In 1977, Elvis Costello was an angry nerd who sang about his disgust with war, work, women and the world. Seventeen years on, he's made music in every style from country to classical. But, as DAVE HILL discovers, he's still the main attraction
Elvis Lives There are certain things that Elvis Costello cannot do: he cannot cross the Thames via the Hungerford footbridge on his own, because heights put his equilibrium to flight; he cannot gratify himself with the knowledge that his face fuels the fantasies of a million teenage girls, because he doesn't have those kinds of looks; he cannot reflect that seventeen years in show business have made him the object of universal love, because he has an outsider's talent for pissing insiders off; he cannot cut a dash in the slick suit of celebrity, because he only ever lifts it from his wardrobe in order to tear a strip off it; and he cannot quite reconcile his image of himself with the tailored pages of GQ. "How the fuck I get to be in it, I don't know."
He makes the observation in passing, not with malice or false modesty. but with an insistent self-effacement that contrasts strongly with the definition, edge and ardour that characterise his many, varied and often brilliant songs. And making songs is something Elvis Costello can do. He has been doing it - writing, playing and singing them - in restless abundance since he debuted in earnest with My Aim Is True in 1977, an album which, from artwork to attitude, chimed with the tone of its time as resonantly as any of the raging punk rockers whose slipstream Costello moved in.
The record presented the romantic heroism of the conventional rock star turned inside out: for the sleeve he posed as a cartoon nerd with loser's glasses, a malicious smile, pigeon toes and a twangy guitar; in the grooves, the caricature assumed three dimensions in songs which matched spring-heeled melodies with lyrics which excavated the bleaker vistas of love. A subsequent single, "Watching the Detectives", detailed a woman's deeper interest in the allure of a TV cop show than the attentions of her flailing suitor with morbid accuracy: She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake. It's the kind of line that confirms admirers in the belief that Costello is the brightest blue chip left in the rubble of post-punk popular music: a man whose bespectacled vision brings into fragmentary focus the dark comedies and warped wisdoms of the modern world.
Elvis Costello's bespectacled vision
brings into focus the dark comedies and
warped wisdoms of the modern world
This month Costello releases Brutal Youth, his fifteenth solo album of new recordings. Graced by The Attractions, the three-piece band with whom he rocket-packed to international success at the end of the Seventies, it arrives replete with signatures of the type that have made his name: cutely crafted tunes both fast and slow, bursting with half-familiar moments from pop's past; vocals that switch back and forth from terseness to tenderness; lyrics that fizz with images and conceits. The album's a typically busy piece of work that draws on several of the many genres he has borrowed from before and made over to suit his own skewed perspectives. Repose is not his racket and his records won't let you rest. If there's one frozen impression that can do him any justice it is of an enigma in a hurry.
"It always sounds like you're showing off when you say this." Costello says, covering himself against accusations of conceit, "but I honestly did write about five of the songs in one day, in terms of the music. That day it really caught fire and for about ten hours, every time I picked up the guitar I was just unstoppable. I had to go for a lie down at the end of it. I started to feel a bit dizzy."
You can picture it easily enough. Even though he comes across as so earnestly obliging, sitting at an alcove table in the downstairs bar of a hotel near his London home in Holland Park, explosions of creative vertigo are not hard to imagine. His pleasantness doesn't entirely banish the feeling that beneath the skin he is every bit as wired as everyone routinely says he is and always has been, albeit these days more benignly.
We all project our own meanings onto pop songs, though perhaps more so with Costello's than most. This is partly because their fabric is unusually suggestive, partly because his own identity - the "Real Elvis Costello", that sort of guff - has remained heavily concealed. Autobiography enters his material only peripatetically and then usually undetectably. He is about as given to public confession as government ministers are to monogamy. But the emotion that seemed to drive his earliest endeavours was anger, anger, anger.
His first efforts were released by Stiff Records, a west London independent label dedicated to advancing the cause of rock 'n' roll individualists of a type scorned by the major companies: Ian Dury, Reckless Eric, Nick Lowe. Another, Declan MacManus, had been earning a crust as a computer operator at the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory in Ealing by day, composing alone and playing with scratch bands by night. Uniformly spurned by the musical establishment and justifiably embittered, he got his first break after giving an office audition to Stiff boss and entrepreneur Dave Robinson.
Between them, they dreamed up MacManus' stage name, "Costello", after the singer's mother's maiden moniker; "Elvis" to wind people up. His first single was "Less Than Zero", a loathing critique of the psychology of the National Front. It appeared on, but did not typify, the ensuing My Aim Is True, which was more concerned with girls and the problems they seemed to present for the prickly Other Elvis. The album's roaring success was quickly consolidated by This Year's Model, which introduced the stylised, febrile sound of The Attractions, a distinctive mix punk attack and pop confection. An anti-star was born.
Costello approached the concert circuit with concentrated rancour. Two shows stick in my mind. The first was on a Stiff ensemble tour (pre-Attractions) in Guildford. A handful of herberts had been assaulting the stage with broken glass and phlegm. Costello beetled on to do his slot: "I see we've got some cunts in the audience tonight," he snarled. No more broken glass and phlegm. The second was a headlining This Year's Model tour gig in Canterbury, where the Costello set created an atmosphere of such admiring antipathy that he and the band had to be locked in the dressing room for their own safety. He remembers that one: "You think back on it now and it was all about nothing really. It was, like, we didn't do an encore."
Wryly, he recalls: "There was quite a lot of that, actually. I was just wound up. Some of it was righteous. some of it got to be, like, a thing you did. you know. The danger of any kind of angry behaviour is that it becomes a habit. It becomes your act: you're him; be angry! It's the problem some comedians have when they can't stop telling jokes."
A third album, Armed Forces (1979), distinguished by its dissident socio-political sentiments, confirmed Costello as the class act of the New Wave and the band crash-landed onto the global market. A widespread misconception of the time was that these were the kind of thinking pop boys who didn't go in for rock tour dementia of the conventional kind. Wrong Attractions bass player Bruce Thomas has documented the band's world conquest with surreal hilarity in his book The Big Wheel Televisions sail from hotel windows; destructive boredom and alcoholic idiocy prevail. There are anecdotes about "The Singer" getting edgy in the vicinity of aircraft and putting his DM boot into the rear of a Porsche which carelessly levelled his suitcase at Los Angeles airport."If I'd made with an Armed Forces II, I probably would've ended up with a Bruce Springsteen type career"
In America, the banquet of superstardom was served up for the gorging, but there were major digestion problems. Anxious, by his own later account, to cause as much offense as possible to a company of Woodstock-era hippy bores mouthing homage to the blues, Costello uttered a remark about Ray Charles so revolting it made Alf Garnett sound like Nelson Mandela by comparison. The incident was reported in the press, Costello was branded a shit and a racist, and his career prospects seemed marred beyond measure. He regrets the episode deeply. But it did have the beneficial side-effect of helping to save him from looming oblivion. "Otherwise," he says, "I don't think I'd be sitting here now. I don't want to be melodramatic or anything, but I wasn't looking after any of the things you should be looking after in terms of health or safety."
In the longer term there was an artistic silver lining to this thunder cloud phase, in that it obliged Costello to consider his options with care. "It's very true that if I'd have made an Armed Forces II, I probably would have ended up with a Bruce Springsteen-type career. But look at the difficulty he's had backing down with grace from the massive success that was foisted on him. It is, like it or not, self-defeating to just go on and repeat yourself, and that product-identification way of making records holds no interest for me. I can't remember now which came first, the fuck-up aspect or the realisation that there was all this other stuff we could be doing."
Other shooting stars whose ambitions are broader than the pursuit of fame for fame's sake have problems locking in to alternative orbits. Costello reaches for a metaphor: "We just took the quick route, driving along in the outside lane at 150 miles an hour then straight over the central reservation without waiting to make a proper U-turn. It was a combination of hitting auto-destruct and making a conscious decision at exactly the right moment."
So rather than filling stadiums with human sheep once every three years, Costello has since embarked on a prolonged musical zigzag, predictable only for its sustained high quality and impossible, eclectic energy. Early Eighties projects included a tense rhythm and blues excursion (Get Happy!!, 1980), a country album recorded in Nashville under the grumblesome auspices of production institution Billy Sherrill (Almost Blue, 1981) and a one-off writing collaboration with Madness producer Clive Langer called "Shipbuilding", a critique of the Farklands war originally recorded with plaintive beauty by Robert Wyatt. Costello also produced an album for The Specials, a service he later performed for The Pogues. The latter reputedly gave him a terrible time, but a cynical mind might espy poetic justice in the fact that he later married their bass player Cait O'Riordan, his partner to this day. The pair split their time between London and Dublin, where most of Brutal Youth was written "in my front room". In 1991, he collaborated with a classical string ensemble, The Brodsky Quartet, on The Juliet Letters. He has recently been asked to compose a piece for a South Bank concert featuring the viol, a medieval instrument, in celebration of the composer Henry Purcell's tricentenary. He lights up at the prospect.
Throughout, those Costello obsessives in search of the "Real Elvis" have been thwarted by his basic desire for privacy and a disdain for the cult of personality. Anticipating reaction to Brutal Youth in the US, Costello predicts, with obvious pleasure, the disappointment of 'American commentators at the lack of confessional information. You know, 'I-looked-into-the-inner-child-and-forgave-myself' stuff. It isn't on the agenda." His renewed acquaintance with The Attractions after seven years was inspired, he shrugs, not by sentimentality but by his desire to make songs with "a combo", and The Attractions are the best he knows. "We got back in the room, started rehearsing and it sounded great."
"If I'd made an Armed Forces II, I probably would've
ended up with a Bruce Springsteen-type career
Habitually, Costello has mocked preoccupations with the "Man Behind the Music" by adopting spoof identities and noms de plume: The Imposter, Napoleon Dynamite. In 1986, he released the album King of America in a sleeve whose wordless front artwork featured a photo portrait of himself wearing a crown and an unkempt beard. On the reverse, he was credited only as Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus. "I have got a bit of a contrary streak," he admits, "but I never thought my appearance made any difference past the cartoonish way I looked on the first couple of records. But I learned to realise that it really frightened people. I got written up as being quite mad during that period. Once I knew I'd needled a few people, I became determined to convince them I was mad!"
When the affable Danny Kelly of the New Musical Express (now editor of Q) suggested in print that Costello was going loopy and getting too deeply into drink, he was greeted at a subsequent interview by the man and his wife wearing their anger on their sleeves. Costello wore a full Edwardian undertaker's rig. He produced two cases of lethal liquor and suggested to Kelly that the pair of them polish off the lot. In fact it took a fair time for the nation's rock hacks to acquire the most routine biographical details - for example, that he was born in Paddington spent two years of his childhood in Birkenhead, and was already married with a child (now a young adult) when he became a public figure. Only later did it emerge that his father, Ross MacManus, had been a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra (last year, Costello picked a recording of his father's to grace his selection for Desert Island Discs), a background which might partly explain Costello's tireless urge to explore and absorb every conceivable back catalogue and genre, from Sinatra to George Jones, from soul to classical, from beat boom to Celtic airs.
Some who know him a little suspect Costello to be essentially precious and prickly. Others who know him a lot take a different view. A regular collaborator is the playwright Alan Bleasdale. Costello wrote the theme to Bleasdale's TV series Scully and co-wrote (with Richard Harvey) the score for the TV drama GBH. He also appeared as a hapless magician in the Bleasdale-scripted movie No Surrender and has recently arranged a quartet of songs (including a luscious "All the Way") covered by Julie Walters; they will serve as endpieces to four single dramas by new writers produced by Bleasdale for screening on Channel 4 later this year. The pair share a love of football Costello ruminates about the more arcane aspects of the Liverpool FC legend) and a particular set of perspectives on the conduct of life and work.
"If your back was against the wall," says Bleasdale of Costello 'you'd want him by your side. And I genuinely believe he is a force for good." Reaching for a favourite analogy, he likens Costello's personality to his own when he was a passionate amateur footballer. "I never set out to hurt anybody But if anyone kicked me, I'd kick them off the park. Declan's a lot like that. I know he doesn't suffer fools gladly But why should he?"
And in the end, the obvious applies: Elvis Costello is about songs, songs of a type that implant hard hooks, strong moods and crisp couplets in your head. Apart from their craft and quality, their nearest thing to a common characteristic is a tailored scepticism. Increasingly, he has dealt in musical and Iyrical impressions which forego the literal approach in favour of sketching the shapes of scenarios with hints and metaphors that entice you to till in the spaces for yourself. It really does feel like cheating when you ask him to explain. But there's this track on Brutal Youth called "Clown Strike", a deft and tender thing, packed with circus references .."
I just wanted to write a song about how people go to such lengths to dress themselves in mysterious clothes, to make themselves attractive. It's a story about that, about an attempted seduction. The guy's just saying, 'You don't have to go to these extraordinary lengths.' The girl is putting on this entire witchy act. She doesn't need to. She's fine as she is. She just doesn't have the confidence in her own attractions."
Another cut, "Sulky Girl", insinuates itself with shuffling verses, surreptitious intonation and a crescendo chorus. "That's more of a story, about the kind of girl who's maybe the opposite of the girl in 'Clown Strike', who is burdened with the kind of look that is presumed to mean something it doesn't."
His images of women have often attracted flak. It bothers him: "I've always had to put up with people saying I hate women. And I really don't. I really hate men! I think men are the guilty parties a lot of the time." This Year's Model aimed some hard slaps at the fashion business and, some concluded, the crimped females who populate it. "People didn't listen to the words properly," Costello complains. "They took the tone of the music and just assumed a lot of things. The point is, if you're a faddish sort of singer, you can act away with all sorts of stuff and people think you're great. Rod [Stewart] can sing all these evil things about women and people say what a chap he is! The Stones wrote 'Stupid Girl' and theyare, like, heroes. I wrote 'This Year's Girl', saying that fashion is a trap, a much more compassionate song, and everyone said I was a misogynist. Work that one out. I can't."
To a great extent, such misunderstandings are the price paid for exercising a critical cast of mind in the domain of difficult feelings— "I see right through imaginary gutter romance, it doesn't hold me at all"—and when Costello depicts women as shabby dolls or broken baubles, it isn't the first person delighting or very often even doing the talking. "The moral judgement, if any, is against men who create the situations. I've always thought the songs could be seen as feminist "
If feminism is a process through which submerged and suppressed feelings are brought to the surface and described, then he might well have a point. Nonetheless, Costello makes masculine music: masculine not being the same thing as macho He speaks to and from a male psychology: rage and solitariness, resentment and stupidity, secret warts and all. Bare-faced cheerfulness is thin on the ground. Indeed, he often seems to survey the world with the disappointment of a true romantic: "I suppose there is some of that. But it boils down to the question, 'Why don't you write more happy songs?' I always say its because I'm busy being happy when I'm happy. And there are other people doing that stuff who are better at it. I would be forcing myself to write it. I don't think there's anything to be mindlessly jolly about."
It would be witless to stereotype Costello's work as unremittingly bleak: a lot of its humour is dark and absurd, but it's humour just the same. Generally, though, he seems to strike a chord with a section of the public troubled by their sense that something in the air smells wrong. "Oliver's Army" was widely received as an attack on the newly ascendant Conservative attitude of mind. More recently "Tramp the Dirt Down" from Spike (1992) essayed a lingering reverie at the prospect of "Margaret" meeting her maker.
Resistant to the archetype of the rock 'n' roll street sage, Costello likens venting his spleen to the spirit of the blues: "You say it to get it out." The blues comparison is a good one, a reminder that life is a serious business and yet all the more likely to be pleasurable when its seriousness is accepted The song "20% Amnesia" from Brutal Youth - a clattering collage about East-West relations - contains a line inspired by modern satirists' tendency to mock John Major as a hapless little twit: It's a dangerous game that comedy plays/ Sometimes it tells you tile truth/ sometimes it delays it.
"I laugh at those jokes as much as anybody," says Costello, "but I also think it's dangerous when you start to think, 'Oh never mind, he's an incompetent'. You don't get to be Prime Minister by being incompetent. You get there by being a nasty little shit. Its that terrible English thing: we're all right 'cos we can laugh. Life's a laugh, isn't it? You have to laugh otherwise you'd cry. Yeah. But mostly you cry."