19 magazine, July 1978

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19 magazine
  • 1978 July

UK & Ireland magazines


The other Elvis

Christopher Broomfield

"Now that your picture's in the paper
  being terrifically admired
And you can have anyone that you ever desired,
All you got to tell me now is why, why, why?"

Elvis Costello is the find of the Seventies though his photos cannot truthfully be said to be admired, especially if you go by the ones that grace the cover of his first album, My Aim Is True.

Yet, if you were flicking through the sleeves at your local record shop and you came across that cover, curiosity would make you stop and take a closer look.

There's a photograph of Elvis on the front looking as though his torso, his Fender Jazz guitar and that famous bespectacled head were proving just too much for his skinny legs to support. Surrounding the picture are hundreds of black and white squares in a chess-board effect. In the white squares are single letters which, when read in succession, state: "Elvis Is King."

Elvis Costello is not yet king but he's certainly heir apparent — prince to the title. But where did Elvis spring from so suddenly and what has he been doing to land so gracefully in the lap of the gods?

"I've been in bands on and off but nothing really worth talking about and nothing that worked out obviously. I spent about a year going round record companies before going to Stiff. I did publishing and production companies as well and Stiff appeared just as I ran out of options. I got a couple of lousy offers which were not worth taking up. They had no future."

Stiff Records was the brainchild of Jake Riviera and his partner Dave Robinson. Elvis was the first guy to send in a tape and he was signed up. The Stiff mortuary boasts an impressive cortège of artists including Nick Lowe, The Damned, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and even the veteran talents of Max Wall — all of whom have been successful on Stiff Records except, incredibly, Max Wall.

In late 1977, Jake Riviera left Stiff and took the two starring coffin liners, Nick Lowe and Elvis, with him. Why, after creating such a resoundingly successful record company, did Jake leave?

"Basically, the Stiff personality was Jake, the main ideas came from him," says Elvis. "Everyone does a grand job on the running of the actual thing but the basic personality of the label came from him. He decided he could do a better job on the two of us as personal manager than he could on the overall label in question.

"He'd proved his point with Stiff. He started with nothing and got albums into the charts when everyone else thought those particular artists were a joke. In effect, we are all people that other labels regarded as a nuisance.

"I'd been written off by a number of labels. Ian Dury couldn't get signed, neither could Wreckless Eric. We had all been treated like jokes by most labels because they were afraid of anything that they didn't already have some idea of.

"If Phonogram had signed me up they would have given me a horn section and a couple of keyboard players and groomed me as the second Graham Parker because the minute I started playing they said I sounded like Graham Parker. Now I can't see that at all. The danger is that if you do happen to sound like someone, and you're almost bound to sound like someone, lots of labels don't have the imagination to exploit what's individual about you. They just exploit what is similar to someone else because they happen to know it sells.

"Having proved his point I think Jake decided it was time to jog on. He didn't want to get involved with Stiff Records in America. He realised that having gone that far the rest would be boring. It would be just like empire-building.

"Atlantic Records started off exactly the same way as Stiff from selling records off the back of a lorry into a multi-million-dollar corporation. I don't think they are having as much fun now as they had in the beginning. That was just pioneering the way Stiff was. Once the pioneering thing has gone then it's boring."

Elvis believes totally in his music and has no qualms about rewriting a song even if it's already been committed to wax.

"I don't think a song is ever finished, even when it's put on disc. There's no reason why I shouldn't rewrite. I've got a totally different version of 'Red Shoes' which sounds like 'Wooly Bully' and we may do that when we get bored with doing it the same way. Equally, we may do a totally different instrumentation. You can do anything you like. There are no rules — that's the good part about it."

Elvis' songs are pieces of emotion lyricised. Just take a good listen to "Alison" for beneath that soft, haunting melody are the tight-lipped vocals which tell of a guy wanting to shoot his girlfriend.

"It's just a frame of mind. It is a kind of story, a true story in a way, though there isn't an Alison. A lot of people think it's a love song. It's really amazing. In fact, a lot of people go on about revenge and how hard done by they are. Well, in fact, 'Alison' is the worst of all these songs.

"'Miracle Man' is quite tongue-in-cheek. I intended it to be quite humorous but most people took it seriously. I couldn't get over that. 'Watching The Detectives' and 'Alison' are about drifting into a feeling of violence. Violence creeps up on you quite a lot in a very slow way. It's not like stoving someone's head in but it comes from an emotional, slower build-up."

So the general feeling of Elvis' songs are of pent-up emotions?

"I don't know that they necessarily are. Sometimes it's quite an off-hand thing that triggers them off and sometimes it's just a frame of mind rather than a real experience. Other times, it's an experience which you transfer into something a little more universal. It's been the mistake of people who write from personal experiences that they write totally from those experiences and the listener can't understand them."

Elvis' backing band, The Attractions — with Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas, drums and Steve Naive, keyboard — made its first appearance on wax on the flip side of 'Detectives'. It's a solid band which Elvis found after extensive auditioning. At these auditions, he was helped out by Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar of Graham Parker And The Rumour fame.

"It was incredible to get such a good band together from just auditioning. The one thing we didn't want were paid hands who just play yards of music, which is what a lot of people do get as their backing band. We had some good players who were undoubtedly competent but these were the guys we felt fitted best as a band."

On stage, Elvis Costello And The Attractions never play the same set two nights running. Sometimes they play forty minutes of new material and sometimes they play proven numbers.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with doing new stuff. It's fun to do and you're giving people something completely new and really fresh. A lot of people like to hear you trot out the album but I'm not prepared every night to just come out and do that.

"We don't do technical things. A lot of it's noise. The fellas in the band play loud, you know.

"We use the full spectrum of loud and soft and, towards the end, we really get into cacophony. There's no attempt to keep it musical. Then you can use all those elements. There are no rules. You can do what the hell you like. I use facial expressions to emphasise things and as I get more relaxed I tend to stroll around, try to make more of the song and try to reach the people at the back. I don't get too theatrical. I never think when I get to the twelfth bar of a song that I must kind of put my arm in the air.

"I'll do anything. I've done some things where the audience is as mystified as the band. Some things really don't come off and don't look anything but stupid. But sometimes you get some really good things happening.

"Some nights I feel like getting very involved. You never want to force the commitment. It should flow easily so that you can get right inside the song. If you're not feeling in the mood you'd be forcing it and that would be acting and I'm not acting.

"I mean, you can only go over the top once and then what do you do for an encore?

"The Damned are having this problem at the moment. Take the whole punk point of view. They are having to back down or, at the very least, go sideways with the new stuff. You can only scream so loud and, after that, people just don't want to hear it. Intensity is an ideal thing. Commitment to the whole thing is important but it's difficult to carry on that over-the-top attitude."

Elvis Costello's image lies between a spasticated schoolboy dragged round the playground by the scruff of his neck and a computer operator.

"I was talking to a guy from The News Of The World and I had to get into the wardrobe to give him something interesting to write about. It was so boring. He was talking about image and things like that. I don't have an image. I didn't set out to start an image. That's all journalists write about. Then that becomes your image in the view of the public. You read the repetition of words like 'angry', 'confused', 'rejection', 'loser'. You read those things over and over again. I'm into demolishing them as soon as they set them up because I don't want to be that one-dimensional. I'm not."

One-dimensional or not, Elvis Costello talks very rapidly in a quick-firing, no-nonsense accent and it is easy to understand why his songs have so much depth and humanity. That's life and all he does is write about it and, at last, somebody's listening.

Elvis Costello's aim is certainly very true.

Tags: My Aim Is TrueWelcome To The Working WeekStiff RecordsJake RivieraNick Lowe(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesAlisonMiracle ManWatching The DetectivesThe AttractionsBruce ThomasPete ThomasSteve NaiveDave RobinsonSteve GouldingAndrew BodnarGraham ParkerThe RumourThe DamnedIan DuryWreckless Eric


19 magazine, July 1978

Christopher Broomfield profiles Elvis Costello.


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Page scan.

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Photos by Jim The Klick.
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Photos by Jim The Klick.

Photos by Brian Moody, Scope Features.
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1978-07-00 19 magazine cover.jpg


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