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The Story Behind the Song: Elvis Costello's genre-defying debut 'Less Than Zero'

@TomTaylorFO

By 1977 punk had been dragged up by the bootstraps of rock ‘n’ roll and was in full snarling swing. Amidst the viscous milieu of the era came the strange new wave presence of the bespectacled Elvis Costello. With his very first single he snatched upon the political angle of punk and spun it out in his own poetic way. 

‘Less Than Zero’ may not have marked Costello out as a new singular superstar for the masses as the track somehow failed to chart, but to those with their ear to the ground, the song announced him as someone who was about to create a seismic stir. 

On the liner notes for the Rhino edition of his debut album, the smash-hit My Aim Is True, Costello explains, “’Less Than Zero’ was a song I had written after seeing the despicable Oswald Mosley being interviewed on BBC television. The former leader of the British Union of Fascists seemed unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930s. The song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument.”

Mosley was a totalitarian who rose to prominence in post-first World War Britain, and his despicable diatribe resurfaced again in the 1970s when the former politician made a series of television appearances, seemingly showing no remorse for his behaviour in the build-up to World War II. 

Costello was one of the few British artists at the time who achieved instant success in the States, however, he had reservations about playing ‘Less Than Zero’ on the far side of the pond owing to its inherent Britishness. In his autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, Costello explains how he managed to Americanise the lyrics, “I’m not sure if anyone in Cleveland [on the night of his first-ever show in America] had ever heard of Oswald Mosley or gave a damn about him when we played ‘Less Than Zero’ that night. It was just some rock and roll music with a fashionable-sounding title.”

This later led Costello to change the lyrics to reflect the narrative of another bastardly Oswald: this time Lee Harvey Oswald. However, this adaptation did not come until after the star was set for his debut on Saturday Night Live on December 17th, 1977. Following pressure from his record company and TV executives Costello agreed to play ‘Less Than Zero’. He started the track up as normal but after the first few bars, he called the performance to a halt and launched straight into ‘Radio Radio’, a track which he thought American audiences would find it easier to relate to. This seemingly benign stunt actually ended up getting Costello banned from the show for over a decade until he reappeared in 1989. 

The single and the Saturday Night Live kerfuffle that accompanied it serve as a decent encapsulation of what Costello represented as a whole. He entered the fray embodying the energy and visceral political overtones of the punks, along with the wit, wisdom and poetry to layer it with poignancy and purpose. He had the singular creative intent to go his own way and cause quite a stir while he was at it. 

This triumvirate of talents endeared him to the masses of America, and one such fan was the soon-to-be novelist Bret Easton Ellis who perfectly described the appeal of Costello when he explained why he named his debut novel after his first single, “Why did I name my first book after an Elvis Costello song? Who knows?” he told NME in 2007. “I was working on this project starting when I was 16, and it was the ‘Less Than Zero’ project. I was like most white, upper-class, educated boys: I was obsessed with Elvis Costello. That was his main audience in the US. That title seemed very evocative to me. It had various other titles, but Less Than Zero ultimately seemed like the best title for the book, even though I had this much older professor who really loved the book but tried to dissuade me from using that title because he thought it was lame. He suggested Winter Vacation. Elvis Costello became the man for me for very many years.” 

Despite the changing political world, the song remains as relevant and fresh as ever. Its Wailers sounding guitar tones but lack of reggae syncopations and punk like lyrical delivery earmarked Costello as a genre-defying force from the get-go.

You can listen to the scintillating debut single below.

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