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Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews
By Timothy White.
"From _Rolling Stone_'s most prolific writer of cover
stories comes a collection of fifty-nine profiles and interviews
spanning the first half-century of rock and roll."
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1990.
The interview with Elvis Costello is found in the section called
"Progeny" which follows sections "Pioneers" and "Pilgrims". It spans
pages 625 through 645, and is dated 1983.
He's sweating like a stevedore, running hard, and sucking wind as he traverses a broad, sun-scorched street in London's West End, dodging tourists, spinning free of snippy shopgirls and seeming almost in the clear until two infernal lorry drivers decide to hit their accelerators and aim to flatten him. Truly. Good God, these devils wanna ruin his red shoes!!
"Aaaaye!!!" Elvis Costello wears the fear-frozen gape of a haunted man who's just awakened in a shooting gallery as he jumps back onto the curb. Dressed in a midnight-colored suit and matching tab-collar shirt, he has spared his life with his quick reflexes - but not his smart crimson floaters, as the predatory trucks splash a squalid puddle of black water down upon them. "The cheek of those wankers!" he hisses as they roar past. Only momentarily shaken, he picks up his hectic pace again, hurrying from newsstand to newsstand, searching, searching.
"Damn, damn," he mutters, his unexplained efforts apparently fruitless, and abruptly suggests catching a hack to his favorite Japanese lunch spot. The car is cruising through Covent Garden when Elvis - "Aha!" he whoops - suddenly begs the cabbie to pull over and then he leaps out, returning a few moments later with the new issue of Melody Maker; hot off the presses. Excuse me a minute while I look into this," he says and whips through the venerable British rock journal until he reaches the record review section. He eases his glasses back up the bridge of his pug nose and peers anxiously at a piece headlined IMPOSTER UNMASKED (The Imposter having been his alias for a limited election-time release of the scathingly anti-Thatcher/ ruling class "Pills and Soap" on the independent Demon label).
"Ummm, ummmm-my God!! They like it! They like it!" he exults, waving aloft the magazine's glowing assessment of Elvis Costello and the Attractions' new album, Punch the Clock. When we reach the restaurant, the husky rocker wearing the tinted horn-rims disappears into a phone booth and emerges moments later to announce that the first new single issued in the United Kingdom, the shimmering soul bopper "Everyday I Write the Book," has just hit the Top 30. As a result, a scheduled band rehearsal for an imminent U.S. tour will be shortened tomorrow so that Elvis and the Attractions can hold forth as guests on "Top of the Pops." This calls for sashimi.
It's a steamy ninety-degree day in London in the summer of 1983, but it obviously feels like a deep-freeze for the former Declan McManus when compared with the pop purgatory in which he's been roasting since 1979. That was the year that Elvis and company hit the road for the third time in the States, at that stage in support of their acclaimed Armed Forces LP. Cocky and largely incommunicado offstage, the characteristically taciturn leader of the band got into a drunken bout of fat-mouthing in a Columbus, Ohio, gin mill with a belligerent Bonnie Bramlett and other members of the Stephen Stills band, and wound up odd lout out for his highly publicized racial slurs about Ray Charles and James Brown. Costello has long since apologized for his grievous utterances, stating that he was pie-eyed, perversely petulant, and just trying to irk his barmates with the most gratingly nasty remark he could muster. People do a lot of foolish things at the age of twenty-four, and Western civilization rarely takes much notice, but this time a fair chunk of the world was watching, greatly unamused.
It was, of course, a bizarrely self-destructive move for the leading, most critically beloved figure in the new wave hierarchy after the stunning originality of his first two albums (My Aim Is True, 1977; This Year's Model 1978) had established him as a rising rock craftsman sans pareil (he was twenty-two when he debuted) - and one of the few seemingly destined for mass acceptance. Ironically, he was also one of the few in his sphere of influence who had gone out of his way to reaffirm the enormous debt he and his young colleagues owed to the R&B, blues, and soul greats, in addition to being quite active in the Rock against Racism movement and a sworn enemy of England's fascist, antiblack National Front (his "Night Rally" was an unequivocal denunciation that put him in personal jeopardy with its rabid membership). In short, the Angry Young Man image which Costello cultivated had backfired, severely crippling his career's momentum.
Following the 1979 tour, the Attractions - Steve Nieve, key boards; Pete Thomas, drums; Bruce Thomas, bass - broke up for a time, while Elvis weathered squalls in his personal life. When the group reunited in 1980 (thanks to manager Jake Riviera) it was to release Get Happy! a twenty-song celebration of rockin' R&B that demonstrated enormous energy and invention but little direction. That same year, Taking Liberties, a score of obscure B-sides, unreleased masters, and cuts previously relegated to U.K. LPs, was shipped into the States. Like the previous record, it contained many fascinating tracks and was a testament to Costello's prolificacy, but was too diverse to digest and sold poorly. The year 1981 was a gloomy period that showed an even more reclusive Elvis come together with longtime producer Nick Lowe for their sixth LP, Trust, notable for the single "Watch Your Step," and a duet with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook on "From a Whisper to a Scream." The record received no radio response and a lukewarm sales reception in the U.S. market, and Elvis shifted gears dramatically, heading down to Nashville in May to do an album with veteran country producer Billy Sherrill. A grossly underrated effort by a canny fan of George Jones, Don Gibson, and the best of modern country, Almost Blue did well in the United Kingdom, but only served to confuse Costello's loyal (and somewhat dwindling) following in America.
It took the bold, highly impressionistic Imperial Bedroom; with its elaborate orchestrations by the brilliant Steve Nieve, to regain mainstream attention for all of the right reasons. Produced by Geoff Emerick, it was a record that was fierce in its desire to flex new muscles and take freshly focused chances, and even the most dogged detractors were forced to unclench their fists and applaud a noble and sagacious compositional effort.
Now, with Punch the Clock, Elvis Costello has a shot at an organic popular breakthrough as well as total access to the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was clear as he took his place before the sushi bar that he was not going to blow it again. A highlight of the new album is "Mouth Almighty," on which Elvis asserts: "I know I've got my faults / And among them I can't control my tongue." Candid admissions of weakness are the first signs of real strength, and this year's model plainly has come to like himself for himself. Open, vulnerable - and unescorted - he exhibits an easy poise leavened with an engaging self-deprecation. Gone are the defensiveness and hair-trigger fulminations of the untempered, ninety-eight-pound weakling who once cooed "my aim is true" behind Coke-bottle lenses. He's been replaced by a broad-shouldered, affable, articulate, acerbic-within-bounds, and enormously likable adult who laughs heartily at other people's jokes, offers to share his octopus and squid (no thank you), and during the course of a long, lively talk was at one point unable to suppress - I swear it! - a full-blown blush.
No longer a man out of time, Elvis Costello is learning how to make the most of whatever the clock still holds in store for him.
How do you see the evolution of your songwriting style?
Evolution isn't a word I'd use, but I'd constantly move from one style of writing to another as I felt I'd exhausted one or was selling my ideas short. I largely thought that the songs on Armed Forces - which coincidentally is my most successful album to date, and I hope won't be by the time this appears - were rather glib. I've since adopted a style of writing that's a bit more direct and honest. On Get Happy! the songs were shorter, very immediate; I didn't allow as much excess.
I'm a bit of a magpie - I don't play any instrument particularly well, so I do things by feeling rather than by technique. If I think, "Now I'm going to write a Four Tops song or an Erik Sate song [laughter], obviously it's a bit limited as to how close I can get. But it's not important how close to somebody's musical ideal it is. It's only important how well the song works, and if I've gotten something I'm satisfied with because it did the job. So I started using lots of other styles of music, if you like, quite consciously, but always trying to keep my musical identity in them. That culminated in the Imperial Bedroom album, where there are lots of loose ends and lots of potential directions. In each song there's some fake psychedelia or a forties-style riff or things written with a strict format after the fashion of a standard ballad. I wanted to see what effect I could achieve.
Were these later records regenerative projects or exploratory ones?
Well, the last album was exploratory. There are a lot more deliberate obscurities in the lyrics on that one to allow them to work on the listeners' imaginations rather than making a specific point every time. I sometimes like to make an impression rather than a statement. "Kid About It" is an example, and "New Amsterdam" on Get Happy! Almost unconsciously, they give off the feeling of an event without describing it.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I couldn't tell you what it was called. I was writing back when I was fifteen, so I should imagine it was all about the trials and tribulations of being fifteen - not to knock that. I'm just damned glad that I wasn't discovered then. A song I wrote before the first album which didn't appear until later should give you an idea of the sort of songs I didn't choose to record at first - it was "New Lace Sleeves," on Trust. The arrangement was a later thing but that less direct kind of song was written in its entirety before my first album. "Ghost Train," which I've done a solo version of, was also written before the first album.
You appear to have a very fitful attitude toward the supposed war between the sexes. It's very Thurber-like, acting as a jocular conscience of human folly.
James Thurber's one of my favorite writers. I never thought about it all along those lines, but maybe there is an element in that sympathy to Thurber's attitude that comes through. I've read a lot of his writings, and I love his cartoons, so it might filter through.
Thurber's view is one of "I see you all doing this, and I give up! I don't know who's in charge here, but dammit, I do see patterns, so I'm going to throw them all back at you!"
I think that's quite it, really, and people sometimes make the mistake with the songs of presuming that every one is written about my life. They say, "This has happened to him," but it could have been something I just saw in the same way that Thurber did. [grinning] But my life's not a cartoon. For instance, I didn't really meet my wife by finding her crouching on top of the wardrobe!
Could you at least detail how one of your better-known songs, like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, " was built up?
That's an odd one to pick, because I occasionally get visions in my head that I just write down, and there's no experience of having worked upon them-that being one of those instances. I wrote it all in ten minutes.
I go into a trance when I'm writing, and can remember very little, like, except sitting down once with the newspaper. It can just be a mass of print, or at other times a mass of one-liners that stick out as possible parts of songs. With "Pills and Soap," I had written the title down as something that had come off the TV, and it suggested all these ideas. The substance of the later verses came from reading a newspaper, and these other things leaped out at me. It was as mundane as that.
That's a pretty angry tune. There's a cutting edge to most of your music that makes it dart and stab out of the radio. Would you say that most of your songs are angry?
Well, even if the emotions in my songs are negative, they are definite emotions. That's the main thing about them. To some extent I'm satisfied with the songs that give only an impression of an emotion instead of adamantly saying, "This-is-the-way-I-feel," but they're the ones that are the least memorable. They're passive songs-you have to come to them. The other songs, whether negative, positive, angry, or glad about something, come at you.
There aren't any passive songs on this new record. There was one passive song called "The Flirting Kind" which is on the B-side of one of the singles here in England but was left off the album. I made a conscious effort to be as brief as possible lyrically. I try not to have so many superfluous things in a song but also take care not to strip them of any images that make them vivid and exciting to listen to. Chiefly, I want to keep the ultimate point of the song uppermost.
To my ears; virtually all the songs on Armed Forces seemed to have a definite quality to them, while the 1981 country album, Almost Blue, had a passive feel as if you were basically in the act of warming up to them.
Yes, but it's not so much that on the country album as, "Why am I doing them?" To view somebody being that unhappy, or to be in sympathy with songs which portray that amount of unhappiness, requires a degree of resignation on the part of the person carrying that out. You can't go in there and give those songs stink, you know, you can't give them hell.
But I was in that melancholy attitude. I was disillusioned with my own writing and therefore chose to sing those songs. Those songs reflected my frame of mind as well as any others I could have written.
You were disillusioned in what sense? You thought you weren't hitting the mark?
I think there was a period of a hangover from the Armed Forces era, which was very successful. So it was on the one hand not enjoying that, making rather a mess out of it in terms of my life and my career, and on the other hand, feeling that I'd squandered an opportunity to have a large audience. I was feeling that I didn't have anything to say for myself, and then when I did have something to say - on the Get Happy! and Trust albums - I no longer had the means of the medium with which to communicate with a larger audience. The fact that the audience was getting smaller at that point sort of led me to the conclusion that I should stop writing songs.
I decided to do a record of other people's songs to bring some other talent, if you like, to the fore-which was the ability to sing rather than just have my words out. It had gotten to where the reviews were just concerned with, "What's he saying on this one? Who's he having a go at now?" I mean, I like to be my own most vitriolic critic about what I'm bleeding on about, 'cause there are always those people who are not convinced by you at all and think you're a terrible sham.
Do you think that critics put too much emphasis on your words rather than the total composition?
Sure, but there's no point in being false about the fact that there's more substance to my lyrics than quite a lot of other writers - not to say that there aren't others who write interesting lyrics. But overall, there are a lot of very poor lyrics on records. I always used to say that the minute that the critics found somebody who could string three words together, they immediately called him the new Bob Dylan, they called him the new Bruce Springsteen. It's a very dangerous thing to pay that much attention to someone who perhaps can't withstand it. Whatever happened to Elliot Murphy? Whatever happened to Willie Nile? These people never had a chance because, when they came out, the critics presumed one exalted thing about them and so much was expected. It's extremely unfair.
It's been said that the reason so many American rock critics love Elvis Costello is because they look like Elvis Costello.
[Barking laughter, blushing] That's quite a good one. But they don't, you know. Again, that's the thing: they just look the way they think I look! I don't look anything like they think I look!
You spoke to me earlier, in the taxi, about the incestuous, elitist qualities of the British press as opposed to the rock-crit self-importance of some of the American press. Do you think the music press makes any significantly positive contributions to the overall environment?
If they're not actually informative - which in different ways they are, I guess, on both sides of the Atlantic- and merely negative, then they set up something to work against. Fighting the American press is like disobeying your parents, because they're so pompous. Critiques in the States usually have the tone of book reviews a lot of the time. In live concert reviews they treat you like opera!
"Mister Costello did this" . . . and so forth.
There's the famous instance of Meat Loaf being referred to in the New York Times as "Mr. Loaf"
[Laughing convulsively] Aaah! Mister Loaf! Mister Loaf! That's fantastic! Mister Loaf! [catching his breath, wiping his eyes] The rolling buzzards!
It must be incredibly frustrating to constantly have your gradual development, your emerging muse, sharply criticized. A lot of times, just at the stage when artists are beginning to reach a big audience, they are not necessarily doing their best work.
I felt that I was at the time with Armed Forces, because I hadn't been one who simply stuck around a long time and suddenly gained a massive audience when they'd made their worst record. I actually felt that I was still ascendant artistically, but in retrospect I think that because everything happened so quickly my judgment wasn't at its best. My great enthusiasm for elements of the way my work went in the light of that initial burst of acclaim was misplaced. I'm not totally denying all the work, though. There were some damned good songs in that transitional period.
Do you have any absolute favorites thus far?
There are songs I still enjoy playing which are not necessarily our best-known songs. "Big Tears," which was the B-side of "Pump It Up" in England, is probably one of the best songs we've made. I still like "Pump It Up" as well. I couldn't imagine going in and making that record now, but I'm glad I made it then.
Your range of focus is an uncommonly wide one. How did you come to put "My Funny Valentine" on the back of the 1979 "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" 45?
I'd always liked the song, since I was a child. My parents played Sinatra's rendition around the house, and the band just needed another B-side, really. It was one of those situations where I was available and nobody else was, so we just did the guitar and voice and it seemed okay to me. I ignored all the criticism of it at the time, people saying that I had a lot of bloody cheek singing a song like that because, after all, I was a punk [sly grin].
It seems that you 're really concentrating on your vocals this time around. In "The Invisible Man " in particular on the new LP, you seem to be paying a lot more attention to your singing. There's almost a delicacy to the vocal on that track - I also bear a bit of a Ray Davies influence in there.
[Delighted laughter] That sort of became the standing joke when we were recording it! We were not actually copying anything, but without any conceit at all - just an in joke among the band - a song will often become known as "the Al Green tune" or whatever because it has some little lick in there. While we were recording "Invisible Man" Clive Langer said, "That's like the Kinks!" and once he'd said that, I couldn't get it out of my head. You know, I'm not a bad mimic when I want to be.
On the Get Happy! album we consciously abandoned the arrangements we were working on and rearranged everything based on a load of soul records I'd bought to refresh my memory. "King Horse" had the "Reach Out" guitar part, for example, along with a long "Poppa Was a Rollin' Stone" intro which we chopped off the record. There were a lot of little jokes on the album, and I think that's quite good fun. You shouldn't be afraid of making those kinds of jokes between yourselves - it helps to deflate any conceit that you have.
The horns on "T.K. 0. (Boxing Day) " on the new album have a nice Stax soul review quality.
It's funny, in America folks tend to treat Stax as a vaudevillian throwback. We have a lot more . . . I don't want to say reverence, but more… respect for soul and R&B overall. A lot of big bands in the States seem to be frighteningly ignorant of stuff that is really their own heritage. They have this rock and this heavy metal music in America that doesn't have any roots in rock and roll and soul or anything. It's a creation of the 1970s. I'm talking about the Totos and the Rushes-those groups that sing, "We're a rock and roll band!" or "We're rocking tonight!" And they don't have anything to do with rock and roll, and wouldn't know it if it bit them [laughter]. I think there are very true rock and roll bands in America, such as the Blasters. The people who have the least clue of what's really good about rock and roll hold it as a god that must be bowed down to. I think it's so bloody old-fashioned, behind-the-times. I can't understand why anybody would be the slightest bit interested in "We're-going-to-do-it-all-night" kinds of songs.
In terms of your style of composing and playing, I sense that you like to hurry the melody and rush the hook. Are you conscious of that? Sometimes it's almost an examination-in-progress of how mannered rock and roll can be.
Well, more recently I tend to sing behind the beat instead of ahead of it, except on some of the uptempo songs. On the last album, I sang very consciously behind the beat, but I don't think I understand what it is you're saying.
There's a hurry-up quality to the structural resolution of your recorded material and to its live presentation that makes me as a listener hear with new ears. It's one of the things that I enjoy most about your music.
The music is built around my singing, and there is a particular tone in my voice at the register I sing at most of the time which tends to sound - some would say urgent, others would say agitated, depending on whether it jars you or is pleasing. So that might be it. My voice is very powerful in that certain register, and it's the one that is most effective at harassing the listener. [chuckling] You know what I mean? It cuts through backing and cuts through the beat as well, so perhaps that's what creates that effect. I've never really analyzed it.
I try not to get too self-conscious about my singing, for instance, and the only time I'm conscious of my singing is when I feel I've been consciously trying to eliminate sounds I don't like from my style. Over the years, I've dropped certain inflections and phrasings, but getting analytical about it is the worst thing you can do. In a few instances, I've allowed records to go out when I was unhappy with the vocal style, particularly on the last album, on which I indulged my experimentation. Normally, excepting the country records, I've always been produced under the disciplines of Nick Lowe, but because I wasn't producing myself on Imperial Bedroom, I was going overboard.
What was it like working with Nick Lowe?
I first knew him as a fan of Brinsley Schwarz, and he was the first person I ever knew who was in a professional group that made records and things. I knew him socially from around 1973, before I was a professional musician. I met him in a pub opposite the Cavern in Liverpool - this sounds like something a press officer would invent but it's true. He was playing there just before the club finally closed. I was in a little group, all of us working under our own names, and I met him at the bar. Then he was the first artist signed to Stiff and became the house producer by the time I was signed.
What specific contributions has Lowe made to your sound?
[Smiles] When I first knew Nick, his attitude was, "Hell, it's no big deal that I'm in a group! You bang three chords together and you write songs!" Up until then, because I had no experience in recording, I always thought that the more complicated the song was, the more merit it had. To some extent, he was instrumental in making me see the benefit of simplicity - and I adopted that as a creed from there on.
As a singer, I always had an understanding with him that he would let me go so far with a vocal, but if he thought I was going past it and becoming too considered and losing the feeling, he'd stop me and use the earlier, imperfect take. He'd always allow me one or two wild takes beyond what he thought was it, in case I did something extraordinary that he wasn't expecting. He taught me a lot about craft and noncalculation-and that they needn't be in conflict.
Is Punch the Clock a title meant to comment on the drudgery of the work week or a rage concerning age?
No, but I like titles with double meanings, like Trust. It's got a great double meaning to it: you could say, "Trust me!" or "Trust them!" Punch the Clock could mean stopping time, or let's punch in and get to work, but it's not a manifestation of rage about getting old. We were going to give a deliberately pretentious title to the last album just to irritate people - we were going to call it Music to Stop Clocks. And then we were going to call it This Is a Revolution of the Mind, which comes from "King Heroin" by James Brown - but I discovered that be did call one of his albums that! But I'm not a prisoner of time. [crooning] "Time is on my side. . .
The first time I played "Love Went Mad" from Punch the Clock, I cracked up laughing because I thought I caught a certain ingenious obscenity in the lyrics that I believed I must have heard wrong, but I checked and, yes, the lyric read: "I wish you luck with a capital F."
Hmm. I don't think that's a particularly good line. I think it's a lousy one, actually. I prefer the line before it, "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef." That's just my personal preference. The other one's a bit of an untidy payoff, one of the worst lines on the record.
Seriously? I love it! It's a line I'd use in a pub.
Well, yeah, I suppose you're right. See, that's a song about complacency from a comic opera that will never exist. The detail in it about Piccadilly being turned into Brands Hatch refers to a racing car track in this country that's like the Indianapolis Speedway.
The song is about Mr. Complacency being down in the fallout shelter, totally resigned to his fate just seconds before he's obliterated. There he is down there, playing his family favorites on a tissue and a comb and thanking God he won't have to be tempted by young girls dressed as older women anymore-"There'll be no more lamb dressed as mutton rather than mutton dressed as lamb." [laughter] He's counting his few blessings that are left, 'cause he's lived such a good, saintly life.
Your writing has always seemed especially concerned with a stark kind of political commentary that's almost Kafkaesque. There's a line in "Pills and Soap" that goes, "You think your country needs you but you know it never will. "Do you have a sense of cynicism about these things?
First of all, concerning how much you belong to your country or your country belongs to you, definitely so. I think it's a really false belief when they tell you, "Your country needs you." Yeah! A great nonsense, isn't it? They only need you as long as they've got a particular function for you. It's not your country or my country-it doesn't belong to me.
Do you vote?
Yes, I do. I voted for the Labour Party in the last election. Why I would not vote for Thatcher is easy: I think that it's an insensitive government, it doesn't have any compassion for people who are not self-made business people. They have no feeling for people who haven't got any money or a job. They're quite prepared to damn large portions of the population to miserable lives. I don't think there's any way that you can justify voting any other way but Labour. I suppose you could say that's a very high-handed attitude to take toward any political party, but I should think it goes beyond politics - it's actually morally wrong to vote for the Tories.
Well I would think that a country is only as good as the quality of life that its working class is experiencing, but do you see yourself as a champion of the working class?
No, I don't see myself as a champion of anybody. I've never stressed it enough that I write from my own point of view. I'm not writing for anybody else. What people identify with in the songs is their business. That's what use they make of the songs, the same way they make use of something they've read in a book or see in a film. 1 don't make any demands on the audience in terms of them seeing me as a spokesperson or a champion. I don't cast myself in any roles like those. I'm just an individual.
I think the atmosphere in the United Kingdom makes for a much more vital rock scene. In America the scene is so diffuse.
When you live in a spread-out country, you can't have it any other way. Still, you've got little close-knit creative cliques in particular towns and cities, like the New York community that gave us Talking Heads and the Ramones-that's an unusual scene that can spawn both those groups, even though they're both very arty in their way. But I don't put the vitality over in England down to class. Class is a depressing element of this society, and I don't think it has any positive aspects except that it gives you something to kick against. And, of course, there's currently a much larger middle class - at least in their own minds - than there's ever been in this country. But in truth there're only three types of people in the world: people who work, people who are not allowed to, and people who don't have to.
Speaking of your own work, does it bother you that you haven't had any hit singles in the States?
[Pensive] I don't know. It obviously bothers me that we seem to be able to have a degree of success, and the hit single is the key to a larger market. If reaching a larger market means that you have to sound like Christopher Cross, then I'd rather stay the way I am. I'm not going to make a record which I think is consciously intended to get the desired effect of a hit in America, a hot single which is gonna break us through so that we then are up there with Bob Seger and all the good ol' ones. I want to reach there when it's on the terms of making good music. Coincidentally, quite a lot of the people who are held in almost obscene reverence in America, like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison don't sell that many records.
What are your feelings on the music video boom and its relative importance to your group?
We've done one video for this record, and we'll probably do another. We've done loads of them, but you won't see them on MTV - except only at three o'clock in the morning. I don't think we're a particularly visual group, which is a drawback, but we've made some quite good videos over the years; at least one for each album since Armed Forces. They're fun, but usually trite; the current English school of the "mysterious video" genre is to wear trench-coats on them and walk through dry ice smoke - you've got to look like you're in Murder on the Orient Express. Or was that last year? God, I can't take them seriously. I think it's a big mistake to interpret the twenty-four-hour record company and its bored-brat indulgence in the shape of rock videos as some kind of innovation - that's very self-congratulatory. Actually I think it's a retrogressive step. It takes a lot of music out of it all, so you see what ugly, boring bastards most rock chaps are. I'd rather that you waited all week with some feeling of anticipation for one program that was genuinely great, in which you saw good bands that were exciting, than have twenty four-hour access to a load of idiots with too much money and not enough sense. I'm afraid that's the standard of most of the videos that I saw when I watched MTV. That's not indicative of the idea; it just shows the paucity of imagination and genuine inspiration, and of the vanities of a lot of the groups.
Say, were you modest and well-liked as a kid?
[Laughter] Oh, I never thought, "My God, I'm so much brighter than everybody else." Or [dreamily], "I knew from an early age I was special" - one of those kinds of remarks, or "I used to see things other people didn't." I did average work at school-but I don't think that's a reflection of intelligence.
I'm only curious if you had close companions with whom you could really confer as an adolescent.
I don't have very many friends, period - let's put it that way. I just don't choose to have many. I had few friends then and few now, meaning a few I value a lot rather than a lot I don't value at all. I don't worry about how sophisticated the relationship is, I just worry about whether it matters to me. It cam be quite inane, because a lot of things that matter to you are not often sophisticated. In fact, the things that matter to you generally are things that lack sophistication, or what we laughably call sophistication-which is our ability to drown our real feelings in the cologne of sophistication. There you go! There's a good one! They're rolling off the tongue today, folks!
Getting back to music: what role does keyboardist Steve Nieve play in shaping songs?
I think it would be unfair to the other two Attractions, Bruce and Pete Thomas, to say that Steve has a greater say overall. Obviously, he has the most scope with his instrument because he's the main melodic interest on most tracks, and from the nature of his instrument he has more range than the bass or the drums. But I think overall it's a fairly even input. On the last album, we had songs which he arranged for outside players, as in the case of "…And In Every Home" and "Town Crier." That's a different matter. He contributed quite a lot to "…And In Every Home" because I gave him the song, said "give full vent to your imagination," and he gave it this deranged setting. It's marvelous that he has the technical, musical ability to write things down, that he can communicate complicated ideas to players that can only work with written music. I don't have that ability. I don't write or read music at all. I have to describe things to people if I'm working with a writer or arranger; I have to communicate by humming the lines, which can get very tedious.
Still, that 's a great rock and roll and R&B tradition.
I suppose it is. I wrote all the main horn refrains on this new album. I sang, "da da da da," and the phrasing and the harmonies of it were worked out between myself, Steve, Clive Langer, Alan Winstanley, and the horn section. Other punches, turnarounds, and modifications came from a communal effort. With the song, "The Greatest Thing," we left a huge gap where we just vamped from E to C sharp minor in the middle of the song and said that when we did the backing track, we'd put some sort of horn bit in there. We just cannibalized a well-known Glenn Miller tune and threw in a bit of Kool and the Gang for good measure. You can do it literally like that, have fun, instead of thinking, "What are people going to think of this?" or "What's the significance of this?"
Is there an album of yours that you believe was the turning point, in terms of your doing the work you 'd hoped to hear yourself doing?
Get Happy! was it. I'd written about half the songs on it during the 1979 Armed Forces tour, which had ended in a lot of disarray both personally and professionally, for various reasons which I think have been well-covered elsewhere. I took quite a lot of time off to recover physically and emotionally, and I went off and did a bit of production, like the Specials' first album. Meanwhile, I had earlier been writing material for the next album, and we rented a studio.
We put about two tracks down, and I realized right away that the arrangements we'd worked out on the tour were going to come out sounding very cliched, like a parody of ourselves. The sound we'd developed was rather a rootless new wave sound; it sounded like the very things I criticize modern rock music for, yet it didn't relate to glitter rock, nor any of the modern trends, nothing at all. It completely stood alone. Some of the music for the album dated back to 1975; it was really ancient, and the arrangements lacked the character that the songs required. I rewrote a few and others we just rearranged - to varying degrees of success - after I'd gone out and bought some fifty soul records to refresh what I'd liked about that style and the strength of the vocals. If you have a love for the style, the song will often carry it along. You could cast "Many Rivers to Cross" as a country and western song and it would stand up - providing the singer matches the commitment. [smirking slyly] Or you could do a Linda Ronstadt on it and fall flat on your - oh, no, I mustn't get into attacking her again!
Despite your wisecracks, I get the distinct impression from both Punch the Clock and this conversation that you are taking yourself more seriously as a singer - and hope others will too. The growth is there. Is the intent there also?
Maybe I'm getting better as I get more experienced. Sometimes my intentions would blind me to some of the effective subtleties of singing. Before, I'd be singing with a tremendous amount of conviction, but sometimes it would come out sounding very hectoring. There was usually a lot of feeling there, but I hadn't considered how best to express it, so some of the songs sounded rather like rants. I've learned I can get a point over by using more tonal range.
In the studio, I used to put the vocal to the fore when I was more involved in my own production. This time around I wasn't involved in production decisions beyond being asked my opinion, and I wanted the discipline of that to help shape the arrangements and the structure of the overdubs. The band had its usual arrangement meetings, but then Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley came along and they had their say as well, aiming to give us a more concise approach.
Is that kind of power and involvement on their part unprecedented in your recording history?
It was completely unprecedented, certainly, compared with the last album, where I took every blessed idea I had, more or less, to a logical or illogical conclusion, and the job of Geoff Emerick, who produced Imperial Bedroom, was to try and make some sense out of my efforts. A lot of times I was pleased with the results, because you got a dense, sometimes conflicting, sometimes contrasting array of instruments and vocal devices which repay many listenings. But in some cases I buried the songs in a maze of contradictory musical ideas and even emotions.
Your music is intensely emotional, and thematically it often dissects or critiques relationships. I'm still intrigued about your personal perspective on sexism and the current quality of the female-male relationships you encounter.
I tend to treat each person or situation I've observed solely for the individual value, rather than have some preconceived idea about the larger scheme of things when it comes to women and men. I don't think I'm wise enough to make broad statements because I'm still finding things out myself. Chronologically some people might say I should be old enough to know better through experience, but I don't necessarily think I am. But I think the things that bring us to grief are plain to see: jealousy, lack of faith, lack of trust. I'm not a great believer that there are deeper secrets behind the distance between us that are locked up somewhere waiting to be discovered. Generally, I don't think people talk very much, regardless of who they are. They might say more words these days, but whether they're talking to each other is another matter.
In your experience, do you find that people our age currently are more or less guarded in their relationships?
Personally I'm much less guarded, not just in the sense of my professional relationships but just generally. I have an interest in being much more open - [smiling] as a result of exhausting the opposite possibilities. It's as simple as that. But I don't think in large schemes; I'm very much absorbed with the moment. I think it's more important to deal with life as it comes along than sit around pondering one's personal philosophy. You'd be dead before you ever had a chance to implement it! What useful things you find out in this world, you invariably find out on foot, on the move. You can't wait.
Do you have any bitterness about the manner in which you've been dealt with in the press, whether it be the Bonnie Bramlett-Ray Charles incident and your resultant mea culpas or your overall reticence of the recent past?
No, but I eventually was concerned with explaining myself, and I do feel that I did in that case. On another front, I think it's one of the conceits of the business that the record companies worry about what you think of them, and the music papers worry about what you think of them. I don't sit around in my house worrying about those things at all.
My main interest in this business is music; and if I'm not concerned with the making of my own, I'd much rather just be thinking, "God, this other person's record is great" and enjoying it for what it is. I don't think, "What am I getting out of this? How is this changing my life?" One of the greatest joys I've yet found in life is to listen to Bobby Bland - it doesn't have to have any further point than that, unless I want to tell someone else they should perhaps check him out for themselves. Framing all the great music out there only drags down its immediacy. The songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they're tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do.
Oddly enough, you seem totally accessible to me as a person, not at all the crusty character everyone else describes. I wonder if your new, more cordial relationship with the press is merely due to the fact that you've finally become more adept at dealing with them?
No, I think it's because I've done enough work that there is something to talk about, rather than conversation just based on one press release. In the beginning, I did a few interviews, and I didn't feel they went very well, so I just stopped doing them. Why be a conspirator in this nonsense they're writing?!
You mean, say, the corporate formation of a public personality?
Yeah! In the beginning there wasn't enough work there to really talk about, and no substance to the articles, so why should I be involved? They're going to write this nonsense anyway, so why be a party to it? It's as simple as that; I chose to stop doing it. And then when the time went by, and I felt there were some things that were perhaps necessary to explain, I changed my mind again.
What new artists have excited you?
Funnily enough, the group that's supporting us on the U.S. tour, Aztec Camera, I like a helluva lot. I heartily recommend you go and buy their album High Land, Hard Rain right now. I quite like Prince, though not all of his stuff, and I think Paul Young has got a great voice and his No Parlez album is terrific. I really like the Style Council, which Paul Weller formed since he left the Jam. I like a group that's called, would you believe, Prefab Sprout. They've only got one single out, called "Lions in My Own Garden," which is excellent. There's another group on Rough Trade called the Smiths, and I like Robert Wyatt, obviously, having worked with him. Rough Trade, I must say, has put out the best records of the last two years. I also like "You're in My System" by Robert Palmer - brilliant record. Recently Johnnie Taylor and Lamont Dozier have gotten their courage back to make great soul records and not conform to the less imaginative end of the disco market.
Every artist and group that hopes to enjoy longevity must go through a continual process of reinvention. You've got to remain close to what made you want to make music in the first place and let that be your motivation.
Quite true. Look at Aretha Franklin - singer of enormous stature who now largely just sings riffs, and although she's incapable of bad singing, she does what Otis Redding often did, harrying the phrase and so forth. Luther Vandross's production of her has only helped her in terms of setting, not reinvention. You know, Dusty Springfield recorded one of my songs last year, "Just a Memory," which I wrote with her in mind three years ago but made no attempt to get to her because she hadn't been recording. I'd dreamed in the back of my mind that she'd one day make a comeback and record it, and last year she did on her White Heat album. Unfortunately, the production left a lot to be desired, and the vocal treatment was bland; it wasn't what it could have been if I'd produced it. We've all gotten used to the politeness of overdubbing as opposed to captured performances in the studio.
So what helps you to plug into that?
For me, it takes time, and that's difficult because the longer you record, the harder it gets. I went past a few things on the new album and had to leave them for a couple of weeks and then go back. There are some cases of songs I've never gotten right on record, like "Clowntime Is Over," which is now an integral part of our live show. A fast version was on Taking Liberties, but we never truly finished the song in the studio. A good version of it doesn't exist on record because I insisted on cutting it live in the studio and wouldn't overdub. To make one of the less flippant comparisons that come to mind, that song was supposed to be our Impressions song, that was to be our "Keep On Pushing"; it was very important for me to get it down, and yet I failed.
In some instances, I've found that what I know to be the important songs of an album, the weight of an album, have been the hardest songs to record. I knew that "Kid About It," "Pidgin English," and "Man Out of Time" were the crucial songs to Imperial Bedroom. They also posed the most problems and are the most ragged and incomplete recordings. The arrangements and the vocal direction that I took destroyed "Kid About It," which is five times the song live, because I sing more honestly and don't fool around with different octaves and affectations. In the studio I was trying too hard to avoid sounding like a white soul singer, a Michael McDonald. Not to knock him: I think he's a very good singer.
Have you ever thought about working with a classic Soul or R&B producer?
I did approach Allen Toussaint to arrange the horns for our shows at the Albert Hall last Christmas. The previous year, I'd done a show with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Albert Hall - an enjoyable, nerve-wracking, on/off experiment that had mixed results. I wanted Toussaint and his people to take us in a new, less grandiose direction, but their pace of working proved to be too slow to make it come about, and so I had to pull out. It proved to be fortuitous because it could have only worked in the friction between his and our arrangements, since Toussaint comes from a part of the world with very different musical criteria. What ultimately came about was that I stuck with the idea of horns and sought out the best players I knew of in this country, the TKO Horns. Because they're English and we share the same relationship to R&B, it worked. To expand on something I alluded to earlier, I find that many contemporary American musicians have a peculiarly patronizing attitude toward R&B, as if it happened a million years ago, whereas to us, Tamla-Motown is folk music, not a museum piece. You still hear it played regularly on radio here.
Elements-wise, I worry that Americans might see some of Punch the Clock as a novelty, and it isn't - it's dead serious, alive music. With the presence of the TKO Horns we're developing a sound, and the tour is an exploration for us. On our first tour of America in 1977, we learned so much about how to play-it was our first experience of a wider audience outside of British clubs - and the same will happen again because now we're effectively eight pieces.
You 're nothing if not a risk-taker. The risks just need to be germane ones.
I've decided not to go in for lucky-bag approaches like we did with country music on Almost Blue, where I threw myself in with Billy Sherrill, not knowing what was going to come out of it. The best things that came out of it were the frictions, not the complementary stuff. Americans generally dismiss that record as being an insult to the music [grinning], but it's just heartbreak drinking music; it's not that mysterious.
The fact that most of the songs come from a particular geographical area makes no difference to me. As for my claim to emotional authenticity, if you compare my record to any of Barbara Mandrell's, I think we might come out better. Almost Blue isn't made by a gifted amateur - it's a sincere, genuine record. The fact that we don't have the geographical credentials to make it is completely irrelevant. If you really want to split hairs, most of those songs are ripped off from English, Irish, and Scottish folk songs anyway, so you haven't got a leg to stand on! [laughter].
In rock and roll, enthusiasm and focus can almost always transcend technique and environment. But sometimes you can stumble into a marriage that's too eager, too neat. You're in it for all the wrong, external reasons. Zeal can overshadow instinct.
I understand what you're getting at. Let's pick it apart. Peter Green, say, is a great blues guitarist; it doesn't matter that he wasn't born in Mississippi. Quite a lot of other white players who have been lionized, like Eric Clapton, don't hold up as well. The best intentions are the unconscious ones. One of the reasons I'd be reluctant to work with a classic soul producer is that I think whereas there was something to be had from the friction in country music of working in an alien environment, I suspect the orthodox soul attempt would wilt from the lack of it.
Also, you've got to bear in mind that I'm not making records only for America. If I were only making them for America, perhaps I would go and do a record in New Orleans with Allen Toussaint and aim it at the tasty, semi-middle-of-the-road FM market. But I'm not dead and buried here yet; I haven't finished with the English public. I think it's important if you write in one country to keep up a relationship with that native audience.
There's a lot of rubbish that goes in this country but a lot of good things too. I would rather be involved with the good things than desert the country. Five years ago, I could have chosen to leave for financial reasons and been a much richer man. I've elected to remain here not for any patriotic considerations but because it's a more interesting place musically than any other I know of.
Well, I think you appreciate the organic dynamic tension you find in the United Kingdom, although it might not necessarily exist here for another artist.
It's here for others, but it's not here for those insubstantial people who'll come and go. I'm here because I choose to be. It's a marriage, as you put it, that's working because I'm in love with the music - not with the marriage.