When regarding Donnie and Marie’s appearance on the short-lived Black Sabbath variety show, one might turn to sweat leaf or perhaps a wish for swift death. To be accurate, the official title for the show was “Rock Night with Black Sabbath.” The “Sabbath show” would become popular shorthand for fans during the show’s mayfly lifespan. It aired opposite “60 Minutes” and that other bastion of musical rebellion, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” so no one needed to be paranoid to be certain of its fate.
Despite the two-dimensional and near transparent title card superimposed over the saturating beams of colored stage lights with “Black Sabbath” small and “Rock Night” big, the band was only called by the group’s name when they performed. The announcer going for a youthful voice would introduced them, but the fake enthusiasm and quick word pace made him sound like Ed McMahon on slightly cut helium. Only “Rock Night” ever appeared in the TV guide. Evidently the same magazine is, or was, also sold south of the Mason-Dixon line. The “hosts” for the show were introduced individually with quickly cut spurts from the show’s first videotaped performance. Most of the Sabbath members had their mouths curled like Ozzy’s in mid-chorus. The shot of Tony Iommi instead showed him in transfixed gaze on the curled ends of his metal guitar strings as they wiggled at the end of his fret.
One might have thought the idea of a heavy metal band whose music was a melodious mixture of dark omens and ominous soundtrack of social protest fronting a weekend variety show would have caused broadcast executives to fret and/or chant secret phrases of disgust. It is easy to imagine a scene where a stoned assistant suggests the idea and is immediately scorned, scourged, and laughed out of the boardroom, and then is pushed into the street during rush hour with a cease and desist order stapled to the pink slip tacked onto his/her forehead. But never underestimate the desire to capitalize on the all-important youth dollar begged from Mom and Dad, or earned through sweating at fast food hells or dead-end paper routes. Yes, although Donnie and Marie earned their share of this lucre, so did their seeming opposite number Black Sabbath. And they had a larger percentage of the other family members, such as the disgruntled and distrustful older siblings, and even the angry Uncle exiled to the basement next to the old refrigerator with all the beer. (The question of whatever became of his chunky girlfriend Sue Ann never verbalized, nor the one about the odd box next to the beer.)
Even in the 1970s you paid for your demographics and took your chances. With television, anything seemed possible to attract viewers and sell soap and aspirin. And so it was nearly inevitable these disparate stars of frequency and amplitude modulations would be wed on very high frequency. It is curious to wonder if the two groups mated, would KISS be the bastard child? Come together they did, at least for nearly ten minutes. Sort of.
Viewers who came to the show as fans of the heavy metal rockers might have wondered what exactly was going on. Had they inhaled too deeply? Were the warnings of the blue cool aid really meant for the black cherry cola? Was there more soaked into the little piece paper with a black dot? Or maybe they enjoyed the trip, relieved to have their secret, casual use of middle American entertainment somehow sanctioned by “Rock Night.” Even so the choice of guest stars certainly induced tremors in many. Merle Haggard? Porter Wagoner? Was Waylon Jennings on the road or just having too good a time backstage? Elizabeth Goren? Stuart Temple? Viewers were spared Sherry Lewis and Lamb Chop. More appropriate were Martin Mull or an, at the time, a more militant Bette Midler. As was imperative for all such shows was a guest spot by impersonator Rich Little. Mr. Little never did attempt to imitate Ozzy, perhaps for fear that the act would be confused with him having a seizure instead of an impersonation of his lead host. What does a seizure with a British accent sound like? We already know. (Rich Little would go on to have his own short-lived variety show. Black Sabbath was never a guest.) And then one Sunday came Donnie and Marie.
For those attracted to the rebellious themes of Black Sabbath’s music and who railed against the contemporary political machines, the name of their guest act might have caused a verbal outburst and even accusations of sexism if not for the fact that Marie and Donnie does not quite roll so easily from the tongue. (Unfortunately, “Puppy Love” does roll phonetically from the tongue, and straight into insulin shock.) Outside the bounds or bondage of a variety show, it would seem as if Black Sabbath and the clean, gleaming youths from Utah represented two forces at war over the shape of society: rebellion vs. willing, or perhaps even penitent acceptance. Donnie and Marie of course would be blissfully ignorant of the battle. Such knowledge might force an expression other than a high-polished smile. In the least, the show might have appeared to be a meeting of two apparently alien species who somehow had mutually invented the microphone, but used the technology for far different ends. At most, the event might have been a clash of themes and images. Something akin to characters from a parent-approved Saturday morning cartoon (not one made by Chuck Jones) thrown head-long into a very real and spatter-stained meat grinder. Perhaps if Sabbath had performed as musical back-up we would have seen Donnie and Marie running as fast as they could as Geezer Butler’s bass and Bill Ward’s drums thundered behind them and vibrated the pearly caps free from their teeth. Instead, with the band’s stage and instruments dark behind them, Donnie and Marie performed a variant of “little bit country, little bit rock n’ roll.”
In the end, no war was fought. No cultures clashed, but neither did they merge. Only a draw in the form of the young man with the beaming teeth and purple socks and his even prettier sister smiling and watching in locked glee as Ozzy waved goodnight to all and everyone looked on politely, and even occasionally at each other, on the cheap soundstage set as if transfixed in platitude mode until the director announced from his booth on high that the credits had all rolled by and the cameras were finally off. But what of those angry young viewers who were Sabbath fans and loyally defiant so long as the vinyl spun? For the most part, they went out and bought vanilla ice cream after the show and sat and ate it on stoops cooling from the summer heat as the sunlight ebbed and darkness overtook their neighborhoods. And then they went inside. And slept. In the morning, there would be the safety of a never ending cereal box. And, on the weekend, more cartoons. Perhaps it was more fun to try and play little sister’s Osmond albums backwards. Or better yet, crush them up and add milk. One is certain that the Sabbath albums had more fiber.