5 Musical Guests Banned From Saturday Night Live: From Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa

A defin­ing tele­vi­sion moment of my generation—Sinead O’Connor’s infa­mous rip­ping up of a pic­ture of Pope John Paul II on live tele­vi­sion after an a cap­pel­la per­for­mance of Bob Marley’s “War”—was as baf­fling to most as it was offen­sive to many. (O’Connor offered many elo­quent expla­na­tions for the act—most­ly ignored.) Not only did this strange form of protest effec­tive­ly send O’Connor into semi-obscu­ri­ty for the next twen­ty years, but it got her per­ma­nent­ly banned from Sat­ur­day Night Live by pro­duc­er Lorne Michaels. Michaels, it seems, didn’t so much object to her des­e­crat­ing the pope’s pic­ture. In fact, he has said he would have been fine with it… if only he’d known it was com­ing. He has called the moment both “a seri­ous expres­sion of belief” and “on a cer­tain lev­el, a betray­al.”

Michaels has banned many a per­former from the show, for many a rea­son. But most of all, it seems, Lorne Michaels hates sur­pris­es. As we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed, 23-year-old Elvis Costel­lo pissed Michaels off when he stopped his band dur­ing the intro to “Less Than Zero” and launched into “Radio, Radio” instead (above), a song he’d explic­it­ly been told not to play for its crit­i­cal take on mass media. Unlike O’Connor, Costel­lo would return to SNL when Michaels cooled down, 12 years lat­er, in 1989.

Leg­en­dar­i­ly bril­liant mess The Replace­ments hit the SNL stage in 1986 after the release of their first major-label album, Tim. They put on a respectably drunk­en, out-of-tune per­for­mance for their first song on the show, “Bas­tards of Young” (intro­duced by host Har­ry Dean Stan­ton).

So far, so clas­sic ‘Mats. But between this song and the next, “Kiss Me on the Bus” (above), it’s said they drank close to their weight in cham­pagne, and by the time they took the stage again—wearing each other’s clothes and stum­bling wildly—they were a com­plete­ly soused par­o­dy of them­selves. Fun­ny, right? Lorne Michaels was not amused. Singer Paul West­er­berg returned to the show as a solo artist, but the band nev­er received anoth­er invi­ta­tion.

Long before ston­er-rap­pers Cypress Hill got the SNL boot for smok­ing a joint onstage and trash­ing their equip­ment in 1993, abra­sive punk band Fear was said to have sparked a riot and caused $200,000 worth of dam­age to the set dur­ing their 1981 Hal­loween show appear­ance (above—introduced by host Don­ald Pleas­ance). Guests of John Belushi, who agreed to make a return cameo on the show on the con­di­tion that Fear come with him, their per­for­mances fea­tured typ­i­cal punk show antics, with row­dy audi­ence mem­bers smash­ing into each oth­er and storm­ing the stage. The N.Y. Post pub­lished an absurd­ly sen­sa­tion­al descrip­tion of the band’s appear­ance, cit­ing the $200,000 fig­ure and quot­ing an unnamed “NBC tech­ni­cian” as say­ing, “this was a life threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion. They went crazy. It’s amaz­ing that no one was killed.” Bill­board lat­er set the record straight, how­ev­er. Appar­ent­ly, the extent of the offense con­sist­ed of “some­body… yelling obscen­i­ties close to an open mike.” Pro­duc­er Dick Eber­sol cut the per­for­mance short, and the show received “all of 12 com­plaints from view­ers.” As for all the sup­posed may­hem, Fear singer Lee Ving said, “all that hap­pened was that a plug got pulled out and a Hal­loween pump­kin was destroyed.” Nev­er­the­less, Fear would not be invit­ed back. Read more about that Fear appear­ance and Belushi’s love of punk rock here.

Belushi fig­ures in the per­for­mance of anoth­er musi­cian banned from the show—Frank Zappa—who served as both musi­cal guest and the show’s host. Zap­pa’s pompous atti­tude alien­at­ed most of the cast and crew in his first, and last, SNL appear­ance in 1978. Nerve names Zap­pa the sec­ond worst host in the show’s his­to­ry, cit­ing his “suf­fo­cat­ing air of smug­ness and uncon­cealed con­tempt for what he’d agreed to do.” Dur­ing the usu­al­ly chum­my clos­ing cred­its, “the cast mem­bers, oblig­ed to join him onstage, clus­tered near the edge as if fear­ing his per­son­al­i­ty might be con­ta­gious.” All but Belushi, who also joined Zap­pa and band onstage as Samu­rai Futa­ba dur­ing their third num­ber. As the clips above demon­strate, even SNL’s sec­ond worst host could still inject a good bit of wit and ener­gy into a show that’s often want­ed for both, not to men­tion the most well-rehearsed band in both avant-rock per­for­mance art and live tele­vised sketch com­e­dy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Stunt That Got Elvis Costel­lo Banned From Sat­ur­day Night Live

William S. Bur­roughs on Sat­ur­day Night Live, 1981

Lorne Michaels Intro­duces Sat­ur­day Night Live and Its Bril­liant First Cast for the Very First Time (1975)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • Tuigim says:

    So Lorne has a prob­lem with spon­tane­ity and cre­ativ­i­ty. It’s a con­trol and trust issue. He should get help with that.
    I doubt he would have approved of Sinéad’s move. It’s easy to say it after the fact.
    The point was the anger which was entire­ly appro­pri­ate giv­en that nuns were enslav­ing women, sell­ing their chil­dren and starv­ing babies and priests were rap­ing chil­dren. She knew. Most of Ire­land knew.
    Not all the coun­try knew the extent of the hor­ror. But we knew the act was of defi­ance and brave. We were most shocked that Amer­i­ca did­n’t know and how they react­ed so neg­a­tive­ly.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Sad­ly, it’s tak­en us twen­ty years to catch up with Sinead.

  • Fred says:

    …and I doubt we will ever catch up to Zap­pa.

  • Bill Peschel says:

    Michaels is a great suit but he does­n’t know crap about com­e­dy. He obvi­ous­ly had no idea what to do with Zap­pa, and Costel­lo’s rebel­lion gave the show unwant­ed and unde­served edge.

  • John Mize says:

    Frank, Sinead and Elvis were much too cool for Lorne Michaels. By the way, Lorne, if you could­n’t even han­dle Elvis’ mock­ing the media, do you real­ly expect us to believe that you would have okayed Sinead­’s tear­ing up the pope’s pic­ture?

  • Lynn Salton says:

    This was NOT Frank’s “first and only” SNL appear­ance. He appeared on the show a year or two ear­li­er as the musi­cal guest. I remem­ber being mes­mer­ized by Jon Luc Pon­ty play­ing a see-through vio­lin and then rush­ing out to buy the three-year “Over­nite Sen­sa­tion” album because they played “I’m the Slime” on SNL. It was that night in Decem­ber 1976 that I became a life­long Frank Zap­pa fan.

  • Joe B says:

    Lynn — It was Eddie Job­son, not Jean Luc Pon­ty.

  • Doug says:

    A view­ing of the show Zap­pa host­ed con­tra­dicts the idea that cast mem­bers shunned him at the clos­ing. Lor­raine New­man even gets Frank into a lit­tle danc­ing.

  • Chingy Challis says:

    Lorne Michaels is such an ass­hole.

  • Jerry says:

    Michael’s & Dan Aykroyd r not wor­thy of being a pim­ple on Frank Zap­pa’s ASS!!!

  • Jes says:

    That’s odd.. I have read oth­er sources that say Zap­pa was dis­liked on the set because, unlike most of the SNL cast at the time, he was­n’t into doing cocaine and get­ting wast­ed. He also admon­ished them for it, so they did­n’t want him there.

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