"How did I feel when I heard that I was going to interview Elvis Costello?" John Donabie, probably the best-known FM radio announcer in Toronto, asked rhetorically. "Scared. Very scared. After all, I'd heard all the stories about him being such a difficult person. And, just before he arrived for my appointment, I'd heard of him devastating announcers who hadn't done their Elvis Costello homework."
To unravel the history of Elvis Costello — that strange British hybrid of Buddy Holly looks, Gene Vincent arrangements, and Bob Dylan lyrical rage — it's necessary to search back through the mounds of old newspaper clippings that reporters so cheerfully call "the morgue". Even then, the details are sketchy. Costello has guarded his personal privacy with almost fanatical dedication, agreeing to discuss nothing outside his music.
In fact, Elvis rarely chats about anything. Elvis Costello interviews are about as common as recent Buddy Holly interviews. While other emerging rock stars go begging for someone — anyone — to bring their story to the public, Costello has taken the opposite route.
Some facts, however, have become matters of public record. Costello was born 23 years ago as Declan McManus, son of Ross McManus, a modestly successful English dance band crooner during the 1940s and '50s. During the next 22 years, the most important events in his life (not necessarily in order) were: becoming a computer programmer for the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics company, marrying, having a child, and leaving the computer and cosmetics industries. (As John Laycock, veteran critic with the Windsor Star put it, Costello is a smart boy — brainy enough to hold down a job in computers and intelligent enough to get out of it.)
Somewhere along the way, young Declan changed his name to the catchy Elvis Costello. According to one popular story, the name is a combination of Declan's two favorite performers: Elvis Presley and Lou Costello. That story will have to suffice; Elvis himself isn't talking. Besides, until very recently, the name was the best part of the Costello story.
The rest of the early years were taken up with the obligatory unsuccessful songwriting and unsuccessful searching for an interested recording company. Eventually, he landed on the little-known Stiff Records (corporate slogan: "If you're dead, we'll sign you"). And that's where the Costello story truly begins.
Stiff Records (in the music business, records that don't sell are called "stiffs") brought Costello to the public. But it brought him before the public in a manner that still affects the performer's public image. Born as a "new wave" rock label specializing in punk rock, Stiff marketed Costello as it marketed its other acts — in the "new wave" circles. Costello was sent out to tour England with Ian Drury (noted as the world's first porn-rocker), The Damned (a winsome name if there ever was one), and Nick Lowe. Not surprisingly, Costello picked up a reputation as a punk rocker by association.
Even a superficial listen to Costello's two albums (My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, both on Epic Records in Canada) demonstrates that the man is most definitely not a punk rock proponent. The distinction also explains his success at a time when the legitimate punk performers have failed dismally to establish even a tenuous toe-hold in the North American market.
"I never let it bother me that I was being categorized as a punk rock musician." Elvis, secure in the knowledge that he has scored big in North America, shrugs off the type-casting readily; it's undoubtedly less important to him now than it was six long, lean months ago. "I've learned that there are people who don't know very much about music and need to have their performers put into categories because it's easier for them to understand. Because I don't have respect for people who don't know about music, I don't pay attention to what categories I'm put into."
Elvis and Stiff were never made for each other. Eventually, Elvis came up with a legitimate hit record titled "Watching the Detectives" — and went looking for a legitimate record label. True to his beliefs, he ignored the traditional Establishment approach towards auditioning and tried a little impromptu barnstorming.
"Ever since I had first started peddling my songs, some people at Columbia Records had shown a fair amount of interest in me. But they hadn't been able to convince the rest of the company — people who hadn't heard me — that I was a good investment. I realized that I would have to come up with a way of being heard by the rest of the company.
"As it happened, Columbia was holding its annual convention in London. So I went over to the hotel and busked" (buskers are street musicians in England) "outside the convention. I had a little practice amplifier strapped to my shoulder and used my electric guitar. The timing was perfect because it was just when the convention was breaking for lunch, so I was heard by the president, the vice-presidents, and all the other important people at Columbia. They were impressed, as it turned out.
"Unfortunately, the Hilton hotel where Columbia was holding the convention didn't see the joke, and the police were called. The police also failed to see the joke and I got arrested. I was released a few hours later.
"I wouldn't say that was the sole reason why I was signed to Columbia. But it did break the ice and allowed me to get through to the whole company in one day." Columbia's parent company, CBS, now handles Costello's product throughout North America.
But what of the famous Costello anti-Establishment mentality, the rage gainst things commercial and hypocritical? Like so much of the Costello image, this, too, appears to be public relations veneer. In so many ways, Elvis is as capitalistic as any Wall Street broker.
"I think it's the job of the record company to create demand for the artist's product and sell a lot of records. Certainly, I wanted to have hit records. I've never been interested in waiting around until my time for success comes. Above all, I've never subscribed to the theory that one should do the decent thing and endure a certain period of failure before having a hit record.
"I waited long enough to get the chance to make a record. For more than eight years, I practiced and wrote songs. Lots of bands don't succeed because they record before they're ready. But I was in a position where I had songs to choose from; I certainly wasn't restricted to the thirteen songs that are on the first album.
"Yes, I'm in business to sell records. And I expect the record company to spread the word. Quite a lot of the people who haven't bought my records probably haven't even heard of me, so it's not a question of whether they like my work. The record company is extremely important to the final outcome, you know. I have some friends who are on the Secret Agent label — it's a very well-kept secret when their records come out." And Elvis smiles contentedly, knowing that the dash of humor deals another blow to his taciturn image.
Elvis opens up the most when it comes to his music. In particular, he singles out two favorite songs: "Watching The Detectives" from the first album and "Radio, Radio" from the This Year's Model second album.
"Detectives" has never been available on long-playing record in England. After My Aim Is True was finished and released in Great Britain, Elvis went back into the studio to record a song everyone felt had hit single potential. The song was a hit — it reached the top-20 in England — and proved to be the song that established Costello as a commercial success.
"'Watching The Detectives' has a different line-up compared to all the other songs on My Aim Is True. And it has a somewhat different line-up than what's on the second album. I recorded the song just before The Attractions, my current band, was formed. It features the same keyboard player — whom I'd just discovered — but the other musicians are different. The song didn't really fit in with the sound of the second album, which we'd already started to record when the single became a hit, so we decided to include it in the American version of the album, thinking that it would be good to have a hot single on the record." As it turned out, the single was anything but hot in North America; "Alison" became a modest success, however.
"In England, the BBC has a monopoly on what's played — and the playlists are very restricted. So I wrote 'Radio, Radio' as my reaction to the poor radio in England. But, when I got to America, I discovered that radio here is just as poor and the number of stations doesn't make it more interesting. There is a tremendous amount of good music available — music which none of the radio stations ever play."
And what is the music that Elvis Costello believes is "good"? What, for that matter, are his influences? "I've never been obsessed with one person or band who I could say was a real influence on my form," Costello states flatly. "Like everyone else, I hear all sorts of things that must have some sort of influence; but you never know how they'll come out again. For instance, I brought along a George Jones record for you to hear because I really like it — but I can't imagine that I'll ever start sounding like that. I like to think that my style is my own and I'm unique."
The nasal strains of George Jones, long-time country music Grand Ole Opry favorite, fill the studio. Elvis is obviously thrilled by the music. Yet he's quite correct; there is no relation between Jones's country mannerisms and the Costello styling. Then the message hits home.
Costello likes Jones because George Jones is, within his own musical field, unique. He is a rebel, a man who carved his own mannerism out of the normally rigid country format. He is, in more than a little sense, the Elvis Costello of country music.