From David Bowie to Nirvana: The 10 greatest SNL performances
Saturday Night Live is back in our lives and we couldn’t be happier about it and, as soon as the 46th season kicked off, we knew we were in for a good one. The comedy sketch show has always brightened up our weekends and we all know how valuable that is during the COVID-19 lockdown.
As well as the comedy that is woven throughout the show there is also one other key factor: music. The show has seen some of the most famous faces in music take to the stage for a performance or two. From Kanye West to David Bowie and everyone in between, they’ve all graced the famous studio stage and most of the time, the show provides a searing vision of a musical trend about to be set.
Below, we’re going to take you through 10 of greatest musical appearances on Saturday Night Live. While they might all be great for different reasons, the underlying factor in all of these performances is that could only happen at the SNL studios and could only be truly appreciated on the show.
Expect to see some of your favourite artists as we look back at those performances that made Saturday night a party and provided every conversation at the office on Monday.
SNL’s 10 greatest musical performances:
Paul Simon & George Harrison (1975)
It’s always a joy to see two of your favourite artists come together for a show-stopping performance and, when those two artists happened to compliment each other better than bacon and eggs, then it’s an absolute dream.
In 1975, a lot of people’s dreams came true for Saturday Night Live fans as the show welcomed Paul Simon and The Beatles’ George Harrison for a very special performance of some of their most treasured songs. Harrison had been welcomed to the show in an odd way as he tried to cash Lorne Michaels $3,000 cheque for the reuniting of The Beatles—but the performance was the real headline-grabber. It sees two icons perched upon two stools honestly and authentically singing their songs, it’s about as good as it gets.
Perhaps the most pertinent point of the performance comes when the duo takes on the former Fab Four member’s own song ‘Here Comes The Sun’. A goosebump-inducing revelation the performance set an incredibly high benchmark for other musical acts to follow. The duo’s harmonies suggested they had been playing together for some time and was so good it sparked rumours of a dual tour.
Instead, we just have this beautiful moment below.
Kanye West (2013)
If there’s one artist who is capable of grabbing the headlines then it is Kanye West. Love him or loathe him, West is an expert at creating provocative art capable of creating conversation and connection. It’s part of why TV shows like SNL love having him on board, he guarantees all eyes are on him—and this time, for a good reason.
When Yeezy was offered a spot on SNL in 2010 the fashion designer/producer/rapper jumped at the chance to put on an unforgettable show. Using stark colour clashes and upping the intensity level, West created one of the most iconic musical performances on TV ever.
Hitting the mic like a Doberman, West is in full beast mode as he unleashes one of the most attention-grabbing performances the show has ever seen. If you needed a reason for why you’re closest friend pledges allegiance to West, then this video is all you need. It’s about as perfect a moment as the rapper has ever produced.
The Strokes (2001)
With Jack Black hosting there’s always a chance that a musical guest will lack the space to create maximum impact when they perform. Not so in 2001 when The Strokes not only laid the foundations for the decades of indie dominance but shattered every band around them as they did it.
Performing ‘Hard To Explain’ from their seminal first album Is This It, The Strokes broke the mainstream with this performance as they officially announced themselves as the Kings of New York and the new benchmark of cool. It was the moment the world stood up and took notice.
It’s hard to argue with it. The band arrive dressed in leather and ripped jeans with the kind of nonchalance that is only every expertly practised. Below is some now-vintage indie gold.
Radiohead don’t make many TV appearances. Something about television and the Oxford band just doesn’t seem to mix, principally, one would imagine, because the band see the media channel as a little base and wholly beneath them as artists.
However, that doesn’t stop the band providing show-stopping performances when they do appear on them. Their only appearance on SNL in 2000 saw Radiohead deliver a captivating performance of their Kid A track ‘Idioteque’, complete with convulsing Thom Yorke singing.
It was so intense that a lot of the audience at home were worried Yorke may actually be having a medical seizure. Instead, the lead singer snaps himself out of it returns for a final emphatic chorus and leaves the stage after smashing his microphone to the floor. Radiohead have not yet returned and we’re not sure they ever will.
Saturday Night Live has always used celebrity hosts to keep their output fresh. A different actor, singer, comedian, or, indeed, politician, can bring a different flavour to each weekend. As great a concept as it is, it does lend for some slightly awkward crossovers as musicians mix with some undesirable guests.
Like this one as Republican Senator John McCain introduced The White Stripes back in 2002 to a baying audience. This isn’t the genial, land-owning, ice-tea-sipping Jack White of nowadays, this was the White Stripes at their caked in Delta mud via the oil of Detroit best and they provide a filthy reason as to why they are still so loved by their fans.
The band let loose and as Meg White provides solid ground for Jack White to work from on ‘Dead Leaves and The Diry Ground’, the guitarist begins to shred like the pure genius he is. It was the announcement that rock music had returned to America.
Patti Smith (1976)
Nowadays Patti Smith is rightly lauded as one of the foundational members of the punk movement. Using the New York City energy she slowly carved out a niche for herself. When SNL welcomed Smith to the stage to perform ‘Gloria’, she was less than little-known.
Most of the public watching at home would have been taken aback by Smith’s energy. Unashamed and unstoppable, Smith prowls the stage delivering a simple spellbinding rendition of the Horses track.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” sings Smith. It’s easy to now think of this moment as just an artist performing her song on television. But when thinking about this performance one must put their minds back to the sentiment of the Nation at the time. The United States was still a largely conservative country, so to not only have Smith with her sneering attitude on their screens but her incendiary lyrics was a lot to handle at once.
As far as iconic musical appearances on Saturday Night Live go, there are few more burned into the collective consciousness than Nirvana’s 1992 appearance. It would become a crystalline vision of the juxtaposition that was beginning to swirl the band. They had become the most reluctant rock stars in the world and they delivered a searing reason why.
It meant that as well as Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl performing Gen-X anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ live on TV for the first time, they would also play their obscure, noise-heavy ‘Territorial Pissings’ as part of the two-song set. They closed the show by wrecking their instrument in front of an agog audience.
But the real point of contention for conservative America was when, during the traditional cast-bowing-credits, the band began to kiss each other as the SNL cast waved goodbye. Cue angry church groups and advertising money being lost.
Elvis Costello (1977)
Equally as iconic as Nirvana’s performance came from Elvis Costello, the new wave musical impresario who caused controversy when he decided to switch songs in front of the producer’s eyes.
As the lights of the famous studio glared down upon him, Costello wouldn’t miss his opportunity. While it certainly was considered the band’s biggest opportunity commercial to date, Costello put a stop to the performance mid-intro, yelling: “Stop! Stop!” in the direction of his band. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he added, “but there’s no reason to do this song here.”
Instead, Costello and his band rolled into a performance of the song ‘Radio Radio’ which, controversially, includes lyrics that criticised the commercialisation of the airwaves in both television and radio as well as pointed the finger at corporate-controlled broadcasting.
When you say the word iconic, often the first musical face you will see is the ever-changing visage of one David Bowie who is, without doubt, the bonafide chameleon of rock. When he performed on SNL in 1979, he gave the audience everything they had come to expect from him. Namely, the unexpected.
The performance called for three songs and Bowie was keen to delve into his back catalogue to usher in the new decade. He settled on performing the brilliant ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, arriving at the microphone carried by visual artist Klaus Nomi and Arias with Bowie unable to move in his oversized plastic tuxedo.
He was also keen to explore the limits of mainstream androgyny and performed his Station to Station hit ‘TVC 15’ in a skirt and heels. Bowie ups the ante on his final performance of the night as he dresses up as a puppet for his Lodger album track ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, utilising green screen to create a performance art piece worthy of any gallery let alone Saturday night entertainment, it spoke loudly for a star who’s brightness was only growing.
It was a performance deeply set in theatrics, artistry and a sense of self that flagrantly declared that individuality was a cherishable piece of oneself. This kind of performance is something that Bowie produced time and time again.
Arcitc Monkeys (2006)
By 2006, Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys had become the wailing voice of a generation of British kids. The band had managed to so perfectly encapsulate life in Britain through their album Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not that they had become overnight behemoths—but not in America.
The Sheffield lads were still miles away from the undying fandom the experience in the States these days when they were offered the chance to appear on SNL. It would see the band give a typically charged performance but it seemingly wasn’t enough to entertain everybody.
“That man just yawned!” says Turner as they power through the archetypal Monkeys tune ‘A Certain Romance’ in front of a less-than-enthused audience. The band may not have set the studio on fire but back at home the audience was bubbling with the question, “Who the fuck are the Arctic Monkeys?”