The following interview, entitled, "Elvis Costello Explains Himself", appeared in the September 2, 1982 edition of Rolling Stone and is reproduced w/o permission. "GM" refers to the interviewer, Greil Marcus. Marcus' introduction and remarks have been edited; the bad punctuation is his.
GM: With the release of his eighth album, "Imperial Bedroom", Costello and his band, the Attractions opened an American tour this July 14th at Santa Cruz California, to a jabbering crowd of surfers and college students. Three nights later, to a bigger, far more receptive crowd in Berkeley, Costello performed his view of the world - a show that ripped throught the night. The next day we met for a five-hour conversation. Wearing an unmistakable pair of bright red shoes, Costello was serious about the situation - his first real interview with a national publication - but also very much at ease. Declan MacManus was born in London in 1955 and grew up there, attending Catholic schools. For the last two years of secondary school he moved to Liverpool to live with his mother, by that time divorced from his father, Ross MacManus, a big-band singer and solo cabaret performer.
EC: I graduated from secondary school in 1973. It was the first year of 1 million unemployed in England in recent times - in Liverpool, anywhere up north, it was worse. I was lucky to get a job. I had no ambition to go into further education; I just went out and got the first job I could get. I went along to be a chart corrector, tea boy, clerk - because I wasn't really qualified for anything. I got a job as a computer operator, which happened to be comparatively well-paid: about twenty pounds a week. I'd just put tapes on the machines and feed cards in, lining up the printing machines - all the manual work the computer itself doesn't have to do.
I had something of an ambition to be a professional musician. I was already playing guitar in high school - playing in folk clubs on my own. I was writing my own songs - dreadful songs, performing them more or less religiously. I don't think they were worth recording - but the only way you get better is to play what you write. Then you have the humiliation of being _crushed_ - if they're obviously insubstantial. If you don't put them over you quickly learn from experience.
I stuck out the first computer job for about six months; at the same time, I got into a group in Liverpool, a sort of folk group - we'd do a few rock 'n' roll tunes, and songs of our own, but we weren't getting anywhere. The Cavern was still there - and that's where I met Nick Lowe, just before I came to London, in '74. He was still with Brinsley Schwartz; it was the autumn of their career. We'd do a few of their numbers in our set; we had a show at a little club, they were playing at the Cavern, and we went along an met in the bar and started chatting. He was in a proper group that recorded records! That was the first time I'd ever spoken to anybody that was in a group - and his attitude _even_then_ was reflected in the way he's been since. When we've worked together it's been, "I can't see what's so difficult about it; it's just four chords" - and he'd bang them out. He always had that attitude - it was quite a revelation to me.
GM: What was the beginning of your life as a fan?
EC: My father was with Joe Loss - the English Glenn Miller, I suppose. He was with him from about 1953 to 1968, and then he went solo; his instrument is trumpet but he's a singer. After the years with Joe Loss he went out as a cabaret artist; he does social clubs and nightclubs and cabaret, drives around himself.
The first records I ever owned were "Please Please Me" and the "The Folksinger" by John Leyton. I was at a bit of an advantage because my father was still with Joe Loss then - he used to get quite a lot of records because they would cover the hits of the day. He'd often have demonstration copies, even acetates; as late as 1966, Northern Songs would still send Beatles acetates out to orchestras to garner covers for (live) radio play. I've got them at home. As my father was the most versatile of the three Joe Loss Band singers, I was fortunate - he got the records and just passed them on to me.
I was just into singles, whatever was on the radio - the Kinks, the Who, Motown. It was exciting. I was in the Beatles fan club when I was eleven; I used to buy the magazines. The one kind of music I didn't like was the rock'n'roll - as a distinct (classic) form. The girl next door loved the Shadows and Cliff Richard - I thought that was really old hat. Someone who lived across the road from my grandmother liked Buddy Holly - I thought that was terribly old-fashioned. I couldn't understand why anybody liked it. It never occurred to me that someone as _archaic_ as Chuck Berry could have written "Roll Over Beethoven" - because I was quite convinced George Harrison had written it.
The only time it changed, the only time it went a bit peculiar, where maybe it went a bit _clandestine_ was when I went to live in Liverpool. I was never very taken with psychedelic music - my dad went a bit psychedelic around the edges, about 1968. He grew his hair quite long; he used to give me Grateful Dead records, and "Surrealistic Pillow". I'd keep them for a couple weeks, and sell them at the record exchange and buy Marvin Gaye records. When I went to live in Liverpool I discovered everyone was into acid rock - and I used to _hide_ my Otis Redding records when friends came around. I didn't want to be out of step. To the age of sixteen it's really crucial that you're in - and i tried hard to like the Grateful Dead or Spirit. I tried to find somebody of that sort that I could like that nobody else did - because everybody would adopt his group, and his group would be _it_; someone weird like Captain Beefheart. It's no different now - people trying to outdo ! each other in extremes. There are people who like X, and there are people who say X are wimps; they like Black Flag.
I actually "saw the light" when I was already playing - coming back to London, seeing a lot of groups, Nick Lowe and the Brinsleys, pub-rock groups. I think you get very earnest when you're about sixteen to eighteen, and everyone at school was listening to either the psychedelic groups or the singer/songwriters; it was all very _earnest,_pouring_out_your_inner_soul_. In London I discovered that all music that all the music I liked secretly, that I'd been hiding from my friends - that was what was great fun in a bar: Lee Dorsey songs! Suddeenly it was all right to like it; that was when I saw the light. There was nothing wrong with it.
In England, now, there's a prejudice to against that era, the pre-punk era ; the bands tend to get ridden down: "Oh, that's just pub rock". I'd much rather any day go and see NRBQ playing in a bar than I would the most illustrious of our punk groups in England, because I don't think they have anything to do with anything. They're horrible - and _phony_, and _dishonest_ as well.
GM: Who are you talking about?
EC: The Exploited - and the whole Oi! business.
GM: Bands like the Anti-Nowhere League?
EC: Now the Anti-Nowhere League, I quite like them because they're such animals. They drive around in a van that says, WE'RE THE ANTI-NOWHERE LEAGUE AND YOU'RE NOT! - I mean, that's great.
The Damned were the best punk group, because there was no art behind them; they were just enjoying themselves. There was no art behind them that I could see. They were just - nasty. I loved them from the start. I liked the Pistols as well - but you could see the concern behind it. It's dishonest to say "Oh, yes we were just wild"; they weren't just wild. It was considered and calculated, very art. The Clash as well.
While all that was going on, I had a little group in London. I'd moved from one computer job to another; it was a total bluff, really, I knew nothing about it, but I knew enough of the jargon. It was ideal, waiting for the machine to do the work, there's a lot of free time for writing and reading. In the evenings we'd try to play rock'n'roll, R&B numbers, some country songs - a real pub-rock mixture. There was no focus to it; it was aimless. We could get through the usual bar-band repertoire - but I remember Pete Thomas, now the Attractions' drummer and then a drummer in a quite successful pub-rock band, Chilli Willy, coming to see us - he was a real celebrity to us - and he walked out after about thirty seconds. I think he came to see our worst-ever gig - but with no offense to the guys, we weren't very good.
It was the usual thing - trapped in mediocrity. So I went out on my own again, solo. That's very hard, because there's no real platform for solo singing unless you sing traditional music or recognized blues, doing re-creations - you know how _reverent_ Europeans are.
It was difficult to develop an original style. I have no idea who it was that I might have been imitating, wheter consciously or unconsciously. I was playing on my own, trying to put my songs across. I suppose I should have had a band behind them - but playing alone did build up an _edge_. I did the odd show just to keep up, to keep trying to improve the ability to play. You'd soon know if a song was bad if you were dying in a club; you'd have to put more edge on it. Playing on your own, you'd have the tension - you could increase the tension at will, not relying on anyone else to pick up the beat.
GM: MacManus made a guitar and vocal demo and hawked his songs to various record companies. The one that responded was Jake Riveria and Dave Robinson's new Stiff label, emerging in 1976 out of the pub-rock scene and bridging the gap to punk.
EC: On the first demo tape that I sent to Stiff, that brought me the gig, as it were. There were only two or three songs that ended up on "My Aim Is True". There were a lot of raw songs - and looking at them now - rather precious songs, with a lot of chords. Showing-off songs. I was very impressed by Randy Newman, and wrote a lot of songs in that ragtime feel. I was very impressed with those funny chord changes that he used to play and I was emulating them on guitar. They came out convoluted; they weren't poppy at all, they had pretensions to a sophistication they didn't have.
That exactly coincided with punk. But I was working - I didn't have the money to go down to the Roxy and see what these bands were doing: The Clash, the Pistols. I just read about them in Melody Maker and NME like everyone else. Joe Public. I was living in the suburbs of London, I couldn't see afford to go to the clubs uptown. They were open until two o'clock in the morning, and I couldn't afford taxis - the tubes are all closed just after midnight. All these bands were playing in the middle of the night. I don't know who went to the bloody gigs - I can only guess they were rich people with cars and lots of drugs.
I got up at seven in the morning and so I couldn't go. I was married with a son, so I couldn't take the day off. I took enough time playing sick, taking sisck time off of any job, just to make "My Aim Is True".
Then I started listening to the records that were coming out, because I'd got this snobbish attitude: So little of any worth had come out for a few years. When the first few punk records came out, I suddenly started thinking: "Hang on on - this is something a little bit different."
I mean, I spoke with someone the other day who said that when the first Clash record came out, he was outraged. I remember being outraged, and thinking, "if _this_ is what music's going to be like" - I remember Joe Strummer describing their sound as a sea lion barking over a load of pneumatic drills, which is what their first album sounds like when you first hear it - I remember hearing it and saying, "If that's what it's going to be like, _that's_it_. I'll quit before I've done anything."
Then I listened to that album on headphones - we lived in a block of flats and we couldn't really play music at night - and I listened right through the night. I thought, "Well, I want to see what this is all about. And I'll listen to it until I decide it's rubbish, and I'll probably _quit_, if that's the way music's going to be, or else I'll see something in it." I listened to it for thirty-six hours straight - and I wrote "Watching the Detectives".
We were all living in a block of flats, and nobody had an awful lot of money - I don't want to sound like my-deprived background, but nobody did. And there were all these people in 1977, when the jubilee was on, _wasting_their_money_ on a bloody street party for the Queen. Perhaps it sounds small-minded now, but I really used to enjoy playing "God Save The Queen," _loud_, because all the little old ladies would be outraged.
"God, did you see the Sex Pistols on T.V. last night?" On the way to work, I'd be on the platform in the morning and all the commuters would be reading the papers when the Pistols made headlines - and said, "fuck." It was as if it was the most awful thing that ever happened. It's a mistake to confuse that with a major event in history, but it was a great morning - just to hear people's blood pressure going up and down over it.
I wrote a lot of songs in the Summer of 1977: "Welcome to the Working Week", "Red Shoes", "Miracle Man", "Alison", "Sneaky Feelings", " Waiting for the End of the World", "I'm Not Angry", all more or less in one go, in about two or three weeks.
GM: Your first single was "Less Than Zero". When did you write that?
EC: Earlier in the year. I saw a program with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement of the Thirties, and he was on TV saying, "No, I'm not anti-Semitic, of course I'm not - doesn't matter even if I was!". His attitude was that _time_ could make it all right! It was a very English way of accepting things that really used to irritate me, really annoy me. The complacency, the moral complacency there - that they would just accept this vicious old man: not string him up on the spot!
GM: This was the time when the National Front and the British Movement were recruiting with great success - and they of course derived directly from Mosely's old British Union of Fascists.
EC: They were the same old bastards, the same old weirdos like Colin Jordan that kept appearing and denying they had any fascist overtones, and then there would be pictures taken of them dressing up in pervy Hitler Youth uniforms. They're really _sick_ people. If there wasn't a danger that some people would take them seriously, they'd be sad and you'd feel sorry for them. But you can't. There are people gullible enough and there are enough problems - the same way as you've got here. You can point a finger and say, "These are the people who are the source of all your problems: it's the black people." It's the same thing as saying, "It's the Jews..." I'm English, but my ancestry is Irish, and they used to say the same about the Irish as well. My wife's Irish. Sooner or later, we'll probably have to leave England - because I'm sure the people of England will try to send the Irish back.
We cut the first singles without any impact. My immediate reaction was, "Well, maybe I haven't got it." If I'd been somebody like John Cougar, signed to a major label - I suppose someone with a five album for a million dollars - I suppose I would have felt, "Well I'm secure now, I can write some songs," but I wasn't sure. Stiff was running week to week - we were totally independent, we weren't licensed, we had no national distribution; it was mail-order. We finished the album in six-hour sessions; there were no days in the studio. Jake said, "Well, we're going to put it out" - but one moment it was going to be Wreckless Eric on one side, me on the other, as a way of presenting two or more writers. There were a million ideas floating around; it was all improvised and all governed by a very limited budget.
GM: You had picked the stage name well before that?
EC: I hadn't picked it at all, Jake picked it. It was a marketing scheme. "How are we going to separate you from Johnny This and Johnny That?" He said, "We'll calll you Elvis". I thought he was completely out of his mind.
GM: ...With "My Aim Is True'" recorded with the American country band, Clover and produced by Nick Lowe, Costello stepped out as a major figure... (Costello) and the Attractions followed up a remarkable first year with "This Year's Model" ("A ghost version of "Aftermath," Costello told me, noting that, having never been much of a Rolling Stones fan, he'd never heard the record until a few months before making "Model." ...Nick Lowe's contribution was to sweeten it...
In 1979 Costello offered his most ambitious record, "Armed Forces" - originally and more appropriately titled "Emotional Fascism"...primarily influenced, Costello says, by the music he and the Attractions had been able to agree on as listening material while touring the U.S. in a staion wagon; David Bowie's "Low" and "Heroes," Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" and "The Idiot," Kraftwerk's "Autobahn," and most of all, Abba's "Arrival." "Oliver's Army was the most successful," Costello says of the LP's U.K. hit, a bright poppy cut that would have been a single in the U.S. had Costello been willing to take out the line characterizing army recruits as "white niggers" - the whole point of the tune. "That was the aim," he says, "A grim heart in the middle of an Abba record."...
...during Costello's 1979 tour of the U.S., when one night in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, at odds with the Stephen Stills Band, Costello suddenly denounced Ray Charles as "a blind , arrogant, nigger," he said much the same about James Brown, and attacked the stupidity of American black music in general. Bramlett decked him; the incident quickly made the papers, then "People" magazine, and the resulting scandal forced a New York press conference - Costello's first real face-to-face encounter with journalists since the Fall of 1977 - where he tried to explain himself, and , according to both Costello and those who questioned him, failed.
EC: It's become a terrible thing, hanging over my head - it's horrible to work hard for a long time and find that what you're best known for is something as idiotic as... this.
ON TO PART 2