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Spotlight: Amazing Musical Moments on Late Night TV

Even with the golden years of music on late night TV a thing of the pre-Internet era past, making a stop on the likes of Letterman or the now ever-tasteful curator Jimmy Fallon remains a notable breakout in any band’s campaign, and of course give a chance for us to see what happens when our favorite young acts get on national television. What follows is a stream of thought assembling of a few memorable debut performances in recent (or somewhat recent) years. Really there’s no way to make an extensive top (or fully embeddable) list; these ones simply stood out:


There’s always something magnetic and risky about a debut, especially from an edgier act that might find this mainstream platform a bit conflicting with their own ethos. Manchester hooligans WU LYF fall into that category, and they didn’t disappoint earlier this month on an extra-heavy version of “Heavy Pop”, which ended with an emphatic “WHATS UP MOTHERF***ERS!” (3:30 mark). Letterman played it off like a pro, asking the band “is that your regular drummer?”—not sure what that means but it was funny.


While promoting Father, Son, Holy Ghost (one of our favorites of 2011) last fall, San Fransisco’s Girls went all out on a big band rendition of “Hunny Bunny” with true to album-form backup singers. While Fallon’s studio audience clapping in the background can feel forced and awkward at times, this instance actually worked well with the song’s constant charge. And singer Christopher Owens flashed plenty of charisma, and some red-painted fingernails, and whatever that adorable one-legged guitar move is called at 2:25.


Arguably the moment that officially landed Odd Future on a year-long twitter trend, this ferocious late night appearance was an unlikely intersection of unhinged hip hip and stale show-biz dynamics which resulted in well, everyone freaking out. They start off in masks rapping at some wandering zombie chic, and then suddenly they’ve scaled the entire set, Tyler is on Jimmy’s back, and Mos Def’s face is all up in the camera, introducing the world to another trend (that perhaps we all now regret learning of, just a little bit): “SWAG.”


In 2005, the legend of Arcade Fire was young and spreading like a miracle drug, an indie rock epiphany. People buzzed about their triumphant, existential songwriting and their stage-full of members. “Rebellion (Lies)” was their hit, and the fresh-faced Montreal band confidently powered through it, further claiming their position as the next big thing, which by year’s end would be a household name (or maybe a critically-minded household, since “Who Is Arcade Fire” still happened five years later). Plus, Win Butler managed to ghost-play his backwards guitar with a straight face (1:00).


And before those rock saviors, there were these. The Strokes explosive television debut is best remembered by Pitchfork writer Ryan Dombal, in an excerpt from his review of their frontman’s unfortunate solo return seven years later:

“In 2002, The Strokes played their song “Take It or Leave It” on “The Late Show With David Letterman”. The performance was so incredible it almost seems unfair. In it, a 23-year old Julian Casablancas manhandled his mic stand, eyed the camera with a hypnotic mix of rage and anxiety, and tugged at his jacket as if he was about to burst. At one point, Casablancas swatted his mic down and left the stage in a huff only to return exactly as guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. wrapped up a brief solo. Chaos; control. At the end of the song, the singer tripped, completely wiped out in the middle of the stage, and somehow ended up even cooler for it. The “Letterman” blitz showed the Strokes at full tilt– a rock band that set the pace for what a rock band should look, sound, and feel like in a new millennium.”


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