The first time Elvis Costello played Canberra in 1982 he was smack bang in the middle of one of the most remarkably productive periods of the post-punk/new wave era. With occasional backing band the Attractions, Costello had already delivered at least five bona fide classics in the space of five years — My Aim Is True, Get Happy, Armed Forces, This Year's Model and Trust. It really puts to shame the current crop of artists who struggle to complete one halfway decent album every couple of years.
"Yeah, absolutely," agrees Costello. "But you know I have never really understood why it took so long for people to record albums. This one [Secret, Profane and Sugarcane] was done in three days. And looking back our first one was done in 24 hours. One of the later albums — all up it took us three weeks in the studio to finish. Which at the time must have felt like an epic."
To provide a little context the late '70s are synonymous with bloated themed and concept double/triple albums, laser-bedazzled stage shows, the real emergence of AOR and the shared enemy — prog rock, so three weeks in the studio would hardly be considered a vacation. "Back then it wasn't unusual to take three days to get drum sounds right," jokes Costello.
"I think the main problem came about because some of the artists had nothing to go in with. They had none of the songs finished and would spend the majority of their time in the studio just wasting everybody else's time and getting nothing done. It was different with us. We had everything ready to go as soon as we hit the studio. We had been playing the songs on stage for quite some time before we went in so really the process of recording and making albums was quite quick. And besides — that's not the way I work. I have to have the songs ready to go."
You can tell. Those albums firmly established Costello as a songwriter who could swing effortlessly between restrained aggression and soulful pop, and one who would go on to tackle pretty much every genre on offer — from straight country and western (Almost Blue) to classical composition (Il Sogno), pop-classical experimentation with the Brodsky Quartet through to highly praised collaborations with Burt Bacharach.
There's hardly an ounce of fat on any of Costello's albums in the late '70s and despite their vintage sound just as urgent and essential now as they were when punk was exploding all round him.
But Costello never really fell for punk or the then fashionable psychedelic rock of his youth, gravitating towards the more pub-rock classicists such as Lee Dorsey and the loose grouping that formed around Nick Lowe (who produced all of that first batch of '70s albums) and Dave Edmunds, Rockpile. It was deeply uncool at the time — but somehow, Costello twisted it to his will and remade it in his image.
Indeed, that is one of the hallmarks of his career — regular and wholesale reinvention of sound and image. I suggest his current work falls neatly under the alt-country tag, a more homespun approach where you can hear the creak of the wooden floor, but Costello's not too sure about that "Well, homespun — I don't know what exactly that is meant to mean. Like I said before, the record was recorded quickly and we did use technology to our advantage but it's still quite direct but it's never obvious or heavy. The way it was recorded you can hear us lean into the microphone and we had all sorts of different instrumentation. Mandolins, fiddles and so on. You know they refer to mandolins as old time instruments but I never really understood that — we're playing them now aren't we?"
Yikes — it feels like I am the straight man on a talk show with this sort of riffing. But Costello is a notorious raconteur, penning columns in Vanity Fair, guest hosting David Letterman's Late Night show in 2003 and even getting his own show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ..., that aired locally on the ABC earlier this year. He's a man at ease with his image and songbook, not afraid to poke fun at himself or drastically reinterpret songs as the mood fits.
As you read this Costello is finishing up a tour of America with his 'Sugarcane Band.' "We've got seven great players on stage every night. It's fantastic. The songs take on a form of their own with each show, they grow...they change like there's a connection with the mood of the crowd. So every night is different." A more scaled back version will appear for the forthcoming run of Australian shows. It will just be Costello on stage sans band. "I will be pulling songs out of my catalogue that I haven't done for years. But I will be looking at them again in a different way. It's interesting — when I go back and look at the songbook, one song leads to another and then another. I find songs I haven't done in ages, had forgotten about and it feels good to play them again."
But it's not all stardust memories. "There are some new songs in the shows for Australia ready to go and by the time I get down there will be even more." No doubt he will have applied the blowtorch and reworked them a couple of times by the time he makes it to Canberra.