Radio Radio

Album: The Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions (1978)
Charted: 29
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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.

    At the urging of his record label, Costello was slated to play his current UK single "Less Than Zero," a song about a British politician named Oswald Mosley. Costello launched into a few bars of "Less Than Zero," but then turned to his backing 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.

    Costello was banned from Saturday Night Live. It is often reported that the corporate brass at NBC (which owned radio properties) objected to the lyrics of "Radio Radio," but it was really because Costello went off-script, and such antics throw the show into turmoil since it's a live production.

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

    Costello later claimed that his act of subversion 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.
  • 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.

    "Before I got into show business, I thought radio was great," Costello explained. "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." Since he was at an Apple Radio event, Costello quickly added, "we've set that right today."

Comments: 3

  • Steve from Philadelphia, PaNot sure about this, but this may be the only song ever written that uses the word "anesthetize". Brilliant.
  • Andy from Halesowen, West Midlands, United KingdomAlways thought this a Costello classic, and generally under-rated, probably a little to close to the truth to get much air-play I imagine, so only one for the record buying fans.

    I think the line "I want to bite the hand that feeds me - I want to bite that hand so badly" is a classic.

    I also admire the courage of the man, writing this early in his career, and I love the story of Saturday Night Live above (showing more guts that the supposedly "bad boys" - the Rolling Stones who could only manage to "spend some time together" on the Ed Sullivan show)
  • Jim from Long Beach, CaClassic Elvis, Costello that is....
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