The 10 most pivotal musical moments in the history of TV

Music on television
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Television is basically teaching whether you want it to or not.” 

So said the great Jim Henson, the world’s beloved headmaster. And while Sesame Street taught us all to spell, count and care, it also introduced generation after generation to a wide range of rock and pop artists, from Johnny Cash to BB KingREM to Feist, who hung out with a bunch of penguins for an educational whirl through 1234.

Going right back to the birth of rock’n’roll, musicians have reached through the small screen to shock, inspire, thrill and confuse, and occasionally change the world. Here, then, we look at 10 of the most pivotal musical moments in the history of the good old idiot box.


The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1964

By 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show, a vaudevillian Sunday night variety hour which debuted in June 1948, already had years of renown for drawing attention to up-and-coming musicians. Previous appearances by Elvis Presley were unusually subdued in front of such a huge family audience, but they still made an impact. 

Capturing the rise of Beatlemania, the producers met manager Brian Epstein’s demands for The Beatles to appear three times on the programme, and in the run-up to the first show, on February 9 1964, the demand for studio-audience tickets had become astronomical. 

As the suited and booted Scousers stepped on the stage to ear-splitting screams, a record-breaking 73 million households had tuned in – an estimated 40 percent of the population of the United States. A nation of young wannabe rock stars was instantly born.

David Bowie on Top Of The Pops, 1972

The word ‘iconic’ is much abused, but with Starman in 1972, a gesture, a crooked, knowing smile, and a bold, sexually ambiguous alien look instantly transformed an entire decade’s outlook from black and white to Technicolor. 

In full Ziggy Stardust regalia, with his arm slung around guitarist Mick Ronson’s neck – a shock too far for many buttoned-up dads of the era – and pointing directly down the camera lens, Pied Piper-like, to the audience at home, David Bowie single-handedly paved the way for the glam rockers, art-school misfits, prototype punks, lonely weird kids and teenage fashion visionaries who watched on breathless and lit up the later stages of the 70s, the 80s and beyond. None of them, though, shone quite as brightly as the starman himself.

Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York, 1993

Nirvana had previous form as mischief makers when it came to TV appearances, from playing Rape Me on the VMAs despite being explicably told not to (an event that ended with Krist Novoselic braining himself with his bass after throwing it in the air), to their electrifying performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit on The Word, which saw Kurt Cobain announce that Courtney Love “is the best fuck in the world”.

With a stage dressed in funereal flowers and candles, MTV Unplugged unveiled the altogether more serious, delicate side of the band, which had become starkly apparent over the previous couple of years. The acoustic format of the show meant stripping their visceral grunge anthems down to their bones, revealing the deep vulnerability that was always at their heart, while sublime cover of bluesman Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? and Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World suggested a musical evolution just around the corner. 

Sadly, that was never to be – less than four months later Cobain took his own life, making the innate sadness of these arrangements, and his cracked, raw, painfully honest vocals, all the more poignant.

Sex Pistols on the Today show with Bill Grundy, 1976

Never has the age gap seemed so cavernous as when the Sex Pistols were drafted in to appear on Bill Grundy’s Today show as a last-minute replacement for Freddie Mercury. From the start of the 90-second interview, it was immediately clear that it was the stuffy, patronising host who was out of his depth, rather than the band he was supposed to be corralling, who he clearly saw as a bunch of yobs who were beneath the honour of appearing on his programme.

The final unravelling began when he started to creepily flirt with Siouxsie Sioux, there as a member of the band’s entourage. “You dirty sod. You dirty old man,” said guitarist Steve Jones, channelling his best Harold Steptoe. Red rag to a bull, Grundy reacted by goading the band to “say something outrageous”. They responded, of course, by turning the air blue (“you dirty fucking rotter”), something that so upset a lorry driver watching at home with his eight-year-old son, he famously kicked in his new TV set. 

Looking back at it today, the whole incident has the air of a frazzled, possibly drunk support teacher failing to deal with an unruly class of Bash Street Kids. Grundy’s career never recovered, and while it shot the band to tabloid notoriety, it was the beginning of their demise too. But no one watching ever forgot it.

Sinead O’Connor on Saturday Night Live, 1992

Ever since it started in 1975, NBC’s sketch comedy and variety show Saturday Night Live has championed alternative music, from Devo and Elvis Costello to Rage Against The Machine (although the latter were banned from appearing again after hanging American flags upside down from their amps during a performance of Bulls On Parade).

When Sinead O’Connor was invited on, in the wake of her huge 1990 hit Nothing Compares 2U, she demonstrated a gentler, more emotionally intense method of protest. Singing an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War, she ended by staring directly at the camera and ripping up a photograph of the Pope, striking out at child abuse in the Catholic Church. “We have confidence in good over evil,” she sang as she tore the image to pieces. “Fight the real enemy.”

There were, inevitably, calls of complaint. SNL as an institution went on to mock her, and the following week’s host, Joe Pesci, stated: “She’s lucky it wasn’t my show… I would have gave her such a smack.” 

A threat to abuse someone who was speaking out about the abuse she and her peers suffered was classless, and, at worst, devastatingly damaging to her and to other, less visible victims. It’s clear, now, that O’Connor is owed an apology, a debt of gratitude, and kudos for a political statement that was both prescient and as punk as they come.

Motorhead on The Young Ones, 1984

Speaking of punk, here’s The Young Ones. The anarchic, often surreal sitcom about a bunch of grubby, spotty, self-obsessed, violent students sharing a filthy house with each other and the local rats changed the face of British television. The show often featured musical guests, including Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Madness, but few seemed so perfectly matched to its anarchic atmosphere as the great Motorhead

In their episode, titled Bambi, Neil the hippie, Rik the “people’s poet”, Mike the cool guy and Vyvyan the punk were chosen to appear on the intellectual quiz show University Challenge, representing Scumbag Collage against the aristocratic Footlights College team. As Neil announced the news and the gang ran off to catch a train, Lemmy and co suddenly appeared in the dank digs’ living room to blast through Ace Of Spades – cool, loud and utterly uncompromising. 

The episode heralded a new dawn for heavy music, and the new age of punk-inspired alternative comedy. Neither TV nor the radio would be the same again.

Prince at the Superbowl, 2007

For millions of Americans, the Superbowl is the television event of the year, not just for the sport, but for the overall spectacle, particularly the half-time show that features an eagerly anticipated performance from one of the country’s biggest musical superstars.

After years of turning the opportunity down, Prince finally agreed to take part in 2007, in Miami, and the universe decided to give its blessing. The weather was turning nasty, the first time there had ever been a downpour during a half-time show. It presented a hazard for both Prince and his band, not least because of the electrical equipment onstage, but, realising the potential for something truly special, the great man jokingly asked if the organisers could “make it rain harder”. 

After a set taking in electrifying covers of We Will Rock You, Proud Mary, All Along The Watchtower and Foo FightersBest Of You, along with his own songs, the finale came, mid-deluge: Purple Rain. Appearing in silhouette behind a billowing sheet, wielding his guitar in a manner that was entirely, unapologetically sexual (a bold move after Janet Jackson’s “nipplegate” fallout several years earlier) with the storm raging around him, it was a moment of sheer triumph, a masterclass in exactly how majestic rock’n’roll should look, sound and feel.

Live Aid, 1985

A global audience of 1.9 billion is estimated to have tuned in to this groundbreaking fundraiser, held at Wembley Stadium in London and simultaneously at John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. In that sense, it was arguably the most influential televised music event in history.

Organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to help people suffering the effects of the devastating famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid certainly wasn’t beyond criticism. Kicked off by Status Quo, the line-up consisted of the overwhelmingly white, male, bloated old guard playing saviour to the rest of the world, and Phil Collins’ ego-fuelled decision to fly from London to Philadelphia on Concord to play both shows, at great cost and luxury, left something of a sour taste. 

Led Zeppelin’s reunion, meanwhile – their first after the death of John Bonham – was something of a shambles. On the flipside, the show made stars of U2, but the day belonged to Queen. Their 21-minute set has been voted the greatest live performance in the history of rock, and it was all down to the charisma of Freddie Mercury. 

With his half-mic-stand held out to the vast crowd, in a joyous call-and-response that transferred energy from the stage to the audience and then back again, and with thousands clapping in unison to the beat of Radio Ga Ga, it was a moment of togetherness the concert had been missing until that point. Closing with We Are The Champions, at the home of British football, the band left triumphant, and a generation gained a new understanding of the power of a true showman.

The Who, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 1967

By 1967, the British Invasion of the United States was well underway, The Beatles were dipping their toes into Eastern philosophies, and the Rolling Stones were getting psychedelic with Their Satanic Majesties Request. But neither of these scene-leading bands stooped to being anything less than charming when faced with the cameras. 

It was left to mod-rock ruffians The Who to light a fire under proceedings, quite literally when they appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a youth-oriented variety show. By this point the band were known for their destructive live shows, and they were given free rein by the producers to smash up their instruments as they saw fit. 

Notorious rock’n’roll animal (or colossal pain in the arse, depending on your viewpoint) Keith Moon took this as a personal challenge, packing his drumkit with explosives – three times the amount he had been told was safe enough for the studio. The resulting blast from the bass drum, at the very end of My Generation, set guitarist Pete Townshend’s hair alight and, he later claimed, contributed to his hearing loss. Literally exploding into the American public consciousness, they inspired the new breed of rock’n’roll demolition experts to follow in their wake.

Slipknot on TFI Friday, 2000

Speaking of onstage wrecking crews, that leads us nicely to Slipknot. Channel 4’s TFI Friday was known for its anarchic spirit, despite its teatime slot. Attracting the biggest names on the alternative rock and indie scene, the show saw the bands perform live, in front of a rowdy audience, with none of the reverence of some of the other music shows of the time (although honourable mention has to go to At The Drive-In’s incendiary One Armed Scissor on the usually placid Later… With Jools Holland, which is worth a watch for the look on Robbie Williams’ face alone, as it dawns on him that he has to follow them.)

Slipknot’s UK TV debut on the show, playing Wait And Bleed, was a pit-eye view of nine masked maniacs going as nuts as their crowd, with a slice of frantic nu metal designed to cause moral panic in any parents watching. It worked – their performance was subject to the most complaints in the show’s history. For any budding metal kids watching at home, that just made the chaos all the more exciting. 

Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.