Home Music Music Lists

‘Saturday Night Live’ Rocks: 25 Greatest Musical Performances

From Nirvana to Queen, we rank the 25 greatest musical performances in the history of ‘Saturday Night Live’

The Tonight Show would have Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1987. They would wait until there was no danger at all,” Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels told Spin in 1993, “whereas we were more in touch with music, I think, because we were just putting on the music we were listening to. We were fans.” For its first decade, SNL had some of the most adventurous music booking on television – giving a national stage for punk, hip-hop and Devo. What followed was three more decades of providing one of the biggest possible platforms for the biggest possible stars. 

Play video

NBC/Getty

5

Elvis Costello: December 17th, 1977

Costello was a 23-year-old punk upstart when he
performed one of the most infamous acts of rebellion ever launched against a
demanding record label. According to the singer, Columbia Records “insisted”
he perform his understated new single “Less Than Zero” for his
American debut. Instead, Costello played about 10 seconds of the song, screamed
for his backing band the Attractions to stop, and burst into “Radio Radio,”
a protest against sanitized media that hadn’t even been released yet. “The
confused and indignant faces behind the camera were the funniest things we’d
seen all night,” Costello wrote in his memoir, “and we laughed all
the way to the bar if not the bank.”

Play video

NBC/Getty

4

Neil Young: September 30th, 1989

After nearly a decade of experimental music and commercial flatlining, Young came thrashing back with a kinetic, distortion-soaked performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” looking like a heavy-metal scarecrow and setting the stage for a career rebirth. “I had my trainer, and we just lifted weights and I did calisthenics [in my dressing room] to get my blood to the level it would be at after performing for an hour and 25 minutes,” said Young. 

Play video

NBC/Getty

3

U2: November 20th, 2004

As part of the promotional blitzkrieg for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the band performed the soaring “Vertigo”
and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” with Bono miming a
head butt (or, as he called it, “a Glasgow kiss”) into the SNL camera. The real
magic happened during the closing credits when the band completely broke from SNL tradition,
performing its classic debut single, “I Will Follow,” as Bono
wandered into the studio audience and embraced a tearful Amy Poehler. “My
whole body blushed,” Poehler wrote, “and I almost died from
excitement.”

Simon and Garfunkel: October 18th, 1975 SNL Performance Best

Bettman/Getty

2

Simon and Garfunkel: October 18th, 1975

SNL‘s second episode featured a historic reunion, the first TV appearance by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel since their 1970 breakup, and the first time they had shared the same stage in three years. The duo’s performances of “The Boxer,” Scarborough Fair” and their new single “My Little Town” were striking in their intimacy, at once raw, awkward and friendly. “So, you’ve come crawling back,” Simon taunted. In response, Garfunkel deadpanned: “It’s very nice of you to invite me on your show.”

Play video

NBC/Getty

1

Fear: October 31st, 1981

Saturday Night Live has frequently brought new underground sounds to a wider audience.
But no one was prepared for the mayhem that erupted when John Belushi and
writer Michael O’Donoghue invited L.A. hardcore punks Fear to perform. They became pied pipers to what a New York Post headline dubbed a “riot.” Led by Lee Ving’s bluesy vocal chops and snarky asides (“It’s great to be here in New Jersey”), Fear blurred through a convulsive performance of songs like “Beef Bologna” as dozens of authentic punks (including members of Minor Threat, Cro-Mags and Negative Approach) slam-danced, swarmed, stage-dove and screamed things like “New York sucks!” and “Negative Approach is gonna fuck you up!”

“The real audience at Saturday Night Live was scared to death,” frontman Lee Ving told Rolling Stone. “They didn’t know what was happening with all the mayhem. The camera people were trying to protect their cameras. Dick Ebersol, who was stage manager, got hit in the chest with a pumpkin.”

Ebersol darted into the control room and promptly had director Dave Wilson re-run the Eddie Murphy prison-poetry short film Prose and Cons right as the band was launching into their third song un under five minutes, “Let’s Have a War.” The bloody loogie crossed the boundaries of “edgy” late night programming, introduced living rooms to punk’s unique style of dancing and reveled in the anarchy of live television.

“As a result,” said Ving, “I have become one of the esteemed members of the permanently banned.”

Show Comments