Mr. Peabody! Could you please tell your pet boy Sherman to set the Wayback Machine to October 30, 1976?
You see, ladies and gentlemen, that very day, I was spending the night at Mike Bond’s house, along with about 10 to 15 other seventh grade boys, to celebrate Mike’s fourteenth birthday. That night, the usual teenage shenanigans took place like football, basketball, exploring the trails that went from behind his parents’ home down to the park in our hometown, running around the nearby cemetery because it was old, spooky AND the night before Halloween, and any other dumb stuff a teenage boy does with a bunch of guys. Of course, our collective IQ dropped precipitously, but that always happens with any group of boys between the ages of 8 and 25.
Now, with all due respect to Mike, perhaps my oldest friend (He’s not old, only four months older than me. We met at the first game that our old high school had and have been friends ever since. Our school opened in 1969, so that’s a fricking LONG time. Crap! It’s 50 years now!), that night was significant for a whole other reason. While his deviously dry father was attempting to pay one of us twenty dollars to sleep the night in that old cemetery, I stumbled through their family and noticed Mike’s high school age older sister watching TV. I asked her what was on, and she said it was some new comedy show called NBC’s Saturday Night. First off, Saturday Night Live was the name of some lame sketch comedy show on ABC the previous year that was hosted by Howard Cosell, not a name associated with comedy though Bill Murray was originally in that cast. Now, I was still cutting my comedic teeth at the time which translates into I thought Jimmy Walker on Good Times was gold.
Needless to say, I sat down to watch this mind-blowing show. I really did not know what to think when I saw it. But, I watch it anyway. Then, about halfway through this show, the host (it was the legendary Buck Henry) announced the musical guest The Band. Now, at the time I was just discovering KISS, so I had no idea who The Band was. However, I was just blown away by their performance of “Life Is a Carnival,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (I only knew Joan Baez’ version, even if I had NO context concerning her or the song) and, then what soon became my favorite “Stage Fright.” I sat there mesmerized by this group of men who played so differently than what was popular at the time. Nope, this was WAY different than “Chevy Van” or “Run Joey Run.” And, this comedy thing was so much funnier than the stuff I thought was funny on Welcome Back Kotter. That night changed my life in, oh, so many ways.
From that night forward, the show that eventually became Saturday Night Live, became my go-to show. I stuck with it during those lean years in college, though Eddie Murphy, arguably the most important cast member of all time, kept the franchise afloat while Fridays and SCTV were the sketch shows to watch. Yet, the thing that kept me coming back, week after week after week, was not the comedic genius, because that only worked on occasion. No, I was always keeping an eye on who the musical guests were, especially in the first twenty years, when those guests could be daring and off-the-wall.
Since this is mainly a live show, most of the musical guests perform live, though in the early days, ABBA did do their performance as if they were on The Carol Burnett Show and lip-synced their hit “S.O.S.” during a sketch. During that initial five-year run, the musical guests ranged from Gil Scott-Heron, jazz great Sun Ra, punk pioneer Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, reggae god Jimmy Cliff, Talking Heads, The B-52’s and so many others. And during the Eighties, we got to watch L.A. punk pioneers Fear, Cowboy Junkies, Living Colour and so many others. Heck, rap artists were even booked as early as 1981 (The Funky 4+1)! Nowadays, we mostly get the artists who are making a noise on the pop chart, but back in the day, kids, we got our musical minds blown.
What I want to present to you is a list of my 50 favorite musical performances over the first 44 seasons of Saturday Night Live. I have decided to list these chronologically because how do you separate Elvis Costello stopping his band early in a record company requested song to play his immortal “Radio Radio” instead, Patti Smith screaming “Jesus Christ died for our sins but not mine!” before going into “Gloria” early Easter morning 1976, Fear’s Halloween 1981 full-on punk onslaught that included onstage slam-dancing and got the whole performance cut away from live or Rage Against the Machine’s 1996 performance when they unfurled an upside down American flag on national TV only to get their second song cut.
So, buckle your seat belts! And, away we go!
18 October 1975: Simon & Garfunkel reunion – “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair” and “My Little Town”. Paul Simon almost seems like a cast member on SNL. He was the host on the second show ever and did a reunion set with his old partner Art Garfunkel.
17 April 1976: Patti Smith Group – “Gloria”. There’s something better in the music world than what’s on the radio, and this was when I found out.
30 October 1976: The Band – “Life Is a Carnival,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Stage Fright” and “Georgia on My Mind”. The Band was the greatest band ever, and they played on SNL!
20 November 1976: George Harrison & Paul Simon – “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound”. Everyone forgets this because Simon was hosting and did his monologue in a turkey costume. But, Harrison’s first comeback was special due to this duet.
12 November 1977: Ray Charles – “I Can See Clearly Now,” “What’d I Say” and “Oh, What a Beautiful World”. This man was truly a genius!
12 December 1977: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – “Radio Radio”. Instead of Sex Pistols, who were battling visa issues, SNL got Costello when he was arguably the most pissed off man in music. So, instead of playing “Less Than Zero,” as his record company wanted, he stopped the band and made SNL history with this rousing version of a song “biting the hand that feeds them.”
18 February 1978: Billy Joel – “Only the Good Die Young”. Before that night, Joel was a struggling singer/songwriter. After that night, he became BILLY JOEL, future Rock & Rock Hall of Famer.
14 October 1978: Devo – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. This disjointed, robotic cover of the Stones’ classic changed my generation forever. Every nerd like me had five new heroes after that night.
10 February 1979: Talking Heads – “Take Me to the River”. Another real game-changer in my musical tastes.
10 November 1979: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee”. The night I became a HUGE Tom Petty fan.
18 December 1979: David Bowie – “The Man Who Sold the World,” “TVC15” and “Boys Keep Swinging”. Three songs, three mind-blowing performances. One in a blow-up outfit, one in a dress and one with Bowie’s head superimposed on a dancing puppet’s body. I knew the Eighties were going to be cool!
14 February 1981: The Funky 4+1 – “That’s the Joint”. Ground zero of the rap explosion thanks to host Debbie Harry’s request.
21 February 1981: Prince – “Partyup”. This was Prince telling us that a whole new thing was happening, but we just didn’t realize it.
31 October 1981: Fear – “Beef Baloney” and “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophone”. SNL proved once and for all that they had the most guts when booking talent. They get thumbs down from me for breaking to commercial when the mayhem just started getting good.
25 September 1982: Queen – “Under Pressure”. Sure, Bowie didn’t perform with the band, but they proved that night they were still a force to be reckoned with.
9 October 1982: The Clash – “Straight to Hell” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”. Any time The Clash were on TV, it was a MUST SEE night.
8 October 1983: John Cougar Mellencamp – “Pink Houses” and “Crumblin’ Down”. Our favorite Hoosier finally made the big time!
5 May 1984: Spinal Tap – “Christmas with the Devil” and “Big Bottom”. Are they a real band or not? Who cares!
2 February 1985: Tina Turner – “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Private Dancer” and “Better Be Good to Me”. Turner capped off her phenomenal comeback year with this performance, showing all of us her full musical range from R&B vixen, to moody sultriness to the Queen of Rock and Roll.
18 January 1986: The Replacements – “Bastards of Young” and “Kiss Me on the Bus”. Yes, The Mats were hit and miss. Yes, they were drunk. Yes, they dropped the third “f-bomb” on air in the show’s history. But, man, they were so cool that night.
18 October 1986: Run-DMC – “Walk This Way” and “Hit It, Run”. This was the game-changer because when Malcolm-Jamal Warner announced Run-DMC and the guys tore it up, rap was now a financial boom in addition to a musical force.
24 November 1986: Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo – “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”. This was the night Weekend Vampire got their career. Paul Simon CAN do anything!
24 October 1987: LL Cool J – “Go Cut Creator Go”. The Funky 4+1 knocked down the doors. Run-DMC showed there was no denying rap. And LL said, “Rap is here to stay!”
15 October 1988: The Sugarcubes – “Birthday”. Hello world! There IS rock music in Iceland, and Björk is their lead singer.
30 September 1989: Neil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World”. Just when you want to write off Young, he comes back stronger than ever to change the world in more ways than you can count.
27 October 1990: Mariah Carey – “Visions of Love”. Carey was just three years out of high school, when she showed all of us that she was next in line behind Whitney Houston on the Gen X diva scale. And, Mariah looked like she was on her way back from shopping at the mall the way she was dressed.
1 December 1990: Faith No More – “Epic”. Rap and Metal?!?! Who knew that someone other than Run-DMC could concoct the Reece’s Cup of the rock world!
13 April 1991: R.E.M. – “Shiny Happy People”. With a little help from The B-52’s Kate Pearson.
14 January 1992: Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Territorial Pissings”. There’s a new sheriff in town, and the name’s Nirvana!
11 April 1992: Pearl Jam – “Alive” and “Porch”. Now, grunge IS here to stay. At least for another two years.
13 October 1992: Sinead O’Connor – “War”. Perhaps, the most infamous performance in which O’Connor rips up a photo of Pope John Paul II after her a capella version of the Bob Marley song.
19 November 1994: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Honey Bee”. Original drummer Stan Lynch had left the band, so Tom called up the not-yet-ubiquitous Dave Grohl to fill in and history was made.
13 April 1996: Rage Against the Machine – “Bulls on Parade”. The most incendiary band of the Nineties provoked not only NBC but the country by placing an upside down American flag on their speakers. Boy, do we need this band more than ever now!
6 December 1997: Metallica – “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains”. It took SNL ten years to get Metallica in Studio 8, but when they finally got there it was magical.
14 October 2000: Radiohead – “Idioteque”. Was singer Thom Yorke actually having a seizure during this performance? Who cares! It was so rock and roll!
19 May 2001: Weezer – “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun”. My boys were like “Weezer’s on SNL!” It was their Clash moment. Still, they were fantastic! Weezer, that is!
2 March 2002: Outkast – “Hey Ya!” and “Ms. Jackson”. My favorite rap duo of all-time conquered SNL and became the biggest rap group in the process.
19 October 2002: The White Stripes – “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”. Finally, garage/punk rock was back!
20 November 2004: U2 – “Vertigo,” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” and “I Will Follow”. The biggest band in the world came, they saw and they kicked our ass!
15 September 2012: Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”. This man came on like gangbusters. And while guest guitarist John Mayer was ripping a hot solo, Ocean played a video game on an arcade set.
18 May 2013: Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”. Anyone else remember when Kanye was cool and not crazy? Man, I miss those days!
28 September 2013: Arcade Fire – “Afterlife”. I really thought Arcade Fire was going to be the Millennials’ U2 on this night.
29 March 2014: Sam Smith – “Stay with Me”. Before the show, I was “WTF?!?! Who is Sam Smith?” After this first song, I was like “This guy is the new Boy George!” That’s a huge compliment from me!
18 May 2014: St. Vincent – “Birth in Reverse”. While she was killing it, I kept thinking that I finally found my new Talking Heads!
1 November 2014: Prince & Third Eye Girl – “Clouds,” “Plectrum Electrum,” “Marz” and “Another Love”. The Purple One has had four classic performances on SNL, but this one was the most poignant of them all.
15 November 2014: Kendrick Lamar – “I” and “Pay for It”. The best Millennial rapper kills showed the world just why he is who he is.
17 January 2015: Sia – “Elastic Heart”. Sia showed that she was an ARTIST.
30 January 2015: D’Angelo & the Vanguard – “Really Love”. D’Angelo had been quiet for 15 LONG years when he came back and blew us away. Then, he retreated into the mist again.
19 December 2015: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Meet Me in the City,” “The Tie That Binds” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. It’s The Boss, ’nuff said!
5 May 2018: Childish Gambino – “This Is America”. The musical alter-ego of the brilliant Donald Glover just destroyed this song that night. It’s no wonder this song got a Grammy.