Throughout July, the IASPM-US website will be previewing articles from “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on Television,” the upcoming special issue of The Journal of Popular Music Studies.
Airing midweek around midnight, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party (1978-82) transmitted Downtown New York’s vibrant nightlife scenes—hotbeds for the cross-pollination of music, visual arts, and performance practices. TV Party was a live variety/talk show that prominently featured its call-in viewers during the first wave of live public access programs in Manhattan. Public access television is defined as channel time reserved for free use by the public on a first-come, first-serve, non-discriminatory basis. Ideally, it is television made by the people for the people, prior to the age of YouTube, and the open structure of public access afforded a break from network television constraints. As such, TV Party was a spontaneous, chaotic, and often bewildering televisual happening, yet also a promotional and informational program. Moreover, the television studio functioned as a vital social space for meeting people, hanging out, and exchanging ideas. TV Party pushed the democratic potentialities of television to cablecast “Downtown New York” as an intersectional site for cultural exchange and experimentation, which, in turn, propagated its local cultural scenes.
Exemplary of the public access ethos, TV Party had an inclusive and rotating policy for its participants. The production crew, regulars, special guests, in-studio audience, and the disembodied voices of its home viewers collectively produced the ad hoc content of the show. Mirroring the motley cultural landscape of Downtown New York, TV Party exhibited multiple music genres and creative personalities, rather than the niche marketing tactics of radio. Its regulars were Downtown’s glitterati, such as Blondie members Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, experimental musician Walter Steding, the graffiti artist and rapper Fab 5 Freddy, and the painter and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The show also offered a variety of special guest acts and interviews to reflect its cutting edge taste, including George Clinton, James Chance, Mick Jones, Nile Rodgers, DNA, et al. TV Party provided a free-flowing, improvisational format where music personalities could perform numbers and/or give interviews (performing their stage personas on air), but did not necessarily have to do so.
TV Party displayed a wider range of performance types that encompassed the ins and outs of Downtown cultural scenes—from behind the scenes to creating scenes—free from network expectations of music industry-related performance. In turn, the show provided a window for extra-musical knowledge to music fans and the curious drop-in cable viewer. For music enthusiasts, this open format radically differed from the sterilized and highly controlled lip-synched musical performances of primetime American music shows in the 1970s, as seen in the popular and long-running American Bandstand (1952-89) to the surviving pop music-oriented variety shows, such as the Sonny & Cher programs (1971-77). TV Party also stands apart from the edgier, youth-oriented late night network programs with standardized routines for live (or prerecorded live) musical performances and/or interviews, e.g. Saturday Night Live (1975-present), Midnight Special (1972-81), Tomorrow Show/Tomorrow Coast to Coast (1973-82); and even fellow Manhattan cable access programs concentrated on recording live gigs at venues and airing prerecorded tape, such as Nightclubbing (1975-80) and Paul Tschinkel’s Innertube (1979-84).
On TV Party, Downtown’s nightlife and music scenes were in constant conversation with the visual arts, and the program illuminates how different genres came into contact with one another. Labeled “The Sublimely Intolerable Show,” a 1979 episode demonstrates the variety of Downtown cultural life represented and promoted by TV Party as televisual mouthpiece.[1. O’Brien, Glenn, et al., Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, The Sublimely Intolerable Show, January 8, 1979. Brinkfilm, 2008. DVD.] The show includes a discussion of reggae with photographer Kate Simon and filmmaker/author David Silver; an aria from new wave pop opera phenom Klaus Nomi; a rock-comedy performance by Compton Maddux; an interview with no wave film director Eric Mitchell; and a surprising retro cover of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” by Andy Shernoff of the punk band the Dictators, with his backup singers Tish and Snooky Bellomo, owners of Manic Panic and members of the band the Sic F*cks. After the acts and interviews, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, and Richard Sohl of the Patti Smith Group emerge from the studio audience to gossip and take live calls from home viewers.
Cablecasting the local scenes and interests of Downtown New York, this episode alone showcases new wave, no wave, punk, reggae, and rock. During the show, O’Brien plugs the iconic Manic Panic, the East Village’s first punk boutique, subsequently famous for its alternative hair products and cosmetics. O’Brien also rolls a clip of Eric Mitchell’s new film, Kidnapped (1978), about the abduction of the Mudd Club’s proprietor, Steve Maas. He announces the film’s debut at the grand opening of the New Cinema, a no wave theatre funded by Collaborative Projects, a nonprofit and anti-bureaucratic art collective that produced Downtown artistic endeavors. A slice of Downtown cultural life, this episode not only airs live musical performances and interviews, but also informs the audience of where to buy punk and new wave clothes, and where to watch no wave films (both conveniently located on St. Marks Place in the East Village).
A site where partying doubled as community television, TV Party represents the diversity of Downtown New York’s cultural scenes along with Manhattan’s unique broadcast history as the first U.S. city wired for cable. Through TV Party, the eclecticism and experimentation of Downtown’s hyper-socially engaged arts spilled over to public access television, as well as into the proverbial living room. As the “TV Party Manifesto” declared, “There is a party in every home where the TV PARTY is TURNED ON.”