Sights Unheard: The Evolution of the SNL Musical Guest

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Sights Unheard: The Evolution of the <i>SNL</i> Musical Guest

For years now, getting selected as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live has been a prestige position, a feather in the cap of a young artist or band on the way to worldwide renown or a victory lap for someone more well-established.

Just look at the rundown of episodes for the season that wrapped up this past May: Arcade Fire, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Drake, Coldplay…all hugely successful stars that don’t need the show to boost their profiles any. And as they gear up for their 40th season, the producers are banking on Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and much buzzed about Irish singer/songwriter Hozier to bring in that coveted youth demographic.

It hasn’t always been this way. When SNL first hit the airwaves back in 1975, they were an unknown quantity. The names in the cast were new to viewers and a late-night variety format was a complete crapshoot. That it caught on quickly and has carried on for four decades is one of those fortuitous mysteries that dozens of shows have tried to recreate in its wake.

Still it took SNL a few years before it started really capturing the blue chip musical acts. Even with the muscle of NBC behind them, the first few seasons had a catch-as-catch-can quality to their musical bookings. Outside of an appearance by Swedish superstars ABBA and beloved singer/songwriter Carly Simon, the show grabbed who ever they could get, with a decided lean towards a very middle-of-the-road sensibility with the soft rock of Neil Sedaka, Al Jarreau, Phoebe Snow and Rita Coolidge leading the way. The only true outliers that first year were a fiery performance by Radio Ethiopia-era Patti Smith and the politico-funk of Gil Scott-Heron.

Patti Smith – Gloria (Live SNL 1976) from Eric Hatton on Vimeo.

As the show started gaining viewers and cultural cachet, the level of talent they were able to entice on the air started getting bigger and better. By the second season, their first episode had James Taylor, and by Thanksgiving, Paul Simon was willing to both host and perform, roping in former Beatle George Harrison to join him. From the fourth season on, it was a murderer’s row of talent: The Rolling Stones, Bowie, Dylan, McCartney, James Brown, and Prince, among them.

SNL continued to take some chances here and there for a good long while. They were daring enough to welcome jazz acts like Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Keith Jarrett on to the show. Captain Beefheart made a memorable appearance in season six, as did hip-hop pioneers Funky Four Plus One and, strangely, the cast of a popular revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (featuring a young Kevin Kline and Linda Rondstadt).

It’s not hard to pinpoint when the show finally shut the door on riskier musical bookings came: the appearance by punk band Fear on the Halloween episode that aired in 1981 as part of the show’s seventh season.

At this point in the show’s run, SNL had reached its lowest ebb. The previous season was one of the few without Lorne Michaels at the helm, and the first without the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. And it was one of the series’ shortest seasons, halted by a writer’s strike. The best that it could offer was the introduction of Eddie Murphy into the fold, and the accidental dropping of an f-bomb by Charles Rocket.

By the next season, a new producer was brought on board (Dick Ebersol) and efforts were made to gain back some of their stature—which is likely why they let former cast member John Belushi goad them into booking Fear on the show in exchange for a cameo appearance by the actor.

As has been reported again and again, the whole affair was a clusterfuck. The band invited a bunch of authentic punks to the taping, including future Fugazi member Ian MacKaye and Cro-Mags singer John Joseph, to mosh while the band ripped through their four songs. According to MacKaye, fights started breaking out between the punk kids and the audience, equipment was broken, and Eddie Murphy was pissed.

From then on out, the show has stuck to the safety zone of buzz bands foisted upon them by eager record company executives (how else to explain how The Sugarcubes wound up on the show back in 1988?), pop stars and well-vetted rock groups and friends of Lorne Michaels. Occasionally things take a turn into left field, but not by design. The only reason haunted chanteuse Julee Cruise and roots rockers Spanic Boys wound up on a 1990 episode was because the guest they originally booked, Sinead O’Connor, refused to appear on the show with that week’s host, Andrew Dice Clay.

For nearly 35 years now, this has been the formula, and considering how much viral traffic that we see from trainwrecks like Ashlee Simpson and masters like Kanye West, it’s not likely to shift gears any time soon. For a viewer like myself, though, it’s starting to get a little boring. We are seeing the same parade of superstars that are taking up valuable screen time on a dozen other TV shows during a promotional blitz. And for as much fun as it can sometimes be to watch these performances, very few of them survive the quick turnover of the Internet news cycle. I would love to see them start throwing a few more curveballs at us, just as their former breakout star Jimmy Fallon used to do on his late-night talk show, and that could actually break an up-and-coming band in a big way. But that’s as likely to happen as Kenan Thompson leaving the show of his own volition.

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