Elvis Costello – Radio Radio

When I heard the organ in this song it hooked me. I haven’t posted much of Costello partly because like the Replacements…I got sidetracked in the late 80s away from him and since I started blogging I’m rediscovering him again.

I was 10 years old walking in our old drug store and I heard this artist I never heard before over the speakers…the song they were playing was Alison. The drug store sold records also and they had Elvis’s debut album propped up for viewing. The name threw me because this “Elvis” was a small skinny guy with glasses…that is when I found his music.

Radio Radio was made more famous by the Saturday Night Life performance.

Radio Radio was released as a single in 1978 and peaked at #29 in the UK. It was on the US version of the album This Year’s Model and it peaked at #30 in the Billboard Album Charts, #21 in Canada, and #4 in the UK.

Costello was slated to play his current UK single “Less Than Zero,” on Saturday Night Live in 1977. Costello launched into a few bars of “Less Than Zero,” but then turned to his band and told them to stop. He then apologized to the live audience, saying, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here,” and broke into a full rendition of “Radio Radio,” which had not yet been released.

Lorne Michaels…the God of Saturday Night Live was not pleased.

Costello was banned from Saturday Night Live. It has been said that the corporate brass at NBC (which owned radio properties) objected to the lyrics of “Radio Radio,” but others say it was because Costello went off-script, which was a no no to Lorne Michaels. That was one rule Michaels wanted the cast to know…they were not the Carol Burnett show and they were not to go off script or laugh.

Costello later claimed he was inspired by Jimi Hendrix, who in 1969 stopped a performance of “Hey Joe” on the show Happening for Lulu and launched into the Cream song “Sunshine Of Your Love,” earning him a ban from the BBC.

On Saturday Night Live’s 25th anniversary show in 1999, Costello parodied the incident when he interrupted the Beastie Boys while they were playing “Sabotage,” leading them in a full version of “Radio Radio.”

Elvis Costello: “Before I got into show business, I thought radio was great, So I wrote a song about celebrating it – the thrill of listening to it late at night. This was my imaginary song about radio before I found out how foul and twisted it was.” 

From Songfacts

In this song, Costello is protesting the commercialization of late 1970s FM radio. Radio stations would become more and more consolidated over the years, and their playlists tightened up considerably. Eventually, deregulation led to a few companies owning the majority of American radio stations, which led to automated stations. Tom Petty sang about this on his 2002 track “The Last DJ.”

This song is a takedown of radio, but it started out as a loving tribute. Costello wrote the first version of the song as “Radio Soul” when he was in a band called Flip City. They recorded a demo in 1974, but the song was never released.

In “Radio Soul,” Costello sings lovingly about radio, without any trace of vitriol:

I could sail away to the songs that play upon that radio soul
Radio soul
It’s a sound salvation

When he reworked the song in 1977, he changed the title and completely flipped the meaning, reflecting his newfound take on the topic.

On December 17, 1977, Elvis Costello & the Attractions appeared on Saturday Night Live as last minute replacements for the Sex Pistols, whose various criminal records had made getting visas in time difficult.

Costello’s ban was lifted in 1989 when he returned as musical guest, performing “Veronica” and “Let Him Dangle” without incident. His 1977 act of defiance became part of Saturday Night Live lore, and is often recounted in retrospectives of the show’s history. 

Bruce Springsteen was an influence on this song, musically and lyrically. The Springsteen ethos is more apparent in the “Radio Soul” version, with the theme of escaping to a better place through the power of music.

In the ’10s, Costello started performing the “Radio Soul” version of this song, explaining that it resonates with him far more than “Radio Radio.” He has clearly mellowed out.

Costello performed the early version of this song, “Radio Soul,” at the Apple iTunes Radio announcement event on September 10, 2013. Introducing the song, he explained that radio was very important to him, since his father was singer for a radio dance band.

The 1999 SNL return and parody of the original event.

The 1977 SNL infamous appearance

Radio Radio

I was tuning in the shine on the late night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
When the switch broke ’cause it’s old
They’re saying things that I can hardly believe
They really think we’re getting out of control

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio

Wonderful radio
Marvelous radio
Wonderful radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio
Radio, radio