How Elvis Costello Got Banned From ‘Saturday Night Live’
Elvis Costello gave shape to his own budding career with a rebellious move on Saturday Night Live, switching mid-song into a diatribe against corporate-controlled broadcasting -- and getting himself banned from the show for a dozen years.
Thing is, Costello was never supposed to be there in the first place, and he's admitted he got the idea from a legendary classic rocker, not the punk scene.
The Sex Pistols were actually booked for the Dec. 17, 1977, show, but couldn't make it. That opened the door for Costello, whose debut, My Aim Is True, had just come out in the U.S. Allegedly, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had mismanaged their visa applications, so Costello's drummer, Pete Thomas, sported a T-shirt on SNL that night that read, "Thanks, Malc." The show's producers also reportedly approached the Ramones about filling in, but they refused. ("We don’t substitute for anybody," Joey Ramone wrote in this autobiography, Commando.)
Costello and the Attractions were touring the area at the time and agreed to perform. His new label tried to tell him what to play on the show -- namely, his latest U.K. single "Less Than Zero." But Costello felt that the song (about a particularly vilified English politician named Oswald Mosley, leader of the Union of Fascists) wasn't likely to resonate with Americans.
So, a few bars in, Costello stepped to the microphone on live television and said, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here." The Attractions then launched into a scorching version of "Radio Radio," creating a decades-plus rift between Costello and SNL.
But the last-second switch wasn't inspired by the punks whom Costello was being lumped in with. In fact, he said it was a similar 1969 stunt by Jimi Hendrix that served as inspiration. "They’ve run that clip forever," Costello later told Details, "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?'"
Elvis Costello wasn't invited to appear on Saturday Night Live again until 1989. It was another 10 years before he felt confident enough to directly reference his moment of rebellion, when he rushed the stage during SNL's 25th anniversary special while the Beastie Boys were playing "Sabotage," ordered them to stop and then launched into a raucous version of, you guessed it, "Radio Radio."
Ultimately, the Ramones were never given another shot at playing Saturday Night Live. The Sex Pistols eventually did appear a year later but, by 1978, they were imploding, and the original group would never tour again. Meanwhile, Costello said he came away from the experience less than impressed with SNL. "Maybe something got lost in translation," Costello wrote in the liner notes of This Year’s Model's reissue, "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."
Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michael had his own steely response that fabled night, reportedly holding up his middle finger the entire time Costello and the Attractions performed "Radio Radio."