Elvis Costello has no qualms about playing classical or rock, telling Glenn Mitchell his fans can either take it or leave it
Whenever some contemptible idiot journalist goes on about that sell-out crap I show them the door
ELVIS Costello is at the pointy end of a very sharp debate about his musical legacy and direction.
That is: has the one-time punk legend sold out, and can he rock 'n' roll the way he used to, given he's been collaborating with such mainstream artists as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney?
Costello's work in recent years -- primarily ballads and classical music -- has isolated as many of his old fans as it has gained new ones.
Lauded initially for energetic and literate attacks on the ills of Margaret Thatcher's England, Costello has become a peerless master of the popular song. Naturally, every artist has to move with the times, but Costello's collaborations seemed a generation away from the days when he attacked authority like a threshing machine.
When he emerged in the late '70s he almost redefined the punk scene.
Variously described as a seething, bitter, sarcastic, sneering and verbose punk poet, Costello has continued to shock his audiences with his moves into country, soul and, at one stage, French balladeer. For many, the debate whether Elvis Costello is punk or new wave is long over, but his ability to shock remains as electric as ever.
But the question of a sell-out remains high in discussions about him.
"This nonsense about me is just that -- nonsense. In fact it's one of the more ridiculous debates I've ever come across," Costello says.
"I haven't sold out or some such rubbish. I'm a songwriter with a wide sphere of interest. I like classical, I like rock 'n' roll, I like Burt Bacharach. I mean, what's the big deal?"
Then he slips into overdrive.
"I'll tell you what it is. It's the musical media's inability to look past their own navels and outside their own backsides.
"They have all these preconceived notions and ideas and they can't let them go. Simple as that."
Costello is playing twice in Melbourne, his first appearance at the Palais on November 23.
In many areas of the musical press, he is no longer seen as a new-wave icon in the realms of the Sex Pistols' John Lydon or Joe Strummer from the Clash.
So, because he appears to have slipped into the mainstream, opinions about Costello are furiously divided.
SOME regard his work now as the natural progression of one of the most talented songwriters of his generation, spurred on by the inspiration he gets from his wife, Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall.
Others simply pine for the high-octane drive of his earlier work. They miss songs like Watching the Detectives, Pump it Up, (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea and I Can't Stand up For Falling Down.
Well, Costello is coming to Australia to let his fans know this: he can still rock 'n' roll with the best of them. And, boy, does he like playing the role of doorman.
"Yeah, whenever some contemptible idiot journalist goes on about that sell-out crap, I show them the door," he says.
This interview was done over the phone, so the prospect of being shown the door was never a possibility, but having the phone slammed down in my ear was always likely.
It didn't happen this time. Costello, known for his scowling contempt for many sections of the musical press, was in an expansive, talkative mood.
"The same people who are asking me these sorts of questions nowadays are the same people who didn't understand what I was doing 25 years ago -- Christ, they don't even understand Burt Bacharach, who is one of the all-time great songwriters.
"The questions these bozos ask are simply designed to provoke and I've always had contempt for them. They never understood what I was talking about and they still don't. They thought I was making grand statements and painted me as a leader of a new-wave generation.
"I was never that. Any artist who thinks that's what their music is for is a fool.
"Because of the work I've done recently, they still base their questions on their views of my earlier music. I'm a musician. I'm a songwriter and I love working with other talented musicians and songwriters."
That is where he sees himself now. As for any perceived risk associated with his collaborations and the move into classical music, Costello, 50, believes there are none.
"I'm just putting out records for people to listen to. People overestimate bravery or risk when it comes to music. Bravery is an innocent man facing a firing squad. Any musician who believes otherwise is disappearing up their own backside."
Born Declan Patrick MacManus, Costello was raised in Liverpool and was the son of British bandleader Ross MacManus.
He took his stage name from Elvis Presley and from his great-grandmother, Elizabeth Costello. He began performing professionally in 1969 and was a musician/singer in many bands around London before forming a moderately successful pub-rock band, Flip City, in the mid-'70s.
Working as a full-time computer operator, he landed his first record deal with Stiff Records in 1977 and recorded his first album, My Aim is True, while on vacation. As fans know, the album was a smash hit and landed EC a worldwide distribution deal with Columbia records.
FORMING his back-up group the Attractions for his second album, Costello quickly joined the giants of the new-wave revolution.
His cutting commentary on Thatcherism, his unique style and his downright brilliant songwriting made him, effectively (whether he wanted it or not), the voice of a disaffected generation.
"I was never the voice of a generation," he says. "Sure, I had things to say, but really what I was about was writing the best music I possibly could. If the fans liked the music, great. Did it have an effect socially? I don't know. But that's not what it was about."
Costello still does not shy away from commenting through his songs on what he sees are the social and political ills of today. On his latest album, The Delivery Man, the song Bedlam is a cutting indictment of Western foreign policy.
"The world today has a real air of insanity about it.
"What I try to do is to accumulate these insane images and place it in the context of a song. I mean, it's a rather disastrous situation when, if you are going to right the wrongs of the world, you start picking and choosing where you will and where you won't."
When Costello collaborated with Bacharach, many long-time Costello fans were appalled their musical hero would commit such alleged musical heresy.
And after writing the music for a classical ballet adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummmer Night's Dream, they went into near-cardiac arrest.
The album Il Sogno was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and released on the same day as The Delivery Man. But hardcore fans wondered: what was their idol thinking?
"When a group of really passionate Italian classical musicians come to you and ask you to write such a piece, it's an incredible compliment," Costello says. "Particularly when you have no track record as a classical composer. It's such a crazy notion; you realise these opportunities don't come along very often."
Not only did Costello face opposition from his regular fans, there was much disquiet among the classical-music set.
"People are very orthodox in their tastes and views and both sides had me pigeon-holed," Costello recalls.
"And I don't like being pigeon-holed. In fact, I loathe it."
Besides, he says, he does not regard Il Sogno as a classical work, and he has a very wry explanation as to why.
"I prefer to describe it as an orchestral work. It's my dance record and I regard it as my contribution to disco," he laughs.
The other attraction for him is that Shakespeare's play is a comedy.
"It's very hard to put comedy into songs. With songs, it's like trying tell a joke, and that's very hard.
"But with something like A Midsummer Night's Dream, I could really put some humour into the music, and that is something I have been looking to do for a long time."
AFTER its premiere in Bologna, the ballet was staged throughout Italy, Germany, France and Russia. Costello then recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra.
As for the reactions of his fans, Costello says they can take it or leave it.
"The reason the albums were released at the same time was to say that I value them equally. The classical fans and the rock fans could then work out for themselves whether they bought either album or neither."
Costello had dabbled in classical music during the early 1990s.
"I always liked classical and I did write quite a bit of stuff but I never really considered it good enough to release," he says.
"So it still puzzles me why these lovely Italians came to me with such a crazy offer. Perhaps they thought they were playing some sort of joke and my initial response was to say no but they were just so passionate about having me I couldn't say no."
Costello's rock album with his band, Elvis Costello and the Imposters, certainly allays fears he has given up on rock 'n' roll. It features driving rock and his trademark ballads, strongly reminiscent of the style of music that won so much acclaim in the late '70s and early '80s.
Costello's personal life, particularly his marriage to Krall (with whom he co-collaborates), has been a major settling influence.
"I have peace in my life," he says. "I'm working from a position of strength but that doesn't make me care less or be in any way self-satisfied.
"It has given me more power to look outside myself rather than contemplate my own misery, and a lot of musicians are still doing that."
The relationship with Krall surprised both of them.
"In terms of what happened between us, we imagined we'd collaborate and we'd been friends and then life takes you over and something crazy happens -- in our case we got married."
Krall had been through a particularly difficult period with the loss of her mother and both felt her music did not reflect the recent experiences of her life.
"I became really a sympathetic lyrical editor at first and then, bam, we got married."
Elvis Costello and the Imposters play at the Palais, Nov 23 and A Day on the Green, Nov 27, Rochford Winery, Yarra Valley. Tickets: www.ticketmaster7.com
The Elvis sightings
E LVIS Costello's breakthrough album was My Aim is True, in 1977. It led to him signing a worldwide distribution deal with Columbia Records.
Armed Forces in 1979 and Taking Liberties in 1980 both reached No.2 on the UK charts. Throughout the '80s his albums continued to reach the UK Top 10, and several made it in the US.
His double CD, The Very Best of Elvis Costello in 1999, was also a hit, rising to No.4.
From My Aim is True and Pump It Up to (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea, Costello has released a stream of singles that have stood the test of time.
Perhaps his signature recording is Watching the Detectives, which propelled him into the pantheon of new-wave greats.
In the 1990s Costello released 13 albums. Three went Top 10, and in 1998 he collaborated with Burt Bacharach on the highly successful Painted from Memory, a collection of love songs.
He also released jazz albums and, in 2003, Costello and the Attractions, his original band, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This year he released Il Sogno, a classical version of A MidSummer Night's Dream, with the London Symphony Orchestra and, on the same day, a rock album, The Delivery Man.