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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Inventory: Ten Memorable Saturday Night Live Musical Moments

Illustration for article titled Inventory: Ten Memorable iSaturday Night Live/i Musical Moments

1. October 18, 1975—Simon & Garfunkel

Saturday Night Live scored a musical coup on its second episode, when Paul Simon hosted and his old partner—and occasional enemy—Art Garfunkel dropped by for an impromptu run through "The Boxer." Simon picks at the intro for a few extra bars, but the duo hits the first line perfectly in sync. They barely glance at each other during the song, but when Simon gets to the revised lyric "after changes / we are more or less the same," he cracks a wry grin, while Garfunkel scratches his neck and stares at the lighting rig. The show promised to speak honestly to the '60s generation, and sure enough, here was a moment where all the rumored animosity between two boomer icons was put on open display.

2. April 17, 1976—Patti Smith

Though Saturday Night Live was broadcast from New York during an era when the city's clubs were fostering a punk-rock revolution, the best of those bands rarely got a chance to take the SNL stage in their prime. One major exception was Patti Smith, who appeared after her album Horses had become a cult hit, but before she crossed over to the mainstream with "Because The Night." Suddenly, an audience raised on The Beatles and The Grateful Dead was asked to appreciate an androgynous, atonal beat poet, embellishing the garage-rock classic "Gloria" with lines about boys humping parking meters and her lack of faith in Jesus. The comedy of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had found its analogue.


3. December 17, 1977—Elvis Costello

In one of the most famous spontaneous moments on a usually spontaneity-free live show, Elvis Costello cut short his scheduled performance of "Less Than Zero" and launched into the media-bating "Radio, Radio." In the years since, nobody has been able to agree on who told Costello he couldn't play "Radio, Radio" in the first place, or even whether producer Lorne Michaels ever really vowed to ban Costello permanently from the show for what is, in retrospect, an odd but hardly catastrophic last-second change. Lost in all the hubbub—which eventually died down enough that Costello was invited back, decades later—is how stunning the performance is, with Costello and The Attractions playing so loud, fast, and angry that even the sound mixer can't keep up.

4. October 31, 1981—Fear

Punk and new-wave acts like Talking Heads and B-52's appeared on SNL without incident, but they were artsy, "fun" bands with a substantial amount of critical respect. When the Los Angeles hardcore act Fear stormed the show in 1981—at the request of the no-longer-in-the-cast-and-soon-to-die Belushi—the band's unapologetically violent music inspired their hand-picked coterie of local fans to whip into a slam-dancing frenzy, knocking over the TV equipment. By the time Fear got to "Let's Have A War," the third song in their mini-set, the whole routine had been yanked off the air and replaced with a short film. The American rock underground wouldn't get another chance on the show for more than four years.


5. January 18, 1986—The Replacements

In the years following the Fear debacle, SNL hosted plenty of classic rockers and acts from the MTV-sponsored "new British Invasion," but aside from one energized but not exactly dangerous performance by The Clash (circa Combat Rock), there show didn't even hint that the most influential bands of the new generation were plying their trade somewhere outside the studio doors. Then, in the middle of one of Saturday Night Live's bleakest seasons, critics' darlings The Replacements were invited on, in conjunction with their major-label debut, Tim. The band roared through a take-no-prisoners version of "Bastards Of Young" in the first segment, and then, after everybody in the band had changed into each others' clothes, returned for a passionate rendition of "Kiss Me On The Bus," the highlight of which came when Bob Stinson strummed his guitar exactly when he was supposed to. Why was that such a big deal? Because during both songs, the bandmembers were mouthing profanities into the camera, stumbling into each other, falling down, dropping their instruments, and generally behaving like the apathetic drunks they were. The fact that they still hit all the notes was miraculous, and, to quote a later Replacements song, sadly beautiful.


6. October 18, 1986Run DMC

Hip-hop was another New York-nurtured musical wave that SNL largely missed. Aside from the scratching on Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" and the "toasting" of novelty reggae acts Musical Youth and Eddy Grant, the first real rap on Saturday Night came in the fall of '86, when Queens' own Run DMC performed its album-rock-radio-approved cover of "Walk This Way." A year later, LL Cool J took his turn, and then nothing again until the early '90s, when the rapper musical guests tended to be along the lines of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. From the end of the '90s to now, hip-hop has been a fairly major part of SNL's musical mix, with rappers like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Eminem giving house-rocking performances. But anyone who saw Run DMC's epic SNL act should rightly wonder what took the show so long to bring that beat back.


7. April 22, 1992—Pearl Jam

Nirvana was, appropriately enough, the first of the Seattle grunge bands to play Saturday Night Live, in January of '92, and their storming versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Territorial Pissings"—along with their 1993 performances of "Heart Shaped Box" and "Rape Me"—are among the band's best broadcast footage. But though it may be rock-critic sacrilege to say so, Pearl Jam's two visits to the show in April of '92 and April of '94 are even better, showing how grunge's debt to '70s arena rock could be honorably repaid. It's tough to choose which night was superior, especially since the '94 set came when Pearl Jam was at a creative and commercial peak, but the band's SNL debut gets a slight edge because of its revelatory power, manifested in the inspiring, heart-stopping version of "Alive." This definitely wasn't punk, and it sure wasn't hair-metal. It was accessible, earnest, and refreshingly un-slick.


8. October 3, 1992Sinéad O'Connor

Sinéad O'Connor had a troubled history with Saturday Night Live, starting with her first scheduled appearance in May 1990, which she pulled out of because she wouldn't share a stage with Andrew Dice Clay. She came back and did well in September of that year, and was invited back two years later to support her dud covers album Am I Not Your Girl? For her second spot, she did an a cappella version of a song not on that album, Bob Marley's "War," and though in rehearsal she held up a picture of a child, on the air she held up a picture of the pope, ripped it to shreds, and shouted, "Fight the real enemy!" Seen live, it was such a shocking and confusing incident that it was hard to know how to react. Now, what stands out is O'Connor's mounting nervousness and rage as the song progresses, and the way her hands shake as she pulls out the ringer photo. Knowing what's about to happen makes the song even more gripping.


9. October 14, 2000—Radiohead

Even rock fans who've never understood the appeal of Radiohead's tuneless, quasi-experimental phase can wrap their heads around the band's SNL performance of "Idioteque," from perhaps its most "difficult" album, Kid A. On disc, the Kid A material is ragged and jagged, and at times purposefully off-putting. Live, "Idioteque" in particular becomes a kind of invigorating nightmare, as Thom Yorke whines about an "ice ace coming… this is really happening" while the band cranks out an otherworldly, escalating noise. When the song abruptly stops, it's almost a relief. The world ends. The world spins on.


10. November 20, 2004—U2

It's tempting to give this last slot to Ashlee Simpson's lip-sync disaster, or Backstreet Boys' surprisingly convincing a cappella performance, or even some great unsung SNL moments like Tina Turner's smoking rendition of "Better Be Good To Me," or Queen's vigorous "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." But the most recent indelible musical guest spot came at the end of U2's 2004 episode. Rather than doing the usual "everyone stands on stage and waves to the audience" sign-off, U2 came back out and ripped through their first hit, "I Will Follow," while the cast watched just offstage, clearly thrilled. Not since the days when Aykroyd and Belushi begged to get their favorite old blues acts booked on the show has the line between cast member and fan been so movingly blurred.


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