Now Playing: “Radio, Radio” – Elvis Costello and the Attractions Live on Saturday Night Live – December 17, 1977

by | Jun 9, 2024 | 0 comments

Prior to the days of social media information dumps and viral moments, Saturday Night Live was the place to be heard and to be seen. A cultural touchstone, many a career were jump started by an appearance as the featured musical guest on the legendary late night variety show. SNL creator Lorne Michaels had a rule that all musical guests were to play live on stage keeping with the theme of each episode, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

One of the most infamous musical guests to perform on the show was Elvis Costello and the Attractions in the winter of 1977. A performance cemented in rock and roll history and a zeitgeist of Costello’s early career. The Sex Pistols were originally scheduled to appear on the show, but due to visa issues could not make the date. The Ramones were tagged as replacements but refused to be second choices to the Sex Pistols. Luckily enough Costello and his band were waiting in the wings and fearlessly took on the date.

Costello and the Attractions were just starting to climb the rungs of their popularity. Costello’s debut record My Aim is True had reached 14 on the UK charts in August. Their edgy cool aesthetic and anthemic songs were the perfect collaboration of melody and attitude. My Aim is True was released in the United States in November by Columbia Records and the single “Watching the Detectives,” was quickly gaining popularity. Their appearance on SNL was made during the band’s first US tour.

Costello and the Attractions were to play two songs for the television audience. The aforementioned “Watching the Detectives,” and the song “Less Than Zero.” Columbia Records had directed the band to play these songs in their set to promote the record. Costello thought “Less Than Zero” was “too low key,” and that the American audiences would not care about its references to British fascist Oswald Mosley. He had his own idea on how to introduce his band to an American audience.

Dressed in a soft blue suit and trademark horn-rimmed glasses Costello and the Attractions opened their performance with “Watching the Detectives.” Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas, can be seen wearing a T-shirt that night that read, “Thanks, Malc,” a reference to the Sex Pistols manager who had been responsible for the mix up preventing them from playing the show. It worked out perfectly in Costello and his bandmates favor.

Following a commercial break the band returned to play “Less Than Zero.” Costello remembered in his biography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, “I’m not sure if anyone in Cleveland 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”.

Costello knew the yet unreleased cut, “Radio, Radio,” was a much more appropriate choice with its commentary on corporate interests taking over the airwaves. Inspired by the BBC’s penchant for banning songs and the commercialization of English radio, it was the perfect song for an essential moment. A fuck you piece of punky power pop, but with a message.

LINK: Costello later said his improvised on-air move was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 television appearance on the Lulu show where Hendrix stopped the Experience’s performance of “Hey Joe,” after only a brief tease before launching unexpectedly in “Sunshine of Your Love,” as a tribute to the recently broken up Cream.

After starting “Less than Zero,”, Costello only made it through the first couple of lines before he suddenly turned his back to the audience and halted the band with an agitated waving of his arms and a shout of “Stop, stop!” He then said into the microphone, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen there’s no reason to do this song here.” After a short pause Costello and the Attractions launched into an aggressive version of “Radio, Radio,” a song that would not be released as a single until October 1978.

Costello stood stoically and scrubbed the paint off his now iconic Fender Jazzmaster. In what he referred to as the “spy movie,” sound, Costello stabbed at his instrument driving its wiry rhythm through the television.

The band thrashed relentlessly through the song with pointed playing. They twisted the song’s Bakelite radio dial to dust. Everything amazing about rock and roll is encapsulated in the three minutes of broadcast. Costello’s movements are hard and intentional. Acting as a headmaster of rock, his conservative look contrasts his manic playing. He spits out the lyrics like bad medicine. The band is right there with him at every break as Steve Neive’s organ splays delicious color over the static churn of the rhythm section.

Costello must have gotten great joy out of singing the lines, “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly. I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.” He preaches and points, ensuring the crowd is understanding of the lyrics as well as his intent. Sneering and dismissive Costello shakes like he’s completing a circuit.  Costello said to Howard Stern in 2015, “Come on, live is in the name of the show, it’s like a bit of a clue … My scrap was really with the record company.”

Even today the energy of the performance is palpable from the footage. The band’s goal was accomplished, and with the performance complete an audience of hipsters, punks, and rockers were converted. Years later it is a defining moment in Costello’s long and storied career. He remembered the performance in a January 2021 interview with Zane Lowe. He said that he took offense at being told what the band could play, and so he decided to play something entirely different. “I just wanted them to remember us,” I didn’t really have anything against the show.” Because of the performance on SNL, “Radio, Radio” would be added to the American version of Costello’s next record, Next Year’s Model.

Legend has it that Lorne Michaels was so enraged with Costello’s audacity to change the program that he stood with his middle finger extended at the band. Costello would be banned from the show for 20 years for his actions. Ironically enough, he would appear in 1998 when the Beastie Boys were the musical guests and interrupt their performance of “Sabotage,” like it was 1977.  He then blasted into “Radio, Radio” with the Beasties backing him enthusiastically. Right down to the “Thanks, Malc,” shirt worn by Mike D of the Beastie Boys, the 1998 show offered humorous retribution for Costello after two decades had passed since his debut.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1977 is a musical moment that endures not only because of the band’s refusal to back down from corporate interference. But for their unapologetic attitude and unabashed artistic expression. The exact elements that make rock and roll music special.

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