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Flashback: What the Hell Were the Rock Music Awards in 1975?

As disco began to take over popular music, rock’s power players found a less-than-foolproof antidote: a glitzy, cheeseball, insane new spectacle

Elton John, Cher and Diana Ross at the Rock Music Awards on August 9th, 1975.

CBS via Getty Images

Five months after the 1975 Grammys, Elton John and Diana Ross drove onto the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium stage in a futuristic-looking golf cart to host a ludicrous awards show that has been forever lost to time.

Producer-manager-impresario Don Kirshner, who had long since earned his bona fides as the capo of the Brill Building, manager of the Monkees, and, later, as the dry host of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which featured countless A-list acts, was looking for an alternative to the Grammys. He had the clout to get numerous superstars to attend on August 9th, 1975, and, with Elton and Ross on board as hosts, was ready to make a play for the industry’s most dominant, yet worthless, perennial spectacle.

It didn’t work out that way.

While it only went on for three years, the cleverly titled Rock Music Awards (which Linda Ronstadt would call the Who Cares Awards in a Rolling Stone interview the following year) was a loose, gloriously insane affair melding the debauchery of the Golden Globes with the scripted dad-joke hamminess of any other award show. (“Good evening, everybody in TV land, I’m Captain Fantastic,” Elton says in his opening line. Ross’ response: “And I’m general delivery!” ZING!)

Rock Music Awards – Part 1

John, frequently rubbing his nose, flies through the opening bit with Ross in a master class of unintentional hilarity, revealing that the winner’s card will be displayed via a bleeping, blinking podium that sounds like a robot in a D-level 1950s sci-fi film. Oh, and the award itself is not a trophy, but a medallion called … a Rocky. Elton will go on to read aloud the cue-card instructions (” ‘He starts to read from scroll,’ it says”), and at one point during a bit on the history of rock music will ask, “Do we have to say this?” Yes, Elton. You do. Go on.

“Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, at last, rock & roll, the most dominant form of music in America, finally has its own rock award show which recognizes and salutes its own stars,” Ross says. She’s an odd choice to host, given that her music oftentimes supplanted rock rather than embraced it, but she’s Miss Diana Ross (who opened her 1983 Central Park show like this), so Kirshner gets a pass.

To be fair, other genres were threatening rock as the country’s “most dominant form of music.” Yes, now-lauded albums by Neil Young (Tonight’s the Night), Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes), Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac), and David Bowie (Young Americans) had all been released in recent months — and Born to Run was only two weeks away. But the elder, white, male keepers of the music industry were increasingly seeing disco — a sound that grew out of clubs predominantly populated by black, Latino, gay, and other marginalized attendees — as a potential mainstream threat. Earlier that year, the Andy Williams–hosted Grammys had given out big-award trophies to decidedly nonrockers Olivia Newton-John, Marvin Hamlisch, and Barbra Streisand. The Ramones’ first album was still eight months away. You see where this is going.

But rather than embrace other sounds, the scions of the music business played the victim, choosing to self-isolate for 90 minutes on a big stage. (In a fantastic plot twist, “Jive Talkin’,” the track that would help catapult the Bee Gees into disco and world dominance, was the number-one song in the country on the night of the awards.) Still, the award show found time for Kiki Dee, the Manhattan Transfer, and Tony Orlando and Dawn to either perform or present. For those about to schlock, we salute you.

It gets amazingly weirder from there. Ann-Margaret and Roger Daltrey, promoting the unwatchable-unless-stoned film Tommy, come out in what looks like a spoiled rich kid’s toy fire truck. (Tommy will win Best Rock Movie or Theatrical Presentation later that night in a sign of what we’re dealing with here.) Cher calls Elton an “old tart” before giving him the coveted (??) Outstanding Rock Personality of the Year award. Alice Cooper looks like a porn star playing a cop. Keith Moon, previously known tonight for terrorizing his petrified co-presenter Olivia Newton-John, makes a joke about having sex with a spaced-out Joe Walsh as the camera cuts to a … confused Ella Fitzgerald? Chuck Berry, sporting a moustache that looks like it needs to check in with a probation officer every month, becomes the first person — and one of the last —to get inducted into something called the Rock Music Hall of Fame (not to be confused with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).

There is, however, one classy moment before the show continues to unravel: Stevie Wonder, fresh off an Album of the Year Grammy for Fulfillingness’ First Finale, asks the audience to pause and remember jazz great Cannonball Adderly, who died earlier that day. The class will not last.

Writing for the The New York Times, critic John Leonard called the show a “lumpy grab bag.” “Miss Ross looked vaguely Egyptian, perhaps because her hair had been shaped into a pyramid. She also looked vague, period, as though she had been eating hairspray before the program,” he wrote. “Everything was over in an hour and a half, which would be commendable were it not for the fact that this was accomplished by leaving out most of the music. Surely viewers could have been spared the appearance of either Sonny or Cher, or both, in order to hear some more of the music the program ostensibly sought to honor.”

Ross would return the next year to host the show alongside Cooper and awkwardly give a Public Service Award to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The show would be held for one more year, in 1977, before becoming an obscure footnote in rock history. We will, sadly, probably never have a Rock Music Awards again, but we’ll always have footage of Olivia Newton-John desperately saying with her eyes, “Please. Anybody. Get Keith Moon away from me.”

Rock Music Awards – Part 2

Rock Music Awards – Part 3

Rock Music Awards – Part 4

Rock Music Awards – Part 5