The Roots of Indie: ‘Saturday Night Live’
It's a legendary moment for alternative music fans: December 17, 1977, Elvis Costello is scheduled to perform on Saturday Night Live. The show is in its third season, and producer Lorne Michaels and his crew have over 50 episodes under their belts. They've learned that preparation is the key to live television -- do it just like we rehearsed and everything will be fine.
But Costello has other plans. He doesn't want to play his new single, "Less Than Zero," so after a couple of bars he stops his band and launches into a blistering "Radio Radio." Elvis doesn't get another shot at SNL for over 11 years.
Saturday Night Live is more than just a sketch comedy show. Over the show's 40-year history, SNL has brought a staggering amount of musical talent (and occasionally lack of talent) into our living rooms. I should know: I've been a devoted viewer since I was just a pup, too young to understand the jokes and not too cynical yet to enjoy Randy Newman singing "Sail Away" on the show's second episode.
Saturday night at 11:30PM was a programming dead zone in 1975, so the makers of NBC's new variety show were free to subvert the mainstream culture a bit. Who cares? Nobody's going to see it anyway. When it came to musical guests, they reached back to their personal favorites, sideways toward marginalized genres like jazz, zydeco, reggae and gospel, and forward -- always forward, featuring young bands no more ready for primetime than the show's cast.
Like most kids at the time, my musical diet was delivered via FM radio -- heavy doses of Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs, Boston and Foreigner. I lived in too small of a town (and was too young, for that matter) for any sort of local scene. With exception to shows like American Bandstand and the Midnight Special, FM radio was it.
Unlike those outlets, SNL didn't have a rigid musical format. Every week was an adventure. Perhaps my earliest memory of really being excited about roots-style music is seeing Leon Redbone during one of his four appearances on the show.
That same year (1976), Patti Smith appeared, laying down a version of "Gloria" that's still ringing in my ears. There it is: Redbone and Smith, backward and forward, roots and proto-punk, the template for the alt-indie universe depicted with two musical guest appearances.
Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Blondie, the unfairly forgotten Roches -- they all performed on SNL during the '70s, but perhaps no band had a greater visual impact than Devo. They only appeared once, on the second episode of season four in October 1978, but the band incorporated footage from their "Jocko Homo" clip into their performance. Talk about a game changer. That night, Devo introduced middle America to the '80s over a year before that decade even kicked off:
The B-52's kicked off the actual '80s, performing "Rock Lobster" on the first show of the new decade. One may find it hard to think of either that band or that song as fresh, but keep in mind that during that same week, Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" sat atop the pop charts. SNL remained on the cutting edge. During the same year Gary Numan, the Specials and Captain Beefheart all made appearances.
In 1981, the show was host to another legendary performance, this time for the Los Angeles band Fear. Punk may have been over, but nobody bothered to tell these guys. Allegedly the band's third song, "Let's Have A War," cuts out because the show's producers feared that the studio audience was on their way to a riot. How's that for live television?
Throughout the decade SNL showcased artists who were alternative before that term had even been coined. Post-punk, new wave and college radio all described what we now consider alt-indie, and all were definitely alternatives to the sounds that dominated FM radio. I still have the Clash's 1982 appearance tucked away somewhere, recorded on a VHS tape that I no longer have a way to play.
In 1986, the Replacements made their one and only appearance on the show. It's an amazing performance, but apparently Lorne Michaels didn't think so. Their drunkenness and Paul Westerberg's on-mic curse were enough to get the 'Mats banned from SNL for life, an honor that should be called the Costello Club out of respect for its founder.
The banning hammer continued to fall in the '90s. During her second appearance in 1992, Sinead O'Connor famously tore up a picture of the Pope, earning her spot in the Costello Club and arguably ruining her white hot career. Given the trouble in which the Catholic church found itself a decade later -- not to mention the fact that this clip became legendary -- I've always thought SNL owed Ms. Sinead an apology.
R.E.M appeared three times during the '90s, and both Beck and the Foo Fighters made the first of their seven appearances each. Things got a little heavier with Rage Against the Machine, Rollins Band, and Faith No More, and grunge was well represented by two-timers Nirvana and four-timers Pearl Jam. Smashing Pumpkins made their first of three appearances -- toss in Zwan and Billy Corgan is a four-timer. If that isn't enough awesome for you, note that Elliott Smith made a 1998 appearance.
With the new millennium came the rise of the internet. I no longer needed a show like SNL to bring me music off of the beaten path, but that didn't stop them. Back in 2002 I felt bloated from a diet rich in post-grunge, boy bands and divas. Alternative music seemed to be slipping back into the shadows, and then the Strokes hit the stage and absolutely killed it. I watched that performance with the same giddiness that I felt when the Clash performed 20 years earlier, or the Replacements or Elvis Costello.
As the show matured, it attracted more popular and mainstream musical guests. These days a performance like David Bowie's legendary "puppet" appearance with Klaus Nomi or the brilliance of complete unknowns like the father-son Spanic Boys rarely happens, but I hold out hope. Every Saturday night at 11:30PM I still tune in, hoping to be turned onto something I've never heard, live from the stage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Last note: There's a long-running gag on the show regarding the Five Timers Club, open only to guests who have hosted at least five times. Here are the Dirty Dozen, the 12 musical guests who have appeared 5 times or more, and the number of times each has performed as a musical guest. This doesn't include hosting, cameos or appearances on specials: