The Greening of VH1

Anyone out there remember VH1 in its first incarnation? Yes, I can see some of you do -- you fell asleep.

For a while, VH1 looked obvious: If a band was hot on MTV, it naturally was understood that there would be a time when they would be not so hot -- what to do then? Plus, as long as you could bore kids with Ratt videos, why not bore adults with Whitney Houston? If these two notions sound at odds, well, you've got a good idea of early VH1.

Finally, someone wised up and VH1 started producing a half-hour series that featured as host former Sixties hitmaker Peter Noone, better known as Herman of Herman's Hermits. Damn if I can't remember the name of the show, but it was a clever bit of nostalgia, mixing clips from the Sixties with some where-are-they-now follow-ups. I started actually watching VH1.

(Little story time: When I was in seventh grade in New Orleans, I begged my best friend Laurie to let me hold her Herman's Hermits on Tour album as we did one of those endless teenage-girl walks around the neighborhood to the corner drugstore. Naturally, I had an ulterior motive: The neighborhood babe, Fielding Henderson, lived on the corner and he loved the Hermits. Sure enough, the moment we appeared, Fielding spied the album in my arms and ran over to us. He talked to us! An eighth grade guy! I was in heaven and carried albums for years afterwards whenever possible, hoping the right guy would see it, realize I was the coolest girl in the world, and ask me to go steady. In a bizarre twist of fate, after I moved away from New Orleans, Fielding became the boyfriend of a classmate named Lucinda Williams.)

Even by the early Nineties, VH1 seemed like the dumping ground for videos too tame or boring for MTV. Still, VH1 kept shapeshifting through the hip-hop revolution and the grunge movement, and found its own identity as the scene-wise older sibling of MTV, the keeper of the past. If Peter Noone worked linking the Sixties to the Eighties, why not cash in on Seventies and Eighties nostalgia? Suddenly, David Cassidy was cool and Flock of Seagulls were getting airplay again. Shows like 8-Track Flashback and The Big 80's provided soundbite trips back in time. As Triple-A radio emerged, so did VH1's similar philosophy; not coincidentally, MTV lost interest in music, and started churning out Gen X versions of The Dating Game, creating flatulent personalities like Jenny McCarthy, and re-running The Real World ad nauseum. MTV was dumbing it down but VH1 was dumbing it up.

Then came Pop-Up Videos. No one could have predicted the popularity of this 30-minute series which takes videos and injects them with cartoon bits of trivia. Did you know the video director of "If I Could Turn Back Time" thought Cher's butt tattoos were floral underwear when she first paraded her surgically tucked ass across the set? That her son by Gregg Allman is allegedly a cross-dresser? Do you know I have now finally watched a Mariah Carey video because I was so busy reading the occasionally bitchy pop-ups I forgot to vomit? Pop-Up Videos might be the best thing about video-watching since the three-minute devils invaded our screens in the early Eighties and killed the radio star.

You'll get your fill of them this weekend too. VH1 has six hours of back-to-back Pop-Up Videos scheduled for the weekend (10/11, noon-6pm). It's Milli Vanilli! Madonna! Tracy Bonham! (I guess I can erase one of those seven videocassettes taped during the Princess Diana coverage.) Here's something fun to look for: In Rolling Stones' Pop-up Videos, the word "ham" is translated into a foreign language at some point in the video; Mick Jagger's rubbery face is always caricatured beside it.

Some of you might have caught VH1's Legends segment last Friday night. The series is a one-hour Biography-like look at influential performers of rock & roll such as Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, Curtis Mayfield, and Tina Turner. But last week, on what would have been his 43rd birthday, Stevie Ray Vaughan was profiled.

While the show did not reveal much about Vaughan that most Austinites don't already know, it was bittersweet to see all the rarely seen photos and family movies of young Stevie and brother Jimmie Vaughan. VH1 had made a concerted effort with this particular episode (unlike the sloppier Janis segment), coming to Austin to interview Chris Layton, Tommy Shannon, Doyle Bramhall, and Jimmie. Doyle Bramhall and I had taken the producer on a tour of the long-gone Eastside nightspots where SRV cut his musical teeth playing -- I saw them as fleeting glimpses of film, moments frozen in times, just a flash from the past, but they remained potent influences. And how quickly it all passed: One moment Vaughan was wailing away with an early Double Trouble, and the next, Chris Layton is recounting the awful moment he heard the news.

Legends usually shows on VH1 weeknights at 11pm or midnight, sometimes both. On Sunday (10/12), the Marvin Gaye episode re-runs, a moving and unforgettable look at one of the great voices of modern music who came to a sad and untimely end. Included in this are numerous musical clips of Gaye at his absolute best, dueting with Tammi Terrell for an exuberant, joyous "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Monday (10/13; midnight) is Elton John; Tuesday (10/14; 11pm) is the Grateful Dead; Wednesday (10/15; 11pm, midnight) offers first The Who, and then Janis Joplin.

Is it me or is everything old new again? The best concert I've seen this year was John Fogerty at the Music Hall. The Stones are rolling with a vengeance, Oasis squabbles with George Harrison instead of Blur, and Fleetwood Mac is here, there, and everywhere... on VH1, natch. On Sunday, Behind The Music (10/12; noon, 8pm) spends an hour with Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, Christine McVie, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood. Classic Albums (10/12; 2pm) delves into the angst- and drug-ridden making of FM's Rumours. Following that, the VH1 Video Collection: Fleetwood Mac (10/12; 3pm) brings "Rhiannon," "You Make Lovin' Fun," "Tusk," "Sara," "Little Lies," and "Silver Springs," onscreen again. They're fun to watch, but there's only one problem: I keep looking for those little pop-ups.

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