Every year, exasperated producers of the Super Bowl halftime show try to explain the impossibility of throwing together a live performance in such a short amount of time. "When you're broadcasting to 800 million people," one Super Bowl project manager told The New York Times, "you don't like to take chances."
Some artists actually prefer to fake their way through a song, miming their instruments to reproduce the same intricately layered sound achieved in the studio. To others, appearance is everything. China pulled a Milli Vanilli during the 2008 Olympics by having a cute little girl lip-synch "Ode to the Motherland" to the vocals of a less attractive child. None of these excuses, however, explain why lip-synching became common practice in the first place.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand and the UK's Top of the Pops ushered in the next big rock bands and pop stars. They were the stages for now legendary acts like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Who, The Beach Boys, Blondie and countless others. According to Marc Weingarten's Station To Station: The Secret History of Rock & Roll on Television, no one could figure out a fair price for a live TV performance, so they eliminated the "live" part by instituting a lip-synching rule.
All the great ones did it, but they didn't have to like it. And some weren't afraid to show their disdain. The following lip-synch rebels did everything but wear signs saying "I am lip-synching" to ruin the charade. Well, actually, some of them did.
Keith Moon Blasts the Smothers Brothers
The Who's 1967 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour has gone down as one of the greatest rock 'n roll moments on television for the over-the-top explosion of Keith Moon's drum kit at the end of "My Generation." Apparently Moon, who had a fascination with explosives from cherry bombs to dynamite, overloaded the kit for the planned explosion, but the ear-shattering result was a surprise for everyone (including the actress Bette Davis, who was in the audience and allegedly fainted).
But their appearance also marked another bit of rebellion from Moon. It was common practice by then for bands and singers to lip-synch their performances and fake their instrumentation on TV, which was expected of the Who for the first song in their set, "I Can See For Miles."
Moon was having none of that. While the rest of the band faked it convincingly, Moon purposefully ignored the prerecorded track and knocked his cymbal over halfway through. It didn't help when Tommy Smothers referred to him as "the guy who plays the sloppy drums." According to Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend, he said of lip-synching: "I hate it... so I go my own way."
Johnny Rotten Drains His Sinuses on American Bandstand
By 1980, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was no longer the notorious frontman for The Sex Pistols, but he hadn't lost his rebellious edge. His reputation as a troublemaker preceded him, and American Bandstand host Dick Clark was leery about allowing Lydon's new group, Public Image Ltd., to perform on the show. He expected chaos, and Lydon delivered it in spades. The rebellious Lydon refused to conform to the common practice of lip-synching, and instead the songs "Pop Tones" and "Careering" became soundtracks to Lydon's antics rather than performances. He wandered the stage, mingled with the audience and even took the time to apply his nose drops. Drummer Martin Atkins remembers the fiasco with more than a hint of relish. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003:
"John was on Dick Clark's podium - which no one had ever done before. Or since. We had the audience on stage and in the end, I just gave up playing drums and picked up a bass guitar. Keith Levene gave his guitar to a member of the audience and went back to the hotel. I mean, Dick Clark freaked out! It took Warner Bros. a month to get them to air the show. Dick Clark was furious. And I get calls from England. They're still showing it 22 years later."
Clark, a consummate professional, took the affront in stride but never invited the group back to Bandstand.
Lydon, on the other hand, remembers the appearance fondly. Despite his blatant attempt to wreck the performance, he tells Rolling Stone he was honored to be asked on the program. "[Dick Clark] didn't have to let us on and he didn't have to be so kind to us and give us that opportunity. I really appreciated that."
Iron Maiden Pulls a Switch on German TV
Rock bands aren't exactly known for being subtle, especially when they're pissed off. Iron Maiden was no exception when the group was expected to perform to a pre-recorded track on German TV's P.I.T. (Peter Illmann Treff) in 1986.
Shortly into a performance of "Wasted Years," vocalist Bruce Dickinson pulls back the curtain on the whole charade and swaps places with bassist Steve Harris. He pretends to play for awhile and then proceeds to beat Harris with the guitar. Harris abandons his post and helps Nicko McBrain, who's been laughing at the hijinks all along, play the drums.
Nirvana Joins a Legacy of Lip-Synch Rebels on Top of the Pops
For most of its 40+ year run, the UK's Top of the Pops was a strictly lip-synching show with the hottest acts of the moment miming their way through their most popular singles. The policy prevented a number of performers from ever taking the stage, but others decided to have a little fun. In fact, Top of the Pops became a target for tricksters.
In 1977, The Stranglers' vocalist/bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel entertained the crowd by miming the lyrics as convincingly as a ventriloquist's dummy while the rest of the band had a blast air drumming and tearing up the stage (They also tore up dressing rooms, which got them banned from the show). The mayhem only increased in the following decade.
The Smiths made their iconic debut on Top of the Pops performing the single "This Charming Man," while Morrissey sang into a bunch of gladioli instead of a microphone. The Cure kept their instruments, but decided to dress them up in clothes rather than play them. BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel spontaneously became a mandolin virtuoso as soloist for Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" (Lindisfarne's Ray Jackson was the real mandolinist) and the Stone Roses' Ian Brown was even more obvious when he decided to swing his microphone around instead of sing into it.
By the '90s, the program relented... sort of. Bands had to play instruments to a backing track but could opt to sing live vocals. That should put a damper on any future antics, right? Wrong. It actually laid the groundwork for one of the most famous incidents on the show.
Nirvana knew the rules for their Top of the Pops gig in 1991. Kurt Cobain could sing his heart out, but everyone else had to mock play the instruments they were adept at handling under usual circumstances (notwithstanding Krist Novoselic knocking himself silly with a bass throw at the 1992 MTV Music Awards). While the "Smells like Teen Spirit" performance is often listed among the most notorious lip-synch flubs, it was clearly a planned endeavor to yet again expose the program as a fake. Cobain summoned a deeper voice from the bottom of his register and dragged it through the song, purposefully screwing up lyrics along the way while the rest of the band "played" their instruments with an over-the-top flourish. It was Cobain at his subversive best, or petulant worst, depending on your side of the grass.
Oasis carried the torch like other lip-synch rebels before them and mocked the format on several occasions. During "Whatever," they replaced a cellist with their own rhythm guitarist, Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, who also used the bow to "conduct" the orchestra. During "Roll with It," they pulled a lineup switch with Noel Gallagher miming the vocals and Liam Gallagher taking up Noel's guitar. In 2005, Liam dropped the act all together and chewed gum while "Lyla" played without him.
But it was Green Day's front man Billie Joe Armstrong who posed an apt question for all lip-synchers, rebels or not. He played it cool during "Welcome to Paradise" but his T-shirt spelled out the truth: "Who am I fooling anyway?"
Alan Jackson's Drummer Ditches Sticks At ACM Awards
At the 1994 Academy of Country Music Awards, Alan Jackson, who co-hosted the event with Reba McEntire, was already pushing the boundaries of decorum by donning a sleeveless Hank Williams T-shirt for his performance at the black-tie ceremony. Dick Clark gently pointed out the fashion faux pas during his pre-performance interview with the singer, and Jackson explained the shirt was a gift from a fan. Besides, who is more country than Hank Williams?
But Jackson's real rebellion took place onstage as "Gone Country" went into full swing and his drummer, Bruce Rutherford, attacked the drums... without sticks. Before the show, the ACM producers told the singer he'd have to perform to a pre-recorded track. He didn't have to lip-synch, but his band had to mime their instruments. But Jackson, a true-blue country boy who valued honesty, refused to pull one over on the audience and instructed Rutherford to ditch his sticks to reveal the ruse. Jackson didn't face any repercussions for the stunt, however, and was named Top Male Vocalist.
The air-drumming incident wasn't the last time Jackson caused a stir at an awards ceremony. When George Jones boycotted the 1999 CMAs when the producers expected him to sing an abbreviated version of his song "Choices," Jackson showed his support by abruptly veering into Jones' tune during his performance of "Pop A Top."
Muse Humiliates X-Factor Judge
The English rock trio Muse took the Iron Maiden approach when they were expected to lip-synch and play to a backing track of "Uprising" on an Italian TV show in 2009. Lead vocalist Matt Bellamy turned singing duties over to guitarist Dominic Howard and gleefully took up drumming while regular bassist Chris Wolstenholme manned the keyboard and guitar. The best part? The producers of Quelli che il Calico were none the wiser and Dom even got away with pretending to be the frontman during the post-performance interview.
"We just did it for a laugh really, just to have a bit of fun, but it actually turned out to be quite a thing," Dom told Spinner. The Italian media seized the story and made the incident look like a slam against the show's clueless host Simona Ventura who, Howard said, "is some 'X Factor' judge that no one really likes" (she was on the Italian version of the show).
Their own homeland was more forgiving a few years earlier when Muse pulled the switch on the BBC children's show Live & Kicking.
September 24, 2013, updated June 5, 2019
More Song Writing