Saturday Night Live is on fire recently. Credit the elections, Black Jeopardy and David S. Pumpkins.
But this Halloween, let’s take a moment to remember the time it was almost literally on fire — i.e., in danger of being burned down. It happened 35 years ago, on Halloween.
Remember, SNL in 1981 was in a creative tailspin. In its its seven season, Dick Ebersol had taken over as producer and fired most of the cast. While Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo would eventually become big names, they were relatively new to the series. These were the Christine Ebersole/Tim Kazurinsky years ... you know, forgettable.
John Belushi, long gone from the show, persuaded the producers to book a young, purposely antagonizing punk band called Fear. Originating from Los Angeles, Fear didn’t even have a record deal at the time; Belushi had caught them on a local music video show called New Wave Theatre and befriended lead singer Lee Ving.
For Belushi, it was a way to make up for the band getting cut from the soundtrack to his film Neighbors. The booking, however, came with one caveat.
“Belushi [had to] make an appearance,” remembers former Fear drummer Spit Stix. “In the beginning, he's at the urinal and he turns around to the camera, ‘Live! From New York!’ That was a favor he did for us because during rehearsal some of our crowd — bussed-in slamdancers — tripped over a cable or something, and the union people didn't want any dancers. So as a trade-off ... John was such a generous guy.”
Booked for Halloween — and on an episode hosted by Halloween star Donald Pleasence — Fear immediately threw the show into chaos. Those “bussed-in slamdancers” from Washington D.C. included Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye and members of the Cro-Mags, The Meatmen and Negative Approach: real punk rockers. They trampled the stage, dove into the crowd and got into a few fistfights. MacKaye supposedly yelled “New York sucks!” and Negative Approach’s John Brannon screamed “Negative Approach is gonna fuck you up!” into a live microphone, prompting the show’s producers to cut to a taped soundcheck performance.
As Josh Frank, author of In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and The Lost History of New Wave Theatre, later noted:
“The union crew signaled each other that word had been given to cut to a commercial. A carved jack-o-lantern that was being used as a prop — the transitional shot when the show cut to a commercial — sat just offstage. One of the DC kids grabbed it, held it above his head with both hands, and launched it. It splattered across a speaker monitor as the cameras hurriedly pulled out into a wide shot and the punks continued to swarm the stage.”
Frontman Ving also got booed when he yelled, “It’s great to be in New Jersey!” between songs. Still, while the network never showed the full performance again (and Ving was banned from the show), some grainy YouTube videos remain. Here, you can see Fear power through "I Don't Care About You," "Beef Bologna," "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones” and a bit of "Let's Have a War."
Coming just four weeks after Rod Stewart sang “Hot Legs” on the show, this felt like a revolution, although some labeled it a disaster. But as Ving told TheLipTV last year, “It was a musical performance. It wasn’t a disaster for us.”
Ving, who still fronts a version of Fear and actually talks a lot about his very non-politically correct views, did have a sense of humor about the whole thing. When a New York Post reporter called him at the Four Seasons the next day to fact-check the band causing $10,000 in damage to the studio, Ving corrected him.
“That’s a lie. We’re professionals. We cost $400,000 worth of damage.”