Elvis Costello's return engagement in Austin included enough extra time to allow the singer to quite visibly soak in a little of the city — he jammed with the Skunks at Raul's the night before his own concert, met the public at Inner Sanctum Records, partied with the media at a post-concert party, and dropped in on an all-night radio show.
The "angry young man" image produced by his lyrics and by previous publicity prepares you to expect a sulking and unapproachable rock star. As creator of such songs as "Radio, Radio," you expect Costello to be quite able and probably ready to chew you up and spit you out, verbally. Following the May 23 concert at Municipal Auditorium and the media bash that followed, Costello dropped in on my all-night program at KLBJ/FM just after three in the morning. But this tough-guy Buddy Holly look-alike leaves the impression that he has the ability to be — well, a nice guy.
Being an English artist and producing the three-minute song, Costello is getting that "special treatment" from his record company that mirrors Capitol's handling of the Beatles in the sixties. The content of his albums released for the American market by Columbia differs from the English releases on the Stiff label.
"The story behind that is basically that there's always one less track on an American album by an English artist," he explained in a tired voice. Costello hand-held his microphone during the interview because of a problem with a mike stand, saying he had had plenty of practice. "Album-programming is designed for groups like Santana who record three tracks on a side, and pad it out with lots of guitar solos. They're not really designed for people writing songs, and therefore record companies only pay for 11 tracks. They won't pay for any more, so an artist is giving the company tracks if he delivers more than 11 songs. I object to the idea of not being paid for the work, 'cause it's a professional job."
Besides there being one less song on the American LP This Year's Model, "Radio, Radio" is substituted for the cut "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" found on the British album. That's basically a decision on Columbia's part. "They wanted 'Radio, Radio' on the American album, and decided 'Chelsea' was rather English-oriented. We left it to them. And they kept the basic running order of the album."
The resulting unreleased material may become available in the future, when they add up to an album's length. That's not unlike Capitol's treatment of Beatles 45's never released in LP form for the Beatles.
"By the same token, 'Radio, Radio' is not on the English album, so there's talk at the moment of making it a single in England," Costello adds. "'Chelsea' could become an American B-side. It all depends. We might pioneer the return of the EP!"
Other work strung out on various forms of plastic are some live B-sides in both countries, as well as the Stiff live album now available in the States on Arista Records. And the New Wave artist promises more live recording is in the works at the end of this seven-week tour, when Elvis and his band, the Attractions, hit the West Coast and play at Hollywood High, in a high-school gym concert that Costello refers to as a "pioneering gig," As for being a cult figure here: "We don't want to be trapped in the sort of 35-year-old market. We're trying to break into the younger kind of area."
Touring with Costello is producer/musician/songwriter Nick Lowe, who guided Graham Parker through his Howlin' Wind album, as well as working with Costello on his two albums. Lowe is quoted in ads for his own debut LP as one who strives for songs in terms of two-and-a-half or three-minute pictures. Every spare bit is dumped, and he works quickly in the studio, using first takes whenever possible.
Costello admits very little understanding of the studio, and leaves the mixing to the control of the producer. "Nick concentrates on making it sound pretty loud. We don't go, like, instrument by instrument. We always like to play as a band. Sometimes we'll re-do the vocals and overset harmonies and extra instruments, but I always try to go for a basic four-piece sound to begin with."
The new Elvis is very much into the idea of upsetting what people think of as his style. "Some people don't like the new album as much as the first (My Aim Is True), but it seems pretty empty to me to just keep repeating the formula, which is what Fleetwood Mac has done."
Jamming at Raul's with the Skunks the night before the concert was another unplanned activity, resulting in "good fun" versions of old R&B standards, Rolling Stones songs, and country numbers.
"We just went down to watch, really, and ended up playing. It was not too serious. Everybody, including the audience, had quite a lot to drink."
When pressed to name items in his personal record collection, Costello dismisses his taste as "like anybody else's. I don't claim to have any unique taste or any particular insight into music." Instead, he goes for individual songs.
This punk rocker likes country music, including old Hank Williams numbers, but doesn't like one kind of music over another. And although he can't thank of anybody special now making records that he'd like to play with, he might make an exception for "maybe Loretta Lynn or somebody like that."
And, with a smile, "I might write a song for George Jones — there's a quote for you!"