In 1995, the Tragically Hip were headlining arenas in Canada. South of the border, they were a bar band. They needed an introduction to U.S. audiences, and Dan Aykroyd did them that big favour on Saturday Night Live.
“Ladies and gentlemen, from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, home of Kirk Muller, Walter Frank High and me, it is my honour to introduce to America my friends, the Tragically Hip,” a beaming Aykroyd said, outfitted in a patriotic T-shirt.
The band played Grace Too, with singer Gord Downie changing the opening lyrics to make sure a national audience knew exactly who they were watching: “He said, ‘I’m Tragically Hip,’ come on just let’s go ...”
Such a thing would not happen today. Saturday Night Live once took chances, used to break bands. Now it books veteran acts – legacy music on legacy television – or presents only the hottest newcomers. There’s no room for the nascent.
Aykroyd had been invited back by producer and fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels. The movie star and SNL alumnus lobbied successfully to bring the Hip with him.
On Saturday, Canadian writer-actor Dan Levy hosts Saturday Night Live. Do you think he had a say in who the musical guest would be? Not a chance. Getting her two songs is California singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. As a 2020 breakout artist, Bridgers isn’t on her way, she’s already arrived. Her SNL spot is another stamp that says so.
When the show started in 1975, it was irreverent and groundbreaking. The original cast, of which Aykroyd was a part, were the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Yes, the musical acts of the first season included established stars Gordon Lightfoot and Carly Simon. Fresh-faced chart-toppers ABBA and the At Seventeen singer Janis Ian were also tapped. But others were hardly ratings-grabbers.
Making appearances were the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, troubadour Loudon Wainwright III, jazz singer Betty Carter and ragtime curiosity Leon Redbone. Canadians were treated well in particular, with Anne Murray and Howard Shore and His All Nurse Band receiving season-one spotlights along with Lightfoot (who had his guitar strings chopped by a samurai-swording John Belushi).
And how did the spoken-word performer and provocateur Gil Scott-Heron get a slot? Host Richard Pryor might have had something to do with it.
Today, things aren’t so loosey-goosey. It’s a shame, because an SNL spot can make a big difference in the career of an upstart musical act.
“Our sales increased by 60 per cent in the two weeks following the show,” says Jake Gold, the Hip’s manager. “That year was seminal for the guys, and Saturday Night Live was a big part of it.”
The Hip appeared on March 25, 1995. Shortly afterward, Led Zeppelin icons Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were looking for opening acts for a spring tour of the United States. According to Gold, Plant’s interest in the Hip was piqued by the SNL appearance. They ended up playing 17 Page and Plant shows in May, and more in the fall.
“It’s all about the reputation,” Gold says. “When we played SNL, it was another checkmark.”
It still is. But the media and pop-culture landscape is radically different now. Saturday Night Live isn’t cutting-edge, and neither are radio or mainstream press. Musical discoveries are made online now. There was a time when an SNL episode was the fodder for Monday-morning chatter at the office. Today? Social media is the new water cooler.
Viewing habits are more fractured in the internet age, but Saturday Night Live is still the top-rated late-night show in Canada, according to Numeris PPM Data, with an average audience of 1.5 million viewers per episode this season. “It still has a cachet,” Gold says.
The cachet is premium. Although Saturday Night Live isn’t prime time, it’s prime real estate, this season rented out to the Weeknds and the White Stripes of the world, not friends with connections. If host Levy wants to bring his own music with him on Saturday, he’ll need to carry an iPhone.
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