The Stunt That Got Elvis Costello Banned From Saturday Night Live

One of the defining moments in Elvis Costello’s career happened on December 17, 1977, when he appeared on Saturday Night Live. Costello was 23 years old. His debut album, My Aim Is True, had just come out in America a month earlier. When the Sex Pistols were unable to appear on the show as planned (see their last live concert here), Costello and his recently formed band, the Attractions, got their big break.

They were supposed to play his single “Less Than Zero,” a catchy tune about a loathsome politician in England. But only a few bars into the song, Costello put a stop to it. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “but there’s no reason to do this song here.” At that point he and the band launched into “Radio Radio,” a song that takes a jab at corporate-controlled broadcasting. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was furious. According to some reports, he raised his middle finger at Costello and kept it up until the unapproved song was over. Costello was banned from the show for nearly 12 years. You can learn more about the incident by watching this video from the Daily Guru:

The rift between Costello and Michaels eventually healed, and Costello was invited to appear again on Saturday Night Live in the spring of 1989. Ten years after that, on SNL’s 25th anniversary show, Costello went on the show again and parodied his notorious 1977 appearance by bursting onstage while the Beastie Boys were playing “Sabotage” and ordering them to stop. He and the Boys then launched into a raucous version of “Radio Radio”:

In an interview this month with Details magazine, Costello talks a little about the 1977 incident. “They’ve run that clip forever,” he says, “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?’” To see for yourself what Costello is talking about, visit our post, Jimi Hendrix Wreaks Havoc on the Lulu Show, Gets Banned From BBC.

Related Content:

Elvis Costello Sings “Penny Lane” for Sir Paul McCartney

William S. Burroughs on Saturday Night Live, 1981

John Belushi’s Improvised Screen Test for Saturday Night Live (1975)



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  1. Dennis Moeller says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 10:36 am

    How prophetic…RAdio is even more controlled now.And SNL has not been even faintly amusing since 1977.

  2. enid says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 10:39 am

    I love you guys and what you write about. How are you funded?

  3. Erik says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 10:58 am

    Don’t forgot Tina Fey and her parodies of Sarah Palin, they were quite subversive.

  4. Fernando Garci-Crespo C says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 11:03 am

    Im not old enough to know about the 70´s , but when Lovitz and P. Hartman was around it was pretty funny I think.

  5. Peylia_Mod says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 11:07 am

    I was 4 in 1977, but I did see the 25th anniversary show performance (by this time aware of the original ruckus). Sadly, SNL tipped their hat and gave away the gig. At the time, SNL used to play their backstage announcements on their way to commercial break, and there was a distinct “Beastie Boys and Elvis Costello to the stage” heard.

  6. Chromex says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 12:43 pm

    I watched it as a fan live. The “stunt” imo was Michaels trying to dictate what Costello played. The reason Michales was furious , contemporary accounts say , is that Radio, Radio was the song Costello originally proposed and it was nixed by Micheals. Yet Costello was clearly right and brave to defy Michaels, whatever he or Michaels may have later claimed.

  7. Joseph Bloch says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 2:37 pm

    Tina Fey wasn’t “subversive” at all. She was taking cheap shots at an easy target.

  8. Joseph Bloch says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 2:37 pm

    Tina Fey wasn’t “subversive” at all. She was taking cheap shots at an easy target.

  9. nurp says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 2:42 pm

    I doubt they need funding. They link to free content hosted elsewhere on the web and occasionally write an article.

  10. scumbumb says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 2:43 pm

    Costello remains extremely relevant in 2013 and Saturday Night Live hasn’t even bordered on being nearly relevant in at least twenty years.

  11. Commie Dearest says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 4:11 pm

    …an easy target jumping up and and down screaming “Shoot me! Shoot me!

  12. Chum Lee Jr says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 5:38 pm

    I love Elvis Costello…nnn(no homo)

  13. Gary Brent Bennett says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 5:43 pm

    How is it that Will Ferrell introduces the Beastie Boys, in 1989, when he didn’t join the cast until 1995?

  14. joemichaels says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 5:48 pm

    I heard what might be an apocryphal background to this: Supposedly, Costello hadn’t heard of SNL in the UK. And the cast ripped him all week about it. His rehearsals allowed the camera crew to determine angles, featuring solos, etc. When he switched the song, he was thumbing his nose at the show. Of course, the camera shots are all awkward.

  15. Guest says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 5:48 pm

    …obviously, SNL cant have a 25th anniversary in 1989… seriously, who is driving this bus??? I want off!

  16. declan m says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 6:50 pm

    pretty exciting, I remember it well, it stoked his angry young man personna. But really, the cameras know where to go during the drum fills and that little organ interlude. I smell a rat….

  17. Zach says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 7:29 pm

    Read the sentences carefully, in order. “Costello appeared again on Saturday Night Live on March 25, 1989. Ten years later, on SNLu2019s 25th anniversary show”. The anniversary show was __ten years after__ 1989 (1999, that is).

  18. lori says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 7:40 pm

    The article says that Elvis appeared in 1989. Then there begins a new sentence that says “Ten years later…” meaning that The 25th anniversary show was in 1999.

  19. Chirpy says . . . | September 27, 2013 / 9:39 pm

    Wrong, especially considering the semi-recent electoral hijinx.

  20. Matt says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 4:54 am

    Hell, I wanted to hear ‘Sabotage’

  21. Ricardus says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 6:18 am

    Nearly anyone certainly can NOT produce professional quality audio. Just because you have a computer, does not mean you’re an audio engineer, or a designer. I listen to the records made by people in their homes, and I give them an E for effort, but the quality of the tones is generally pretty bad and the mixes are awful. It took me 20 years of mixing nearly every day, before I had any IDEA of how to make a professional sounding mix.

  22. Ricardus says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 6:20 am

    Right. While I agree they weren’t “subversive,” they weren’t cheap shots either. SP is as dumb as a stump, and her ridiculously uninformed comments, and belief system in general was just begging to be lampooned. Heck, in one skit, SNL just used the exact transcript of WHAT SHE ACTUALLY SAID IN AN INTERVIEW, without changing a word. THAT’S how stupid the things were, that SP used to (and continues to) say.

  23. Ricardus says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 6:22 am

    I still never understood why Lorne Michaels would have been so upset at Elvis, for ignoring a record label’s orders. SNL was a big counter-culture show back then, Lorne should have loved it. I still don’t think we’ve heard the whole truth yet.

  24. Jasper Huxley says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 7:30 am

    Nirvana did this on some UK talk show. They played a few bars of Lithium, then launched into Territorial Pissings. Awesome.

  25. plina says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 8:00 am

    ah Elvis Costello, a true legend… Love him and his music

  26. COBRACHOPPERGIRL says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 8:12 am

    Wow, I watched both clips, and the “rebellion” parts, and I saw really not much rebellion at all. Maybe because the context has been lost to time, but its not even noticable today… how exactly is what they are doing… going to piss of anybody? The Radio Radio lyrics don’t seem offensive, and Hendrix sliding off and singing a little tribute to Cream just doesn’t make anyone blink an eye today. nnNow maybe if they had sung a Vietnam protest song, like “Fortunate Son”, “War, what is it good for”, “Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die” or any of the awesome biting, stabbing protest songs against government and corporate militarism, I could see it… but these two incidents… I just don’t see it.

  27. wowemily says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 8:33 am

    I’ve heard Costello’s song a thousand times and never thought about rebelling for an instant. He’s always struck me as a square guy desperate to be cool, and I honestly can’t understand what he is saying anyway. Just went and listened to the Hendrix song mentioned here, and it felt a thousand times more revolutionary. “Stand right next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand.” You can’t get any more revolutionary than that. Costello just sounds like he is reading a dictionary; Hendrix touches the soul. So Costello and Lorne can go have their nerd war and chew on each other’s middle fingers. Who cares?

  28. Anne Noise says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 9:18 am

    Rick Rubin, is that you?

  29. wowemily says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 10:04 am

    And if you believe that this wasn’t planned by Costello in advance … you’re nuts. Every one just happens to have their instruments set to play a totally different song? The keyboardist didn’t have to switch a single setting on his little mini organ to get that god awful carnival merry-go-round sound. Please. This guys was just trying to get some attention.

  30. wowemily says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 10:06 am

    Yeah, I don’t think a democrat parodying an over the top conservative is subversive. If anything, it was just mainstream going after mainstream.

  31. Ricardus says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 10:19 am

    :-)

  32. menevets says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 11:06 am

    Damn you Clear Channel. Damn you all to hell!

  33. Erik says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 11:08 am

    I think you interpreted my statement a little too literally. I’m sure you make some excellent mixes, but that’s not the issue. Can you really say that access to professional equipment–let alone professional studio time and publication–is the same as it was?

  34. Erik says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 11:11 am

    I was thinking in particular about when she told the media to “get some.”

  35. Ricardus says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 11:50 am

    Costs have certainly come down. No doubt about that. No argument there! :-)nnnBut a lot of the gear you can buy inexpensively, at major music retailers, that they call “pro,” isn’t really what they are using at Blackbird studios in Nashville.nnnBut access to really good gear, and really good studios is probably a little less because they recognize the market has changed. That’s simply a fact of life. But if you want to record at a great studio in Manhattan, it still costs real money.nnnThe best solution right now, would be to track your record yourself, or at a lesser studio with decent gear, and pay a really talented engineer at a good studio to mix it.nnYES. You can go to GC and buy a few $50 mics, and a basic audio interface, and make a record with free software like Ardour (for linux) or Reaper, but pros really can hear the difference.nnSure, things are different, sometimes cheaper, but not necessarily better.

  36. Rene Beaurline says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 12:13 pm

    You got that right. I haven’t been able to sit through an episode since the late 70′s. If I did it was because I fell asleep.

  37. coryfrye says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 12:15 pm
  38. Erik says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 1:04 pm

    I have no dispute with that. There is a lot of parallels with audio production in film production (well, of course, it includes audio, but you know what I mean). I remember attending a panel discussion on the emergence of digital film, and Ang Lee made a point exactly like yours, saying that he much preferred the quality of analog film and implying that it was better that only top talent got access to it. Then Rob Nilsson, a local filmmaker, talented in his own right, who had done things like transfer video to analog film, and who was embracing the emerging digital technology, said that it didn’t really matter what media you used, you could be a caveman painting on a wall and still create an incredible work of art. Everyone burst out in applause, and Lee fell silent.

  39. Ricardus says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 4:14 pm

    My point is media agnostic, although I do recognize that most home studios can not afford an analog machine, OR its upkeep, OR the media. :-)nnnMy point is a $50 mic does NOT sound like a Neumann, and cheap A/D converters do not sound like great converters. Say nothing of the well designed acoustic spaces that studios have, that home recordists do not, or a well balanced mix room. Plus home recordists simply don’t know any recording techniques.nnnI was sent a project to mix a few months ago, and he sent me a pic of where he placed the drum mics when he recorded the drums, and I shuddered! I had never seen anything like that bad placement before in my life! :-)nnnMy argument was never that you could not do good work with digital. While I am lucky enough to have an analog deck at one of the studios I work at, most of my work is digital.

  40. Adam B. says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 4:54 pm

    At the 1992 VMAs, they started with (the forbidden) “Rape Me” before switching to “Lithium,” which they had initially agreed to play.

  41. Nerd says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 5:12 pm

    Huh? This is the 70s:nnnI wanna bite the hand that feeds menI wanna bite that hand so badlynI want to make them wish they’d never seen mennnnYou either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about itnIt’s only inches on the reel-to-reelnAnd the radio is in the hands of such a lot of foolsnTryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feelnnnnThe song is remarkably subversive.

  42. David Hammerbeck says . . . | September 28, 2013 / 9:46 pm

    Used to like Elvis before he decided that he wanted to be Burt Bacharach.

  43. VetTeacher says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 5:44 am

    Wow. That was really horrible. Michaels was right. And I don’t say that very often.

  44. konyc says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 8:43 am

    A few corrections: “My Aim Is True” was already out in the States, had come out the month before. The Pistols may have had visa problems, but their non-appearance was more the result of Malcolm McLaren’s demands–thus, Attractions drummer Pete Thomas’ “Thanks, Malc” t-shirt. And it always seemed to me that Lorne Michaels’ reaction had less to do with the perceived anti-corporate lyrics of an unreleased song than the fact that Elvis’ stunt screwed up the timing of a live broadcast, one that understandably is blocked out to the nanosecond.

  45. huxley says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 10:05 am

    Or “They say you better listen to the voice of reason / But they don’t give you any choice, ’cause they think that it’s treason / So you had better do as you are told, You better listen to the radio”

  46. fredvainas says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 2:09 pm

    Well, there’s a pile of generalizations, and no respect for a man who changed music, and died by unfortunate accident. So sad that you show so little compassion.

  47. fredvainas says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 2:11 pm

    I think the camera operators and their director knew the song, and could think on their feet.

  48. Michael Springer says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 3:01 pm

    konyc,nnnThanks for your comment. There are a great many sources online that give the release date of My Aim is True as March of 1978, starting with Wikipedia and the Daily Guru video we embedded above, and including many more. But your comment concerned me, so I dug a little deeper. It appears you are right. Costello’s biographer Graham Thomson, in his book Complicated Shadows, writes that the album was brought out in America by Columbia Records in time to coincide with Elvis’s month-long tour of the U.S., which began November 15, 1977. He writes that 100,000 records had already been sold by the middle of the tour. So I have made the correction. Thank you for calling the problem to my attention.nnnI didn’t write anything about why the Sex Pistols were unable to appear. But all of the sources I’ve been able to find indicate that it had to do with the visa problem. So the “Thanks Malc” t-shirt may have been a playful jab at McLaren for his mismanagement in booking the band for work in the U.S. before he knew they could travel there. If you have some specific information about any demands he made that caused the problem, please share it.nnnAs for the source of Michaels’s anger, I didn’t mean to imply that he was angry about the lyrics of “Radio Radio,” any more than I would imagine he wanted Costello to play “Less Than Zero” because he wanted to make a statement about far-right British politics. Of course it was the timing. It’s also obvious that Michaels would have been infuriated by the loss of control — by having a loose canon veer off-script and do whatever he felt like on live television.nnnMike

  49. L02E says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 5:53 pm

    Someone needs to actually listen to the ‘Radio, Radio’ lyrics. The song is about the government’s total control of radio in Britain. At the time the song was written, to hear anything not on government-controlled radio, people had to listen to pirate broadcasters operating pirate radio stations off the UK coast.nnnI get that the attitude could apply to corporatization of US radio, but that isn’t what the song is about.

  50. wowemily says . . . | September 29, 2013 / 8:29 pm

    Nerds do good and bad things, just like everyone else. Don’t act like you’re a member of some special “world-changing” club. You’re not. You’re just angry, sport. So go out there, stand next to a mountain, and chop it down with the edge of your hand.

  51. _Orwell says . . . | September 30, 2013 / 12:50 pm

    One of the best live performances on SNL, without a doubt. Lorne Michaels was just being an ass.

  52. pamb says . . . | October 1, 2013 / 1:51 pm

    Dude, the constant cuts in the ‘talking head’ part of the video was so distracting that I didn’t even watch Elvis!

  53. Joe Moless says . . . | October 4, 2013 / 8:30 pm

    A GREAT MOMENT IN ROCK!

  54. Silk says . . . | November 20, 2013 / 7:33 pm

    Lorne Michaels typical JEW reaction! Go against the program (Jew) and get cut or banned or worse! Typical Jew! No wonder Elvis Costello and I hate them so much!

  55. Inis_Magrath says . . . | December 17, 2013 / 1:04 pm

    No comparison. Elvis Costello is a great song writer and rock n roll legend, but Hendrix is a Rock God.

  56. James Coughlin says . . . | December 30, 2013 / 9:09 pm

    Hey Silk, have you burned any books lately; maybe you should consider a Jewish musician named Bob Dylan who went against the program in many ways…

  57. Bucky Wunderlich says . . . | March 1, 2014 / 2:38 pm

    The Replacements never kissed and made up with SNL — nor ever got invited back. That’s true rebellion — or commercial suicide, depending on your take…

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