Arena, July 1995

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Version therapy

Mark Edwards

It hasn't worked for Annie Lennox or Duran Duran, so what makes Elvis Costello feel so good about an album of covers?

The hotel barman wonders whether we wouldn't be more comfortable outside. After all, it is a blazingly hot day — somewhere in the mid-eighties. But Elvis Costello has a sore throat and the air quality outside is vile — so he simply settles more comfortably into his armchair in the hotel's cool, dark basement bar.

"It's really nice out there," says the barman.

"That's what you think, matey," replies Costello, unconvinced; and he takes another sip of fresh orange juice.

We'd asked the barman to turn off the piped music, but he clearly thought we'd said to turn it up, so Annie Lennox's covers album, Medusa, blares out even louder than before. But then, it's an apt soundtrack to our conversation, because this year — if you hadn't noticed — is The Year Of The Cover Version. First there was Lennox's album, which was critically attacked, first because she'd chosen some rather well-known and much-loved songs to cover, and secondly because she'd made them sound a bit MOR. Then there was Duran Duran's Thank You, which was critically attacked, first because they'd chosen some extremely well-known and passionately loved songs to cover, and secondly because they're Duran Duran.

And now comes Costello's album — Kojak Variety — on which he's covered some almost unknown songs by some fairly obscure artists and writers. The originals also span almost all styles, from the blues to Bacharach and David, from rock to soul to Nat King Cole.

The choice of songs has a coherent and very personal logic to it. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Costello's father sang with the Joe Loss Band, at a time when the big bands were having to incorporate songs by these new young rock 'n' roll groups. Costello recalls that in those days, even the publishers of groups like The Beatles used to send out demos of songs like "Michelle" to the dance bands to try and get them to record cover versions. "You'd think," Costello says, "that Brian Epstein would have had a word: 'Look, the boys don't need this help. anymore. But they all thought beat music was just a fad. And they could have been right."

So Costello learnt the 1930-penned ballad "The Very Thought Of You," the same way he did Little Richard's "Bama Lama, Bama Loo," by hearing his dad singing along with the records he'd brought home to help him learn them. Both of these turn up on Kojak Variety.

Is one of the reasons you cover songs by lesser-known artists to encourage more people to check them out?

I had letters from people after Almost Blue [Costello's 1981 album of country music covers] saying, thank you for turning me on to George Jones. It wasn't my main reason for doing it. I'm not evangelical. That's a good side-effect, but it's not the main thing. It's not a tribute record. All this sort of piety and false modesty about these tribute records makes me slightly nauseous: "We are not worthy to touch the hem of Robert Plant's garment." It's dull groups doing dull music, in my opinion.

Led Zeppelin have been critically re-evaluated lately: it turns out they're ok after all...

Don't get me on the subject of Led Zeppelin. I never thought they were the real item. Nice bloke, though, Robert Plant. He likes music; he just doesn't have any judgement about it.

Most covers records that have been done over the years have been done because the artists like the songs. Whether you like their versions of the songs is another matter. And I think a lot of artists make the job twice as hard by doing songs where it's impossible to escape the shadow of the original artist's personality or even the writer's personality — like they do too famous a song by a well-known writer. I think I'm able to take on "I Threw It All Away", because Dylan's version is comparatively off-hand. Whereas if you'd taken on "Mr Tambourine Man", you'd have to compete with his original version, which is fantastic, The Byrds' wonderful record of it, and Dylan's current rendition of it, which was one of the highlights of his recent shows.

I keep getting asked about the Annie Lennox record because there's been this coincidence of different artists releasing covers albums. I actually got asked the other day in Paris: "How does it feel that you have done a record which is a la mode?" ...which I thought was pie.

And then, of course, there's Duran Duran, who have taken on seminal recordings like Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day".

They were never ones to think small when thinking big would do it. Simon LeBon once said to me when we were up at Air Studios — they were going off to Sri Lanka the next day to shoot one of their big, big famous videos — and he actually said to me, and I shouldn't be too cruel about this, but he said to me, "I do see the day when we will make the pictures first and fit the music to it afterwards." I said, "What? Like a movie?" The way they had such tunnel vision about it; they were so sincere. They didn't realize that it wasn't actually an innovation; they were just looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

They recorded your "Watching The Detectives". The press were sent a list of extremely complimentary quotes about their versions of the different songs from the original writers. Dylan, Lou Reed, Flavor Flay all said lovely things about them. You, however, were conspicuous by your absence.

Yeah, well, it just sounds like Duran Duran doing the song. I liked it when Simon was singing in his Bowie voice in it. And I think he chickened out half-way through. And I think it was better when he was doing the full Ziggy. Then again, I'm not going to send back the royalties when they come along.

You know, I was very, very rude about Linda Ronstadt early on but in retrospect not only did her version of "Alison" [on her 1978 album Living In The USA] introduce me to the four million people who bought that album, but the freedom that the royalties gave me meant that I could make Get Happy. I didn't have to worry about making another Armed Forces, which I didn't want to. I could say, no, I'm not going to do that, because I don't need the money.

Bryan Ferry has talked about making covers albums as a kind of creative sorbet, clearing your palette between bouts of songwriting...

I see this as more like creative Deep Heat in between hard games.

Didn't Almost Blue come at a time when you were disillusioned with songwriting?

I reached a point where I thought, I'm not getting anywhere with this writing songs business. Initially, wed had the element of surprise. You're the new thing on the scene. But then... suddenly you're not. I knew the songs I was writing on the fourth and fifth albums were better, but they didn't have the same shiny availability as those on This Year's Model and Armed Forces. So one way to really drive a nail in the pop heart was to do a country record. Not so much like a sorbet as a trip to the abattoir.

The songs you've written for other people to cover — from Johnny Cash to Wendy James. Are we ever going to hear your versions of those?

Funny you should say that. You're not related to Mystic Meg are you? The next record I'm going to make is exactly that — the opposite of Kojak Variety. I realized that if I don't address the volume of songs I've written for other people fairly soon, it'll become an unwieldy repertoire. It's already something like 40 songs.

The shows I did with Bob Dylan recently were the beginning of the process. I was doing 12 songs a night. In the main they were songs I'd written for other people. We're [Elvis and the Attractions] going to play them during a week of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York, which we're going to record. If we feel we can improve upon them in the studio we will, but we might get lucky and get something in the heat of the moment.

You're 40 now. So... does life begin?

You know I really think it does. Right now, in the last month, I did the concert at St James's Palace with Paul McCartney. It actually came off. It wasn't such an awkward event. I mean, Prince Charles was there — but that aside it was OK. And it raised money for the Royal College, and the fucking government won't help them...

The next day I went to Paris and started my five dates with Bob Dylan, which was great. And I was coming home at night and writing this song over the phone with Burt Bacharach for this film. We couldn't get together in the same place, so I wrote the song out and sent it to him down the fax, and then played my demo down the phone into his answering machine -which was a very odd moment.

Then I went to Italy. I went to the soccer game, Fiorentina v Juventus, with Channel 4. I'm mad about the Italian game. The next day I was in Rome to do this May Day show. It was a free concert with Radiohead, and all those huge Italian acts, that typically we've never heard of, and Robbie Robertson, whose last album was a big hit there. I asked how many people were going to be at the concert. They said 350,000. What? It's easily the biggest audience I've ever played to. Then Robbie said, "They've asked me to do a song to mark the fact that it's 50 years since the end of the war" — as opposed to here where we appear to be having a Let's Kick The Krauts Again festival.

Yes, we can't wait to get into Europe. However...

...there's a few things we want to do first... It was May Day there. It was a union-sponsored event. It wasn't a triumphalist thing. So Robbie said they've asked me to do a song to end the TV show on a note that's positive for the event. 13° you know "I Shall Be Released"? I said. "Funny you should say that. Just the other day, a fellow you may know..."

Yeah... It's been that kind of a month.

Kojak Variety is out now on WEA.


Arena, No. 52, July / August 1995

Mark Edwards interviews EC about Kojak Variety.


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Page scans.

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Page scan.

Photos by David Bailey.
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Photos by David Bailey.

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Cover and contents page.


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