David Letterman retires: From Arcade Fire to Future Islands - the best Late Show musical performances

From REM's TV debut to Arcade Fire's break out, it all began here

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The Independent Culture

David Letterman's Late Show will be missed for many reasons, not least the bizarre celebrity interviews, controversial jokes and heartfelt monologues. One thing sure to sting more than anything else, though, is the loss of one of America's greatest launch pads: his musical guest spot.

Letterman has always had musical stars on his shows, with many performances either helping an artist break into the mainstream or becoming iconic in their own right. After all, if it weren't for Letterman, Future Islands wouldn't be playing Glastonbury this year and Sonny and Cher would have never got back together to play "I Got You Babe" again.

To celebrate, we've watched an awful lot of The Late Show to bring you the greatest musical performances to ever air on Letterman, in chronological order:

1. James Brown medley (1982)

In 1982, the Father of Funk James Brown performed one of the greatest medleys ever known on Letterman’s show. It proved, if it ever needed proving, that Brown was one of the greatest performers of all time, putting on a show that got everyone -at home and in the audience - up and dancing.

2. REM – So Central Rain (1983)

R.E.M's Letterman performance was their first ever television appearance when they were just a couple of teenagers who loved to play music. After, they would become one of the greatest American rock bands ever.

Before the performance, Letterman asked what the name of the song is, to which Mike Mills says “it doesn't have a name - it's too new." What follows is a fantastic, heartfelt angst-ridden performance of what would become "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)".

3. Bob Dylan – Jokerman (1984)

Dylan may have been chosen to be David Letterman's last musical guest, but his set didn't top his first performance on the show in 1984. Performing "Jokerman", Dylan was on particularly good form, enthusiastically performing the iconic song. Today, Dylan has less energy and a more gravelly voice, not really surprising for a man who’s been performing since the 60’s.

4. Whitney Houston – Saving all My Love For You (1985)

Whitney Houston’s performance on the show was notable for a number of reasons. Not only was it the performance of a lifetime, featuring an incredible singer at the top of her game, but it was also one of the first times an unestablished black act was featured on a late night show. At the end, Letterman can’t take his eyes off her.

5. Sonny and Cher – I Got You Babe (1987)

The married pop duo were inseparable once, but after their divorce in 1975 performances by the two together became rare. In 1979 they sang on The Mike Douglas Show, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the two would once again take to the stage to perform their biggest hit “I Got You Babe”.

6. Bruce Springsteen – Glory Days (1993)

Letterman called on ‘The Boss’ to help see out his stint on Late Night with David Letterman. Performing as a surprise musical guest, Springsteen played an incredible rendition of “Glory Days”, a fitting way to pass the Late Night mantel on to Conan O’Brien.

7. Madonna – Guest Interview (1994)

Not a musical performance, but a spectacle to behold nonetheless. The appearance proved controversial as Madonna not only gave Letterman her used underwear, refused to leave the stage or cut to a commercial break, but also dropped the F-bomb a record fourteen times over the course of the interview, leading to the show becoming the most censored talk-show in American network history.

8. Weezer – Say It Ain’t So (1995)

Rivers Cuomo and the gang had only been together for three years but their Blue Album was already a cult hit. Their Letterman performance was a defining moment, giving them the national exposure they needed to break through to the mainstream, “Say It Ain’t So” becoming the national anthem for outcasts everywhere.

9. Radiohead – Karma Police (1997)

While a big deal in the UK, in the US Radiohead were only known as that band who did that song “Creep”.

At the time of their Letterman performance, OK Computer was receiving incredible reviews but no-one in the States gave it much attention. All of a sudden, the band were being heralded as the next Pink Floyd, becoming the new 'cool band' to know.

10. Foo Fighters - Everlong (2000)

"Here they are, ladies and gentlemen — my favourite band playing my favourite song — Foo Fighters!" It was the host's first on air show since his heart surgery, and he was back in a big way. To celebrate, he got one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands to play his favourite song, “Everlong”.

11. Arcade Fire – Rebellion (Lies) 2005

Arcade Fire are one of the greatest live bands to have ever existed; their shows chaotic and intense unlike any other. Many acts lose their energy when they perform on TV but Arcade Fire gave their everything, and in the process took over America’s indie scene.

12. TV on the Radio – Wolf Like Me (2006)

TV on the Radio performed a number of times on the Late Show but none of their performances had quite the same rawness as when they played “Wolf Like Me” in 2006. It was a high octane, passionate performance from one of the greatest alternative rock bands of our generation.

13. Paul McCartney – Late Show Marquee (2009)

In a performance reminiscent of The Beatles iconic rooftop concert, Paul McCartney took to the Late Show’s Marquee to play a number of hits to a packed out street below. He even managed to squeeze in "Helter Skelter" to ravenous applause from the audience.

14. M.I.A – Born Free (2010)

M.I.A. doesn’t do things in halves. Her performance of "Born Free" was as intense as we’ve all come to expect from the controversial singer. It was loud and provocative, like Charlie and the Chocolate factory gone incredibly wrong. She even managed to get a DJ who looked as crazy as her. Letterman jokes “happy Halloween" at the end but it really could have been straight from a nightmare.

15. Adele – Make You Feel My Love (2011)

Already a Grammy winter, Adele was a household name by the time she performed on Letterman. However, many Americans were yet to hear her rendition of Bob Dylan’s "Make You Feel My Love". After airing on Letterman, Adele’s status as a pop diva was officially solidified after the performance.

16. LE1F – Wut (2014)

Making his first TV appearance on Letterman, LE1F’s terrific performance stood out for its energy as well as having Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes in the backing band. It was also noticeable that Letterman did not once mention the rapper's sexuality, marking a moment of acceptance in rap culture.

17. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You) (2014)

Possibly the last great performance on The Late Show, Future Islands went from almost complete unknowns to indie-sensations. Samuel Herring’s fresh moves may have become a meme, but it was the incredible song, “Seasons” that got everyone talking.

18. Darlene Love – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) compilation, 1986 to 2014.

What would a greatest Letterman’s performance list be without mentioning Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. The singer has performed the track every year on the show since 1986 (except in 2007), and will be a greatly missed Christmas treat. Who knows, maybe Stephen Colbert will keep the tradition going when he takes over. 

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