“Live from New York, it’s Saturday night…” For a period, the most exciting place on a Saturday night was in front of the TV screen, as Saturday Night Live featured some of the best musical performances in TV history.
From its first season, in 1975, through every decade since, SNL had their finger on the pulse of the music scene, thrusting punk, hip-hop, new wave, grunge, and the rest into the mainstream and into millions of homes.
Whether it was the biggest acts in music, or someone on the verge of breaking through, SNL remains late-night TV’s grandest night. As another star-in-the-making, Billie Eilish, makes her SNL debut, we count down some of the greatest SNL musical performances.
14: The Tragically Hip: Nautical Disaster, Grace Too (1995)
“It’s my honor to introduce to America, my friends, The Tragically Hip,” pronounced SNL veteran and Ontario native Dan Aykroyd, as he introduced the group to the SNL stage. At this time, the Hip had already become “Canada’s band”, and were primed – or at least waiting – for a stateside breakthrough. But instead of playing it safe with the hits like “New Orleans Is Sinking,” the Hip opted for a more nuanced performance of “Nautical Disaster” and “Grace Too,” with Gord Downie changing the opening lyric from “He said I’m fabulously rich” to “They say we’re Tragically Hip”.
13: Sinead O’Connor: War (1992)
Before people were winning Oscars for speaking out against the abuse scandals in the Catholic church, Sinead O’Connor shocked American audiences when she performed a stunning a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” altering the line “Fight racial injustice” to “Fight sexual abuse”, and then tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II. People predictably lost their minds, famously leading to more than 4,000 phone calls to NBC, and the Irish singer-songwriter being vilified in the news. Now, decades later, mea culpas abound and O’Connor’s rendition goes down as one of the best SNL musical performances.
12: Funky 4 + 1: That’s The Joint (1981)
SNL made history when the old-school legends Funky 4 + 1 led the first hip-hop performance on national network television. Thanks to the urging of hip-hop advocate Debbie Harry, of Blondie (whose “Rapture” was the first song with rapping to go No.1), the brought the boogie-down Bronx to America’s living rooms. “The people on the show were so nervous,” Blondie guitarist Chris Stein told Rolling Stone. “I remember trying to explain to them how scratching worked. Trying to verbalize what that is for someone who has no idea, it’s really difficult.”
11: Billie Eilish: Bad Guy, I Love You (2019)
Kicking off the premiere of the 45th season, emerging pop icon Billie Eilish made her SNL debut in gravity-defying fashion, performing her smash hit “Bad Guy” and scaling the walls of Studio 8H thanks to some Jamiroquai-inspired camera trickery. Later she teamed up for her brother Finneas and slowed things down on with the tender duet “I Love You,” surrounded by a starry sky and pulling in the studio audience and viewers at home into her personal orbit. It was an impressive debut for the 17-year-old star, proving she can deliver the goods both live and on record.
10: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: You Don’t Know How It Feels, Honey Bee (1994)
Sometimes you lose a Heartbreaker and gain a Dave Grohl. For his fifth of what would be eight SNL appearances, Tom Petty enlisted Grohl to stand in for the recently-departed Stan Lynch. Grohl was still reeling from Kurt Cobain’s passing and the dissolution of his own band, Nirvana. As he told MTV, the SNL performance marked the first time he was looking forward to playing drums again. Grohl brought his punk energy to The Heartbreakers’ hits “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Honey Bee.” Petty clearly liked what he heard and even asked Grohl to join the band, which would have deprived us of the Foo Fighters.
9: Kendrick Lamar: I, Pay For It (2014)
Still riding high from the critical acclaim of Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick Lamar used his second SNL appearance to perform “I,” his first post-Kid offering and a taste of his soon-to-be-released album To Pimp A Butterfly. Sporting black contact lenses and Busta Rhymes-inspired jerky choreography, Lamar gave a blistering performance of his self-love anthem. With a full backing band and singers, Lamar’s Isley Brothers-sampling track came to life in Studio 8H, delivering one of the best SNL musical performances of all time.
8: LL Cool J: Go Cut Creator Go (1987)
SNL’s casting has never been as progressive as their musical bookings. Almost a year after Run-DMC performed their rap-rock crossover “Walk This Way,” a then 17-year-old emerging rapper named LL Cool J made hip-hop history with his performance of “Go Cut Creator Go,” backed by DJs Cut Creator and Bobcat, who backed LL with their impressive scratching skills. The Queens MC had a hit debut with Radio, but it was sophomore record Bigger And Deffer that made him a star, which was clear as day on the SNL stage.
7: The Rolling Stones: Beast Of Burden, Shattered, Respectable (1978)
In October 1978, The Rolling Stones returned to the city that inspired their Some Girls album to perform on Saturday Night Live following the blockbuster success of the album. The Stones were both the hosts and musical guests of the evening and performed three tracks in a row in one 13-minute segment. But what’s most memorable about their appearance was the band’s raunchy stage antics, with Mick Jagger ripping Ronnie Wood’s shirt off during “Shattered,” then upping the ante and licking Wood’s face during (fittingly enough) ‘Respectable’.
6: R.E.M.: Shiny Happy People, Losing My Religion (1991)
Come for the synchronized choreography of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and The B-52s’ Kate Pierson, stay for the joyful rendition of their hit “Shiny Happy People.” R.E.M.’s debut also marks probably the only time Kate Pierson is underdressed for anything. The band juxtaposed this silly performance with an impassioned delivery of ‘Losing My Religion’.
5: Fear: Beef Baloney, New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones (1981)
So how did one of LA’s most notorious hardcore punk outfits end up on the SNL stage? Turns out the band counted show alum John Belushi as a huge fan, and he promised the showrunners he’d make a guest appearance if the band played. With the audience stacked with other punk legends including Minor Threat’s Ian Mackaye, Tesco Vee of The Meatmen, and Cro-Mags’ John Joseph, among others, Fear’s set turned 30 Rock into a full-fledged punk show, complete with moshing and crowd-surfing that scared the audiences both in the studio and at home (it was Halloween, after all). The band performed “Beef Boloney” and “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” going down in punk history while also earning themselves a permanent ban from the show.
4: Beastie Boys and Elvis Costello: Sabotage, Radio Radio (1999)
As much as SNL likes to court controversy by satirizing people and events, the show was having none of it back in 1977, when Elvis Costello And The Attractions stopped playing their single “Less Than Zero,” instead launching into “Radio Radio,” a rallying cry against corporate-controlled broadcasting. Costello was promptly banned from the show until they patched things up 12 years later, in 1989. Then, for the SNL’s 25th-anniversary show in 1999, Costello returned to parody his historic 1977 appearance, interrupting Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” performance before the foursome launched into a searing rendition of “Radio Radio.”
3: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Territorial Pissings (1992)
During its peak, SNL could not only make (or break) a band, it offered suburban America an exotic glimpse into the underground sounds that were exploding in music. Such is the case with Nirvana. When the band made their SNL debut, on January 11, 1992, they gave America its first taste of grunge on TV, turning the band and Kurt Cobain intro reluctant superstars. Following their manic performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” everyone was expecting ‘Come As You Are To’ to follow, but instead Cobain and company opted for an unexpected B-side, “Territorial Pissings,” before completely trashing the stage and their instruments. But the real controversy came after the bandmembers “made out” with each other during the end credits. Not only one of the best SNL musical performances, it gave Nevermind a boost that knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the No.1 spot and took “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to No.6.
2: David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World, TVC15, Boys Keep Swinging (1979)
No amount of Lady Gaga meat dresses could top David Bowie’s Dadaist performance on SNL in 1979. Coming out of his Berlin phase, Bowie is hoisted on stage in a box-like tuxedo by performance artists Joey Arias and German singer Klaus Nomi, as they sing with him on “The Man Who Sold The World.” It was one of the greatest musical appearances on television, a moment where vaudeville meets downtown New York. It would only get weirder from there, when Bowie returned to the stage in drag and walking a stuffed pink poodle for “TVC15” and then as a headless marionette for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.
1: Prince: Partyup (1981)
The 80s was an uneven time for SNL, but if one thing could save the show’s relevance it would be an electrifying performance by a 22-year-old Prince, spinning around the stage in a trench coat and go-go boots while performing his 1980 Dirty Mind cut “Partyup.” Though Prince was not the main musical guest that evening (Todd Rundgren was), the producers left a slot open for hot new talent – and they weren’t ready for what was in store. Sadly, Prince’s performance and the entire episode were scrubbed from the show’s history thanks to cast member Charles Rocket dropping an F-bomb live on air.
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