Friday, September 23, 2011


PART V: 1981-1975
21. Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns – “Don’t Bug Me, Baby” (1/24/1981)
Another submission for the Best SNL Musical Season Ever -- even if it was the Worst Season Ever in every other respect. Jean Doumanian may have never learned the ropes of producing a comedy show in Lorne Michaels' giant shoes, but her previous duties -- which included the booking and facilitation of SNL's musical guests -- really paid off for the sheer amount of terrific underground acts not normally seen on network television. Case in point: Carrasco, an Austin-based dervish who wore a giant crown and James Brown-influenced cape and played a caffeine-jittered brand of modern Tex-Mex rock & roll he dubbed "Nuevo Wavo." The Crowns made their vaunted New York debut during the previous spring of 1980, often introduced by one of their biggest champions, rock critic Lester Bangs. Nobody knew quite what to make of these party-mad nutsos from the brazos -- this was the year that Styx, Journey and Steely Dan dominated the charts. Doumanian and talent coordinator Neil Levy wisely snapped him up for posterity. He did not disappoint.

20. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – “Hot Head” (11/22/1980)
Our second entry for Best Musical Season Ever is from a show widely considered to be the Worst Episode of SNL Ever. On top of a series of nasty, incoherent and grotesque sketches ("Jack the Stripper," "The Leather Weather Report"), Doumanian & Co. had the stones to bring ol' Don Van Vliet out of cold storage for some nasty, incoherent and grotesque music. Turns out, they got Beefheart at the beginning of his last, great career phase with a newly constituted Magic Band and the now-classic comeback album Doc at the Radar Station under his size 42 belt. We remember witnessing this in pure, undiluted ecstasy.

19. Kid Creole & the Coconuts – “Mister Softee” (11/15/1980)
The first show of the brutally short Doumanian Era tapped into the sexual and racial confusion of post-Disco New York. (It began with the entire new cast waking up in bed with host Elliott Gould.) Nobody did this with more twisted flair than one August Darnell and his Calloway-at-the-Cotton-Club-from-Hell ensemble. The second song they did, "There But for the Grace of God Go I," which Darnell composed for his art-disco sextet Machine, is a legitmate classic, but here it gets an entirely different arrangement. We prefer the daffy first number, a song-story about getting mocked for having a limp dick -- by a trio of whiny, full-figured backup singers, no less -- that entwines itself metaphorically with the popular Mister Softee ice cream trucks that were popular on the East Coast during this time. And Darnell, in his woozy white zoot suit, pulls out all the stops with his energetic leg spasms and B-movie mugging. Nifty fake-fade freeze at the end -- where you can tell the Kid has given it his all. Bit o' trivia: bald, xylophone-playing voo-dude Andy "Coati Mundi" Hernandez was the MC at cast member Charles Rocket’s 2005 memorial.

18. The Specials – “Gangsters” (4/19/1980)
This booking brought Two-Tone ska to a young corn-fed, towheaded kid from the farm fields of Wisconsin. (Scene from following day: Going into local record store, asking for "The Specials?" and being told by the walking biker beard behind the counter "What? Who? Fuck That! MOL-ly HAT-chet!" as if he were Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Crappin' you negative, pholks.) Always admired how snotty and menacing these guys looked while they performed, and love how they all clear the stage at the end like they have better places to be.

17. The B-52’s – “Dance This Mess Around” (1/26/1980)
See above entry, replace "Two Tone ska" with "alien surf music." Add: The look of confusion and disgust in our father's face as we watched this.

16. David Bowie – “The Man Who Sold the World” (12/15/1979)
One of those rare occasions when we can see David Bowie ripping off someone as it's actually happening. The ripee: backup singer Klaus Nomi, whose unearthly, operatic vibrato and Weimer-fuck-doll fashion sense seemed to propel Bowie into more outrageous territory. (That suit!) For the somewhat acidic aftermath of this strange collaboration -- Nomi thought Bowie was his shot at stardom and was crushed when Bowie never called him again -- is discussed in the recent documentary The Nomi Song.

15. The Roches – “Hallelujah Chorus” (11/17/1979)
I had three plaited-hair sisters who all played folk instruments and sang harmony on songs like Skeeter Davis' "Sad Situation." When I first saw this, I asked my parents: "What are Martha, Althea and Leora doing on the TV?" A Kodak moment.

14. Ornette Coleman – “Times Square” (4/14/1979)
Thanks to the monumental embarrassment that was host Milton Berle's performance (crooning the treacly "September Song" and then talking over the song about how great life is before plugging his new book), Lorne Michaels refused to let this episode into syndication. O.K. fine, Dr. Evil, but why punish Ornette?

13. Eubie Blake w/ Gregory Hines - "Low-down Blues," "I'm Just Simply Full of Jazz"
& "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (3/10/1979)
James Hubert Blake was the son of two former slaves, born in Baltimore around 1887 as the only surviving member of eight siblings, who accompanied the great bandleader/composer James Reese Europe and the ballroom dance pioneers Vernon & Irene Castle, who made short-film reels with radio pioneer Lee De Forest, who in 1921 with his longtime collaborator Noble Sissle wrote the first all-African-American musical to appear on Broadway. Blake had just turned 92 the month before this broadcast and was experiencing his umpteenth career revival with the success of the Broadway tribute Eubie! This warm and moving collaboration between the elder pianist (those wonderful long fingers!) and the young dance prodigy Gregory Hines made this another one of those rare evenings where SNL transcended its pop-culture-of-the-moment fizziness and went into the area of historical documentation, especially now that both men are now gone.

12. Devo – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (10/14/1978)
Pretty obvious why it's on the list, right? See also: Captain Beefheart, The Specials, replacing "Two Tone ska" and "alien surf music" with "uhhhh, ummmm, errr, well, I think they're, like, robots, or something..." Molly Hatchet record-store clerk nearly has an aneurysm.

11. Sun Ra – “Space is the Place” (5/20/1978)
Like Snoop Dogg's first appearance sixteen years later, we were confused and borderline hostile to this performance. (Perhaps it was the fact that Buck Henry hosted for the 111th time). But hey, give us a break, we were only ten. Now, the cacaphonous blat of Ra's horn section makes the back of our calves quiver.

10. Keith Jarrett (4/15/1978)
Like Sun Ra, we didn't understand this booking when we first saw it -- but that didn't stop us from being mesmerized by Jarrett's THREE solo piano performances. (Would this even happen today, much less ten years ago?) By this time in his controversial and mercurial career, Jarrett played next to nothing but long improvised explorations that took you on a journey that was much richer and deeper than any four-minute performance on a live network could possibly allow and still respect itself in the morning. But Jarrett managed to stop time. How often has that happened?

9. The Dirt Band w/ Steve Martin - "White Russia" (1/21/1978)
Remember the last time Steve Martin hosted SNL in 2009 and played some cheesy bluegrass with his Steep Canyon Rangers? No? Well, then, this performance was much better, as Martin squared off with the great John McEuen for some fancy pickin' and pluckin'. The Dirt Band had just returned from the behind the Iron Curtain as the first American band to play the Soviet Union...I guess they were sorta our enemies back then?

8. Ray Charles – “I Can See Clearly Now,” “I Believe To My Soul,”
“Hit the Road, Jack” & “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (11/12/1977)
Remember that TV show that was on PBS in the 1970s called Soundstage? (Not the rebooted post-millennial version but the one where Andy Kaufman sat behind that giant desk and mocked his guests with the aid of an angry Tony Clifton puppet.) This performance reminds me of the feel of that show, especially the long medley segment where members of Charles' old horn section (including Marcus Belgraves, Leroy Cooper, Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman) are brought back for a cooking jam session -- marked by a deep-boil take on "Soul" and a startlingly delicate saxophone solo from Brother Ray himself. You can hear the audience go nuts when he does this; I remember leaping off the couch. Later, we found out that all Ray and his old friends were barely speaking because of old grouses over royalites. Sigh. Perhaps all that tension made them kick the roof off of 8H.

7. Dr. John, Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars – “Sing, Sing, Sing”
& The Meters – “Got to Get My Name Up in Lights” (3/19/1977)
Our vote for the Best Overall Musical Episode. To its credit, SNL has always been good to the music of New Orleans, having booked everyone from The Neville Brothers, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Wynton Marsailis, Queen Ida, Harry Connick, Jr., The Wild Tchoupitoulas (who backed Robbie Robertson in 1992) and Randy Newman -- not to mention the disastrous prime-time "SNL Visits New Orleans" special mounted just a month before this epsiode. Almost as an apology, Michaels pulled one of those magical bookings that made SNL seem less like a comedy show and more like a vintage broadcast of Austin City Limits. Dr. John, who along with the great Levon Helm and a ensemble consisting of Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones and Paul Butterfield kick it on one of the Doctor's best and most underrated tunes. Then there's the impossibly funky Meters at the peak of their mid-70s powers. That's their brilliant drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, who just recently passed away, pictured below.

6. Randy Newman – “Sail Away” (2/20/1977)
This was the debacle that was the "Hey, Let's Go Film a Live Comedy Show During Mardi Gras!" episode. (If you can get ahold of this buried half-classic, watch Jane Curtin and Buck Henry's hilarious, flop-sweated patter while waiting for a Bacchus Parade that never arrives.) Luckily, Lorne Michaels realized that such an unpredictable environment needed an anchor and installed his friend Randy Newman at the Theatre of Performing Arts, which he reasoned could always be cut to in case anything went wrong in the French Quarter. It did, quite frequently. But Michaels' instinct also helped capture the perversity of a white, Jewish intellectual native son singing four vicious songs about the Deep South (three are from Newman's 1974 concept record Good Ol' Boys) from smack dab in the middle of it -- and with a mostly white orchestra at that. The capper: "Sail Away," provocative even by Newman's outre standards, which posits the slave trade as just another American hard sell ("You won't have to run though the jungle and scuff up your feet"). You can just see the green bile drip down the French Colonial walls.

5. Frank Zappa – “Peaches en Regalia” (12/11/1976)
From many accounts, Frank Zappa was the biggest asshost on the SNL set besides Robert Blake, Chevy Chase and Steven Seagal. Don't care. This song has always been one of our favorites -- and to see it played live with Frank's crackerjack band (including Terry Bozzio, Jean-Luc Ponty and Ray White and Ruth Underwood)? Fughetaboutit.

4. Paul Simon w/ George Harrison –
“Here Comes the Sun” & "Homeward Bound" (11/20/1976)
If you can ignore Simon's sweater vest, this was one of the show's most intimate performances. SNL would try to repeat this magic when Simon dueted with James Taylor four years later on the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown."

3. Jimmy Cliff - "Many Rivers to Cross" (1/31/1976)
Cliff -- despite a spectacular voice rivaled only by Frederick "Toots" Hibbert -- was always a little too pop friendly for the Beast's ears. But to say anything more about his performance of this classic from The Harder They Come would to be doing it an injustice. The only word that comes to mind? Soaring.

2. Gil Scott-Heron – “Johannesburg” (12/13/1975)
The man who brought us the phrase "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is televised as part of a high-wire episode that should be in some Race Relations Hall of Fame. (Richard Pryor, as his tensest, was the host.) Heron informs people of a little place on the southern tip of Africa that most Americans wouldn't hear about until years later when Peter Gabriel and Little Steven Van Zandt started writing songs about it. Heron's recent passing makes watching this now a bittersweet burn.

1. The Lockers (10/25/1975)
Although this list is sequenced according to year and not in levels of influence, this performance might as well be number one either way. The Lockers were a comedy-tinged West Coast troupe who pioneered street dancing and included people who would go on to fame in much bigger rooms than 8H: Toni "Mickey" Basil, Fred "Rerun" Berry and Aldolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quinones. In this now-legendary performance (you can see it on the Lockers website) from SNL's third show, one can see the Lockers' influence in everything from the Fly Girls of In Living Colour and the krunk crews of South L.A. to Stomp! and just about every other contestant/choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance? (Granted, the outfits have dated a bit.) It also makes sense why Lorne Michaels booked them, as he preferred sketches that "broke the fourth wall" and spread around and out of the studio (i.e., the Bees). The Lockers aptly pick up the gauntlet, using 8H as their own personal piece of cardboard, obliterating the boundaries between different sets and oozing through the audience like goofy, well-meaning goblins. They even have time to trash-talk Shabba Doo!

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