Dangerous Minds has writtenabunch about the USA cable network’s transcendentally great Night Flight, an weekend overnight programming block that aired in the ‘80s, and which can justly claim credit for warping a lot of young minds and giving budding mutants a lot of places to start looking for suitably outré cultural produce. In the 21st Century, that show has morphed into a streaming video channel and a website not terribly unlike…Dangerous Minds. (Hardly a surprise, that, as our pooh-bah Richard Metzger once told The New Yorker that DM was partly inspired by Night Flight. And the log keeps rolling…) The programming was completely freeform and anarchic, and strongly bent towards the celebration of creativity and strangeness, especially via underground music and film—television had never been like that before, and never was again.
A highlight of every Night Flight broadcast was its “Take Off” segments—collections of music videos organized by a unifying theme, and supplemented with interviews and other informational content to flesh out the subject. I’m unable to find the “Take Off” segment that included this DEVO footage—it appears to have been scrubbed from YouTube by Warner Bros on copyright grounds—but I kind of don’t care, because what follows is the entire unedited interview. It’s dated 1981, and the plastic JFK pompadours the band members are wearing support that date. That was the headgear that replaced their famous Energy Domes on their 1981 album New Traditionalists. The provenance of the footage doesn’t lead directly to Night Flight. For the first two years that show aired, the “Take Off” features were made by a production company called Videowest, and bits of the interview turned up in a few places, including this clip about commercialization and merchandising in rock, which may have even been a part of the “lost” segment in question—“Take Off to Merchandising” featuring DEVO sounds plausibly like it could have happened.
For all the ballyhoo around VH1 Classic rebranding itself as MTV Classic, the channel’s programming still doesn’t include very much music. In fact, most of the programming seems to date back only to the ‘90s, after the network began transitioning from actual music television to youth-culture oriented reality programming. If your nostalgic tastes run towards Pimp My Ride, The Real World, and Cribs, well, great, hunker down and binge. But if your trip is musical discovery, may I point you in the direction of the new streaming channel launched this year—to much less fanfare—by Night Flight?
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you missed something amazing. From 1981-88, during the weekend’s wee hours, the USA cable network aired Night Flight, a four hour block of weirdo-culture programming that often defied easy categorization. Random bumps were culled from the most shocking scenes from John Waters films and strange old out-of-copyright cartoons, music from the backroads of post-punk subcultures was given a fair hearing—including but not limited to the late Peter Ivers’ incredible New Wave Theatre, profiles of outré performers were produced, and cult movies were aired in their entirety, including the punk documentary Another State of Mind (Who would have guessed back then that not only would Social Distortion be a band forever, but that they’d become SO HORRIBLE?), the not-to-be-missed proto-Riot Grrrl satire/drama Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, and The Clash’s classic Rude Boy. For that era’s weird kids who lived in flyover country, without access to the coasts’ record stores, clubs, and cinematheques, that basic cable freakshow was manna from heaven. More after the jump…
It’s a seemingly innocuous yet ultimately loaded question for the culturally adventurous of a certain age. For Night Flight was the sort of cultural touchstone that—if one was lucky enough to have experienced it firsthand—one is not likely to forget and can even serve as a sort of secret handshake decades later. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre has gone so far as to claim, “I learned about punk from this cable show called Night Flight” and Richard Metzger, co-founder of this very blog, described his intentions for Dangerous Minds to the New Yorker as, “a late-night television network for heads, like Adult Swim, but different. Do you remember Night Flight in the early eighties? Something like that.”
A lot has been made of MTV’s launch on August 1, 1981, but Night Flight—appearing on the fledgling USA Network—beat them to the punch by nearly two months premiering on June 5 of the same year. Though Night Flight played its fair share of videos and music films, its scope was much broader encompassing all manner of cult films and shorts extending back over several decades. However wide-ranging its programming, though, it was always informed by a subversive, outsider sensibility. The show had no host, just a disembodied female voice accompanied by (at the time) cutting edge computer animation of the Night Flight logo (unsettlingly similar to the 80s cheese rock band Night Ranger’s own logo) flying over darkened landscapes.
The show ran every Friday and Saturday from 11PM to 7AM but actually only contained four hours of programming simply repeating the previous four hours again at 3AM. This inevitably led to hordes of teenagers making the ill-advised decision to stay awake for at least four additional hours to catch anything they missed the first time around (especially if they had the VCR cued up with a blank tape). Imagine that kind of dedication in today’s on-demand generation. Just what you would see when you tuned in was anyone’s guess. It could be a contemporary rock documentary such as the Clash’s semi autobiographical Rude Boy; Urgh! A Music War featuring performances from the Cramps, DEVO, X, Pere Ubu, and Gary Numan amongst a host of other; or Another State of Mind documenting Social Distortion and Youth Brigade’s ill-fated cross-country tour (an education in punk rock indeed). Or it could be 1938’s The Terror of Tiny Town, the world’s only musical Western with an all midget cast; cheesy Japanese tokusatsu TV show Dynaman (dubbed with completely different parody dialogue); Reefer Madness; Proctor and Bergman’s J-Men Forever! or classic 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There were plenty of brand new music videos (like The Residents’ “Three-Minute Movies”) as well including a segment dedicated to Britain’s Some Bizarre Records (Coil, Foetus, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.) or the popular “Take Off” segments (how about “Take Off to Sex” featuring Duran Duran’s uncensored “Girls on Film” video?), or live in studio performances courtesy of Peter Ivers’ (originally cable access) New Wave Theatre from the likes of Fear, Circle Jerks, or Suburban Lawns.
So who, you might ask, was behind this creation? The show was the brainchild of Stuart Shapiro who had run a film distribution company which had specialized in cult films (“pretty much horror films and music films” he has said) many of which had ended up in the eccentric yet social atmospheres of midnight screenings. While the nascent cable networks offered a great deal of promise bordering on hype for expanding television’s horizons, they were yet to deliver on that promise. “At that time there was this sort of evangelistic attitude that cable was really gonna come out and be another world for alternative programming,” Shapiro recalled.
Cable television promised to reach niches previously underserved. “It was gonna be the birth of a freer reign of programming.” One key area that Shapiro saw was sorely lacking was the late night time slot. Many channels simply stopped airing content after 11 or midnight. From seeing the films he distributed performing well on the midnight movie theater circuit, Shapiro “knew that there was a culture of late-night [moviegoers] that were hungry for programming late at night on the weekends. In the beginning, the cable system was going dark late at night - there was really nothing on, so I felt it was a wonderful opportunity to try to put cool hip programming on television.” Shapiro’s business partner, Jeff Franklin, happened to have a friend at the USA Network and when they pitched their idea there they already had the bulk of their programming in Shapiro’s quirky catalog. In addition to the go ahead from the network, USA exerted no control over the pair’s programming choices. “It was the height of freedom,” Shapiro recalls. (What’s more, the network had no way to track which segments were driving the show’s overall ratings.)
Night Flight played a large part in exposing people to up and coming bands (and not just those on major labels with mainstream commercial potential) as well as the new format of the music video but they did even more by putting those videos in perspective by placing them in the larger context of underground video art. In time, of course, they would come to be seen as nothing more than advertisements selling a product. But Night Flight represented the kind of free form spirit embodied in places like college radio where ratings and revenue were not factors but trust in your favorite DJ was enough to for you to give them an hour or two of your time to see where their idiosyncratic taste would take you. It was an approach that would not last through the decade with Night Flight’s final episode airing on Saturday, December 31, 1988.
MTV’s corporate and unadventurous programming would eventually win the day and become the future (and eventual demise) of music video programming. “Discovery was the most important ingredient about Night Flight,” Shapiro would later recall. “You could come and sit down and know that you would be turned on to discover something, no matter what segment it may be.”
For many ‘80s teens, the dearly beloved USA Network program Night Flight was a gateway to a whole wide world of cool shit that wasn’t being played anywhere else. There were definitely plenty of Friday or Saturday nights I spent gaping at J-Men Forever or a full Neil Young concert. In some ways Cabaret Voltaire was a perfect Night Flight band, both finding inspiration in European experimental art of the early twentieth century: Night Flight was named after an Antoine de Saint-Exupéry book, and Cabaret Voltaire was named after a legendary dada nightclub in Zurich.
On this particular summer night in 1985—the commercials for John Candy’s Summer Rental and Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II indicate the timing—Night Flight turned over a half hour of programming for what it called an “exclusive documentary” about the Sheffield postpunk masters.
Truly, hats off to the people at Night Flight for executing this in a way that the band itself might have dreamt up. The interview portions consist entirely of footage of Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson speaking to the camera—there’s no stilted Q&A with a network stooge, it’s all suffused in an ashen b/w mode that is entirely in keeping with the videos we see, of “Just Fascination,” “Crackdown,” and “a special 8-minute version of ‘Sensoria’.” (I’m not sure, but I think this is the 12-inch version that was later included on #8385 Collected Works (1983-1985).)
In the interview bits, Mallinder says, “If we tried to be straightforward and direct, then it would be contrary to what we are as people, and music’s just an extension of what we are as people,” later saying, “We use the music as an exorcism.” Cabaret Voltaire was never a cheery bunch, and if you’re not into postpunk this entire half-hour will seem not much different from a dreary Sprockets imitation. If so, your loss, dummy!
In 1979, a few years after the diaspora of the surrealistic stream-of-consciousness comedy troupe Firesign Theatre, that outfit’s Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman created J-Men Forever, a pastiche film a la What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, from old crime and superhero shorts. They combined footage from several different serials and dubbed in their own dialogue to create a ridiculous plot about evil forces (“The Lightning Bug,” represented by several serial characters including the Crimson Ghost, whose face famously served as the Misfits’ logo) trying to take over the world with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, while the forces of good (“The Caped Madman,” a Captain Marvel figure whose transformation word is SH’BOOM—Sneaky, Hateful, Bigoted, Obnoxious, Obnoxious, and Mean, and yes, I know “obnoxious” is in there twice) fought back with elevator music. It rambles, it barely coheres, and it’s funny as all hell. Given its eminent stoner-friendliness, you’d think it’d have been a natural midnight movie, but it gained its life and audience when the USA Network’s treasure-filled insmoniac’s pal Night Flight played it in its entirety and harvested clips from it to use as interstitials.
Proctor recounted that producer Patrick Curtis had established a relationship with Republic Studios when he had produced an homage film to B westerns, another genre that Republic had produced.
“We thought it would be fun to do the serials,” Proctor said.
He and Bergman watched the serials and then wrote the new screenplay. They also supervised the new soundtracks, performing some of the voices themselves and casting other performers such as deejay Machine Gun Kelly.
An influx of funding allowed the pair to shoot new wrap-around footage featuring them as federal agents coordinating the fight against the Lightning Bug.
The reception the film received was so impressive that it inspired two spin-offs, a Cinemax special The Mad House of Dr. Fear and Hot Shorts for RCA Home Video, which used other members of the Firesign Theatre.
After Night Flight ended its run, the film was relegated to cinematic limbo.
“For years I tried to get it out,” said Proctor, “but we couldn’t find a good print. It was more important to have it look right. Then [Night Flight producer] Stuart Shapiro came up with a print.”
Night Flight was an all-night, only on the weekends “underground” and “cult” TV programming block show that began airing on the USA Network in the early 80s wild west days of cable television. Before Law and Order:OMGWTF existed to fill every time slot on every cable channel in existence, Night Flight was an essential weekly download of deeply weird underground film and music. It was how I found out that Divine existed.
I don’t recall Night Flight ever showing an actual John Waters movie straight through, but they used cut-up segments from his films in their fucked up interstitials and bumps. So when I got to college and had a roommate with a beater VHS tape filled up with nth generation dubs of Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble, I knew right away that THAT was the the tape I was going to wear through to thinness while getting high as hell.
But on top of the clips in the interstices, Night Flight showed this substantial interview segment, a wonderful introduction to the talented and genial actor and drag performer, and I don’t just say that because it was my introduction. Check it out.