"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 one 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 be 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 cortege 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 the 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 dont 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...