Saturday Night Live has never just been a comedy program. From the very beginning, more than 40 years ago, SNL has also been a musical showcase, and over the show’s run, it has provided some incredible musical performances. In fact, many of the best (and worst) moments on the show have come from the musical acts that have performed on SNL. Who can forget the Beastie Boys destroying the SNL set? Or Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope? Or Ashley Simpson’s infamous lip-synch fail? Even many of the best moments among the cast members have involved music, from The Blues Brothers, to Bill Murray’s hilarious Nick the Lounge Singer, to the Sweeney Sisters. Yes, SNL has always been, and remains, a musical show, and here are the best musical guests to ever perform on the program.
10. Paul Simon and George Harrison (1975)
One of the best moments from the first season of SNL, way back in 1975, featured Paul Simon and former Beatle George Harrison singing a stripped-down version of the song “Here Comes the Sun”. If you’ve never seen this performance, you definitely should, as it features Simon and Harrison, perched on two stools with acoustic guitars, singing the classic Beatles song in perfect harmony with each other. It is amazing how well the two voices mesh in order to produce fantastic harmonies. This performance set a high water mark for the musical guests on SNL and helped to cement the show as a true showcase for top talent and musicians who were of the moment and in top form. While they would put on many great performances in their respective careers, Paul Simon and George Harrison have rarely sounded better.
9. Elvis Costello (1977)
Costello may have generated quite a bit of controversy with his first appearance in SNL in 1977, by playing the song “Radio Radio”, which was critical of corporate rock music, but he still rocked it on SNL. The then-young and brash musician began his first set on the show by playing the rather tame “Less Than Zero,” but after a few seconds he interrupted himself and his band and broke into “Radio Radio”, which he was explicitly asked not to play by both SNL producer Lorne Michaels and Columbia Records. The stunt got Costello banned from SNL for 15 years, but the performance was worth it. These days, Elvis Costello’s “stunt” is considered one of the best musical moments from the show.
8. Kanye West (2010)
Love him or hate him, Kanye West is one hell of a performer, and his ability to entertain was on full display back in 2010, when he performed two epic tracks off his album “My Beautifual Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The first song Kanye performed, “Runaway,” was amazing. But the singer outdid himself with the second performance, a rendition of the song “Power.” Both performances featured Kanye’s trademark high energy dance moves, plus his amazing beats and rhymes. Interestingly, Kanye didn’t generate any controversy while the musical guest on SNL, although he had exclaimed “George Bush hates black people,” while sharing the stage with SNL alum Mike Myers at a benefit to raise money for victims in New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina the year before.
7. Patti Smith (1976)
Her album “Horses” is considered a landmark in the rock n’ roll canon, but alternative proto-punk musician Patti Smith was an underground curiosity when she appeared as a guest on SNL back in 1976. The general public was not well aware of Smith at the time she took the SNL stage, as she was more of a music critic’s darling at the time than a mainstream musical act. However, all that changed after she delivered an incredible performance on SNL that left the audience speechless and gave most of the cast goosebumps. The SNL performance catapulted Patti Smith into the pop culture consciousness and helped propel her album to the top of the Billboard charts. It was one of the first instances of SNL helping to launch a musical act and the career of an important musician and artist.
6. Radiohead (2000)
British alt rockers Radiohead aren’t big fans of performing on television, and to date, they have only made one appearance on SNL and only sang one song on the show. But that one appearance was incredible. The band performed the song “Idioteque” from their 2000 album “Kid A”, which featured lead singer Thom Yorke going into manic convulsions while singing the song. In fact, some people on the show were concerned the singer was having a real and legitimate seizure at the time. However, just when it seemed as though Thom Yorke was going to start foaming at the mouth, he snapped out of it and finished the song – loudly screaming the final chorus, before slamming his microphone to the ground and storming off the stage. Radiohead have not been back to SNL since, but they definitely left the audience with a strong impression.
5. Paul Simon (1986)
Paul Simon has been a fixture on SNL since the show began. The best friend of SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels, he has had many memorable moments on SNL over the years, from singing the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a chicken suit to reuniting with Art Garfunkel on the program, to the aforementioned duet with Beatle George Harrison. However, Paul Simon’s performance on SNL in 1986 is the one most people remember. Promoting his classic album “Graceland”, Paul Simon performed the song “Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes” with a full African choir behind him. The performance is beautiful, and was also controversial, as many people at the time felt that Paul Simon was co-opting and exploiting African music for his own personal gain. He also broke the embargo imposed on South Africa at the time by recording the album in Johannesburg. Still, all the controversy doesn’t take away from a fantastic performance on SNL.
4. The White Stripes (2002)
It was a little surreal to see Republican Senator John McCain introduce The White Stripes on SNL back in 2002. After all, the elderly McCain, a Vietnam Veteran, has seemingly little in common with Jack and Meg White. Nevertheless, The White Stripes pulled off an incredible performance on the show. They had a ‘60s throwback peppermint theme in full effect and Jack White had fun with the vocals during their two song set, yelping and screaming at several points, as he shredded his guitar and Meg pounded the drums into submission. This was one of the very best pure rock moments in SNL history, and it managed to convert a few new fans to The White Stripes in the process.
3. Tom Petty with Dave Grohl (1994)
Immediately after Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s death, drummer Dave Grohl was a musician in need of a new gig. And before he formed Foo Fighters, Grohl spent nearly a year as the drummer for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. There aren’t many artifacts to commemorate this period in Tom Petty and Dave Grohl’s history, but an appearance on SNL in 1994 is one of the few. And knowing what became ofGrohl today, it seems a little strange to look back and see him performing with Petty and the Heartbreakers. However, it still provided a great musical moment for SNL fans and fans of Tom Petty. Watching the SNL appearance now, one gets the impression that Dave Grohl could have been a nice permanent addition to The Heartbreakers had he not gone on to form his own band.
2. U2 (2004)
Irish rockers U2 have remained one of the biggest bands in the world since the 1980s for a reason: they know how to put on a show. And the band sure pulled off a fantastic performance in 2004 when they went on SNL ahead of the release of their album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”. The band rocked their two song set, and then provided an encore at the end of the program as the credits rolled. It was vintage U2, as they left the audience and everyone at SNL wanting more, and it helped to reaffirm U2 as one of the very best bands in the world after a couple of previous albums had under-performed. SNL producer Lorne Michaels later said that he thought the U2 performance was one of the very best in the show’s illustrious history.
1. Nirvana (1992)
In 1992, Nirvana were the biggest and most important band in the world. The grunge rockers not only gave SNL one of the best performances it ever had on its stage, but also generated a healthy amount of controversy. The band played the radio-friendly “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for their first song. However, for their second song, the band played the rather obscure song “Territorial Pissings,” closing the number by trashing their instruments in front of a live audience. But the instrument bashing was not what generated the controversy. In fact, it was when the members of Nirvana were seen making out with each other at the close of the show while on stage waving goodbye with the SNL cast members. Sponsors pulled their advertising and church groups came out in force against Nirvana for the on-air make-out session, but it all resulted in great publicity for the band.