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‘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. 

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13

Pearl Jam: April 11th, 1992

A few months after nirvana’s appearance, their Seattle peers brought their own vision of grunge to SNL, playing heroic versions of their hit single “Alive” and “Porch.” Eddie Vedder even got in an election-year dig by wearing a no bush ’92 T-shirt. “Me and a buddy went in one of the rooms and got loaded in honor of John Belushi,” said guitarist Mike McCready. 

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12

Nirvana: January 11th, 1992

The week they knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard charts, Nirvana squalled through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the punk rant “Territorial Pissings,” complete with an instrument-trashing finale. During the closing credits, Kurt Cobain kissed his bandmates on the mouth “just to spite homophobes.” Said drummer Dave Grohl of playing SNL, “That’s when I knew it was nuts.” 

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11

Tina Turner: February 2nd, 1985

Introduced by host Alex Karras as “the
First Lady of American popular music,” Turner performed a shimmying “What’s
Love Got to Do With It,” a darkly dramatic “Private Dancer” and
an explosive “Better Be Good to Me.” She even appeared in a skit as a
love interest of Martin Short’s giddy nerd Ed Grimley. “In a dress rehearsal
for an Ed Grimley scene, Tina Turner’s top slipped, and she kind of flashed us,”
Short recalled. “That was one of the great moments.”

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10

Rage Against the Machine: April 13th, 1996

Seconds before Rage blasted through “Bulls on Parade ” – the heaviest performance in the show’s history – a battle broke out between SNL stagehands and the RATM road crew over an upside-down American flag the band hung as a prop. “As soon as we’re offstage, the show’s producer, Marci Klein . . . informs our tour manager that there will be no second song,” said guitarist Tom Morello. “No cozy wave goodnight at the end, no hugging [host] Steve Forbes. It’s just, ‘Get out of the building right now.'”

the Band perform Saturday Night Live

I told him we wouldn't want to host the show," recalled Robbie Robertson. "We weren't really that funny."

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9

The Band: October 30th, 1976

Fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels wanted the Band on SNL in the run-up to their legendary farewell concert, the Last Waltz, and even offered them a hosting gig. “I told him we wouldn’t want to host the show,” recalled Robbie Robertson. “We weren’t really that funny.” Instead they became the first band to play four songs on SNL, closing with a rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.” “And a few days after that,” wrote drummer Levon Helm, “Jimmy Carter was elected president.”

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8

Devo: October 14th, 1978

In the Eighties, Devo would become MTV stars. But in 1978, they were still New Wave outliers from Akron, Ohio. Lorne Michaels got a look at their yellow jumpsuits and twitchy stage presence and decided their robotic cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was not ready for late night. Michaels only acquiesced when the band’s manager offered a future performance by his more famous client Neil Young as bait for booking Devo. “We went from playing in front of 200, 300 people a night to 3,000, 5,000 people a night,” said bassist Jerry Casale. “We had to stop the tour and rebook it after Saturday Night Live.”

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7

David Bowie: December 15th, 1979

Bowie was in his Berlin phase when he made this
iconically weird SNL appearance, blending
pop, punk, fashion and gender roles. He took the stage alongside unknown
performance artists Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi, sang “TVC15” while
wearing a dress and heels and walking a stuffed pink poodle, then put on a
freaky headless marionette get-up for a rendition of “Boys Keep Swinging.”
“We didn’t have to do anything but be ourselves that night,” says
Arias, who did choreography and provided backup vocals alongside Nomi. “People
still come up to me on tour and say, ‘You changed my life.'”

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6

Sinead O’Connor: October 3rd, 1992

“I was
stunned,” said Lorne Michaels of the single most controversial moment in SNL history, “but
not as much as the guy from the audience who was trying to charge her.” In
a performance that garnered more than 4,000 phone calls to NBC, O’Connor
delivered a chilling a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,”
changing the line “fight racial injustice” to “fight sexual
abuse,” and then tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II. O’Connor later
admitted that viewers might’ve missed the significance of the act, a protest
against incidents of sexual abuse in the Irish church that emerged years before
similar scandals hit the U.S. “It’s very understandable that the American
people did not know what I was going on about,” she said later. 

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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.”

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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. 

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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