We delve back into the Far Out Magazine vault to remember one of our favourite Elvis Costello stories; a tale of rock and roll rebellion.
He began his career as part of London’s pub rock scene in the early 1970s, Costello’s career started to build momentum as he was swept in as part of the punk and new wave movement in the mid-to-late ’70s.
A few years building a cult following resulted in Costello releasing his debut album, My Aim Is True, to critical acclaim. While the record only achieved moderate commercial success, Costello’s popularity had risen considerably. Donning his trademark glasses and bearing resemblance to Buddy Holly, Costello’s fanbase had expanded in the US as he and his band planned a US tour having recently signed to Columbia Records.
Following Costello’s rise, a chance opportunity occurred for him and the band to make their big break on American television with an appearance on Saturday Night Live. The show, which had been somewhat left in the lurch when original performers The Sex Pistols pulled out, turned to Elvis Costello and the Attractions to fill the spot.
Costello, his label and the show’s producers had prior agreed to perform their catchy single ‘Less Than Zero’, a track which was written about British political Oswald Mosley who, at the time, was the former leader of the British Union of Fascists.
However, not deterred by what was considered as the band’s biggest opportunity to date, Costello put a stop to the performance mid-intro, yelling: “Stop! Stop!” in the direction of his band. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he added, “but there’s no reason to do this song here.”
Instead, the Costello and his band rolled into a performance of the song ‘Radio Radio’ which, controversially, includes lyrics that criticise the commercialisation of the airwaves and corporate-controlled broadcasting.
Rumour has it that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was beside himself with rage. While watching Costello’s act of rebellion, some reports suggest that Michaels stood with his middle finger raised at Costello for the duration of the performance.
Despite its popularity, the performance resulted in Costello being banned from the show for nearly 12 years.
Costello’s insistence on performing ‘Radio Radio’ proved not only a success with his dedicated following, but also resulted in a boost of record sales for his debut album, and, subsequently, saw its popularity grow dramatically in the States after the performance.
Costello wasn’t invited back to SNL in the years that followed but, in 1989, his relationship with Michaels improved and the ban was lifted.
Discussing the incident more recently in an interview, Costello said: “They’ve run that clip forever,” he says, “and every time anybody does anything outrageous on that show, 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?'”