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Saturday Night Live: The best, worst and most controversial performances

Update: 10:39 a.m. Sunday
The Shins

were on

Saturday Night Live

last night night weekend's musical guests.

Being invited to be the musical guest on an episode of SNL has been a benchmark of commercial success for any band of the last forty years. And for good reason: From Andy Kaufman annihilating the fourth wall of broadcast television with his "Mighty Mouse" sing-a-long in 1975 to Radiohead debuting songs from one the best albums of the new millennium in 2000, an SNL musical act has a lot of history to live up to when stepping onto the stage in NBC's studio 8H. Or does it?

Over the last decade, a handful of performers who've graced the legendary stage have embarrassed not only themselves, but the institution itself for even considering them. Lately, if an SNL musical guest is in the news, it's usually not good. From lip-synching blunders to too-much too-soon amateur-in-the-headlights stints, being invited to perform on a stage that's seen Nirvana, the Beastie Boys and Patti Smith can not only expose a lack of talent, but it can stop a band's career dead in its tracks, forever labeling its members as having tripped over themselves on national television.

The Shins, a band at a crossroads of their own, with new members and their first release in five years, will be gracing the tumultuous SNL stage, potentially reviving a stuttering career or tainting it with a weak performance that will remind everyone why you can no longer trust Saturday Night Live to deliver the goods. As a point of comparison, here's a look back at some of the best, worst and most notorious performances to ever grace the SNL stage.

 

Five Best Saturday Night Live Performances

Saturday Night Live: The best, worst and most controversial performances

5. Beck (October 28, 2006) "Clap Hands" isn't Beck's best-known song, but that didn't stop the enigmatic artist from playing it during his visit to SNL in 2006. Maybe it was because it was just before Halloween, or maybe it's just how Beck rolls, but when the song kicks off, the one thing no one expected was a percussion section played entirely on a dining room table. Glasses, plates and the table itself are jammed on by four guys while Beck, holding a small guitar and dressed in a tux and red bowtie, stands alone behind the mike. The percussion breakdown about a minute and a half into the song is crazy, as is the moment when the screen randomly flashes to puppet versions of the players. This might not be Beck's greatest song, but it definitely showcases his flair for the peculiar. There's not another performance like this.

4. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (December 11, 1976) When Zappa and the Mothers of Invention appeared on Saturday Night Live, it was assured that the band would go out of their way to raise the bar for weirdness. They didn't disappoint. Besides being one of the larger bands to ever appear on the stage (there's gotta be fifteen people playing instruments), they super-imposed Zappa's face over the kick drum mid-song, got the show's announcer to sing part of a verse, and then used a blackboard to teach the crowd the words. There's a TV that oozes slime and most of the performance is seen via a small screen. This has to be one of the most bizarre and incredible performances ever. Don't cut it off too soon or you'll miss the killer guitar solo.

3. Patti Smith (April 17, 1976) The early days of SNL musical performances are totally badass. The show was a huge deal, but it didn't yet have the budget to match, so the music side of the show appears stripped down and intimate in comparison to later iterations of the set. That intimacy is amplified by the greatness of the talent appearing there. A perfect example of this is when the Patti Smith Group performs "Gloria." There's a plodding piano line chased by her disdainful opening line "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine..." before the song builds into a foot-stomping rendition of the classic tune. The camera work is minimal and fairly straightforward -- unlike the fast cuts and dolly action that adds "energy" to the performances now.

2. The Blues Brothers (November 18, 1978) This is a great performance on so many levels. It's still two years before the act gets translated onto the big screen, but Akroyd and Belushi had just released their debut record together, Briefcase Full of Blues. Akroyd actually had some musical chops from playing with a blues outfit in Canada before crossing over to American TV, but Belushi was a more recent convert. It's an act that was born from an SNL sketch returning to the show as a real band. It's life imitating art. Disco, punk and the earliest incarnations of hip-hop are out in the streets of New York, but here are Akroyd and Belushi, backed by a group of veteran players from Memphis and Muscle Shoals, deliver a masterful take on rhythm and blues. Their energy is just incredible.

1. Nirvana (January 11, 1992) This was the band's first SNL performance, and Nevermind had just kicked Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts. It was the debut of grunge on the show, and it lived up to all expectations. The band thrashed on versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Territorial Pissings," eventually smashing a bunch of equipment on stage. Speakers, meet Kurt's guitar. America, meet Nirvana.

Page down to see SNL's Top Five Most Notorious Performances.

 

Five Most Controversial Saturday Night Live Performances

5. Replacements (January 18, 1986) The Replacements were notorious for not giving a shit during shows. They could either blow you away with the performance of a lifetime, or be so wasted they'd vomit and pass out halfway through the first song. Hitting several bottles of champagne before their SNL debut, the band gave each cameraman the chore of avoiding them mouthing obscenities into the lenses, while Bob Stinson looked snappy in Paul Westerberg's wife's onesie. After a bumbling yet stunning performance of "Bastards of Young" -- where Westerberg yelled "fuck" into the microphone and Stinson stumbled and dropped his guitar -- the band swapped clothes with one another and returned, barely sober enough to get through "Kiss Me on the Bus." Afterward the band joined the ranks of those banned from ever playing SNL again.

4. Elvis Costello (December 17, 1977) Fortune found Costello in 1977 when the Sex Pistols, originally slated to perform SNL that night, had trouble with their visas due to criminal incidents in England earlier that year. The Buddy Holly sycophant happened to be touring Canada at the time and was happy to fill in. At the request of NBC, he began his performance with his debut hit, "Less Than Zero," though Costello famously stopped his band a few bars in saying "I'm sorry, Ladies and Gentleman, there's no reason to play this song," then launched into "Radio Radio" a song about commercialism controlling pop music. A thinly veiled reference to the Sex Pistols anti-monarchy songs being banned from airwaves can be heard in the lyric "they don't give you any choice/Cause they think that it's treason." Twenty two years later, halfway through a Beastie Boys performance of the song "Sabotage," Costello interrupted the Jewish rappers by saying "I'm sorry Ladies and Gentleman, there's no reason to play this song," and the four of them then launched into "Radio Radio."

3. Rage Against the Machine (April 13, 1996) When the geniuses at SNL paired Billionaire Republican Presidential candidate Steve Forbes with anti-corporate rap-core band Rage Against the Machine, a predictable incident forced the set list, traditionally comprising two songs, to be cut in half. SNL producers took issue with the band's upside down American flags, a common stage prop for any RATM show, during rehearsals earlier in the week. The band agreed to take them down, then twenty seconds before show time on Saturday night, roadies unrolled flags over the band's amps and a minor panic ensued. The SNL crew was victorious in removing the flags, the band performed, and then was rushed out of the building by security. The second performance of "Bullet in the Head," was abandoned, as was the typical hugs and waves goodbye at the end of the show -- which is too bad: it isn't every day you get to see the world's most recognizable billionaire hugging the world's most recognizable anti-capitalist rock band, all broadcast on a network owned by General Electric.

2. Fear (October 31, 1981) After seeing the band on the iconic documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, John Belushi successfully lobbied to get Fear a guest spot on the 1981 Halloween episode of his former show. Ratings were poor that year and producers didn't know what to expect from this obscure L.A. punk band. After corralling the legion of chain and razor wearing punk fans in an upstairs room for the first performance (where they smashed sinks and tore wires out of a piano), Belushi spoke on their behalf once again, saying if they were allowed to dance before the band, he would join them. The mess of punks slam danced, invaded the stage and crowd surfed before the cameras, eventually devolving into a riot of camera smashing and pumpkin throwing. The producers cut to commercial, but the band played on, with Minor Threat's Ian Mackay hopping on stage to shout "fuck New York!" into the microphone. When security couldn't contain the crowd, the NYPD was called in, who chased the punks into the streets, where they easily blended into the costumed Halloween crowd. In the end, damages to the studio totaled $20,000.

1. Sinead O'Connor: October 3, 1992 In 1992, long before Bill Maher was casually snapping jokes about priests molesting Justin Bieber, Sinead O' Connor was martyring herself before a live audience by claming Pope John Paul II was responsible for child abuse. Performing an a cappella version of Bob Marley's "War," O' Connor finished the song by holding up a picture of his holiness, shouting the words "fight the real enemy!" while tearing up the image and hurling it toward the camera. No applause followed. Days later protesters steamrolled copies of her CD's in New York, and when Sinead attempted a performance at Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert in Madison Square Garden, she was booed off the stage. In 2002 the Irish singer was asked if she regretted sacrificing her career as a pop sensation for the incident, she responded "hell no!" Years later, after cases of priests molesting children had swept the globe like wildfire, documents surfaced that proved that the deceased Pope John Paul II had, in fact, been working behind the scenes to protect the pedophiles.

Page down for SNL's Five Worst Performances.

 

Five Worst Saturday Night Live Performances

5. Red Hot Chili Peppers (February 22, 1992) John Frusciante was way too messed up to go out on stage that night, and it turns into a recipe for disaster during "Under the Bridge." Dude can barely stand up. He's not playing the right notes (during one of the most recognizable guitar intros of the 20th Century), and Anthony Kiedis has to watch Frusciante's hands because he's not keeping time. Everything is too slow, and not in a good way. Plus, Kiedis is wearing no shirt and metallic silver sleeves. WTF?! Save that outfit for "Give It Away" (which they performed for the second song, with equally troubling results). The real shame is that this is right after Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and the band should have been killing this performance rather than limping away with its tail between its legs.

4. Ke$ha (April 18, 2010) This lands somewhere between the failures of Lana Del Rey and Ashlee Simpson so far as problems go. Ke$ha isn't lip-syncing, but the live vocal effects don't do her any favors early on. That might work in an arena, but not on the small stage. She gives a small look off stage before she goes in. She knows this isn't going to go well. Her American flag ensemble seems equally awkward. It's not the Fourth of July, and "Tik Tok" isn't a strikingly patriotic tune. The backing track is super low, and then the vocal effects are gone, and we're left with her actual voice, which is grating and nasal-y. The thought crosses your mind that maybe this is a parody, rather than the real thing, but no one gets so lucky -- both she and the audience are stuck with four plus minutes of pain until it's all over.

3. Lana Del Rey (January 15, 2012) This might have been America's wake up call that the musical performances on SNL had taken a turn for the strange. Even Brian Williams was dragged into the fray after an e-mail to Gawker's Nick Denton was aired on the popular blog. The thing is, compared to the others, this isn't the WORST performance ever, although she is clearly uncomfortable and her nerves are running the show, not her voice. SNL's claim to fame has always been "not ready for primetime players," but that's generally understood to reference the show's sense of humor, not the musical guests lack of experience. Bands are supposed to be on the show when they're huge based on merit, not when they're blog darlings. There's definitely a lesson here.

2. Karmin (February 11, 2012)

Not a month had gone by since Lana Del Rey's appearance, but apparently no one thought to avoid internet-fad acts as a result. Someone in a lab somewhere created a new species of pop star after combining the DNA of Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani and Nikki Minaj to create Karmin's Amy Heideman. Much like the plot to Jurassic Park, things never turn out well when you tamper with nature. The result is a rampage of wild gesticulation from Heidemann that seems so over-coached and yet so surprisingly underwhelming that it could cause an aneurysm if you think about it too hard. The big question is why are they on SNL? The duo got some YouTube views for covering Nikki Minaj songs, and now suddenly they're on a stage where some of the greatest musical acts of all time have performed. Nah. That's not right. They don't even have an album yet.

1. Ashlee Simpson (October 23, 2004) Widely recognized as the worst performance in SNL history, this flub essentially derailed young Ashlee's career. And the performance really is that bad, a perfect lesson in why it's better to be good than fake it, because when everyone sees behind the curtain that you're an old man rather than the Wizard of Oz, it's not flattering. The track starts with her vocals playing, there's an awkward moment of realization, and then she does a jig of some sort before walking off stage. Yikes. What pushes this beyond the realm of tasteless is that during the closing credits Simpson tries to blame her band, saying that they started playing the wrong song. Ouch. At least Milli and Vanilli could dance.



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