Fifteen years ago today, on Feb. 9, 1964, the kids in Ed Sullivan's studio audience were going bonkers -- screaming, slapping their own faces in amazement, and fainting right away as four mop-headed young Britons rocked their way through a tune called "I Wanna' Hold Your Hand."
And on stage, as the cameras rolled, the Beatles were in the process of rejuvenating the bounce of American popular music.
Pop music gets an equally energetic -- albeit slightly removed -- blast of energy tonight at 9 o'clock on Channel 7 with "Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll," easily the most exciting, informative, coherent and fun-to-watch documentary on rock ever assembled.
In two hours, from the high-school gym dance scene from the film "Rock Around The Clock" to the closing "That's all, bye-bye," of the late Frankie Lyman in the movie "Rock, Rock, Rock," "Heroes" offers 62 artists and groups singing 100 different songs. The parade is culled from newsreels, film out-takes, kinescopes, private collections and long-forgotten film libraries.
There are standards: the Beatles and Buddy Holly on the Sullivan show, Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop, Elvis doing the complete "Jailhouse Rock" sequence from the film.
But there is also history: Otis Redding's last performance before boarding a plane that would crash a few hours later; Bob Dylan and the Band in London 13 years ago -- Dylan singing in tranced abandon, the Band more raw and sinewy than ever since; private footage of the Stones in London, circa 1965, wailing away even as fans mob the stage.
The first hour of "Heroes" runs rampant through early rock history. If you can name a group or artist, chances are they're here in some form. At times, it's just a brief cut from an old film, as with Ray Charles, James Brown and the Moonglows.But producers Malcom Leo and Andrew Solt also have lone some remarkable research, offering British television scenes of Jerry Lee Lewis mounting his piano and driving a Manchester audience into hysterics; the only existing performance footage of Hank Williams from the Kate Smith show; and a Berlin crowd rioting at a 1956 Bill Haley concert, throwing seats and tearing the stage apart. They also include the only film ever made at any of Alan Freed's rock shows. It shows the Cadillacs doing "Speedo," footage shot for a 1956 Eric Sevareid documentary on rock that never was completed.
The performances are linked with delightful sociological snippets: the old intro from Your Hit Parade married to a scene from the film "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll," in which a girl in bed changes the radio dial from hit parade material to Little Richard. Marlon Brando's famous retort to the question, "Hey Johnnie, what are you rebelling against?" ('Whaddaya got?") leads into Frankie Lyman's "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent." Steven Allen mocks the "profundity and sentiment" of the lyrics to "Be-Bop-A-Lu-La" on his show, just before the program cuts to a clip from the film "The Girl Can't Help It" with Gene Vincent singing the original version. And just after some rare footage of the Beatles in 1962 at the Cavern Club in England, an interviewer asks John Lennon where the name came from.
"It's just a name," he says. "Like shoe."
The wit and power of rock's early years, however, is missing from the second half of the program, despite the Dylan, Stones and Redding sequences, footage of the late Mary Wells, and some touching moments at the end of a Bruce Springsteen concert.
The problem may be partly technical. Most of the views of the likes of the Byrds, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, Joni Mitchell and even Jimi Hendrix are television clips shot head on. They lack the raw energy that characterizes a lot of the early concert footage.
As "Heroes" makes clear, rock's early days were novel and fresh: Bill Haley didn't know what hit him when he arrived in London to find himself a hero across the ocean. And characters like Jagger and Dylan, with old-guard journalists as their new-found foils, made cuttingly witty wisecracks at press conferences that were widely printed.
Put-on or not, when a stodgy music critic asks Dylan what kind of a singer he is, the reply is vintage Dylan: "a mathematical one," he says. "I use words like other people use numbers."
But by the mid-'60s, the music and the scene both seem altogether jaded. The irony is that this era we once thought of as a sociological watershed pales when placed next to the verve of its antecedent. Side by side on the screen, there's more power in Jerry Lee Lewis than in all the San Francisco groups combined.
And then there is Elvis, the show's great coup, as represented in clips that never have been seen since they were first made: "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Dorsey show; "Hound Dog" on Milton Berle, with the King gyrating in a way that would have been impossible for him to do 10 years later; and some spry concert footage from a show in Tupelo, Miss., that proves how radical a performer he really was. This is the real Elvis, and with the Stones, the Beatles and Dylan, seen in performances that demonstrate the impact these heroes of rock 'n' roll would have on popular culture.
The change since is fascinating to ponder. Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis churn up their fans with music alone, but later Kiss and David Bowie would require huge budgets for stage effects to produce half the frenzy. The Stones made it quite clear: In the mid-60's the TV cameras are already concentrating on Jagger's lips, but as the band evolves it takes more and more theatricality to achieve the same outrageous end.
In "Heroes" it's all on the screen to see, in what the producers call the most expensive compilation film ever made for television. Half a million dollars for the performance rights alone.
And, wonderfully, worth every penny.