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Rock on TV

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”I hate television,” quipped Don Henley not long ago. ”I think television makes rock & roll smaller than life.”

Lots of old-school rock types, disdainful of what MTV hath wrought, share Henley’s sentiments. But consider the context in which the former Eagle made that sardonic comment — in a commercial plugging his recent televised performance on A&E Live by Request. And if Henley is only too willing to take part in the diminution of his art, he’s far from alone; these days, most musicians recognize the necessary role television plays in building careers. From talk-show appearances to high-budget videos to televised concerts, getting your mug and your music on the small screen is an integral part of the pop-star game.

Yet was it ever really any different? VH1’s upcoming five-part series The 100 Greatest Rock & Roll Moments on TV (airing July 31-Aug. 4, 10-11 p.m.) offers a compelling argument that the tube has always played a pivotal role in disseminating rock consciousness to the masses. ”If you really think of the great cataclysmic moments in rock history,” says VH1 senior vice president Bill Flanagan, ”the moments when the whole country, or even the whole world, seemed to be united, they’re actually television moments. An awful lot more of rock & roll happened on TV than we tend to think it did.”

Watching The 100 Greatest Rock & Roll Moments on TV, it’s hard to argue with him. From the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (No. 1 on VH1’s list) and Michael Jackson’s unveiling of the moonwalk on Motown 25 (No. 5) to Bill Clinton playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show (No. 30) and the pay-per-view coverage of Woodstock ’99 (No. 80), the network’s choices elicit near instant, cross-generational nostalgia pangs.

VH1 president John Sykes remembers the days when seeing a rock band on national television felt deliciously subversive. ”The first time I saw the Who destroy their instruments was on The Smothers Brothers Show,” he says, citing VH1’s No. 10 moment. ”I kind of lived for those appearances by artists, because otherwise they only existed on album covers or in the pages of Rolling Stone.” These days, of course, much of the thrill of seeing rock stars on TV is gone. With VH1 and MTV pumping music-related programming 24/7, the result is a surfeit of televised pop that, ironically, has made those chill-inducing moments harder to find.

Still, VH1 managed to uncover an array of deja vu-inspiring clips representing five decades. The process began with staffers compiling a wish list of some 400 choices. Then — perhaps to insure that, say, VH1’s Lennon/McCartney biopic Two of Us didn’t wind up in the top 20 — several Entertainment Weekly writers and editors were asked to give their input and to help whittle down the list.

Lauren Zalaznick, the series’ exec producer, estimates the voters’ average age at 35. ”We found people were really skewed in their perspective by their age, where they grew up, where they went to college, and when they got cable television,” she says. Once the list was finalized, each moment was ranked in order of importance — a contentious proceeding that Flanagan sums up as ”a whole lot of arguments over cheese danishes” and that sparked such immortal questions as, Was the debut of The Monkees TV series really more culturally important than that of The Partridge Family? (Apparently so — the former event is ranked No. 13, the latter No. 38).

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