Getting booked as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live is the perfect way for any artist to become a household name. But with the national spotlight comes the show’s strict standards for guests, leaving some outspoken artists to feel restrained.
As punk and alternative became more mainstream in the ’80s, the show began to book tougher acts who wouldn’t let a corporate network tame their image. And while the show itself was known for mocking current events and politics, musical guests were expected to refrain from reckless behavior and political commentary. Of course, not all of them did, leading to a special class of musical acts who are permanently banned from performing on Saturday Night Live.
Rage Against The Machine
We hate to say the producers of Saturday Night Live brought this one upon themselves, but they really brought this one upon themselves. In 1996, the show booked billionaire and then-presidential candidate Steve Forbes as the show’s host alongside musical guest Rage Against The Machine. With the band rejecting everything Forbes stood for, a political statement from the band was inevitable.
“We knew that he was going to be making a statement—it was going to be all about how charming to have a billionaire telling these jokes and promoting his flat tax,” guitarist Tom Morello said in an interview with LA Times. “And we wanted to stand in sharp juxtaposition to that by making our own statement.”
To decry the billionaire, the band hung a pair of upside-down American flags from their amplifiers just before their live performance of “Bulls On Parade.” However, a stagehand rushed onstage and removed them just before the cameras went live. As the band were waiting in their dressing room for their second performance, crew members informed them that their time on the show was over.
“The thing that’s ironic is, Saturday Night Live is supposedly this cutting-edge show,” Morello said, “but they proved that they’re bootlickers to their corporate masters when it comes down to it. They’re cowards.”
But the band wouldn’t leave without one last fight. As they were leaving, bassist Tim Commerford shredded up one of the American flags and threw it at Forbes’ entourage for one final say.
The ’90s were a different time when it came to the public perception of weed. While Cypress Hill aimed to normalize weed culture, some people—specifically Saturday Night Live producers—weren’t so accepting. When the band performed on the show in 1993, their first performance of “Insane In The Brain” went smoothly. However, come time for their second performance, DJ Muggs wouldn’t give in to the uptight expectations. Just as the group hopped onstage to perform “I Ain’t Goin Out Like That,” DJ Muggs exclaimed, ”New York City, they said I couldn’t light my joint, you know what I’m sayin’? But we ain’t goin’ out like that.” DJ Muggs then lights his joint, takes a few puffs as the intro plays, then hands it off.
In an interview with VladTV, B-Real explains that the band had planned to wreck their equipment and light up at the end of their second performance, but DJ Muggs’ diversion of smoking at the beginning turned out for the better.
“In his diversion of the plan, it was still an iconic moment because they caught him right at the beginning. There was no way to cut away from him,” B-Real said. “So strategically, you know, even though we didn’t get to wreck the set the way we properly would’ve, him busting out that joint at that time, it was a fucking iconic moment.”
While DJ Muggs does smash a conga drum at the end of the song, it seems the rest of Cypress Hill were pleased with the statement their performance made. “Yeah we got banned, but it adds to our legend,” B-Real said.
It’s one thing to be banned from Saturday Night Live, but it’s another to be banned for an act that ultimately ends your career as well. When Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor appeared on the show in 1992, O’Connor gave the world an a cappella cover of Bob Marley’s “War” that no one would forget.
The performance was intense from the beginning, with a stoic O’Connor staring into the camera the entire time and replacing certain lyrics to specifically mention child abuse. But the punch came at the end when O’Connor held up a picture of Pope John Paul II as she sang the line “The victory of good over evil” and tore the picture to shreds. “Fight the real enemy,” O’Connor sternly tells the camera.
While O’Connor’s protest against child abuse in the Catholic Church might have been received differently today, the backlash was imminent. NBC apparently received thousands of calls following the performance, all condemning O’Connor. Joe Pesci, who hosted the show the following week, denounced the act in his opening monologue and even held up the picture of the Pope taped back together. In all reruns of the show, O’Connor’s performance is replaced with one from rehearsals. While her message and protest should have been taken more seriously, she’ll unfortunately never return to the show.
Belushi became engrossed with the band when he saw them featured in the punk documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization and asked them to record a song for a movie he was starring in. When the song ended up getting scrapped, Belushi made it up to them by booking them on Saturday Night Live.
Fittingly, FEAR were booked as the musical guest for the 1981 Halloween episode and even supplied their own audience of punks to slam dance, including Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, the Meatmen’s Tesco Vee, John Brannon of Negative Approach and Harley Flanagan and John Joseph, who’d later form Cro-Mags. The mosh pit was initially set to be stopped when a crew member was hit in the head with a pumpkin. However, Belushi convinced higher-ups to let it go on.
Insults followed as well when FEAR told the crowd of angry New Yorkers, “It’s great to be in New Jersey.” FEAR, with their self-supplied mosh pit, performed “I Don’t Care About You,” “Beef Bologna” and “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” before a member of the mosh pit shouted, “New York sucks” into the microphone—ultimately ending the band’s performance.
The Replacements ironically served as a replacement to musical guest the Pointer Sisters in 1986. They landed the gig due to the show’s musical director at the time, G.E. Smith, being a big fan of the band’s punk demeanor. However, that punk demeanor coincided with their baggage as well, which included drug and alcohol misuse. According to an interview with the Archive of American Television, the Replacements performed well for their rehearsal, but once alcohol was smuggled into the band’s dressing room before the live performance, it all went downhill. Smith said the band were so intoxicated that guitarist Bob Stinson tripped and fell onto his guitar, breaking it. Thankfully, a spare was available, and the band were able to perform. They got through “Kiss Me On The Bus” and “Bastards Of Young” until Paul Westerberg yelled out a profanity live on air, ending the band’s performance.
Before Rage Against The Machine, Elvis Costello sought to defy both the establishment and status quo. When Elvis Costello And The Attractions were a last-minute musical replacement to the Sex Pistols, Costello had agreed with his label and the show’s producers that the band would perform “Watching The Detectives” and “Less Than Zero.” After a few seconds of “Less Than Zero,” Costello abruptly stopped the band and told the audience, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here.” By Costello’s command, the band then began playing “Radio, Radio,” a defiant protest anthem against corporate-controlled broadcasting in television and radio—how fitting.
In an interview with Zane Lowe, Costello explains the infamous stunt. “I didn’t really have anything against the show,” Costello said. “I was more pissed off at being told what to play by the record company than I was [at] NBC, truthfully.” While the band were barred from SNL for 12 years, Costello did return in 1999 when the Beastie Boys appeared for the show’s 25th-anniversary special to poke fun at his performance. Partway through the intro of “Sabotage,” Costello busts onstage and repeats his stunt. Costello and the Beastie Boys then play “Radio, Radio” together, giving us all a full sense of closure over the matter.
System Of A Down
With another risky booking, Saturday Night Live paired host Johnny Knoxville with musical guest System Of A Down back in May 2005. While Knoxville excelled as a host, System Of A Down’s stong political views and refusal to be censored led them into hot water. The band performed “B.Y.O.B.,” which was one of the many anti-Iraq War protest songs to come out of the 2000s. While the track was certainly going to cause tension with viewers at home, producers let the band perform it with a five-second delay, allowing for five uses of profanity to be censored. But System Of A Down, similar to their punk predecessors who’ve also been banned, weren’t going leaving without their final statement. Near the end of the song, guitarist Daron Malakian shouted “Fuck yeah” into his microphone. Producers weren’t pleased, and the band haven’t made it back to the show since.