Elvis Costello has never been one to shy away from making his opinions known and when the opportunity arrived to make a statement on the biggest of stages, he was never going to turn it down. This is a tale of rock and roll rebellion in the heart of showbusiness.
Costello began his career as part of London’s pub rock scene in the early 1970s and, with a quick name change and penchant for transcending tunes, Costello’s career began to build momentum as he was swept along as part of the punk and new wave movement that bubble on both sides of the pond.
A few years of tirelessly building a cult following resulted in Costello releasing his debut album, My Aim Is True, to critical acclaim as his songs traversed genre and defied definition. While the record only achieved moderate commercial success, Costello’s popularity had risen considerably.
Donning his trademark glasses and bearing a resemblance to Buddy Holly, Costello’s fanbase had expanded into the US. It meant that soon enough the singer and his band were planning a US tour with the backing of their new label, 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 was, and is to this day, a huge chance for one’s music to be heard on the biggest stage and, in the pre-internet days, it was about the only way you could go ‘viral’, for want of a better word. After original performers The Sex Pistols pulled out, SNL turned to Elvis Costello and the Attractions to fill the spot.
“We did end up on Saturday Night Live,” Costello recently remembered in an interview with Zane Lowe. “And I just wanted them to remember us. I didn’t really have anything against the show. I was more pissed off at being told what to play by the record company than I was NBC, truthfully. I can’t remember whether I said what I was going to do, but I think I just said, ‘Watch me.'”
Costello, his label and the show’s producers, had agreed prior to the show that they would perform their catchy single ‘Less Than Zero’, a track which was written about disgraced British politician Oswald Mosley who, at the time, was the former leader of the British Union of Fascists. However, as the lights of the famous studio glared down upon him, Costello wouldn’t miss his opportunity. While it certainly was considered the band’s biggest opportunity commercial 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 said before adding: “But there’s no reason to do this song here”.
Instead, Costello and his band rolled into a performance of the song ‘Radio Radio’ which, controversially, includes lyrics that criticised the commercialisation of the airwaves in both television and radio as well as pointed the finger at corporate-controlled broadcasting. Costello had certainly made his statement clear and in the middle of one of the most hostile environments.
Rumour has it that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was beside himself with rage at the time. While watching Costello’s act of rebellion, some reports suggest that Michaels stood with his middle finger raised at the singer for the duration of the performance. Aside from Michaels’ unbridled rage, the performance went down well with the audience. Costello, embodying the spirit of punk, was undeterred by fame and glory and decided that free speech was better tan paid for silence. 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 his 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?'”
Costello would make his return to SNL in 1989, but he would steal the show ten years later as part of the show’s 25th anniversary. The acclaimed rap group Beastie Boys were scheduled to appear on the show to add a little extra grit to the NBC stalwart with their performance of ‘Sabotage’. With Ad-Rock on guitar, Mike D on drums and MCA on bass the group launched into a suitably rock-heavy rendition of the track.
The song would only last a matter of seconds before Elvis Costello seemingly bum-rushed the stage. Costello used the same speech which he used 22 years prior to end the song ‘Less Than Zero’, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here,”. He then took to the mic and started singing his now-iconic ‘Radio Radio’. Within seconds the Beastie Boys were providing ample backing as they clubbed together to create a memorable moment in television history.
See the clips, below.