At the time that Elvis Costello and The Attractions, in the middle of a pulverising touring schedule that made their reputation as a fearsome live band, played the cult late night comedy show on NBC it was regarded as a daring and provocative response to Monty Python. Or at least a team of the US best and brightest comedy performers — Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilder Radner, Bill Murray et al. The show's passion for presenting musical acts that might not necessarily get airtime elsewhere gained it a reputation for being cutting edge — so Elvis and the razor sharp Attractions seemed a perfect fit.
But it wasn't supposed to happen at all.
Nearly two years before on a sleepy teatime TV show in the UK, the popular and interview-shy Queen were booked to appear on the Today show. Perhaps wishing to avoid the comfy area chat with host Bill Grundy they withdrew at the 11th hour. A desperate EMI publicity department searched round for a stable-mate to replace them and found that fresh young signings, The Sex Pistols, were rehearsing across town. A limo was dispatched and the rest is talking head programme history
It is a delicious piece of irony then that the Pistols were due to make their US TV debut on the show but were unable to get the necessary visas that would enable them to gain entry to the USA. Elvis' first US tour with his new band had just finished with early and late shows at the Stony Pony, Asbury Park the night before so were duly booked as a replacement. Drummer Pete Thomas' "Thanks Malc" T-shirt the only onscreen reference to this as a cheeky nod to the Pistols self aggrandising mentor.
So Elvis & The A's were more than match fit for what was now their US TV debut, with both band and Elvis enjoying their growing success. Having finally got that elusive record contact and an album in the racks, Costello had ideas and new songs ready to go and saw this as the perfect opportunity to play a brand new stunner, "Radio, Radio," a caustic attack on the dull programming on UK/US radio stations. Both his record company and SNL producer, Lorne Michaels baulked at this and wanted him to stick to the plan — "Watching the Detectives" and "Less Than Zero."
Although Elvis was content to creep the hell out of the viewing public with his serial killer stare during the former he saw "Less Than Zero" (his debut release in the UK) as the wrong song for the wrong place. With its lyrics about English fascist leader Oswald Mosley and the right wing of British culture it would go straight over the buzz-cut of the majority of the US public. Shitty radio — now that's something that we can all get behind.
After a suitably deranged "Detectives," Elvis makes a slight pretence of beginning "Less Than Zero" before theatrically waving his arms to halt the song and you can literally hear the room crackle with electricity. "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's absolutely no reason to play this song here tonight" he spits in his best mockney accent and yells the intended song title at his band who immediately blast into the opening stabs of "Radio, Radio." It's almost as if they knew what was coming. It's such a polite detour that he makes it sound like he is doing the programme, studio audience and viewers at home a favour.
One thing I was only made aware of years after seeing the clip for the first time in those pre-Youtube days was that Elvis begins by singing the song with this intense look right down the barrel, seizing the moment, totally committed as if trying to avoid any signs from the production staff to stop. However he changes about a minute in to seemingly directing all his fury just to the left of centre. It was claimed that when Elvis made the song change, producer Lorne Michaels started flipping him "the bird" and continued to do so for the rest of the song. Whether the myopic avenging nerd was addressing Michaels in a live TV standoff is not clear but something seems to have changed his approach. His immediate stroppy stomping off in that direction at the end could also be a clue.
It's the sound and the fury — most musical appearances are castrated by poor sound and total lack of any energy making it further than the camera lens. This feels exciting, Elvis is seething, the studio lights and cramped conditions give him a volcanic glow. Maybe Lorne's raised digit is only compounding that anger giving him a focus. He's petulant, aggressive, contemptuous and walks unafraid. At the song's final flourish he knows he's won whatever battle — inner or outer — he's fighting.
Elvis was subsequently banned from SNL, which lasted 11 years until the might of Warner Bros. Records behind him and his new hit album with its co-Beatle-penned single, "Veronica," saw him revisit the show. Inevitably as the show celebrated its 25th anniversary of the show's waxing and waning success, the incident was parodied by the man himself with the help of The Beastie Boys.
Elvis would return to the USA in January 1978 and play "Less Than Zero" most nights but with a freshly-penned lyric that changed the focus from Mosley to a more infamous Oswald in the shape of John F Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Perhaps spurred on by the SNL incident, he wanted to make it clear that his decision was based on simple artistic freedom and belief rather than some Spirit of '77 snotty punk stunt.
The other Elvis may have panicked studio executives with his hips but this one took them on with a thousand-yard stare.