Patti Smith Group, April 17, 1976
On the evening of April 17, 1976, there was nothing in the world going on that was cooler than the enchanting Patti Smith and her band singing “Gloria” on SNL. Not even that show’s guest, Gerald Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen, and his stunted introduction delivery could ruin the moment. (Embedding has been disabled—click here to watch.)
Joe Cocker, October 2, 1976
Joe Cocker was self-aware enough to know that he looked, well, peculiar when he performed live; he would squint his eyes and hunch his shoulders, giving him the appearance of looking like he didn’t have a neck, and flail his arms wildly. He looked like he was in a straight jacket and trying to escape. His being able to laugh at himself resulted in one of SNL’s first must-see moments, when John Belushi came on stage, as Cocker, to sing “Feelin’ Alright” with him. I still want that “Stuff” t-shirt.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, December 17, 1977
Season three was not a good year for musical performances on SNL. Guests that season include Libby Titus, Jimmy Buffett, Stephen Bishop, Eddie Money, Meat Loaf, and Billy Joel, who performed “Only the Good Die Young” and the dreadful “Just the Way You Are.” There were a few highlights, however, including Ray Charles (who performed five songs), Randy Newman, the Blues Brothers, and best of all, Elvis Costello and the Attractions. They were a last second fill-in for the Sex Pistols (who couldn’t obtain visas), and considered a safe choice. Ironically, though, they caused a shit-storm when after playing 30 seconds of “Less Than Zero,” the band abruptly stopped and began playing the much angrier “Radio, Radio” instead. The song’s anti-media lyrics didn’t go over well with NBC, and Costello was banned from appearing on SNL until 1989.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, November 22, 1980
This was Captain Beefheart’s first appearance on national TV, and Don Van Vliet celebrated by waving his red scarf in the air and singing “Hot Head.” I’m going to assume this also marked the first, and only, time in TV history that anyone ever muttered the phrase, “She’s a hobo wire toaster.” That actually sounds like a good SNL sketch.
Stevie Wonder, May 7, 1983
This only half-counts, but Eddie Murphy as Stevie Wonder telling the real Stevie Wonder this his performance of “My Chérie Amour” “still sucks, man” might be the single greatest SNL sketch. Sorry, Gilly.
The Replacements, January 18, 1986
They are so drunk.
LL Cool J, October 24, 1987
LL Cool J on SNL > DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince on Arsenio.
Nirvana, January 11, 1992
Nirvana played on SNL twice: first in 1992, when Rob Morrow hosted and they figuratively blew up the joint and literally destroyed their equipment (the musical guests that book ended this episode: James Taylor and Robbie Robertson/Bruce Hornsby & the Range — yikes); and again in September 1993, in a Charles Barkley-hosted episode, roughly seven months before Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Morrissey, November 14, 1992
Among host-musical guest pairings that I wish I were fly on the wall for their off-screen conversations, Michael Keaton and Morrissey is pretty high up there. “So,” asked Morrissey, “I hear you’re Batman. How’s that going?” Joe Pesci and the Spin Doctors from three episodes earlier, too (“What the FUCK did the one prince want to buy?”)
Green Day, December 3, 1994
Oh God, that is Roseanne wearing a Green Day t-shirt. I was never a big fan of Billie Joe’s blonde look. I much preferred the Woodstock ’99-era blue do. Supposedly, the band was expected to play “Basket Case,” but they performed the then-unreleased “Geek Stink Breath,” from 1995’s Insomniac, instead, as well as “When I Come Around.” (Embedding disabled, click here to watch.)
Radiohead, October 24, 2000
If John Belushi had still been alive in 2000, I bet he would have done an AMAZING Thom Yorke dancing impression. (Watch here.)
Arcade Fire, December, 2010
The kiss at the end, still. (Watch here.)