In its first season on the air, “Saturday Night Live” offered musical guests ranging from Abba to Anne Murray to Patti Smith. It’s hard to think of a more wide-ranging stylistic whiplash than that, careening from mainstream hitmakers to products of the time to the very cutting edge of punk. Yet the venerable variety show has by and large kept pace with that model, helping to make careers, break careers and provide decades’ worth of indelible moments. Here are but a few of the many musical highlights, lowlights and curiosities from the show’s estimable run.
Simon and Garfunkel
Season 1, 1975
The first “SNL” booking coup that one could retroactively label “appointment television,” the show’s second episode saw host Paul Simon sit down with bitterly estranged bandmate Art Garfunkel for an initially tense, and eventually beautiful, run through several of their songs.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Season 3, 1977
Costello and Co. only made it through a few bars of “Less Than Zero” before the frontman dramatically halted his bandmates, then led them head-on into the caustic “Radio, Radio,” which he’d been explicitly forbidden from playing. Costello was banned from the show for the next decade.
Season 7, 1981
Recruited to play at the behest of celebrity fan John Belushi, the ever-argumentative punkers began their set by announcing, “It’s great to be here in New Jersey” to widespread boos, and ended it by causing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage as an imported posse of slam dancers (including Belushi and Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye) tore apart the stage.
Season 12, 1986
At a time when many in the entertainment biz still considered hip-hop a novelty, Hollis, Queens’ finest delivered a blistering retort as the first rap act to perform on the 8H stage. It wasn’t until three years later that the Grammys first acknowledged hip-hop, and even then, the award was not televised.
Season 17, 1992
After opening with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana had plenty of tunes in its repertoire that would have made for pleasant, network-friendly cappers on their debut “SNL” gig. “Territorial Pissings” wasn’t one, however, and the song’s feedback-laden chaos was only exacerbated when Kurt Cobain promptly laid waste to his guitar. He and his bandmates could later be seen making out during the final curtain call.
Season 18, 1992
Though it tends to be the least-discussed element of the performance, O’Connor’s second “SNL” appearance saw the powerhouse vocalist deliver a chillingly effective rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” shorn of all instrumental accompaniment. Then she pulled out a picture of Pope John Paul II …
Rage Against the Machine
Season 21, 1996
Presumably, a show booker thought it would be worth a laugh to pair billionaire Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as host with perpetually unsmiling ultra-leftist firebrand Rage Against the Machine as musical guest. Rage members were not amused, and protested by attempting to decorate their amps with upside-down American flags. The group was booted from the studio before it could play a second number.
Season 30, 2004
America lost yet another tiny sliver of its innocence a few seconds into Simpson’s second song on “SNL”: With her band playing “Autobiography,” Simpson’s disembodied voice burst through the speakers singing “Pieces of Me,” which she had just performed a few minutes earlier. The use of backing tracks in televised performances has since become something of an open secret, but at the time, the snafu dealt a heavy blow to Simpson’s young career.
Season 34, 2008
Back in 2008, Adele’s attempt to break into the U.S. market looked to be a non-starter, plagued with slow sales and cancelled concerts. But then her otherwise unremarkable “SNL” slot became a sudden political flashpoint, with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin appearing to square off with impersonator Tina Fey. The show was “SNL’s” highest rated in 14 years, and Adele’s debut album “19” jumped to the top of the iTunes charts the very next day.
Season 36, 2010
West has an eventful history with “SNL,” having appeared five times (twice for the season premiere) while also dedicating a couplet in his single “Power” to inviting the show’s “whole cast” to kiss his “whole ass.” Performing the song on the show in 2010, the rapper skipped the whole offending verse in favor of a new one, which featured the word “disestablishmentarianism” in place of the dis. What was the deeper significance? Only Yeezus knows for sure.