Why the Rolling Stones’ ‘Saturday Night Live’ Gig Was Chaos
It had been roughly 10 years since the Stones’ last TV performance. SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels reportedly booked the band after running into Earl McGrath, president of Rolling Stones Records, at a Bob Dylan concert in Paris.
To Michaels, landing the Stones for SNL’s season four premiere would be a sign of validation. The sketch show had launched with plenty of doubters and a shoestring budget. Yet in its first few seasons, the series forged an indelible impact on pop culture, while also spawning two movie stars in Chevy Chase and John Belushi. The Stones’ appearance would cement Saturday Night Live as TV's coolest show.
However, not everyone was excited about the gig. Studio security worried about fans forcing their way into the building, while NBC’s censors were wary of the band’s penchant for partying and wild antics. Some of these fears turned out to be valid.
Wild Nights Leading Up to the Show
In the weekdays leading up to their Saturday Night Live performance, the Rolling Stones rehearsed in a New York studio called Bill’s. Though the band was just practicing for their TV gig, they held nothing back. The rehearsals were rambunctious affairs, and the handful of SNL staff who stopped by to see how things were going left flabbergasted at the chaos.
Meanwhile, Belushi – who had become a rock star in his own right thanks to Animal House and the popularity of the Blues Brothers characters – welcomed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards over to his place for some late-night jam sessions.
The partying continued when the Stones showed up at the SNL studio for their Friday night rehearsal. According to the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, the band “lived up to their legendary rowdiness, drinking Scotch and vodka and snorting coke openly in the studio, oblivious to the Rockefeller Center security guards on special duty all around them.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the band's reputation, inebriation didn't hinder the Stones' ability to deliver and engaging rehearsal performance. “When the Stones finally played, Jagger was so drunk he was staggering across the stage, but again they rocked without restraint.”
This scene was more-or-less reenacted the following day during dress rehearsal. At one point Richards, who has seemingly run out of booze, made a call to Rebel Yell whiskey and said, “Hello, this is Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones. We need some Rebel Yell. Would you send us some cases?”
Live From New York... It’s the Rolling Stones!
Anxiety was running high as showtime approached. As the Washington Post reported: “The appearance of the Stones on the show Saturday night was unquestionably, for the moment, the hottest ticket in New York. Building entrances were jammed with teeny-boppers, some of them not so short in the tooth.” Outside Rockefeller Plaza, counterfeiters were selling fake tickets for more than $500 each.
Things weren’t much calmer inside the studio. Officially, the Rolling Stones were both host and musical performer for the show. As such, Jagger appeared in a couple of sketches. Richards was also supposed to show his acting chops, but his parts were cut following dress rehearsal after the guitarist struggled to remember his lines. “It’s nice to be standing and working with a dead person,” cast member Laraine Newman later said of Richards.
NBC’s censor was also concerned with Jagger’s revealing clothing. After seeing what he deemed was too much of the singer during rehearsals, the censor asked assistant costume designer Karen Roston if Jagger could be covered up more appropriately. She laughed in response. “If you want to go up to Mick Jagger and tell him he has to wear underwear, be my guest.”
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform 'Beast of Burden' on 'Saturday Night Live'
On the night, the Stones performed three songs from their then soon-to-be-released album Some Girls: “Beast of Burden,” “Respectable” and “Shattered.” Sure enough Jagger’s tight pants and gyrations garnered a bit of airtime, though it certainly could have been more. “The live cameras did not fully capture two or three of Jagger's more sexually demonstrative gestures, such as grabbing a significant portion of guitarist Keith Richards' pants,” the Washington Post noted afterward.
What was noticeable, however, was Jagger’s vocals. The singer’s voice seemed weaker and raspier than the powerhouse most were expecting, likely due to the band’s hard partying leading up to the SNL gig (it was also noticeable during his appearance opposite Dan Aykroyd in the 'Tomorrow' sketch). Still, the Stones were largely able to deliver on the immense hype that surrounded their appearance on the show, scratchy throat be damned.
After the episode aired, but before the band and SNL cast adjourned to the afterparty, Jagger sat in Michaels’ office to watch a recording of the Stones performance. "Maybe this wasn't such a good show," the frontman noted as Michaels pushed the tape into the VCR. Good or not, it was certainly wild.
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin