This weekend, Saturday Night Live will celebrate its 40th season with a big 3-hour anniversary special (strange enough on Sunday), featuring legendary cast members like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and Will Ferrell in addition to famous hosts and musical acts like John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Paul McCartney and more. In its 40 years, Saturday Night Live has been the gold standard in comedy, but has also produced its fair share of legendary performances mirroring some of the most important moments in music history. From the birth of grunge to helping catapult Kanye into a megastar, Saturday Night Live has been home to some of the greatest live music performances. So here are our 10 favorite performances.
Quick note: SNL famously makes their video clips difficult to find and watch, but we have done our best to gather as many of these as possible. Enjoy!
10. Patti Smith – “Gloria”
In just the show’s second season, Patti Smith brought her frenetic Jagger-like energy with “Gloria”, a performance that transports you like you are in CBGB’s.
9. David Bowie – “The Man Who Sold the World”
This performance is just plain weird, which I guess just makes it just plain Bowie. Performing with avant garde cabaret performer Klaus Nomi, this 1979 performance of “The Man Who Sold the World” is exactly the sort of oddness we’ve come to expect from the Thin White Duke.
8. John Belushi/Joe Cocker – “With a Little Help From My Friends”
In honor of the recently lost legendary belter Joe Cocker and the greatest and most tragic loss in SNL history in John Belushi, we give you this ridiculous performance from 1975 of Belush doing his best Cocker in this seismic cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends”.
7. Elvis Costello – “Radio Radio”
Not only is this a great performance, but it’s a legendary punk rock message to the man. Costello’s label at the time told him he had to play his hit “Less Than Zero”. Instead, after a few bars in, Costello stopped and ripped into a defiant “Radio Radio”, a kick to the face of all radio and record execs.
6. White Stripes – “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
First of all, you gotta love John McCain handing it off to the White Stripes. Second, Jack White is an all-time guitar god, and this showed pretty clearly even in the early days of the Stripes, with this raw, blues all-out take on “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”.
5. Neil Young “Rocking in the Free World”
This performance of “Rocking in the Free World” is only half of his legendary band Crazy Horse, but the band here puts on as energetic and raw a performance as any. Just a bunch of big ugly lugs giving it all they got, something you aren’t going to see a lot on live TV.
4. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
Kanye may not be well-mannered at award shows, but he is well worth watching every live TV performance, as he is always looking to bring something new and exciting with each performance. This debut of “Black Skinhead” quickly made it one of my favorite songs of 2013, a riveting performance playing with race and propaganda.
3. Nirvana – “Territorial Pissings”
If you didn’t think Nirvana lit the world on fire, watch this performance. They pretty much destroy Studio 8H in addition to making out with each other during the end credits.
2. Radiohead – “Idioteque”
It doesn’t hurt that “Idioteque” is one of the greatest songs of all-time, but this is an incredible performance, with Yorke’s skittery energy, Phil Selway’s feverish drumming, and the Greenwood brothers electronic exploration.
1. Kanye West – “Runaway”
Once again, Kanye combines incredible visuals, creativity, and a one-of-a-kind for one of the most memorable live TV performances I can remember. The first few times you saw “Runaway” performed live, there was simply nothing like it.
Wes – Outkast – “Ms Jackson”
Nothing to see here: just Andre and Big Boi at the height of their powers performing one of their best hits full throttle.
Todd – Sinead O’Connor – “War”
While this performance is best known for being the most controversial moment in SNL history (with O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope at the end of the performance to the complete surprise of everyone), what is forgotten is the completely mesmerizing a capella performance of Bob Marley’s “War” that Sinead put on.
Austin – Sam Smith – “Lay Me Down”
Last year’s SNL performance for Sam Smith was very much the coming out party for his golden pipes. Austin came away very impressed.