EVER SINCE ASHLEE SIMPSON KICKED HER JIG, it’s been tough to look at televised music performances in quite the same way. Chris Brown’s 2011 MTV VMA? Yeah it looked amazing, but it was bogus, and I can’t enjoy it. Even Sabbath lip synched, sadly. I find it’s one of those things where once you notice lip synching, the whole format seems ruined. So I set myself the task of finding you, dear reader, certifiably non-lip-synched television performances that will affirm your belief in people’s ability to be awesome under that kind of pressure.
1. Martha Reeves, Dusty Springfield, and many more — Motown on Ready, Set, Go!
We start with the best. Martha Reeves’ troubles with prescription drugs, tax evasion and Detroit City Council are over now; she’s back on tour. Celebrate her magic and that of Motown with this amazing TV special. The whole Motown crew went to England in 1965 to introduce their stratospherically good songs to the limeys. After most of England slept on the Motown tour, Dusty Springfield
2. Loretta Lynn — “One’s On the Way” — The Muppet Show
Great performance and acting out of this hilarious and kinda edgy song.
3. Beck — “Jackass” — Letterman
Beck had a great rags-to-riches story until he became a scientologist. This is he at the big moment when his wacko style won him a nomination for album of the year at the Grammys. Beck’s band of freaks clean up real good, and he’s probably the lowest vocal register on TV other than Crash Test Dummies. DJ Swamp gets the scratching perfect. What more can you ask for.
4. Dr. Dre & Eminem — “Forgot About Dre” — SNL
The hard work they’ve done to keep this jam with amazing lyrics clean sort of peaks for me when Em says “motherfriggin’ barkin’ dog.” Great scratching, the samples are clear, and the live drums totally spice it up. The dancing also rules.
5. Snoop Dogg — “Drop it Like it’s Hot”
What can I say… this is amazing until the last five seconds or so. What a charmer. Pity Pharell missed this.
6. The Supremes – Ed Sullivan
The Supremes did this amazing rendition of “Love Is Like an Ithching in my Heart” on Ed Sullivan that changed my life when I saw a rerun of it at my Nan’s. The Ed Sullivan people have scoured the net and removed any trace of said broadcast, and instead have put an ad up for their DVD that should give you an idea of just how incredibly awesome Sunday nights were in the 1960s with lip synch-free television.
7. The Beatles — First Ed Sullivan Appearance
Another Ed Sullivan peformance worth revisiting… I think what made these guys sound so weirdly amazing is that they were a little unpolished, a little scruffy. Just a little. They didn’t look like stars, they looked like dorks pulling off something amazing. It’s like Revenge of the Nerds.
8. Sonic Youth — “Bull in the Heather” — Letterman
This song is so obviously about pregnancy I’m a little surprised the best feminist christian rock band don’t appear to have noticed that but I haven’t asked them so what do I know. Counting the weeks, admitting that in any kind of relationship, a baby can’t help but feel like a big ol’ roll of the dice. And here they are, pulling off what’s probably their best TV performance ever, with the proper lead singer of this band doing her thing deeply, deeply pregnant. Lee has really cool clothes in this too.
9. Paul Potts — “Nessun Dorma” — Britain’s Got Talent
I called a friend and she told me she had just been crying watching this on YouTube. I thought she said “I’ve been crying watching Pol Pot on YouTube,” I said “whoa, rough.” Anyway these things are so manufactured of course, and he’s not Pavarotti but this guy is so incredibly psyched to sing opera. How can you not be touched.
10. Jimi Hendrix — “Hey Joe” and Others – LuLu Show
Hendrix hated lip synching. In his day the whole band was frequently faking it. Jimi fought hard to get to play live on this show, and he busts feedback all over the host and generally is obnoxious in making it obvious his axe is ‘hot’. His low E goes flat for a while, then he fixes it. It’s like everything that makes it easy to tell it’s live ends up happening. He finally takes complete control when he cuts his hit song short to play a Cream cover to commemorate the band as they were breaking up. As soon as he hits it, you can tell he’s just been waiting for it the whole time. But then they butcher the tune kind of, and it falls apart. It’s life affirming because it’s an extremely weird gig for TV. And TV is rarely weird this way.
11. Nirvana — “Rape Me” — French TV
Nirvana pulled a similar trick on Top of the Pops when only Kurt’s vocals were live, and he sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Morrisey-style, an octave down. But it’s a performance on TV in France that’s life-affirming. “Rape Me,” the song they wouldn’t let them play on U.S. TV, was politely introduced and loudly applauded by the studio audience in Paris. I think the term freedom fries is an accidental compliment to the French in this case.
12. Stevie Wonder — “Living for the City” — German TV
I may have linked this or another tune form this session in a previous article. There’s just so many things that are right about this, I don’t know where to begin. This puts all lip synchers to shame. This should happen on TV every day! What else could TV possibly be for?
13. Tina Turner — “Goldeneye” — Top of the Pops
James Bond theme songs, what a weird awesome convergence in music. Monty Norman’s inspiration, put through the genius filter of composer John Barry gave us the fully created James Bond theme with Dr. No, and many excellent variations including the best in my opinion, “Goldfinger“ (this performance deserves to be on this list too). Then George Martin decanted it further for Live and Let Die. U2 had their way with it writing Goldeneye for Tina Turner to sing, and this brilliant musical universal adapter of classy coolness comes to life once again in this TV performance. There’s something so cute about this rendition. How about Taye Diggs as the next James Bond? Why not? Listen to those high notes at the end. Tina is 57 here.
14. Madonna — “Like a Virgin” — MTV VMA
It’s the first ever MTV Video Music Awards show (1984) and Madonna is performing ”Like a Virgin.” This performance was not some hasty wuss move explained away as a dance and lyric malfunction, those words were sung live on purpose, breathily, squeakily, slightly off key, while she rolled around in bustier and stockings. TV was interesting then. She was 26 at the time.
15. Royal Trux — “A Night to Remember” – The Word
This is just so amazingly bizarre. A really great studio band playing live, with the imposition of an extremely weird setting and crowd, weird because the band is weird and the crowd is weird but that’s where the similarity of styles ends. The green-screen gimmickry and wrongness of the people and they way they’re dancing is just amazing, this is a Budweiser and cowboy hats band playing to jocks and S&M rave people. The fakeness is all the more palpable because they’re playing live. The psychedelia and weirdness make it life-affirming. There are some freaks TV cannot kill, but who rather seem to kill the power of TV to make weird things seem normal.
+ ONE FOR THE ROAD: Veruca Salt — “Seether” — Glastonbury ’95
This is a bit of a cheat, but this was clearly filmed for television despite the fact that the studio audience was paying, outdoors, and numbered about eighty thousand. Why don’t you see anything that looks remotely like this, anywhere, ever anymore? Girls only want to be Avril or Katy or Amy? Huh?