Leaving the Building - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Leaving the Building

Leaving the Building

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because live TV is best when it flips the script.

By Eugene S. Robinson

London-born Irishman Elvis Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus, a virtual unknown in 1977, had just banked his first hit single and an album that broke into the Top 40 in the United States.

NBC producer Lorne Michaels had extended an invitation for Costello to appear on Saturday Night Live with his band, the Attractions, as a last-minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, no less. An invitation Costello was seemingly glad to accept. During the weeklong of rehearsals for Saturday’s show, Costello, at the direction of Michaels, rehearsed his hit, “Less Than Zero.”

So far, so good.

But somewhere, somehow things zigged when they should have zagged, and about six seconds into his hit song, Costello started screaming and waving his hands at his band to stop playing. Approaching the microphone, he apologized to the audience, saying “There’s no reason to do this song here,” and blasted into another one of his songs, the soon-to-be hit “Radio Radio.”

And then all hell broke loose. Control fanatic Michaels, who despised deviations from the plan, understandably hated it enough to ban Costello for what ended up being a 12-year stretch. Costello claimed the switch was a tribute to Hendrix, who did a similar thing on a BBC show back in the 1960s.

Whatever the reason, Costello’s rep among iconoclasts was made (and then unmade for some a few years later, with a drunken, racist rant that went 1979’s version of viral). Clearly it was the kind of iconoclastic shit that paid: Costello’s still making records – his latest with the Roots, “Wise Up Ghost,” just dropped, and his tour kicks off at the end of October.

So, contrived or not, here’s that SNL appearance in all its “made you look” glory.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories