New York’s Alright

It was the 1981 Halloween show of Saturday Night Live. Fear, a punk band from California, was set to be the musical guest. Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi fame, was one of the punks brought in to dance during the performance. He relates the strange story of how it happened:

“At eight in the morning, some point in October, I got a call. I was driving a newspaper truck for The Washington Post at the time, so eight in the morning was brutal. It was Lorne Michaels’ office, Lorne Michaels being the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” and I get this woman, “Lorne Michaels’ office, please hold.” I was completely delirious. Lorne Michaels gets on the phone – “Hi, Ian, it’s Lorne Michaels of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I’m calling you because I got your number from John Belushi. He says that you might be able to get some dancers up here ’cause we want to have Fear on the show.” I was completely baffled by this. “Pardon me?” “Hold on a second.” John Belushi gets on the phone and he says, “This is John Belushi. I’m a big fan of Fear’s. I made a deal with ‘Saturday Night Live’ that I would make a cameo appearance on the show if they’d let Fear play. I got your number from Penelope Spheeris, who did ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ and she said that you guys, Washington DC punk rock kids, know how to dance. I want to get you guys to come up to the show.” It was worked out that we could all arrive at the Rockefeller Center where “Saturday Night Live” was being filmed. The password to get in was “Ian MacKaye.” We went up the day before. The Misfits played with The Necros at the Ukrainian hall, I think, so all of the Detroit people were there, like Tesco Vee and Cory Rusk from the Necros and all the Touch and Go people and a bunch of DC people – 15 to 20 of us came up from DC. Henry [Rollins] was gone. He was living in LA at this point. So we went to the show. During the dress rehearsal, a camera got knocked over. We were dancing and they were very angry with us and said that they were going to not let us do it then Belushi really put his foot down and insisted on it. So, during the actual set itself, they let us come out again. If you watch the show. . . before they go to commercial, they always go to this jack-o-lantern. This carved pumpkin. If you watched it during the song, you’ll see one of our guys, this guy named Bill MacKenzie, coming out holding the pumpkin above his head because he’s just getting ready to smash it. And that’s when they cut it off. They kicked us out and locked us out for two hours. We were locked in a room because they were so angry with us about the behavior. . . They said they were going to sue us and have us arrested for damages. There was so much hype about that. The New York Post reported half a million dollars worth of damages. It was nothing. It was a plastic clip that got broken. It was a very interesting experience and I realized how completely unnatural it is for a band to be on a television show – particularly a punk band – that kind of has a momentum to suddenly be expected to immediately jump into a song in that type of setting. It was very weird. Largely unpleasant. Made me realize that’s not something I’m interested in doing.”

This incident became notorious in punk rock circles and as Ian notes that was a big media freakout. I’ve scanned SNL reruns for years, hoping they might one day repeat the episode. It has never been shown again. Thanks to the wonders of the internet though, footage of one of the songs they performed (“New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones”) can now be seen here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0tA2R12OBY

As you can see here, and in the documentary Decline of Western Civilization, Fear was one of those bands that liked pissing people off. I saw them play at CBGB in the early 90s and frontman Lee Ving mercilessly mocked the crowd throughout their set. Strangely enough Ving attempted an acting career in Hollywood. His most notable role is Mr. Body in the film Clue.

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