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1977: Elvis Costello Banned From Saturday Night Live Over 'Radio Radio'

Music | December 17, 2020

Source: YouTube

When Elvis Costello played "Radio, Radio" on Saturday Night Live in 1977, he cemented his status as an angry young man. Rather than playing "Less Than Zero," the mellow single from his debut album My Aim Is True, he opted for something new, something that rocked -- and that rankled Lorne Michaels.

He didn't just opt to play a different song -- he made a show of changing his mind live on stage in studio 8H. In the now-infamous clip, Costello and his band The Attractions play the opening notes to "Less Than Zero" -- but then he stops them, apologizes to the studio audience, and  the group launches into "Radio, Radio."

The song, a trenchant critique of the commercialization of music and the way that record labels turn their artists into employees, made Costello a star to punks, art school kids, and just about everybody who thumbs their nose at authority. It also helped Costello get banned from SNL for the next decade. With one breezy pop song, Costello told anyone listening that he wasn't about to be controlled, but why did that make Lorne Michaels so angry?

Anarchy In Studio 8H

source: NBC

Elvis Costello was only 23 years old when his debut album, My Aim Is True, was released in North America. Sales weren't bad, but he needed a big push, that's where the Sex Pistols come in. The "Anarchy in the U.K." group was supposed to play Saturday Night Live on December 17, 1977, but a Visa issue kept the band from coming to America. Costello was offered the chance to fill in for the band on live television and he jumped on it.

Thanks to the Sex Pistols, Costello was now the musical guest for Miskel Spillman, an elderly woman and the winner of SNLs “Anyone Can Host” contest. The evening wasn't exactly the center of the counter culture. Columbia Records asked Costello to play "Less Than Zero," the laid-back single off of My Aim Is True, but Costello didn't think that would be the right way to introduce himself to the American audience so he called an audible.

What's So Funny 'Bout 'Less Than Zero?'

source: stiff records

In "Less Than Zero," Costello sings:

Calling Mister Oswald with the swastika tattoo
There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo
Carving 'V' for vandal on the guilty boy's head
When he's had enough of that, maybe you'll take him to bed
To teach him he's alive 'fore he wishes he was dead

The Mr. Oswald in question is Oswald Mosley, a former leader of the British Union of Fascists. After seeing Mosley on television downplaying his fascist leanings, Costello penned the song as a "slandering fantasy" of the British politician. On his first visit to the States, Costello realized that American audiences weren't responding to the song.

It seems that the United States has its own notorious "Mr. Oswald," one who was a bad guy but not, so far as anyone knew, a Nazi. So from the very first line, American audiences were likely confused. Later in the song, Oswald (Mosley, not Lee Harvey) shoots someone, but it's not the shooting Americans would expect:

A pistol was still smoking; a man lay on the floor
Mister Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet
Let's talk about the future now, we've put the past away

The live response didn't really matter to Columbia. They had "Less Than Zero" set as a single and that's what they wanted Costello to play on Saturday Night Live. Costello didn't think that a slow song that wasn't hitting with audiences was the best way to present himself to viewers, so he decided to play a new tune that he'd been workshopping on tour. He not only felt that "Radio, Radio" was an exciting way to introduce himself to a huge audience, but that its lyrics ("I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bait the hand so badly") would let his label know exactly how he felt.

Later, Costello actually wrote an alternate set of lyrics for "Less Than Zero" -- changing the subject to the assassination of JFK. It's known as the "Dallas version," and here's an example of one of the rewritten verses: 

Calling Mr. Oswald, calling anyone at the scene
If you were taking home movies
There's a chance you might have seen him
They've got a thousand variations, every witness in a file
Jenny puts on some coffee and she comes back with a smile
She says, "I hear that South America is coming into style"

Blame Costello's Change Of Heart On Jimi Hendrix

source: pinterest

Speaking about his fateful Saturday Night Live performance, Costello cites two acts as his inspiration for the on stage change of heart. He said that the performance was supposed to be his "I Want to Hold Your Hand" moment and he just didn't think that "Less Than Zero" had the oomph for an Ed Sullivan Show-style debut.

Costello's thoughts turned to Jimi Hendrix's performance on The Lulu Show. Hendrix was set to play "Hey Joe," but instead played an impromptu tribute to Cream, as it was just days after that band split. Hendrix was banned from the BBC for his performance so it's likely that Costello knew what was coming for him. On his Hendrix inspiration Costello has said:

Every time anybody does anything outrageous on [SNL], I get name-checked. But I was copying Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix had done the same thing on the Lulu Show when he went into an unscheduled number. I remember seeing it and going, ‘What the hell’s going on?'

Costello's Ban Came With An Extra Finger

source: NBC

A few bars into "Less Than Zero," his second song of the night, Costello turned around and yelled at his band "Stop! Stop!" Then, under the glare of the harsh studio lights he stepped up to the microphone. "I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "but there’s no reason to do this song here." Then the band launched into their scathing anti-corporate track "Radio, Radio."

Two things happened: The audience fell in love with Costello, and producer Lorne Michaels became furious. Supposedly, Michaels gave Costello the middle finger throughout the performance, although other reports claim that he was simply apoplectic. Columbia Records Product Manager Dick Wingate was on hand for the performance and recalled, “It was a s**t show on the set.” Costello thought the song went over pretty well, but he's never understood why Michaels was upset. He was also not too impressed by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players' comedy. He later said:

Maybe something got lost in translation, but none of the humor seemed nearly as 'dangerous' or funny as they seemed to think it was -- or perhaps they were just having a bad show.

The Stunt Turned Costello Into A Legend

source: NY Times

The mythology around "Radio, Radio" is interesting to everyone but Elvis Costello. He's said that the performance "felt good," but that it wasn't revolutionary. He just wanted to do something fun on the show. He bristles when anyone says that Michaels was in on the move. And if anyone at Columbia cared about Costello's decision to change lanes mid-song they've never said so. In 1978, "Radio, Radio" was the second single off of This Year's Model, and the album went gold. All in all, getting banned wasn't a bad bit of publicity.

After his decade long ban, he passed on returning until Saturday Night Live's 25th anniversary show. That night, the Beastie Boys were set to perform "Sabotage," but Costello ran on stage and stopped the performance with the exact same words that he used 22 years earlier before launching into "Radio, Radio" with the group backing him.

Tags: Elvis Costello | Lorne Michaels | Remember This?... | Saturday Night Live | TV In The 1970s

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.