Remember When: Elvis Costello Stopped a Live Performance on ‘Saturday Night Live’ to Switch Songs

On December 17, 1977, people watching NBC’s Saturday Night Live were in for a surprise when the show’s musical guest, Elvis Costello, with his band the Attractions, stopped mid-performance on live TV to switch songs. After only a few bars of “Less Than Zero,” Costello waved his arms, turned to the band and ended the song abruptly. The incident shocked viewers and angered SNL producer Lorne Michaels, who banned Costello from ever performing on the show again.

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Costello was enjoying a commercial breakthrough in 1977 with “Watching the Detectives.” Coming to America to perform on Saturday Night Live was going to introduce him to the world’s biggest music market. Columbia Records had released My Aim Is True and Costello had just begun touring the U.S. At the time, he was playing to fewer than 1,000 people each night. The appearance on SNL was pivotal. 

In the UK, Costello was famous for publicity stunts. What transpired on live TV may have surprised the American audience but to anyone following Costello’s career at the time, it was not surprising. Biographer Graeme Thompson remembered a Costello stunt in which the singer busked in front of a London hotel that was hosting a business convention for CBS Records. The busking episode was told in Thompson’s book, Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello.

The SNL debacle brought to mind Jimi Hendrix’s infamous appearance on the BBC’s Lulu. In 1969, Hendrix stopped his band midway through “Hey Joe” and declared, “We’re gonna stop playing this rubbish,” before launching into “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream. He dedicated the cover to Cream, who had just announced they were breaking up the same day. 

Columbia Records had big plans for Costello and his performance on SNL was a crucial piece. The rebellious singer, equipped with a Fender Jazzmaster, had other plans. The first song, “Watching the Detectives” went as rehearsed. Then the fun began. Kicking off “Less Than Zero,” Costello immediately stopped and said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here.” He directed his band to play “Radio, Radio.”

Costello discussed the incident with Howard Stern in 2015. He said the record label pressured him into performing “Less Than Zero.” In a very public act of defiance, Costello chose to perform “Radio, Radio” instead. The song Costello chose was no accident.

Inspired by the BBC’s attempts to censor “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols, Costello reworked an old song he had written in 1974 called “Radio Soul.” The new version, now known as “Radio, Radio,” is a critique of British radio and its commodification of music. 

During a heavy Bruce Springsteen phase in the ’70s, Costello thought of the romanticized idea of radio always playing the perfect song. He lamented his ideal being smashed by payola schemes and big business in the music industry. 

I was tuning in the shine on the late 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

His frustration peaked with the attempted ban of the Sex Pistols song. Costello sang with provocation:

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

In a 2021 interview with Zane Lowe from Apple Music, Costello claimed the SNL incident was really only a publicity stunt. He said his anger was directed at the record label, not Saturday Night Live. More than anything, Costello just wanted to be remembered. 

Costello’s “lifetime” ban from SNL lasted only 12 years. He returned to the show in 1989.

He was back again in 1999 for SNL’s 25th Anniversary Show. The Beastie Boys were the musical guest and when they launched into their song “Sabotage,” Costello interrupted—repeating the ’77 address to the audience—and led the Beastie’s into “Radio, Radio.”

The 1977 performance on SNL added to the allure of Costello. He was well on his way to becoming a music legend. He was doing things his way.

Costello, unwittingly, made a larger point. Remember, Michaels and NBC were outraged by the stunt. Costello gave the network what they wanted the most: attention. In retrospect, they penalized him for giving them exactly what they were after. What NBC didn’t like was losing control. They could not control Elvis Costello. 

NBC’s Saturday Night Live was the perfect outlet for Costello to rest his case on “Radio, Radio.”

Photo of Elvis Costello Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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