Years ago, when I lived in Arizona, I’d occasionally make special trips to L.A. just to stop by the Museum of Television and Radio. One of the great, underappreciated meccas for pop-culture nerds, MTR is more a video library than a true museum, offering you access to all manner of arcane broadcasts. On a typical afternoon, you could see Johnny Cash duetting with Joni Mitchell on Cash’s weekly television show; a debonair Marvin Gaye dancing (amidst a bevy of Playboy Playmates) to the countrified Byrds on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark; and the monumental awfulness of Jerry Lewis’s 1963 network variety-show debut.
Youtube.com feels like it was created for the obsessives among us who consider a 500-mile road trip to the Museum of Television and Radio to be a reasonable idea. This internet source for all manner of video footage is largely driven by laptop moviemakers eager to share their latest creations. But that’s not what sends me back to Youtube on a regular basis. I go for the frequently astounding selection of rare music clips posted by people even more obsessive (or in some cases, simply older) than me.
Youtube is an unedited, unfiltered dumping ground for the masses, which can make it a tedious bore for some people, but once you focus on what you’re looking for, it’s almost like having the Museum of Television and Radio in your own home, albeit in shorter bites (usually under 10 minutes) and with wildly uneven audio/video quality. If you missed Britt Daniel singing “Veronica” on an episode of Veronica Mars, it’s here. If you never saw a pubescent Ben Kweller front Radish on a show hosted by Weird Al Yankovic, you can find that, too. Your own preferences depend largely on your musical tastes, but the following is a rundown of some clips that shouldn’t be missed by any habitual Youtube visitor.
Here’s a rule that applies, no matter your genre of choice: The more enigmatic and publicity-shy the performer, the more fascinating their clips will be. Along those lines, musicians don’t get any more enigmatic than Van Morrison. For proof, check out Youtube’s raw, unedited footage of Morrison and Bob Dylan strumming together for a 1989 Morrison television documentary. As the two legends wait for the next take, they nervously sit next to each other without ever exchanging so much as a glance in one another’s direction. Morrison doesn’t make a peep between songs, aside from coughing repeatedly and asking for a glass of water.
Far more scintillating is a video of Morrison and his old Belfast band, Them, playing for screaming teens at the 1965 New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert. The mere presence of this nine-minute performance on Youtube makes one wonder if some British music fan possessed a prehistoric VCR in 1965; otherwise it’s hard to fathom where this came from. After an uncomfortably long tune-up, Morrison and his mates kick into their hit, “Here Comes The Night,” which quickly falls apart when Morrison breaks into the first verse while the rest of the band doggedly insists on playing the chorus. As musical clams go, this is a doozy, and although the band quickly recovers, it’s priceless to see the already-sullen Morrison turn various shades of blue for a few seconds.
The brilliant punk-era band Television folded before the MTV era (although they reformed in the early ’90s), so any footage of their salad days is rare and valuable. Youtube offers a 1978 clip of the group on the British show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Tom Verlaine is coltish and energized during this performance of “Foxhole,” and you can hear Verlaine and Richard Lloyd invent Sonic Youth’s guitar vocabulary, in standard tunings, no less. For true rock voyeurs, there’s also a home-movie snippet of Verlaine attempting to teach original bassist Richard Hell the chord changes for “Venus,” with Verlaine growing perceptibly impatient with Hell’s musical limitations.
One of the odder treasures on Youtube is Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?, an unreleased documentary about the making of Harry Nilsson’s 1972 album, Son of Schmilsson. Among other things, we see a busload of British geriatics brought into the recording studio and lubricated with enough sherry to make them comfortable singing, “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” Nilsson shunned live performance and television, so this is about as close as he ever let his fans get.
Dylanologists will find a cache of rare treasures, but my favorite ones are the two clips of His Bobness running through “License to Kill” and “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” in the studio with his Infidels band. Most of us recall this as a particularly grumpy period for Dylan, and it’s revelatory to see him playfully toying with his lyrics, while Mark Knopfler and Robbie Shakespeare bop around the room with pure giddiness. Also recommended is Dylan’s 1984 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, in which he leads a band of young SoCal punks through a ferocious version of “Jokerman,” with the whole thing teetering on the edge of chaos for 40 seconds while Dylan tries to find the right harmonica.
Johnny Cash’s old prime-time music show is a great source for Youtube material, including Dylan’s 1969 appearance as a country crooner. But the most surprising clip I found from Cash’s show is a visit from the Monkees (down to a trio after Peter Tork’s departure), in which Cash joins them on an improbable version of “Last Train to Clarksville.” Who knew?
Alex Chilton, another enigmatic source of fascination, can be seen in two ancient clips of the Box Tops. One, a 1967 performance of “The Letter,” has popped up on television quite a bit over the years. The other, however, is an absolute find. Chilton and his Memphis group appear on the Mike Douglas Show, where they deflect inane questions about their facial hair and marital status from Divine role model Virginia Graham before serving up their hit “Soul Deep.”
Bee Gees diehards will be amazed by footage from a Red Hot Chili Peppers gig in which guitarist John Frusciante delivers a solo version of “How Deep Is Your Love,” complete with helium-high falsettos.
The jazz library at Youtube also runs pretty deep, but one of the standouts features the peerless John Coltrane quartet of 1963 reaching for the harmonic heavens with “Afro Blue.” A very young McCoy Tyner is especially mesmerizing here, and the only caveat is that you have to endure egghead host Ralph J. Gleason pointlessly sitting amongst the band, like a professor grading his students.
Also available is a famous 1957 all-star gathering fronted by Billie Holiday. Here we see Holiday delicately glide through “Sweet and Mellow,” nodding her head and offering a sweet, knowing smile when old friend Lester Young takes a solo. It may be the most touching 35 seconds of jazz ever put on film.