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Not Watching the Detectives with Elvis Costello

December 20, 2014

For three-plus decades I have fondly remembered the precise instant when I first allowed that there might be something worthwhile in that strange punk rock movement that was blossoming in the latter half of the 1970s.  I’ve cherished and coddled the memory, proudly recalling the invigorating nascent twinge of anti-establishment feeling birthed within me as the event unfolded.  The specific song that opened my eyes has remained a strong favorite, still regularly finding its way onto CD “mix tapes” gifted to friends and loved ones even as I enter my second half century.  I always knew I’d eventually write about it, viewing it as one those epic moments in my personal musical life journey.

And now suddenly, terribly, I discover that the moment never happened, at least not as I so clearly recalled it.  I had never doubted.  I knew my treasured memory was real.  But truth has failed me; “fact” has betrayed me.  Some may read and deem me an over-reacting drama queen (king?), but they should first seek not to judge.  Even minor tweaks to established personal gospels can be hard to swallow for true believers like me.

By that winter of my 13th year in December 1977, I was mainly aware of punk rock through breathless morning TV news stories about those crazy Sex Pistols and their safety-pin-bedecked, unwashed followers in that strange, foreign land called London.  At least in my age group, and certainly on local Utah radio, “punk” music had made no inroads.  At the time, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of punk pioneers The Ramones or Patti Smith, let alone any of the wave of punk rockers that offered up first albums in 1977 that would eventually become rock canon.  Back then, I most assuredly had no time for Johnny Rotten and his self-cutting, gob-spitting acolytes and their tuneless shouting.

Not Utah in 1977  (from

Not Utah in 1977 (from

Here’s what my brain says happened:  As I’d done since the show premiered in 1975, I struggled to stay awake long enough that night to watch Saturday Night Live on NBC.  Besides wanting to laugh at jokes many of which I didn’t quite understand but knew were somehow pushing boundaries, it was imperative that I not find myself at school on Monday morning unable to recite the best skits and be deemed a wuss whose mommy probably tucked him in at 8:PM.  As I watched that night’s episode, skinny English punk rockers Elvis Costello and the Attractions were introduced as the musical act. They started to play some song I didn’t recognize when suddenly, seemingly quite angrily, Elvis stopped the band mid-note and sneered into the microphone that there “was no reason to play that song here” before launching into the song………  “Watching the Detectives.”

The mixture of Costello’s angry young man demeanor, hyperactive manner and staccato lyric delivery, and the infectious groove, shuffling drums, and tightly picked electric guitar notes in the reggae-influenced Watching the Detectives was a revelation. I had no idea to whom Elvis was flipping the bird by playing this particular song on U.S. TV nor why he had needed to be so “punk” in forcing it onto our screens against the will of “the man,” but I knew his action was heroic.  It was all just so damn cool. Maybe this punk stuff had potential…

Angry Elvis Giving It to the Man on SNL, 1977 (from

Angry Elvis Giving It to the Man on SNL, 1977 (from

It would be years before I actually owned any Elvis Costello, but Watching the Detectives would be part of me forever from that day forth.  I knew I wouldn’t need to actually listen to it ever again for it to remain near the top of my mind’s internal most played list.

Here’s what science says actually happened:  Elvis Costello and his band indeed played Watching the Detectives that night, but during their first slot on the show.  It was during their second performance later in the episode that Elvis stopped after a few bars of new single Less Than Zero, to make his “no reason” statement before leading the band into the song Radio, Radio, a screed against “corporate” media force-feeding musical and other entertainment pabulum to the masses.

I’m devastated.  My joy at Watching the Detectives has been subconsciously reinforced for more than thirty years by its obvious dangerousness as demonstrated by Elvis’ foisting, against-their-will performance of it in which I had participated as an observer on that late winter’s night.  I had been there when it was first launched as a grooving shot across the unsuspecting bow of the old tight-ass bastards, whoever they were, who were keeping us young ones down.  Radio, Radio is an ok enough song I guess, but hell, I wouldn’t even list it among my top 25 favorite Elvis Costello songs.  How could it have been the moment?

I now find myself doubting whether the moment actually occurred in any form.  Trust in myself is fractured.  My whole belief system is on the verge of collapse.  I wonder who the hell I even am anymore.  Is my whole existence just a pile of lies?

In the meantime, Watching the Detectives is a freaking fantastic song.  Check it out:

From → Music

  1. A great record, no matter how you remember getting to it!

  2. It took me quite a few years to get into Elvis Costello. When I saw him on Saturday Night Live, I asked myself, “Who in the hell is this short haired freak?” That was the late 70s for you. “Watching the Detectives” is a good song.

  3. Really enjoyed this. This Year’s Model is one of my fave LP’s ever and his mum lived on the road behind ours and he answered the door years ago when my friend was out carol singing – that’s my festive EC facts exhausted!

  4. An existential left hook can come any time. Loved this piece, Vic.

    Memory is indeed friable. (If you ever stumble across Wil Anderson’s ‘Wiliuminati’ DVD (he’s an Australian stand-up), you’ll enjoy his Matt Damon story. Actually, you’d in all likelihood enjoy the whole show.)

    Did you ever master the up-yours sneer? Don’t think I did. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Regardless, ‘Radio Radio’ is in my Top 10 EC songs, so there.

    • Unfortunately, my sneer comes across as more petulant than up-yours confident. I still work on it daily though, albeit mainly alone in front of a blinking screen. I do seem to have achieved a pretty impressive glazed-over heroin junkie stare, and that without chemical assistance (or even actual dedicated effort, in fact).

      Have looked for the Wiluminati video on some of the streaming services without luck. Continued stumbling is a given however, so hope remains.

      Your having taken the time is, as always, much appreciated, VC.

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