Before camera phones captured footage from seemingly every concert around the globe for online consumption and home video made professional live recordings profitable enough to proliferate, there was “Saturday Night Live.” At a time when most television appearances by bands involved lip-syncing, the variety show featured relevant artists performing hit songs for fans around the world in a live setting – the closest one could regularly get to a concert beamed into one’s living room.
The show is coming off of a season that featured a powerful roster of musical talent, with massive names like Adele, Bruce Springsteen and Kanye West sharing billing with newer talent like Leon Bridges and Courtney Barnett. But as good as the last season was, nothing there could touch the top performances in show history.
For those who need a reminder of what Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is capable of producing, here are a few of the best musical moments in the show’s history – along with a couple examples of what can go wrong.
Paul Simon and George Harrison (1976): The one-off superduo combined for one song from each of their catalogs (“Homeward Bound” and “Here Comes the Sun,” respectively). Such was the power of Lorne Michaels.
Elvis Costello (1977): One of the most talked-about performances in SNL history, Costello’s insistence on playing “Radio Radio” instead of the previously-planned “Less Than Zero” reportedly got him a “lifetime” (which ended up being a 12-year) ban from the show. He’d go on to parody the performance with the Beastie Boys on the 25th anniversary episode.
U2 (2004): There’s a gap between the audience and the stage at Saturday Night Live that can swallow a band’s energy whole – it’s one of the reasons that some musicians come off as flat or removed on the show. For “I Will Follow,” played during the closing credits, Bono leapt past that and into the audience. The best part: The glimpses of SNL cast members like Amy Poehler acting like superfans rather than stars.
Adele (2008): People who wouldn’t usually tune in to the show were watching thanks to guest Sarah Palin. But by the end of the 90 minutes, the biggest star was the woman who had just brought down the house with “Chasing Pavements.”
Prince (2014): The Purple One was not the first musical guest to perform a medley of songs on the show (The Kinks did so in the ‘70s, rushing full speed through tracks like “You Really Got Me” and “A Well Respected Man”), but his eight-minute set just two years ago showed what SNL can do at its best: Give great artists the creative space to do something different.
Ashlee Simpson (2004): The other Simpson sister danced a jig while her band played one song, and her pre-recorded vocals aired from another. While it didn’t end her career, it did give Jessica the win in the sister showdown.
Lana Del Rey (2012): She’s not usually the most energetic of performers in the first place, but NBC probably didn’t need to televise a performance at midnight that could put most people to sleep at noon.
The Rolling Stones (1978): Mick Jagger’s ragged, raspy vocals on “Beast of Burden” could be used as a public service announcement aimed at all singers who may overindulge while on the road.