Here are 10 times artists totally rocked the Grammys on mainstream TV.
Like a lot of awards shows, the Grammys is often accused of being too safe in terms of both their nominations/winners and the musicians they pick to play each year’s event. After all, the Recording Academy probably doesn’t want to ruffle too many feathers, right?
That said, there have been at least a handful of surprisingly heavy and hectic live performances since the annual ceremony began in 1959.
We’re not just talking about the music, either, as many of those artists also jolted audiences with their look, messages and/or cool (and possibly unexpected) collaborations.
Need proof? Well, just check out the 10 examples below, as each of them is positively exhilarating!
READ MORE: 28 of the Most Memorable Rock Music Festival Performances of All Time
Yes, there are a few non-rock and metal musicians here, but they still deserve a spot on our list because of how electrifying they were. (Plus, the Rock Hall defines “rock & roll” as “a spirit that is inclusive and ever-changing” – and they honor “the sound of youth culture and . . . artists whose music connects us all” – so blame them if you disagree with us!)
10 Times Artists ROCKED the Grammys on Mainstream TV
Rick James, “Give It to Me Baby” (1982)
Although he was nominated twice at the 24th Grammy Awards (Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for “Super Freak” and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for Street Songs), Rick James lost to Rick Springfield and James Ingram, respectively. Nevertheless, his rendition of “Give It to Me Baby” instantly won over viewers due to its irresistible exuberance and flashiness.
Singer/songwriter John Denver even introduced James by saying that he popularized “punk-funk,” and it’s hard to disagree given how bombastic James is visually and sonically. Packed with disco gaudiness, fierce horns, piercing guitarwork and energetic singing, it was already an intoxicatingly dynamic segment. Once James and company started moving into the crowd, however, they turned their stint into an out-and-out party full of spectator participation.
Chuck Berry, George Thorogood + Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Maybellene" + "Roll Over Beethoven" (1984)
Say what you will about them as people, but there’s no doubt that Chuck Berry, George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughn are bona fide guitar legends. In fact, Berry was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1984 ceremony by Thorogood and Vaughn.
During the evening, the trio also joined forces to pull off downright thrilling versions of “Maybellene” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Specifically, Berry nailed the first track with his group and garnered extra excitement when he launched into his signature “duck walk.” Then, Vaughn and Thorogood came out to finish the tune with an arresting guitar battle before Berry returned for “Roll Over Beethoven.”
It’s absolutely epic.
This year’s event is most remembered for Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave controversially beating Metallica’s …And Justice for All for the inaugural Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Recording award.
(Even former Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre regrets the decision.)
In case there were any naysayers in the room (or at home) that night, Metallica proved that they should’ve gotten the gold with their live execution of “One.”
Prior to them taking the stage, host Billy Crystal remarked (ironically in retrospect) that Metallica symbolized how the Grammys sought to “acknowledge the art form [metal] that is keeping the rebellious essence of rock 'n' roll alive.”
Appropriately kicking off by symbolizing the sights and sounds of war, the quartet offered an increasingly belligerent and raw take on their classic composition that set a new benchmark for how wild the Grammys could get.
Afterward, Crystal pretended to wave away smoke while joking, “That song, of course, was written by Steve Allen.” Undoubtedly, unprepared attendees were rattled.
Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl + More, “London Calling” (2003)
There are few punk albums more revered and influential than The Clash’s London Calling. Thus, it was perfectly fitting (and heartwarming) to have Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and other rockers collectively cover the title track as they paid tribute to recently deceased Clash co-founder Joe Strummer in 2003.
Rounded out by guitarist Steven Van Zandt, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Tony Kanal, the sextet took turns spitting out verses as they played with biting enthusiasm. All the while, flashing lights – as well as pictures of Strummer, British flags and flying planes – added thematic stagecraft.
By the end, the audience couldn’t help but offer standing applause.
Green Day, “American Idiot” (2005)
American Idiot was one of 2004’s biggest LPs (and it more or less established Green Day’s modern aesthetic), so it was a no-brainer to have the pop-punk emissaries blow everyone away with the title track at the 47th annual Grammy Awards.
Decked out in their album-specific attire and adorned by a mix of political iconography, pyrotechnics and other theatrics, the band held viewers in the palms of their hands from start to finish.
Naturally, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong repeatedly hyped up the fans as well, resulting in deafening cheers as Green Day played their final notes.
The icing on the cake is that – for some reason – Green Day were introduced by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Plus, American Idiot won Best Rock Album that night (and was nominated for several other accolades).
Linkin Park, Jay-Z + Paul McCartney, “Numb/Encore” + “Yesterday” (2006)
The fact that Linkin Park and Jay-Z brought “Numb/Encore” (from 2004’s Collision Course EP) to the Grammy stage would’ve been reason enough to include them here.
It was one of the biggest rock/rap partnerships of the decade – and since Run-DMC and Aerosmith united on “Walk This Way” 20 years earlier – and it earned the duo Best Rap/Sung Collaboration that very same night.
Indeed, the first half of the performance is sufficiently enthralling, with spectators clearly loving every moment. That said, the sudden appearance of Sir Paul McCartney and subsequent duet between him and Chester Bennington definitely took things to the next level.
While not the loudest or fiercest entry on this list, attendees were definitely rocked by the sheer magnitude of what they were witnessing.
Foo Fighters, John Paul Jones + Ann Marie Calhoun, “The Pretender” (2008)
The 50th edition of the ceremony saw Foo Fighters grab Best Rock Album for Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and Best Hard Rock Performance for “The Pretender.”
It’s no wonder, then, why their live version of that winning lead single was particularly adrenaline-charged and meaningful.
Grohl was especially fired up throughout the song. The addition of eclectic violinist Ann Marie Calhoun, a classical troupe comprised of “My Grammy Moment” winners and Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones made it one of the most distinctive and remarkable ways to hear “The Pretender.”
There’s even an orchestral interlude halfway into it. Who would’ve expected that?!
John Fogerty, Little Richard + Jerry Lee Lewis, “Comin’ Down the Road,” “Great Balls Of Fire” + “Good Golly Miss Molly” (2008)
The 2008 rendition of the Grammys was also special because – as blues/country superstar Bonnie Raitt noted in her introduction – it brought together a trio of rock 'n' roll legends (CCR’s John Fogerty, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis) for an amazing medley.
Rather than play each tune in full before transitioning into the next one, they jumped around the material and even shared vocal duties.
Admittedly, Lewis didn’t fully match Fogerty and Richard’s passion, but he nonetheless helped get the crowd going.
Complemented by impressive imagery and a killer guitar solo from Fogerty, the inherently exciting team-up inarguably lived up to its promise.
Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker the Berry" + "Alright” (2016)
We know that Kendrick Lamar’s main focus is hip-hop, but if we’re talking about artists who “rocked” the Grammys, we’d be foolish not to dive into his jaw-dropping and groundbreaking presentation of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” from 2016.
Taken from the stylistically varied and culturally resonant To Pimp a Butterfly (for which he won Best Rap Album and was nominated for Album of the Year), this six-minute tour de force was as intense instrumentally and vocally as it was ideologically and visually.
With its hypnotic craftsmanship, boisterous arrangements and powerful social commentaries regarding racism and injustice, it honestly might be the heaviest Grammys performance of all time.
Lady Gaga + Metallica, “Moth Into Flame” (2017)
Many Metallica fans were probably confused – if not outright disappointed – when they learned that the quartet would be playing the 59th Grammy Awards with Lady Gaga.
However, their opinion surely changed once they realized that she could hold her own as the thrash kings played “Moth Into Flame” from Hardwired... to Self-Destruct (which was nominated for Best Rock Album).
Despite a glaring technical issue, Metallica were as fierce as you’d expect – with plenty of fire surrounding them – and Lady Gaga matched Papa Het’s fervor as often as she could while dressing and dancing like a true metalhead.
You love to see it.