The first time I heard Elvis Costello was on a small transistor radio when I was a child. The song I heard was Radio, Radio. At least that’s what I’d like to believe, considering the legendary controversy the song caused. If you don’t already know the story, it is an interesting piece of music history.
Radio, Radio is a protest song about the commercialization of radio and government influence over music. Costello wrote the song during the birth of the punk movement and it bristled with the novel idea that songs could actually say something intelligent, artistic and political, even if it was a different point of view than what was being played on the radio. Costello snarls, “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand so badly…” which wasn’t exactly what record companies wanted to hear at the time. According to Costello, radio stations were “playing songs bringing tears to [his] eyes/… saying things that [he could] hardly believe.” Media control and manipulation, or more accurately the commercialization of certain “acceptable” forms of music, was what Costello was protesting, indeed he said “the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel.”
On December 17, 1977, the Sex Pistols were scheduled to play on Saturday Night Live, but because of visa issues, they weren’t allowed into the U.S. Elvis Costello, who was touring Canada and the U.S. at the time, was asked to fill in.
So what happened? Costello began by playing Less than Zero, like he was supposed to, but stopped early on yelling “Stop! Stop!,” then apologized to the audience believing there was “no reason to do this song here.” He then played Radio, Radio. For this he was banned from performing on SNL. It took 12 years before he was asked back to perform on the show.
Costello said he had been inspired by Jimi Hendrix, who on BBC TV in January, 1969 stopped playing Hey Joe, (the song he was supposed to play) and said “We’d like to stop playing this rubbish and dedicate a song to the Cream, regardless of what kind of group they might be. I’d like to dedicate this to Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce,” and then Hendrix played Sunshine of Your Love.
But that was then, and this is now. Costello’s many albums contain songs full of irony and word play; songs that challenge the listener with vocabulary much broader than most popular songs. Elvis Costello & The Impostors are coming to Vancouver on April 10, 2012 to play the Orpheum as part of their Spinning Songbook Tour.
Each concert performance will have a randomly generated song set list, created by a wheel spun by a select few from the audience. For a taste of the songs, visit Elvis Costello’s website and spin the wheel for yourself.