TV, TV: ‘Radio, Radio’ and Other Explosively Unexpected Live TV Music Moments

Elvis Costello's Legendary Live Surprise and Other Explosive Live TV Music Performances.

October 16, 2015

Music on live TV has always been a dangerously exciting prospect. Take some notoriously wild personalities, trust them to behave for the cameras, and immediately feed that to millions of living rooms, and you’re bound to get some explosive TV (sometimes literally). It’s disappointing then, that so many of TV’s live musical performances have gone off without a hitch. Thankfully, there are those few which still fulfill the promise of live music on television. Let’s take a look…

Elvis Costello – “Radio, Radio” (SNL, 1977)

Monday’s guest Elvis Costello is one of the pioneers of the musical live surprise changeup. With “Saturday Night Live” still a relatively new concept, acts were basically on the honor system to behave during broadcast. Elvis shocked producers and viewers when he literally stopped his band’s performance of “Less Than Zero” to tell the audience:

“I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here.”

With that, a simple look back and count-in leads the band into a song NBC executives explicitly told him not to play – “Radio, Radio,” a song which criticizes the commercialization of airwaves. On a show where he had been the last minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, Elvis pulled a move more punk than anything done on TV thus far. Elvis was subsequently banned from “SNL” but was welcomed back in 1989. He also reprised the bit years later on “SNL” in a performance with the Beastie Boys.

The Who – “My Generation” (The Smothers Brothers, 1967)

The Who first broke into America a little later than their other British Invasion compatriots, but when they did, they blew up a small piece of it. Notorious for destroying their equipment at the end of every concert, the Who wanted to give American television audiences a taste of what they were like on stage in their American network debut. Thus, it was planned to enact a sort of safe, harmless TV version of the usual mayhem for the end of a tame, mimed (with live vocals) version of “My Generation.” Only one problem: Keith Moon. The eccentric Who drummer was never a man of nuance and whenever he heard “toned down” he took it as “blown way up.” Unbeknownst to most of the “Smothers Brothers” crew, Keith bribed a stagehand to bring some explosives for his bass drum. Of course, Keith then proceeded to fill his bass drum with a few too many and, well…see for yourself. Victims of the incident include: most of the equipment, Keith Moon’s left arm, and Pete Townshend’s hearing.

Bob Dylan – “Love Sick” (1998 Grammys)

Live TV music performance surprises don’t necessarily always come from the artists themselves. Case in (very strange) point: Soy bomb. For the 1998 Grammys, a few dancers were hired by Bob Dylan’s production company to dance behind him during a performance of “Love Sick,” apparently to enhance the onstage energy (as you do with a Dylan performance). One of those dancers just happened to be artist Michael Portnoy. Halfway through, however, Portnoy took off his shirt to reveal “Soy bomb,” an apparent two-word poem, written on his chest. Dylan and “Soy bomb” made for a very strange pairing, and you can be forgiven if you thought you were having a NyQuil hallucination. As for what “soy bomb” means, according to Portnoy, it’s his version of what art should be: nutritional and explosive. Alright then.

Iggy Pop – “I’m Bored” (Countdown, 1979)

Australian TV is as good a place as any to have a live TV jitter freakout. Iggy Pop’s 1979 lip-synced performance of “I’m Bored” could convince actual cocaine to quit cocaine. That being said, it’s still a hell of a display to behold…starting with the VERY odd opening interview.

Nirvana – “Rape Me”/”Lithium” (MTV Video Music Awards, 1992)

After their big break with “Nevermind,” Nirvana’s adjustment to the MTV mainstream naturally came with a hiccup or two. For the 1992 VMAs, MTV producers really wanted the band to perform their big hit, “Smells Like Team Spirit.” Of course, Kurt Cobain wanted to perform “Rape Me” – not exactly a commercial hit suitable for prime time. After some dispute and uncertainty, the band and suits agreed on a song: “Lithium.” Still, the band freaked the hell out of MTV when, on live TV, they started playing “Rape Me.” However, it was all a gag, and after a few chords and singing the title line a couple times, the band launched into “Lithium.” That’s some fine trolling, fellas.

Fear – “Beef Bologna/New York’s Alright On Saturday Night” (1981)

You don’t normally see hardcore bands on “Saturday Night Live” and this might be why. John Belushi (who left “SNL” in 1979) was a huge fan of the band Fear in 1981, and behind the promise of making a (wordless) cameo, got the band booked on “SNL.” The results would be predictable if you didn’t still have to do a triple-take to process what you’re seeing here. The normally regal and organized Studio 8H might as well be a tweaker’s basement. For the show, the audience was filled with members of the hardcore and punk community, and they all got really into it. By the end, the crowd had torn up the stage, resulting in $20,000 worth of damage. Oh the carnage…oh the horror…oh the humanity. Oh…and the host was Donald Pleasence.

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