The PJ Tatler

Elvis Costello Had SNL's Number Back in 1977

Elvis Costello

Thirty-seven years ago tonight, Elvis “I wanna bite the hand that’s feeds me” Costello got himself banned from Saturday Night Live.

The full story is here, and in the cosmic scheme of things, it’s kind of goofy:

The Sex Pistols were actually booked for the Dec. 17, 1977, show, but couldn’t make it, which 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. (…)

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.’

Young readers are probably (rightly) going, “Uh, so what?”

But if you’re as old as I am, the kerfuffle was a really big deal at the time.

We know all the details by heart.

What can I say? We didn’t have a lot else to do.

Except I learned some new tidbits from UltimateClassicRock…

See, Saturday Night Live, then as now, positioned itself as a brave, transgressive, daring artistic force, speaking truth to power and all that.

And 1977 is a season that even latter-day haters usually acknowledge as one of the show’s best, when it was still “cool.” And funny.

But the Costello Affair was an early lesson for some of us:

That sometimes, the “cool” “outsider” “artistes” are just as timid and uptight as the Establishment they pretend to rail against (while it pays their salaries.)

Here’s what I’d never heard before, though:

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.”

Costello, being English, knows a thing or two about “dangerous” and “funny” comedy.

And even in its supposed heyday, Saturday Night Live was neither, as far as he was concerned.

It was just 90-minutes of self-conscious, self-congratulatory posturing, a “controversial,” “edgy” program that held a grudge against a world-class, ratings-getting musician because he played a different song than he was supposed to.

No one who was around in 1977 has any right to be shocked that, since Obama got elected, he’s “had veto power over three SNL sketches.”

Same hypocrisy, different decade.

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