Saturday Night Live is the pinnacle of entertainment in America and, once you appear as a musical guest on the programme, you know you have made it. The show presents those who achieve the spot with a serious decision to make: do they play by the rules or go off course?
SNL, with its giant global audience, can be a launching pad to turn an artist into an international megastar overnight if the performance goes well but, sometimes, it can have an adverse effect — an issue that has arisen on several occasions over the years. So furious with some unruly artists, the bosses of SNL have been known to dish out lifetime bans. It’s the kind of thing that makes the show so legendary and keeps Lorne Michaels’ name in the good books of advertisers around the plant.
We all know the format, don’t we? Each episode features a musical guest – in the shape of a solo act or a band – who will then perform two or three tracks after being introduced by the host of the show. It may seem like a regular gig, but make no mistake about it, being booked to perform on SNL can make or break a musician.
While most of the musicians that feature normally thrive on the high-pressure moment and deliver their best work – or at the very least something memorable – some, unfortunately, do not.
Here at Far Out we are going to take a look at the reasons why these acts have been banned by the legendary American show and why these performances rattled the executives so much so that they were banned for life.
See the full list, below.
The 8 musicians that have been banned from SNL:
Elvis Costello (1977)
In 1977, Elvis Costello released his debut album, My Aim Is True, and not only earned a name for himself in Great Britain, but also a growing fanbase over in America. However, he wasn’t a superstar by any stretch of the imagination so an opportunity to catapult his career Stateside was one that Costello needed to grab with both hands.
The young upstart had never even toured in America and was relatively unknown to the masses before his appearance. However, with a slice of fortune, he would find himself in the most coveted slot in television and this was his chance to become a household name overnight. Costello had just signed to Columbia Records across the pond and, once they heard that the Sex Pistols had pulled out from appearing on the programme, Costello was drafted in at the last minute and was performing to tens of millions on primetime American television.
Costello, his label, and the show’s producers had agreed prior to the live show that the band would perform their catchy single ‘Less Than Zero’, a track which was written about disgraced British politician Oswald Mosley who, at the time, was the former leader of the British Union of Fascists. However, 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. Costello had certainly made his statement clear and in the middle of one of the most hostile environments.
This move, of course, angered Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Micheals who was beside himself with rage. Some reports claim that Michaels stood with his middle finger raised at the singer during the entire performance. Costello’s punk spirit that was front and centre of his show endeared himself to the American audience even if Micheals wasn’t a fan, it would take 12 years before he would lift the ban and eventually invite Costello back.
Next up, we have Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, a musician who has never been shy to make her opinion well known in the public eye. Nothing compares, though, to her now-infamous appearance performing on SNL in 1992.
Taking to the stage, the camera panned to O’Connor who, staring directly down the barrel, delivered an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley song ‘War’. The track choice, delivered as an attempt to protest against sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, was intended to flip Marley’s original war on racism to instead refer to child abuse.
O’Connor, who started to sing the lyrics: “We have confidence in good over evil,” then held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to the camera at the very moment she sang the word “evil” and began tearing it up into pieces, throwing them at the camera and stating: “Fight the real enemy”. Apparently, the photo was one that had been situated on her own mother’s wall since 1978.
SNL had no idea about the stunt O’Connor was planning and, during rehearsals, she instead held up up an image of a refugee child. Following the sudden switch, NBC Vice-President of Late Night, Rick Ludwin, stated that after seeing the religious protest he “literally jumped out of [his] chair” while the production team contemplated cutting the feed.
While O’Connor has often discussed her actions in the years that followed, the singer later explained that the plan was inspired by Bob Geldof: “When the Boomtown Rats went to number one in England with Rat Trap, [Bob] Geldof went on Top of the Pops and ripped up a photo of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, who had been number one for weeks and weeks before,” she told Hot Press. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, fuck! What if someone ripped up a picture of the pope?’ Half of me was just like: ‘Jesus, I’d love to just see what’d happen.’”
“It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organisation that he represents,” she said in an interview with Time. “In Ireland, we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorised what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.”
Having been raised through a religious family and the Catholic church, O’Connor detailed her own relationship with the religion and, subsequently, her own childhood abuse. “Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing,” she said. “Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing, and I had to find out why it happened… The thing that helped me most was the 12-step group, the Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. My mother was a Valium addict. What happened to me is a direct result of what happened to my mother and what happened to her in her house and in school.”
Her actions would be both chastised and celebrated by millions around the world, proving that her point was at least valid to be made on such a high profile show. While many devout Catholics reacted negatively, a number of high profile figures such as Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson would pay tribute to her bravery in protest. Trying to get her message across through the relevant channel’s O’Connor also started sending out a letter to major news organisations explaining: “The only reason I ever opened my mouth to sing was so that I tell my story and have it heard,” she wrote. “My story is the story of countless millions of children whose families and nations were torn apart in the name of Jesus Christ.”
At the time of the incident many people struggled to understand her actions and, a decade after the performance, she reflected: “It’s very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about, but outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood.”
See the footage, below.
How obscure LA punks Fear ended up playing on Saturday Night Live in the first place is a tale for the ages and, on top of that, their performance is just as insane as the reason they ended up on that very stage—it proves that while music is all well and good, punks are a different beast. The band fronted by Lee Ving, who remains the only constant member of the group today, enjoyed a chance encounter with film director Penelope Spheeris while sticking gig advertisements to telephone poles in Los Angeles. Spheeris, who asked Ving if his band wanted to be in a documentary about the LA punk scene, would later appear in The Decline of Western Civilization and kickstart Fear’s rise to the top.
While the film didn’t become a huge hit in the mainstream, it did catch the attention of comedian, actor, singer and all-around SNL legend John Belushi who became fascinated by Fear. After becoming so enamoured by the band, Belushi went out of his way to see the group perform live multiple times in varying different dive bars before ultimately reaching out with a collaboration proposal.
Belushi, at the time, was working on the set of John G. Avildsen’s dark comedy film Neighbors. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Berger, the film starred Belushi alongside the likes of Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, and Kathryn Walker in what turned out to be a commercial success for Columbia Pictures and Fear were meant to have an important part in it.
After striking up a dialogue between the band, Belushi somewhat surprisingly brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for the movie with the hope that the film’s closing credits would be soundtracked by the punk rockers. However, the producers decided against using their music which embarrassed Belushi greatly. Wanting to make it up to Fear, who had now become his friends, Belushi decided to pull some strings behind the scenes on SNL for their Halloween special which ended up being total carnage.
What ensued was total chaos. Upon entering the stage, boos rang around immediately as the New York natives who took offence to the band opening up with the words, “It’s great to be in New Jersey” which didn’t go down well. Undeterred, Fear played three songs: ‘I Don’t Care About You’, ‘Beef Bologna’, ‘New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones’, before a member of the mosh pit screamed into the microphone: “New York Sucks!” which resulted in their fourth song, ‘Let’s Have a War’ being pulled from the broadcast.
Later, a report in the New York Post would go on to claim that Fear caused $200,000 worth of damage to the SNL studio that night, destroying the green room, a mini-cam camera, two viewers and a viewing room. Unsurprisingly, the band were never invited back on to the programme but their performance lives down in punk folklore.
The Replacements (1986)
The Replacements played an integral part in pioneering alternative rock in the 1980s with their shows garnering a reputation for their chaotic nature and total madness. By 1986 that very same reputation had earned the band a dream slot of being the musical guests on Saturday Night Live but, as you might expect, it didn’t go down smoothly.
The previous year saw the band attempt to move from the underground into the mainstream as they released their major-label debut, Tim, and hired an established New York management company called High Noon. However, this cleaning up of their brand came at a time when guitarist Bob Stinson’s drug and mental health issues were spiralling out of control, internal tensions were ripping the band apart, and their self-destruction nature was shown to the entire nation on their first-ever national TV appearance.
Like Elvis Costello, The Replacements also arrived as a last-minute guest, replacing scheduled act, the Pointer Sisters, who had been forced to cancel just days before the show. The call up was down to the show’s musical director of the time, G.E. Smith, being a huge fan of the band but their catastrophic show would see SNL producer Lorne Michaels banning them from ever returning to 30 Rock.
The band performed ‘Kiss Me on the Bus’ whilst being completely out of their face then played ‘Bastards of Young‘ out-of-tune during which frontman Paul Westerberg yells out: “Come on fucker” which, as you can probably imagine, didn’t go down well with NBC bosses. To make things even worse they returned to stage wearing mismatched iterations of each other’s clothing.
In a 2015 interview recorded for the Archive of American Television, G. E. Smith recalled that although the band had performed well for the early evening pre-taped dress rehearsal performance, one of their crew then smuggled alcohol into their dressing room and they spent the next few hours drinking (with the guest host, Harry Dean Stanton) while taking drugs. According to Smith, by the time of the late-night live broadcast they were so intoxicated that on their way to the stage to perform, Bob Stinson tripped in the corridor, fell over onto his guitar and broke it—a fumble that led to Smith to hurriedly loan him one of the SNL house band’s spare instruments.
The Replacements would eventually return to NBC in 2014 when they appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon almost 30 years on from that fateful night in 1986.
Rage Against The Machine (1996)
Notorious hell raisers and political activists Rage Against The Machine were another strange choice for the clean-cut nature of Saturday Night Live’s notoriously straight-laced approach. So when the group were invited to the mainstream TV show on April 13th, 1996, eyebrows were raised by the loyal fans of both camps.
The programme tried—back then at least—to remain apolitical as much as possible when it came to its musical performances which, all things considered, made the decision to recruit Rage Against The Machine even more baffling. To make things even worse, the show was hosted by Steve Forbes, the two-time Republican presidential candidate and billionaire who epitomises everything Rage detest.
According to guitarist Tom Morello: “RATM wanted to stand in sharp juxtaposition to a billionaire telling jokes and promoting his flat tax by making our own statement.” The band made their statement by hanging American flags upside down from their amplifiers as they took the stage to perform ‘Bulls on Parade’. While it may feel a little tame by the band’s standards, it was enough to enrage the patriotic producers and stagehands were sent in to remove the flags. After the flags were pulled, almost instantaneously, the first performance of the evening concluded officials approached RATM and ordered them to immediately leave the building.
Upon hearing of their expulsion from the building, bassist Tim Commerford stormed Forbes’ dressing room throwing bits of the recently torn flag as he went. Morello said that members of the SNL team “expressed solidarity with our actions, and a sense of shame that their show had censored the performance.”
Ever since this incident, Rage Against The Machine have not appeared on Saturday Night Live again and who knows if they will ever return.
Cypress Hill (1993)
Cypress Hill, the now-iconic Californian hip-hop group, hit the headlines in 1993 when DJ Muggs smoked a joint during the live broadcast.
Now, in reflection, Muggs’ actions hold less levity. But in 1993, when weed was still illegal in the state, Cypress Hill managed to cause quite the stir. “Well, there’s a lot of stories behind why Muggs lit that joint,” Sen Dog later told Village Voice. “I remember Saturday Night Live gave us a green room 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. I felt like, to me, Muggs wanted to make that statement.
“He asked me to light the joint up on stage, and I said, ‘I’m not doing that, man’. Before we did that second song, we agreed that we weren’t going to light up nothing. If you look, I was surprised that he did that. 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. If he did it now, I don’t know what kind of backlash he’d have, but in the early ’90s, it earned us a kick in the ass from Saturday Night Live, and I haven’t seen that episode in reruns. It would have been cool to do Saturday Night Live again, but me personally, I didn’t think it was a great thing to do for our first time on SNL, but we paid the price and we moved on.”
When asked if there was ever a discussion about ending the band, Sen Dog said: “No sir, not at all. I would not expect them to.”
You can see the moment Muggs lit up at around the 4:23 mark in the below clip.
David Bowie, not one to be ordered around, was once allegedly banned from performing on Saturday Night Live after an act of defiance resulted in him being escorted off the premises.
After planning to do a number of comedy sketches and performances, Bowie’s rocky relationship with executive producer Lorne Michaels ended in a three-year ban for the Starman who couldn’t resist taking a swipe at his old friend.
“The gist was that I was somehow roped into a low budget telly advert for a Brooklyn bakery,” Bowie later explained. “They wanted me to sing about their pastries or what have you. One of the things they came up with was a version of my song, ‘Watch That Man’. But instead, in the chorus, I would sing, ‘Try our flan’.”
While signing off on the humorous lyrical adjustment, Bowie had an issue with how the producers wanted him to pronounce the word “flan” which sparked a troublesome back and forth which developed into numerous different issues through the week’s planning.
“David is a man of the world,” producer Lorne Michaels would later say of the issue. “He’s seen it all. And he takes food very seriously. I get that. But when you are running a big, live production like we are, last second changes can be complicated.”
David Bowie is not about to let somebody tell him what to do creatively and, knowing of the tensions between him and the producer, hatched a last-minute plan of his own. “I was scheduled to perform a single from my ‘Earthling’ album called ‘Telling Lies’,” Bowie explained. “Just before the band took the stage I decided to take the piss out of Lorne a bit because I knew he wasn’t happy with me.” Instead of playing ‘Telling Lies’, Bowie instructed his band to perform the 1981 effort ‘Scary Monsters’.
In what could have been considered a cheeky impromptu move turned out to be a deeply considered “fuck you” move by Bowie who, at the time, knew how much Lorne Michaels had grown “terrified” of the song because of his past life issues. “We got to talking about this and that at dinner one night and Lorne’s SNL hiatus in the early ’80s came up,” Bowie explained.
“He [Lorne] told me how it was the darkest period of his life and he described how much cocaine he did while listening to my ‘Scary Monsters’ album. Just mountains and mountains of the stuff. Sometimes straight off the record sleeve. Those were his words. I want that to be clear about that.”
Michaels, clearly furious about Bowie’s surprise move, took immediate action and had security escort him and his band off the premises immediately. “They didn’t waste any time,” he explained. “The real shame of it was there was a lovely fruit basket in my dressing room that I wanted to take back to my hotel. I obviously didn’t get to. I was very sore about that. Still am, to tell you the truth.”
As Bowie’s stardom continued to rise, his ban from SNL was, in the end, terminated and he made his return when Jerry Seinfeld was hosting. “We’re mates,” Bowie explained about why he was allowed to return and describing his relationship with Michaels. “We have been since the ’70s. He knows now that I was just trying to get a rise out of him. Maybe I could have done it less, I don’t know, showy. But the air has been cleared, obviously.”
See the footage, below.
In truth, Frank Zappa’s addition to this list is nothing more than a little bit sad.
The mercurial talent, the multi-instrumentalist musician, the pioneer of counterculture and experimental free-form improvisation, fell flat on his face after being invited onto Saturday Night Live for the October 21, 1978 episode.
Welcomed to the show as the featured musical guest, Zappa also took up hosting duties in what can only be described as a cringe-worthy scenario. Looking like a fish-out-of-water, Zappa struggled to interact with the production staff of SNL prior to the show. In fact, the musician seemingly made it his overall goal to avoid contact with anybody associated with the show in the build-up to his big moment.
Clearly out of his comfort zone and unsure how to conform to SNL’s strict guidelines, Zappa decided the best approach for him to take on the biggest stage was one of nonconformity — a stance that goes in line with his prolific career of avoiding the mainstream.
Kicking things off, Zappa starts the show by reminding the audience to “keep in mind” that he is reading off of cue cards and, from there, continued to hammer home the fact that he is not taking the position as host of the show with any sincerity. While it may have been an attempt at ironic humour, Zappa’s efforts fell flat across all aspects.
His refusal to make an effort with SNL staff in the week of rehearsal prior to the recording would go on to become a major downfall. While some of the specific details of what happened behind the scenes have yet to surface, a number of cast members eventually refused to take part during the “goodnight” segment at the end of the show in protest of Zappa’s role.
The eventual line from SNL was that Zappa was banned after doing a “disastrous job of hosting the show” in 1978.