At the time, no one could have known how important Nirvana's appearance on Saturday Night Live would be, how many bands would form in its wake, how different the world would sound soon after it happened. Nirvana was just another band on the way up that Saturday Night Live was willing to take a chance on, as it had with so many other groups in the past. Nevermind, the group's breakthrough, hadn't quite broken through yet. It was just beginning to shove its way onto radio playlists four months after its release.
When Kurt Cobain took the stage on January 11, 1992, in his beat-up cardigan, screaming out from under a mess of fruit-punch-colored hair, that all changed. More than seven years later, Nirvana's performance on Saturday Night Live -- its first ever gig on national television -- is the closest thing to The Beatles' launching the British Invasion from the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show that this generation has ever seen. Arguably, it's among the most important broadcasts in the show's run. The 1990s unofficially began that night.
And yet neither "Smells Like Teen Spirit" nor "Territorial Pissings" -- the songs Nirvana played that night -- appears on Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances (released on September 21), a double-disc set commemorating the show's 25th anniversary. There is a song by Nirvana on the collection, but it comes from the band's second, far less significant guest shot on the show more than a year later, a by-the-numbers run-through of "Rape Me," from 1993's In Utero. It feels smaller in comparison, just another song rather than A Moment In History. Still, it's fitting in a way, because The Musical Performances is more about the songs that aren't on it than about the ones that are.
"It's a tough call with Nirvana," says Ryan Shiraki, Saturday Night Live's talent coordinator and co-executive producer of the set. "We also didn't want this [collection] to be too hits-driven, and the performance of 'Rape Me' was from their last album, which I think is as important as their first album. It's sort of six of one and a half dozen of the other, in terms of people thinking this song should be on and other people thinking this song should be on. I think just having Nirvana on, representing a style of music that was really important at the time, is a great thing."
The omission of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is only the beginning. The Musical Performances' liner notes, penned by Rolling Stone senior editor David Wild, mention a dozen bands whose performances should have been included on the discs, a tease of what could have been: Public Enemy, the Clash, Ornette Coleman, the Replacements, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, the Pogues, Sun Ra. If nothing else, the liner notes help start a wish-list for the next installment. More likely, however, they begin a discussion of where Saturday Night Live and DreamWorks went wrong with the first two editions.
Shiraki has heard this line of questioning all too often in the weeks surrounding The Musical Performances' release. He's "terribly proud of these CDs" and more than willing to defend them, even in the middle of last-minute preparations for Saturday Night Live's 25th anniversary special (which aired on September 26). But he is not inclined to discuss every worthy performance that was left off The Musical Performances -- and there are dozens at least, maybe hundreds -- so he stops the conversation before it really begins, letting his interviewer know exactly what he and DreamWorks Records, the label that released the first two discs, have planned for all the tracks left in the vault.
"I think before we go into any discussion about the CD, it should be noted that these are two CDs in a series of many to come," Shiraki says in the measured tone of someone who has had to make this speech several times before. "As we proceed with the series, we're thinking of doing a comedy-oriented CD, something with more obscure performances, maybe an '80s kind of thing. We have about a thousand performances on the show in 25 years, so there's a lot to choose from."
But Shiraki admits that he doesn't know how many more discs will eventually come out, or even what the next one might be. He's been so concerned with readying the first two volumes, sorting through songs all summer, that he hasn't bothered to look ahead. There doesn't seem to be any reason that he should now. The reality is, The Musical Performances is so inconsequential, there might not be any more installments to worry about. The lineup -- chosen by Shiraki and DreamWorks' Michael Ostin, son of famed ex-Reprise Records exec Mo Austin -- is too narrow to be a "historical document of the late 20th century and music on television," as Shiraki insists, and a few years too late to act as a compendium of current tastes -- either too old (James Taylor, Paul Simon, Randy Newman) or not old enough.
Though Shiraki claims he didn't want The Musical Performances to be driven by hits, he also says he wanted the first two volumes of the series to feature "some of the most familiar performances" by "some of the biggest names" that have appeared on the show. Meaning: He wanted the discs to be driven by hits. It doesn't make sense for Shiraki to even try to hide that fact, since he's rounded up a collection of bands performing their most recognizable songs, including R.E.M. ("Losing My Religion"), Green Day ("When I Come Around"), Beastie Boys ("Sabotage"), Alanis Morisette ("Hand in My Pocket"), Lenny Kravitz ("Are You Gonna Go My Way"), Jewel ("Who Will Save Your Soul"), and the Dave Matthews Band ("What Would You Say").
For the most part, however, the hits that he and Ostin selected are too old to be capitalized on, resulting in a pair of discs that feel as though they should have been released in 1995. If Saturday Night Live and DreamWorks wanted to put together a compilation of current chart-toppers that would pay for the rest of the series, they would have been better served sticking to the last year or so. It's the same trap that similar discs from Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Late Show With David Letterman fell into in recent years, shying away from more obscure -- and far more fulfilling -- performances in favor of mainstream artists struggling to stay afloat. But Shiraki contends that the performances are still meaningful even if the artists no longer are.
"I think there are some particularly interesting stories from the discs," he says. "The Counting Crows doing 'Round Here' was the first television performance from this band ever. We put them on the show before they'd even charted. They were virtual unknowns. They came in on January of '94 and basically debuted themselves for the nation on SNL, and then exploded a couple of months later. Annie Lennox doing 'Why' was her first solo performance in the States. As far as that goes, Nirvana doing 'Rape Me,' was their only live performance in support of In Utero before Kurt Cobain's death. These are important performances."
The familiarity of the songs wouldn't be as glaring if Shiraki and Austin had selected hits from more than one decade. The Musical Performances gives the false impression that Saturday Night Live first hit the airwaves sometime around 1990, ignoring the first five years of the show, or rather, the time period when most of the best guests appeared on SNL. Only Elvis Costello's landmark 1977 rendering of "Radio, Radio" (begun after he abandoned the tamer "Less Than Zero" only a few seconds in), Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," and The Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" (both in 1978) survive from that era.
Of the discs' 30 songs, 24 of them are culled from performances that happened in this decade, which makes you question why SNL and DreamWorks bothered to tie the compilations to the show's 25th anniversary; they cover a fraction of that time period. The Musical Performances, then, could have been released at any time. The only thing the set really celebrates is the sharp decline in SNL's musical guests over the past 10 years.
SNL used to take risks, giving musicians such as The Specials, Tom Waits, Kinky Friedman, Betty Carter, Devo, Fear, and Captain Beefheart rare chances to perform on live network television. It's not much of a risk to book Jewel and the Dave Matthews Band. Or the Backstreet Boys (twice!), Sheryl Crow, Bush, Mariah Carey, Barenaked Ladies, Ricky Martin, Everlast, Blues Traveler, Crash Test Dummies, or any of the flavorless flavor-of-the-minute acts that have popped up on SNL's stage in recent years. Not much of anything you couldn't see on any late-night talk show. Even Rosie O'Donnell has had most of those bands on her show.
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Shiraki, obviously, doesn't agree, believing that the show's vision has remained intact over the past 25 years, that the bands SNL books now are every bit as interesting and engaging as they were in the show's infancy. He's still convinced that SNL is the only show that matters when it comes to live performances, and that most bands that have appeared on the show would agree with him.
"The CD is really testament to that," he says. "We book artists on the show who can perform live, who are great live performers. That is the primary criterion for a musical guest. They have to be able to perform live and captivate a live audience. And then, you want to keep the show's roster eclectic, from the Backstreet Boys to Portishead. That's always been the philosophy of the show, to feature different kinds of acts. We only do about 20 shows a year, so each musical guest is chosen with very careful consideration.
"And I think most people [on the discs] were really flattered and more than happy to be included on something like this," he continues. "It's almost like a historical document of the late 20th century and music on television. All of these artists are really proud to be represented here. It wasn't a big ordeal to get them to be on it. I think the biggest ordeal was trying to figure out who should be on it."
Maybe next time, they will make the right choices. That is, if there is a next time.