My Favorite Musical Performances from Saturday Night Live (SNL)

SNL has had many memorable musical performances over the years, from the merely great, to the highly controversial.

I thought I’d share a few of my favorites.

At the top of my list, perhaps not unexpected, is a solo performance of Bruce Springsteen sitting at a piano playing “You’re Missing”. It was a rehearsal performance; I am not sure if it was ever performed live during the show, but this video shows how powerful Springsteen’s words and voice can be.

The next video is one of The Killers performing “Human”. It was the first time I had ever heard of The Killers, let alone see them perform. I was immediately hooked.

The following clip is a performance by Elvis Costello that led to him being banned for 12 years from SNL. Costello was a 23-year-old punk upstart when he performed one of the most infamous acts of rebellion ever launched against a demanding record label. According to the singer, Columbia Records “insisted” he perform his understated new single “Less Than Zero” for his American debut. Instead, Costello played about 10 seconds of the song, screamed for his backing band the Attractions to stop, and burst into “Radio Radio,” a protest against sanitized media that hadn’t even been released yet. “The confused and indignant faces behind the camera were the funniest things we’d seen all night,” Costello wrote in his memoir, “and we laughed all the way to the bar if not the bank.” (my apologies for the weird angle of the video, it’s the best I could find).

Paul Simon has been one of the most frequent musical guests on SNL. His first performance was in 1975, on the second episode to ever air, and featured a reunion with Art Garfunkel. Unfortunately I could not find video of the performance, but here is the audio, and some background info on the performance.

They perform their hit ‘The Boxer’. In this version, they include what is known as the missing verse, which seems fitting for this reunion performance. The missing verse almost seems like a personal message between Paul and Art. Here are the lyrics to that verse:

Now the years are rolling by me
They are rockin’ evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same

Simon was also a musical guest on the first episode of SNL to air after 9/11. For a city known for its hustle-and-bustle, “don’t talk to me I’m in a hurry” attitude, the events of 9/11 united New Yorkers and Americans in a way that the country had never seen before. The 9/11 attacks were intended to bring down the U.S., but instead united us as a city, as a state, as a country. It brought us together. It made us human. Simon, clad in an FDNY hat, performed once again a poignant version of “The Boxer.” It was after this performance that SNL creator Lorne Michaels joined Mayor Giuliani and asked, “Can we be funny now?” eliciting a few titters from the audience and a great response from Giuliani. Here is the full clip.

And here’s one more Paul Simon SNL performance, and one I’ve written about before, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”

And I thought I’d close with some home grown musical talent, the Blues Brothers. The Blues Brothers were the first of SNL‘s creations to move to the big screen, but the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd-led band was legit. Their final performance on the show started the season 4 episode, with a lively rendition of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” Seeing Elwood and Jake go from stillness to unhinged boogying is timelessly entertaining.



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