire Behind The Music in itself…or even three (see Stevie:BTM and Lindsay:BTM). Even though the pre-Buckingham/Nicks version of the band went through numerous personnel changes and wrote the often covered “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight” and the Judas Priest standard “Green Manalishi,” this period of the band only gets about five minutes of coverage. But naturally the Lindsey and Stevie era is the one that Fleetwood Mac is best known for. Anyway, this episode not only chronicles the crazy level of success the band attained, but it illustrates how absolute fame can corrupt absolutely.  There are more mentions of drug use in these interviews than there are killings in your average John Woo film. Then there are the busted relationships, the rigors of the road, the tribulations of recording and the triumphant reunion (which provides a framing device for the episode, as the episode provides a promotional device for the reunion). It’s everything you could hope for in a Behind The Music. But what’s the deal with those balls on the cover of “Rumours?”(CB)

 

NOWHERE TO HIDE (9/21/97) This episode was made before the formula had been worked out.  It is a documentary on people who stalk rock stars, and not on any one particular figure, so the “arc” doesn’t apply.  There’s a segment on John Lennon’s murder and some expert psychologists explaining the stalking phenomenon and there’s even a weird bit where a singer-songwriter is inspired by her stalker to write a powerful song about stalkers (so the stalker was a muse as well as a terrorist).  The best thing in this episode is that it was the first place I saw the riveting insane footage of the fat maniac who videotaped himself constantly (including his suicide) as he planned his stalking and murder of Bjork (don’t worry, his bomb didn’t work and Bjork lives on, though this guy must have really rattled her).  One of the points of the documentary was that female artists are easy to identify with and have a more intimate relationship with their fans, and that really appeals to stalkers.  So the lesson is to be unpleasant and distant. (JA)

 

IMAGEMAKERS (9/28/97) This has not been rerun, since it didn’t fit the format, and I can only vaguely remember the episode, but it is a documentary about rock photographers (visionary geniuses, not paparazzi).  It includes an interview with photographer turned music video director Herb Ritts. (JA)

 

LYNYRD SKYNARD (10/19/97) Because news crews arrived at the plane crash site almost immediately, because a great amount of footage was shot directly after the accident and because there are survivors who can give first hand accounts of the carnage,  the tragedy at the heart of this episode is grounded in reality more than any other episode except for perhaps Aaliyah’s.  Add to that the way the fat, hairy and regularly gigging Skynards look today and you have a completely unique, Southern-fried Behind The Music.  The pre-crash stuff is pretty compelling, and while you don’t really get a great handle on what made Ronnie Van Zant tick (although footage of him fishing comes closest to doing so) you do see how brilliant this band was musically.  The real fascinating stuff comes after the crash, as there is contention with some band members about how survivors acted immediately in the wake of the crash leading to a schism.  Later there is a long, successful but controversial reunion of the band, as they become the very popular touring outfit they are today, with a younger Van Zant up front.  The footage of the current band, including reunions that include an ailing member, is a fascinating look into what being in a band and what fan loyalty are all about. (JA)

 

TEDDY PENDERGRASS (10/97) This is a really interesting episode because it is centered in the rich 60s and 70s Philly Soul scene which doesn’t get nearly enough historical attention paid to it (there’s ten Motown documentaries, but this is the closest I can think of to a Philly Soul doc).  The older, grayer Pendergrass that holds court in this show may not be the sex good with steam rising off him from his heyday, but he certainly demonstrates ample soul, charm and sexiness as he calmly recalls his days growing up listening to legends, his navigation through the Philly scene, his mega success as a solo artist and his crippling 1982 accident.  Philosophical and brave, Teddy Bear doesn’t let you feel sorry for him, and as the documentarians build up his Live Aid on-stage appearance as a climatic milestone his words make it clear that as great as that was he realized that being onstage paled in comparison to being alive.  This was done years before he made an earnest, powerful return to concert touring, and I saw him on that tour and it was amazing.  Rarely rerun, this isn’t one of the most popular BTM’s, but as far as being genuinely inspiring, it is one of the best. (JA)

 

BILLY JOEL (11/9/97) I was totally ready for this to be a tale of a sordid descent into cocaine fueled insanity but instead it is a lesson in rock economics.  Billy Joel early on makes a mistake of handling his music wrong, signing away rights to his songs that was basically like giving someone a no limit platinum card.  But the super fucked up stuff is with his manager, who was basically a family member, just reaming Joel and taking what the documentary led me to believe was about 8 zillion dollars of Joel’s money and somehow never having to return it.  I’ve always thought of Joel as a bitter, unpleasant guy who made contrived music, and at least this explains why his soul is so wrinkled and awful; he has been screwed by life.  But he is still rich as hell, so I don’t feel sorry enough to excuse him for “Pressure.” (JA)

 

LILITH FAIR (11/16/97) Not a typical BTM, this was more like a concert documentary without very much concert.  Sarah McLachlan and Jewel and the Indigo Girls discuss how this all women’s tour came to be and how profoundly important it is to them and their fans.  There’s backstage footage, a press conference and even an offstage jam session with some of the rocking ladies.  I haven’t seen this since it first aired (as important as it was it must have also had a quick expiration date as VH1 has not deemed it re-runnable) but I recall there was some pretty earnest declarations by the participants including rockers from the 80s and singer songwriters from the 70s as well as the 90s uber-coffehouse singers that dominated the lineup. (JA)

 

ANDY GIBB (11/30/97) This is a sad strange story of a young man who had everything.  Though he perhaps wasn’t the most talented Gibb brother he certainly could sing, and was surely the prettiest.  His career, while somewhat undignified due the era when he hit (who could have dignity in a satin baseball jacket and a feathered hair helmet), would have been a great one if he just could have held it together.  He was with one of the hottest ladies of the era, Victoria Principal, and he was about to become the fourth Bee Gee.  Gibb had supportive family and friends and if he would just show up to claim it the world was his.  And he just took an ass whooping from cocaine that left him bloody, beaten, broken and eventually dead.  This episode really shows how powerful drugs can be and how utterly damaging it can be when they make you lose control.  When Behind The Music plays us Gibb’s unreleased recordings and they frighteningly predict his pathetic death it is jarring.  And the way the show demonstrates his decline is very effective (if anything is lower than being the host of Solid Gold it is being such a fuck up that you fail at being the host of Solid Gold).  Though it is hard to really paint a picture of a guy without his participation, the affection that his brothers and Ms. Principal express, and the loss they feel, really makes you feel sad for the life Gibb didn’t get to live. (JA)

 

JIM CROCE (12/97) This is a nice episode because there really is no dark side to Croce.  A publishing company screws him out of money, but it doesn’t reflect badly on him in any way.  Croce was a talented songwriter who was on the rise when he was killed in a plane crash.  While there was drugs in his life he never reached a point that they were a huge problem, and one of the best sections of this is his friends reminiscing about the communal partying and songwriting they used to do together, which clearly was pot fueled (Cheech is one of his buddies).  The warmest part of this is the relationship he had with his loving wife, and we even get to hear a Croce rarity; a love song he wrote for her.  Her loss is tragic, but her loyalty, love and devotion she still feels for him is inspiring. (JA)

 

THE CARPENTERS (1/1/98) Todd Haynes’ 1987 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is not incredible because it uses Barbie dolls to re-enact this story of a life lost to anorexia, but because it maintains distance from and sympathy for its subject.  Richard Carpenter’s eyes betray an endless sadness in the loss of a partner and sibling.  This episode is too close to both family and Herb Alpert to give anything but a glossy version of a messy story, paying no respect to the sadness and strength of a lost voice. (EB)

 

SONNY BONO (1/11/98) Sonny only got this because he died a crazy ski accident death; though his story is fascinating and he was a creative genius he is generally considered a footnote to Cher.  Well, despite the sad circumstances that got him on this show, it is excellent to see him get this attention.  His shtick was to act like a loser, and compared to Cher his charisma certainly appeared to be minimal, at least to the general public.  But this episode demonstrates that his friends and industry people and especially his family really respected him.  Even when he entered politics, partly out of spite, you get the impression from his colleagues that even though he knew nothing about government he made all the right decisions (through his people) and did a good job.  The number one thing this episode relates, however, is that a mom outliving her son is a truly tragic thing, as Sonny’s mother’s heartbreak and deep sadness are the most tangible elements of this show. (JA)

 

MAMAS AND THE PAPAS (1/18/98) This episode is a lot more sober and sympathetic than what you expect from BTM. The Mamas & Papas helped pioneer the whole 1960's flower-pop craze that collectors now covet. True to their easygoing image, all of the then-surviving members have a level-headed perspective considering what they went through. All have maintained their sense of humor, although former Papa Denny Doherty is a little too wound up at times. Naturally, everyone becomes misty-eyed at the memory of deceased Mama Cass Elliott, and the love triangles within the group are spelled out in minute detail. Especially appreciated the footage of supercool manager/producer Lou Adler, sitting tight in his Phat Farm polo shirt. At the time of broadcast, tragedy still haunted them, as former members John Phillips and ex-wife Michelle Phillips (nee Gilliam) weren't speaking to each other. We can only hope they mended the fence at some point, as John died of heart failure in March 2001. (JP)

 

MEAT LOAF (2/1/98) From the BTM voiceover: "In 1972, a part in another play, More Than You Deserve, convinced him that he could really make it as a singer." Hmmm...I would have thought that he came to that conclusion long before that. The year before, he was part of a Detroit-based duo (Stoney & Meatloaf) that recorded for a Motown subsidiary and had a Top 40 hit on the soul charts with "What You See Is What You Get" (not the similarly-titled Dramatics tune). It's pretty obvious that Mr. Loaf only remembered what he wanted to remember - his struggles with his weight and his voice, his abusive father, the death of his mother from breast cancer - yet his Detroit rock years in the early 70's are unaccounted for. This particular BTM has an unusual arc - it starts with his heyday around '78 or so, dwells there for what seems like an eternity, doubles back to his childhood in Dallas, TX, then takes a jet airliner to Los Angeles where he gets a part in a stage production of Hair, then after diddling around with the thespians for a while, it's straight to fame like a bat out of hell.  Not even a mention of that Ted Nugent album he sang on (Free-For-All). Either VH1 was getting their chain yanked, or somebody goofed with the research. (JP)

 

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS (2/15/98) Gladys is the baddest!  One of the most down to earth subjects of a Behind The Music, it is a pleasure to watch Ms. Knight tell her tale, as her speaking voice proves as beautiful as her singing voice.  However, as devastating as her gambling addiction was financially, it does not make for the juiciest BTM.  And she also doesn’t seem to have the most promising taste in men.  But her cousin Bubba sure seems like a great dude!  I’m glad she kept that Pip around (and didn’t lose him at a Vegas craps table). (JA)

 

WILLIE NELSON (3/1//98) There are many reasons that this episode is a pleasure to watch, but mostly I was delighted by the ample amount of old footage of young Willie.  The arc of this has Willie achieving songwriting success but very little recognition as an artist for decades, then becoming a superstar when he was pushing 50 in the 1970s.  Also, only a few years after his success the revenuers stared a’comin’ after him. A decade of wars with the IRS ends with Willie losing (to the tune of $10 million or so) and seeing such disrespectful indignities befall such a legend is hard.  I also thought this episode put too much weight on his pop crossover, and duets with other stars, and not enough weight was given to the Austin scene and the Outlaw Country movement that he spearheaded.  Overall, though, this features a great artist and relates triumphs and tragedies in a very tangible way, which is what you really want from BTM. (JA)

 

JERRY LEE LEWIS (3/8/98) VH1 originally skewed towards James Taylor-loving boomers, and would subsequently keep the age demographic the same but start appealing to late 70s then 80s and now early 90s nostalgia.  Thus, there was little room for the 50s, and this episode has been run very rarely.  I vaguely recall seeing it really late one night and my main impression was that after his marriage to his child bride ends there seemed to be an avalanche of death and divorce and ugliness.  Lewis is a brilliant musician but obviously he is not the most focused person when it comes to making good life decisions.  I’d love to see it again, but until advertisers start coveting 70 year olds I don’t expect them to dust this off. (JA)

 

RICK JAMES (3/15/98) One reason that this is an all time classic BTM is that, though he may be holding back some truths about some of the more heinous crimes he’s been accused of, for the most part James not only is incredibly candid about his drug use and awful behavior, he actually seems particularly proud of it.  This is not a contrite former addict, this is a braggart of a (former?) addict!   His musical career has an inauspicious start.  He meets Neil Young and forms a rock band, the Mynah Birds, while living in Canada as a draft dodger.  The band gets signed to Motown but falls apart after some enemy of Rick turns him in.  For years I’ve been dying to hear Mynah Birds stuff, hoping Motown would include the recordings on a Rick James compilation, and this show actually played some of their music from the Motown vault, so that alone made this BTM super-satisfying, but of course it gets better.  Rick works out his problems and returns to Motown and proceeds to make some of he best Funk records of all time, many in praise of the evil weed, many in praise of freaky sex.  And his lifestyle is very 70s, with his onstage pot use dwarfed by his offstage cocaine use, eventually culminating in spending prison time for some type of bizarre cocaine-fueled sex kidnapping drugging torture scenario involving a young woman perpetrated by Rick and his wife (talk about an open marriage).  Seeing Rick in court in disconcerting, can you imagine being on that jury?  Anyhow, the show ends with Rick free (claiming prison straightened him out) and on the rebound.  The worst thing I can say about this episode it that it is obsolete now because of the Rick James episode of Dave Chapelle’s show which featured the real Rick James and an associate discussing a minor incident.  This humble episode may have summed up James’ life more than BTM’s broad biography.  Unlike BTM which is dedicated to not make a fool of the participants, Chapelle’s Show operates on the opposite principal.  Rick (looking bizarre; he has suffered a stroke since the BTM so his face is a little saggy, but he is also wearing mountains of makeup and lip gloss) vehemently denies wrongdoing, then boldly admits it a minute later.  The producers demonstratively rewind the tape back to the contradiction to make sure no one missed it.  And the show continually repeats James’ mantra to explain his behavior, and that pretty much should have also been the last line of BTM,  “Cocaine is a hell of a drug.” (JA)

 

DAVID CROSBY (3/22/98) Honestly, what I wanted out of this show was someone to explain to me why Buffalo Springfield belonged in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but in 45 minutes VH1 didn’t really have much time to cover the actual music portion of David Crosby’s life.  Instead you get a life devastated by drugs and partying and hippie excess (though coke doesn’t seem like a very hippie drug) that leads to prison and the operating table (Crosby is the poster boy for “why did he get the kidney, he’s just gonna fuck it up!).  While this is a perfect BTM in that here is drama and decadence and a heartwarming ending (he is reunited with a grown son who becomes a musical collaborator in a band called CPR [Crosby, Pevar and Raymond – his son is James Raymond]) what I really liked about it was that Crosby’s presence alone explained why he could get away with so much shit.  His friendly eyes and his cute little smile and his natural charm helped this man get all the pussy he could handle, keep friends loyal, even after he let them down time and time again and even keep him in one piece in prison. (JA)

 

SELENA (3/29/98) I love Selena and though the Selena movie with J-Lo was schmaltzy I admired a number of things about it, most importantly that it decided (out of respect for Selena and her fans) not to depict her slaying at the wicked hands of troll-like Yolanda.  This episode has no such convictions, and in a very E! True Hollywood Story move they obsess on the murder and even give voice to crazy-ass Yolanda by interviewing her in jail.  As hokey and silly as the Selena biopic is I would still have to send Selena-newbies to that, as it is a better primer than this.  By the way, my theory about J-Lo is that people feel loyal to her even through inferior records and movies because they still see her as Selena, who they genuinely want to love. (JA)

 

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE (4/5/98) If you are a baby boomer this was your band so I’m sure you were pumped for it.  As a somewhat younger rock fan I’ve always liked some of their stuff but was never that fond of Grace Slick’s voice, so I never really was a fan.  This episode didn’t convince me that the band is great but I am now 100% behind Grace Slick, mainly because she ends this thing vowing to never be a rock star again because she feels that old rockers on stage is stupid (her statements contrasting with Paul Kantner’s, who was still trying to get the band back together).  This episode does a good job getting your head into the sex and drugs 60s scene, and relates how Slick’s wild child was magnetic in the early days.  This is also a nice example of hippies-to–yuppies, as the ultimate peace and love and drugs band becomes the ultimate corporate soulless rockers in the 80s.  And while I’m sure no one stopped cashing their “We Built This City” checks, give most of them credit for knowing that Starship was awful.  (JA)

 

TAKIN’ IT TO THE STREETS (4/12/98) VH1 was still pretty much series oriented at the time this came out (now they will introduce specials or very limited series at the drop of a hat) so this odd documentary about street musicians was shoehorned into the BTM format.  What was notable was that this was used as part of the “cable in the classroom” program, in which parents were encouraged to videotape the shows and then bring them to schools, where VH1 would provide a lesson plan for a school project based on this episode.  Thus, it was actually pretty noble that they produced an episode that featured independent artists without products to push as subject matter, rather than having kids watch a 45-minute commercial for the new Ozzy album. (JA)

 

OZZY OSBOURNE (4/19/98) Five crazy-ass things from Ozzy’s past that are mentioned in this episode:1. He bit the head off of a live dove at a meeting with Epic executives. 2. He was arrested for pissing on the side of the Alamo while wearing a green dress. 3. He bit the head off of a stunned but live bat someone had thrown on stage at a concert in Des Moines. 4. Randy Rhodes, Ozzy’s guitar player, died in an accident in which a plane he was flying in was repeatedly buzzing Ozzy’s RV. 5. Ozzy was sued (3 times!) for allegedly putting subliminal messages in a song called “Suicide Solution”. The songs lyrics are actually inspired by Bon Scott’s death, and were intended to keep others from suffering the same fate.  I guess they didn’t have time to mention that ant snorting incident with Motley Crue (see Motley BTM). Anyway, through it all, Ozzy maintains a positive mental attitude, appears to be a genuinely sweet, good hearted guy. The bleep quotient is slightly lower than the subsequent Osbournes reality show, but you can already see how Ozzy’s uninhibited personality will work in the future. I think Sharon sums it up best, “He has a natural gift to entertain.”  PS. “Musicologist” “Dr.” Robert Walser offers absolutely no insight into the Sabbath/Ozzy story whatsoever. But his superficial observations are pretty funny. (CB) OZZY “DIRECTOR’S CUT” (2001) After The Osbournes became a hit they added a half hour to the Ozzy BTM and ran it briefly as an extended episode.  I’m not positive, but I suspect the extra footage may be the stuff Penelope Spheeris shot at Ozzfest for Decline of Western Civilization Pt. 4 that Sharon hijacked from her. (JA)

 

TED NUGENT (4/26/98) For some reason, I have a vivid recollection of hearing “Where Have You Been All My Life” (from Ted Nugent’s eponymous LP) on the juke box at a pizza place sometime in the mid 70s when I was I was in my mid teens. I don’t know why it made such an impression. I guess it just condensed everything juvenile about being, uh, juvenile. Unfortunately, Ted never progresses beyond his teenaged mentality as evidenced by this episode of Behind The Music. Ted spends the bulk of this program proving what a hypocrite he is. He lambastes drug users and alcohol drinkers, but repeatedly admits (without a trace of humility, however) to being a serial pedophile. Two relationships (one with his wife and one with “muse” Pele Massa, who was 17 when they started dating) were ended due to Ted’s infidelity while on the road, often with underage women. But Ted justifies his behavior with one of his trademark funny expressions: “alternative flesh management.” And look, I’m not anti hunting, I mean I don’t exactly dig the meat industry, but Ted has this attitude that you’re somehow stupid if you don’t hunt. I just think it’s unrealistic to believe that suddenly a nation of 290 million or so people are going to head to the woods every night before dinner. What is really surprising is his disdain for both fans and fellow band members. Both of which were necessary for his, um, success. Ted accuses fans of being unable to handle the energy of his shows when they behave violently, although tons of other bands have high energy shows without incident. And his determination to subdue singer Derek St. Holmes, resulting in his quitting the band seems incredibly pointless and stupid. You just have to laugh (well, I did) when they get to the part where Ted finds out that his management has blown all his money on chinchillas and horses. My favorite piece of Nuge-stalgia, however, is the video for his 1982 song “Bound And Gagged”. Ostensibly this song is in protest of the 1979 Iranian “hostage crisis”, but in reality it’s just an excuse for Ted to whine about flag burning while he and his band prance about in pastel spandex. Of course Ted never mentions the CIA’s coup of democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq, and the atrocities of the US backed Shah that led to the revolution in ‘79. Oh well. And then, there’s Damn Yankees. Ouch! Ultimately Ted comes off like you or me when we were maybe 19 and we thought we had the answers to everything (apologies to all you 19 year old know it alls), and it was impossible to consider another view point. But Ted is still like that, and he’s in his fifties. I guess he plays guitar pretty well, though. (CB)

 

JOE COCKER (5/3/98) As a subject Cocker is really a nod to VH1’s original boomer audience, as he hasn’t had much of an impression on younger fans.  However, this episode demonstrates that he deserves to be heard from more, because (as the show accurately stated), "Joe is singing like a man 25 years younger." And more importantly, Joe looks much healthier and more together than he did in his ragged haired heyday.  What I liked most about this episode was that they addressed what was up with him when he was away for the spotlight for many years.  Joe was getting support from family, reconstructing a drug ravaged life and becoming the dignified Englishman we see before us today singing R&B with as much class as grit.  I’m sure this was an introduction of Joe to many of the viewers, and it was an excellent introduction. (JA)

 

BEHIND THE MUSIC NEWS SPECIAL: MILLI VANILLI (5/98) this updates the story from the first BTM including the post-BTM suicide of Rob. (JA)

 

STUDIO 54 (5/24/1998) The Studio 54 Behind the Music was great.  They focused, of course, on the exclusivity of the club and how the bouncers would intentionally torment people by telling a just married couple that one could enter but the other could not.  In what I thought was a very clever set-up, they interviewed "three guys who couldn't get in" and kept them on a couch behind a red velvet rope throughout the scene.  I'm sure their coverage of Steve Rubell's descent into drug addiction involved one of my favorite aspects of the show, which is the stock footage they use for "drug addiction," grainy black and white shots of half-filled glasses and dirty ashtrays.  One particularly memorable scene was old footage of Steve Rubell on a couch with two creepy Hare Krishna-looking guys fondling him and he's clearly blitzed out of his mind slurring "I'm happy."  I think they referenced but did not play or say by name Kid Creole's "Darrio," but they did have Nile Rogers from Chic talking about how they wrote "Freak Out" as "Fuck Off" after being denied entrance.  There was more substance to the episode than what I've recounted here, I just tend to remember the stupid stuff.  Overall it was really well done, one of the first episodes I saw that made me think the series was great and made VH1 a significant part of my decision to get cable. (EO)

 

KEITH MOON (5/31/98) Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey may indeed have lost their all-time greatest drummist after Keith Moon grilled his last steak breakfast, popped “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” into the video player one last time, then settled back for the final in a lifelong string of recreational overdoses.  But when Keith John Moon finally succeeded in finishing himself off very early on the morning of September 7, 1978, we ALL lost our meaty beaty biggest-ever bouncer, or, as Townshend himself so eloquently eulogized, “our great comedian; the supreme melodramatist.”  Yet on the twentieth anniversary of Keith’s ultimate O.D., when Behind The Music finally got around to dedicating forty-five minutes of prime airtime to the man who defiantly put the “oo!” into The Who, all VH1 seemed to be able to come up with was an utterly predictable string of not-so-vintage public domain performance clips of Moon and Co. in their auto-destructive glory interspersed with a smattering of celebrity heads regurgitating the same tired old “he emptied all the fire extinguishers into the swimming pool!” party tales.  While click-trackin’ contemporary stickmen feebly attempt to swear to Keith’s rarest of abilities behind the skins, only Ray Davies seems to have anything intelligent to say …but, alas, his moment onscreen is over quicker than you can say “Tommy Lee” (whilst diving for the remote).  May I instead direct the discriminating Who and/or rockumentary fan over to the infinitely superior British televised tribute “The Real Keith Moon,” wherein such genuinely kindred spirits as Pamela Des Barres and “Legs” Larry Smith wax extremely poetic all over the magnificent Moon legacy while Keith’s original partner in Holiday Inn crime, Hermit of Herman’s Karl Green, even recounts step-by-step instructions on how best to insert lit cherry bomb explosives into running toilets.  Need I say any more?  “The Real Keith Moon” can pretty easily be tracked down online, but whilst Googling be very aware of stumbling instead into Keith’s BTM page on VH1.com, where the unsuspecting cybersurfer is invited to, and I quote, “hear how Keith Moon became a member of The Who by wrecking his drum kit!” and “hear how Keith Moon’s attempts to overcome alcoholism led to his death!”  Somewhere, the REAL Keith Moon is at this moment flushing a jumbo cherry bomb in VH1’s direction.  (GPG)

 

BONNIE RAITT (6/98) This episode wasn’t too memorable, but I do recall that Raitt seemed like a really amazing, well-rounded person in her interviews, and the other musicians they interviewed seemed to genuinely hold her in as high regard as any BTM subject ever.  She starts out bloozy and goes Pop while keeping it Bluesalicious. (JA)

 

ROBBIE ROBERTSON (6/98) OK, you’ve already seen a pretty good movie about The Band and what was going on during their final days, so what does this have to offer?  Basically we learn that Robertson, a thoughtful and intelligent man, who has kept up his chops doing film scoring, and is way into being Native American. (JA)

 

CULTURE CLUB REUNION (6/13/98) This updates the great Boy George episode, with the main highlight being Jon’s finally addressing questions of his romance with George which he avoided in the previous show.  With their love publicly acknowledged they go on to make beautiful music together as a touring band again.

 

DEF LEPPARD (6/21/98) What I find most notable about Def Leppard’s career is their transcendence of their New Wave Of British Heavy Metal origin. I remember Def Leppard in context with Tygers Of Pan Tang, Samson, Saxon, etc., none of whom matched the consistent chart success of Def Leppard. Def Leppard’s genius was wrapping pop songs in a metal image thereby making it acceptable for both boys and girls (mooks and midriffs) to like the band. Of course, having Mutt Lange produce your record doesn’t hurt either. Anyway, this episode touches on the widely known moments in Def Leppard’s history (band members have ridiculous, choreographed sex with groupies, band members drink to excess, drummer loses arm, guitar player dies, etc.) and follows the band up until their “grunge” album “Slang” from 1995.  Certainly the most memorable segment covers the arm-losing auto accident.  As Rick Allen very calmly and honestly recalls the incident without bitterness, we see one of the oddest recreations in BTM history.  As they show us sheep grazing in the field near where the accident occurred the BTM editors add the screeching sound effect of the car crash, causing one sheep to look up to, presumably, see the (off camera) accident.  Particularly impressive are the interviews with the good Samaritans that found Allen (and his arm, pinned under the dashboard) and saved his life.  Special moment for punk fans, look for Joe Elliott wearing a Misfits “Legacy Of Brutality” shirt at a show from 1988. (CB)

 

TONY ORLANDO (6/28/98) This was a landmark episode because it took someone that virtually no one cared about and made a compelling show about him.   In fact the promo for the show used to quote a review that said “they even made Tony Orlando interesting…” The show had some great moments, as the born again Orlando shamelessly remembers his cocaine binging days that came to an end when his good buddy, and fellow mustachio, Freddie Prinze killed himself after a deep drug descent.  The story has a happy ending, if you consider Branson, MO a happy ending.  This episode was apparently one of the highest rated ever and was incessantly rerun, showing well over 100 times.  This should have demonstrated that the fans cared more about story than stars but by the end of the century either the show’s attitude or the fans had changed.  There will never be an episode like this produced again. (JA)

 

GLORIA ESTEFAN (7/98) You would think a crippling bus crash, a heroic recovery and a loyal bearded husband would add up to a fascinating, or at least inspirational, story, but this is pretty dull.  Estefan and her family and fans manage to convey an incredibly passive, unemotional vibe even when they talk about the most devastating or triumphant things, and even when they show the signs of emotions it seems passionless.  At least she breaks the fiery Latino stereotype. (JA)

 

JAN AND DEAN (7/12/98) This is an episode that steps outside of the confines of most BTMs, going way back to pre-Beatles days simply because this story is too good to ignore.  Often these tales have tragic accidents, but this is the rarity in which the tragic accident falls just short of fatal and you get to see and interview the survivor.  Jan and Dean made perfect California Beach Doo Wop records, and their early days are told with flair, as high school memories are vivid for Dean.  Jan is less verbal however, since he suffered the ironic accident of crashing his car in a manner eerily similar to the crash in their hit song, “Dead Man’s Curve.”  Suffering brain damage and partial paralysis he fought back to be able to stand on stage and sort of sing thanks to dedicated speech therapist (interviewed for the show) and a young doctor who was a big rock & roll fan and understood the importance of him returning to the stage.  California scenesters interviewed throughout include Lou Adler, Glen Campbell and Brian Wilson (Brian finally seems ultra articulate compared to Jan’s post-accident speech pattern, which sounds like a meek Frankenstein monster).  Interesting things here include the fact that their career received a huge boost from a very shitty made for TV movie about them, that Jan, after fighting to be able to stand and speak, decides to be a coke head, and most unique, that this episode gives complete dignified validity to the oldies state fair music circuit. (JA)

 

HARRY CHAPIN (7/19/98) Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” and “Taxi” are masterpieces of emotionally manipulative hokeyness, but the singer-songwriter apparently was one of the most sincere socially active artists of his era.  When the hits stopped he relentlessly kept performing benefit after benefit, and his fatal car crash occurred on the way to a charity concert.  Hearing his family and friends talk about him you see a portrait of a very down to earth, well loved guy.  This is one of the most low key episodes of the series, but also one of the warmest. (JA)

 

GLORIA GAYNOR (7/98) This is a video version of Gaynor’s autobiography, as the “I Will Survive” Disco diva survives indignities, tragedies and roadblocks that range from being overweight to a scary concert accident to a relative’s murder to a crazy Disco coke addiction.   While the up part of this arc is great (humble jersey girl gets discovered by Clive Davis and goes on to win the only Disco Grammy in history) the down part is almost too much.  This was a popular episode for a little while but then disappeared, I don’t think the audience really connected with the show.  I suspect that may be because the happy plateau at the end involves Ms. Gaynor making a very serious lifestyle change and becoming a born-again Christian.  I suspect this may not be a super satisfying ending because BTM is so moral and Christian in its almost propaganda depiction of the Reefer Madness effects of drugs and alcohol that actually ending one of these morality play in an actual church sort of pulls the curtain back and shows the viewers what the show is really about.  (JA)

 

FRANK SINATRA: NEWS SPECIAL - VH1 listed this on their website, but to my knowledge this episode never aired.

 

MADONNA (8/16/1998, the show was updated and expanded at  a later date) Madonna, who as we’re told is, “simply the most famous woman on earth,” appears in a dizzying array of hair-styles and “looks” in a seemingly infinite number of interviews that span her long career.  Her absurd media oversaturation sort of makes a show like this obsolete, and add to that the fact that the less Madonna talks the more interesting she is, you don’t really have a winner here.  When you look too closely at Madonna it’s not pretty.  Her singing isn’t that great, her dancing in mediocre and since the last time I watched this was after I’d seen the sorry Britney Spears BTM, I couldn’t help but notice that at times she sounds as dumb as Ms. Spears.  That’s not really fair because for all the things Madonna isn’t she initially made her splash because of what she was: a unique, charismatic, street smart fashion innovator who drew people to her.  As she got farther from the street her fashion sense became less unique and more calculated, but the genuine magic Madonna originally had was all hers and not created by handlers – Britney will never have that.  Madonna is a mediocre, self-important blowhard and her pride in winning a Golden Globe for her shitty Evita movie seems absurd.  Madonna also seems to be taking a lot more credit for her musical collaborations than she perhaps deserves.  “Ray of Light” was a cover of an obscure British song and I remember reading about the songwriter falling off his couch when he heard Madonna tell Oprah why she wrote it.  I don’t mean for this to be a Madonna-bashing party, there are great things here, like the shots of Madonna–wannabe kids in the 80s, and the pre-Madonna rock band she was in.  But for the most part this episode is as charmless as her.  (JA)

 

STEPPENWOLF (9/6/98) This episode really sums up what can be magical about this series.  Steppenwolf is thought of (if at all) as a minor two-hit wonder (“Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride”) and one would not expect a fascinating story with twists and turns.  And then smack in the middle you get this scene of Steppenwolf singer John Kay devilishly recounting with wicked glee how he duped his sucker band mates into giving him the rights to the catalogue and publishing in exchange for the band’s name, which they wanted to use to continue their bright future as a band after Kay’s departure.  Decades and a hundred “Born To Be Wild” diaper and Dorito commercials later Kay is seen wealthy and still working (under the Steppenwolf name, which he easily got back after the songs made him wealthy and their legally named Steppenwolf act failed to succeed without their lead singer).  The ex-bandmates are currently at various levels of failure.  That VH1 found them and had them tell their side is amazing, but that they got Kay to revel in his cruel schemes, sounding like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons and almost going into an evil cackle after declaring “I had them where I wanted them” was an unbelievable Rock TV moment. This struck me as the saddest of the Behind the Musics I’ve seen.  The show ends with Kay strolling around his Tennessee estate, itself a sign of a guy who has maximized life as a two-hit wonder.  These scenes are contrasted with those of a former bandmate.  The scene etched in my mind goes as follows: it is early morning, we see the plush rolling green hills of a golf course and over the ridge emerges a golf cart driven by the down-on-his-luck ex-Steppenwolfer; he is not squeezing in an early morning round on the links, he is working maintenance.  Cut to a TV studio at which point he makes an on-camera plea to John Kay, in essence asking for forgiveness and a chance to have back his old gig.  Kay’s response is evasive but his tone is clear: no way, man.  The lingering bitterness is palpable. (JA, MF)

 

JOHN DENVER (9/20/98) Henry John Deutschendorf was born in 1943 to a peripatetic military family, learned how to play at age twelve on his grandmother’s guitar and like Jerry Harrison and Ice Cube, quit architecture for music.  Though not a great singer or guitarist, he became popular in LA clubs and his provate-pressed single  becomes a number one hit when Peter, Paul and Mary record his “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” leading to a deal with RCA.  He moves to Colorado, and is inspired by the most beautiful place he’s ever seen in his life to write songs like “Rocky Mountain High” that combine with his non-threatening, wholesome and photogenic image to make him  superstar, on par with his goood friends the Muppets.  He marries and adopts children and all is good until the 80s when a mid-life crisis brought on by death of his father leads to a divorce and being dropped by RCA, and soon only flying a plane brings him happiness.  His life has ups and downs (he remarries, then re-divorces, his sperm count finally peaks allowing him to father a child, he stays involved in political causes, but is less inn demand because of his hit-free music career) and then when things started looking pretty bright (he was about to sign a new record deal and tour) his Long-EZ experimental plane crashes into Pacific Ocean on October 12, 1997.   The post-crash testimonials by his family (his second wife maintained a close friend ship even after the divorce) and his good buddy Geraldo Rivera (who thought that they were both renegade outsiders) demonstrate that though he may have faded from the public eye he was still one of the greats to his inner circle. (EB)

 

BLONDIE (9/27/98) Behind The Music was a phenomenon at this point and it is really notable that this episode seems to really take an overt position of trying to sell the new Blondie album.  Their new single “Maria” is featured extremely prominently as the band returns to the studio to record their reunion album, and the entire episode seems to be sandwiched between “Buy our new single” messages.  Now I’m never going to seriously disparage Deborah Harry, not after I spent so many hours of my childhood (to paraphrase Steve Martin’s Farrah joke) holding up her poster with one hand.  I will forever have a crush on Ms. Harry, so it is with trepidation that I say that it is a little hard to watch her as a talking head for the better part of an hour when said head seems to have an uncomfortable amount of plastic surgery.  As far as the story arc it is based around Harry’s unique relationship with guitarist Chris Stein, who was her man for years, and then they broke up yet still see or talk to each other every day.  That enough is unusual, but throw in Stein falling deadly ill with Harry at his bedside coaxing him back into rock & roll shape and you have a BTM!  Over the years I’ve seem pictures of Harry in Punk magazine and heard the Ramones talk about how they had never seen anyone that beautiful, and it was weird that she was in their scene. I have always thought that was a really odd idea; the beauty amongst the beasts.  I think this episode missed an opportunity by not spending more time in the NY punk scene with Blondie before they went on to talk about the band making it.  But all in all this was pretty good, and it made me dust (and wipe) a few of my old Blondie posters off. (JA)

 

SHANIA TWAIN (10/4/98) This is a real landmark episode.  Though it would be not be implemented until a later season the phenomenal success of this episode (one of the highest rated at the time, and it was released on video as well) proved that you could get high ratings by profiling a currently hot artist instead of by seeking out the most fascinating story.  Combined with record labels exploring the sales increases a BTM brought to a performers new records and back catalogues, the days of Milli Vanilli and Tony Orlando episodes (artists with no product or current following) were done./ Not to imply that Shania’s story wasn’t interesting.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this show may have made it less interesting.  Canadian Shania isn’t identifiable as the beauty she is today until she gets out of Canada and gets a Nashville makeover, so even though her early years are pretty remarkable I felt that they were underplayed.  The fact is that she had a very short career when this was made.  Her life as a young woman was more interesting then her professional story.  She grew up poor, spent time on an Indian reservation with her family (her stepfather was Native American) and raising her siblings after an auto accident killed her parents.  I guess it would be cruel to really dwell on this event too long, but I didn’t feel it got the weight it should have.  The most exciting footage of the show was coming up, when we see video of young Shania performing in a cheap prom dress and awful big stacked hair at a low budget Canadian entertainment review.  She was discovered and moved to Nashville where she flopped until Mutt Lange (who rarely appears on camera in BTMs but is mentioned in many episodes) falls for her and uses his awesome powers of production magic to make her a superstar.  The show claims that there were two controversies she had to overcome, one being that she was outed as non-Native American (her Indian dad was not her birth dad, and I guess she was billed as a “half-breed” by her publicists) and one being that she showed her midriff in a video and traditional Nashville was aghast.  I don’t believe either of these things were actual problems. But this episode wasn’t popular because of her problems, it was popular because she stuck to her guns and kept showing her naval.  Man, she feels like a woman. (JA)

 

1968 (10/98) This was the first “year” BTM, and it may be the best one.  This was subsequently used as a “Cable In The Classroom” teacher’s aide for high schools, and you can see why.  Even though it is obviously a truncated, simplified history lesson (one of the most culturally turbulent and exciting years of the twentieth century summarized in 44 minutes) it manages to combine striking, powerful archival footage and eloquent, passionate interviews with folks from the frontline.  This episode really transcends just being about music because the Viet Nam war was such a real, powerful force, and there is plenty of footage and passionate testimony to make it real for young viewers today.  Lefty turned righty P.J. Rourke belittles the concept of music changing the world, James Brown boasts of his stature in Black America at an important time and Country Joe convinces you of the power of flowers.  And we learn that hippies still hate Nixon.  The latter is certainly a valuable lesson in these trying times. (JA)

 

JOHN MELLENCAMP (11/8/98) A handful of episodes are 90 minutes instead of an hour, usually because the artist is so big and the career is so long, or so many fucked up things happened (the Aerosmith is TWO HOURS long!).  Making Johnny Cougar’s show an hour and a half was a terrible mistake, as the story drags on and is ill paced and at the end all you are left with in that Mellencamp is arrogant, unpleasant and smokes too much.  In 60 minutes they could have compacted it to portray him as a Hoosier Springsteen, but instead he goes on and on until you realize that the more you hear him talk the less you dig “Jack and Diane.” (JA)

 

METALLICA (11/22/98) The thing that baffled me most about this episode was the fact that for some reason every member of Metallica was confoundingly articulate.  I saw them in concert at medium sized clubs with lots of slurred, garbled growling between songs, and I even asked people who hung out with them in the 80s and they confirmed that Metallica were regular, rough-edged, dumb-acting dudes.  Somehow since then they’ve transformed into Noel Cowards and Oscar Wildes.  Well I guess Noel Coward’s pithy stories were never about blowing himself up with stage pyrotechnics or cruelly waking up his fired guitarist to put him on a bus.  The band’s oration abilities best serve the very vivid description of the tour bus accident that killed bassist Cliff Burton.  I think it may be one of the most tangible descriptions of an accident in BTM history.  Metallica’s transition from evil underground Metalheads to their more genteel, short haired “Alternica” mode was well underway when this show was made, but it would be fair to say that this TV appearance, explaining their story in a civilized manner to America, was an important moment in the band’s transformation to dignified elder statesmen. (JA)

 

LIONEL RICHIE (11/98) My main impression after watching this is that Richie is a confident man and a solid songwriter, but basically he has merely crafted a series of catchy songs rather than creating important music.  Of course, I say that because none of the love ballads moved me or won me any loving.  Haile Berry, who for some reason is the main commentator on Richie’s music, disagrees with me wholeheartedly, and clearly had I tried to get some action with her by writing lovenotes filled with Ramones lyrics I would have gotten no taste of Berry.  This episode opens in Tuskegee, his hometown that he truly loves, and we are treated to wonderful interviews with his mother who is beaming with pride when discussing her talented son.  He joins the band at the local college, the Commodores, and he marries Brenda, the cheerleader.  Things bode poorly, as every photo of Brenda has her looking very pretty, but never happy.  The band eventually splits with Lionel when his love songs make him a standout star making tons more money (on song royalties) and his marriage breaks up when he gets busted cheating with a woman named Dianne, resulting in Brenda publicly beating Lionel.  They try to reconcile, and they adopt Nicolle Richie, Paris Hilton’s sidekick, and that seems a little fishy to me.  I always figure rich people adoptions involve bringing an “illegitimate” kid into the house, either secretly fathered by the man or born unto the teen daughter who went away to a school for a few months.  The reason I would suspect the former in this case is because I don’t know why a Black man and a Black woman would adopt a mixed race baby.  But maybe there is more to the story than my devious mind is concocting – but you can’t blame me for being fascinated with Nicolle Richie.  Anyhow, my fave part of this is when Kenny Rogers recounts how Lionel invited him to hear the song he wrote and just sings, “Lady…da da da da da da ,” which is all that was written at the time…and is also how I still sing that song even after Lionel added more lyrics!  This show ends with him marrying Dianne, who he recently divorced and who now has him in court demanding $300,000 a month. (JA)

 

RICK SPRINGFIELD (11/98) The Rick Springfield story isn’t a narrative so much as it is a list of interesting facts.  As a teen, Springfield toured Vietnam as part of the Australian band Rock House.  He had his first taste of success with the teen band Zoot.  His early solo albums flopped.  He was confused with Bruce Springsteen.  He starred in a Saturday morning cartoon show for two years.  (Unmentioned in the show are his bit parts in shows such as The Rockford Files, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Incredible Hulk.)  He dated Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame.  He played Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital.  His later solo albums were quite successful.  He starred in the movie Hard to Hold.  He had to cancel a tour in the late 80s due to an accident on a four-wheeler.  He stopped playing for about 10 years.  He came back in the late 90s, and people still like him.  The producers of BTM try to inject drama (Rick was depressed when his dad died; Rick did not fully enjoy the heights of his success), but more than anything else Springfield comes across as a nice guy who likes spending time with his wife and kids. (MF)

 

KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND (11/98) One has to respect VH1 for resisting its typical sensationalist leanings here.  It would be easy enough to either position KC as a pathetic freak – after all, he spent a decade in seclusion with a $100,000 per annum drug habit – but Behind the Music chooses instead to treat him as a Brian Wilson-style miracle recovery story.  The issue of KC’s sexuality is never addressed, and it’s hard to imagine either VH1 arbitrarily deciding to ignore one of its Behind the Music subject’s sex life or KC being able to afford a kick-ass agent who negotiated absolute privacy on that issue.  Rather, it seems like the show’s producers recognized KC’s reticence and decided not to press the topic.  The show suffers some from the avoidance – KC’s momentous and acrimonious break from Richard Finch, for example, might be better explained in that light, as would his 10-year retreat from the world, which the show attributes to his grief after his father’s death.  Oddly, the show makes no mention of the Miami-Bass reworking of “Please Don’t Go” that charted in the early 90’s, right in the middle of KC’s drug hell! (TA)

 

STEVIE NICKS (12/98) I found the Fleetwood Mac BTM interesting and was sorta intrigued by the unique perspective of the Lindsay Buckingham episode, but I was underwhelmed by Stevie’s. The witchy woman is an expressive vocalist, but she speaks very plainly and tells her story in a fairly inexpressive, matter-of-fact way.  Her struggles with her weight, illegal drugs, legal drugs (she gets addicted to Klonopin), Ebsteinbar and Lindsay are all covered in detail, but not with any emotional weight.  At times this episode feels more like an infomerical for her 3 CD box set than a Behind The Music. (JA)

 

R.E.M. (12/6/98) This episode does a good job indicating how important this band is to their fans, colleagues and their hometown.  In addition to all the (of course, absurdly articulate) band members we also hear from Kate of the B52s giving some insight into the Athens, Georgia “scene” from whence “college rock” came, Courtney Love’s crazy ass puts in her two cents and even the mayor of Athens declares the boys to be local treasures.  Although the third act has the dramatic note of a band member falling ill on tour as the band unifies to support him, for the most part the tragedy here is second hand, as the sensitive Michael Stipe is deeply affected and inspired to create by the untimely deaths of River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain.  They also have Stipe talk about his “queerness” to keep things hot.  My fave thing in the show is Stipe preserving his town by becoming a historical real estate tycoon, buying up old buildings so they don’t get torn down for redevelopment.  Can you imagine having Michael Stipe as your landlord? (JA)

 

MOTLEY CRUE (12/13/98) It would be hard not to make a great Behind the Music out of the Motley Crue story, and this episode does not disappoint. There’s all the sex, drugs, death and bitter infighting you can eat here and the interviews are spectacular! Ironically, the two most drug-addled lunatics in the band, Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee (both sober now, more or less), look pretty good in the contemporary interviews while Vince Neil looks like a bloated beach bum and Mick Mars looks like the mummified corpse of Ming the Merciless. Motley Crue doesn’t get the audience rooting for them so much as staring in slack-jawed disbelief at their epic excesses and this is a formula that BTM is only too comfortable with. In Motley Crue: Behind the Music, the form and the content meet like hand and glove and the experience is completely satisfying. I give it an A+. (BC)

 

DAVID CASSIDY (12/20/98) David Cassidy has told his own story so many times that he can’t help but sound like an over-rehearsed, smug, uncharming braggart when he describes his highs and lows of being a teen star, getting no respect in the industry, and causing a teenybopper fan frenzy that crushed a fan to death.  What is notable about this episode is that Cassidy ends up “on top” because he is doing an absurd Vegas special effects play.  While he is likely making more money doing this than 75 per cent of BTM subjects somehow this feels as sadly absurd and self-delusional as the BTM artists who are “back in the studio” working on a new CD nobody is going to buy. (JA)

 

BETTE MIDLER (1/3/99) Born in Hawaii, Midler moves to New York, becomes a bathhouse singer, briefly stars in Fiddler, then basically invents a one woman cabaret craze.  Though she is an unsigned act Bette gets to perform on The Tonight Show, and we are treated to the footage of Johnny Carson praising her to the heavens, telling her on air that she will become a big star.  This is presented by BTM as a monumental, historic, crucially important moment.  Viewers with foresight will figure out how this is going to work into the story arc.  Anyhoo, Bette gets a recording contract, and I guess in the weird 70s when there was a few minutes of eclectic, anything-goes FM radio programming, Bette’s bawdy Andrews Sisters updates played alongside Led Zeppelin, and that’s why Bette gets to be on a rock n roll channel biography.  Highlights include a bad record review devastating Bette, Ms. Midler revealing the happiest time of her life was when she was an anonymous go go dancer, and the Divine Miss M marrying a bizarre Australian performance artist.  The lowlight is Bruce Vilanch.  Since there was little crazy career arc stuff they make the notable dramatic career highlight be (you guessed it) Bette being the last guest on Carson’s Tonight Show.  Not exactly a spontaneous rock & roll triumph, but I guess it was good show biz.  Unfortunately, after that Carson moment the show wasn’t over, though it had ran out of steam.  The last ten minutes is a dull, rote list of Bette’s 90s records and movies and concerts and awards.  Though Bette was a reasonably interesting interview, this episode was one of the rare BTM structural failures. (JA)


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