Musical Guests That Blew Everyone’s Minds On Saturday Night Live

Jackson Sawa | July 29, 2022 5:28 pm

Since the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975, the hit sketch comedy show has featured numerous musical acts throughout the decades. The musicians to appear are not from any particular genre or level of popularity, as the show makes a point to provide up-and-coming artists a chance for a breakthrough performance to launch their career. Although the show has had countless musical acts throughout the years, there have been some performances that were so unforgettable that they have gone down in Saturday Night Live History. Take a look to see which artists left the cast of Saturday Night Live and audiences around the world speechless after their performance.

Nirvana Destroyed All Of Their Equipment

Hailing from Seattle, Washington, in 1992, the grunge band Nirvana made their Saturday Night Live debut. The group opened with a rocking version of their hit song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which helped skyrocket the song’s popularity in the following days. For their second song, the band played a version of their B-Side opener “Territorial Pissings,” which resulted in the group destroying all of their instruments onstage.

Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage
Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage

Unsurprisingly, at the end of the show, the band could also be seen making out as the credits ran. This performance also marked the first time a grunge act performed in front of a mainstream television audience.

Rage Against The Machine Was Banned From The Show

On April 13, 1996, the politically charged rock group Rage Against the Machine were banned from Saturday Night Live. The host that evening was billionaire Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, the exact kind of person who the group speaks out against.

Carroll/Corbis via Getty Images
Carroll/Corbis via Getty Images

After an energetic performance of their song “Bulls On Parade,” the group attempted to hang upside-down American flags on their amplifiers in protest of Steve Forbes and his platform. When the song had finished, producer Lorne Michaels kicked the band off of the set, preventing them from playing another song and banning them from the show.

Arcade Fire Had An Aftershow

For the Saturday Night Live season 13 premiere, alternative rock group Arcade Fire came out with quite the show. Of course, the band was featured for the usual two performances during Saturday Night Live, however, the group also played in the half-hour special Here Comes the Night Time, which aired directly after the show.

Steve Jennings/Getty Images for CBS Radio, Inc.
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for CBS Radio, Inc.

For those who couldn’t stay awake to watch the aftershow, Arcade Fire left it all on the stage during SNL with a riveting performance of their track “Reflektor,” followed by their song “Afterlife” which left the audience in awe.

Kanye West Took Control Of The Crowd

Kanye West is no stranger when it comes to performing on Saturday Night Live, taking the stage seven times so far throughout his career. However, his 2013 performance stands out among the rest. Host Ben Affleck even introduced him as “the man you came to see,” and he didn’t disappoint.

Taylor Hill/WireImage
Taylor Hill/WireImage

He debuted his song “Black Skinhead,” one of the more in-your-face songs off of his already aggressive album Yeezus. He commanded the crowd by surprising them with endless strobe lights and relentless beats that surely had most people stumbling out of the studio.

Tom Petty And Dave Grohl

While the world was still mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl needed to keep playing music to help with his grief. So, he teamed up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and played several shows with them, including an appearance on SNL in 1994.

Tom Petty And Dave Grohl
Theo Wargo/WireImage for Manning, Selvage and Lee
Theo Wargo/WireImage for Manning, Selvage and Lee

Grohl meshed with the band so naturally that Tom Petty even invited him a permanent position with the group. However, Grohl declined because he was working on another project, Foo Fighters. Yet, their performance on SNL gave the world a taste of what might have been.

SNL Made Adele Famous In The United States

Prior to 2008, singer-songwriter Adele appeared to be having trouble breaking into the United States market. In the time leading up to her performance on SNL, she had a string of low record sales and even canceled concerts.

Taylor Hill/WireImage
Taylor Hill/WireImage

Yet, when she performed on Saturday Night Live in 2008, her rather underhyped performance slot went viral after vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin confronted Tina Fey, her impersonator on the show. The show was the highest rated in 14 years, and Adele’s debut album 19 was at the top of the iTunes chart the very next day.

Funk 4 + 1 Made History

In 1981, Saturday Night Live allowed the host and lead singer of Blondie, Debbie Harris, to invite an artist to perform on the show. Blondie is known as one of the first mainstream rock groups to really support hip-hop music, so she took it upon herself to introduce the hip-hop group Funky 4 + 1 to the world.

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The A2IM 2018 Libera Awards
Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The A2IM 2018 Libera Awards

They performed their song “That’s the Joint,” making them the first hip-hop group to perform on national television. They were also the first group of their kind to receive a record deal and have a female MC.

Ashlee Simpson Had An “Uh-Oh” Moment

While performing in 2004, singer Ashlee Simpson had an embarrassing moment during her second song of the evening. While her band was playing the intro to her song “Autobiography,” the speakers began playing the vocals and soundtrack to her previous song “Pieces of Me.”

Scott Gries/Getty Images
Scott Gries/Getty Images

At that moment, it was clear to the audience and those watching from home that Simpson was either lip syncing or singing along to the recorded version of her previous song. Simpson could do nothing but awkwardly dance as the problem was sorted out. While this may be no surprise today, back then, Simpson’s career felt some serious backlash.

Sinead O’Connor Tore Up A Picture Of The Pope

In 1992, Sinead O’Connor shocked the world while performing an a capella cover of Bob Marley’s song “War.” However, Sinead took the liberty of changing some of the lyrics to express her thoughts on abused youth instead of racial inequality.

Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

While singing about children that had been abused, she held up a picture, something that was discussed during rehearsal. Yet, instead of the picture being of orphaned children, it was of Pope John Paul II. She then proceeded to tear up and toss the tattered pieces at the camera. A very bold move indeed.

Fear Did Not Disappoint John Belushi

On Halloween, 1981, actor and comedian John Belushi booked the LA-based punk band Fear to play on the show. Of course, Belushi also brought in an actual punk audience encouraging them to do do their worst during the show. A mosh pit ensued with the band, fans, and Belushi joining in. Horrified, the actual Saturday Night Fans were described as “scared to death.”

George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

During the madness, producer Dick Ebersol was hit in the chest with a pumpkin, loads of expensive equipment was destroyed, and a crazed audience member grabbed the microphone and yelled “[expletive] you New York!” An estimated $400,000 of damage was done and the group was banned from the show.

Simon And Garfunkel Put On An Uncomfortable Show

In 1976, the host of the show was Paul Simon, a former member of the group Simon and Garfunkel. The duo had split up in 1970 and had a deep resentment towards one another. So, when the host Paul Simon sat down to join and play with Art Garfunkel live, the tension between the two in the room was palpable.

Waring Abbott/Getty Images
Waring Abbott/Getty Images

Their estranged relationship wasn’t a secret kept from the public either, so audiences watched intensely as the two continued to play beautiful music, no matter the circumstances of their relationship.

Elvis Costello Knowingly Broke The Rules

In a 1977 episode, Elvis Costello was featured along with his group the Attractions. The show runners had instructed Costello on the songs that he was allowed to play and the ones that were forbidden. So, after playing just a few bars of the song “Less Than Zero,” Costello stopped the band and led them straight into the song “Radio, Radio,” a song he was told specifically not to play.

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Costello and the band were removed from the stage and banned for life. However, it wasn’t until a decade later that Lorne Michaels lifted the ban because he realized how great that moment actually was.

Radiohead Went Wild In 2000

Radiohead has never been a band to go out of their way to promote their music. They mostly keep to themselves and then end up releasing albums that never fail to satisfy their fan base. Yet, in 2000, they came on Saturday Night Live to promote their album Kid A. There, they performed their song “Idioteque” that left the audience amazed.

Diana Scrimgeour/Redferns
Diana Scrimgeour/Redferns

The band and Thom Yorke especially gave one of the most sporadic and mind-numbing performances that SNL had ever seen. Yorke was dancing so fast around the stage that it looked like it was in fast-forward.

Lana Del Ray Had A Less Than Impressive Performance

In 2012, Lana Del Ray was still a relatively unknown singer that was gaining fame through YouTube. Her performance on Saturday Night Live was her live stage debut, so nobody really knew what to expect. However, her songs “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” threw the crowd through a loop as they were widely described as not very good.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

People began wondering who Del Ray was, asking if it was a joke, and why was she had been chosen to perform on such a highly-regarded platform. Luckily, Lana Del Ray recovered from her experience and become the sensation she is today.

Prince Changed The Game

Although it wasn’t surprising, when Prince performed on Saturday Night Live, he took the rules and turned them upside down. Typically, artists are only supposed to come out twice during the show, playing one song for each appearance.

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Well, being Prince, he decided that wasn’t enough time for a proper performance, so he put on his own little concert. Instead, he packed the four songs: “Clouds”, “Plectrum Electrum”, “Marz,” and “Another Love” into an eight-minute long jam session that blew the entire audience away. While most artists might get in trouble, Prince didn’t.

Pearl Jam’s Tribute To Kurt Cobain

Just eleven days before Pearl Jam was set to make their second appearance on the show, grunge icon Kurt Cobain was found dead in his home in Seattle. During the performance, it was clear that Cobain’s death was on lead singer Eddie Vedder’s mind, especially as they played their song “Daughter” to honor Cobain’s memory.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

At one point, Vedder opened up his jacket to expose the letter K that he had drawn onto his shirt. Later, he sang the lines from Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into Black)” that Kurt had written in his suicide note. It was a heartfelt performance that wasn’t overdone.

R.E.M Tried To Brighten The Mood

In 1991, the United States was having internal issues with its involvement in the Gulf War and in the wake of Rodney King’s beating. It was a gloomy period, so R.E.M took advantage of the situation and played their lighthearted song “Shiny Happy People.”

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

While some fans thought that the performance was the band being sarcastic, the performance appeared to be pretty serious. The way they were dancing and playing made it seem like they were actually trying to convey a message to their audience.

U2 Threw In A Surprise

In 2004, U2 was promoting their album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb on the show. During their performance, they play played the two songs “Vertigo” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” While their original performance was okay, what made their appearance go down in SNL history is when they began to play their debut single “I Will Follow” during the credits.

SGranitz/WireImage for The Recording Academy
SGranitz/WireImage for The Recording Academy

This was something that no band had ever done before. Bono then walked through the studio audience and embraced a star-struck Amy Poehler who claims she almost “died from excitement.”

Freddy Mercury’s Last Performance In The US

It was a big deal when Queen came to play on Saturday Night Live. They were such a huge arena band that SNL’s little stage didn’t seem like it would do the band justice. Even though Freddy Mercury had blown out his voice during a fight with his boyfriend, he still managed to pull off “Under Pressure” and “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love” without much effort.

ox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
ox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just four years later, Queen stopped touring due to Mercury’s failing health, making their performance on the show Freddy Mercury’s last performance in the United States.

The Supergroup Performance Of 2012

In the 2012 SNL finale, the audience and people watching at home got a real treat when Mick Jagger invited Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, Jeff Beck, and Nikoli Fraiture of the Strokes to join him on stage.

Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Fraiture and Arcade Fire joined him for the early Stone’s single “The Last Time,” with Foo Fighters joining him for “19th Nervous Breakdown” and It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It.)” Finally, Jeff Beck came on stage where the two performed an original blues composition. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Patti Smith Performs And Unforgettable Cover

During the first season of Saturday Night Live, Patti Smith lit up the stage with her rendition of the Them song “Gloria.” Although the song was a cover on her debut album Horses, some people tend to forget that she didn’t write the song since she took the liberty of changing several of the verses drastically.

Patti Smith
David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

While “Gloria” may be a classic song given to us by the Them, Patti Smith definitely gave them a run for their own money with their own song that night on SNL.

Johnny Beluschi Imitates Joe Crocker

Joe Cocker is known for his distinctive style of singing and dancing, and is often described as having spasmodic movements topped with a raspy yet impactful voice. He’s also recognized for his covers of popular songs such as the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

Joe Cocker And John Belushi
NBC
NBC

In 1976, he performed the track “Feeling Alright” on SNL. However, there was a twist, John Belushi was right next to him, copying his every move and singing the song impressively well with Cocker as a duet. It was the perfect blend of comedy and music.

Kate Bush Plays “The Man With The Child In His Eye”

On December 9, 1978, artists Kate Bush made her first appearance on American television on Saturday Night Live. After being introduced, she appeared in a glittering gold bodysuit sitting cross-legged on giant grand piano played by Paul Shaffer.

Kate Bush
NBC
NBC

There, she sang her song “The Man With The Child In His Eye” as she exhibited her impressive vocal range as well as showed off some of her delicate dance moves. It was her first and last time on the show, and she did not disappoint and left a mark on the show with her performance.

Run DMC Showed What They Were All About

In 1986, the Queens-based hip-hop group Run DMC took SNL performances to the next level. Not only were they the first rappers to perform live on MTV, but they were also the first rap group to perform on Saturday Night Live. They came hot out of the gates with their crossover hit track “Walk This Way,” which really got the crowd going.

Run DMC
Fotos International/Getty Images
Fotos International/Getty Images

However, they really displayed their skill when they closed out their performance in true hip-hop style when they performed their track “Hit It, Run,” with just two turntables and a microphone.

Frank Ocean And John Mayer Pull Of “Pyramids” Like It Was A Recording

In 2012, Frank Ocean was joined by John Mayer to perform a shortened version of Ocean’s song “Pyramids,” off of his debut studio album Channel Orange. The performance was nothing short of perfect with Ocean’s vocals sounding as though they were taken straight off of the record.

Frank Ocean And John Mayer
NBC
NBC

John Mayer didn’t disappoint either with an almost minute-long guitar solo that was both emotional and entertaining. During the guitar solo, Ocean then proceeded to play one of the arcade games on the stage until the song came to an end.

Both OutKast Appearances Were Nothing Short Of Wild

In 2002, “André 3000” and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of OutKast took the stage of SNL to show the world how they grooved. There, they performed their hit songs “Whole World” and “Ms. Jackson,” showing the audience what they could do.

OutKast
Frederick M. Brown
Frederick M. Brown

After their performance, it wasn’t long until they were invited back again in 2003, where they performed “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move.” André 3000 came on the show several times afterward, doing impersonations, acting in skits, and giving the opening monologue.

Paul Simon Brought The Whole Band Along

Paul Simon is credited with helping to popularize African elements in music through his 1986 album Graceland. So, when Simon performed his song “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” he proved that he didn’t need a studio to make the song sound good.

Paul Simon
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

He brought a full choir of African singers to back up his performance on the show. It turned out to be quite the show with the singer doubling as dancers, proving that Paul Simon really was a master of his craft.

The White Stripes Brought The Garage Rock To SNL

In 2002, The White Stripes gave a performance on SNL that was about as White Stripes as it gets. In their red and white uniforms, the duo played loud and hard, showing the audience that sometimes passion and soul are more important in music than complexity.

The White Stripes
Brian Rasic/Getty Images
Brian Rasic/Getty Images

They played the two songs “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “We’re Going To Be Friends” demonstrating their ability to rock but also take it easy. To top it all off, they were introduced by John McCain.

Ke$ha Confused Everyone

Ke$ha started out her performance with an awkward spoken word question if “WE are the aliens” while playing with lasers. That got her performance off to a rocky start and it didn’t get any better as she continued. Her song “Tik Tok” was cringe-worthy and left more people shocked than impressed.

Ke$ha
NBC
NBC

Overall, the only thing that made her performance memorable was how bad it really was with some people describing it as “bad karaoke at a 13 years old’s birthday party.” Looks like SNL wasn’t equipped with the technology necessary for a Ke$ha performance.

Mike Patton Was Scaling The Stage

Back in 1990, Faith No More was still an upcoming band in the heavy metal scene. However, after the release of their album The Real Thing, the group really started to tale off and come into popularity. After becoming more known by the public, they were invited onto SNL where the band gave an unforgettable performance of their hit song “Epic.”

Faith No More
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

While the performance was good, what really made the moment special was when frontman Mike Patton began scaling the rafters of the studio while singing the song. This made them one of the most popular guests of the season.

Even Spinal Tap Played A Show

In 1984, before This is Spinal Tap became a cult classic mockumentary, the fake band Spinal Tap actually came and performed on the show. The group also appeared in a filmed bit with the episode’s host Barry Bostwick to promote their film’s release.

Spinal Tap
David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Amazingly, the bit did so well that the producer, Dick Ebersol actually asked the three band mates/actors if they wanted to join the show. A few months later, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer joined the cast and stayed on the show for a season. Although initially declining, a decade later, Michael McKean would join the cast as well.

Korn Had An Interesting Introduction

When Korn was in their peak, they were no strangers to making appearances on television, especially MTV. They were even on shows like South Park and The Man Show. However, when they appeared on Saturday Night Live, they were promoting their album See You On The Other Side, the band’s first album without their guitarist Brian “Head” Welch.

Korn
Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage
Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

However, what made the performance even more interesting, was that the Nu Wave band was introduced by a co-star of Desperate Housewives. Not exactly Korn’s number one fan.

Iggy Azalea And Mo Had A Rough Show

Back in 2017, Iggy Azalea released her single “Beg For It,” which featured Danish singer MO singing backup vocals. While the single was well-received, when the duo took the SNL stage, things took a turn for the worst. While Azalea was her regular confident self, this was not the case for MO.

Iggy Azalea And Mo
NBC
NBC

It was her first appearance on television, and it looked like it got the best of her. Mo ended up looking incredibly confused, missing her dance steps, and her vocals were incredibly off. MO later took to Twitter saying that she’s not perfect although Azalea defended her.

Kanye West Had An Embarrassing Show

Believe it or not, Kanye West actually performed on SNL in 2008 which turned out to be a complete and total disaster. While performing his song “Love Lockdown,” West experience a malfunction with his vocoder, the device used to alter his voice while singing.

GettyImages-84045008
Photo by John Shearer/WireImage
Photo by John Shearer/WireImage

This made for a painfully difficult show to even watch, especially since it was the almighty Kanye West. Yet, since then, Kanye has redeemed himself numerous times over on the SNL stage. He’s had so many great performances since then that people don’t even remember the “Love Lockdown” fiasco.

The Sugarcubes Gave Us Our First Look At Bjork

In 1988, Matthew Broderick introduced the Icelandic one-hit wonder group, The Sugarcubes, onto the SNL stage. However, while there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the performance, people would look back to discover that the lead singer of the group was actually Bjork.

The Sugarcubes
Steve Eichner/Getty Images
Steve Eichner/Getty Images

During the show, you can see her already developing the style of singing that she would later become famous for. Back in 1988, nobody would have guessed how famous she would later become, and it took years for anyone to realize that it was her.

Bill Withers Gave An Amazing Performance, Practically In A Basement

Bill Withers was one of Saturday Night Live’s first musical performances, taking the stage on the 10th episode of Season 1. He performed his song “Harlem” and showed the nation that you don’t need anything fancy to pull off an incredible show.

Bill Withers
NBC
NBC

Compared to the performances today, it looks like Withers and his band are simply having a living room jam session and it’s still better than many of the performances that we see today. He definitely set the bar for what an SNL performance should be and few have yet to reach it.

The Strokes Did Not Disappoint

In 2002, The Strokes can onto SNL and performed their songs “Hard to Explain” and “Last Night,” with the latter being one of the most popular songs of 2001. Both of the songs came from their debut album so it was impressive that they were already playing on the show.

The Strokes
Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for Governors Ball
Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for Governors Ball

They absolutely nailed their performance, and frontman Julian Casablancas went on to become an bit of an SNL regular. He appeared in the Lonely island song “Boombox” and covered the song written by SNL “I Wish It Was Christmas Today.”

Sun Ra Took The Audience To A Different Dimension

While other television programs, such as The Tonight Show played it on the safe side with their musical guests, that was not the case for Saturday Night Live in 1978. That year, they invited the avant-jazz master Sun Ra and his Arkestra to close out the third season of the show.

Sun Ra
Andrew Putler/Redferns
Andrew Putler/Redferns

They gave the viewers quite a show themselves, dressed up in their typical out-of-this-world garb, they transported the audience to a different time and space. All that can be said is that whoever was there that night was incredibly lucky.

Ray Charles Was The Host And Musical Guest

On November 12, 1977, Ray Charles had the responsibility of being both the host and the musical guest for that evening. Not only did he demonstrate his wit and comedic abilities but he also graced everyone with some Ray Charles goodness.

Ray Charles
Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Joined by members of his Fifties horn section and backup singers, Charles did what he does best. He did versions of the songs “I Can See Clearly Now,” “What’d I Say” and “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” Of course, he also closed out the show with an impromptu jam session.