Monday, January 5, 2009

No Static at All?

From the start, the contest was fixed.

My friend Mark recently told me that Elvis Costello's Saturday Night Live performance from 1977 was online. The one that got him banned from the show for more than a decade (Costello, not my friend Mark).

In the Fall of 1977, SNL (then starting its third season) had become a phenomenon. Some considered it the comedic equivalent of punk rock -- a show for the young and hip that gave the finger to bloated mainstream television (and was years away from becoming bloated mainstream television itself).

For the third season, the producers announced an "Anyone Can Host" contest, with the winner hosting the last show before Christmas.

From the start, the entire contest was a sham. John Belushi had the idea of bringing the Sex Pistols to American TV and loved the idea of a little old lady introducing them. And while more than 100,000 people entered the contest, the only serious contenders were kindly grandmother types -- the older the better.

It's no surprise then that the winner was an 80-year old grandmother. Miskel Spillman lived in New Orleans and was more than willing to make fun of herself for being old. The stage was set for a little old lady to sic the Sex Pistols, widely considered the most dangerous punk rockers on the planet, on America.

Except the Sex Pistols were stuck in Toronto. The U.S. government refused to grant them visas or allow them into the country. So Elvis Costello was recruited as a last-minute replacement. Maybe not as good as the Sex Pistols, but hey, punk was punk.

The show opened with John Belushi sharing a joint with Miskel Spillman, who then acted stoned during her monologue (which included running jokes about how she had the munchies and craved fruit -- perhaps because older people aren't cool enough to want brownies or junk food). And just before midnight, the little old dutifully introduced Elvis Costello to America (and he sang "Watching the Detectives").

Costello's record company insisted that his second song would be "Less Than Zero" (which came from the album he was trying to promote, although the lyrics about unrepentant British fascist Oswald Mosley would make little sense to American audiences). Costello had performed the song in dress rehearsal and camera blocking was set up and finalized. But during the live show, Costello had a change of heart. After a few seconds of "Less Than Zero," he waved off the band and said "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there's no reason to sing this song here." He then launched into a blistering rendition of a new (and not yet released) song called "Radio Radio," a scathing indictment of the vapidity of radio programmers. (Link for email subscribers.)

Lorne Michaels went ballistic, screaming and vowing never to let Costello on SNL again. But SNL wanted a punk rocker (and punk is punk, right?), so maybe it shouldn't have been a complete surprise that Costello would do something punk.

But you live long enough, what was once considered dangerous becomes fodder for cocktail-party conversations. Elvis Costello mellowed, made up with Lorne Michaels, and was eventually invited back on SNL. He even made fun of his earlier appearance, interrupting a song by the Beastie Boys and then performing "Radio Radio" with them. It wasn't punk, it was slick, rehearsed, and self-congratulatory. (Youtube link for email subscribers)

(In a further nod to pop culture eating its own tail, Weird Al Yankovik has been known to sing "Radio Radio" at his concerts when technical problems arise.)

And now, more than 30 years later, radio is infinitely worse than it was in 1977. Elvis Costello's sincere, frantic, desparate warning that radio had fallen into the hands of "such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way that you feel" has become a punchline. But all you have to do is turn on your radio to realize the joke's really on us.


XTCfan said...

I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver when the switch broke cuz it's old!

Mark said...

I always associate this Elvis Costello/SNL incident with you, because you were the one who first told me about it back around '84. It's one of the little pieces of Alex I've carried around with me all these years. So I'm thrilled that I could contribute a little bit to your blog.

Stuart Shea said...

Agreed. Radio has become far, far worse than it was, and all we have left is artists--even the good ones, like Costello--thrashing around the new economy trying to remain relevant. It's sad.

That SNL appearance changed my life. I was 14, and I ran out and bought "This Year's Model" the first time I saw it.

Casey said...

That was a well-written and entertaining post. With a dead-on killer ending.
Good stuff!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I saw that performance when it first aired and was a huge Costello fan at the time (still am a fan but not a fanatic any more). Elvis was venomous and brilliant! Presley, shcmesley! Costello was amazing back then.