You can’t spit on the host and then show up with your B game. Kanye West knows this, which is why his pair of performances on this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” were among the most arresting in the show’s 30-plus year history. You might recall that West took a hard shot at the long-running late night staple on his single “Power,” unfavorably name-checking the sketch comedy show with the line “F— ‘SNL’ and the whole cast. Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass.”
But when he showed up to perform the song on Saturday (October 2), Kanye paid the biggest compliment he could to the show: He delivered one of his typically eye-popping visual spectacles, one which will undoubtedly go down in the books. And keep in mind, everybody has played on SNL, from U2 and ABBA, to Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Queen, R.E.M., Public Enemy, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, RUN-DMC, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake.
Not content to set up on the same Grand Central Terminal-themed set as everyone else, ‘Ye draped the set in a billowing, stark white sheet, standing atop a set of stairs in a red suit and wearing a gold garland crown, his neck heavy with long gold chains. From there he proceeded to kill the song as a group of ballet dancers performed a live version of his “moving painting” video for the track. It was the kind of visual feast you expect from Kanye, and by the time he came back for an equally arresting “Runaway” with a group of dancers hitting poses in sync with the rhythm, again against the white background, you knew you were seeing something epic.
It got us thinking about some of the other “SNL” sets that have set our eyes and ears on fire. One of the first that pops to mind is one of the all-time classic moments on the show, and the one that got Elvis Costello banned for more than a dozen years. The then-angry young man was slotted to play “Less Than Zero” on his “SNL” debut in 1977, but after hitting the first few bars of that tune, he switched to a song he was told not to play, “Radio, Radio,” an anti-commercialism rant.
That give birth to another classic moment in 1999, during the show’s 25th anniversary season, when the Beastie Boys were interrupted by Costello, who bum-rushed their “Sabotage” to perform a duet on “Radio, Radio.”
A modern high-water mark often cited by “SNL” aficionados is Radiohead’s 2000 take on “The National Anthem,” during which singer Thom Yorke was at his fidgety best as the house band back the group up with braying horns for one of the most intense musical slots in the show’s history.
Another act that got banned after appearing on the show was Los Angeles punk act Fear, who were favorites of late star John Belushi. Tons of actual punks, including Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins, showed up for the 1981 Halloween show, and after making them hang out in a room for the first song, producers let them loose for the second one. They rushed the stage and started moshing and stage-diving. A kid got his nose busted and MacKaye grabbed the microphone and yelled an obscenity before the whole lot were dragged out by police after trashing the studio. Fear’s third song, “Let’s Have a War,” never aired, and was replaced by a short film.
“SNL” has always tried to have its finger on the pulse of music (and to have Paul Simon play every couple of years), but when it hosted the Replacements in 1986 to celebrate the release of the pioneering Minneapolis band’s major label debut, Tim, the audience got an eyeful of their shambolic wonder. The legendarily inebriated band ripped through “Bastards of Young” and then wore each other’s clothes for an equally drunk and disorderly “Kiss Me on the Bus,” during which they struggled to hold onto their instruments.
Along the way, Nirvana killed in 1992 with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Territorial Pissings” (and again the next year with “Rape Me” and “Heart Shaped Boxed”), Pearl Jam was equally fierce in their first appearance in 1992 with a gigantic “Alive” and Sinead O’Connor gave one of the most talked-about performances ever in October 1992 when she sang Bob Marley’s “War,” held up a picture of the Pope, ripped it to shreds and yelled, “Fight the real enemy!”
And though it’s not a musical guest slot, who can forget Timberlake’s irrepressible, Emmy winning musical digital short, “D— in a Box”?
What’s your favorite “SNL” musical moment?