The Stunt That Got Elvis Costello Banned From Saturday Night Live (1977)

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.

Also see: 5 Musical Guests Banned From Saturday Night Live: From Sinead O’Connor to Frank Zappa

Related Content:

The Night John Belushi Booked the Punk Band Fear on Saturday Night Live, And They Got Banned from the Show

Elvis Costello Sings “Penny Lane” for Sir Paul McCartney

William S. Burroughs on Saturday Night Live, 1981

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Comments (72)
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  • Dennis Moeller says:

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

    • Erik says:

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

      • Joseph Bloch says:

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

        • Commie Dearest says:

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

          • Ricardus says:

            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.

      • Joseph Bloch says:

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

      • Ricardus says:

        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.

        • Anne Noise says:

          Rick Rubin, is that you?

        • Erik says:

          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?

          • Ricardus says:

            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.

          • Erik says:

            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.

          • Ricardus says:

            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.

      • wowemily says:

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

      • Erik says:

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

    • Fernando Garci-Crespo C says:

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

    • menevets says:

      Damn you Clear Channel. Damn you all to hell!

    • Rene Beaurline says:

      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.

    • Dennis Moeller says:

      No.The target audience is layabouts who would not know humour if it bit them on the ass.Subtle and ironic and double entandre completely escapes people who’s belt size is higher than their i.q.

  • enid says:

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

  • Peylia_Mod says:

    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.

  • Chromex says:

    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.

  • scumbumb says:

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

  • Chum Lee Jr says:

    I love Elvis Costello…nnn(no homo)

  • Gary Brent Bennett says:

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

    • Guest says:

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

      • lori says:

        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.

    • Zach says:

      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).

  • joemichaels says:

    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.

  • declan m says:

    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….

  • Matt says:

    Hell, I wanted to hear ‘Sabotage’

  • Ricardus says:

    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.

  • Jasper Huxley says:

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

    • Adam B. says:

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

  • plina says:

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


    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.

    • Nerd says:

      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.

      • huxley says:

        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”

  • wowemily says:

    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?

    • Nerd says:

      Because nerds change the fucking world while narcissists like Hendrix die choking on their own vomit from a drug overdose because they can’t handle their shit.

      • urluckyurinprison says:

        Hendrix came in NUMBER ONE ALL TIME on some mtv special on ONE HIT WONDERS. Had only ONE top song in Billboard Charts, and THAT ONE WAS WRITTEN BY SOME WHITE GUY FFS. Yeah, a real ROCK GOD, that….

    • Inis_Magrath says:

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

  • wowemily says:

    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.

  • David Hammerbeck says:

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

  • VetTeacher says:

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

  • konyc says:

    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.

  • Michael Springer says:

    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

  • L02E says:

    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.

  • _Orwell says:

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

  • pamb says:

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

  • Joe Moless says:


  • Silk says:

    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!

  • James Coughlin says:

    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…

  • Bucky Wunderlich says:

    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…

  • urluckyurinprison says:

    leave dick beacher alone with his sandy analport, he went back to listening to michael jackson swoon little 10 year old boys

  • Eric Longo says:

    That comment says more about you than it does about the band. Moronic.

  • Guest says:

    The guru doesn’t even have the right album.

  • Paul Barile says:

    The guru misses on a few notes (facts).
    Cool footage though.

  • forgot about the B boys says:

    The punch line that should have been added to this article is how the Beastie boys performed this song on SNL several years later and were never invited back again either. LOL I love it!!

  • Chad says:

    I have been looking for the one other person besides me that thinks SNL hasn’t been funny for at least the last three decades. I see you Dennis Moeller, nice to meet you finally.

  • Pug says:

    They just copied the text from this youtube video, often word for word.

    • Dan Colman says:

      You got that wrong. Whoever posted the Youtube video copied our text. Our post came out in 2013. The youtube video/blurb was posted in 2015.

      Just want the record to be straight.


  • Cornell Kimball says:

    I’m American and was 17 years old when he appeared on SNL. And I definitely remember it. One or two of the comments here mention how “awkward” the camera shots look. I barely knew who Elvis Costello was, but I clearly remembered since that event. It was the late 1970s and many people who trying to appear cool. And then on TV one evening, we see this guy who almost seemed to go out of his way to appear uncool.
    I remember not really getting the lyrics of “Radio, Radio” but I can remember thinking “This guy’s not completely serious” when he was signing “Ya better listen to the radio.”
    Both then or now I see this as being “rebellious” (whatever rebellious means) against the conventional side of the music biz in the 1970’s. I saw the song, and Elvis Costello’s movements while doing the song, as kind of making fun of the way pop/rock music was being dispensed.

  • Lady Lake says:

    Forget about the B boys,
    I went to go check your video and got a message stating:

    there’s a problem with your server

    Peace out People ✌

  • Christian Robinson says:

    Snl means so not laughable. I know that’s dumb but i didn’t get it from a cue card.

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