Saturday Night Live was arguably at its liveliest on December 17th, 1977, when Elvis Costello stopped the Attractions shortly after they started “Less Than Zero” and switched to one of his newest songs, “Radio Radio.” The network censor hadn’t seen the lyrics, and no camera shots had been planned around the song; the singer was closer to the edge than even SNL liked to tread.
Costello says he was prepared to follow orders until the band arrived at Studio 8-H and encountered the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. “My first reaction was that everybody on the show was pretty pleased with themselves,” Costello says. He had been told that SNL was the nearest thing America had to England’s Monty Python, “but I didn’t know them from a hole in the ground.”
After watching rehearsals, Costello says he decided the SNL players weren’t nearly as funny as they thought they were, but he didn’t completely sour on the show until “one of the cast came up and tried to act like he was a janitor to us, and they all had a big laugh at our expense because we didn’t recognize him. And I said, ‘Who’s the mug here? If you think you’re so damn famous, it’s kind of stupid because we’ve never heard of you any more than you’ve heard of us.’ I think that’s what started the ball rolling.” He later learned the boffo janitor’s name: Aykroyd.
The band members suspected that they were being treated shabbily simply because they weren’t the show’s first choice as musical guest. The Sex Pistols had been scheduled, but visa problems kept them out of the country. ”We just sat in our dressing room, guzzling vodka,” Costello says, getting “more and more determined to kick up a fuss and be remembered on the program. And we just copped something that Jiml Hendrix did on British TV.” Everyone in the band had seen or heard about Hendrix’s incongruous appearance on a television show hosted by the pop singer Lulu in the late Sixties. Hendrix had stopped midsong to start another one he really wanted to play, Costello says, so “when we said, ‘Let’s do a Jimi Hendrix on the Lulu show,’ everybody knew what we were saying.”
“We came off the stage, and they were very definitely pissed off at us,” Costello continues. “We just went back to the dressing room and laughed ourselves stupid, drank the rest of the vodka and left, pursued by people making dire threats.”
Last spring, Costello returned to Saturday Night Live, agreeably playing with the house band and even joining the cast at the end of the night for the tedious ritual goodbye wave. The only hint of controversy surfaced when host Mary Tyler Moore apologized in her opening monologue for a previous show’s sketch that used the word penis twenty-eight times, then closed her remarks by casually adding, “Elvis Costello’s penis is here tonight.” Costello didn’t take the penis joke too personally. “It was no big thing,” he says. “But then again, that’s what most of them say.”