Interview about Less Than Zero
- Chas De Walley
by Chas De Walley
FIGHTING TALK. "If certain notable people cant hear that Less Than Zero is a great record, then they ought to see a mortician." No, this brash young fellow shooting his mouth off aint Nick Lowe dressed up as Buddy Holly. Neither is it the Clashs Joe Strummer posing in baggy pants and horn-rimmed specs. Its Elvis Costello, Stiffs latest recording protege, the man responsible for the remarkable Less Than Zero. And a more stubbornly secretive character you are unlikely to meet this side of Steve Harleys front door. "No pictures. I want to keep my own face. I dont want people to know what I look like."
Mid-twenties, about five foot ten, clean featured, poor-sighted and unfashionably dressed. Do you live in Richmond? Well then he might just be the guy sitting opposite you on the bus to work. A man proud and protective of his privacy.
"I dont want to talk about the past. Its dead and gone. I didnt appear in a puff of smoke. Ive been around a long time. If people werent interested in what I was doing then, they want to know all about it now?" Fair enough, I suppose. But perhaps a couple of SOUNDS readers saw the old pub band Flip City a year or two back and might care to know that the lead singer has resurfaced. Perhaps somebody might know the man as D. P. Costello, from the last year spent playing his guitar and singing his songs in the folk clubs. Perhaps hes done other things and got other fans I dont know anything about. Shouldnt a little more info be forthcoming? No go, Joe. As far as Elvis is concerned his slate is wiped clean. He starts from scratch or he doesnt start at all. And he starts with Less Than Zero, the self-penned heavy calypso which introduced Elvis knife-edged voice to the world of vinyl. Unfortunately certain sections of the music press were not kindly disposed to this latest Stiff masterpiece.
"That shocked me you know. I knew that record companies were unimaginative. Thats why I signed with Stiff because theyre the only ones in the country who know whats going on. But I didnt think the press would be as bad.
"Some reviews said I sounded like Graham Parker. Its like all they can do is relate you to the thing you most sound like. I reckon Im just as influenced by Charlie Parker or Hank Williams. I listen to all sorts of things and naturally some come out in my songs. But Ive never rewritten anybody elses song and Ill argue the toss with anybody that I sound like me. My album My Aim Is True will prove that when it comes out next month. The trouble is, people listen too much to what a song sounds like and not enough to what it sounds of. Less Than Zero is all there in the lyrics. Use your imagination. Work it out yourself."
Readers without a copy of the single ought to get off at the next stop and score themselves one. Dont ignore the ace B-side Radio Sweetheart but spin Less Than Zero a couple of times and if youre still stuck for an answer Elvis might just give you a clue or two. Like, for instance, the verse is about a TV show, and the chorus is about someone trying to stop someone else watching it. The shadowy Mr Oswald is very famous and too real, and for that reason the two thousand people who voted for the National Front in Strechford recently will probably heave a brick through Elvis window. And thats all youre getting, cos Elvis Costello wont say a word more. "Im not going to explain my songs. If you cant hear whats going on from the song itself then God help you. Im not going to write a manifesto. Im not going to write a leaflet to explain Less Than Zero. Im a better songwriter than that, surely".
Why yes. But a slippery customer all the same.