uReview The Best SNL Musical Guests

I recently discovered that every episode of Saturday Night Live, from 1975-2010, is available on Netflix Instant View, so I’ve been scouring episodes just for the musical guests, which – let’s face it – were the best part of the show. It’s fascinating to see artists in the television spotlight, bringing their A-game, and sometimes at their most vulnerable. So far I’ve been mostly watching Season 2 which featured Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa, The Kinks doing “Sleepwalker,” Dr. John with Levon Helm and The Meters, and a killer performance from the Band. I love how they let the musicians take over the show and run two or three songs – it seems like a testament to the greatness of the music from that era.

I have also been watching guests from Seasons 3 and 4, Zappa actually hosts a whole show in his detached and sardonic manner, Devo, The Dead, and even Ornette Coleman take the stage. It’s a very cool historical record that I’d recommend scanning, and you might actually find a skit or two worth watching. You can find the complete list of guests here.

Q. What are your favorite SNL musical performances?

Update. These acts have so far been mentioned in the comments section:

DEVO (1978-)
Elvis Costello (1977)
Captain Beefheart (1980)
Tom Waits (1977)
David Bowie (1979)
Rolling Stones (1978-)
John Prine (1976)
B-52’s (1980)
Neil Young (2000)
Patti Smith (1976)
The Replacements (1985)
R.E.M. (1995)
Taj Mahal (1977)
Jackson Browne (1977)

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  • Lynchie from Aberdeen

    Only available in the USA – I hate that!

  • Stephen

    If I’m not mistaken, the original policy on the show was that the Guest Host would select the musical guest, so there was a far wider variety of music presented, and it wasn’t some hack whose new record was gonna be in the stores on Tuesday. DEVO was definitely one of the most memorable, by far, and who could forget that Elvis Costello false start?

  • Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band performing “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart” on the November 22, 180 episode hosted by Malcolm McDowell. Blistering and spellbinding (accent on “spell”) performances from the “Doc”-era band.

  • scurvy

    About 10 years ago, E! started showing episodes from the first 5 seasons. I watched every night hoping I could catch the ep w/ Tom Waits performing “Eggs and Sausage” When I finally got to see the episode (and subsequent viewings there after) his performance was not shown! However there was an act they showed called “Gravity”. It was the tuba player from the SNL band’s own band. Made up of tubas! It was one of the most memorable performances I have seen! They rocked!!

    Other faves were the Zappa episode, and the Ray Charles one… so many… too many to mention really.

  • ge

    Bowie w/ Nomi-Arias…

    Syd Barrett and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Van dyke Parks superband

    -may have dreamt that

  • s trek

    There was the Stones appearance in 1979 but I think they were hosts for that one. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman were extras in one of the “Cheeburger, cheeburger” skits.

  • n andrews

    John Prine most definitely. Played Hello in there and Bottomless lake on season 2.

  • EH

    Devo and the B-52s I saw back in the day when I was at a vulnerable age, plus that Bowie. Absolute touchstones. Sometime after that “URGH! A Music War” was on Showtime a lot and I was ruined for life.

  • Freddie Lynn

    Neil Young’s “Razor Love” – Neil did a killer version of “Razor Love” off his Silver & Gold album that hit me when I saw it. Always liked that album and that song was kind of an over-looked gem on it. I think that might have been the night where he just didn’t stop playing. Does that sound familiar? Must’ve been a producer’s nightmare but when you’re SNL you better expect that!

  • The Patti Smith Group performing “My Generation.” Always loved seeing a drum kit spilled.

  • The Replacements “Kiss Me on the Bus” in 1985 was always a fave.

  • Bert Echo

    R.E.M. in 1995 was my favorite. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth, Bang And Blame and I Don’t Sleep, I Dream were performed. This was when the band were in their pop-cultural salad days.

  • Nickw

    Great call. Ive been scouring over these performances since reading this post. John prine’s performance gives me whole new perspective of him as a performer, not just songwriter. Taj’s performance is from the period when he was more influenced by caribean music. Usually I’m just listening to the blues taj, now I’ve got to find some of his taj. And the band perfoance is just historic and snl embraces it as though they knew it was something special. The replacements performance is not available and that is the one I most want to see. Supposively they were visibly intoxicated and told to leave after their first performance. But I’m going to have to go with jackson brown and running on empty as my favorite performance. The radio is still killing this song by overplaying it. But a classic and a fun performance with David lindley on the slide. Check out old grey whistle test if you like these types of performances in studio

  • Steve

    Neil Young doing Rockin’ in the Free World is a legendary performance.

    I need to try to check out the Ornette Coleman. I remember reading that that episode was pretty much suppressed, because it was hosted by Milton Berle, and he was the worst host in the show’s history. I like the idea that the performance has been made available again.

  • Mark Morton

    Sun Ra

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