5 Artists Banned from ‘Saturday Night Live’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

For nearly 50 years on the air, Saturday Night Live has had close to 1,000 musical guests. Everyone from David Bowie, Neil Young, Prince, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, Carrie Underwood, Foo Fighters, and some of the rare reappearing artists like Paul Simon, have all left their mark on the studio 8H stage at 30 Rockefeller Center since 1975.

Throughout the decades, things have gone mostly smoothly on the highly scripted show, led by producer Lorne Michaels, though there have been moments when musical performances didn’t go off as initially planned.

As the 48th season of SNL comes to a close, here’s a look back at some of the most jaw-dropping, shocking, and ultimately memorable off-script performances by artists that were banned from the show after their appearance.

1. Elvis Costello
December 17, 1977

Elvis Costello had just released his debut, My Aim Is True, and was relatively unknown in the U.S. when he made his Saturday Night Live debut on Dec. 17, 1977. After The Sex Pistols pulled out of a slot to perform, Costello and his band, The Attractions, jumped at the opportunity to perform on one of the biggest stages on television.

Prior to hitting the stage, Costello agreed to perform his single “Less Than Zero,” which he wrote about the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley. Just a few lines into the song, Costello stopped the band from playing, yelling “Stop, stop,” and said to the audience “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here.”

The band then moved into “Radio Radio” instead, a critique of the commercialization of corporate-controlled British television and radio, which Costello had written in 1974. His song switch didn’t sit well with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who was enraged. Some SNL legend has it that Michaels even kept his middle finger raised to Costello and the band during the performance.

His very “punk” performance made Costello enticing to the American audience, but he would not be invited back to SNL for another 12 years. He performed on the show again on March 25, 1989, on an episode hosted by the late actress Mary Tyler Moore.

2. Fear
October 31, 1981

Los Angeles punk band Fear somehow made their way onto the SNL stage on Halloween day in 1981. SNL alums, the late John Belushi and then show writer Michael O’Donoghue, were already fans of the band and started to pull some strings to get them on the show. Belushi even tried to get one of the Fear’s songs featured in the dark comedy he was working on called Neighbors—the comedian’s final movie role before his death in 1982—but the producers declined.

Fear had already appeared in the 1981 Penelope Spheeris documentary of the LA punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, and jumped at their chance to perform on one of the biggest television stages at the time.

As soon as the band hit the stage, mayhem ensued. “It’s great to be in New Jersey,” said frontman Lee Ving to a backlash of boos from the audience. Playing with a swarm of people moshing in front of the stage, the band played three songs, “I Don’t Care About You,” “Beef Bologna,” and “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones.” Before they went into their fourth song, “Let’s Have a War,” which Ving dedicated to everyone who voted, “democrats and republicans,” a member of the mosh pit grabbed the microphone and yelled “New York Sucks.” The broadcast quickly cut to a pre-recorded sketch featuring Eddie Murphy.

The band, which is still fronted by Ving, also caused $200,000 in damages to the Saturday Night Live studio after moshers destroyed production equipment. Following their performance, Fear was also banned from some New York City clubs, and Belushi’s other favorite band, Black Flag, was soon cancelled after being booked for a performance on SNL.

“They swore that night they’d never rebroadcast our footage,” said Ving in 2015. “As a result, I have become one of the esteemed members of the permanently banned.”

Though Fear was never invited back to the show since 1981, they left behind one of the most unforgettable punk rock performances in SNL history.

3. Sinéad O’Connor
October 3, 1992

In one of the most unforgettable moments on SNL, Irish singer and songwriter Sinéad O’Connor made her first and final appearance on the show in 1992.

Never quiet about her social or political stances, O’Connor, who had just released her third album Am I Not Your Girl?, decided to perform a stirring a cappella version of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1976 song “War.” She chose the song in protest against the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, which had started to come to light in the 1980s.

Also replacing a lyric in “War” with the words child abuse, as O’Connor sang the lyric We have confidence in good over evil, she held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II and tore the image to pieces, and threw them at the camera. “Fight the real enemy,” O’Connor then said.

During rehearsals, O’Connor used a photograph of a child refugee, but the photo of the Pope was not in her “script.” At one point, producers considered cutting the live feed, but the show went on.

In an interview with Time in 2010, O’Connor detailed her own upbringing in the Catholic church and experiencing sexual abuse as a child. She added that her performance was not about the man (the pope) but rather the “office and the symbol of the organization that he represents,” and the neglect of ongoing child abuse under the institution.

“I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one,” said O’Connor. “That is part of being an artist.”

On April 23, 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a lengthy letter of apology addressing the sexual abuse cases in the church, and said “there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”

O’Connor’s action had mixed reactions, and she has never appeared on SNL since that performance.

4. Cypress Hill
October 2, 1993

When hip-hop group Cypress Hill performed on SNL in 1993, DJ Muggs decided to smoke weed during their performance.

Muggs lighting up during the live broadcast was unfathomable at the time since weed was still illegal in ’93.

“I remember Saturday Night Live gave us a green room and said, ‘Do whatever you want in here, just don’t light up out of here,’” said Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog in a 2014 interview. “Muggs felt like he needed to make a statement with his performance. It wasn’t just the Saturday Night Live people saying he couldn’t smoke up on air. It was everyone: our record label, our management, our friends. … To me, Muggs wanted to make that statement.”

He added, “He asked me to light the joint up on stage, and I said, ‘I’m not doing that, man.’ Before we did that second song, we agreed that we weren’t going to light up nothing. If you look, I was surprised that he did that. People loved it. People at the show loved it, because at the after-party they said, ‘That was so cool,’ but when the hammer swung and we were banned from Saturday Night Live forever, we understood how serious it was—and understandably so. The world wasn’t ready for anything near that at that time.”

5. Rage Against the Machine
April 13, 1996

Placing the then-Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as host of Saturday Night Live with a musical guest like Rage Against the Machine (RATM) is a recipe for some kind of disaster. Always one of the most politically vocal bands, when RATM was invited to appear on the April 13, 1996 show, they had something to say to the billionaire host.

When RATM hung American flags upside down from their amplifier grilles, producers and stagehands were told to remove them from the stage before the band’s performance. The band went on to perform their Evil Empire hit, “Bulls on Parade.” As they waited in their dressing room to perform their next song “Bullet in the Head,” they were asked to leave the building. Bassist Tim Commerford was so enraged that he threw a torn flag into Forbes’ dressing room.

“We knew that he was going to be making a statement,” said Tom Morello in a 1996 interview of host Forbes. “It was going to be all about how charming to have a billionaire telling these jokes and promoting his flat tax, and we wanted to stand in sharp juxtaposition to that by making our own statement.”

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