From the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live,” which premiered on Oct. 11, 1975, hosted by George Carlin, music has been a huge part of the show. The very first installment featured musical guests Janis Ian and Billy Preston, while the second show was an all-music affair hosted by Lorne Michaels’ buddy Paul Simon, and included a reunion with his partner Art Garfunkel. That initial season included performances from the likes of Patti Smith, ABBA, Loudon Wainwright III, Desi Arnaz and his son Desi Jr., Gil Scott-Heron, Neil Sedaka, Jimmy Cliff and two appearances by “SNL” perennial Leon Redbone. All 38 seasons are now available on Streampix.
In its nearly four-decade run, “Saturday Night Live” has seen any number of classic performances, featuring a who’s-who of
rock superstars, including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, David Bowie,
Elvis Costello, Prince, Kanye West, Frank Zappa and others.
Here’s a sampling of the 20 most memorable “Saturday Night” Live musical performances:
1. Elvis Costello, Dec. 17, 1977 (Season 3, Episode 8): Hosted by 80-year-old German immigrant and New Orleans grandmother Miskel Spilman, winner of the show’s first and only “Anyone Can Host” contest, the show featured the debut performance of British punk provocateur Elvis Costello, who famously began playing his song “Less Than Zero,” abruptly stopped, apologized and proceeded to launch into the as-yet-unreleased “Radio Radio,” a blast at the conservative nature of U.S. programming.
2. Sinead O’Connor, Oct. 3, 1992 (Season 18, Episode 2): The Irish singer-songwriter performsan a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” as her second song, then holds up a picture of Pope John Paul II, exclaimed,“Fight the real enemy,” and tears the photo to pieces, throwing them at the camera. O’Connor substitutes the word “child abuse” for “racism” in the lyrics, to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in the former. Unaware ofwhat she was about to do, director Dave Wilson refuses to light up the applause sign after her performance.
3. The Lonely Island featuring Justin Timberlake, “Dick in a Box,” December 16, 2006 (Season 32, Episode 9): This Andy Samberg-directed “SNL” Digital Short, featuring two early-‘90s ballad singers who give a very special Christmas gift to their lovers (Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig), earned an Emmy for its step-by-step instructions like “cut a hole in a box,” “put your junk in that box,” “make her open the box.. and that’s the way you do it.” Like “Lazy Sunday” the year before, the uncensored version of the clip turned into an online viral smash.
4. Paul Simon and George Harrison, Nov. 20, 1976 (Season 2, Episode 8): Host Simon joins the Quiet Beatle for the latter’s “Here Comes the Sun” and his own “Homeward Bound.” In the cold open, Harrison and Lorne Michaels discuss the latter’s first season offer of $3,000 for The Beatles to reunite on the show and play three songs for $3,000. Across town, John Lennon and Paul McCartney briefly entertain the notion of getting in a cab and heading to the studio.
5. David Bowie, Dec. 15, 1979 (Season 5, Episode 7): The Thin White Duke was joined by N.Y. scenesters Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for a three-song set that includes “The Man Who Sold the World,” “TVC 15” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” Bowie performs the latter with his head superimposed on a CGI puppet body as the NBC censors mute the line “the other boys check you out,” though failed to notice the bouncing phallus on the puppet at the song’s close.
6. The Rolling Stones, Oct. 7, 1978 (Season 4, Episode 1): The World’s Greatest Rock Band performs three songs from their brand-new Some Girls album—“Beast of Burden,” “Respectable” and “Shattered.” Mick Jagger is grilled by Dan Aykroyd as Tom Snyder in a “Tomorrow Show” parody, while Ron Wood and Charlie Watts also appear in a sketch.
7. Nirvana, January 11, 1992 (Season 18, Episode 10): Kurt Cobain and company make their SNL debut with “Smells Like Teenage Spirit,” then follow up with “Territorial Pissings,” after which they trash their instruments.
8. Pearl Jam, April 16, 1994 (Season 19, Episode 18): After the band’s performance of “Not for You,” “Rearviewmirror” and “Daughter,” Eddie Vedder lifts his jacket to reveal the letter “K” on his shirt, in tribute to Kurt Cobain, who died just eight days before the airing.
9. U2, Dec. 9, 2000 (Season 26, Episode 7): The Irish rock superstars perform “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation,” with Bono marking the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination by interpolating a verse of “All You Need Is Love” in the former.
10. Bob Dylan, Oct. 20, 1979 (Season 5, Episode 2): The enigmatic singer-songwriter and erstwhile voice of his generation launches his controversial born-again phase with three songs from his “Slow Train Coming” album, including “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
11. Madonna, January 16, 1993 (Season 19, Episode 11): During her performance of “Bad Girls,” the Material Girl makes her own comment on the Sinead O’Connor incident by ripping up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco and declaring, “Fight the real enemy.”
12. Tupac Shakur, February 17, 1996 (Season 21, Episode 13): The late hip-hop icon, who would be gunned down in September of that year, makes his only appearance on the show, accompanied by Danny Boy and Roger Troutman for “California Love” and “I Ain’t Mad Atcha.”
13. Rage Against the Machine, April 13, 1996 (Season 21, Episode 17): The political rabble-rousers see their second song get cut after performing “Bulls on Parade” when they try to hang inverted American flags from their amplifiers in protest
of the show’s host, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
14. Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page, May 9, 1998 (Season 23, Episode 20): The rapper and the Led Zeppelin guitar god join together for an epic performance of “Come With Me,” from the Godzilla soundtrack, based on “Kashmir.”
15. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Eminem, Oct. 23, 1999 (Season 25, Episode 3): Dre and Snoop perform “Still D.R.E.,” then Dre and Eminem trade rhymes on “Forgot About Dre.”
16. Eminem, Oct. 7, 2000 (Season 26, Episode 1): The bad boy of hip-hop performs “Stan” with Dido, then goes into “The Real Slim Shady.”
17. Beyonce and Jay-Z, May 17. 2003 (Season 28, Episode 20): After joining together earlier that season to duet on “03 Bonnie and Clyde” the future Mr. and Mrs. Carter join forces again on “Crazy in Love”
18. Justin Timberlake, Oct. 11, 2003 (Season 29, Episode 2). The former boy band star and eventual “SNL” mainstay makes his solo bow with performances of “:Rock Your Baby,” “Senorita” and “Cry Me a River,” his kiss-off to ex Britney Spears, who is musical guest the very next week.
19. Ashlee Simpson, Oct. 23, 2004 (Season 30, Episode 3): Jessica’s sister is flummoxed when a tape recording of her singing “Pieces of Me,” the song she performed earlier, comes on as the band begins to play her second number, engulfing her in a notorious lip-synch scandal which pretty much derails her career as a pop diva.
20. The Lonely Island, “Lazy Sunday,” December 17, 2005 (Season 31, Episode 9): Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell turn their adventures one afternoon munching cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery and smuggling snacks for a Sunday afternoon matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia into an “SNL:” Digital Short which becomes an online rap viral sensation, writing the song in one evening, recording it the following night and shooting the music video two days later around Manhattan with a borrowed camera.