JFK Assassination Song: “Less Than Zero (Dallas Version)” by Elvis Costello

November 22, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This post is part of a series that will run throughout this year focusing on songs that address the JFK assassination.

During his infamous appearance on Saturday Night Live on December 17, 1977, Elvis Costello was supposed to play “Less Than Zero” from his debut album My Aim Is True. He played a few bars of the song and then abruptly stopped, telling the audience, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. There’s no reason to do this song here”. He then launched into “Radio, Radio” instead, causing the show to run over time and getting him banned from Saturday Night Live for 13 years. Perhaps he did this because he thought “Less Than Zero” would mean little to an American Audience. The “Oswald” in the song refers to Oswald Mosley, who organized the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Elvis Costello had recently seen Oswald Mosley on the BBC and had been disgusted with his unapologetic tone. As Elvis Costello explained in the liner notes for the 2001 Rhino reissue of My Aim Is True,

“Less than Zero” was a song that I had written after seeing the despicable Oswald Mosley being interviewed on B.B.C. television. The former leader of the British Union of Fascists seemed unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930’s. The song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument.

Within a few weeks of his appearance on Saturday Night Live, however, Elvis Costello performed “Less Than Zero” with alternate lyrics that would have much more meaning for an American audience. John Ciambotti, bassist for Clover, the backing band for Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True, told Elvis Costello that he was convinced that “Less Than Zero” had been about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Perhaps inspired by this discussion, Elvis Costello rewrote the verses of the song to use imagery from the JFK assassination. John Ciambotti later remarked, “Maybe I put a bug in his ear.”

The chorus of the “Dallas Version” is the same as the LP version but Elvis Costello had completely rewritten the song’s three verses, with “Mr. Oswald” now referring to Lee Harvey Oswald. Where the LP version of “Less Than Zero” was about teenagers turning up the TV to drown out the sound of them having sex, the “Dallas Version” describes two people having adulterous sex while watching televised coverage of JFK’s motorcade through Dallas (“Jenny takes her clothes off in succession/While her husband rides a bumper in the President’s procession”). Elvis Costello retained some of the lyrics from the original and these lines take on new meaning, hinting at a conspiracy (“A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor/Mister Oswald thought he had an understanding with the law”). Jenny’s rubies (“With rubies on her fingers/Jenny turns and looks away”) suggest Jack Ruby, who in turn assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald. Images of the assassination, such as the Zapruder film, and eyewitnesses can’t seem to give a definitive account of what actually happened (“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”). But like the LP version of “Less Than Zero” the real point of the song is not the specific event but a broader point about callousness our tolerance for the inhumane. With the play on words “Her mind is on a basement in the USA”, The “Dallas Version,” points to the degradation on both a political and a personal level brought about by these events. Lyrically, the “Dallas Version” doesn’t work quite as well as the LP version, as there wouldn’t really be much reason for the TV to drown out the sounds of sex so that the parents won’t hear, but this is still vintage Elvis Costello.

Though Elvis Costello has regularly included “Less Than Zero” in his setlists over the years, he only performed the “Dallas Version” in 1978. Fittingly, his first and last performances of this version of the song were in Dallas. A couple of live recordings of the “Dallas Version” from this period have surfaced on official Elvis Costello releases. On March 6, 1978, Elvis Costello performed the “Dallas Version” at El Mocambo in Toronto. Elvis Costello’s El Mocambo performance was broadcast live on Toronto radio station CHUM-FM and later released as a promotional album for Canadian Columbia. This album was bootlegged and did not receive an official release until it was included in the Rykodisk box set 2 1/2 Years, but Live at the El Mocambo has since been released separately. Also, in 2008 Hip-O re-issued This Year’s Model with a bonus disc containing a live set recorded on February 28,1978, at the Warner Theater in Washington DC, that includes the “Dallas Version” of “Less Than Zero”.

Less Than Zero
My Aim Is True album version

by Elvis Costello
Less Than Zero
Dallas Version

by Elvis Costello
Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo
There is a vacancy waiting
In the English voodoo
Carving “V” for “vandal”
On the guilty boy’s head
When he’s had enough of that,
Maybe you’ll take him to bed
To teach him he’s alive
Before he wishes he was dead
Jenny takes her clothes off in succession
While her husband rides a bumper
In the President’s procession
She 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
(Chorus)
Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it
So your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything means less than zero
(Chorus)
Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it
So your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything means less than zero
Oswald and his sister are doing it again
They’ve got the finest home movies
That you have ever seen
They’ve got a thousand variations
Every service with a smile.
They’re gonna take a little break
And they’ll be back after a while.
well I hear that South America is coming into style.
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”
(Chorus) (Chorus)
A pistol was still smoking
A man lay on the floor
Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple
Living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet
Let’s talk about the future
Now we’ve put the past away
A pistol was still smoking
A man lay on the floor
Mr. 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”
(Chorus) (Chorus)

 

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