NBC's Saturday Night Live opened its fourth season, on October 7th, 1978, with something unusual: no host. When I watched this show in its first airing, it seemed to me that for some reason, the show had diddled with its format to eliminate the celebrity host; watching it now, I'm not sure what they were trying to do. In the opening montage, the Rolling Stones were named in the place where Don Pardo usually introduced the host ("starring the Rolling Stones!"), but a heretofore unnamed Mayor Ed Koch actually came out to do the monologue, doing a lame, self-congratulatory skit with John Belushi (congratulating Belushi, not Koch).
No Rolling Stones appeared until the post-monologue sketch, a Tomorrow show parody with Dan Aykroyd's Tom Snyder interviewing a raspy Mick Jagger. This was followed by Charlie Watts and Ron Wood having small parts as customers in a Greek restaurant sketch; then, at the end of the show, Mick and Woody appeared as extras in an unfunny Dave Mable's Danger Probe sketch. That was it for the putative hosts.
Except, of course, after Weekend Update, Laraine Newman came out and screamed, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!" and the Stones came out and did one of the most infamous sets of their career. Legend has it that during the week, their rehearsals were so good that everyone on the floor would crowd around to hear them, and the cast members were afraid of being blown off their own show come Saturday night. That didn't happen.
The Stones were given an uninterrupted three-song set, the first since the Band's two years earlier. They opened with "Beast of Burden," but it was clearly wrong from the first; the groove was sloppy, the guitars hardly playing together, the mix so far off that an electric piano dominated the sound. Jagger's voice was hoarse and ragged, barely able to keep in tune. I can't for the life of me figure out how that happened. Here's a band that's used to being on tour for months at a time, doing two-hour sets every night, and Jagger had always been able to keep his voice in shape. Now, doing a three-song set that was their only appointment for the week, he was thoroughly shot.
Keith Richards, surprisingly enough, took a long, simple solo at the end of "Beast of Burden," and he was great, but Jagger strutted around the tiny stage dancing and posing like he was afraid someone might not be looking at him at every second. He reminded me of Madonna. Keith, looking more like Jeff Conaway than ever, was content to stay towards the back of the stage. Jagger strapped on a guitar for "Respectable," which was slightly better than "Beast": this was the song Mick where began abusing Woody, pushing him around the stage, licking his lips during his guitar solo. It continued during "Shattered" - the perfect song for SNL - when Jagger tore off his sports coat and started whipping Woody with it in the middle of the song. It was pretty funny - we've all wanted to do that to Ron Wood at some point or other, except for the lip-licking part.
But Jagger's voice wasn't getting any better, and at points he even got the lyrics mixed up. "Shattered" doesn't even have a melody, and still Mick wasn't able to sing it. The band finally locked into a groove about halfway through the song, playing the riff at seemingly twice the pace of the Some Girls version, but Jagger's vocal was distractingly bad. He tried to sing "Don't you know the prime rate's going up, up, up, up, up!" but it all came out as the same note. He ripped open his T-shirt.
Then they were done. The crowd went wild. They hadn't exactly been terrible, but they were a long way from good.
Going back to the whole hosting question, I wonder if the Stones hadn't agreed to be the musical act as long as they were the only celebrity guests on the show, then chickened out of doing some sort of monologue. They were really, really big at that point - imagine a musical legend, the greatest rock & roll band in the world, except they were still topping the charts. They were by far the biggest band that had ever appeared on the show. I imagine they got whatever they asked for.