Review of book Let Them All Talk
- Patrick Humphries
Let Them All Talk: The Music Of Elvis Costello
Brian Hinton SANCTUARY £12.99
THOUGH ONE of the few songwriters to come close to Bob Dylan's inspired wordplay, Elvis Costello has attracted little of the prose idolatry that clings, limpet-like, to Dylan's hulk. He may not have been going as long as the venerable Bob, but Costello's career is equally astonishing in its scope: you have to marvel at the quality - and quantity - of material issued under his name. And those of D.P. MacManus, Napoleon Dynamite, the Little Hands of Concrete, The Emotional Toothpaste, Howard Coward...
He is exceptionally articulate about his own work, and the music that inspired him. From Merseybeat to country, soul to Sinatra ballads, it's an extraordinary career arc, and one which has defeated previous chroniclers. Let Them All Talk is the best to date. Tracing the transformation from MacManus to Elvis Costello and back again, Hinton's enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject match Costello's own expertise and passion for music.
Punk may have given Costello a platform but, with one mighty bound, he soon broke free of its limitations. Hinton astutely notes Costello's appeal as "new wave for old farts", quoting Elvis in support: "There's no point in trying to pass myself off as part of this rebellion scene. .. I thought the best thing was to stay where I was, in the suburbs, and take an outside look at everything." It has become clichéd to praise a rock biography for making you want to replay the records, but Let Them All Talk truly did send me scurrying back to Armed Forces, Get Happy and Trust, to marvel yet again at the musical ferocity, Iyrical deftness and astonishing confidence of that first clutch of albums with the Attractions.
Hinton wisely keeps Iyrical analysis in check and, although denied access to Costello himself, deftly collates everything you need to know. For once, even Costello's humour is conveyed - of the Almost Blue sessions, he admitted that the Nashville natives "believed we were only in town to rid the world of alcohol". Hinton also has a perceptive take on rock'n'roll profligacy; writing of Willy De Ville's distaste for Costello: "Like medieval monarchs, affairs were sorted out by a pitched battle between their respective road crews."
There is an undeniable drive to the narrative, an amphetamine frenzy, mirroring Costello's seeming desire to burn himself out. But despite efforts to emulate Gram Parsons, fuelled by guilt, revenge, anger and emotional angst, Elvis survived, and indeed prospered. Hinton doesn't spare his subject though, rightly taking issue with the unforgivable "Ray Charles is nothing but on ignorant blind nigger," outburst, which cost Costello on American career -- the USA took The Police to their hearts, but not The Attractions.
Let Them All Talk isn't perfect, and sloppy editing lets "David Accles' and "Omaho Rainbow" slip through. But after nearly 500 informed pages of Costello's incident-packed life, you really do wonder if an autobiography isn't all that's left to cement these fingerprints on your imagination.