It’s Been 40 Years Since One of the Most Infamous “SNL” Musical Performances Ever

A mosh pit on the show isn't something you see every day

Fear Performing at Whisky A Go-Go
Punk band Fear performing at Whisky A Go-Go: Derf Scratch, Spit Stix, Lee Ving, and Philo Cramer.
Gary Leonard/Corbis via Getty Images

Punk rock can lead to unexpected connections. You might not think of legendary comedian John Belushi and punk icon Ian MacKaye as having too much in common, but there’s at least one time that the two were in the same room for the same reason. That would be the time in 1981 when the punk band FEAR was Saturday Night Live‘s musical guest. Belushi had previously befriended the group — and recorded a single with them — and successfully lobbied for them to appear on SNL.

That’s when things either got a little out of hand or took place perfectly, depending on your point of view. FEAR’s set offered the distinctive sight of a mosh pit forming in the studio — with a young MacKaye taking part in the action. The show’s producers cut away just before a massive pumpkin — it was a Halloween episode, after all — was destroyed.

Now, a new short documentary made as part of the series Punk & Tomatoes hearkens back to the band’s infamous performance. It features host Bill MacKenzie talking about his memories of the event, along with footage and images recorded there. And you get a sense of how Belushi helped the whole thing come together.

It’s eminently watchable and frequently hilarious — FEAR vocalist Lee Ving’s recollection of a conversation with the media after the set is especially brilliant. Also of interest is photographer Cynthia Connolly recalling her own experiences that night — and sharing some photographs she took of the set.

FEAR’s performance is the stuff out of which legends were born, and the recollections of MacKenzie and company aren’t the only cinematic exploration of the event. But it’s a great overview of a singular moment in musical and television history, and something we’re unlikely to see happen again.

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