This is a scathing attack on Oswald Mosley, a politician who was popular in England at the time. Mosley, who died in 1980, was the leader of the British Union of Fascists.
This was Costello's first single - it was only issued in Europe. At the time, he had a day job working on a computer at Elizabeth Arden cosmetics.
According to Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock and Soul, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever, the song is about a young couple making out in one of their parents' houses, while 1930s British fascist leader Oswald Moseley and his sister babble poison on TV, angling for a comeback in the era of the National Front.
American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis named his first novel, the nihilistic, drug-fueled Less Than Zero after this song. He told the NME August 7, 2010: "Why did I name my first book after an Elvis Costello song? Who knows? I was working on this project starting when I was 16 and it was the Less Than Zero project. I was like most white, upper-class educated boys: I was obsessed with Elvis Costello. That was his main audience in the US. That title seemed very evocative to me. It had various other titles, but Less Than Zero ultimately seemed like the best title for the book, even though I had this much older professor who really loved the book but tried to dissuade me from using that title because he thought it was lame. He suggested Winter Vacation. Elvis Costello became the man for me for very many years. And then he didn't. Which happens, it happens to a lot of people, it's just the nature of things. Very few people sustain massive careers for a long time."
When he recorded the My Aim Is True album, Costello had not yet formed his backing band The Attractions, so he used members of an American group called Clover as his musicians:
John McFee - guitar Sean Hopper - keyboards Johnny Ciambotti - bass Mickey Shine - drums Stan Shaw - organ
Clover disbanded in 1978; McFee joined The Doobie Brothers and Hopper formed Huey Lewis and the News.
When Costello appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1977 (filling in for the Sex Pistols, who were denied entry into the US), it was decided that he would perform this song. Elvis, however, had other ideas. After playing some of "Less Than Zero," he halted the performance and played the unreleased "Radio Radio" instead, earning him a ban from the show that lasted until 1989, when he returned as musical guest.
Costello had no interest in playing "Less Than Zero" for an American audience (especially on a late-night comedy show), since its subject matter was decidedly English.
Like "Watching The Detectives," this song has reggae overtones. Costello was influenced by the first Clash album, which used a lot of reggae sounds.
Andy from Halesowen, West Midlands, United KingdomThe Dallas version: Jenny takes her clothes off in succession, While her husband rides a bumper in the president's procession. She's sees him on the screen as she looks up from giving head. When he's had enough of that her lover throws her on the bed To teach her she's alive and suddenly he's dead. Turn up the tv. no one listening will suspect, Even your mother won't detect it, No your father won't know. They think that i've got no respect But everything means less than zero. Hey, ooh hey, hey, ooh hey.
Calling mister oswald, calling anyone at the scene, If you were taking home movies there's a chance you might have seen him. They've got a thousand variations, every witness in a file. Jenny puts on some coffee and she comes back with a smile. She says, "i hear that south america is coming into style."
A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor. Mister oswald thought he had an understanding with the law. She's got rubies on her fingers, jenny turns and looks away. Her mind upon a basement out of the usa. She says, "let's talk about the future now we've put the past away."
Andy from Halesowen, West Midlands, United KingdomDoes anyone have the text of the Dallas version. I have often heard of it but never found the lyrics anywhere.
On a side note, Oswalds son Max has recently been in the press a lot in the UK as a result of a seedy newspaper "sting" that filmed him roleplaying with prostitutes.
Alan from Edinburgh, ScotlandI don't think it's true to say that Oswald was popular in England at the time. His time of popularity was the early to mid 1930's, culminating in the Battle of Cable Street when various British socialist groups combined to prevent him from leading a deliberately provocative parade through a predominantly Jewish area of London's East End. After this his popularity waned and during the war he was interned in Holloway Prison because of his support for National Socialism (Nazism). In the eyes of most British people he was forever after associated with Hitler and Mussolini, and was only really popular with extreme right-wing hate groups.
Meredith from St. Louis, MoActually I noticed a slight connection that Bret Easton Ellis maybe was making when coming up with the title of the book... Obviously the title makes sense anyway, but as far as the Elvis Costello song he does mention Elvis Costello a couple of times in the book, if I remember correctly. At least on of the times he mentions a large Elvis poster over the main character's bed...just thought I'd share my view on that
Justin from Philadelphia, PaWhen Elvis was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live in Christmas 1977 he originally wanted to do Radio Radio for his second number, but the NBC refuse to let him play it because it was an anti-media song and demanded that he play this instead. Elvis agreed, but when it came time for his second song Elvis began to go into the first verse of the song then stopped and told his band to stop and told the audience that there was no reason to do the song. He then launched into a rousing version of Radio Radio and threw the show off by seven minutes. Elvis was banned from performing on SNL for ten years.
Kieran from Harlow, United StatesBook was written by Bret Easton Ellis.
Sam from Atlanta, GaMany American listeners assumed the "Mr. Oswald" in the lyrics to be Lee Harvey Oswald. Costello responded to these listeners with the "Dallas Version" of the song, which substitutes lyrics about JFK's assassination. (It can be heard on the "Live At El Mocambo" album.)