Elvis Costello and The Attractions appeared on Saturday Night Live on December 17, 1977 as a last minute replacement for The Sex Pistols, who had run into problems getting into the USA because of some prior legal hassles in the UK. Costello’s performance on SNL would become the stuff of rock and roll legend.
Costello’s record label, Columbia, wanted him to perform “Less Than Zero”, the first single from his as yet unreleased (in the U.S.) debut album My Aim Is True. Elvis wanted to perform “Radio Radio,” his attack on corporate control of the airwaves - a punk move that would have been in the spirit of The Pistols. Columbia disapproved of the idea and SNL producer Lorne Michaels allegedly told Costello, on orders from his employer NBC, to not perform “Radio Radio.”
Come show time, the band started playing “Less Than Zero” and then abruptly stopped and shifted into “Radio Radio.” At the end of the tune, they defiantly walked off the set.
Michaels was furious. According to first hand accounts, he was flipping Costello the bird through the entire performance. Michaels ended up banning Costello from ever performing again on SNL. The ban lasted 12 years, which in TV years is an eternity. SNL was an essential promotional venue for jacking up a band’s record sales. Costello bit the hand that was supposed to feed him even before he even got a nibble of commercial success. In the long run, it didn’t stop him from becoming one of rock’s enduring forces.
Elvis Costello & the Attractions at the Royal Oak Theater, Detroit. May 22, 1978. The Attractions were one of the tightest live bands I’ve ever seen. Just amazing.