Watch 80s punk brawlers Fear upset everyone on Saturday Night Live in 1981

A screenshot of Lee Ving on SNL
(Image credit: SNL)

Legendary comedian and actor John Belushi (Blues Brothers/Animal House) was a huge music fan and regular gig goer. He became interested in hardcore punk after seeing Penelope Spheeris’ notorious 1981 documentary, The Decline Of Western Civilization, which explored the LA punk scene – and saw LAPD police chief Daryl Gates attempting to ban the film throughout the city. 

Belushi became a household name in the USA during the 1970s following his appearances on long-running weekly TV variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL) from 1975-1979. By 1981 he’d already left SNL to film The Blues Brothers with Dan Aykroyd, but he returned for the 1981 Halloween show. He’d become friends with Fear frontman Lee Ving and along with fellow punk rock convert, SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue, Belushi booked Fear as the music act for that week’s show. 

At the time, Belushi had attempted to get Fear onto the soundtrack for his upcoming film, Neighbors, by recording a track of the same name on which he shared vocals with Ving. But the movie producers were less than impressed with the band and ixnayed their inclusion (although the film soundtrack did feature Holiday In Cambodia by The Dead Kennedys). A black comedy, Neighbors reunited Belushi with Aykroyd. It wasn’t a flop, but it was nowhere near as successful as The Blues Brothers. It would be Belushi’s final movie performance before his untimely death in 1982.

Belushi felt he owed the band after the song’s film rejection, so he secured their SNL appearance as way of compensation and apology. Before the show – performed and broadcast live in NBC’s New York studio – he called up one Ian MacKaye of Dischord Records in DC. In order to create a proper punk gig vibe for Fear’s performance, he invited MacKaye and his DC scene pals to come along and watch Fear perform and to create a good ol’ fashioned mosh pit with some slam dancing and stage diving action thrown in for good measure. SNL’s director initially freaked out at this plan, but Belushi offered to perform in the show if the punk lads could stick around and do their thing. Look carefully and as well as Belushi and MacKaye tearing it up, you might also see Harley Flangan of Cro-Mags, Tesco Vee of The Meatmen and John Brannon of Negative Approach. 

Introduced by that week’s SNL host, actor Donald Pleasance, it all looks fairly genteel by today’s standards. But middle America wasn’t ready for the outrageous spectacle of stage diving and slam dancing, and a moral panic duly broke out from viewers who thought that some kind of crazed riot was taking place in NBC’s studios live on their TV screens. The following morning, the New York Post newspaper added fuel to the fire by running a predictably sensationalist account of the band’s appearance, with the headline “Fear riot leaves Saturday Night glad to be alive” which no doubt predicted the imminent demise of civilised society. 

But Fear had made their mark. They performed Beef Bologna and New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones with their typical snarling and antagonistic vigour. Notice how at the end of the clip the performance fades out shortly after the band launch into Let’s Have A War. The director cut to an ad break when a member of the moshpit yelled indecipherable profanities, more clearly followed by “New York sucks!” into a discarded live microphone. Although the New York Post claimed the band and the punks caused £200,000 worth of damage to studio equipment, the moral outrage far exceeded any dollar value. 

The post-SNL fallout saw Fear finding themselves banned from some NYC clubs. Black Flag — another favourite band of Belushi who had been booked to appear on a subsequent show – were quickly cancelled. Rollins tells the story in his unintentionally hilarious and increasingly impatient 1998 interview with Nardwuar. John Belushi himself would die just four months later after overdosing on the drug cocktail known as speedball – a dangerous mixture of cocaine and heroin. 

You can check out the performance below.

Alex Burrows

A regular contributor to Louder/Classic Rock and The Quietus, Burrows began his career in 1979 with a joke published in Whizzer & Chips. In the early 1990s he self-published a punk/comics zine, then later worked for Cycling Plus, Redline, MXUK, MP3, Computer Music, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines. He co-wrote Anarchy In the UK: The Stories Behind the Anthems of Punk with the late, great Steven Wells and adapted gothic era literature into graphic novels. He also had a joke published in Viz. He currently works in creative solutions, lives in rural Oxfordshire and plays the drums badly.