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“New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones”: L.A. punk band Fear on “SNL” in ’81 & “New Wave Theatre” in ’82
In this 1982 episode of “New Wave Theatre“ — watch it in its entirety now on Night Flight Plus — Lee Ving and his band Fear slam their way through “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” a track featured on their first album, The Record, which had recently been released at the time (streetdate: May 16, 1982), but it had also been one of the tracks they’d already performed at an infamous Halloween night show, several months earlier, on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” taped live before a studio audience in NYC thirty-five years ago this month.
The invite to perform on “SNL” came from former “SNL” cast member John Belushi, who had first seen the band earlier that same year on an earlier episode of “New Wave Theatre” (check out our “Best Of New Wave Theatre” post here) before it was broadcast nationally on the USA Network’s “Night Flight”, and was only being broadcast in the local L.A. area on the public access TV station KSCI, on UHF channel 18 (and also the Theta Cable network, on channel 3).
In Josh Frank’s In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and The Lost History of New Wave Theatre, Spit Stix of Fear is quoted as saying the following about “New Wave Theatre,” a show the band appeared on numerous times:
“Music television wasn’t born yet, New Wave Theatre was it if you had cable TV and you looked forward to some ray of hope that music was still alive. New Wave Theatre was a musical digest of what as going on in the underground. That was the most vibrant thing happening in music. New Wave Theatre offered something raw and uncut: it wasn’t all homogenized yet. It just represented something I wanted to be a part of, so it seemed to me that getting on it was sort of a milestone.”
Belushi tracked down Ving through “New Wave Theatre” host Peter Ivers, who gave Belushi Ving’s phone number, and according to Ving, who talked to Rolling Stone magazine last year, “we had a couple of beers and became fast friends.”
At the time, Belushi — and “SNL” colleague Dan Aykroyd — were working on the comedy film Neighbors, got the idea to have Fear (and Belushi’s friend, legendary Stax Records house guitarist Steve Cropper) record a song for the film’s soundtrack, joining them at Cherokee Studios in L.A. to record a track called “Neighbors” as a theme song for the film.
Unfortunately, the film’s producers didn’t like the track and refused to use it, and Belushi was reportedly crushed.
To make it up to Ving and the band, Belushi pushed to have Fear booked on “SNL”, something he’d apparently been bugging executive producer Lorne Michaels about it already — he’d already left the casts by then — and Michaels finally relented, probably against his better judgment, and the scary band Fear were slotted to play on one of the scariest nights of the year, Halloween night, which was going to be hosted by Donald Pleasance, who had just reprised his role as Dr. Sam Loomis in the recently-released Halloween II movie.
Belushi also invited a group of East Coast punk fans — most of them in bands themselves from New York City, Boston and Washington D.C. — to come to the taping at 30 Rockefeller Center in NYC and join Belushi in the mosh-pit. This group of moshers included Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat (and later Fugazi), Tesco Vee of The Meatmen, Harley Flanagan and John Joseph of The Cro-mags, and John Brannon of Negative Approach.
There are numerous accounts of what happened at the taping, and they don’t all match up with each other. In one of those, TV execs for the show were not quite sure what to do and decided to not let the punkers appear on-camera during the first song the band peformed live (“I Don’t Care About You”), slam-dancing in the audience, which sent them instead into the hallways and corridors of the studio, where they apparently wreaked havoc and they then went into Michael O’Donoghue’s office and trashed it.
For the second song set of the evening, Lee Ving, Fear’s lead vocalist, intro’d the “Beef Bologna” by saying “It’s great to be in New Jersey,” while the audience booed as they ripped into “Beef Bologna” and then started “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” featuring bassist Derf Scratch on the saxophone:
“New York’s alright if you wanna get pushed in front of the subway/New York’s alright if you wanna freeze to death/New York’s alright if you wanna get mugged or murdered/New York’s alright if you’re a homosexual”
By then, all hell was breaking loose. Apparently the New York punk rockers and the D.C. punkers didn’t get along very well. Some reports say that there were even broken bones as a result of the fist-fights that broke out during the song.
Here’s another excerpt from Josh Frank’s book:
“When the song was done, Ian MacKaye grabbed Ving’s mic and screamed ‘New York sucks!’ Despite increasingly frantic signaling from the sides of the stage, Ving broke into a third song. The union crew signaled each other that word had been given to cut to a commercial. A carved jack-o-lantern that was being used as a prop — the transitional shot when the show cut to a commercial — sat just offstage. One of the DC kids grabbed it, held it above his head with both hands, and launched it. It splattered across a speaker monitor as the cameras hurriedly pulled out into a wide shot and the punks continued to swarm the stage.”
“The next thing Ian MacKaye knew, he and his DC contingent were being forcefully shepherded into a room offstage. The doors were locked and they were quarantined for two hours, berated for their behavior and threatened with lawsuits and criminal prosecution.”
“During Fear’s performance, Belushi had stood and watched just offstage with [Michael] O’Donoghue, reportedly in hysterics. Next to them stood David Jove [New Wave Theatre‘s executive producer], who had traveled across the country to see the show. Jove was not one for big laughs. He watched with his arms folded over his chest and a satisfied grin plastered across his face. In a recent interview, he had referred to ‘New Wave Theatre’ as “the ‘Saturday Night Live’ of tomorrow.” Tomorrow may have arrived earlier than expected. The manic energy he had managed to harness into controlled chaos on his scrappy cable access show had overwhelmed the network standard-bearer in a matter of minutes.”
We’ve read other reports and write-ups about the infamous incident too. Lee Ving told Rolling Stone that “SNL” stage manager Dick Ebersol “got hit in the chest with a pumpkin,” and yet another report — found in Going Underground: American Punk 1979-1989 by George Hurchalla — claimed that when MacKaye was crouched over the stage and yelling “New York sucks!” into a microphone that had been knocked over, John Brannon (who had been given a mohawk earlier that day by Belushi before the live taping) grabbed the mic from him and yelled “Negative Approach is gonna fuck you up!” and it was hearing this that the show’s producers decided to cut to a tape of Fear during a soundcheck performance, and then they quickly faded the audio and video and cut to a commercial.
This same book also claims that The New York Post article at the time said that the DC punks had caused $200,000 in damage (other sources claim the Post printed that it was $400,000, and AV Club says it was $500,000), and that “SNL” staffers talking about “fearing for their lives.”
An unnamed NBC technician was quoted as saying, “This was a life-threatening situation. They went crazy. It’s amazing no one got killed.”
It turned out that Lee Ving himself may have supplied the Post with the quote himself as a kind of practical joke, and the band only had to pay $40 total in labor penalties, according to Billboard magazine a few weeks later.
There are even more possibly spurious accounts by people from other punk bands who were there, or claim to have been there, and we’re not 100% who to believe entirely, so we’ll leave it up to you to decide, but one thing is certain: despite the fears that NBC execs had about the on-air profanity and the destruction and the fist-fighting, only twelve people total called the NBC switchboard to complain about what they’d seen on the live broadcast.
Even so, regardless of what may or may not have happened on Halloween night, 1981, “Saturday Night Live” decided to shelve the musical performances from the show and would decades later finally make them available, albeit in an edited form that cut out much of the mayhem seen on live TV.
By the way, this was John Belushi’s last appearance on “Saturday Night Live” — he died on March 5, 1982. Be sure to read our post about him by contributor Michael Dare (“The Life and Death of Captain Preemo: Bob Woodward vs. John Belushi and Me”).
Back in L.A. a few months later, Fear would enter Sound City studios in Van Nuys, a San Fernando Valley suburb northwest of Los Angeles, and begin recording their album The Record, released by Slash Records in May of ’82.
Many years later, our Night Flight contributor Mark Deming would write, in his review of the album for All Music:
“It makes sense that John Belushi was a big fan of Fear, because The Record sounds like the punk equivalent of the movie Animal House — puerile, offensive, and often reveling in its own ignorance, but pretty entertaining on a non-think level while it lasts. “