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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. 



The Replacements: January 18th, 1986

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



The Rolling Stones: October 7th, 1978

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.” 



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. 

Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty


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.” 



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.”

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty


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."



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.”



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.”