When John Belushi Booked the Punk Band Fear on SNL, And They Got Banned from the Show: A Short Documentary

Like many famous episodes in the lives of famous peo­ple, Andy Warhol’s 15 min­utes quote turns out to be a gar­bling of what hap­pened. Warhol sim­ply said that every­body wants to be famous (and by impli­ca­tion, famous for­ev­er). To which the Factory’s “court pho­tog­ra­ph­er” Nat Finkel­stein replied, “yeah, for 15 min­utes.” Giv­en the way the idea has come down to us, we’ve missed the ambi­gu­i­ty in this exchange. Do we all want to be famous for 15 min­utes (and only 15 min­utes), or do we only spend 15 min­utes want­i­ng to be famous before we move on and accept it as a suck­er’s game?

Finkel­stein him­self might have felt the lat­ter as he watched “pop die and punk being born” (he said in a 2001 inter­view). It was the death of Warhol’s fame ide­al, and the birth of some­thing new: music that loud­ly declared open hos­til­i­ties against the gate­keep­ers of pop­u­lar cul­ture. Not every punk band reserved its punch­es for those above them. Cal­i­for­nia hard­core leg­ends Fear — led by con­fronta­tion­al satirist Lee Ving — swing wild­ly in every direc­tion, hit­ting their audi­ence as often as the pow­ers that be.

When their first taste of Warho­lian fame came around — in Pene­lope Spheeris’ 1981 doc­u­men­tary The Decline of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion — Ving used the moment in front of the cam­eras to taunt and abuse audi­ence mem­bers until a few of them rushed the stage to fight him. Had NBC exec­u­tives seen this footage casu­al vio­lence, pro­fan­i­ty, and wor­ri­some ebul­lience, it’s unlike­ly they would have let return­ing guest John Belushi book Fear on Hal­loween night of that same year.

The SNL appear­ance — for which Fear proud­ly earned a per­ma­nent ban — became the stuff of leg­end. Not only did Ving and band get up to their usu­al antics onstage, but the show brought in a crew of about 80 DC punks (includ­ing Dischord Records/Fugazi founder Ian MacK­aye), who smashed up the set and joined the band in sol­i­dar­i­ty against New York and its sax­o­phones. The net­work cut the broad­cast short when one punk (iden­ti­fied as either MacK­aye or John Bran­non of the band Neg­a­tive Approach) yelled “F*ck New York!” into an open mic dur­ing the last song, “Let’s Start a War.” NBC shelved the footage for years.

Although well-known in fan com­mu­ni­ties, the appear­ance might have fad­ed from mem­o­ry were it not for the inter­net, which not only has the Warho­lian pow­er to make any­one famous (or “inter­net famous”) for no rea­son, but also rou­tine­ly res­ur­rects lost moments of fame and makes them last for­ev­er. Just so, the leg­end of Fear on SNL has grown over time on YouTube. It now war­rants a short doc­u­men­tary — one made, no less, by Jeff Kru­lik, a film­mak­er who, five years after the Fear appear­ance, doc­u­ment­ed anoth­er bur­geon­ing Fear-like fan­dom in his cult short, “Heavy Met­al Park­ing Lot.”

“Fear on SNL,” above, includes sev­er­al inter­view clips from first­hand wit­ness­es. DC “punk super­fan” Bill MacKen­zie lis­tens to an old inter­view he gave about the show, in which he says the band asked him to come to the tap­ing. As Ian MacK­aye tells it, Lorne Michaels him­self placed the call. (He must mean pro­duc­er Dick Eber­sol, as Michaels left the show in 1980 and wouldn’t return until 1985.) But both MacK­aye and Ving remem­ber that it was Belushi who real­ly round­ed up the audi­ence of authen­tic punks, lever­ag­ing his own hard-won celebri­ty to stick it to the fac­to­ry that made his fame.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Night John Belushi Booked the Punk Band Fear on Sat­ur­day Night Live, And They Got Banned from the Show

Andy Warhol’s 15 Min­utes: Dis­cov­er the Post­mod­ern MTV Vari­ety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Tele­vi­sion Age (1985–87)

The Stunt That Got Elvis Costel­lo Banned From Sat­ur­day Night Live

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

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