Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live: The most overrated “punk” moment in TV history.

Much has been made of Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ infamous 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Live, when he stopped mid-song on live television in front of millions of people, started the band into a “scathing” condemnation of corporate control of the airwaves and got himself banned from the show.  It’s been hailed as the ultimate anti-establishment move ever since.  The punkest move ever.  Well, apparently, part of it was…bratiness.

It’s true that the Sex Pistols were originally slated to be the show’s musical guest on December 17, 1977 but, due to some visa screw-ups or prior drug offenses or their manager wanting to keep them out of the public eye, their American visit would be postponed until the following year, when it became their swansong. Contrary to popular belief, Costello was not the show’s first choice to pinch hit. Wanting to replace them with someone else punk, the show didn’t look very far at all: Queens, in fact.  According to Joey Ramone’s autobiography, Commando, the Ramones said no because “We don’t substitute for anybody.” Being on the rise, they figured they’d get asked some other time.  They figured wrong.  The Attractions were on tour in the area, so they got the gig.  Drummer Pete Thomas gave props to Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s poor visa management skills by wearing a shirt that said “THANKS, MALC”.Stopping the show

According to Costello, his record label Columbia Records was claiming to understand the American market better than him and insisted on choosing what two songs he should play, eventually deciding on his recent single “Watching the Detectives” and an odd choice, “Less Than Zero”. The song was the first of Costello’s first three British singles, none of which had charted there. In the US, it was an obscure album track.  Costello was well-aware the song’s Oswald reference would get lost on American audiences and so he actually rewrote the song on this first US visit to refer to Lee Harvey Oswald instead of Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists. That’s possibly why on the show, EC said “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here,” Most importantly, as great as it is, it’s just not THAT catchy as far as pop singles go. Remember, this was a man who’d already written and recorded some seriously hooky songs (“Allison”, “Welcome To the Working Week”, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”).  You’d think that a record label wouldn’t want him to play one of those weird new wave songs.

Years ago, I read an article that casually mentioned a rather important bit of information (if it’s true).  I can’t remember where it was or exactly what or who said it so if there are some archivist/experts out there, please let me know. I thought it was the 1987 book Saturday Night but no dice. Apparently what really set Costello off was that some of the cast members were goofing on him.  What  might’ve happened backstage at 30 Rock?  Did Belushi get a KICK ME sign on old Declan?  Noogies from Billy Murray? Roseanne Rosannadanna call him four-eyes, perhaps?  The SNL cast were huge fans and friends of Monty Python and Lorne Michaels had just offered the Beatles an incredibly low sum to reunite, so there shouldn’t have been anti-British sentiments left over from 1776.hendrix lulu

In frustration, Elvis told his bandmates that he wanted to do what Hendrix had done on the Lulu show in 1969.  They’d been asked to play their recent hit version of “Hey Joe” and Lulu would join them to sing in the end. After accidentally dropping their hash down the sink and getting a BBC janitor to dismantle and save it, the stoned Experience decided to play the song’s first two minutes, stop and then do “Sunshine Of Your Love”, in tribute to the recently disbanded Cream. It was legendary in British rock/TV folklore.

It was definitely a punk move, though Costello would never call himself such. Essentially a garage pop band, the Attractions were still inspired by punk and its attitude, though Costello said he hated the first Clash album when he first heard it.  Then he gave it another chance and was so knocked out that he wrote “Watching The Detectives”.

I’ll never forget what a doorman at San Diego’s famed Casbah club once told me.  I asked him what bands were the worst to deal with and he said that the worst are British bands that are hugely popular at home and have to come to America and play small clubs.  It’s humbling and sometimes makes them really hard to deal with. Maybe there was a bit of that going on in New York that night. Being told what to do by label executives on a show that required extensive rehearsing and down-to-the-second camera blocking was probably not the band’s cup of tea. Put a bunch of annoyed musicians in a studio with a group of notorious pranksters and maybe you get a misplaced “I’ll show YOU.”

How did he show them? By playing a song that’s far catchier than the one he was supposed to play (click to watch the famous clip that doesn’t want to embed here). Yes it was unreleased and would be until the following year but it’s still light years better than “Less Than Zero”.  Was it an obvious attempt to bite the hand that feeds?  Yep but was the sentiment of the song lost on most people hearing it for the first time?  Probably. The genius rapid fire lyrics come quick and it’s easy to mistake it for a celebration of the radio’s golden age without catching digs that contain big words like “anaesthetise”.

If it sounds like a love letter to radio (those are SARCASTIC wonderful/marvelous radios!) that might be because it actually started that way.  In 1974, Elvis’ then-band Flip City recorded a song “Radio Soul”.  A few years later, he kept the music, gave the lyrics more bite when British radio wouldn’t play him initially and a classic tune was born. Just a few days ago, he gave the song its first pubic performance in 35 years at an UBER-punk Apple media event (note: sarcasm). 

One thing I will definitely give Elvis: as comedy goes, the first years of Saturday Night Live are overrated.  As he states in the liner notes of This Year’s Model….

“Maybe something got lost in translation, but none of the humour seemed nearly as “dangerous” or funny as they seemed to think it was, or perhaps they were just having a bad show.”

The format was so new that, for years, they couldn’t get it right. There were lots of great moments in those years but there are so many ridiculously bad and unfunny sketches, it’s almost hard to believe.  We’ve seen the highlights so many times that it’s strange, when you catch a FULL episode, how much of it feels like that last, bad sketch before 1am.  Don’t watch the very first episode.  Just don’t. Plus, the music they booked was horribly hit and miss.  As great as it is to watch the Specials or Replacments make their American television debuts, some of the acts they got for those early years are god awful. Not like now (rolls eyes at Ashlee Simpson).

So was it just that somebody didn’t have much of a sense of humor about themselves?  If you watch any early Costello footage, he’s intense and serious and fantastic.  On SNL, you can definitely tell he’s not a happy man.  During “Watching the Detectives”, the band is completely on FIRE and Elvis is all over the place, to the frustration of the camerapeople (no video link I can find currently, damnit). It’s great television but once I read that it was maybe because someone couldn’t take a joke, it tainted the legend of the event. When Fear played SNL in 1981 at John Belushi’s insistance, stage divers did thousands of dollars worth of damage. THAT was probably the punkest thing that ever happened on the show.

Unbanned in 1989 singing "Veronica"

Unbanned in 1989 singing “Veronica”

Legend has it that producer Lorne Michaels held up his middle finger at the Attractions for the entirety of “Radio Radio”.  He banned Costello from the show but Elvis was interviewed by Tom Snyder on NBC a few years later. Luckily for everyone involved, they got over themselves.  Elvis lightened up in a big way. Given one song to play at Live Aid, he led Wembley in an “All You Need Is Love” singalong.  He had a cameo in Spice World.  He dueted with Elmo. In 1989, after twelve years, both parties laughed it off enough for him to perform on SNL and was invited back just two years later in his rabbi phase. “The Other Side Of Summer” (SNL rehearsal 1991)

The ultimate olive branch happened on the show’s 25th anniversary special n 1999.  I’ll never forget Beastie Boys being introduced and them launching into “Sabotage”, which was five years old at the time. I slumped and thought “Really?”  But before I could switch the channel, out bounds our boy to remind us how good of a sport he was.  Look how carefully the guys who rapped “I’ve got attractions like I’m Elvis Costello” are getting it right.  Keep in mind that Adrock wanted to be Paul Weller before he ever heard Run DMC.  Look at that smile…and Mike D’s THANKS MALC shirt!  I can still picture myself standing in front of the tv with my arms triumphantly over my head, thinking this was the greatest thing I’d ever seen on tv.

It just may have been. 
(permalink for when Youtube deletes it…again)

P.S. Just because I think it was overrated doesn’t mean I don’t love that song….or disrupting a network television show. Hell, when my band played the local NBC affiliate’s morning show and we knew no one would be watching, what the hell do you think I insistsed we play!?

This article has been on the Yer Doin’ Great to-do list for years.  In fact, it was promised to the fantastic Treblezine.com before this page was ever created. Oops.  Thanks to John Losavio for posting a link to today’s AV Club article With “Radio, Radio,” an Angry Young Man turned SNL on its ear for inspiring me to finally get to it…. 

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2 thoughts on “Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live: The most overrated “punk” moment in TV history.

  1. I have never heard this as being referred to as a great “punk” moment, and it’s not because I’m too young to have heard it called that. I’m just a year and some months younger than EC and saw this when it was originally broadcast. I realise that many incorrectly lumped EC & The Attractions in with the punks, and maybe somewhere out there that I’m not aware of, this is being called a “punk” moment, but I’ve never heard it. Reading your (good) article is the first time I’ve ever heard that.

    • A google search will show ya a few. Dangerous Minds called it “a punk move that would have been in the spirit of The Pistols”. What does or doesn’t constitute being punk rock is something i’m not qualified to judge (TOTAL poseur). I love messing with folks like this, but it’s just become overrated over the years in general, even EC says so. Thanks for readin!

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