In early 1978, Elvis Costello and the Attractions released their second album, This Year's Model. Recorded in late 1977 and early 1978, the US version of the album featured "Radio, Radio," a song that criticized corporate control over music. At the time the song was recorded, punk music was young and The Sex Pistols had recently released "God Save the Queen." Opening with the phrase "God save the Queen, a fascist regime," and going from there, the BBC famously labeled the song "gross bad taste" and banned it from their airwaves out of respect for the monarchy. London tabloids went even further, and accused The Sex Pistols of treason. (Naturally, such censorship from the establishment was a terrific endorsement for a punk song, and the record made its way to #2 on the UK charts.)
Against the backdrop of the nascent punk scene and the Sex Pistols controversy, and recognizing the very real control that record labels and radio stations had over popular music, Costello's song is a pretty good poke in their eye. It features lyrics like: "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," and "the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel." As one might guess, Costello's song was not super-popular with the music establishment. (But it was sufficiently tame and sufficiently catchy that they chose to include it on the US version of This Year's Model).
In December 1977, before This Year's Model was released but after it had been mostly recorded, a musical guest spot opened up with short notice for Saturday Night Live's December 17 show. Elvis Costello and his band were in New York City at the time - they played at The Bottom Line club on December 14 and played two shows at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey on December 16 - and their proximity to 30 Rock got them the coveted airtime. They just needed to settle on what to play.
Hard details here are sketchy, but the common story is that Costello wanted to play "Radio, Radio" on the show, but given its message (and given that nobody had ever heard the song or could even yet buy it on a record), his record label and SNL bosses demanded otherwise. So, Costello gave in and during rehearsals for the show he and the band played the song "Less Than Zero," which was a quasi-protest song from his first record about the pre-WW2 British Fascist Oswald Mosley. (It was an odd choice: the song, with its narrowly specific British subject matter, wasn't a particular hit. It failed to chart either in the UK or in the States.)
What happened next is SNL and pop music history. During the actual show (which, remembering its name, was live), Costello and his band started playing "Less Than Zero." But after only 6 seconds of the song, Costello abruptly stopped the band and announced "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here." He called for "Radio, Radio" and the band ripped into it. You can watch the video here; the angst in Costello's performance is clear. For his part, SNL boss Lorne Michaels was incensed. It is alleged that, standing just off-camera and watching the act of defiance, he raised his middle finger to Costello and held it there for the duration of the performance.
Costello's stunt earned him a ban from SNL that lasted 12 years until 1989, when he returned to play his excellent song "Veronica." But that wasn't the "triumphant return" noted in today's subject. That came 10 years later, on the 1999 prime time special celebrating SNL's 25th anniversary. Among the musical guests featured, the special had the Beastie Boys, who came on and started playing "Sabotage." Except that, just shortly into the tune, Costello came on stage and interrupted. Using the same line of "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen,. there's no reason to do this song here," he called off "Sabotage" and he and the Beasties transitioned into a solid version of "Radio, Radio."
Thus, the one-time act of true defiance and rebellion became one of nostalgia and furtherance of corporate interest. Isn't that too often true.
BONUS FACT 1: Ironically enough, the whole reason Elvis Costello and his band got a spot on SNL back in 1977 and had a chance to protest media censorship of bands like the Sex Pistols was because the original band slated to perform - the Sex Pistols themselves - faced visa difficulties in getting to the US. Costello's drummer references this on the shirt he wore on air - it reads in big block letters "THANKS MALC," which was a winking reference to Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
BONUS FACT 2: In a nice piece of congruity, in the Beastie Boys/Elvis Costello performance from 1999, Mike D is wearing a "THANKS MALC" shirt too.
BONUS FACT 3: As a funny lemons-to-lemonade tribute to Costello's SNL performance, "Weird" Al Yankovic launches into "Radio, Radio" when he faces technical difficulties at his shows.
BONUS FACT 4: The Beasties' performance with Elvis Costello in 1999 was not the first time that the groups were associated. In their 1994 song "Do It," Mike D boasts that he's "got [A]ttractions like I'm Elvis Costello."
BONUS FACT 5: Costello's song "Veronica" was co-written by TMFW 44 and TMFW 47 subject Sir Paul McCartney.
BONUS FACT 6: Bret Easton Ellis, writer of American Psycho and a member of the literary "brat pack" that came to prominence in the 1980s, took the name of his first book Less Than Zero from Costello's song.
BONUS FACT 7: Any reference to "Sabotage," even if it was only the first few seconds of the song, is a good excuse to link the all-time great video.