The Decline and Fall of SNL’s Soundstage

kurt von finck recently passed me a note out of the blue – his personal ruminations on how SNL’s musical guests actually mattered once upon a time. Changed our minds. Turned us on. His experience and memories mirrored my own pretty closely, and I asked his permission to re-run the note here (follow the links for background).

I happened to listen to the Elvis Costello/Beastie Boys version of “Radio Radio” recently. Very, very cool of Beastie Boys to re-create this moment with Elvis on the 25th Anniversary special. It reminded me of the two early SNL musical guests I remember. Seminal stuff at 12-14 years old.

The first was Elvis Costello’s 1977 “Less Than Zero-Radio Radio.” I already owned the “My Aim Is True” vinyl album, and at first was psyched to hear him sing “Less Than Zero.” Things didn’t work out that way.

Man, I was blown away. A new song, and the lyrics were a scathing indictment of the disco and recycled crap (Allman Brothers vs. Molly Hatchet) “classic” rock my friends were listening to. I can still see it in my mind. Here’s the episode blurb and a link to the actual performance in MP3.

The other musical act I remember is Devo. This one more people seem to remember, maybe because it was in the next season, when SNL was really becoming popular. I remember wondering if they were a goof or not, probably because of the Booji Boy sketch that preceded their second song. I think that was “Jocko Homo” (their cover of “Satisfaction” being the first tune). Here’s the blurb.

Kinda figured you all would remember one, if not both, of these performances. SNL’s musical acts today just kinda suck. “Radio Radio” has sorta come to pass, and even bands like The White Stripes seem kinda hackneyed. I want something new.

Amen to that. SNL’s musical acts were something to look forward to in the 70s and early 80s; almost a reason to watch the show in and of themselves. I got turned on to so much music from that soundstage. From the same period, add The Specials and The B-52s (if you’re going to remember this, you have to remember these acts as totally fresh). The Clash, Joe Jackson, The Cars, Sun Ra, Zappa, Talking Heads, Ornette Coleman, Blondie, The Roches, Gary Numan, Captain Beefheart, Fear, Laurie Anderson, P-Funk… If you check the musical history of the show from season to season, you can see that the creativity quotient starts to decline in the mid 80s. By the 90s it’s pretty much all pop, no risk.

It’s not all SNL’s fault that we’ve reached the current nadir or creativity on that stage – music was in the midst of an especially fertile passage. But still, there are dozens of interesting acts out there who could be filling the musical minds of new viewers with that raw thrill… the feeling that music could go anywhere, be anything, just keep exploding outward in a million new directions. Creative stuff is out there. SNL has just decided that the Clear Channel route is safer and more lucrative.

Filthy lucre.

3 Replies to “The Decline and Fall of SNL’s Soundstage”

  1. Don’t worry, Bush is fucking up the country enough to bring some real artistic anger out of the masses. A few years and good music will resurface. :)

    It isn’t just the musical guests on SNL that are mass-market…. The host choices have been abysmal lately as well. Although I have to admit that Justin Timberlake was one funny guy when he hosted.

  2. Come to think of it, you’re right. I remember how blown away I was by Devo and many of those others on SNL.

    Speaking of Bush, the singer on the show that most impressed me was KATE Bush.

    I think a problem nowadays is that there hasn’t really been a new form of music in 20 years. By 1983, hip-hop and electronica were already going. Since then, we’ve just been refining the corners of the genres.

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