What's the real story with Elvis Costello and SNL?
September 27, 2009 7:57 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know the real story behind Elvis Costello's performance of "Radio Radio" on Saturday Night Live, specifically the real reason he wasn't invited back for so long?

OK, so I've always heard that the reason Lorne Michaels was so upset with him was one of two reasons, or a bit of both. Everything one could find with, say, a Google search for "elvis costello snl" will tell one of these two stories, without quoting anyone or citing any sources, so I'm hoping for actual quotes from people involved, etc.

1. "Radio Radio" has very anti-media, anti-corporate lyrics, and the network had specifically refused to allow Costello to play it for that reason, he agreed to do "Less Than Zero" instead, then played it anyway. This got Michaels heat from above. The problem with this story is while "Radio Radio" is certainly something that 1970s network exec types might balk at, SNL was doing far more controversial stuff than that, and it doesn't seem like that big a deal compared to all the blatant drug references, etc. that they got away with every week.

2. Costello had done "Less Than Zero" at all the dress rehearsals, etc. and the show's format, which has to be accurate down to the second, had planned for "Less Than Zero", then he played a completely different song and fucked up the whole show. The problem with this story is that I have Season 3 on DVD, and in the episode with Costello (hosted by Miskel Spillman), "Radio Radio" is the second song he does (after "Watching The Detectives"), and it's done right before the closing credits. The only thing it could have screwed up is cutting the closing "I'd like to thank...", etc. scene's time. Now, it could be that the DVD version of the episode is edited from what originally aired, but the musical guests on SNL did play their second song right before the end of the show quite often.

If anything, given the hip, countercultural image that SNL tried to cultivate in the 70s, you'd think that everyone would have been happy. It's certainly one of the show's most celebrated moments. So why was Costello blackballed for over 10 years? Is the whole "he wasn't invited back" story even true at all? Maybe he just didn't happen to play on SNL for that long.
posted by DecemberBoy to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, Wikipedia has a different version from either of the two you list, based on the fact that Columbia Records wanted an already-established song to be played on the air. The article states that Costello's own account appears in the liner notes of the 2002 reissue of This Year's Model. I don't have that version so I can't go check for you.

Related from the blue.
posted by cabingirl at 8:19 PM on September 27, 2009


I've never heard the "blacklisted" story, at all.

At the time, the DJ's I listened to in SF said that his record label was insistent about pushing the new single, which wrested control of Elvis' playlist out of his own hands and pissed him right off. They gave him kudos for pulling such an anarchistic move on live tv.

And I didn't feel it fucked up the show, at all. It was classic live tv and exactly what we tuned into SNL for, back in those days...that and to see just how high Belushi et al were....
posted by squasha at 8:21 PM on September 27, 2009


According to this source, it was because it put the show behind schedule. Blame that fiery Canuck Lorne Michaels.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:21 PM on September 27, 2009


I always assumed it was just a PR stunt and that nobody's feelings were really all that hurt, but I'm cynical like that.
posted by willnot at 8:44 PM on September 27, 2009


Version (1) is the story I have heard, and it's all over the Internet... but of course that's no guarantee that it's actually, like, true.

A few references here, none definitive.

It's clearly the well-known version of events, though. The whole conflict was parodied in the (very great) 1992 movie "Bob Roberts".
posted by rokusan at 9:13 PM on September 27, 2009


You either shut up or get cut up, they don't wanna hear about it
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel


Pretty strong stuff. For the next few hours you can view it here. It still irks the powers that be enough that it seems to be immediately removed everywhere it gets posted. Elvis was the man.

This performance was legendary and I always thought that his bannination was much more about his defiance (think quonsar here, although that is a few magnitudes greater) than any particular beef with lyrics etc.
posted by caddis at 12:51 AM on September 28, 2009


While I don't recall if Elvis Costello story is specifically covered in this book it does however mention that improvisation (except for Weekend Update anchors) is verboten for cast members so I can only imagine what would happen if a guest did it.
posted by mmascolino at 6:11 AM on September 28, 2009


> At the time, the DJ's I listened to in SF said that his record label was insistent about pushing the new single, which wrested control of Elvis' playlist out of his own hands and pissed him right off.

But why would SNL care if he pissed off his label? And as for the defiance part, surely SNL was used to rebel musicians?

Thanks for the link, caddis: that performance always makes my day.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on September 28, 2009


I have no trouble seeing a difference between the kind of drug and sex-related stuff they got away with all the time and Costello's callout of the media business - in the eyes of the media business. The former is sort of winked at and secretly encouraged since it's that edgy quality that makes people tune in. "Those comedians! What can we do? They're incorrigible!" But the latter, well that's insulting us.

However, reading the rest of Hardcore Poser's list of people who have been banned from SNL, it seems that Lorne Michaels just really, really doesn't like surprises, and winging anything during the show is a great way to piss him off and not get invited back.
posted by Naberius at 8:00 AM on September 28, 2009


Could it have had something to do with the Ray Charles incident? (see Elvis wikipedia page) I can see the producers wanting to keep clear of that controversy.
posted by canoehead at 8:10 AM on September 28, 2009


The problem with this story is while "Radio Radio" is certainly something that 1970s network exec types might balk at, SNL was doing far more controversial stuff than that, and it doesn't seem like that big a deal compared to all the blatant drug references, etc. that they got away with every week.

Seconding that drug and sex references get people tuning in, and that criticizing corporate/media censoring practices just makes the network look foolish (by having an invited guest criticize them live).

For the version I had heard, it was a mixture of your two stories and the one about the network wanting an established song. I had always heard Elvis wanted to debut "Radio, Radio" right before "This Year's Model" came out. Network wanted an established song, demanded "Less Than Zero." Everything was scheduled according to that song. Show ran late. Elvis also claimed he felt the show had been really lackluster, unfunny, and generally uninteresting. Elvis decided to seize the opportunity of being on live television. Started playing "Less Than Zero" and instead called it off. Cue'd up band to play "Radio, Radio." Show did not want to look out of control, let the whole song air rather than cut it off. Elvis is banned, next time showing up on the 25th anniversary show to interrupt the Beastie Boys.*

As for why being banned, well, I honestly think Lorne has a reputation for holding a grudge. Ive heard stories from cast members where they were severely criticized for having a sketch go long because the audience was laughing (Jay Mohr claimed it happened to him with a skit he was doing about Christopher Walkins for skittles). And then there was the fallout from Sinead O'Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope on air. Even though the show is live, it needs to run on schedule, so political stunt puling and improving is seriously frowned upon.

*All of my source information fr this is various VH1 shows about SNL, Elvis Costello and Behind the Musics for specific years, as well as multiple interviews with Costello. How much people are protecting, glamorizing or victimizing themselves in their versions of the stories is pretty difficult to tell. Still, from multiple vantage points, this is the story as I have come to understand it.
posted by piratebowling at 9:00 AM on September 28, 2009


piratebowling - Elvis is banned, next time showing up on the 25th anniversary show to interrupt the Beastie Boys.*
Except he was back before that - in 1989 and 1991.

(Just nitpicking :))
posted by sprocket87 at 10:46 AM on September 28, 2009


It's cool, sprocket87. I misremembered.
posted by piratebowling at 6:07 PM on September 28, 2009


« Older Silencing squeaky floorboards.   |   Nose-Breathing Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.