A week before Rolling Stone…The 10th Anniversary appeared on CBS, a blurb in The Times-News touted that “a galaxy of celebrities will present a lively exploration of the world of rock music” in a special that “reflects the attitudes and culture associated with rock and its audiences. Comedy skits, musical performances, interviews, and animation provide an entertaining retrospective look at the phenomenal influence of this music.” The reality of the anniversary special, which aired on November 25, 1977, and had a budget of $1 million, was far, far different.
Produced by Steve Binder, Rolling Stone…The 10th Anniversary lacked musical and comedy star power—mainly because Jann Wenner was unable to convince his A-list pals to be on the show, as Robert Draper detailed in his book, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History. The magazine also didn’t have enough of an editorial presence. In the “Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice” section of the January 26, 1978, issue, staffer David Felton revealed that he and Ben Fong-Torres left the writing crew after two months. He also apologized for the “embarrassing dearth of significant rock & roll talent”—“Because of scheduling conflicts and, I suspect, because there never was a specific, meaningful product to sell, many stars never materialized”—and noted that CBS slashed half of the script before airing.
The show ended up an unmitigated disaster. “Rolling Stone Special Embarrassing Bomb,” screamed Billboard’s headline. The review characterized the show as “overblown, pretentious, slow-moving, and generally cheapening to both rock & roll and the magazine’s good name.” This wasn’t hyperbole: After an opening skit featuring Steve Martin, who also co-wrote the show, the special unfolded with no real structure or focus. Beach Boys member Mike Love rambled about America, California, transcendental meditation, and “the outer field of life” in a painful, minute-plus soliloquy. Trippy animated interstitial footage appeared every so often, while in another segment, Martin Sheen read the (admittedly moving) autobiographical story of a Vietnam War veteran, who had penned the history for a 1970 Rolling Stone issue.
The performances seemed random, too. Power-pop band The Rubinoos end the show by covering “Hound Dog Man” in honor of Elvis Presley. Art Garfunkel joined Gladys Knight & The Pips for a song, while a fierce Bette Midler performance culminates with Jerry Lee Lewis guesting on piano for “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Late The Who drummer Keith Moon tells a story about a burst water bed, animating an awkward roundtable featuring Melissa Manchester, Phoebe Snow, and Billy Preston. Right after that, Moon appeared in a skit with Martin, where he’s destroying a hotel room. (The footage later appeared in 1979’s The Kids Are Alright.)
Perhaps the worst part of Rolling Stone…The 10th Anniversary was an interminable, cheesy, and occasionally offensive Beatles medley. Ted Neeley (famous for his lead turn in Jesus Christ Superstar) mingled with a cast of Vegas-meets-cruise-ship dancers dressed up to resemble members of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as a troupe of dancing strawberries. (That routine, set to—of course—“Strawberry Fields Forever” tickled Wenner, Draper confirmed, and caused then-picture editor Karen Mullarkey to vacate the mag.) A KISS-esque hard-rock band performed “Helter Skelter” surrounded by recreated scenes of violent war footage. A man in a Richard Nixon mask sang “I’m A Loser” directly into the camera, right after cheerful caricatures of Soviet women cavorted in a replica of the Oval Office for “Back In The U.S.S.R.” About the only redeeming qualities were Richie Havens and Yvonne Elliman dueting on “Here Comes The Sun” and Patti LaBelle wailing on “Polythene Pam.”
The response to the special was brutal. In addition to Felton’s nearly two-column apology, the January 26, 1978, letters section of Rolling Stone featured a variety of negative reactions. “Although your intentions were no doubt good in the beginning, so were Hitler’s,” went one letter. “I was appalled and thoroughly disgusted with your TV special.” Said another reader, “What you did was produce something no self-respecting middle-class member of the silent majority would even think was as good as the Osmonds.” Jefferson Airplane, however, was more pragmatic. “Congratulations on your first television special,” the band wrote. “We hope to be part of the next one.”
Incredibly, there was a 20th anniversary special broadcast on ABC (with an appearance by Grace Slick, at least according to one source). Still, where the 1977 special is concerned, “Rolling Stone blew it, what more can I say?” Felton admitted. “Except that one, it will probably hurt Rolling Stone more than the viewers, readers or rock & roll.” That wasn’t true, mainly because the special has been largely lost to time—until this great-quality, full-episode dub a YouTube user picked up at a flea market in 2002, “on a Zenith beta blank tape which was unlabeled.” As a huge bonus, the video features all of the sweet vintage 1977 commercials airing at the time on Sacramento’s KXTV: Look for the Natty Light ads with Peter Graves, a Budweiser ad featuring Lou Rawls, and Ella Fitzgerald in a Memorex short.