9
Pangs of history in late 1970s new-wave rock
music and urban geography
JOHN COVACH

In late 1977 Elvis Costello and the Attractions appeared on NBC's Saturday Night Live. At the time, the programme was in its early days, featuring John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Ratner, Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris – a cast who pushed at the boundaries of the permissible on US network television. The often-provocative show was well known to many rock listeners, especially since it regularly featured the most interesting current bands as musical guests. Any group appearing on the show during the late 1970s could expect to enjoy the attention of rock culture at least for the evening, and an appearance on the show could be especially beneficial for a new band like Costello's. But this particular appearance was distinctive in many ways. The band began a number and almost immediately broke it off, with Costello announcing that there was no reason to play that song; the group then launched into 'Radio, Radio', a tune strongly critical of the rock radio of the time; and since the show was live, there was no suitable way – short of going to black – for the show's producers to stop the band from switching tunes on the fly.1

Substituting tunes mid-performance was clearly a rebellious act, and this rebelliousness was underscored that evening by many other aspects of the band's presentation and music. Here was a rock singer who called himself 'Elvis', a clear reference to Elvis Presley, who at the time had only recently died, fat and drugged out, by then more a symbol of Las Vegas decadence

____________________
1
For an account of the history of Saturday Night Live, see Hill and Weingrad (1987). The early days of Costello's career, including the incident described here, are chronicled in Hinton (1999). Hinton gives the date of the performance as 17 December, and notes that the group appeared twice during the show. In his first segment, Costello and the band played 'Watching the Detectives' as planned. The second segment was supposed to feature 'Less Than Zero', which was the song begun but replaced by 'Radio, Radio' (113–14).

-173-

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