When John Belushi and Fear Scared NBC on Halloween
Jake Blues: slam-dancer? It might surprise casual fans of comedy genius John Belushi that one half of the Blues Brothers was a huge fan of punk rock. On Oct. 31, 1981, he got the L.A. punk band Fear booked onto Saturday Night Live, which proceeded to get the group banned from the show.
Belushi found parallels between punk and the blues, according to biography Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, suggesting that both genres were mostly the work of lower-class, uneducated people. And it’s not shocking to think that the restless comedian was drawn to punk’s dynamism.
“I think it was something that was new, it was fresh, and I think he liked the idea of it having such an energetic audience,” Lee Ving, frontman for Los Angeles punk band Fear, told Consequence of Sound. “It was energetic, frenetic, frenzied music, not something played lazily.”
The story goes that Belushi first saw Fear in 1980 on an L.A. music show called New Wave Theatre. Ving later said that John enjoyed the band’s humor, as well as its ramshackle approach to music. Belushi and Ving became friends and drinking buddies, bonding over their enthusiasm for punk, but also their love of blues music.
“I started out in the music business as a harp player,” Ving continued. “I was in a Chicago-style blues band in Philadelphia. We opened for Cream on their last tour at the Spectrum. I think Belushi and I saw eye to eye on that page, and there may have been something in our music that made it obvious that we related to the blues in some way.”
The comedian was so taken with Ving and Fear that he invited the band to write a song for his forthcoming movie, Neighbors. With Belushi’s Blues Brothers bandmate – and music legend – Steve Cropper producing, two versions of the tune were recorded. One featured Belushi on lead vocals and Ving backing him up; the other vice versa. Both were rejected by the film’s producers, horrified that their star would endorse such music.
To make it up to Fear, Belushi attempted to land the band a slot on Saturday Night Live, with the support of show writer, and punk fan Michael O’Donoghue. Belushi had already left the show, but still had enough pull at SNL to get the unsigned band, which hadn’t even made an album yet, booked to play on Halloween night. To have some punk-friendly fans in the crowd (“rather than just Mr. and Mrs. Missouri,” as Ving put it), Belushi rounded up a horde of hardcore scenesters from all over the East Coast, including Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, Tesco Vee of the Meatmen and members of the Cro-Mags.
In rehearsal, the raucous punks tripped over a cable while slam-dancing to Fear’s performance. The show’s cameramen refused to continue if the fracas was going to happen when the live telecast began. Belushi found a way to fix the problem.
“So as a trade-off, he went up to [NBC Chairman] Grant Tinker’s office for us and said, ‘I’ll make an appearance on the show if the dancers stay,’” remembered drummer Spit Stix. “John was such a generous guy.”
Belushi was also in the throng of frenzied fans who surrounded the stage during Fear’s performances on the show. He was one of the 30-40 guys, many of them with shaved heads, seen leaping from the stage into a mini-mosh pit.
Ving and his band made sure to pack as much sneering anarchy into their turn in the spotlight, with the frontman declaring, “It’s great to be here in New Jersey!” only to be booed by the New York audience. Fear then made good on its anti-NYC stance by playing “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones.”
But it wasn’t until a fan ran up to the mic and yelled an obscenity during “Let’s Have a War” that the performance was cut short, with the live broadcast going to stock footage. Whatever ensued was left to the audience’s – and the New York media’s – imagination. In the days following Fear’s guest appearance, the backstage tale grew to epic proportions, with a bit of devious myth-making by Ving.
“This was a life-threatening situation,” an anonymous NBC employee said in the New York Post. “They went crazy. It’s amazing no one got killed.”
Ving said a reporter from a newspaper called him and he facetiously claimed that his band and its fans had caused $200,000 (or $400,000 or $500,000 – Ving’s memory is foggy) in damage to the studio. A subsequent report by Billboard walked all of the hysteria back.
“As far as we can tell there has been no $200,000 in damages,” said SNL spokesman Peter Hamilton. “We had to pay $40 in labor penalties. That was the extent of it.”
Other than the small fine, the only damage was to a pumpkin, which – according to Ving – someone smashed on producer Dick Ebersol’s chest. Still, the performance was never re-aired and it earned Fear a lifetime ban from Saturday Night Live, a long list that has included Elvis Costello (rescinded in 1989), Sinead O’Connor, the Replacements (although Paul Westerberg played the show in 1993) , Rage Against the Machine and Frank Zappa.
As for Belushi, the Fear episode marked his final guest appearance on the show he’d help turn into a sensation. He would die from a drug overdose a few months later in March 1982. He was 33.
After his friend’s death, Ving refused to release the song Fear had recorded with Belushi. “What happened was so devastating to all of us that we almost didn't want to do anything with anybody we knew prior to that terrible event,” Ving told Rolling Stone. “It disrupted all of our lives.”
It wasn’t until 2015 that the punk singer saw fit to put out the “Neighbors” single. Fittingly, he released it on Halloween.
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