The stunt that got Elvis Costello banned from Saturday Night Live



When I saw the preview image of the video, I was like “WTF kind of set is he performing on? That’s not the SNL stage from the late 90’s” - then I saw the title of the video says 1977. :wink:

Now I’m going to have to go look up lyrics to see why it was provocative.

Okay, looked them up. I don’t get it. Was it that it was a longer song than promised?

heres the beastie boys pulling the same stunt


I’ll give you a hint: NBC has a radio network.

Put yourself in Lorne MIchael’s shoes. Imagine the conversation with your boss if you signed an entertainer who used the network’s precious airtime to call you and your management a bunch of facists.

Maybe that was just a bigger deal in 1977. I remember it and thought it was totally great.

On second thought, you also have to remember this happened at a time before the internet and before cable TV really took off. So the position of ABC/NBC/CBS as media monopolies was a lot stronger than it is today.




As someone who works in TV, I can tell you beyond the message is the production. SNL is timed to the second because it’s live and it has a set time slot. Each segment is timed out such that you get all of your content in while allowing for all of the sold commercial space. If you rehearse a song and it’s 2:20 long, but your act changes it up and runs 2:52 instead, you run into trouble with the broadcast and subsequently can throw off the rest of the night.


Oh, that makes so much sense. I didn’t know they owned a radio station. Still, it seems hypocritical since they made fun of everything else on that show, right? Lorne Michaels is a serious grudge holder, ten years?

Saw that happen live in high school, and was not impressed by Mr. Costello. But I was wrong about that.


It goes a bit deeper than that. The name of the company who owned NBC until 1986 was the once gigantic but now defunct RADIO CORPORATION of AMERICA. NBC itself didn’t own one radio station, but at least 20 (and that was after they had split some of the off years earlier).

Basically, the song is a middle finger to the company that was broadcasting it, even if it was a pretty mild statement in the greater scheme of things. NBC was all for dangerous comedy…you know, when it wasn’t about THEM.


What’s saturday night live?


Apparently there were a couple things behind it. Costello wanted to play Radio Radio, but his record company wanted to push Less Than Zero as the first single from the album he was promoting. But Less Than Zero was pretty specifically about an English fascist politician that Americans wouldn’t be familiar with or concerned about, so Costello didn’t see the point. Supposedly the sponsors and network were uncomfortable with a song that was so openly critical of mass media in general and commercial radio in specific. So Costello initially agreed to play Less Then Zero as his label dictated. He clearly changed his mind. Pissing off his label and the network significantly. Michaels on the other hand is a noted control freak with a habit of banning people from the show. He likely banned Costello just for pissing him off. He hadn’t done as he agreed and threw the timing of the show off completely. I’m sure all the pissed off executives didn’t help matters.

Least ways that’s how I heard it.


Yes, 1977, bit no, it had nothing to do with Radio, Radio. At least not from the stand-point of Mr. Michaels, NBC, or any of the SNL crew. On the other hand, I suspect the choice of song was quite deliberate on the part of Mr. Costello.

But pilot had it right. Michaels was pissed at Costello for changing the performance mid-stream, after it had been rehearsed several times with the original song (Less Than Zero). All of the TV crew’s cues and moves were based on the original song, and they had to wing it on the replacement. I watched it live on TV, and read an interview with Michaels shortly after, castigating Costello for pulling this stunt and screwing up the schedule.


You gotta remember Michaels works for a bunch of ninnies (OH, don’t we all.) and is a master of walking the line, picking his battles. Mostly though, I am with the camp that says this is about control. You can’t allow the talent to start calling the shots. Everything will go to hell.

It’s a good song though. I wasn’t into the guy then. It is fun to see all those “New Wave” moves like the waddling walk and intentionally nerdy look. That was totally new then and now is so ingrained in the culture.


You had better do what you are told.


Back then it was still live from New York, but it was just “Saturday Night”

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I remember seeing it and thinking “what a phony, set-up stunt.” I figured it was all planned. Cause I was so smart, and cynical.

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exactly, I thought it was part of the act. Well, I guess it was part of the act, but it just seemed pretentious to me.

That’s Costello again interrupting them in self-parody.

I was watching and as one of the few people in the USA that had actually heard Costello’s first album , at that time only available as an import,( hush , hush post vinyl generations), I was stoked that Elvis and the Attractions were to preform on my favorite TV show.
The originally scheduled band was to be the Sex Pistols…did Lorne really think they were going to play by schedule and what was asked?

I saw at once what Elvis was doing and if Micheals raised a middle finger, Costello did it first.

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