Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Legendary Moments In Rock History: Elvis Costello

by Dick Mac

I awoke this morning with Elvis Costello's song "Radio Radio" stuck in my head. Even after my morning rituals it was still there happily playing along for me. It's a good song.

I remembered that he had performed it on Saturday Night Live, in 1977, and that the performance made trouble for him. I did not see the performance, as I did not live with television from 1975 to 1983, but the story became instantly legendary and made its way through the rock music scene.

The story, as I understood it then, and all these years later, was that Elvis was instructed by Lorne Michaels, producer of SNL, to perform any song except "Radio Radio" because the executives at NBC, and their parent company, General Electric, did not like the song's criticism of the radio industry and felt it was impolitic to broadcast it. This was a very punk analysis of the incident and was keeping in the spirit of the times by injecting just the right amount of politics and rebellion into the incident.

That was the story I heard, told, and recalled from 1977 until Tuesday, October 19, 2010 (today), when I decided to write about the song and the incident.

The real story, although rebellious, isn't wrought with quite the political edge as the legendary story above. There was no standing-up to television executives during the broadcast of one of their live shows, taking a stand against the power of The Man, who has taken radio and turned it into nothing but a cash machine.

The real story, as I now understand it, is that Elvis was explicitly instructed by his label, Columbia Records, to perform "Less Than Zero." They didn't want to waste this gift of free publicity on a new, untested song that wasn't even yet scheduled for release. they wanted him to play a song from the album that was about to (finally) be released in the United States.

What was broadcast is not in question, as it is recorded: Elvis and The Attractions started playing the opening chords of "Less Than Zero" and then Elvis stops playing, waves his arms in the air, turns to the band and instructs them to play "Radio Radio."

This did anger the management team of SNL, but not because NBC didn't like the political sentiment of a song nobody had yet heard and could not hear because it was not yet available for purchase. They were angry because the blocking for the cameras had been arranged around cues in the original song and the director had to improvise.

The band was told they would never appear on American television again as they were chased out of the studio.

You can see the performance at the link below. I am unable to find a version of the video that can be embedded, so you'll have to follow the link to see it.

So, another story from my past debunked, which is very Rock 'n' Roll!

Here are the lyrics:

Radio Radio
Elvis Costello

I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
When the switch broke 'cause it's old
They're saying things that I can hardly believe
They really think we're getting out of control

(CHORUS) Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
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

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
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


Wonderful radio
Marvelous radio
Wonderful radio
Radio, radio

Link to video of "Radio Radio" on SNL.

1 comment:

Steven Pofcher said...

Interesting story about a famous moment on TV. I remember watching this and being very surprised.