A history of Saturday Night Live’s musical guests is expected to hit certain beats. You must retell the story about how Elvis Costello & The Attractions started playing “Less Than Zero,” stopped playing “Less Than Zero,” and then played “Radio, Radio.” It is required that you talk about Sinéad O’Connor tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II. You need to recount the notable music fails, like Ashlee Simpson’s backing track malfunction and Lana Del Rey’s stage-frightened stiffness. Older people will feel inclined to mention Nirvana’s debut or Radiohead inertly performing “Idioteque.” Youngsters may fixate on Win Butler of Arcade Fire smashing his guitar or Frank Ocean playing video games.
If you do these things, all of SNL’s obvious musical highlights will be covered. But you’ll also misrepresent SNL’s true musical history.
For the past 39 seasons, SNL has had about 20 musical guests per year. Most of them weren’t memorable. They came, they played a song before “Weekend Update,” they played another song before the night’s “weird” final sketch, they stood onstage with the host and waved good-bye to the television audience, and that was it. Most of the time, the musical guest came and went as an afterthought: Perhaps they would get a short-term sales bump from SNL, but lately it’s more likely the most significant buzz related to the musical guest will derive from those on social media who have no idea who or what they’re watching. By the next week’s SNL, they will no longer care.
To understand the significance of SNL’s musical legacy — both to the show and the overall arc of pop-music history — we must set aside the outliers and look at the middle. This is not to say that all the performances I’ve singled out below are mundane. (No. 3 in particular is anything but.) Just that these moments are normally shunted into the “inessential” category in SNL retrospectives, while I would argue that each tells part of an ongoing story of the show’s evolution, from its early “primordial ooze” period to its current status as a firmly entrenched institution.
1. Leon Redbone (1976-77)
Surveying SNL’s initial musical offerings affirms just how unformed the show’s identity was at the beginning. The lineup of musical guests for SNL’s first season is the strangest (and in some ways the most interesting and exciting) in the show’s history. The most historically important performance is probably Patti Smith on April 17, 1976, which offered one of the earliest glimpses of the nascent New York City punk movement on national television. Gil Scott-Heron, ABBA, and Jimmy Cliff also performed during this season. And sardonic folkie Loudon Wainwright III. And milquetoast AM pop crooner Anne Murray. And the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That doesn’t sound like a lineup for a major network television show. It sounds like a knowingly “quirky” mid-’70s college music festival.
Many of the acts that appeared during the first couple of seasons are so utterly lacking in mainstream pop appeal that booking them on SNL today would be unthinkable. But when it came to Leon Redbone, a bullhorn-voiced troubadour who performed blues, jazz, and ragtime standards as if the previous 40 years of pop had never occurred, SNL had him on not once, but three times over the course of the first three seasons, plus one more appearance in 1983.
Redbone was never a huge star; if he’s remembered at all, it’s for singing the theme song to the ’80s-era, sub–Growing Pains ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere.1 But Redbone was unlikely to be seen on television anyplace else, and booking “unlikely to be seen on television anyplace else”–type artists was SNL’s M.O. in the early days.
2. Desmond Child & Rouge, 1979
Quick story: When I was a small-town newspaper reporter in the early ’00s, I interviewed Redbone, presumably because at that point in his career his only media requests came from small-town newspapers.
By the end of the ’70s, SNL was looking recognizably SNL-ian, musically speaking and otherwise, with the 1979-80 season balancing hot young things (the B-52’s, Gary Numan, the Specials, Tom Petty) with counterculture heroes who rarely, if ever, performed on television (Bob Dylan, David Bowie, the Grateful Dead), as well as the familiar Friends of Lorne (Paul Simon, Paul McCartney). The show was firmly established as an anointer of up-and-comers, and an appropriately hip landing area for established superstars. (Plus Murray, who made her second, and final, appearance that year.)
The only name that’s not recognizable among the that season’s musical guests is a short-lived pop group called Desmond Child & Rouge, which peaked at no. 50 on the Billboard charts with the single “Our Love Is Insane” and performed on SNL’s very last episode of the ’70s, on December 22, 1979. Desmond Child & Rouge opted not to perform “Our Love Is Insane” on SNL, however. Perhaps the thinking was that “Our Love Is Insane” represented the past, while “Tumble in the Night” (seen in the video above) was destined to define the sound of the ’80s. Alas, “Tumble in the Night” did not define the sound of the ’80s, though it does foreshadow future SNL appearances by dubious, can’t-miss prospects swept up in the dustbin of history.
Bad clothes? Check
Bad choreography? Check.
An even worse sound mix than SNL’s usual bad sound mix? Check.
Desmond Child & Rouge featured the talents of a future SNL musical mainstay — guitarist/purveyor of ridiculously hammy guitar-faces G.E. Smith. As for the man in the purple, oddly bulge-less pants, Child wound up cowriting “I Was Made for Loving You” for Kiss in 1979, initiating a career as an in-demand song doctor for numerous hard-rock and pop acts. Child was never invited back to SNL as a performer, but his song “Livin’ la Vida Loca” was performed by Ricky Martin on the show in 1999.
3. Fear, 1981
The philosophy regarding the archiving of SNL’s history is frustratingly Stalinist — it’s very difficult to see footage the powers that be don’t want you to see. This means that the Lorne-less early-’80s episodes are particularly hard to track down. Which is a shame, because as bad as SNL was during the infamous, truncated Jean Doumanian–driven death march 1980-81 season, there were some amazing musical acts. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band made its network television debut. Funky Four Plus One represented early NYC hip-hop. Dirty Mind–era Prince was permitted to slink about in his underwear.
The following season, the unlikeliest musical guest was obviously the L.A. destructo-punk band Fear, a personal favorite of John Belushi. The departed cast member convinced new executive producer Dick Ebersol to book them for the Halloween episode. The subsequent performance is among the show’s most incredible music spots ever. For all the PR disasters involving musicians in SNL’s history, never has there been a crazier, more anarchic, and downright clusterfuckier moment than this:
“We’re on the air. And all of a sudden they’re out of control and there are dancers around them — including John, who you can’t see on television — and they’re slam-dancing, that’s what it was called, banging off each other, banging into the audience, banging into cameramen. None of this was really foreseen.”
That was Ebersol in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. Booking Fear wasn’t an instance of SNL being prescient. It was a symptom of a show without a rudder. Fear got on because nobody at SNL knew what they were doing at the time.
4. The Nelsons, 1986
The 1985-86 season, which marked Lorne Michaels’s return, is commonly regarded, charitably, as a rough draft for his eventual rescuing of the brand. (Less charitably, it nearly ended SNL altogether.) Most of the cast was purged and replaced the following year. The rudder was reinstalled, but the ship was still drifting in search of direction. Musically, this sometimes put SNL in fascinating waters — booking quintessentially avant New York artists like Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson was a callback to the show’s adventurous roots, and the Replacements’ shambolic renderings of “Bastards of Young” and “Kiss Me on the Bus” (with original guitarist Bob Stinson not long before he was fired) are definitive documents of the band’s prime.
Other times, however, SNL just seemed confused. This manifested in the booking of the Nelsons, an L.A. quartet that featured Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, sons of ’50s rock star Ricky Nelson, who died in a plane crash barely one month before the Nelsons played SNL in February 1986. The Nelsons were the first, and thus far only, unsigned band to play SNL.
Basically, if Ricky Nelson hadn’t perished in a horrific accident, the Nelsons wouldn’t have been on SNL, as Gunnar Nelson later related in a 2011 interview. (“They actually just really didn’t have anybody booked that week,” he told Popdose.) In that Popdose interview, Gunnar claims he had a “vision” on the flight home from SNL of a new two-person group fronted by himself and Matthew. They broke up the Nelsons soon after, and four years later, Gunnar and Matthew were back on the pop-culture radar as the none-more-wussy glam-metal act Nelson, selling two million copies of their debut, After the Rain, and scoring a no. 1 single, “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.” So, in a way, SNL was ahead of the curve once again.
5. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, 1990
SNL was back to being a machine in 1990. Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz exited before the 1990-91 season, and a gaggle of future stars were added in their place, including Chris Farley, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Adam Sandler. This was probably the most conservative musical time in the show’s history; the guests were mostly major-label, MOR pop and rock acts. Michael Bolton was on this season. Vanilla Ice was on this season. Mariah Carey was on this season. It was not an exciting period, for SNL or mainstream pop in general.
I was taping SNL regularly by this point, and even though I was already a huge music fan, I generally fast-forwarded through the musical performances. The exceptions were the Black Crowes, Fishbone, and R.E.M., who played consecutive weeks in March and April. (I also remember Elvis Costello, though it was during his lamentable Mighty Like a Rose/“I’m dressing like a Hasidic Jew” phase.) Fortunately, big changes were on the horizon, with Nirvana, Public Enemy, Pearl Jam, and Teenage Fanclub brushing up against the more staid likes of MC Hammer, C+C Music Factory, and “Dick in a Box” precursors Color Me Badd in 1991-92.
Also appearing in 1990-91 was Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, a thoroughly unexceptional neo-hippie pop-rock group whose 1988 debut, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, went double-platinum thanks to the hit “What I Am.” Brickell was back on SNL a few months after the release of the second Bohemians’ LP, Ghost of a Dog, which sold a quarter of the copies its predecessor did. While it’s not inconceivable that SNL would have Brickell back, it does seem somewhat suspect in retrospect, considering that Brickell later married Michaels’s chum Paul Simon after meeting him during her first SNL appearance in 1988.
6. Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines, 1999
Fifteen years ago, Garth Brooks hosted SNL for the second time, but Brooks wasn’t the musical guest. Instead, the musical guest was a fictional alt-rock superstar named Chris Gaines, played by Brooks. Strangely, Gaines was not an SNL character, but rather a construction devised by Brooks for his new album at the time, Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines.
For some of you, this explanation will seem pedantic. If you were alive at the time, Chris Gaines is so uniquely weird and misguided that it’s permanently implanted in your memory banks, no matter your engagement with Brooks’s other work. For younger people, however, Gaines has been virtually scrubbed out of pop culture generally and SNL’s history specifically. Future generations can only engage with Gaines as a carefully elucidated abstraction, sometimes spoken about but never actually seen or heard.
On Hulu, there are zero clips of Brooks appearing as Gaines. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any clips of Brooks as Gaines on SNL anywhere on the Internet. After hours of searching, I began to wonder, Did this really happen? I suspect this confusion was entirely intentional: Both Brooks and SNL would likely prefer it if all traces of this infamous debacle were erased from their respective legacies. But, alas, it did happen, and man, it hasn’t gotten any less awkward to watch.2
Look, I don’t want to knock Brooks too much on the Chris Gaines thing, because he’s already been knocked plenty. Instead, I’d rather give Brooks credit for accidentally inventing the sound and look of Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key phase. (This comparison would make a lot more sense if I could post a video clip. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s pretty spot-on.)
If I were to make a general comment about what the Chris Gaines incident signifies about SNL musically at this time, I would argue that SNL reflected the record industry’s late-period “mass” era. The performers during the 1999-2000 season were diffuse — they include Sting, DMX, Fiona Apple, Sisqó, Britney Spears, Beck, Kid Rock, ’N Sync, blink-182, and Dr. Dre packaged with Eminem and Snoop Dogg — and yet all incredibly successful. Napster was just starting to dismantle pop’s gleaming empire, but the effects weren’t discernible yet. Superstars could still allow their egos to guide them in whichever direction, assuming all the while that they would be protected commercially. Garth Brooks going on SNL as Chris Gaines in 1999 was an act of misplaced faith, like buying the mansion of your dreams with a subprime loan in 2007. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like the bubble was ever gonna burst.
7. Zwan, 2003
Only the bubble did burst, and four years later you ended up with Zwan on Saturday Night Live.
Do you remember Zwan? I remember Zwan, but I also saw Zwan play a college gymnasium two weeks before the band was on SNL. So, my perspective here is skewed. For everyone else: Zwan was formed by Billy Corgan in the wake of Smashing Pumpkins’ breakup in 2000. It was a mediocre band with an exceptional supporting cast3 and an exceptionally terrible name. Still, given Smashing Pumpkins’ massive popularity in the ’90s, it seemed like a safe bet that Zwan would also be big. But “big” was increasingly difficult to predict at this time. (See fellow 2002-03 musical guests the Donnas and Ms. Dynamite.) The record-industry apparatus that might’ve once shoved Zwan down the public’s throats was being gutted. Instead of achieving stardom, Zwan broke up just five months after playing SNL. (To sum up: Zwan formed, played a gym in northeast Wisconsin, played SNL, was finished.)
8. Karmin, 2012
This included ex-Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and indie ringers such as Matt Sweeney, David Pajo, and Paz Lenchantin.
Two years later, SNL had its first viral sketch with “Lazy Sunday,” the latest in a long line of popular SNL-generated novelty songs going back to Steve Martin’s “King Tut” and Billy Crystal’s “You Look Marvelous,” which grew more plentiful during the Andy Samberg/Lonely Island era. “I’m on a Boat,” “Jack Sparrow,” and “I Just Had Sex” not only kept SNL in the conversation among web-based comedy fans, but also acted as signposts for the increasing dominance of YouTube as a delivery device for pop music as the daylight between “viral hit” and “hit hit” was practically extinguished.
By the 2011-12 season, many of SNL’s most significant musical acts — Lana Del Rey, Bon Iver, Gotye, Sleigh Bells, and Robyn — arguably had greater currency URL than IRL. Then there was Karmin, an obnoxious Boston-based duo that rose to prominence thanks to white-bread covers of rap and R&B songs like Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now.” (This is the favored music among people who post on Facebook 12 times per day.) If you took the Lonely Island and removed the irony and genuine appreciation for pop music, you’d have Karmin.
When SNL began, the “not ready for prime time” designation was considered a compliment, given how square the rest of television was. SNL was the only avenue for Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart, or the Clash to appear in a medium they were probably too good for anyway. But in the case of Karmin, the group simply did not look ready, period.
It’s remarkable how similar the Karmin clip is to that Desmond Child & Rouge clip. We remember the pop stars that changed the world on SNL. But SNL itself has stayed fixed as a place where the failures look more or less the same. SNL’s strength has always been its adaptability; in modern times this equates to “be more like the Internet.” But SNL is also the epitome of big-time, big-tent show business, with a vast stage that tends to bring newcomers down to size. No matter how you get to SNL, you still have to show up when you get there.
Illustration by Linsey Fields