Aug 252007

All this talk about Elvis Costello, SNL and “Radio Radio” got me searching for the relevant clips, which, in this glorious era of instant YouTube gratification, I found quite handily. Watching them was a revelatory experience — in that they very precisely revealed what went wrong with Elvis Costello in the last 25 years. In the first clip, we see a desperate, angry young man singing a desperately angry song about the desperate state of the music industry and just how angry it makes him.

In the second, Elvis is a smug, self-referen/reverential turd in designer eyewear who clearly has lost every bit of the plot, thinking that just being on stage with a bunch of occasionally angry young men makes him, somehow, by extension, angry as well. Pshaw.

But check out the two clips for yourself, and tell us what *you* think.

I look forward to your responses.



  18 Responses to “Elvis Shows Us What Went Wrong”

  1. Thanks HVB. Interesting post. Until the other day when the entry about the Beastie’s performance was mentioned from wikipedia, I’d never heard about that. I thought that maybe someone had added bogus info the wiki.

    I agree that the original is a true representation of what Elvis was back then. I still think this is an “amazing rock moment”. I remember watching it live. It was edge-of-your-seat exciting.

    The second clip is still interesting. I never saw it before so my first impression is that, sure, Elvis is a pale version of his former “angry young man” but on another level this isn’t about him but about the Beasties performance. They could have come on and done the usual “lets play our song” deal but I think they were pretty clever in making a reference to this past moment. They are old enough to remember it. How much of their audience is old enough or ever heard about the original SNL Elvis appearance? And maybe they’re trying to say “too bad that after 25 years the music industry is still fucked up and not much has changed”?

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Hey, Clean —

    Why is the Beasties’ performance “clever”? See, this is what’s gone wrong in pop culture over the last couple of decades: imitation has been elevated from the sincerest form of flattery to the deepest kind of insight. I for one found their performance mediocre at best, and I most definitely file it under the “what was the point of that?” category. I mean, come on — that incendiary Elvis performance from 30 years ago was, you know, just *it*. There was absolutely no substantive point to doing it again.

    Question for official EC fluffer Berlyant: did the Attractions know the switch to “Radio Radio” was coming?

  3. hrrundivbakshi

    Further insight:

    Bruce Thomas had some seriously bad hair back in the day.

  4. Not Berlyant, but: according to all concerned, yeah, it was planned from the start. Basically, they got to the studio and everyone was kind of a dick to them, so they decided to pull a stunt that Jimi Hendrix had done on Lulu’s TV show circa 1968, where he stopped the song he was supposed to play and started the song he’d wanted to play. Then, apparently, they went back to their dressing room, drained the bar and left, with everyone on the show livid at them.

  5. I had never seen that before either. I think it’s great. I’m pretty surprised you are so critical of version 2. Are you seriously giving EC shit because his age 40something is not as angry as his age 20something? Did you want him to have an aneurysm at 30? Why would you assume EC meant to come off as angry? I think he was trying to be playful and a good sport. It’s a joke, not an attempt to reclaim his Angry Young Man title. What’s the point? What’s the point of any joke? Would you boo him if he played it live without the requisite anger level? The Beasties can’t play as well as the Attractions. Granted. They would hardly have ever been considered “angry”. They were the white rap clowns of their day that morphed into arty experimenters. Hell, they’re even middle-aged by that video point. They were having fun with the whole situation. What a breath of fresh ironic air to the standard lip sync, click track in the drummer’s ear approach typical of SNL now. EC deserves all the rock crime charges usually leveled at him, but not this. Thanks to the Beasties for testifying as character witnesses.

  6. hrrundivbakshi


    Fair enough — let’s assume the Beasties performance was a joke. It wasn’t funny! Let’s assume it was “serious,” at some level. It was pointless! Let’s assume the lyric was tossed off for arch irony points and nothing more. Why bother? Let’s assume we’re to take the lyric seriously. It was not believable!

    Bottom line: there was no reason to indulge this stupid, one-dimensional joke. Not because EC is “more important than that,” but because it just wasn’t funny. What, am I supposed to ooh and aah because OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT ONE TIME WHEN ELVIS COSTELLO LIKE TOTALLY INTERRUPTED A BEASTIES SONG JUST LIKE HE DID 25 YEARS AGO???????? HE LIKE TOTALLY INTERRUPTED IT AND THE BEASTIES LIKE TOTALLY ROCKED OUT ON THIS OLD COSTELLO TUNE LIKE THEY EVEN WANTED IT TO HAPPEN LIKE TOTALLY THEY WERE INTO IT AND SHIT.

    There is no such thing as a “breath of ironic fresh air” — ironic air always smells like ass. Like somebody else’s ass, actually.


  7. The entire use of irony is always wrong? You’ve certainly struck a blow for the defenders of sincerity. I see that you didn’t find it funny. Would you have been more accepting if they skipped the song interruption part and simply took the stage with Elvis and played Radio Radio? I assume you don’t mind an artist playing a song from his catalogue. Or is that too self-referential? Or using a different band occasionally. The Beasties didn’t play the song very well. They aren’t that good. The alternative was them playing Sabotage. I thought this was a much better and entertaining use of their time slot. Was it the reference to the same song interruption ploy that so upset your sensibility or the very act of playing Radio Radio on SNL again? It wasn’t meant to supplant the first version, it was just in fun. What has awoken your angry young man about this? Check out Marlon Brando’s homage to his own Godfather character in The Freshman. You’ll be furious at the sacrilege.

  8. hrrundivbakshi needs a hug!

    Maybe you’re just pissed that both Bruce and MCA are rocking Peavey bass rigs!

    So according to townsman the great 48, even Elvis’s song change-up wasn’t very original – copied from Hendrix even! Like townsman chickenfrank, I think it was a much better use of their time slot. SNL was long past the point of being “groundbreaking” or “important” even then. They have a solid fan base and sell enough records that who the fuck cares if they play a track off the “new CD” on TV. And I say again, it didn’t have anything to do with Elvis. He was along for the ride and having a laugh. I actually give him credit for playing along.

  9. Thanks for posting this Fritz. I saw that SNL special when it was first aired in ’99 or so, but I hadn’t seen it since. Watching it now, I can sort of see what you’re talking about, but here are my comments in response:

    1) Others have already chimed in on the ridiculousness of expecting EC to be as angry at 45 as he was at 23.
    2) Sure he’s wearing designer shades, has gained a lot of weight, etc. but he still SOUNDS great vocally. Again, is it about sartorial choices or about music for you, Fritz?
    3) As a joke, I thought this was funny and like someone else said, a much better use of the Beasties time slot than just playing “Sabotage”.
    4) Sure EC (and the Beasties, too) could now be considered a part of the “establishment” since he’s poking fun of the incident, but it’s not like he or the Beasties were getting that much radio play back then (and especially so now) and furthermore, with the state of terrestrial radio, this song is as relevant as ever, if not more so today just as it was 8 years ago (and 30 years ago when it was first recorded).
    5)The only legitimate criticism I can level at this performance is that the Beasties couldn’t keep up with what EC was doing. They just played the song in a much more sloppy fashion than The Attractions did and The Imposters do now. Then again, it was a one-off performance for a TV show and not one of their own songs, so you have to take that criticism with a grain of salt.
    6) thegreat48 is right about the ’77 stunt’s origins. EC has said many times that he was just imitating what he saw Hendrix do on TV (though I couldn’t remember which show it was) and that he thought it was called Saturday Night Live, so he wanted to add some spontaneity to it with it being live TV and all.
    7) An interesting thing that no one has mentioned so far is that he was banned from SNL for 12 years following the ’77 performance. However, since then he’s been on several times, including ’89, ’91 and a few others I can’t remember right now (I’m pretty sure he was on in ’94, too, though I’m too lazy to check right now).

  10. I think y’all are reading way too much into this, both positively and negatively. It’s the Beastie Boys, and it was “Sabotage” – the song with the video where they run around like cops from a Quinn Martin Production. So for Saturday Night Live, they found some way to change it up.

    As for EC himself, why not? You keep asking why, Hrrundi, but why not? It’s not something you see every day. And it’s not some great big ironic/angry statement about the lip-sync/click-track syndrome on SNL; it’s simply an alternative to it.

    And except for the bass farting out several times in the course of the song, it was pretty good.

    Sheeshes all around.

  11. saturnismine

    it’s interesting (and vindicating) to learn that the the first elvis “song switch” on snl was contrived. i’ve been reamed a billion times by costello faithful for suggesting that it looked planned, and that elvis did a bad acting job.

    i don’t know how he could’ve possibly mustered the ability to be angry for the second one. the occasion didn’t call for it. and it would’ve seemed silly and inapprorpriate if he had tried to appear angry (like he did the first time).

    as matt rightly points out, he sounds great, too.

  12. hrrundivbakshi

    Good Lord — have you all lost your ability to discern right from wrong here? The fact that “Hendrix did it first” has nothing to do with anything! The fact that Costello “isn’t angry” in the more recent SNL clip is irrelevant!

    To the first point: there was no irony, no smug detachment from reality in the original Costello fuck-you to the NBC conglomerate. He may have taken inspiration from Hendrix’s spaced-out middle finger to Lulu and the man, but he made his moment his own. I got no problem with learning from — even ripping off — the Great Moves of Rock’s past; I got a *big* problem with turning those moments into bullshit inside jokes that aren’t particularly funny. What’s next on your hit parade, dudes? A car commercial where Costello interrupts his own reveries on Bach to tell us he’d rather listen to “Radio, Radio” on the Bose surround-sound dashboard stereo? Fucking hilarious!

    To the second point: I feel no betrayal because Costello wasn’t angry during the SNL bit; I simply feel like he eagerly let a great moment in his artistic history get pimped (poorly) to buff the cheeks of a band that wasn’t clever enough to think of something on their own. It comes as no surprise to me that the Beasties supplanted their pop-culture-in-love-with-itself artistic “masterwork” “Sabotage” with something even *less* meaningful — the recreation, two steps removed, of an inside joke that only the panty-sniffing nerds ’round these parts would ever get.

    Saturnismine, mrclean, berlyant and others: you have managed to fall short of even the stunted standards of taste and perspective to which I hold this Hall accountable — I hope you are proud!

  13. Ah, there’s the problem.

    Bakshi: it was not a fuck-you to the NBC conglomerate. I’m not convinced EC would have known what network SNL was even broadcast on, or cared. It was, at most, a fuck-you to Lorne Michaels, or more likely, to Dan Aykroyd, whom Costello specifically mentioned as being particularly smug and dickish. Sticking it to The Man is one thing. Sticking it to The Producer is something else and something less.

  14. Hrrund, you’re friggin’ nuts. You’re the one that wrote that you assumed Elvis thought he would be perceived as admirably angry. A “great moment in his artistic history”? Did he poop on the original masters of Armed Forces? No. It was an amusing stunt the first time. It was a playful riff on the stunt (as Mr Clean wrote) as a goofy favor to the Beasties that had very little to do with him the second time. I’m happy to hear him play his back catalogue. God forbid if R. Plant ever utters the words “does anyone remember laughter?” and besmirches that brilliant poetic aside. If Jagger ever mutters the word “trousers” on stage, I’ll smash my copy of Get Your Ya Yas Out. These defining crystal moments of rock purity would be tarnished. Both EC stunts can and should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Let your 13 year old purist rest in peace. News flash, Ziggy Stardust wasn’t really from Mars.

  15. hrrundivbakshi

    chickenfrank sez:

    News flash, Ziggy Stardust wasn’t really from Mars.

    I say:


  16. Saturnismine, mrclean, berlyant and others: you have managed to fall short of even the stunted standards of taste and perspective to which I hold this Hall accountable — I hope you are proud!

    I’m totally cool with it. I assume your failing to call me out by name is a mere oversight.

  17. Saturnismine, mrclean, berlyant and others: you have managed to fall short of even the stunted standards of taste and perspective to which I hold this Hall accountable — I hope you are proud!

    I’m OK with it as well. In fact, I take a perverse kind of pride in falling short of standards of taste, though I think you’re the one whose perspective needs some adjusting on this particular issue.

  18. I know this is an old thread but obsessing on this led me to finding this site and I just wanted to say THANKS! I loved reading all of the opinions. I know I’m gonna spend too much time on this site. Luckily, I’m home sick for the day…

    Here’s what I posted to an EC forum…

    Much has been made of EC’s infamous switching of songs on live TV in 1978 but not much about WHY. I read an article that mentioned that the cast was goofing on Elvis a bit and he didn’t take it very well. So much that he decided to screw them by changing the song he was playing. That sounds like hundreds of other British acts who rule the UK, only to be very disappointed in how they’re treated as virtual unknowns in the US. Sounded like he was just being a brat, not surprising for his angry young man image ’round then. Does anyone know where I might’ve read this or know any other firsthand accounts?

    I went looking for evidence of this and couldn’t find anything but people hailing it as the greatest thing ever on TV that he would screw with a network TV schedule and play an anti-media anthem. Erm, why? Some articles said that Lorne Michaels or the record label INSISTED he play Less Than Zero or refused to let him play Radio Radio, but I doubt that either is true. Like most bands who played on SNL, Elvis dutifully performed his latest single, Watching The Detectives. Usually the 2nd song later in the show is another song off their current album or maybe an older hit. Why would anyone insist he play an earlier single that never caught on in the US? He could’ve played something more listener friendly like Allison or Red Shoes. Radio Radio might not have even been recorded then (it wasn’t released until 10 months later) and while it’s anti-media, so was SNL. Not to mention the fact that EC & The Attractions were a late fill-in for the Sex Pistols, who the network would be more worried about.

    When he did the song with the Beasties years later, I thought THAT was the greatest thing I’d ever seen and reminded me how much more of a sense of humor he has now. Spice World, anyone?

    (& then a replY)

    I guess it just seemed like misguided rebelliousness considering it was mostly because he couldn’t take a joke. Throw vodka in the mix and all logic’s out the window, I guess. The show is planned as closely to the second as possible and sketches often get cut in the end. Maybe Less Than Zero just fit the bill cos it was short. I’d just think that with the cast at the time digging punk as much as Belushi did that they would’ve got along better. I doubt he was really banned either. Neither side was probably dying to work together again. Plenty of acts go on and never do again. But when Veronica was poised on being his biggest hit in a long while, on he went again and I’ll bet it wasn’t really a big deal.

    The one thing I could find in my SNL book that I hadn’t remembered was that the network censor, who the show had to battle every week, was screaming to cut him off….

    “On another show, rock musician Elvis Costello stopped after singing a few bars of his scheduled number and launched into a different song that nobody, including the censor, had heard him play in rehearsals. Unsure of what words Costello might be about to sing, the censor in the control room started shouting “Cut him off! Cut him off!” Bob Liftin, the show’s sound consultant, gambled that the new song would be safe and left the sound on, although he stood poised over the volume controls, ready to cut Costello’s mic if he was wrong.”

    A couple of years ago, my band played a local NBC station’s cheesy morning show and we did Radio Radio. I behaved. It was early. I hope someone got the joke.

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