“Fear riot leaves Saturday Night glad to be alive!”—New York Post headline, 1981.
Fear, the now-infamous American punk rock band known for their chaotic and uncompromising live shows, can boast of being a part of an exclusive club of people. The kind of exclusive club that only welcomes members who have been permanently banned from appearing on Saturday Night Live. The famous doors of Studio 8H have welcomed so many incredible stars but very few times do they stay permanently shut to a guest. However, then again, it’s not often that a stunt like this will go down.
The band, formed in Los Angeles back in 1977, are widely credited as being pioneers of the Californian hardcore and punk scene that swept the state in the late 1970s, eliminating the numbingly popular soft rock that had previously dominated the airwaves. Frontman Lee Ving, who remains the band’s only constant member and a bastion of the punk spirit, was a snarling, aggressive and unapologetic leader who orchestrated the mayhem that followed the band to every venue they played.
Their contribution to the genre of punk is undoubted; Fear’s more considerable lasting legacy, however, remains their maddening live performance on SNL—and by quite some distance. Their rise from small, sleazy and sweaty downtown music venues to the glamour of New York City television studios and the opportunity to millions of people at home was one made purely out of chance and squandered, it would appear, on purpose.
After Ving bumped into film director Penelope Spheeris while he was sticking gig advertisements to telephone poles in Los Angeles, she asked if they wanted to be in a documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilisation. The documentary would jumpstart Fear’s rise to prominence and see the seeds of notoriety and fame be sown. The band appeared and began the ball rolling.
Spheeris was impressed and, with her husband being Bob Biggs, the president of the esteemed Slash Records at the time, she passed the band over to Biggs for closer inspection. After reviewing the tapes, he was so impressed by Fear’s set in the film that he signed the group later that year. While the film didn’t become a well-known hit, it did, however, catch the attention of comedian, actor, singer and all-around Saturday Night Live legend John Belushi who became fascinated by Fear. After becoming so entranced by the band and their power, Belushi went out of his way to see the group perform live multiple times in varying different dive bars infatuated with their style. Soon enough, he offered them a chance at the big time.
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 Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, and Kathryn Walker in what turned out to be a commercial success for Columbia Pictures. Bizarrely, Lee Ving and his band Fear were very almost a part of it all.
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. That was, of course, before the production staff stepped in and scrapped their contribution after becoming infuriated by Belushi’s increasingly erratic antics. It led to one of the most famous quotes about the band. “How can I describe what it was like recording in the early days of punk?” said music producer and Cherokee owner Bruce Robb said afterwards. “We had decided to track the song selection in order and were on track four before the band realised they were all using different setlists. The irony is we couldn’t tell.”
Belushi was left embarrassed, upset and angry about Cherokee’s decision to remove Fear from the film, and it was a blemish on their friendship. It had left him looking a little silly in front of his new friends, the punks, and, as a compensation offer, Belushi promised to use his connections to get the band booked to appear on the major national TV show Saturday Night Live. Fittingly, Fear would go on to appear as part of a special Halloween episode and, with that in mind, were hellbent on scaring those in the studio.
As part of their show, Fear brought down their own crowd of fans. Of course, when we say fans, what we mean is a group of punks who acted as ‘slamdancers’ designed to create a furious moshpit which included the likes of Minor Threat’s very own Ian MacKaye, Harley Flanagan, John Joseph, and Belushi himself.
The SNL director, who was hit by a pumpkin at some point during the show, initially refused to allow the moshpit to go on during the show but was later convinced by Belushi to leave it in. Helped in no small part by when the actor agreed to be a guest to improve the show’s then-struggling ratings. A dip into the murky waters of anarchic rock is usually a death wish for a mainstream show, and the same can be said for this outing too.
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 with the New Yorker crowd. Undeterred, Fear played three songs with ‘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!”. It was a step too far. The band were quickly covered up, and the remark 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. Members of the audience recalled how the performance became a “total out of control free-for-all,” as fans “jumped up and started slambang dancing”, which was described as “a new punk craze that involves dancing, biting and kicking.” It was not the family-friendly version of punk rock the director had expected.
The report continued: “Producer Dick Eversol tried to usher the groupies into the Green Room, hoping to clam them down. Instead, they wrecked it.” The article also included quotes from an unnamed NBC technician who said: “I’ve been in this business for years and I’ve never seen anything like this. This was a life threatening situation. They went crazy. It’s amazing no one was killed.”
Reflecting on the show years later, frontman Lee Ving said: “It was a musical performance by us, not disastrous at all,” in reference to the controversy that surrounded it. “Had it not been for John we would never have had that opportunity,” he added in memory of Belushi.
“I got banned permanently which is sort of an honour in its own way.”
See the clip and documentary below.