8 of the coolest musical talk show performances

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8 of the coolest musical talk show performances

Bjork late show
Words by Harry Connell

Here are 8 of the coolest musical performances on talk shows from over the years.

Seeing your favourite artist on television is always exciting, and over the years the late night TV talk show has become an amazing platform for showcasing musical performance. 

There have been a lot of truly iconic musical appearances on talk shows, but it doesn’t just come down to the quality of the singing or the mix of the audio; sometimes it’s their uniqueness that makes them stand out.

Sinéad O’Connor – ‘War’ (Saturday Night Live, 1992) 

It’s pretty hard to talk about iconic talk show performances and not mention Sinead’s protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, on SNL in 1992. 

In a career risking manoeuvre, she famously ripped a picture of Pope John Paul II, while singing a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘War.’ 

She was banned from SNL, and subject to some very heavy critism following the performance, which has since gone on to become one of the greatest televised moments in music.

It’s also worth mentioning her 2019 performance on the Late Late Show, which was somewhat of a comeback for the then 52-year-old, who had stepped away from performing for about five years after feeling burnt out. 

She performed a show-stopping rendition of her smash hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and by the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The Strokes – ‘Life Is Simple in the Moonlight’ (Saturday Night Live, 2011) 

While the technicalities of this performance may not stack up against some of the others on this list, this is, in true Strokes fashion, an immaculate vibe.

Returning to SNL for their third musical appearance in March of 2011, The Strokes performed the tenth and final song from their fourth album Angles, as well as ‘Undercover of Darkness’ which was the lead single.

This version of ‘Life Is Simple in the Moonlight’ featured Julian’s warbly vocals that we know and love, (mumbling and perhaps even forgetting some lyrics near the end?) but this only serves to elevate the performance.

It’s hard to put into words, but it’s truly mesmerising and bursting with character.

Björk – ‘Pagan Poetry’ (Late Show with David Letterman, 2001) 

Back in 2001, Björk delivered a captivating live performance of ‘Pagan Poetry’ from her fourth studio album Vespertine released the same year.

It featured a harpist, the Greenland women’s choir and American experimental electronic duo Matmos. 

What resulted was a truly unique and eclectic performance.

Special mention to Letterman’s sound crew, who allowed the intricate background work and vocals to really shine through in the mix.

Lana Del Rey – ‘Video Games’ (Saturday Night Live, 2012) 

Perhaps one of the most divisive performances on this list, Lana Del Rey’s performance of ‘Video Games’ gained a lot of attention after it aired back in 2012, but mainly for the wrong reasons. 

There were a lot of fans who weren’t overly impressed by her somewhat ghostly stage presence, or her vocal performance itself- while others thought it added to the eeriness of the performance, elevating the funereal qualities of the song.

Was SNL’s notoriously bad sound mix to blame? Or the fact that it was her very first time singing with in-ears? 

Looking back at it I think it’s fair to say the internet was a bit harsh, and it’s a pretty cool rendition.

The White Stripes – ‘Seven Nation Army’ (Conan, 2003)

While it may lack the polish that others on this list possess, this raw performance of a cult classic is up there with the best. 

One guitar and a drum kit is all the White Stripes needed to absolutely bring the house down with this rendition of their 2003 muscular rock anthem.

Jack and Meg were no stranger to Late Night With Conan O’Brien, holding a residency for a week that year, to promote their album, Elephant.

Jack’s guitar seems a little out of tune at times, only serving to add rawness and a rugged charm to the performance- what a song.

Prince – ‘Partyup’ (Saturday Night Live, 1981)  

Back in February of 1981, it was Prince’s turn to see the blinking red light with his SNL debut, performing Partyup- the eighth and final track off his third album Dirty Mind

In what is a somewhat rarely seen performance, he sports his favourite guitar – the Hohner HG-490 “Mad Cat” (currently on display at Paisley Park), which he is said to have bought off a guy at a gas station for $30. 

He went on to appear on SNL three more times in 1989, 2006 and 2014.

Kendrick Lamar – ‘Untitled 08’ (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 2016) 

Kendrick didn’t miss a beat with this one- what a display. 

One of the funkier songs in his discography, Kendrick’s skills as a lyricist and performer were on full display in 2016, when he performed on Jimmy Fallon accompanied by a live band. 

His untitled unmastered. compilation album (2016) consisted of demos from his stint recording To Pimp a Butterfly the year prior. 

Featuring soulful backing vocals, jazzy piano and strings, and a tasty drum beat, this is definitely one of Kendrick’s coolest performances on late-night television.

Foo Fighters – ‘Everlong’ (Late Show with David Letterman, 2015)

The Fooeys have played this song a whopping five times on Late Night with David Letterman, but it’s hard to look past 2015. 

Letterman has spoken about Everlong’s importance, stating it’s his favourite song, and that it helped him through his recovery from heart surgery back in 2000, so it was only right that it was performed on his very last show. 

Grohl said “We just felt like we had to be there… not only was it an honour to be asked, but it felt like something we had to do.”

The broadcast featured archival footage, compressing 32 years into 6 and a half minutes, accompanied by an absolutely smashing rendition of the 90s rock hit.

Keep reading about the Saturday Night Live band here.