I like to think of Weld as having, on some level or other, a punk rock influence. Because of the very, very broad spectrum of artists the term “punk rock” encompasses, that could imply any number of things. It might be the D.I.Y. mentality of The Minutemen, the infectious enthusiasm of The Ramones, or the righteous indignation of The Clash–all those aspects lurk in the back of my mind when I think about our creative direction.
What it most certainly doesn’t mean is repeating Saturday Night Live’s mistake from Halloween of 1981, when they invited LA hardcore band FEAR to perform as their musical guest and inadvertently started a riot on national television. It wasn’t a mistake they’re likely to make twice.
First, some background. John Belushi was, like fellow casualty of addiction Lester Bangs, an enthusiast first and foremost. Unlike the famed rock critic, however, whose cultural omnivorousness was just beautifully profiled in the New Yorker, Belushi followed a more conventional path of pop culture addiction: he would become completely consumed with a trend or genre, only to burn out on it and move on to the next fix. When all that mattered to him musically was the blues, he used his status as a living icon to create, along with Dan Aykroyd, a persona that helped to revive it as a cultural force in America.
By 1981, he’d moved on to punk rock, and he decided that punk rock was going mainstream on Saturday Night Live. At the time, SNL was still reeling from Lorne Michaels’ departure in 1980, and wouldn’t begin to reclaim its status until Eddie Murphy’s meteoric rise to stardom a year later. Dick Ebersol, now in charge of the show, was desperate to reconnect with SNL’s countercultural roots, and no single person embodied that era more fully than John Belushi. In exchange for smirking his way through the cold open, Belushi was allowed to book FEAR, whom he’d actually produced in a lost session, for the musical guest.
FEAR–whose infamously acerbic frontman Lee Ving had been playing in a blues outfit called (I kid you not) Easy Love just a few years prior–didn’t have anything resembling a hit besides “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” which featured lines like ”New York’s alright if you wanna get pushed in front of a subway / New York’s alright if you like tuberculosis.” It seems like an LA act’s antipathy to New York wouldn’t be worth mentioning on its own, but here’s where the plot thickens.
Belushi, in addition to booking FEAR, was also charged with providing the crowd. In part, this meant inviting old-school New York punks, many of them CBGB veterans, to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Unfortunately for Dick Ebersol, however, Belushi outsourced many of his duties to Minor Threat frontman, founder of the Straight Edge movement, and proud DC native Ian MacKaye, then only 19 years old. MacKaye brought dozens of loyal (and rabidly anti-New York) skinheads along with him to serve as “dancers”, prompting 30 Rock security to lock the punks away in a room before the show to limit property damage.
This, of course, didn’t have quite the intended effect. Left to stew in their own juices for an hour, the “audience” stampeded out of their room earlier than intended, smashing water fountains, sinks, and mirrors on their way to the stage. Once they arrived to the shambolic strains of “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” FEAR’s mosh pit rapidly escalated into a full-scale riot, if you believe the sensational New York Post story about the fiasco. On Dick Ebersol’s end, SNL managed to air two and a half songs before cutting to commercial to avoid catching any more of MacKaye screaming profanity into a microphone.
That same Post story estimated a half a million dollars in property damage at 30 Rock, which is undoubtedly a hyperbolic exaggeration. 30 Rock spokesmen maintained that there was little to no damage caused, but for the punks who attended, the night has long since passed into the realm of legend. In punk folklore, it’s like the Ragnarok of the DC-New York feud, with battles waged on every level of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. In reality, it was just some kids in chains scurrying from the police in a skyscraper.
Is there some big lesson to be learned here? Some redemptive or fascinating angle? Not really–if anything, the story takes on tragic overtones when you inevitably connect the dots to Belushi’s overdose a few months later–except that sometimes, a story is just too good not to pass along.
All credit for discovering this insane piece of pop culture folklore is due to professional funny person and punk enthusiast Jake Fogelnest, whose new podcast The Fogelnest Files introduced me to this insane story.