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?

    • nurp says:

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

  • 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.

    • urluckyurinprison says:

      NBC any­thing is a s s every­thing. the his­to­ry of NBC is the his­to­ry of Amer­i­ca’s decline.

  • 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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