10 forgotten David Letterman musical performances

Remembering some overlooked classics.

May 14, 2015

On May 20, David Letterman will host The Late Show for the last time.

After surpassing Johnny Carson in 2013 as the longest-running late night talk show host, Letterman’s seat is set to be filled by Stephen Colbert. The record of the gap-toothed goof is far from spotless, yet he’s earned well-deserved praise in the show’s final stretch for some fantastic musical performances, from the network debut of rapper Le1f to the glammy swagger of Foxygen and Star Power and of course the career-making stunner from Future Islands (“I’ll take all of that you got!”). However, the list of highlights dates back to his original series Late Night with David Letterman on NBC in the early 1980s. Here are 10 classic clips that may be overlooked or forgotten.

James Brown – “Sex Machine” / “There Was A Time” / “I Got The Feeling” (1982)

In the first season of Late Night, Letterman offered James Brown an extended slot to let loose with this monster three-song set. Only the Godfather of Soul could make moonwalking in bell bottoms look this bombastically cool.

Talking Heads – “I Zimbra” (1983)

James Brown notwithstanding, this might be the coolest entry on the list. Offering a sneak peek at their Stop Making Sense concert film (minus David Byrne’s gigantic suit jacket), the Talking Heads get supremely fonky with their Afrobeat-inspired banger.

Yma Sumac – “Ataypura” (1987)

This performance from “the Peruvian nightingale” Yma Sumac was not only an awesome left-field pick, but also a jaw-dropping showcase of her five-octave vocal range. Even the typically wiseass Letterman is impressed with her “mystical sound”, rambling on to describe it as “swelling, undulating, drifting, and peculiar.”

Beastie Boys – “Sabotage” (1994)

The Beasties’ 2004 street-crawling performance of “Ch-Check It Out” flashing back to the fisheye action of their “So What Cha Want” video is fairly regarded as an all-time classic. However, this clip of the band killing it on live instruments in all of their ringer tee and sideways visored glory is worth ch-ch-ch-checking out too.

Sonic Youth – “Bull In The Heather” (1994)

SY’s ’94 album Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is often overlooked in their sprawling discography. This ice cold Late Show performance proves that it deserves to be rediscovered in the wake of the band’s break-up (especially while they’re on everyone’s mind with the release of Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band memoir). At the very least, can you name another example of someone on network TV sporting a sticker for Japanese noise band C.C.C.C.?

Lou Reed – “Sweet Jane” (1994)


Not even a commercial for the Honda Scooter or a mid-90s poodle mullet could stop Lou Reed from being ultra cool. Or delivering something strange. As YouTube commenters have pointed out here, bassist Greg Cohen (who has played with everyone from John Zorn to Ornette Coleman to Woody Allen) has a completely purple hand (presumably caused by a circulation issue such as hand-arm vibration syndrome).

Weezer – “Say It Ain’t So” (1995)

Back when liking Weezer was still semi-respectable, the Blue Album-era line-up featuring Matt Sharp of The Rentals spun through with their slacker emo-chug hit. The bizarre footnote is that Rivers Cuomo’s baggy khakis were meant to cover up a pair of steel braces after a surgery to correct the uneven length of his legs.

Rob Zombie – “Dragula” (1998)

Following a 1995 White Zombie set with Dave covered in chocolate pudding for some reason, the hellbilly deluxe returned for a raging performances of this future karaoke classic. The band looks like extras from Battlefield Earth while the VHS-warped quality of this upload makes it even more surreal.

Run DMC – “Christmas In Hollis” (1999)

It’s safe to rank this as the second greatest novelty rap holiday-themed performance of all time after Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” on Top of the Pops.

The Vines – “Get Free” (2002)

Could this be the least fuck-giving performance in Late Show history? Australia’s Vines revived grunge before reviving grunge was cool, tearing through their early aughts hit and then completely melting down. Bonus points for the instant replay of singer Craig Nicholls’ guitar toss at the drummer.

BONUS: Neil Peart drum solo (2011)

It’s no secret that Dave loves drum sets. However, many have likely forgotten the Late Show’s 2011 “Drum Solo Week”, capped off with this stupidly virtuosic performance from Rush’s beanie-wearing ex-Ayn Randian stickman.

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