“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.
No wonder Wayne and Garth were fans. Queen frontman Freddie Mercury had recently blown out his voice in a fight with his boyfriend, but he still managed to pull off “Under Pressure” and a show-stopping “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” The band stopped touring four years later due to Mercury’s failing health, leaving SNL as Queen’s final U.S. performance with the legendary singer.
In a move that would be almost unfathomable today, SNL let avant-jazz legend Sun Ra and his Arkestra close out Season Three; dressed like space-traveling pharaohs, they delivered a free-form mind warp. “The Tonight Show would have Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1987. They would wait until there was no danger at all,” said Lorne Michaels about SNL‘s early years. “We were just putting on the music we were listening to.”
For his fifth of eight SNL appearances, Petty was down a Heartbreaker, as he had recently fired drummer Stan Lynch. But he ended up with a pretty good replacement in the form of Dave Grohl, whose band Nirvana had met their tragic end just seven months earlier. Grohl brought headbanging thunder to “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Honey Bee.”
“I even discussed with Dave about joining the band,” said Petty. “And he wanted to, but he had his own solo thing developing at the time, the Foo Fighters. And, of course, he would rather have done that.”
In a truly historic moment, Saturday Night Live presented the first performance of rap music in the history of national network television. At the request of host and hip-hop evangelist Deborah Harry of Blondie, the Bronx’s deliriously fun Funky 4 + 1 introduced Middle America to group chants, hot-potato-passing rhymes and a DJ running the show – though the band actually ended up rapping over a prerecorded track. “The people on the show were so nervous,” Blondie guitarist Chris Stein said. “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.”
A 22-year-old Prince exploded onto SNL with a high-octane performance of “Partyup,” bouncing, spinning, sliding, playing a wild guitar solo and then slamming down the mic and storming offstage. “I was blown away,” said producer Jean Doumanian. “He was just the most original act I had seen in a long time.” Unfortunately, Prince would be overshadowed by cast member Charles Rocket, who uttered his infamous on-air “fuck” during this very episode.
Only in the Seventies: On a night when
Gerald Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, hosted, Smith brought the punk scene
brewing at CBGB to 30 Rock. Soon Gilda Radner would be spoofing Smith with her
punk character Candy Slice. “My band thought it was hilarious,” said
Carey was just three years out of high school in
Greenlawn, New York, when she hit the SNL stage. Dressed like she was on her way to the mall,
the singer effortlessly performed a pyrotechnic version of her debut Number One
hit, “Vision of Love,” and the lung-bursting “Vanishing.”
She would play on the show three more times over the years, and cast member
Cheri Oteri honored Carey with an impression in 1998.
Host Ray Charles didn’t just demonstrate his deft comic chops alongside Dan Aykroyd’s Tom Snyder and the cast’s whitewashed singing troupe “the Young Caucasians”; he made the show his own. Joined by members of his Fifties horn section and his backup singers, the Raelettes, Charles did rollicking takes of “I Can See Clearly Now,” “What’d I Say” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and led an end-of-show jam along with the cast as a joyous send-off.
“I’m a minimalist in a rapper’s body,” West declared around the same time he made his fifth appearance on Saturday Night Live. It’s one of the most devastatingly- intense performances ever delivered on the show by a major pop star. West stomped through “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” from his brutal new album, Yeezus, backed by a band shrouded in darkness as stark images of barking dogs and flashing price tags were projected behind him. The next time he was featured as a musical guest, in 2016, he reportedly called the SNL crew “white motherfuckers.”
In 2013, Kenan Thompson parodied LL Cool J as “the most lowdown, hardcore cast member of NCIS.” That was sort of ironic, since his 1987 musical-guest appearance remains the greatest hip-hop moment in the history of the show; the 19-year-old LL stormed through his hard-hitting “Go Cut Creator Go,” backed by two DJs, Cut Creator and Bobcat, whose behind-the-back scratching wowed the studio audience.
The Minneapolis punk misfits manufactured a legendary
feat of career suicide. After boozing it up backstage with host Harry Dean
Stanton, they stumbled through “Bastards of Young,” then switched
clothes before coming out to attempt “Kiss Me on the Bus,” during
which frontman Paul Westerberg yelled “Come on, fucker” at guitarist
Bob Stinson, who obliged by mooning the audience. The chaos led to the band
receiving a lifetime ban from Lorne Michaels. “We were trying to do
whatever possible to make sure that was a memorable evening,” Westerberg
Riding the huge success of their blockbuster LP Some Girls, the Stones hosted the show and performed three of that album’s songs in one feverish 13-minute segment. Mick Jagger was in an especially playful mood, leaning over to lick guitarist Ron Wood. “I had my eyes closed for a few seconds and suddenly I felt this wet, warm thing slurping on my face,” said Wood. “It was Mick’s tongue. I tried to kick him, but he was too fast.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.'”
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.”
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.”