Live TV can be a fickle beast. Without the safety net of after-effects and editing, it can be a nerve-wracking situation for any live performer. Of course, there are plenty of times when artists can use the live setting to give the audiences an experience that is talked about for years to come.
While you won’t find anything about Ashlee Simpson’s lip-syncing incident, or Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson performing at the Superbowl here, we’ve decided to take a look back some of the wildest and most memorable TV performances of all time.
Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (Top Of The Pops)
If ever there was a band who enjoyed saying ‘no’ to the music industry, it was Nirvana. The boys were famed for doing things their own way and weren’t exactly fans of bowing down to industry pressure. While the band were known to appear on TV performing completely different songs than what had been agreed by TV executives, it was Nirvana’s appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1991 that is the most memorable.
See, Top Of The Pops featured live performances, but acts playing live were forced to lip-sync. This didn’t sit well with Nirvana, so when the band were booked to perform ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Kurt Cobain decided to make a stand. Making it very evident that they were not playing live, Cobain sang the songs with a deeper voice and changed lyrics, giving the tune a more goth style, and giving all those who tuned in a live show that they would never forget.
Muse – ‘Uprising’ (Quelli Che Il Calcio)
Like Nirvana before them, Muse aren’t exactly down with lip-syncing, so when they were asked to perform their hit ‘Uprising’ on an Italian TV show in 2009, the band fought back in the most creative way possible – by swapping members.
While guitarist and vocalist Matt Bellamy was relegated to the drum kit, Dominic Howard was brought to the front to play bass (on a left-handed bass which was obviously procured especially for the performance). With every band member doing an intentionally poor job of miming, the band even continued the charade into the after-performance interview, when Dom Howard referred to Matt Bellamy as the band’s drummer. Crafty.
The Vines – ‘Get Free’ (The Late Show With David Letterman)
In 2002, The Vines were on top of the world, having been heralded as “the next Nirvana” during the garage-rock revival that was overtaking the music industry. This success meant the band were given the rare opportunity of being one of the few Aussie acts to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman. Of course, as with most shows by The Vines, it wasn’t going to be a subdued affair.
Frontman Craig Nicholls decided to show off his wild side, writhing and pulsating all over the stage whilst screaming the lyrics to ‘Get Free’ at nearly unintelligible volumes. Having managed to shock audiences all over America, host David Letterman decided to forgo his usual tradition of shaking hands with the band, choosing instead to seemingly cower behind his desk for fear of what he had just witnessed.
Sinéad O’Connor – ‘War’ (Saturday Night Live)
Arguably one of the most infamous television performances of all time, Sinéad O’Connor famously risked her career to stand up and protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. During an acapella cover of Bob Marley’s ‘War’, O’Connor famously presented a picture of Pope John Paul II as she sung the word ‘evil’, before ripping up the picture, urging viewers to “fight the real enemy”.
Almost immediately, O’Connor was ostracised for her actions, being banned from Saturday Night Live, and seeing many members of the public and the entertainment industry criticising her for the incident. Despite negative reactions initially, the incident has since gone on to be considered one of the greatest televised moments of not only music, but of political protest as well.
Iggy Pop – ‘I’m Bored’ (Countdown)
A famous moment in Aussie TV history, Iggy Pop’s 1979 interview with Molly Meldrum on Countdown has become a part of Aussie culture. From the second that Iggy Pop sat down in the interview chair, his behaviour was erratic, obnoxious, and clearly made Molly Meldrum uncomfortable. Of course, when he took to the stage to (barely) lip sync ‘I’m Bored’, that’s when the rocker decided to take it up another couple of notches.
Iggy Pop finally explained the incident in an interview with Double J in 2016, writing it off as a mixture of jet lag, and sheer frustration of being told he had to lip sync his performance. “I thought I was going to meet up with my band and play shows and play with my group on various TV shows,” he claimed. “And then instead it was, ‘You’re doing playback’ and I was pissed off.” In hindsight, that does make a lot of sense.
TISM – ‘Saturday Night Palsy’ (Hey Hey It’s Saturday)
Back in 1989, Melbourne cult-rockers TISM had just released their debut album and were busy on the touring circuit. As fate would have it, the band just so happened to be booked into a performance on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, so what better place than there to showcase their fun-loving attitudes whilst performing their new single, ‘Saturday Night Palsy’?
Following an understandably awkward introduction by host Daryl Somers, TISM took to the stage… but something was up. As the song progressed, TISM’s seven members were joined by more and more members of the band, all of which were wearing variations of TISM’s signature disguises. By the end of the performance, there were 28 ‘members’ of the band on stage, confusing not only those in attendance, but almost every viewer who wasn’t already aware of TISM’s irreverent nature.
The Who – ‘My Generation’ (The Smothers Brother’s Comedy Hour)
The Who have long held a reputation for being a ferocious live band, but a performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour back in the ’60s resulted in one of the most memorable performances of all time. See, drummer Keith Moon always had a penchant for the extreme, but it was during this performance that he decided the band needed to end their live show with a bang… literally.
Bribing a stage hand to fill his drum kit with explosives, Keith Moon was set to make his drum kit explode at the end of the song. However, unbeknownst to almost everyone, the stagehand filled the drum kit with more than ten times the amount of explosives required. The resulting detonation was enough to almost destroy the stage, and to give guitarist Pete Townshend permanent hearing loss in one ear.
Fear – ‘Beef Baloney/New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones’ (Saturday Night Live)
In the early ’80s, John Belushi had left Saturday Night Live due to an emerging career in Hollywood. When producers asked him to return for a guest spot, he promised he would if, and only if, the musical guest for the night was Los Angeles hardcore punk rockers Fear.
Not exactly the sort of band that SNL would usually book (previous weeks had features Miles Davis, The Kinks, and Rod Stewart), the punk crowd decided to crash the stage and caused what was reported as hundreds and thousands dollars worth of damage.
Among those in the audience was future punk legend Ian Mackaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi fame), who once stated “They said they were going to sue us and have us arrested for damages. There was so much hype about that. The New York Post reported half a million dollars worth of damages. It was nothing.”
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – ‘2 Kindsa Love’ (Recovery)
One of the most-played performances on Rage, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s performance of ‘2 Kinds Love’ on Recovery is legendary amongst Aussie audiences. When the group toured Australia in the late ’90s, they stopped by the Recovery studios for what should have been a regular performance. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, they were about to witness history.
From the start, Jon Spencer showed off his wild side, moving around the stage like a man possessed, before heading into the audience to make it one of the most immersive performances ever seen on the show.
Add in a phenomenal theremin solo, some brilliant accompaniment by his band members and some wild set climbing, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion gave birth to one of the most-witnessed live performances on Aussie TV.
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’ (BBC Radio 5 Live)
In 2009, Rage Against The Machine were the talk of the music industry after a successful campaign to get their signature song, ‘Killing In The Name’ to the top of the UK charts to be crowned the Christmas number one. Of course, the song’s repeated line of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” was met with some criticism due to its inability to be played on the radio in full.
Prior to the band achieving this milestone, they were asked to play the song live for a radio performance that was streamed worldwide. Due to the family nature of the program, producers told the band to censor their performance so as to not offend listeners.
You can probably imagine how they went, because the band effectively said “fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us,” and performed the song in full, with nothing censored. The presenters of the program were forced to make a rather quick apology to listeners, as you’d expect.