Follow me, I’m gonna take a winding road to get to my point.
My two year old son loves to watch Elmo and since Sesame Street also caters to parents, I’ve actually enjoyed Elvis Costello parody his own hit “Red Shoes” with a version called “Red Two.”
I’m a bit of an Elvis Costello fan; I know his real name and have a few of his Greatest Hits collections. Since I’ve had “Red Two” in my head for the last few weeks, I started to dive back into my real EC collection. Reacquainting myself with the real version “Red Shoes” and his other hits.
One of my favorites “Radio, Radio” is most famous with U.S. audiences for the “stunt” Elvis pulled on Saturday Night Live in 1977. His record company wanted him to play “Less Than Zero” a song that is about a U.K. politician and was already released and doing well overseas.
But Elvis didn’t want to play that one, so a few bars into the performance he stopped his band and they launched into the yet to be released “Radio, Radio.” Because it screwed up the timing of SNL’s live broadcast, he was banned from the show for more than ten years.
It’s a great story that Elvis talks about in liner notes from a reissue of his album “This Year’s Model.”
I believed that we were just acting in the spirit of the third word of the show’s title, but it was quickly apparent that the producer did not agree. He stood behind the camera making obscene and threatening gestures in my direction. When the number was over, we were chased out of the building and told that we would “never work on American television again”. Indeed, we did not make another U.S. television appearance until 1980. Although this clip from SNL went on to be rerun on numerous occasions, I was not allowed back on the show until 1989. However, I was forgiven in time to be invited to re-create the moment, with the Beastie Boys as my backing band, for the show’s 25th anniversary special.
THE MEANING BEHIND THE SONG
While the SNL thing is the most famous story associated with the song, I’ve always been more interested in the middle finger he was giving radio in 1977. With lyrics like:
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 anaesthetise the way that you feel
From what I can read, he was inspired in part by the BBC not playing the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen” and the difficulty in general of punk rock getting airplay.
In those same liner notes I mentioned before, Elvis talks about his band driving through the U.S. on their first tour before their breakthrough performance on SNL:
The four of us plus our tour manager were jammed into a rented station wagon on-route from Atlanta, Georgia, to Madison, Wisconsin. We took turns riding “shotgun”, that way you got to control the radio. It was during this journey that we managed to tune in to different parts of “Stairway to Heaven” playing simultaneously on three stations. It was not uncommon to catch the end of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou”, only to find it had just begun on an adjacent frequency. You could have been forgiven for thinking that this was why they were called “frequencies”.
I thought I’d write a story about Elvis complaining about the corporate media control of radio in 1977, and look at what has changed since then.
In many ways, it’s worse now than it was in 1977. There’s more consolidation, more niche music formats, tighter playlists, a fractured media marketplace, blah blah blah. But we all know that and it’s not really a story worth telling anymore is it?
The other side of the coin is streaming & satellite gives listeners more choice and control. Today “radio” isn’t just the terrestrial transmitter, it’s listening however you choose to do it.
You know what might be the thing that has changed? Nobody cares anymore. Who expects terrestrial radio to be great these days? Can you imagine an artist writing a protest song about radio bemoaning the lack of choice and variety, and the corporate control of the airwaves?
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.
Today’s protests are about revenue and streaming. I would love it if the expectations for radio were higher.
Thanks for reading. For more ways to connect with me go to TylerMoody.com
P.S. Since posting this, I had “Radio Nowhere” come up on my iPhone. Perhaps that’s a current(ish) radio protest song? I think I know a thing or two about radio, but I’m not the best person to be talking about modern music. Feel free to let me know where I’ve got it wrong.