After 20-plus years working for Conan, Jordan Schlansky has seen countless legendary musical acts live and in-person, and now has selected 35 of his absolute favorites from the "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" era. Check out the playlist embedded below (or on Spotify), and be sure to scroll down to read Jordan's memories of when each song was performed on "Late Night."
My "Late Night" Music Memories
By Jordan Schlansky
1. Crash Test Dummies 4/5/94 “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”
This was in the very early days of the show, and I remember that the wooden sled platform that the musical acts stood on was still the original light color, before it was stained darker soon after. For a brief time we were placing a large green screen behind the bands and keying in arbitrary stock footage, which I guess seemed like a good idea at the time! It was such an unusual song, I don’t think people knew what to make of it. It had comedic elements but also hinted at some important themes. Similarly the vocals seemed so atypical, yet the music was performed so straight and melodically, with beautiful harmonies in the choruses, and ending with a wordless harmony that was particularly dramatic and haunting. The band played it perfectly and effortlessly, and I remember loving the crisp style of the drummer, who had some tasteful electric accents to his set. I thought our music mixer did a great job of achieving a very clean sound for that performance in particular.
2. Radiohead 6/12/95 “Fake Plastic Trees”
This was their second appearance on the show after playing “Creep” on Show 2 as the first musical guest. I remember knowing of them from that breakout hit, but they still hadn’t reached the level of international stardom that they would eventually achieve. I remember feeling that it was such an emotionally moving and intensely uninhibited vocal performance, and that there was so much depth to the climax of the song, which I still find incredibly inspiring. I watched the segment over and over at the time, and came to appreciate more and more of its nuances. I also thought it was shot in a very simple and beautiful way, and loved the purple accents that our lighting director chose, and the reverse camera angle which was unusual for us. It was that performance that made me a Radiohead fan, and it became my favorite musical act in those early days of the show.
3. Jewel 11/28/95 “You Were Meant For Me”
Earlier that year Jewel had made her television debut on Late Night, and she returned a few months later to perform this second single from her amazing album “Pieces Of You”. I remember seeing her in the hallway outside the studio that day in her black outfit with such a humble disposition, which is always refreshing to find in such a talented artist. The song had a gentle and innocent quality to it, and the album as a whole presented a purity and honesty that was reminiscent of some of the most respected folk songwriters. Her early appearances on the show had a very natural and intimate feeling to them, and this was a perfect example.
4. Elton John 11/15/96 “Border Song”
This was a huge booking for us, and to this day stands as one of my absolute favorite musical performances from over 15 years of Late Night. While we had many artists that would eventually move on to superstardom, this was a case where we had an already established iconic figure coming into our small studio. In addition to a new track to promote his “Love Songs” album, he played a stunning piano only version of this classic from decades prior, an arrangement which I had never heard elsewhere. Despite a false start after his electric piano had been improperly configured, everything about that segment ultimately fell in line beautifully. He looked the best I had ever seen him, in a sharp dark suit and glasses, and our simplistic set and lighting design served that song so well. There was such a power and minimalism to that performance that still appears timeless nearly 20 years later.
5. Tracy Chapman 12/11/96 “Smoke And Ashes”
Being only familiar with her hit “Fast Car”, I was surprised to see such a different side of Tracy Chapman. Looking amazing with beautiful long hair and a kind smile on her face, she gave such an enjoyable and relaxed performance, and I loved the smoothness of the song as well. We had a guest director filling in that day, who had the idea to put a close up shot of Tracy in a video monitor that hung above the stage, which was visible in the wide shots and added an interesting dynamic to the segment.
6. Smashing Pumpkins 2/25/97 “Muzzle”
The Smashing Pumpkins were another big booking, and their then current album “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness” was already doing very well with singles like “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight”. This segment is classic example of a situation where I thought the live performance was superior to the album version, in this case being played at a faster tempo. They had a temporary drummer at the time named Matt Walker whose playing was so fun to watch, whom I spoke to years later about this performance after seeing him play with Morrissey. I don’t know if our audio crew expected Billy Corgan to be so tall, and I remember his microphone stand needing some adjustment due to his height. We also shot a comedy bit with the band after their sound check that aired a couple of weeks later. This song had powerful lyrics that were so well written, and also stands as one of my favorite Late Night performances.
7. Third Eye Blind 6/12/97 “Semi-Charmed Life”
Even with dark subject matter, this was a fun song and a fun performance of a now classic 90s track. We had an advance standards issue with the network based on the reference to crystal meth in the song, which had me expecting something a lot more somber when the band arrived that day. I particularly loved the false end to the song followed by the dramatic finale.
8. Motley Crue 10/28/98 “Dr. Feelgood”
Having grown up in in the 80s, it was understandably exciting to have Motley Crue on the show performing one of their classic hits. I had been working with them earlier in the day on a comedy segment, but in the moment when I saw them walking into the studio at show time, all styled and dressed in their performance outfits, I truly felt they looked larger than life, which never quite comes across the same way on television. I remember talking with Tommy Lee specifically about the powerful hi-hat accents in “Dr. Feelgood”, and the band was nice enough to invite me to their show a couple of days later at the Beacon Theatre.
9. The Flys 12/18/98 “Got You (Where I Want You)”
This was such a cool performance, with an unusual slow repetitive pacing that I felt worked so well. At the time I felt that the lyrics were really relatable as a potential love song that reflected the modern day, and then suddenly the song’s bridge breaks out with a diabolical intensity from their second vocalist. I liked the look of the band and the somewhat over the top bravado of the frontman, which reminded me of a lot of guys I had known earlier in my life. There was a great energy to that segment and I always enjoy watching it to this day.
10. Tori Amos 10/14/99 “1000 Oceans”
She had been on a few times before, and would always play a gorgeous Bösendorfer piano with a sensuality that was so compelling to watch. I thought this song in particular had a haunting appeal to it, and I loved the synthesized orchestration, especially in the second verse. Our director and “Merlin” camera operator did a great job showing off such a beautiful Austrian piano.
11. Aimee Mann 2/18/00 “Save Me”
I remembered Aimee Mann from the 80s band ‘Til Tuesday, and then from making a guest appearance on a Rush song, but really became exposed to her down to earth musical style from numerous appearances on Late Night. I felt this song in particular really showed off the smoothness and complexity of her voice, and had some nice vocal harmonies in the chorus as well.
12. Black Crowes with Jimmy Page 7/11/00 “Your Time Is Gonna Come”
The was a huge day for the show and the staff, the day that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page joined the Black Crowes on our show for an amazing performance of the 1969 classic “Your Time Is Gonna Come”. We had some very excited Zeppelin fans on staff who were assembled in the audience for sound check, and I definitely remember Conan being there as well. There was discussion about whether to include the organ intro, which ultimately made it in, and there was also talk about how many bars the guitar solo should be. The performance ended up being so exciting and intensely musical, with Chris Robinson presenting a perfectly suited sense of style while doing some very impressive work with Robert Plant’s vocals. I think it’s fair to say that the Jimmy Page guitar solo was the climactic peak of that segment, and I can still remember the intensity of his face as he played. We had a great music mix and camera blocking, and this is without question another one of my favorite Late Night performances ever.
13. Nina Gordon 9/8/00 “Tonight And The Rest Of My Life”
I wasn’t familiar with her previous work with Veruca Salt, but I loved this Nina Gordon solo performance, which had a simple uplifting quality to it that I felt was contagious. I always hoped the song might describe the elated feeling of love after a period of pain, but there is enough vagueness that it seems to be left to the listener’s imagination.
14. Green Day 6/28/01 "Waiting"
Green Day was another amazing band that had already been on the show more than once, dating back to 1994. This appearance in general showcased their raw energy and excitement, which I consider to be among their most defining characteristics. The stage was lined with stacks of amps, and it was an unapologetically straightforward rock and roll performance. I also loved their presentation a few years later of "Wake Me Up When September Ends" which I felt depicted a more mature side of the band, along with some excellent styling and impressive work by our lighting director.
15. Alanis Morissette 4/12/02 “Hands Clean”
This is another case where I felt the performance on our show was even superior to the album version. Everyone on stage looked so great and had such charisma to watch, especially her guitarist at stage right, and Alanis had such a flawless and effortless voice along with a relaxed stage presence and compelling eyeline. I thought the music mix was fantastic, and it was an excellent segment that I can watch over and over.
16. Coldplay 9/26/02 “In My Place”
This was Coldplay’s second of three appearances, and it was fascinating to watch Chris Martin’s confidence as a stage performer evolve over those years. The live performance sounded different than the album version in that the choruses were less produced and more natural. This is my favorite Coldplay song and has such emotion in the lyrics and ethereal chorus.
17. Dave Matthews Band 12/18/02 “Grey Street”
I had become a Dave Matthews fan a few years earlier, but this was his first appearance on our show and he performed two songs that day. Although our show was still airing in standard definition, we had begun recording HD copies as a test during this period, and this dynamic segment was fun to watch afterwards in our brand new high definition format.
18. The White Stripes 4/23/03 “Jolene”
This was the second day of a week of shows that they had done with us. They had played “Seven Nation Army” the day before, which was still in its promotional period before eventually going on to become such an iconic song. I hadn’t been exposed to them previously, but a friend who was a big fan told me specifically to watch how well Jack White moved. The band’s style was incredible, and they presented a red and black color scheme that we reflected in our set as well. Even their road crew dressed in color coordinated suits. This was my favorite performance of the week, a non-album track which was a cover of a Dolly Parton song. Immediately noteworthy was the fact that the lyrics are clearly written from a woman’s point of view, and Jack White sang it without any changes. It’s such a sad and desperate song, and I thought it was a really interesting choice to cover.
19. The Used 5/1/03 “Buried Myself Alive”
I had been talking about this band recently with a former staff member who was from their hometown of Orem, Utah. The song has so much attitude and anger, but I found it so relatable in other ways. I loved watching the drummer who had such a crisp and clean playing style, and the band’s eccentric look served them well. They smashed their equipment at the end of the song, and that’s always fun to see.
20. Lambchop 4/9/04 “Nothing But A Blur From A Bullet Train”
Such an interesting and complex arrangement of a reflective song, set against the visual backdrop of a humbly dressed frontman in a baseball hat, seated in a chair, accompanied by a full elegant string section. It was a large stage setup for us with many players, but I thought the end result was well worth it. I loved the ethereal nature of the music, and forever associated the track with the notion of sitting on a train traveling across a beautiful land, while watching the world go by outside the window.
21. Velvet Revolver 11/24/04 “Fall To Pieces”
The Sunset Strip came to visit us in New York that day, with three former members of Guns N' Roses, along with Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots, who I remember arrived while I was working on a photo shoot in the 6th floor elevator lobby. I loved their Hollywood rock and roll style, which was still alive and well in a section of Sunset Boulevard that seems frozen in time with big hair and loud guitars, and made famous by bands like Guns N' Roses in the 90s. I remember talking with the drummer Matt Sorum about the opening fill he used on GNR’s “You Could Be Mine”, and I also remember having Slash’s guitar riff stuck in my head for days after that performance.
22. Billy Idol 5/24/05 “White Wedding”
The 80s rock legend performed a new song that day in support of his latest album, and then finished the show with the classic "White Wedding" during our closing credits. I don’t think the entire track made it to air, but in classic Billy Idol style, he was bare chested by the end of the performance.
23. Neil Young 11/2/05 “The Painter”
Another legendary artist that was kind enough to play a full week of shows with us, and this second day was my favorite. He had such a kind and gentle quality about him, which I think comes through in his voice and was well suited to this reflective song.
24. Billy Joel 12/1/05 “Everybody Loves You Now”
Like so many native New Yorkers of my generation in particular, I was a Billy Joel fan for most of my life. I had never thought much about this track until I saw him perform it live during our sound check, and for the first time noticed that behind its catchy melodic structure were some very complex and relatable lyrics that contain familiar elements of loss, resentment, and envy, punctuated with a couple of nostalgic New York references as well. Despite the fact that the lyrics were written decades earlier, I felt that his performance that day was in fact the most relevant I've seen of this song. He performed 2 classic tracks on that show in addition to a talk segment, and it was all a big personal thrill for me.
25. Cat Power 10/30/06 “The Greatest”
This was such a raw and uninhibited performance by Chan Marshall aka Cat Power in a humble grey sweatshirt, supplemented by our own house band and a three piece string section. Immediately after she left the studio, I heard her say that it all went by so very quickly.
26. Damien Rice 11/17/06 “9 Crimes”
He had been on once before to promote his excellent album “O” which is how I was first exposed to his music. I loved that earlier 2003 performance so much that I wished I had known in advance to watch the sound check. This time around I remember him in the mixing room trying to get a certain warmth out of the piano sound which had been captured on the album. The song had such a sad darkness to it that was reflected so well in the cello and percussion parts. Both appearances were with his talented backing vocalist Lisa Hannigan. In addition to a moving performance by the musicians, there was some excellent work done in this segment by our director and lighting director.
27. Stars Of Track And Field 2/2/07 “Movies Of Antarctica”
I had never heard of this musical act from Portland, but was immediately impressed by the melodic structure of the song and vocal harmonies, in addition to the overall stage presence and style of the band. This performance was so compelling to watch with such an unapologetic energy, and I loved the entire album, along with their subsequent release a couple of years later. In the time after their appearance I became somewhat friendly with them, and remember us all eating tacos at 2:00 AM after one of their LA shows. I was confident they would go far together, though they ended up parting ways after their next album. I still love their music and listen to it often.
28. Solomon Burke 2/26/07 “That’s How I Got To Memphis”
It might have been a busy day but somehow I didn’t take note of this segment at first glance, until I overheard our longtime audio engineer tell someone after the show that it was the best thing we had ever done. I watched it again and heard such beautifully written lyrics within an incredibly heartfelt and soulful performance, which inspired so much thought about the things we do for love.
29. Band Of Horses 2/12/08 “No One’s Gonna Love You”
This was my first exposure to a band that I would grow to respect so much. It was such a very sad and hopeless heartbroken song, performed so earnestly. I took home the CD and soon discovered so many other inspiring tracks.
30. James Blunt 2/28/08 “Carry You Home”
James Blunt had already been on twice and I was familiar with his music. I felt this song stood out as extremely touching and well written, and described some specific sentiments related to a deep sadness. The performance was particularly sincere and reflected the song's desperation so well.
31. Stars 3/18/08 “Take Me To The Riot”
Such a fun song and performance that reminds me of the feeling of big city nightlife, with a great energy from this Canadian band who seemed to have a thoroughly New York style. We ended up using the CD to play our live audience out of the studio after each taping for many months afterwards.
32. The Airborne Toxic Event 8/1/08 “Sometime Around Midnight”
An LA band with great style, and such a powerful song based around a hurtful story that gradually builds in intensity. The performance was delivered with a faithful sincerity to the subject matter that made it so striking to watch.
33. Jakob Dylan with Norah Jones 9/25/08 “War Is Kind”
I always felt this was a special performance, Jakob Dylan and a guitar alongside Norah Jones, and nothing else needed. It was very pure and sincere, with two beautiful voices that worked so well together.
34. Death Cab For Cutie 10/7/08 “Cath…”
I became a fan of Death Cab late in their career, mainly because of this song and the band’s compelling performance. I loved the drum part, along with the song’s energy and overall musicality. All four band members were so interesting to watch, and I thought our director and lighting director both did another great job on this segment.
35. Brian Wilson 11/20/08 “California Girls”
Brian Wilson had been on once before and performed the classic hit “Sloop John B”, along with new material. I'd always felt that “California Girls” was the ultimate Beach Boys song, and it was a treat to finally see this in person during his second appearance. An abbreviated version was played to close out the show, and hearing the song’s ending played live, with all of its layers and harmonies from the large band setup, was very special. I was recently in a discussion about whether there was ever any one quintessential American band, in the way that England had the Beatles. I don’t know if there is an easy answer but if so, I'm confident that the Beach Boys would be on the shortlist.