Wednesday, May 25, 2011


This week, the Beast felt obligated to check out yet another "Saturday Night Live Is Dead" article, which the mainstream press has been publishing variations on since the show's fifth season. (It just might be the longest running obituary in American cultural history.) But what struck us about Slate writer Nathan Heller's take on "SNDead" was that rather than just focusing on the comedy in those crucial early days he also emphasizes the little-written about impact of the show's musical guests. An excerpt:

Given the limp and ashen entertainment-industry sausage SNL has become, it's hard to fathom just how strikingly connected to the youth zeitgeist the early program was. George Carlin hosted its 1975 debut while very stoned, tossing off jokes about blue food or trying to smoke the hash marks on a football field. Billy Preston came on to sing "Nothing From Nothing"; folk wunderkind Janis Ian performed her outsiders' anthem "At Seventeen." The following week, host Paul Simon sang several songs in patched jeans and camera-unfriendly tweed, reuniting with Garfunkel on-air for "The Boxer" and "Scarborough Fair." Live music on TV was by no means new in 1975, but Saturday Night, with its deglamorized performers and close, well-lit audience, offered something more: a new tenor of intimacy on-air, a clubhouse for a generation on the comedown from its great cultural moment.

Being a loyal watcher of SNL since 1977 -- when we had to sneak downstairs in our pajamas to sit and watch strange new sounds by The Specials, The B-52s, Joe "King" Carrasco and many more -- the Beast decided to take a backwards walk through 36 years of musical-guest highlights.

PART I: 2011-1999

100. Foo Fighters – “Walk” (4/09/2011)
"Rope" was their first song and it sounded terrific on the radio, but the second song was an amazing blast of sonic perfection. SNL's notoriously bad sound problems were blasted away as well.

99. Lil' Wayne w/ Eminem – "No Love/Won't Back Down" (12/18/2010)
Em, who has given some of the dullest performances in SNL history, wisely takes a back seat to Weezy, who explodes onstage like he just got out of jail or something.

98. The Arcade Fire –
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (11/13/2010)
Win Butler's wife/second-in-command/muse Régine Chassagne took the lead on this poignantly defiant tune from a pre-Grammy winning The Suburbs. She sings it in a beautiful wobble, and further unveils a twitchy and unpredictable stage persona that was somehow easier to take than her hubby's.

97. Kanye West – “Power” (10/02/2010)
Even if you don't like this guy or his music, this performance was a game changer for the show. West draped the famously neutral, faux-subway music stage in all white and called down an angel-posse of dancers. This might also have been a game-ruiner as well: Lady Gaga's batshit performance last week upped the ante into the realm of live music video rather than live performance.

96. Pearl Jam – “Just Breathe” (3/13/2010)
Heavy vet rockers came out like a lamb on their 4th SNL appearance with this hushed, meditative tune.
Just perfect.

95. Adele – “Chasing Pavements” (10/18/2008)
Before she was a chartbuster, the British teen chanteuse with a voice twenty years her senior appeared on a heavily watched episode hosted by Josh Brolin. She scored! This despite dueling cameos by Sarah Palin and Tina Fey and that many watching had rarely seen a full-figured woman on the SNL stage since Aretha. Best part: Her little embarrased hop at the end -- Oh bloody 'ell, did I fuck that up?

94. Gnarls Barkley – “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?” (4/12/2008)
An ominous and disturbing avant-soul plea performed by a band of dubious tricksters dressed like James Brown's Famous Flames if they were wacked-out on lithium. The ghost of Michael O'Donoghue was sitting in the balcony, smoking a More and smiling.

93. Bjork – “Earth Intruders” (4/21/2007)
Backed by her cult of female brass players dressed in flowing technicolor dreamcoats, the tiny ice princess traipsied barefoot through this modern-primitivist march, which she apparently composed after a dream she had while flying over the Atlantic.

92. Beck – “Clap Hands/One Foot in the Grave” (10/28/2006)
Beck's band sat at a dinner table onstage and pounded out a junkyard beat with plates, utensils, drinking glasses and their hands while their leader stood to the right and plunked wobbly chords on his cheap guitar -- even splicing in a snatch of his pre-"Loser" song "One Foot in the Grave." If that wasn't enough, the entire scene was mimicked by a collection of marionette puppets.

91. Queens of the Stone Age w/ "Gene Frenkle"
– “Little Sister” (5/13/2005)
Not since a spastic and dishevelled John Belushi joined Joe Cocker onstage for "Feelin' Allright" in 1976 did the show's mixing of comedy and music fit together so well. Like that hallowed performance, host Will Ferrell waited until after the first chorus to make his appearance as the hapless (and deceased) cowbell player from the Behind the Music: Blue Oyster Cult sketch. The ending is even better: Ferrell and guitarist Josh Homme with their arms around each other, stone-faced, looking so over-serious that it kicks the joke up a notch:

90. Usher featuring Ludacris – “Yeah!” (5/01/2004)
For those couch surfers who never saw Usher's impressive live show got their Funyons blown out of their hands with the meta-acrobatics on hand, particularly the "time-lapse marionette" and the artist's spectacular free-standing backflip at the end. In our memory, the only time "live" has been transformed into "optical illusion" on SNL. It also made us want to start working out again.

89. Toots and the Maytals w/ Jack Johnson & Ben Harper
 – “Pressure Drop” (4/03/2004)
This should have happened back in 1976, especially since early SNL had a love affair with reggae artists, from true purists like Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh to pop-friendly knockoffs like Eddy Grant and Musical Youth. Sir Toots' gritty voice survived the years intact and he showed himself to be spry as ever. Jack Johnson looked lost. The host for this show was Donald Trump. Can't imagine how that afterparty went.

88. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – “Pass That Dutch” (11/15/2003)
In her first SNL performance in 1998, she was relegated to one song and too many guests. Five years later, Mizz Hootie-Hoo returned, svelte and in charge, unleashing some of the best unified choreography this stage has ever seene.

87. Dixie Chicks – “Travelin’ Soldier” (2/08/2003)
Just over a month and a half before U.S. troops invaded Iraq for the second time and just a month before lead singer Natalie Maines forever changed the course of their career by protesting it, the Chicks popped up on SNL: The Y'all Edition (the host was Matthew McConaughey). The timing and poignancy of the song, of course, cannot be overstated. Especially with what we know now.

86. The White Stripes – “We’re Gonna Be Friends” (10/19/2002)
"Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" was a more rockin' song, and it was such a rush to hear "Ladiesshh and Gentlemen, the White Shtripesshh..." come from the pre-Palin mouth of host Sen. John McCain, but this quieter ditty was the more rewarding -- the kind of after-hours intimacy for which SNL is (or was once) known for. 

85. OutKast – “Ms. Jackson” (3/22/2002)
The insurgent South invades SNL. This was the amazing, booty-bouncing 2000-01 touring version of OutKast, the one that no longer exists, before Andre 3000 and Big Boi confused everyone by splitting themselves down the middle, as seen in their strangely hollow second SNL appearance in 2003.

84. Ryan Adams – “New York New York” (10/11/2001)

83. Paul Simon – “The Boxer” (9/29/2001)

82. Alicia Keys – “Fallin’” (9/29/2001)

81. Radiohead – “The National Anthem” & “Idioteque” (10/14/2000)
The 9/11 songs. Two of these performances are from the same show almost three weeks after the devastation in lower Manhattan, one a month after that, and one almost a year before. The Simon/Keys show was a great study in indirect mourning: Lorne Michaels was criticized for having his old Hamptons pal rhymin' Simon on for his umpteenth appearance and performing a 33-year-old song that, at least on the surface, had nothing to do with terrorism; on the contrary, Michaels asked Simon to perform a "defiant" song and what better than "The Boxer"? The lyrics tell a uniquely American story: the lonely pug immigrant, battered and bruised but still proud of the new land that has nearly broken him. Best moment: Simon sings the deathless line "the fighter still remains" as the camera cuts right to the Mount Rushmore visage of Rudolph Giuliani standing onstage with a collection of bruised and battered New York firefighters. Keys couldn't have done any better than simply singing "Fallin'" (that title now having multiple meanings) as she wrote it: an angry, gospel-tinged torch song; 9/11 was nowhere onstage and therefore, everywhere. Ryan Adams bringing "New York New York" to epic life a few weeks later ushered some punk rock fury to the fore (courtesy of Adams' Ramones t-shirt and awesome sneer as he sang the chorus). But Radiohead beat them all time-wise and zeitgeist-wise by performing two songs from 2000's Kid A that sounded like disquieting communiques from a dying space station, their titles sounding like wake-up calls.

80. Neil Young – “Razor Love” (5/06/2000)
For being live, SNL is such a tightly regimented show that some artists have to shorten their songs or are cut off altogether when they go long (The B-52's in 1980 and Joe Jackson in 1986, for example). At over six minutes, "Razor Love" stretches out on a Topanga Canyon hammock and takes its lovely time, all the old lions (Young, basssist Donald "Duck" Dunn, pianist Spooner Oldham) sitting around a nonexistent campfire. We fell into a blissful, not-a-care-in-the-world sleep during this broadcast -- and that is not at all a criticism.

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