Like the Sir Alex Ferguson of late night chat, US talkshow host Jay Leno will retire from 22 distinguished years of service sat behind the Tonight Show desk, where he has interviewed the great and the good (and also the naughty, in Hugh Grant’s case). Presidents have sat before him, including Barack Obama, who in a taped goodbye offered Leno the role of ambassador to Antarctica. “I hope you’ve got a warm coat, funny man,” Mr Obama joked.
Thousands of celebrities, superstars and statesmen and women have appeared on the NBC show (and will continue to do so under Jimmy Fallon’s tutelage), and let’s not forget some of the fantastic music that’s also been a key component to the show’s success. Here are just 10 highlights, primed from more than two decades of stunning live appearances…
Morrissey – ‘You’re the One For Me Fatty’ (1992)
In Jay Leno’s first year in charge he invited Morrissey at the height of Moz Mania stateside, and the height of the Manchester singer’s quiff, too (Leno watchers will note the host still has a shock of black hair in his greying barnet). Few audiences have been more pant-wettingly excited than this lot, and it has to be said, it’s difficult to remember a time when the ex-Smiths’ singer looked better. The quality of the recording here couldn’t really look or sound much worse, but remember this has been lovingly carried over from the dark ages, back when the internet was just an idea and events were stored for posterity on dodgy VHS video tape. It might just be time to call in Scotch’s lifetime guarantee here and ask for some money back.
Suede – Metal Mickey (1993)
When Suede burst onto the UK music scene in the early 90s they were an unusual bag of cheekbones and decadent glamour amongst a sea of baggy hats and tie-dyed complacency. Suede stuck out like a sore thumb in other words, which was no bad thing. Massive success might have eluded them in America but they inspired plenty of devotion in the people who mattered thanks to this winning performance. And just listen to Bernard’s guitar roar. Whoosh!
Faith No More – ‘Midlife Crisis’ (1993)
Faith No More were a spiky anomaly in the grandiloquent world of stadium rock, and having survived an arduous tour with Guns ‘n’ Roses the year previous (where they’d inadvisably slagged off their paymasters most nights), this would be the first time many of those who’d witnessed them would get a chance to see the band again in action as they readied their magnificent Angel Dust album. Mike Patton’s fuzzy metal hair had been replaced with a cap on backwards, and the bands’ hip hop influences would come to the fore here like never before. It’s a spirited and combative performance to be sure.
Radiohead – ‘High and Dry’ (1996)
Radiohead appeared on the show in 1996 to perform what Rolling Stone magazine termed ‘deliciously disturbing pop’, a phrase Leno delights in as he introduces them. The band from Oxford had already managed a breakout hit with ‘Creep’, but if that felt like a false start after things had gone quiet for them again, then this now marked the beginning of a career that would send the five-piece to the top table of innovative rock music. This performance is marked by some far out fretwork from Jonny Greenwood – indeed come the second verse it’s as though nuclear war is being announced to the world via a theremin siren.
Björk – ‘Cocoon’ (2001)
To appear on the Tonight Show and attempt something as leftfield as this takes some guts, but then Björk is not like other singing superstars. With her fingers tinted like icicles and the background sonics just a sparse and glitchy soundscape with tinkles of warm xylophone like the inside of some ethereal cave, the singer takes a little bit of Iceland to the USA – via heaven – with her voice as commanding as it ever was. Following the performance, Leno asks Björk about the ‘swan’ dress at the Oscars (Bjork starred in the Lars Von Trier movie Dancer in the Dark, with her music nominated for an Academy Award).
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Prince – ‘The Everlasting Now’ (2001)
Prince Fever grips London right now like a handful of peaches and cream being squished in a purple velvet glove, and the diminutive G has pretty much always caused palpitations whenever he’s played. The Tonight Show in 2001 – a vintage year for the programme – was no different. Prince laid on a full compliment of musicians and summarily blew the audience away, as Prince tends to whenever he steps up to the mic.
The Killers – ‘Bones’ (2006)
Here are the Killers enjoying the festive period dressed in Santa hats replete with pink Christmas trees and handsome moustaches all round. Leno says the band are on to do a medley though it’s mostly ‘Bones’ with a bit of ‘A Great Big Sled’ tacked on the end. While we’re here, let’s get those seasonal greetings out of the way early shall we (who cares if it’s February)? Happy Christmas all of you! I know, don’t mention it.
Kanye West – Interview (2009)
We all remember the MTV VMAs where Kanye West made a ‘jackass’ of himself (not our word, but the sobriquet bestowed upon him from none other than the President of the United States) don’t we? You know, the one where he humiliated poor Taylor Swift in her moment of triumph. Kanye, on the Jay Leno show to perform alongside Jay-Z and Rihanna, takes time out ahead of the performance to talk to the host and apologise for his actions. “It’s somebody’s emotions that, you know, I stepped on, and it was rude,” he confesses. “I’d like to apologise to her in person,” he adds, not actually apologising to her in person but via the medium of television. When the host tells the MC/producer/visionary he was lucky enough to meet West’s mother, the guest goes quiet and looks like he’s about to start sobbing. Go on Kanye, don’t hold back!
Gloria Gaynor – ‘I Will Survive’ (2010)
In honour of the Sochi Olympics in Russia, here’s a 2010 performance by Gloria Gaynor of her 1978 gay disco anthem ‘I Will Survive’, which explodes like a particularly gaudy David LaChapelle photograph come to life. It’s chintzy, glitzy, and above all defiant. Stick that up your gas-pipe Mr President of the Russian Federation! Er, please don’t knock me off with a plutonium sandwich Mr Putin, I’m really not worth it, honest.
Lady Gaga – Interview (2011)
Gaga performed a brilliant rendition of ‘Bad Romance’ on the Tonight Show in 2009, but finding a version on YouTube that hasn’t been spliced up with other arbitrary pictures by her little monsters proved impossible. Bad little monsters! Here instead is an interview which Leno did with Gaga in 2011, where she turned up in full regalia with three Grammy awards stuffed with M&Ms®. Leno thanks her for making the effort. “This is just a talk show,” says the host, humbly. “This isn’t just a talk show!” retorts Gaga. “I’m just an Italian girl from New York… this is the big time for me!”