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

Categories: Lists

Five Best Saturday Night Live 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.

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help

John was actually not too messed up, he was being a dick. Also, they played Stone Cold Bush, not Give it Away.

Jim Beam
Jim Beam

Where is the Fear video?  Thirty years later and the media is still afraid to post it.  nbc has done a good job at keeping off the internet.  They weren't an obscure punk band in the LA area and were frequently played on the Rodney on the ROQ show and New Wave Theater.


I am at a loss as to why everyone is so dissatisfied with Lana Del Rey.  I played the video posted with this article, minimized the browser immediately, and then listened to the song without watching the video. I think she is unique, different and original. 

The whole flak surrounding her reminds me of other artists who try to do their own thing, get annihilated by critics at the time, then only to be glorified years later. I am especially reminded of the reception Bob Dylan received at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where the reaction was mixed at best, and yet now is considered a seminal moment in the history of rock and roll.My question for you is why does Del Rey have to be a Britney Spears, a Madonna, or even worse, a Lady Gaga, in order to satisfy your in-the-box thinking? She is stilted and damned rigid, without a doubt. But why does she have to be gymnast or a bombastic style-over-substance performer (like the above mentioned ladies)? Why can't she just come out, be nervous, and sing a great song? (Which she did).  To compare her to the other disasters in this article (Ashley Simpson certainly deserves every ounce of criticism she receives) is a disservice to Del Rey, and an insult to music listeners everywhere.  And more than anything else, it shows a desire to hop on the bandwagon of what people these days are calling 'haters' - people who judge and criticize without any detailed, rational explanation of their disapproval, without suggestions as to how they could improve. If you don't like her music, fine, why not explain what makes it so bad? But just to say she was ruled by nerves and Brian Williams thinks so too, and his opinion was posted on a gossip website and thus is somehow validation, means nothing to me, nor does it to any intelligent music listener. And it certainly adds nothing to any conversation regarding music criticism. We have become so accustomed to people looking better than they sound that we hear nothing  when someone sounds better than they look. It is completely obvious to me that the MTV generation has finally and completely taken over the dialogue of modern music. Get over your visual prejudices and start listening instead. You may be surprised by what you hear.


You did indeed pick some real winners. Wow, very cool indeed.Total-Privacy dot US


 @6f3e51b5f10e18ab8f3294d8c8ed8c7c:disqus See Most Controversial on page three.

Carrie Nations
Carrie Nations

I think what the article is getting at is that LDR simply didn't earn her place on SNL. No, she's not the worst ever. But how she ever got on the bill is baffling and depressing, and points more to SNL capitalizing on the internet backlash surrounding her than it does her actual talent. I think the article is suggesting that she IS style over substance, that she's a flash-in-the-pan pop product that should be beneath the esteem of an SNL appearance (wait, does SNL still have esteem?). Some of her songs are embarrassingly bad; one or two are pretty catchy; and the rest are boring and unmemorable, to roughly quote a super-sharp line from Pitchfork's review, "the musical equivalent of a faked orgasm." In my opinion, the ultra-manufactured image is an obvious overcompensation for her musical unoriginality. 

Now Trending

Denver Concert Tickets

From the Vault