Monday, December 19, 2005

SNL Music

So I checked out a 5-disc DVD set from our library, Saturday Night Live: 25 Years of Music. Basically it is what were considered to be the best musical guest shots from 1975 to 2000. This came out a couple of years ago, so I'm way behind the curve, but what the hell.

Right off the bat, there are going to be some quibbles with what is left out, since even at 5-discs we're getting maybe 5% (at best) of what appeared during those years. Off the top of my head, leaving out Devo's 1978 appearance is a travesty, but there you go.

Anyway, some thoughts on what was included:

Patti Smith - "Gloria" - April 17, 1976 - There is nowhere else to start but here. The most incendiary performance I think I've ever seen on TV. There can't be any doubt that the 15-year old me watching in the basement had never, ever seen or heard anything quite like this before.

Who was this person? What was this person? A chick, dressed like a dude, with absolutely no regard for the niceties of presentation that the world expected from its female singers.

Sneering. Strutting. All those things that Mick Jagger had made into a self-parody, but this was real. In April of 1976 I had never heard of the Ramones, CBGB, punk rock or much of anything else, so seeing this was an elemental shock.

Talk about subversive! The opening cry of "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" was like a gut punch, one that I can still feel to this day. A sneering rebuke of everything I had known to that point in my life.

Watching it now, almost 30 years later, the performance has lost almost none of its power to amaze and astonish. Whatever rock music has become in the interim, this performance is the distillation of what, if anything, has ever made it important.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions - "Radio, Radio" - December 17, 1977 - Probably the most notorious appearance in the show's history. As the story goes, Costello was told not to perform "Radio, Radio," as it was considered too hostile to television's sister media. In response, Costello apparently agreed to perform "Less Than Zero" as his second song ("Watching The Detectives" was played in the first half of the show).

Six seconds into the performance Costello suddenly turns to the band, waving his arms and shouting "stop stop." Turning back to the audience he tells them, "I'm sorry ladies 'n gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song 'ere." Turning again to the unsurprised band he yells, "Radio, Radio" and proceeds to count off the time.

The price of his insubordination was to be banned from the show (at least for 12 years or so) by a supposedly irate Lorne Michaels.

Looking at it now, it all seems a setup.

Clearly the band knew what was coming. No shocked looks, no nervous glances at each other. All very much in the normal course of things. Of course that doesn't necessarily mean that Michaels and NBC were aware of it, but a little free publicity never hurts right?

In any event, the performance is Costello at his angry young man best, and the Attractions are in their typical kickin' form, so the song is notable even without the surrounding controversy.

Talking Heads - "Take Me To The River" - February 10, 1979 - It's funny, but I remember this as being in the fall of 1979 (which would be during the next season), but then they probably wouldn't have played this song then. I thought I remembered watching it in the basement of a house party, but maybe it was a rerun or something.

Anyway, this perfectly captures the band as they made their first tentative steps from jittery and cerebral to jittery, cerebral and funky. The interesting thing is the tempo for the song -- slow. Slower than the record, slower by far than the later live versions that would be captured on Stop Making Sense. Certainly slower than the Rev's original.

But I like it that way.

One of the most annoying tendencies of bands live is to speed up their tempos to breakneck speeds. That's fine if you're the Ramones and that's the only tempo possible, but it's OK for most bands to play songs at the tempos you're used to hearing them at, and at which they can luxuriate in the song a little bit.

By the way, their second song that night was "Artists Only," which I would probably like to see even more than this one.

Rick James - "Super Freak" - November 7, 1981 - One can only guess how many cows died to give their hides to be tanned, dyed and worn on the stage in red and blue leather during this number.

And if you've seen Dave Chappelle's Rick James treatment, you need to know that everyone in the band looked exactly like Rick (Bo Derek hair, dyed leather, etc.) -- except for the Eddie Van Halen clone on guitar, that is.

"Super Freak" featured, of course, a bass line so hot that it made James a fortune, as well as one for MC Hammer. Interestingly, both lost the entirety of those fortunes, and in exactly the same way (providing fodder for his 'n' his versions of Behind The Music).

Duran Duran - "Hungry Like The Wolf" - March 19, 1983 - Okay, you're not going to believe me -- and I barely believe it myself -- but if this performance is to be believed ... these guys were once actually pretty good!

I know, I know, but once you get past the haircuts (which really weren't that bad, this isn't Flock Of Seagulls or anything) and the clothes (which really weren't that bad either) and the synth drums (not too much of those), they could actually play some. They were entertaining, you know?

I guess that's one of the great things about a compilation like this. So much of a band like Duran Duran is based on hazy memories that have been eroded over time on the one hand, and burnished by the accumulated cultural detritus of two decades on the other. The result is an impression that may or may not have anything at all to do with the reality at the time.

I still have a Duran Duran EP in my vinyl collection (and this song is on it), but it's become something of an embarassment over the years. Why the hell would I have ever spent money (or, more likely, traded something else) for something like that?

Seeing this performance now makes me think that maybe I wasn't a complete idiot.

Fine Young Cannibals - "She Drives Me Crazy" - May 13, 1989 - Probably the most minimalist record ever to sell a million copies. Hell, the drummer's kit consisted of a kick drum, a snare & 1 cymbal. That's it.

Of course the best thing about watching them perform (as was the case with The English Beat) is the manic, spastic "dancing" of Andy Cox and David Steele. With their matching pink Fenders and jarhead haircuts (and matching suede jackets -- apparently the forgotten trademark of the band) the pasty duo provided a nice contrast to the suave Roland Gift.

Gift later had something of an acting career, mostly known for playing the jilted boyfriend of Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (or was it Bridget Fonda?) in Scandal.

Man, talk about a matched set (or is that two matched sets?) -- JWK & Bridget Fonda. Damn, is there a hotter pair in the "Where Are They Now?" file?

R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" - April 13, 1991 - R.E.M. at just about their peak. While Out Of Time was eventually overtaken in memory by Automatic For The People, this song and this point in time was probably the high water mark of the band's popularity -- the point at which they could do no wrong.

As an indication of just how little wrong they could do, consider the fact that Peter Buck spent this appearance making rock moves on a mandolin, even as Michael Stipe, beset by affectation, did him better by wearing a suit made of Federal Express shipping envelopes!

The song is classic R.E.M., though, and no suit is going to change that. One of the band's chief virtues is on display here, and that is the awesome background singing of Mike Mills. While watching this, Noreen brought up the point of how often good songs are made into great songs (and good bands made into great bands) solely by the force of their background singing and harmonies. Chuck Klosterman made much the same point in Fargo Rock City, identifying Michael Anthony's background vocals as Van Halen's secret weapon. I'd have to say that the first time I completely became aware of this phenomenon was The Cars, an album that is surely pushed from good to great by the force of its (heavily processed) background vocals.

Nirvana - "Rape Me" - September 25, 1993 - I suppose what is most notable about the Nirvana slot on the disc is that this was the performance chosen. They had appeared in January, 1992 and performed "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the one you would figure to see here. The choice was instead to go to their In Utero spot, and even there the choice was made to pass on "Heart-Shaped Box."

In any case, "Rape Me" is a most worthy choice, one of many stunners on their best album. The song and performance both feature everything you ever loved about the band: the trademark dynamics from verse to chorus, the thrashing bridge, the beautiful use of feedback, and the (unfortunately) all too prescient doom-filled lyrics.

It's of course impossible to watch this now without wondering what would have become of this man and this band if both had reached the middle-age that Novaselic and Grohl have settled into, each in their own ways. It's hard to imagine that Cobain would ever become a relic, but such is the inevitable way of rock history -- when was the last time you saw Eddie Vedder, anyway -- and don't kid yourself, to be a relic is still preferable to his miserable fate.

Garbage - "Special" - March 20, 1999 - You may not agree, but it's impossible for me to name a sexier frontwoman than Shirley Manson.

Whatever else you want to say about this band, you have to give them credit for getting this part right.

Anyway, my opinion, after examining the issue at length and from all angles, is that the woman likes sex.

Oh, and the song is pretty good, too.

Beck - "Where It's At" - January 11, 1997 - So the discussion Noreen and I had while watching this was, "is Beck the white Prince?"
  • James Brown fixation? Check.
  • Dance moves? Mmmm, sorta check.
  • Polyglot styles? Check.
  • Mega output? In the ballpark check.
  • Short? Double check.
Alright, so he comes up a little short (snicker). Well who wouldn't?

Backstreet Boys - "All I Have To Give" - May 15, 1999 - Guilty pleasure? Hell yeah! Very guilty!

No question about it, it's lame, but I dig the harmonies. The oldest shtick in the book, of course -- five guys standing around harmonizing is as old as the streets of Philly -- but that doesn't make it any less appealing. It ain't Patti Smith, it ain't Kurt Cobain, but it has its place.

And say what you will, but these guys can sing.

Unless they're lip-synching.

Aw, crap. Nah.


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