There are few shows that can get away with as much trouble as Saturday Night Live. Maybe it's because they're now a well-respected television staple that our kids will probably be watching someday, or perhaps it's because the show built its brand around pushing the envelope and giving NBC's censors a heart-attack from the get-go. Either way, SNL is loved and cherished by fans across generations because you never know what you're going to get, from witnessing a sketch that will go down as a classic or a cast-member slipping an f-bomb on live TV. But for as edgy and counter-culture people consider SNL to be, there's always been one aspect of the show that risks causing major problems on set, pissing off network TV bigwigs, and giving Lorne Michaels a major headache: The musical performances.
The coveted SNL music spot is known to make or break an artist's career, and the show has always committed to giving lesser known up-and-comers a fair shot in front of a national audience. Unfortunately, plucking acts from obscurity has its risks, and as is true with live TV in general, you never know what they're going to do once the cameras are rolling. Sometimes this works out and makes for some unforgettable live television, and sometimes it still makes for great TV, but gets the artists banned from 30 Rock in the process. Throughout the show's 40-plus year history, punk rock acts seem to be the most common offenders of the latter scenario, which in reality is exactly what you should expect from punk. You're on television about to play your sweaty basement music to the wholesome American audience safely at home, so why not stick it to the machine and freak people out in the process? Besides, you can't get much more punk than willingly getting yourself banned from one of the biggest shows in American television. You get lots of free press and you don't sell out to the conformist, corporate machine; best of both worlds if you ask me.
Even while punk rockers have caused unwanted mayhem even for the so-called champions of edgy comedy, there's no denying they've also made for some iconic moments in both the show and punk's respective histories. Perhaps the most well known musical incident occurred in December 17, 1977, when a 23-year-old British upstart named Elvis Costello and his band the Attractions took the stage for their American television debut. The Sex Pistols were originally scheduled to perform that night, but after manager Malcolm McLaren mishandled the band's visa applications, Costello was booked at the last minute (in the clip, Attractions drummer Pete Thomas can be seen wearing a t-shirt reading "THANKS, MALC"). Though the skinny, bespectacled Costello was more unassuming and sharply dressed than the raggedy, crazy-eyed Pistols, he was just as angry, and infinitely more articulate at lyrically expressing his anger, than anyone else in the punk scene.
It's a wonder, then, why Costello's record label Columbia thought it was a good idea to provoke the acidic wordsmith, but that's exactly what they did when they forced him to play "Less Than Zero," the single off his debut My Aim Is True. Costello thought the song about infamous British politician Oswald Mosley, leader of the Union of Fascists, wouldn't resonate with Americans, but the label wouldn't budge, believing the song to be the one to make people buy records and put money in their pockets. When their big moment finally arrived, the band seemed to go along with their label's demands, but that only lasted for about six seconds.
After singing the first two lines of "Less Than Zero," Costello frantically stopped the song completely and said, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there's no reason to do this song here." With that, the band launched into a scorching rendition of the then-unreleased "Radio Radio," an abrasive critique about the commercialization of art and an incredibly catchy middle finger to controlling record labels. Columbia certainly wasn't happy, and legend has it Lorne Michaels flipped the band off for the entirety of the performance, but there's no denying the electric and raw excitement behind the act of rebellion. The stunt got Costello banned from SNL for a decade, as he was eventually invited back to pull the exact same stunt with the Beastie Boys, but Costello wasn't bothered in the slightest. As he put it in his 2015 memoir, "The confused and indignant faces behind the camera were the funniest things we'd seen all night, and we laughed all the way to the bar if not the bank."
Costello may have pissed a lot of people off, but if anything, the moment did wonders for his career and became one of the most beloved SNL musical moments to the point where the show eventually forgave him. If you want to talk about career suicide, punk rock style, than look no further than the January 18, 1986 broadcast, when the Replacements made their way to 30 Rock. The band was brought on as, fittingly enough, a replacement act when the Staples Singers bowed out. The performance came about as a comprise between the band and their label Warner Bros., when the 'Mats refused to do music videos but relented on doing TV performances. SNL was on its last leg by the late 80s, as years of abysmal ratings, forgettable cast members, and terrible writing made the show a ghost of its former glory, and made cancellation a looming reality. Lorne Michaels knew he couldn't afford any on-air screw-ups at risk of losing whatever good graces with NBC he had left, but things began to look uneasy when the band started drinking right before the show.
In their heyday, 'Mats shows were either awe-inspiring victories or complete, painful train wrecks, no in-between. One thing was always certain, though: The band played every single show plastered, and that wasn't going to change just because they now had an audience of 8 million. After sitting through the show's first half of lukewarm jokes and half-baked sketches, as well as dealing with the condescending SNL production team for the whole day, the band was plenty wasted and ready to leave a memorable impression on the likely bored viewers. They kicked off the first of two performances with the beautifully angsty "Bastards of Young," and as the band had secretly turned up their amps during commercial break, the explosion of sound immediately made it clear they weren't holding back. The performance itself is actually fantastic, and everything was going fairly well until singer Paul Westerberg cued guitarist Bob Stinson in for his solo by screaming "Come on, fucker!" Though the f-bomb wasn't directly shouted into the mic, it was close enough for Michaels to hear it, and he wasn't happy to say the least.
The band didn't stop there with their drunken antics, treating the highly revered soundstage like a messy basement show. Westerberg occasionally wandered away from the mic mid-verse, bassist Tommy Stinson was bouncing away outside of the camera's view, and Bob Stinson's striped jumpsuit ripped open in the hindquarters, causing him to moon the SNL audience a few times. Even after a brutal chastising by Michaels between sets, the band's second song "Kiss Me On The Bus" was just as chaotic, as they had all switched outfits with each other, had a false-start right at the beginning, and stumbled through the playful track like beer-soaked rag-dolls.
Though both performances are adored by 'Mats fans, and they remain one of the few surviving video clips of the band in the 80s, Michaels immediately banned them from ever playing the show again, and the rest of the cast gave them the cold shoulder. But like Costello, the Replacements felt like they did what they came there for, summed up best by Bob Stinson: "They put their noses up at us, and we spit up their nose hole." The band never played SNL again, or many other shows for that matter, but they did return to 30 Rock in 2014 to play the Tonight Show, considerably more sober than their last outing.
Though Costello and the 'Mats are highlights in SNL's troubled relationship with punk, neither of these arguably take the cake. For that, you have to look back to the show's early days to a fateful Halloween night in 1981, when cast member John Belushi and writer Michael O'Donoghue invited LA hardcore punk band Fear to the show to bring a little underground to the mainstream stage. Hardcore is undoubtedly a niche genre, so the band made sure to bring their fellow punk peers to fill in the audience and flood the stage when it was their time to go on. The result was likely something no one on set was prepared for: mosh pits, off-the-rails music, stage dives, and even an exploding pumpkin in the spirit of the holiday. In other words, it was a typical hardcore show, but instead of a dark basement in LA, it was on a state-of-the-art soundstage with all of America watching in utter bewilderment.
The band's two songs, "Beef Bologna" and "New York's Alright if You Like Saxophones," flew by with break-neck intensity, and the portion of the audience not body-slamming the stage were left gripping their seats and legitimately scared for their own safety. The band clearly took in every moment of the experience, with singer Lee Ving cracking sly jokes like "Good evening, New Jersey!" and "This next song's about how much we love you!" The rowdy audience invading the stage managed to get in heckles like "New York sucks!" and "Fuck New York!" before producers finally pulled the plug and went to commercial midway through the band's third song.
By all accounts, the night was absolute mayhem, people were scared to death, and around $20,000 in property damage was caused in under 10 minutes, all of which was enough to make Fear the first punk group on the list of the SNL banned. But, if you didn't guess already, the band couldn't have been more proud of their role in making shit hit the fan on live TV. After that, one would think SNL would've taken a hint and strayed from bringing on punk acts, but they did, we might have never seen Costello or the 'Mats cause trouble in such glorious fashion, so we can at least thank the show for that. Whether or not Michaels and co. actually get all in a huff or secretly enjoy the free press of a controversial act, there will always be a reliable group of the music community who see a show like SNL as an opportunity to play some good music, get people talking, and cause a little chaos in the process. If you get on the blacklist, call it a badge of honor. It really doesn't get much more punk than that.