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Week in Rock History: Elvis Costello Defies 'Saturday Night Live'

Plus: Band Aid rules the charts

December 12, 2011 9:50 AM ET
Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello during a musical performance on 'Saturday Night Live'
Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

This week in rock history, Elvis Costello angered Saturday Night Live bigwigs, Don McLean struck gold with "American Pie," Band Aid ruled the U.K. charts with "Do They Know It's Christmas?," Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne released a father-daughter duet and Atlantic Records' legendary founder died.

December 17, 1977: Elvis Costello and the Attractions replace the Sex Pistols on Saturday Night Live
After the Sex Pistols spat in too many faces, they were unable to obtain visas to enter the States, and it cost them a big career opportunity: a stint as the musical guests of Saturday Night Live. Instead, the task went to another gang of up-and-coming Brits, Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

Costello and his New Wave rock group were an eleventh-hour replacement for the Pistols, and they took advantage of the tumultuous environment. They'd been scheduled to play their growing hit "Less Than Zero," but Costello cut the song abruptly after a few chords, yelling "Stop! Stop!" to his band. They segued into the far more contentious "Radio Radio," which TV execs had forbade them to play. The song criticizes the commercialization and payola of the airwaves.

The brass at SNL were not pleased; Costello and the Attractions were subsequently banned from the show, though that was lifted in 1989. However, the singer's surly insistence on performing "Radio Radio" proved a boon to his debut album, My Aim is True. Before SNL, it had only been available in America as an import, but its popularity exploded after that evening.

December 16, 1971: Don McLean's "American Pie" makes the Billboard charts
DJs rejoiced upon the release of "American Pie," the title track of New York singer-songwriter Don McLean's 1971 album; at eight and a half minutes, spinning the entire single afforded them plenty of time to take a bathroom break (or partake in more illicit activities). One month after its release, the song finally cracked the Billboard Charts, largely because listeners were busy debating the many pop culture illusions crammed into its lyrics.

McLean's famous song, which recalls "the day the music died," was eventually explained by the musician as his response to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. As a young boy, McLean had learned about the rock tragedy while folding the following day's newspapers for his paper route (captured in the line "But February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver"), and he explained that it led to the sense of isolation and disillusionment that pervades the rest of the song.

"American Pie" was issued as a double A-side single and reached Number One on the Billboard charts in January 1972. In 1975, McLean performed in London's Hyde Park to 85,000 fans who knew every word of his apple-pie opus. Madonna covered the song in 2000 and it cracked the Billboard Top 40 then, as well.

December 15, 1984: "Do They Know It's Christmas?" tops the U.K. charts and sets the stage for Live Aid
It is one of the most important songs ever written for philanthropic causes – "Do They Know It's Christmas?," Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's single for famine relief in Ethiopia. It stormed the U.K. charts immediately upon its release, lingering at Number One for five weeks.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" featured the musical pair's full Rolodex of superstars. David Bowie, Sting, Bono, George Michael, Phil Collins, Simon Le Bon and Paul Weller were just some of the artists in the "Band Aid" group. (Paul McCartney was not present, but he mailed in a vocal that was dubbed into the final edit.) The song sold over 3.5 million copies in the U.K. and so moved the British public that during its second week on the charts, the previous week's holder of the Number One song, singer-songwriter Jim Diamond, urged the public to buy "Do They Know It's Christmas?" over his own hit, "I Should Have Known Better."

In the end, the charity single's impact was only the beginning of Geldof and Ure's outreach. Fueled by the song's runaway success, they immediately began organizing their game-changing benefit concert, 1985's Live Aid.

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