We are singing songs about songs, and here’s a seriously cheesed-off Elvis Costello:
(Video postage-stamped because it’s kind of literal-minded and annoying.)
“Radio Radio” got some airplay but it wasn’t a hit, and of course it was the song that got Elvis banned from Saturday Night Live for 10 years (meh). Take a listen.
Now people write about Costello and post-punk and power pop, but in 1978, we had absolutely no doubt about what this was: It was New Wave, the real thing, and we loved it.
With every one of those late-night station
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
But Elvis isn’t just singing about the prevalence of mediocre music on commercial radio — that is a losing battle, or a lost one, and was even in ’78; the great UK pirates were dead or irrelevant, and the brief heyday of free-form commercial FM in the U.S. had come and gone. American Top 40 was sunk in disco, but what Elvis is complaining about on British radio is even more sinister than that:
Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
And they say you better listen to the voice of reason
And they don’t give you any choice
‘Cause they think that it’s treason
You had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio
Overbearing state-run radio, abuse of power, the silencing of opposing views and dangerous music. Like “Radio Radio”. From that ironically festive keyboard intro on, this is purely pissed off music; indeed, anger was what Elvis was all about in the beginning — he was famously angry. And anger was the very heart of New Wave, just as much as it was in punk.
I don’t know if that’s how New Wave is remembered, or even if it is remembered; if there are any associations with it at all, they seem to be with ’80s New Romantic acts like Adam Ant and Roxy Music impressionists Duran Duran. But the late ’70s, New Wave was a very big deal. Stations like KROQ in Los Angeles and the far superior KWST (long gone) were playing Iggy Pop, the Cramps, the Weasels, Suburban Lawns, and Toy Dolls, the rare punk act with a sense of humor.
I was a teenager and a little bit of a musical adventurer, relatively speaking. Tommy, a terrible movie for which I still retain considerable fondness because I loved it so much when I was 12, introduced me to the Who (already moribund by ’75, but of course nobody knew that at the time). That led inevitably to the Kinks, and I hovered around the Stones for a while but they never really spoke to me. This all seems very tame, but this was the San Fernando Valley in 1978. Most kids either loved disco and Journey or were into Southern rock (Skynyrd was huge in the Valley) and the Beach Boys. There was also some love for the poppier progsters like Yes or Tull.
So my tastes were really formed, until my late teens, by looking backward to better musical days. I was aware of punk, of course, but it bored me — and pretty much everyone else, I think. Hair metal had barely begun, even in L.A.
But New Wave — that was something else. A collective bad case of nerves, poppy, short, and melodic, and the songs were about something. It was music by and for clever young people, and since clever young people are angry by definition, New Wave was loaded with slick and snarky fury. It was new and strange and exciting, and the first music I didn’t in some sense fall in love with secondhand. This was my music, and I loved pretty much everything Elvis did in those days — I didn’t even notice the misogyny that is so grating in retrospect.
Oh, and one other point: “Radio Radio” reflects a time when artists lived and died by getting their songs on the air, and a lot of people would argue that that has changed. So just a reality check when you hear somebody proclaim “No one listens to the radio.” Everyone listens to the radio.
I’m not saying it’s a great thing, or claiming radio is smart tasteful or well programmed or brave, trustworthy, and loyal. It’s just a fact: Nobody becomes a pop star without radio behind them.
A lot of purported authorities on music and tech say with some regularity that over-the-air radio doesn’t matter anymore. But if you hear it or read it, you may safely dismiss any further observations as the ramblings of one who has proven they don’t know what they’re talking about. Radio mattered in 1978, and Elvis Costello knew it. It matters not one bit less now, and every artist who wants to be a star knows it too.