In its four decades of endless laughs and infamous shenanigans, Saturday Night Live has produced some of the most beloved and iconic snapshots in the history of American comedy. Countless characters have leapt off the television screen and into the hearts of viewers for generations, from the stone-faced Blues Brothers to the spastic Spartan Cheerleaders to the glorious cultural exploits of Stefon. The writers, actors, and pop-culture heavyweights who’ve had the pleasure of hosting the show are a collection of greats who’ve gone on to net Oscars, stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and more — but SNL has never been a one-trick pony in the legacy creation department. Over 40 years, SNL has drawn stunning musical performances from artists of all walks of genre, documenting the rise of rock mavens, hip-hop kings, and pop players alike. To perform on SNL is to really, truly make it, proving that the late-night TV mainstay is about breaking artists who make you laugh and artists who make you sing (and/or scream out a chorus at the top of your lungs) in equal measure.
These 40 musical moments spanning the history of Saturday Night Live are not necessarily the most pristine, the most technically sound, or even the most enjoyable; they’re not a collection of perfect presentations and radio-ready tracks. The chaos that ensues in Studio 8H makes legends out of men and shadows out of artists who aren’t up to the challenge of performing on its stage, and the most memorable musical moments can be dubbed as good, bad, infamous, and everything in between. Read (and listen!) on to find out who made the cut, and let us know if we missed your favorite. (Just don’t send the Land Shark after us if we did.)
40. Sam Smith (2014)
Sam Smith’s extraordinary debut, In the Lonely Hour, is now a Grammy-decorated smash, but he made a splash on American late-night television long before the record dropped and the world fell for the baby-faced British crooner. Smith stopped by SNL in the spring of 2014 to play his on-the-rise single, “Stay With Me,” and “Lay Me Down” with a string section and choir. The performance would serve as Smith’s first major introduction to the American viewing public on his own (i.e., without Disclosure, with whom he achieved his mainstream break with “Latch”), and it set a high bar that he’d repeatedly match, and surpass, in the coming months as he began to sell out venue after venue on his first tour stateside.
39. Taylor Swift (2009)
Here’s the pop goddess–to-be at the peak of her young-talent-being-real phase, singing live, without digital sweetening, and making damn sure we know it. Touchingly, she’s a bit uncertain on the first verse, feeling around for the final note the way you might at karaoke. A major part of Swift’s appeal is the sense that she’s just like us, even if she always looks like a Disney mermaid freshly prepped for a Vanity Fair cover shoot. But key to her enduring success is that she and her team pen killer bridges and choruses like those she treats us to here — that glittery sugar rush you feel when belting “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts” radiates out of her as well, even if the star singing it would never be the one in the bleachers.
38. Lady Gaga featuring R. Kelly (2013)
For her 2013 turn on SNL, Lady Gaga not only sang tracks from ARTPOP but hosted the episode as well, proving that her thespian and comedic chops are just as formidable as her pipes. Gaga pounded out “Gypsy” on a Technicolor piano and looked like she was clad in a UFO while doing so, but “Do What U Want,” her duet with R. Kelly, elicited more raised eyebrows than anything else that night. Within five seconds of joining her onstage, Kelly was wearing Lady Gaga, hitting his notes with the pop diva thrown over his shoulder like a sack of disco potatoes, only for Gaga to turn around and ride him throughout the song’s climax.
37. No Doubt (1996)
Tragic Kingdom brought No Doubt out of Anaheim and into the mainstream, making Gwen Stefani’s one of the most immediately recognizable voices of Nineties rock and pop in the process and letting the world know that power chords and reggae rhythms could make it a radder place. For their 1996 SNL debut, No Doubt brought the somber “Don’t Speak” and riotous “Excuse Me Mr.” to the table, proving that Stefani’s range went far beyond the shrill pubescence of “Just a Girl.”
36. Spice Girls (1997)
It’s rare for a musical guest to not only match but also exceed the borderline-nuclear energy levels put forth by the Saturday Night Live cast for any given broadcast, but the Spice Girls did just that, in the most delightfully campy and poppy way, with “Wannabe.” 1997 saw the rise of Girl Power and the hugely successful British lasses who championed that cause, and by the time they made their way to SNL to hype their breakout single, they had the cheesy dance moves, lip gloss application, and zigga-zig-ahhhs down pat. They’re not perfect vocalists — not by a long shot — but the Spice Girls were fun, and if that’s not appropriate for Studio 8H, nothing is.
35. Arcade Fire (2013)
The drums. The glitter. The all-white outfits. Swoon. Rocking bright, black, and sparkly bandit-style eye makeup, Win Butler (along with his merry band of Montrealers) killed it with this one, delivering a performance that was so musically on point it almost didn’t even seem live (although we would never, of course, accuse these legends of Ashlee Simpson–ing. More on that later!). Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife” was a poppy, keyboard-heavy explosion, a big crowd of megatalented superbabes making layers of sound until the listener wasn’t even sure what was going on anymore. Yay Arcade Fire! Yay Montreal! Yay Canada!
34. Crisis of Conformity (2010)
The dad-rock four-piece who took the stage at a wedding reception on SNL back in February 2010 only looked like they were about to launch into a stripped-down rendition of ELO’s “Sweet Talkin’ Woman.” There were a few subtle hints that harsher sounds were ahead, like the shot of the wedding sign that opens the sketch, which reads “Cadena-Norton Wedding.” Cadena is a nod to Black Flag’s Dez Cadena, and Norton’s for Hüsker Dü drummer Greg Norton. Both are among Fred Armisen’s favorite Eighties punk bands. Hosting SNL that night was Ashton Kutcher, who played guitar, and with the Foo Fighters as the musical guest, Dave Grohl easily reprised his role as hardcore drummer (he did the same job for D.C.’s Scream in the late Eighties). On bass was Bill Hader. The tune — written by Armisen — was “Fist Fight!” It was a hit with audiences because the song’s a fine example of the genre and is full of references you’d only hear back then: a sarcastic lyric about Happy Meals, followed by jabs at Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig — somebody you’ll just have to Google in 2015. Armisen, playing fiftysomething dad, slam-dances into tables of wedding guests, stage-dives onto the cake, and trashes the wedding party’s table. It’s glorious. “It’s just a love letter,” Armisen later told Paper mag in an interview about the sketch. “It’s a thank-you to all the bands who inspired me.” Drag City quietly released the record as a seven-inch, complete with the fake bio of Eighties HC also-rans.
33. The Sugarcubes (1988)
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: That’s a baby Björk! For those unfamiliar with the eccentric Icelandic talent’s musical beginnings, Björk fronted the Sugarcubes and made her Saturday Night Live debut with the alt band when they flew to the States for their first American tour. Björk’s otherworldly voice and the surreal, disjointed instrumentation of the Sugarcubes made for one of the weirdest rock gigs that had graced the SNL stage by that point, but rest assured that the discordance of “Birthday” is intentional, and not a bunch of confused rockers trying to keep up with her feral screams. [
32. Mariah Carey (1990)
Pick any live cut of Mariah Carey’s from the first decade of her career and you’re guaranteed to experience some spine-tingling chills courtesy of that zillion-octave range of hers — and the first single off her first album is special for this very reason. It’s not like Saturday Night Live was pushing you to fall in love with Carey merely months after her big debut. They just knew that “Emotions” and “Fantasy” and a barrage of angelic ballads and pop purrs were well on their way, so they figured they’d introduce you with a killer live cut first.
31. The Kinks (1977)
For a blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em five minutes, the Kinks blasted through the more renowned hits they put out in the decade-and-change they’d spent cavorting about the world in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “A Well Respected Man,” and “Lola” made for less of an SNL guest performance and more of the briefest Kinks concert ever, but the bluesy blitz serves as a solid musical touchstone from the show’s second season.
30. Aerosmith (1990)
WE’RE NOT WORTHY! Before Wayne’s World became a major motion picture two-part epic, it was a sketch on SNL, and Aerosmith were one of the rock acts to swing through Wayne and Garth’s basement on the way to the stage to make good on their musical-guest duties. They performed four times on SNL in a period of just over a decade — appearing in 1990, 1993, 1997, and 2001 — with “Janie’s Got a Gun” serving as their first-set highlight. We couldn’t track down a video of Steven Tyler screaming himself into the stratosphere at SNL, but their Wayne’s World detour is too good a glimpse into the future of Nineties rock to resist.
29. Patti Smith (1976)
Smith’s cover of Them’s “Gloria” was the crown jewel of her now-iconic debut album, Horses, but the tune isn’t really a cover: She made the verses her own, rewriting the majority of them and throwing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” into the punk-lyric hall of fame. A year after Horses dropped, Smith was booked to perform “Gloria” during the very first season of Saturday Night Live, and it remains one of the rawest and most kinetic performances the show has seen.
28. Tom Waits (1977)
Kind of surprising, when you think about it, that Tom Waits has only musical-guested once on SNL — and on that occasion he performed only one song. That tune, “Eggs and Sausage,” is from Waits’s 1975 live double album Nighthawks at the Diner, which presents another curiosity, in that the singer-songwriter had released another LP, Small Change, in the interim. Later that year he would go into the studio to record Foreign Affairs. If we’d been consulted, we’d have had Waits do two songs on SNL on that April night in ’77, and, further, suggested that both come from Small Change. (“Invitation to the Blues” and the title cut, as long as we’re fantasizing.) But historical revisionism is not our cup of joe, so “Eggs and Sausage” it is. The other musical act that night was Brick, a one-hit funk wonder out of Atlanta that performed “Dazz,” a song that spent a month at the top of Billboard‘s r&b singles chart. Take that, Waits.
27. Lana Del Rey (2012)
Listen, we’re not here to defend Lana Del Rey’s monotonal mess just because we feel bad for her — but we do (feel bad), for everyone involved, really. From the moment an overeager Daniel Radcliffe fumbles the introduction, you can tell something not only bad but uncomfortable is about to go down. It’s borderline painful to even try to deconstruct the performance that inspired the internet’s swift ire, but let’s begin with the benefit of the doubt: “Video Games” isn’t exactly a dance number. Del Rey’s drone is the song’s defining feature, and reflects in form what the submissive lyrics contribute to the whole tragic, Lynchian package. It would have been like inviting Morrissey to perform and then complaining because his sobs ruined the singing. Del Rey’s nerves are painfully transparent onstage. Her heavy arm-swinging and lack of commitment to eye contact don’t help either. In terms of showmanship, there are any number of buskers in the real Grand Central who have it way more together.
26. FEAR (1981)
“They look very frightening, but they’re really very nice,” Donald Pleasence told TV audiences before FEAR played SNL on October 31, 1981. A riot on live TV was about to break out. Around the stage were dozens of punk rockers from New York and D.C. who were invited in to fill the room for TV cameras during a dismal season, ratings-wise. What resulted was “by far the strangest musical booking in SNL history.” During FEAR’s “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” the punks went nuts. And in front of a live studio audience, there was moshing and stage dives. So how did this vile punk band get on national TV? John Belushi. In Belushi: A Biography, Dan Aykroyd says, “John had become one of the first punk-rock fans in America. He used to drag me to CBGB’s all the time…Now it was FEAR.” Belushi reportedly offered the band a spot on the soundtrack for his movie Neighbors, but that fell through and the band was offered a spot on SNL instead, causing about $20,000 in damage, according to news reports at the time.
25. The Grateful Dead (1978)
The Grateful Dead would seem a no-brainer as Saturday Night Live musical guests. It didn’t hurt, though, that lead writer Al Franken was a Deadhead. The band made two SNL appearances in consecutive seasons — one in 1978, the other in 1980. The first time around, though they were promoting the about-to-be-released Shakedown Street, the band opened with an old chestnut, “Casey Jones.” When they returned later in the show, they went with a Shakedown twosome, “I Need a Miracle” and “Good Lovin’.” Jerry Garcia worshippers will favor “Casey,” but we’re going with the more era-appropriate medley, which showcases an impeccably coiffed guitarist Bob Weir on lead vocals, as well as the dulcet harmonies and flowing brunet locks of Donna Godchaux. [
24. Sia (2015)
The infamously stage-frightened Sia is constantly challenging expectations for the typical stage setup, as the Australian singer reworks her performances so that she doesn’t have to face the audience at all. SNL was no exception to her rule. When she stopped by Studio 8H in early 2015 to perform “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart,” two explosive singles from her incredible 1000 Forms of Fear, Sia sported a facial covering and brought a mime and interpretive dancers with her. Maddie Ziegler (of Dance Moms fame) has rocked Sia’s platinum bob before as the dancer featured in her videos for the aforementioned singles, so she reprised her routine for the latter for the SNL audience and brought a high-art element to a stage that’s far more suited for lowbrow comedy — and it worked.
23. Kanye West (2014)
Saturday Night Live‘s 38th season finale served as the proper debut for what would become the first singles from Yeezus, with Kanye seizing the opportunity to shake up the show’s typical performance structure with a brazen, bombastic take on “Black Skinhead.” The performance stunned viewers along several fronts: Jarring visuals flashed behind West on an otherwise pitch-black stage, and that’s to say nothing of Yeezy’s frenetic output over the track’s deafening beat. From here on out, SNL‘s performances took a turn for the inventive, with musical guests in the 39th and 40th seasons testing the limits of their own set designs for their time on the Studio 8H stage — and they’ve got Kanye to thank for that initial push.
22. Pearl Jam (1994)
In 1994, there was no bigger band in the world than Pearl Jam. On their first SNL performance two years earlier, the band had been wide-eyed, just-happy-to-be-here rookies who even appeared in a sketch (pretending to ogle host Sharon Stone). By the time they rolled into New York on April 16 for their second go-round, Pearl Jam had turned into the practiced, too-serious, celebrity-shunning anti–rock stars they are still most associated with today. They were wrapping up a long tour behind their sophomore album, Vs., but had written most of their next album, Vitalogy, on the road. The first (of three!) songs they performed on this night would be the debut of a new track, “Not For You,” in addition to Vs. standouts “Rearviewmirror” and “Daughter.” This performance was notable for two other reasons: It would be the last time most of us would see Pearl Jam’s seminal drummer, Dave Abbruzzese, who would be fired shortly after playing the tour’s final show the next night at the Paramount Theater (and superfans know that the band had pretty much already decided to fire him prior to this SNL appearance, which makes watching him here all the more depressing). The episode was also taped just eight days after Kurt Cobain was found dead in Seattle. During the final credits, frontman Eddie Vedder pulled back his jacket to reveal a letter “K” written over his heart. Pearl Jam would return to the show several more times over the years, but this one (hosted by Emilio Estevez!) might have been the most Nineties episode of any show ever.
21. Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg and Eminem (1999)
Compton (and Detroit)’s finest exploded onto the SNL stage to celebrate a happy occasion: Dr. Dre’s eagerly anticipated return to the mic. Three weeks before the release of 2001, his first album since The Chronic seven years prior, Dre tapped Snoop Dogg and then-rising rapper and protégé Eminem to perform the two singles most perfectly suited for that particular promo cycle: “Still D.R.E.” and “Forgot About Dre.” Marshall Mathers is baby-faced here, Snoop’s more alert in this particular clip than we’ve seen him in years, and Dre slices through his verses with surgical precision, making this one of the most incendiary rap performances the show’s ever booked.
20. Queen (1982)
Only Freddie Mercury can make an acoustic guitar look and sound that smooth. Queen brought “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to Saturday Night Live in 1982, so The Game — their eighth and best-selling album in the United States — had long since invaded the ears of Americans along with its feel-good single. The Queen SNL performance is exuberant, effortless, and just as easy to sing along with as the original track — an anomaly in the Queen oeuvre, to be sure — and revisiting the clip is just another painful reminder that the brilliant Mercury left us far too soon.
19. Bruce Springsteen (1992)
Despite the fact that he wrote some of the most iconic rock anthems of the Eighties and his bluejean-clad butt is one of the more beloved images of the decade, Springsteen didn’t make his way to Saturday Night Live until 1992, nearly twenty years after the release of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and eight since Born in the U.S.A. became an American radio staple. His SNL performance would serve as Springsteen’s network television debut, but he didn’t break out the old hits for the occasion; instead, he opted for the title track and “Living Proof” from Lucky Town, as well as Human Touch‘s “57 Channels,” which he’d go on to call a “playful misfire” when compared with the other tunes from his vast catalog. In short: Everything about Springsteen’s SNL episode was weirdly anticlimactic, especially for a star of his stature.
18. Tom Petty with Dave Grohl (1994)
In the months immediately after Kurt Cobain’s death, we didn’t hear much from Dave Grohl. We didn’t know that he was holed up in a studio recording a demo that would eventually result in the Foo Fighters’ debut album. What we also didn’t know was that he was entertaining an offer from Tom Petty to join the Heartbreakers. Petty, who was between drummers, had an SNL appearance coming up and knew Grohl’s regular gig was (sadly) over. It only took one phone call to get Grohl to join the band in New York. And the result was probably the young/old collabo moment for the Nineties (Pearl Jam and Neil Young at the 1993 VMAs is a close second). They opened with a fairly true-to-the-recording rendition of “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” but returned to the stage to perform a blistering version of “Honeybee,” a bluesy stomp that, with Grohl behind the kit, was transformed into the heaviest song Petty has likely ever performed (oh, lawd, that intro!). Shortly after their performance together, Grohl was officially invited to join the Heartbreakers. Wanting to see that little Foo Fighters project through, he politely declined. But you have to wonder if Petty considers this the one-night stand that got away.
17. Prince (2014)
Prince has evolved beyond hits. Instead, he on occasion appears on our screens to remind us of the extent of his gifts. Here he runs through his current interests: two minutes of not-bad cutesy-poo love-funk, crisp and refreshing and unmemorable as champagne, then another two of heavy-psych guitar heroics, brooding clouds of riff laced with showy solo lightning. Then: sprightly Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, caked in power chords, and a lyric about giving away McDonald’s to poor kids, who maybe would benefit more from something from this fiftysomething vegan’s pantry instead. The suite then barrels into “Another Love,” a killer rock-soul ballad that would stand out on any of his albums, even the ones he made back when you bought albums. It’s eight minutes of pure dazzlement, a rare SNL performance significant for its musical revelations.
16. Paul Simon and George Harrison (1976)
On November 20, 1976, Paul Simon made his second of thirteen SNL appearances, serving as both host and musical guest. He cold-opened the show by singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a turkey costume (it was the Thanksgiving episode), and near the end of the show, he played the Simon & Garfunkel standard “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” But it was an odd, but lovely, two-song interlude with George Harrison that would turn this episode into an instant (and lasting) classic. The two performed Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and Simon’s “Homeward Bound,” blending their disparate guitar styles into a seamless backdrop for their beautiful harmonies. It seemed as though the two had been performing together for years, but, in actuality, they had never once been onstage together. Simon would go on to cover “Here Comes the Sun” many times in the subsequent decades, but he and Harrison would not perform as a duo again. There are 300 seats in NBC’s Studio 8H, and no fewer than 15,768,943 people have said that they were there for this taping. But in truth, no one but the crew saw this performance live. It was pre-taped in an empty studio. (Keep that bullet in the chamber in case you ever meet a 63-year-old who likes to lie about performances he’s seen in person.)
15. Radiohead (2000)
A rain dance, a trance, an interpretive routine, an electroshock-induced convulsion, the movement a super-happy baby makes when it hears something and responds to it before it knows what “dancing” even is: Thom Yorke could’ve been doing all of these things or some odd combination of the lot when Radiohead wreaked a horn-blasting havoc on Saturday Night Live with “The National Anthem.” Just two weeks after the drop of Kid A, Yorke gave one of the album’s headiest cuts the possessed treatment, dancing like no one was watching — except, y’know, the millions of viewers who had to pick their jaws up off the floor after witnessing…that.
14. Rage Against the Machine (1996)
The Steve Forbes–hosted installment of circa Tax Day, 1996, remains noteworthy for two reasons: the “Teve Torbes” sketch, of course, and then the rather curious circumstance of a musical guest performing just the one number. On its face, nothing about Rage Against the Machine’s perfectly passable “Bulls on Parade” strikes as grounds for summary ejection from Studio 8H: They didn’t incite the studio audience to the usual riotous frenzy; no one in a Che screen-print flung a Molotov cocktail, or what have you. But look at what’s not onstage (wait, is that even possible?): namely, a pair of upside-down American flags draped from atop the speaker cabinets — which, though de rigueur at a Rage show, apparently SNL freaked about, what with the very-recently-ex–presidential candidate on the premises and all. Story goes that stagehands tore those down last-minute, whereupon, after “Bulls” and presumably still vexed, bassist Tim Commerford, or Tim Bob, or Timmy C., or whatever his name is, tore them up, hucking the scraps into Forbes’s dressing room. Shockingly, Rage were invited to leave at once.
13. Public Enemy (1991)
By the time the booker at SNL got around to securing one of the best hip-hop outfits to call New York City home, Public Enemy had released their opus and one of the most critically lauded albums in rap, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and the crew made short work of the small stage with “Can’t Truss It” and “Bring the Noise,” passing lyrical volleys between each other and getting all up in the lens of the camera guys at every opportunity. It wasn’t all fun and rhymes, though: Miles Davis passed away the same day that Public Enemy played SNL, and they took a breath in between their intro (from Spike Lee and Michael Jordan) and their final song for a brief moment of silence for the jazz icon.
12. David Bowie (1979)
“Puppet penis” is enough to solidify David Bowie’s 1979 performance as one of the weirdest and most memorable in SNL history. After dropping Lodger earlier that year, Bowie performed one of its singles, “Boys Keep Swinging,” not wearing the sharp jacket-and-skirt combo he had for “TVC 15” or the geometric plastic suit he did for “The Man Who Sold the World” earlier in the show. Instead, he opted for a full-body puppet on top of a green-screen suit, with Bowie’s weirdly large head floating above the marionette’s thrashing limbs. At the end of the song, Bowie would go on to whip his plastic member out for the in-studio audience, forcing a quick cut to commercial amid the applause.
11. Nirvana (1993)
Lure ’em with a carrot, smack ’em with a stick. For Nirvana’s SNL premiere they’d backed up an unprepossessing “Teen Spirit” with a second-act “Territorial Pissings,” Novoselic leadoff caterwaul and all, the least commercially broad-swath palatable of any cut from the album they were there to promote. Er, ostensibly. To top it all off, during the end-credit glad-handing/self-backslapping, they’d used the bonus on-air opportunity to three-way smooch. There’d be no such end-of-show antics for their return leg in the fall of ’93 — only the sight of Cobain in the middle of it all, being towered over by host Charles Barkley while happily availing himself of some craft services — but the same redneck-hating, homophobe-baiting spirit had already prevailed, contained in those admittedly oblique songwords to acerbic second number “Rape Me.” Of course, you could make an equally strong case that the whole thing’s a screed against us bloodsucker-journo types, or at least Lynn Hirschberg, but it’s a roistering performance in any event, as even Sir Charles would have to agree.
10. Joe Cocker and John Belushi
As hard as it is to imagine an SNL episode with no musical guest, that very phenomenon has occurred three times by our count. (Four, if you count the night Lily Tomlin did double duty as host and musical guest “Pervis Hawkins”; six if you count Michael Bublé’s two appearances. Kidding! Sorta!) The last time it happened was the first episode of Season 12 in 1986, when Sigourney Weaver hosted. The first time was the third episode of Season 1 in 1975, when, in lieu of a musical guest, John Belushi came out and did a dead-on impersonation of Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help From My Friends,” with a little help from a PBR tallboy, which he poured mostly down his chest. A year later, during the third episode of Season 2, Cocker appeared as musical guest in the flesh, and performed “Feelin’ Alright” — with Belushi alongside him doing a simultaneous impersonation. Three decades later both are gone, but the memory shines on, a testament to the genius of both men.
9. Ryan Adams (2001)
In the weeks following September 11, Saturday Night Live was a comforting constant, a welcome bringer of laughs at a time when the city was on the mend. It was business as usual at 30 Rock the following Saturday, with Reese Witherspoon hosting, just as she was supposed to, and Rudy Giuliani and members of the NYPD and FDNY joining Lorne Michaels for the cold open. Ryan Adams released Gold on September 25, 2001, and filmed the music video for “New York, New York” four days prior to the attack on the World Trade Center, so the towers are a prominent, haunting feature in the visual for what’s become a poignant indie anthem for the city. By the time Adams made it to SNL in October of 2001, “Hell, I still love you, New York” was more than a lyric — it was a mantra — and it couldn’t have been a timelier pick for his sole SNL performance.
8. Elvis Costello (1977)
This is the moment when Costello clearly did have something to do with punk. Booked to play a near-hit from his bouncy-literate debut, Costello announced on-air just a line into “Less Than Zero” that there was no reason for him to play last year’s model. Instead, he leads his recently founded Attractions into a flamethrower take on a song not yet released, the eventual near-hit “Radio, Radio,” his propulsive updating of the keyboards-and-hatred sound pioneered by Question Mark & the Mysterians. The lyrics of “Radio, Radio” assault the broadcasting of meaningless junk over the public airwaves, which is probably why Costello considered singing it here an act of rebellion. Who knows whether most Americans noticed (or cared). Lorne Michaels did, of course, banning Costello from the show. That lasted a decade, but Costello the nice-guy elder statesman returned, even doing “Radio, Radio” again with the Beastie Boys on the 25th anniversary special, itself a great example of the kind of anesthetizing crap “Radio, Radio” targets.
7. Ashlee Simpson (2004)
“On a Monday, I am waiting, on a Tuesday, I am fading…” These were the great words Ashlee Simpson sang on Saturday Night Live‘s famous stage. Except, you know, she wasn’t actually singing them. Simpson’s vocals streamed out of the speakers, but she was dancing along to the groove with her mouth nowhere near the microphone. It was the onstage equivalent of getting pantsed. Outed for her plans to not, you know, actually sing, Simpson decided to entertain the crowd with an awkward jig instead. Luckily for her, Simpson’s ever-gracious bandmates picked up the guitars and strummed a few chords to make a soundtrack for her brief and humiliating foray into Irish dance.
6. Sinéad O’Connor (1992)
Sinéad O’Connor’s second musical guest appearance on Saturday Night Live was also her last. You probably don’t remember the first song she performed in Studio 8H on October 3, 1992 (it was “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home,” her take on Loretta Lynn’s first hit record). But the second number, an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” was a doozy for the ages. Seemingly out of nowhere, as she sang the song’s closing lyric — “We have confidence in the victory of good over evil” — O’Connor produced a photo of Pope John Paul II, ripped it three vehement times, and threw the shreds at the camera, declaring, “Fight the real enemy.” The cast, crew, and audience were stunned. The following day’s Daily News headline: “Holy Terror.”
5. Cypress Hill (1993)
As Sen Dog recalled of Cypress Hill’s infamous performance, speaking to the Voice just last October, “There’s a lot of stories behind why [fellow member DJ] Muggs lit that joint [which act you can see, beginning at about 4:20 — heh — in the above video]. I remember Saturday Night Live gave us a greenroom [also heh — Ed.] and said, ‘Do whatever you want in here, just don’t light up out of here.’ Muggs felt like he needed to make a statement with his performance. It wasn’t just the Saturday Night Live people saying he couldn’t smoke up on air. It was everyone: our record label, our management, our friends….People loved it — people at the show loved it, because at the after-party they said, ‘That was so cool.’ But when the hammer swung and we were banned from Saturday Night Live forever, we understood how serious it was. And understandably so — the world wasn’t ready for anything near that at that time.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what, today, in Weed-Everywhere America, Muggs would have to do to elicit that kind of response — but then he’d probably be vaping discreetly anyway, because joints are just so beta.
4. The Blues Brothers (1978)
They’re on a mission from God, and that mission hasn’t quit since 1976 — or, for our purposes, 1978, when the Blues Brothers were the official musical guest on an episode of Saturday Night Live during the show’s third season. Jake and Elwood Blues came to life in one of the show’s sketches, but John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd took the Blues Brothers to cult status one cut of “Soul Man” at a time. We’d be remiss not to show them some love here.
3. The Replacements (1986)
The buckets of ink spilt on the Replacements’ first and only SNL appearance have, over the intervening years, precipitated certain invariable descriptors: stuff like besotted or shambolic or blotto or, if the writer got well and verily carried away, pixilated. You’d think Westerberg & Co. had heaved all over the stage or huffed rails off each other’s boners or, at the very least, not been able to get through a song. But the worst you can really say is that the guitars were verging on losing tune, some lyrics got lost in a pixilated haze, and at times, especially in “Kiss Me on the Bus,” it was almost as if each ‘Mat was hearing his own personal version of what was supposed to be going on. Maybe we’re in the minority, here — and they were drunk ‘n’ disorderly enough to earn themselves the dread lifetime ban — but, uh, isn’t that rock ‘n’ roll? Whaddaya want, Steely Dan?
2. Bob Dylan (1979)
At first glance Bob Dylan’s October 20, 1979, SNL appearance seems unremarkable. Two months prior, he’d released Slow Train Coming, an album that ushered in a widely maligned — and later largely dismissed — Christian phase in his life and songwriting. But peer more closely at the low-quality internet videos that pop up for public consumption (or spring for a Hulu Plus account) and small wonders coalesce. For one, this date marked the first live performances of any songs from Slow Train. Two weeks later, at the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, Dylan would kick off an extended tour that baffled his fan base even more than the new album had, with shows that opened with a testimonial monologue by gospel singer Regina McCrary, followed by a gospel set before Dylan so much as set foot onstage. For the so-called Gospel Tour, the headliner steadfastly avoided anything but his new Christ-themed material, hostile audience reception be damned. If that’s not sufficiently historic for you, consider that 1979 marks Dylan’s only SNL appearance. Ever. He sang three songs that night. The least memorable was the first, a reluctantly delivered “Gotta Serve Somebody,” complete with a botched lyric. The other two — a passionate acoustic “I Believe in You” and, finally, a proselytizingly blazing “When You Gonna Wake Up” highlighted by searing support from Terry Young (organ) and Fred Tackett (lead guitar) — remain transcendent to this day.
1. Simon & Garfunkel (1975)
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel would go on to reunite multiple times in the years following their 1970 schism, but the first major event that played host to a cordial and comfortable meeting of the former folk partners happened in Studio 8H. Simon was the host on the second episode of Saturday Night Live‘s first season, and Garfunkel walked to the stage buoyed by the resounding applause of a rapt and lucky audience. “So! Artie! You’ve come crawling back!” was met with genuine laughter — even from Garfunkel, despite the strained ties between the two — and they’d go on to play stunning renditions of “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “My Little Town.”