14 Saturday Night Live Musical Guests That Performed Unreleased Songs
Where most late-night shows give the musical guest a few minutes to play their current single and, if they’re lucky, come over to the couch for an interview, Saturday Night Live has always given musicians a bit more room to stretch their legs. With two or three songs for each musical guest (or more on a few special occasions), artists often throw in album tracks, covers, or surprise collaborations. And many times over the show’s past five decades, SNL guests have previewed an unheard of mostly unheard new song that wouldn’t wind up on an album until months or years later, or remain unreleased indefinitely.
The 48th season of SNL kicks off this weekend with host Miles Teller and musical guest Kendrick Lamar. And though Lamar has plenty of songs from this year’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers to perform, he’s been known to debut new material on late night TV before, so you never know what you’ll hear. Here’s a look back at 14 instances of both legends and footnotes debuting new songs on Saturday Night Live, some of which would go on to become career-defining hits.
Elvis Costello - "Radio Radio" (1977)
By the time Elvis Costello embarked on his first US tour in late 1977 to promote his debut album, he and his recently formed backing band the Attractions were already performing most of the songs from the follow-up. His US label, Columbia Records, insisted on Costello performing one of the My Aim Is True singles as his second song on Saturday Night Live, but the angry young new waver had other plans. Costello got halfway through the first verse of “Less Than Zero” before turning to his band and waving his arms for them to stop, announcing, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here.” Then they burst into “Radio Radio,” a new song with a barbed critique of BBC Radio that wouldn’t be released on wax until October 1978, nearly a year later.
In his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello recalled where he got the idea for his live TV disruption. As a teenager he’d seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience on The Lulu Show, abruptly stopping a performance of “Hey Joe” to dedicate a cover of “Sunshine Of Your Love” to Cream, who’d just split up. “It was like watching your television go out of control. It occurred to me now that there was absolutely nothing to stop me from pulling the same stunt,” Costello wrote. Swapping out one 3-minute song for another may not seem like the most revolutionary act, but NBC was incensed enough to ban Costello from the network for over a decade. He was eventually invited back to SNL in 1989. And for the show’s 25th anniversary special in 2000, he recreated the spontaneous moment with his scripted interruption of a Beastie Boys performance.
Tracy Chapman – "Give Me One Reason" (1989)
Tracy Chapman visited Saturday Night Live a second time in 1989 to promote her sophomore album Crossroads, in an episode hosted by Andie McDowell. But one of the songs she performed, the bluesy “Give Me One Reason,” hadn’t appeared on either of the albums she’d released. Later, Chapman spent two years road testing material for her fourth album before finally including the longtime live staple “Give Me One Reason” on 1995’s New Beginning. As the album’s lead single, it became the biggest hit of her career six years after it had been debuted on SNL, peaking at #3 on the Hot 100 and winning a Grammy.
Paul Simon – "You Can Call Me Al" (1986)
In 1986, Paul Simon was coming off of two underperforming albums and was facing both industry skepticism and political opposition to his decision to record in South Africa with local musicians during apartheid. Simon, an old friend of Lorne Michaels and frequent Saturday Night Live guest, booked a May 1986 appearance to promote the June release of Graceland – and then Warner Bros. decided to push the album back to August. Co-hosting the episode with “Dynasty” star Catherine Oxenberg, Simon unveiled three songs from Graceland, including the future hit “You Can Call Me Al” and “Homeless” with the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. While in New York, Simon and the group went to the Hit Factory and recorded one final song for the album, “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes.”
When Graceland was released three months later, the initial music video for “You Can Call Me Al” featured grainy video monitor footage of Simon’s SNL performance of the song. But the negative reception to that video — and slow early sales for the album, which debuted at #94 on the Billboard 200 — prompted Simon to shoot another video, once again with the help of a few SNL friends. At the suggestion of Michaels, Gary Weis directed the video we all now know, co-starring a lip-syncing Chevy Chase. That November, just after Graceland entered the top 10, Paul Simon returned to SNL, performing two more songs from Graceland.
Pearl Jam – "Not For You" (1994)
When Pearl Jam made their second appearance on SNL, they were touring in support of 1993’s Vs. But their first song of the night, “Not For You,” was a fiery new preview of the album they’d release eight months later, Vitalogy. Notably, the episode aired eight days after the body of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was found. Eddie Vedder incorporated Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My,” referenced in Cobain’s suicide note, into the improv at the end of the SNL performance of “Daughter.” And when the band waved goodnight during the credits, Vedder opened his jacket to reveal the letter “K,” written on his shirt in marker over his heart.
Frank Zappa – "Dancin' Fool" (1979)
Frank Zappa’s most popular songs were his most absurd and satirical, and Zappa acted in a sketch the first time he appeared as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live’s second season. So on paper, he probably seemed like a great choice to host the show when he returned in October 1978. But Zappa’s hosting stint was a fiasco, with his brand of humor falling flat in the context of sketch comedy. And Zappa was banned from SNL for the crime of briefly going off-script to acknowledge that he was reading off cue cards.
From a musical standpoint, however, the episode was a feast for Zappa fans, showcasing three previously unreleased songs. After a brief monologue, Zappa brought out his band and announced, “Tonight, we’d like to do a song about an important social problem: disco! It deals with lonely people with no natural rhythm impinging on each other in the darkness.” His disco parody “Dancin’ Fool” was released on Sheik Yerbouti the following spring and became one of Zappa’s biggest hits. The other two songs that Zappa performed that night, however, wouldn’t be released for years. “The Meek Shall Inhherit Nothing” came out on 1981’s You Are What You Is. And the instrumental “Rollo” would surface decades later on the 2006 posthumous album Imaginary Diseases, without the John Belushi vocal cameo from the SNL performance.
Kanye West & Teyana Taylor – "We Got Love" (2018)
Before Kanye West’s relationship with Pete Davidson-era Saturday Night Live got really complicated, SNL was one of his favorite places to unveil new music; “Black Skinhead” was performed on SNL about a month before the studio version was released. In 2018, Kanye West announced that he would release a new album, Yandhi, on September 29, the same night he’d perform on SNL’s season premiere. But it appeared that when showtime arrived, the album wasn’t finished, and only one of the three songs he performed was a new track: “We Got Love” with Teyana Taylor.
By the end of the night, West’s SNL appearance went off the rails, as the rapper donned a MAGA hat and gave a speech to the studio audience in support of President Trump, which was not part of the broadcast. Yandhi’s release date was delayed to November and then canceled, with some of its songs winding up on West’s later albums Jesus Is King and Donda. Days after the SNL appearance, West and Taylor shot a video for “We Got Love” in the parking lot outside TMZ, but the video was never released and the song disappeared from the public eye for a year. In late 2019, “We Got Love” finally dropped as a Teyana Taylor solo single, appearing on her 2020 release The Album with an added spoken word outro by Lauryn Hill.
John Prine – "The Bottomless Lake" (1976)
John Prine’s only SNL appearance was in a Season 2 episode hosted by Karen Black, who introduced him as “one of the best singer-songwriters of today.” But Prine’s most recent album, 1975’s Common Sense, was a year and a half old, and he had already left the label that released it, Atlantic Records. So instead of promoting his latest, a solo Prine played a classic from his 1971 debut, “Hello In There,” and an unheard new song. “This is a song from a story my grandfather told me about a family that went out for a Sunday drive and they never came back,” Prine said while introducing the whimsical “The Bottomless Lake.” But a studio recording of the song, fleshed out with fiddle and handclaps, wouldn’t be released until 1984’s Aimless Love, eight years and four albums later.
Radiohead – "Staircase" (2011)
Radiohead released their eighth album The King Of Limbs in February 2011, but the band remained in the studio working on more songs before launching a tour that summer. And when the band appeared on the Season 37 premiere of Saturday Night Live, they played the TKOL single “Lotus Flower” alongside “Staircase,” an unreleased song that had been finished after the album’s release. Technically, “Staircase” was played when Radiohead gave an in-studio live performance on producer Nigel Godrich’s From The Basement web series a few months earlier. But it was not released as a single (with “The Daily Mail”) until later that year.
Nelson (As The Nelsons) – "Won't Walk Away" (1986)
The historic first time an unsigned act became the musical guest on SNL was less a grassroots triumph than good old-fashioned nepotism. Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, sons of ’50s teen idol Ricky Nelson, appeared on an episode hosted, appropriately, hosted by Ron Reagan, the then-president’s son. By the time the brothers signed a record deal and released their massively successful debut album in 1990, they’d shorted the band name from the Nelsons to simply Nelson, and Gunnar had moved from drums to guitar. But it took nine years for one of the songs they’d performed on SNL, “Won’t Walk Away,” to see release on 1995’s quickly forgotten follow-up Because They Can.
Stevie Wonder – "Go Home" (1983)
In 1983, a new Stevie Wonder album titled People Work, Human Play appeared on the Motown release schedule, and was then canceled. That spring, Wonder appeared on Saturday Night Live as the host and musical guest, an episode best remembered his appearance in the Kannon Camera sketch. Both the songs Wonder played that night were unreleased cuts, “Overjoyed” and “Go Home.” Wonder’s introduction for the latter song foreshadowed his indecision about the project: “I’d like to do another song that I’d like to get your feeling on, so if you can get into it, do whatever you feel you gotta do.” He shelved the project for two years, turning his attention to the soundtrack for The Woman In Red in 1984. Then Wonder returned to People Work, Human Play, released as In Square Circle, with “Go Home” becoming the final top 10 hit of his career in 1986.
Green Day – "Geek Stink Breath" (1994)
Green Day made their first SNL appearance at the end of the year that Dookie became a multiplatinum phenomenon. And after a run through “When I Come Around,” they gave the first public performance of a new song that had previously only been played in soundchecks. “Geek Stink Breath” would come out nine months later as the lead single to Insomniac, but in 1994 NBC censors had no idea that the word “shit” appeared in the new song’s lyrics and let the expletive fly on the air. The only Hot 100 hit that debuted in that episode, however, was cast member Adam Sandler’s future holiday standard, “The Chanukah Song.”
Mick Jagger & Jeff Beck – "Tea Party" (2012)
Mick Jagger hasn’t released a solo album since 2001, but he closed out Season 37 of Saturday Night Live by hosting the show and performing Rolling Stones classics with Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire. One of Jagger’s performances that night was a new song with legendary British guitarist Jeff Beck, “Tea Party,” which they performed with the SNL house band. It was a topical blues song about the 2012 presidential election, with lyrics poking fun at President Obama’s GOP challenger, Mitt Romney. A studio recording never surfaced of “Tea Party,” or of “Commit A Crime,” another Jagger/Beck collaboration they performed for Obama at the White House the same year.
The Roches – "Bobby's Song" (1979)
The folk trio of Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche were discovered by Paul Simon, who worked with two of the three sisters on his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Their 1979 self-titled debut didn’t sell well, but Simon used his clout at SNL to get the group a spot on the show that November. Presented with that opportunity to promote their floundering LP, the Roches decided to perform two songs that would appear on later records. “Bobby’s Song,” performed with Terre playing guitar and the three harmonizing, was released 11 months later on their second album Nurds, and the Roches’ a cappella arrangement of “The Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah wound up on their Robert Fripp-produced third album, 1982’s Keep On Doing.
Jennifer Lopez – "Until It Beats No More" (2010)
When Jennifer Lopez pulled double duty as Saturday Night Live’s host and musical guest in February 2010, she had another hit romcom, The Back-up Plan, on the way, but her recording career was at a low point. After her single “Louboutins” had missed the charts, Lopez parted with longtime label Sony mere days before her SNL episode. Undaunted, Lopez performed two new songs on the show, one called “Starting Over” and another she introduced as “Pieces.” When Lopez signed a new contract with Island and released her comeback album Love? a year later, the song she’d called “Pieces” had been renamed “Until It Beats No More.”