Interview with Elvis Costello about My Aim Is True
Melody Maker, 1977-06-25
- Allan Jones
(Costello, that is)
by Allan Jones
"Let's talk about the future now, we'll put the past away." - Elvis Costello. " Less Than Zero."
ELVIS COSTELLO was emphatic: he would volunteer no information about his past. " I don't," he said, adjusting his shades impatiently, "really think that the past -- my past - is all that interesting.
"I don't see any point in talking about the past. I don't want to get into that. I mean, I haven't just learned the guitar in the last ten minutes, but I'm not going to get talking about what I've done in the past.
"Nobody showed any interest in me then. If you weren't there, you missed it and that's it. It's gone. The people who were there then either appreciated it or they didn't. The past would only be relevant to them. As far as I'm concerned, it's pointless talking about the past. F--- it. I'd just rather talk about the future, you know." There. I told you he was emphatic didn't I?
ELVIS Costello and I are bickering this sundrenched Tuesday afternoon in an office above Stiff Records' London HQ because I had, accidentally, seen and been enthralled by his performance a week earlier at the Nashville Rooms.
Friday, May 27, it was: I'd tubed over to West Kensington to catch the Rumour that night. The presence, at the bar of the Nashville, of Stiff executive Jake Riviera, accompanied by an assorted crew of Stiff hirelings and lackeys, seemed, initially, to be of no profound consequence.
There exist, after all, several connections between Stiff, Graham Parker and the Rumour; and, anyway, Jake ain't the kind of cat who'd miss out on a decent lig should one appear on the horizon as it had that evening. Jake's appearance, however, was not on this occasion relegated to the pursuit of hedonistic adventures. He announced casually that one Elvis Costello, a recent Stiff protege, was to make a previously unscheduled debut as supporting attraction for the Rumour. This information I received with considerable interest. Elvis Costello, though not yet a name on the lips of the nation, had released two singles (" Less Than Zero" and, more recently, "Alison") of rare distinction. To see this enigmatic charmer in action was, unquestionably, a proposition not to be overlooked. Well, I dragged myself away from the bar as a brief whisper of applause signalled El's appearance. And there he stood, alone on the stage: black cropped hair swept back, the inevitable shades shielding his eyes, slickly cut Harry Fenton jacket, blue jeans and Fender guitar. His attitude and performance were both characterised by an aggressive conviction and, as the applause between songs intensified, a clear and thrilling confidence.
Elvis Costello, let me tell you, bowled me out of my breeches that night. Why, I even swore that if a platter containing such Costello meisterwerks as "(The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes, "Mystery Dance," "I'm Not Angry" and "Waiting For The End Of The World," was not in the vicinity of my Dansette turntable by the end of the month I'd be around to Stiff looking for the head of Jake Rivieria.
The fact that Jake's head remains unsevered would suggest that the platter for which I yearned has been delivered: and so it has, to my immense delight. Trouble is that Stiff, after falling out with Island, are without a distribution organisation. El's album has been temporarily suspended - it was originally due for release this very week, actually. Fear not, however. It will be with you soon: in the meantime, I thought I'd bring you a despatch from the Elvis Costello front...
HERE we go: Elvis Costello is 22. He's been writing songs for eight years.
Since he first negotiated three juvenile chords on a battered guitar, in fact. He reluctantly admits to listening to the likes of the Beatles, Cliff Bennett and Georgie Fame as an adolescent: "Standard stuff. Whatever was on the radio."
Elvis, though he elsewhere proves to be refreshingly honest and forthright in the opinions he expresses, remains defiantly vague about the songs he was composing during this early period of his career: "I've written hundreds of songs," he says. "I Write at least a song a week. That doesn't necessarily mean I keep them all.
"They're not all classics. I mean, I've discarded songs I wrote last month because I thought they were inept or didn't match up to the best of what I've written. I wouldn't talk about them, let alone songs I wrote eight years ago."
I had been interested in these earlier songs, I explain, simply because I wanted to form some idea of the pattern and evolution of his writing. The songs collected on his forthcoming album, "My Aim Is True," for instance, are marked by a precocious maturity. Costello may deal principally with themes familiar in rock - the majority in fact, are concerned with fiercely detailed accounts of romantic encounters and failures - but he introduces a ruthless honesty to these themes and invests his observations and scenarios with perceptive insights and astonishingly vivid images.
The insecurities and infidelities of relationships, adolescent attempts to attain a personal identity and independence, are examined with sensitive compassion and wit often quite acerbic, but equally as often, as on the classic "Alison," with an exquisite tenderness. Always, Costello retains his originality as a lyricist: he avoids conclusively the obvious and tiresome teendream preoccupations of comparative writers like Nils Lofgren (the midget Yank's recent work, at least), Elliott Murphy and Springsteen. No, Elvis' songs possess the cutting clarity of the best of Graham Parker and Van Morrison: indeed, like this latter pair, Costello's music refers constantly to the classic pop/rock standards of the last decade, each song being sharply defined and full of irresistible hooks and delightful instrumental phrasing (for the verve and incisiveness of the album's sound, some considerable credit must be attributed to Nick Lowe, Elvis' producer).
"This influence stuff," says Costello, when several of the aforementioned musicians are mentioned, "is really irritating, `cos people are always trying to pin you down to sounding like somebody else. I appreciate the comparison you drew with Graham Parker. I suppose that it's because he's currently maybe the only person that's doing anything like me.
"If there's a general musical area that he's working in, then I accept that I'm working in a similar area and the comparison is validly drawn. And I'd rather be compared to Graham Parker than Tom Jones. If someone came along and said that I sounded like John Denver then I'd f----- worry. It's better to be compared to somebody good; but it still doesn't mean that I sit at home trying to think of ways to re-write songs from `Heat Treatment.' "Anyway, if I'd had a record out before Graham Parker, it would all be reversed ... `cos, you know, the people who're saying that I sound like Graham Parker are the same people who said that Graham Parker sounded like Bruce Springsteen, who are the same people who said that Bruce Springsteen sounded like Van Morrison, who are the same people who said that Van Morrison sounded the same as Bobby Bland or whoever. You know, the people who NEVER listen to the f--------- music." The prospect of being compared to Springsteen, whose panavision scenarios - replete with so much obvious romantic, rock-mythology imagery of a kind quite antithetical to Costello's writing - fills Elvis with anguish and dread. "Springsteen always romanticising the f----- street," he complains, with no little justification. "I'm bored with people who romanticise the f------- street. The street isn't f--------- attractive. I mean, I don't pretend to live in the heart of one of the worst areas of the world, right.
"I live near Hounslow. It's a very boring area. It's a terrible place. Awful. Nowhere. Nothing happens. "There's nothing exciting or glamorous or romantic about it. "There's nothing glamorous or romantic about the world at the moment. There is no place for glamour or romance. Romance, in the old pop song sense, has gone right out of the f------- window for the moment. Nobody's got the time or the money. It's gone beyond all that. But, please remember, I don't sit around wondering how people see the world, or how they feel about things.
"I don't attempt to express their feelings. I only write about the way I, feel. I mean, I'm not arbitrator of public taste or opinion. I don't have a following of people who are waiting for my next word. I hope I never have that kind of following. People should be waiting for their own next word. Not mine."
ELVIS approached Stiff Records last August: he arrived at their office in West London with a tape of his songs and the response of Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson (also manager of Graham Parker) was immediate and enthusiastic.
They signed him to the label, in fact.
"There was no phenomenal advance," he laughs. "They've bought me an amp and a tape recorder. I'm glad that they're not subsidising me to any greater extent. I don't want to be put on a retainer and spend my time ligging around record company offices like a lot of other musicians.
"I don't want any charity. I want to be out gigging, earning money. I don't want anything for nothing. I'm not askin anybody for their f------ charity. I went to a lot of record companies before I came to Stiff. Major record companies. And I never asked them for charity. I didn't go in with any servile attitude.
"I didn't go in and say, 'Look, I've got these songs and, well, with a bit of patching up and a good producer I might make a good record.' I went in and said, 'I've got some great f-------- songs, record them and release them.' Stiff were the only ones that showed that kind of faith in me.
"They let me do it. I'm still working, right. I'll only give up the job when I start working with a band."
"Elvis mentions, mischievously, that none of the musicians that contributed their services to his album are credited on the sleeve (Nick Lowe gets a production credit on the label, though). It transpires that this was El's idea of a caustic comment upon the contemporary state of the music business - an industry for which Elvis has very little admiration or respect.
He had a caption, in fact, prepared for the sleeve of his album, which would have read: "No thanks to anybody." Unfortunately, the Damned got there first when they had printed on the sleeve of their album: "Thanks to no one." El didn't want anyone to think he'd copped the idea so it was abandoned.
"The people who were directly involved with the album know who they are," El explains, "and they're not the kind of people who'd be worried about credits and namechecks. Equally, the people who were instrumental in stopping me from recording before know who they were, and I wanted to remind them that I hadn't forgotten them.
"Like, I went around for nearly a year with demo tapes before I came to Stiff, and it was always the same response. 'We can't hear the words.' `It isn't commercial enough.' 'There aren't any singles.' Idiots. Those tapes were just voice and guitar demos. I didn't have enough money to do any thing with a band. It was just a lack of imagination on the part of those people at the record companies. I felt as if I was bashing my head against a brick wall, those people just weren't prepared to listen to the songs.
"It's a terrible position to be in. You start thinking you're mad. You listen to the radio and you watch the TV and you hear a lot of f------ rubbish. You very rarely turn on the radio or TV and hear anything exciting, right? And, all the time, you know that you're capable of producing something infinitely better.
"But I never lost faith. I'm convinced in my own talent, yeah. Like I said, I wasn't going up to these people meekly and saying, 'Look, with your help and a bit of polishing up, and with all your expertise and knowledge of the world of music we might have a moderate success on our hands.'
"I was going in thinking: `You're a bunch of f------ idiots who don't know what you're doing. I'm bringing you a lot of good songs, why don't you go ahead and f------ well record them.' They didn't seem to understand that kind of approach.
"No, it didn't make me bitter. I was already bitter. I knew what it would be like. I had no illusions. I have no illusions at all about the music business. It was no sudden shock to be confronted by these idiots. I didn't ever think that I was going to walk into a record company to meet all these fat guys smoking big cigars who'd say something like, `Stick with me son. I'll make you a STAR.'
"I'm not starry-eyed in the slightest. You can tell what all these people are like instinctively. You just have to look at them to tell that they're f------ idiots. But, I don't want to come off sounding like I'm obsessed with the music business.
"I couldn't give a s--- about the music business. They just don't know anything. That's all you've got to remember. They're irrelevant. I don't give any thought to any of those people. They're not worth my time."
ELVIS, who by this time seems to be metamorphising before my very eyes into the superhuman guise of Captain Verbals, is telling me about his album. It was recorded, he says, on his days off from work (he is a computer analyst in Acton), over a very brief period.
He was fortunate, he readily admits, that Nick Lowe was so sympathetic a producer: their respective ideas were entirely compatible and there were few arguments about the sound and instrumentation employed. All the songs were written within weeks of the first session; "Less Than Zero," his first single, was written three days before it was recorded, for instance.
Elvis just says he felt inspired and excited. The hits just kept on coming ("My Aim Is True," incidentally, is the first album I've heard for ages that sounds as if it is essentially a collection of Top Ten singles), as it were.
"I just love the sound of the album," Elvis enthuses. "`Cos I love things that sound great on the radio. `Less Than Zero,' I thought sounded great on the radio. The record isn't for people with f------ great hi-fis. I'm not interested in those people, or that kind of mentality. I don't want my records to be used to demonstrate f------ stereos in Lasky's. I just want people to listen to the f------ music.
"I don't want to be successful so that I can get a lot of money and retire to a house in the f------ country. I don't want any of that rock and roll rubbish. I don't want to go cruising in Hollywood or hang out at all the star parties. I'm not interested in any of that. It's the arse end of rock and roll. I'm just interested in playing.
"I want to put a band together as soon as possible and get out on the f------ road. We're auditioning people this week. We're looking for young people. People that want to get out and play. Putting a band together is the most important thing at the moment.
"I think it might be difficult getting the right kind of people and I can imagine us wading through a right bunch of idiots. The group sound I want will be a lot sparser than the album sound. I just want bass, drum, guitar - my guitar - and for keyboards we'11 probably go for a VOX or Farfisa sound.
"I want to get away from the conventional group sound. I'd say that I want a kind of pop group line-up, but people might take that as something lightweight or trivial. But it will be a pop line-up in the sense that it won't be a rock band.
"I hate hard-rock bands. I hate anything with f------- extended solos or bands that are concerned with any kind of instrumental virtuosity. I can listen to maybe 15 seconds of someone like the Crusaders, say, before I get very bored. I know how good they are because everybody keeps telling me how f------ marvellous they are. But I get bored.
"There are going to be no f------ soloists in my band. The songs are the most important thing. I want the songs to mean something to people. I don't mean by that that I want them to be significant. It's just that too much rock has cut itself off from people. It's become like ballet or something. Ballet is only for people who can afford to go and see it. It's not for anybody else. You don't get ballet going on in your local pub.
"There's a lot of rock music that's become exclusive and it's of no use to anyone. Least of all me. Music has to get to people. In the heart, in the head. I don't care where, as long as it f------- gets them. So much music gets thrown away. It's such a f------ waste.
"That's why I like and write short songs. It's a discipline. There's no disguise. You can't cover up songs like that by dragging banks of f------ synthesizers and choirs of angels. They have to stand up on their own. With none of that nonsense. Songs are just so f------ effective. People seem to have forgotten that.
"Like, people used to live their lives by songs. They were like calendars or diaries. And they were pop songs. Not elaborate f------ pieces of music. You wouldn't say, like, `Yeah, that's the time I went out with Janet, we went to see the LSO playing Mozart.' You'd remember you went out with Janet because they were playing 'Summer In The City' on the radio."
You will have gathered by now that Elvis is committed to success: he's not, however, altogether sure when that success will be achieved.
"There are lot of people," he says, "who should be successful. If ability had anything to do with success then there would be a whole lot of obscure people who'd be famous and there would be a whole lot of famous people who'd be lingering in obscurity."
Was there anyone, I wondered, that he would like to see becoming famous? "Yeah," he replied. "Me."