Live from New York: It's Saturday night music
September 14, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- Since its debut 25 years ago next month, NBC's seminal comedy show "Saturday Night Live" has helped launch the careers of some of today's most enduring comedians.
In its glory days, the 90-minute show gave us Mike Myers' "Sprockets," John Belushi's samurai warrior, Dana Carvey's impression of former President George Bush and "Weekend Update" with Jane Curtin and others. Parallel to the laughs, the show's musical stage has drawn a primo lineup of some of the best recording artists the industry has to offer.
Critics say that on the comedy side, "SNL" has lost much of its bite, if not its bark. But by many accounts, it's stayed right on target musically. The show often sees its rating rise or fall depending on its guest host and musical act.
So to mark its silver anniversary, the program that producer Lorne Michaels once described as a "little, dinky late-night" is releasing a double album of some of its some memorable musical performances.
Process of elimination
"Saturday Night Live" has broadcast nearly 1,000 performances by artists as varied as R.E.M, Hole, Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, Dr. Dre, Alanis Morissette and Neil Young since its debut on October 11, 1975.
The idea to release a musical compilation had been around for quite a while, says the show's talent executive Ryan Shiraki, who served as co-executive producer on "Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances, Volumes 1 and 2." His colleague on the project was DreamWorks Records executive Michael Ostin. And with the anniversary around the corner, the timing was right.
"The coolest thing for me," says Shiraki, "is looking at all the artists on a single page and seeing all the history that's involved. But it's also a work-in-progress, with many more volumes to come.
"The first two volumes were meant to focus on the more familiar artists and performances, but as the series grows, we want to include more once-in-a-lifetime performances, such as esoteric performances by Bryan Ferry or Kate Bush."
The "SNL" archives have tapes of every show dating back to 1975. So culling its massive collection of music for two CDs of songs was a daunting, four-month project, says Shiraki.
He says his and Ostin's biggest challenge lay in deciding who should be included on the CDs. The final selection was done by committee with DreamWorks Records, which released the CDs.
The final product includes live versions of Nirvana's "Rape Me" and Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way" from 1993 shows; Hole's "Doll Parts" from a 1994 broadcast; and the now-defunct Arrested Development's "Tennessee," as performed on the show in 1992.
"There are certain performances that I think are really magical," says Shiraki. "The Counting Crows doing 'Round Here' because we had them on the show (in 1994) when they hadn't even charted yet. We took a chance on them for the show and they exploded a short time afterwards. I also love Annie (Lennox) doing 'Why' in 1992, because she just captivated the audience.
"And of course we have Nirvana and Hole. I remember we booked Hole really, really early. But my particular favorite is Mary J. Blige doing 'Reminisce' (in 1993). That was just great."
"SNL" approached every artist and got his or her consent to have a number included on the double album. "For the most part, people are thrilled to be on 'SNL,'" Shiraki says, "and see it as a special opportunity. Honestly, we have our pick of the artists that go on the show. We want to make sure we have an eclectic roster and that the host and musical guest have some musical synchronicity."
Bands arrive at "SNL" studios on the Thursday before their Saturday performance. They go through several rehearsals before hitting the stage for the live broadcast.
"It's an experience many artists have been aspiring to," says Shiraki, "especially newer bands that have grown up watching the show. I book people younger than me for the show, because it still means a lot to their careers. It's an achievement, much more than just a boost in sales.
"We only do 20 shows a year," he says, "so it's a pretty exclusive roster."
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