The mid-'70s were a wild-eyed time for rock 'n' roll. Even while the turbulent '60s seemed like they were dying down and President Richard Nixon had been expelled and sent home on a helicopter from the White House, America was still twanging at full speed. It just seemed a little calmer on the surface, in comparison to the previous ten years. As usual, what was really going on could be more accurately gauged by the music being made. For those with their ear to the ground and their eyes on the sparrow, change was coming. Arena rock might have ruled the day, but new bands, some not terribly proficient on their instruments yet, had decided to take a run at greatness, rules be damned. The Ramones were well on their way to their war cry of "Gaba gaba hey," the Clash were getting ready to set fire to London clubs and even down Austin way the Fabulous Thunderbirds were injecting American blues with a new explosive fury. The world was jumping. You just needed to be in the right place to hear it, because the media hadn't been alerted yet.
Discovering these sounds was a clandestine adventure in the wooly forest, with nothing for a guide except the ability to throw the soul open to the rawness and righteousness which beats inside a hungry heart.
Elvis Costello was in on the action in England in the mid-70s and likely had already set afire the bridges behind him in his headlong dash towards a rock 'n' roll future. What else was there to do? For those with enough inner belief in their own musical abilities and a willing spirit to go for broke, everything is possible. In so many ways, that is the truest lesson of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and beyond. There can be no looking down or looking back, because all that really exists is the future. So many musicians have no Plan B, which is one of their greatest strengths. Because if they did, it would probably effect the do-or-die aspect of trying to start a music career. I remember interviewing Fabs T-Bird guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in 1975, and asking him if there was anything else he was suited for if music didn't work out. "There isn't anything else," Vaughan said emphatically. "I guess I could try and be somebody's helper, but that's about it." I never quite figured out what being somebody's helper would entail, but when the guitarist told me that, he'd already been a professional musician for over ten years, even though he was only 25 at the time.
Almost every musician has a similar story: they start playing music young and sign up for life. When Costello decided it was time to audition for a record label, he had decided this was his professional path. Whether he had a total vision of what he had to offer, or just had no other passion for a different journey doesn't really matter, because by writing songs and deciding they were good enough to share he had sealed the deal that continues to this day. It was time, and luckily England's music establishment had started to crack open a bit. New record labels were starting, and they were based on the premise that the past was over, and now things had to change. All the rules that had been written in stone and used to keep the new breed out were becoming obsolete. That system had stymied experimentation and innovation for too long. The new entrepreneurs behind the desks were filled with brass and sass, and believed it was up to them to turn the music business upside down. Right at the top of that class was Stiff Records. Which is exactly where Elvis Costello went.
When the first images of the English musician started appearing in America, it felt like a new day was dawning. Costello had a different look, even with the big Buddy Holly glasses frames. He was all angular, with a sure-fire menace in the way he looked at the camera. There was nothing smooth about him. Even before hearing his songs, it felt like this man was in it all the way, and for the long run. Some of the media tried to play an oddity angle, but that didn't last long. He was an original, and he was new. Immediately he stood at the top of the stairs for all the other English artists being unleashed on the United States. The air had taken on a palpable tingle, and it was needed. Up to then, rock 'n' roll had started to become somewhat commonplace since the '60s. That's probably because there weren't many new artists that were railing at the barricades. In '75-'76, great music was still being recorded, with albums like Desire, Zuma, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Born To Run and many other all-time albums, but for a music that promises a constant reinvention the moment was right for another invasion, British or not.
The Ramones answered the call in '76 with their debut album, and from note one the New Yorkers announced they were going to kick down the doors and do their best to burn the barn down. For all their energy and amazing power, their image seemed to get more attention than their music. A same last name for everyone in the band, black motorcycle jackets and tennis shoes were now on their nameplate, and for better or worse it limited how their music was perceived. It was thrilling and overwhelming, but also put a wall up for mass acceptance. When the Sex Pistols' unruly behavior started making waves they also seemed more intent on taking a stance than winning over fans one song at a time. There was definitely nothing like them on the pop landscape, but they also had stamped a shelf-life date on how long they can last. When destruction and hopelessness are your selling points, the long haul slips away fast.
That left the field wide open for Elvis Costello to walk down the middle and carry the flag for what was being called punk and/or new wave, depending on the level of angriness running the engines. Once Costello's songs started getting heard, there was a hush of wonder about how he actually sounded. What everyone discovered was that nothing was more obvious that a full-time musical giant was walking onstage. There was no other way to say it. My Aim Is True was released in 1977, and came at the perfect time. While big-time rock 'n' roll started to get tagged, often unfairly, as dated, listeners in their twenties were ready for a style to call their own.
Punk sounded like ragged fun, and Lord knows it created mayhem on every front it landed, but didn't have legs. How could it? Rather, it perfected the art of self-implosion, and after things get torn apart there's not much left to live with. Sensing a different genre needed to created, record labels and the media quickly shifted the description to new wave, which seemed to make more sense. There had been a film genre called that for years, and the name didn't have the same destructive tinges as punk. So new wave it was, which is exactly what Elvis Costello got labeled. And like almost all artists who get labeled as anything, he resisted the description, and eventually outgrew it. Whatever it meant.
The album itself was a revelation of everything rock 'n' roll could be. Backed on the record by Bay Area rockers Clover, it sounded brand new but still rooted in all the great American rock 'n' roll of the past 30 years, starting in New Orleans with Roy Brown. Recorded in six four-hour sessions, on songs like "Welcome to the Working Week," "Blame it On Cain," "Alison," "Less Than Zero," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Watching the Detectives," Costello had created his very own sound, always the mark of an all-timer, and still left enough bread crumbs for listeners to find and follow him. That's when greatness really enters the building, and this Englishman had it.
Watching him take off on his musical expedition has been a constant source of surprise and discovery. On a cold night on January 25, 1978 at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters, Elvis Costello & the Attractions were making their first American appearance in the still-new year. Two weeks previous the Sex Pistols had destroyed Randy's Rodeo club in San Antonio, but in doing so announced their demise in not so many words. Not long after the band pulled the plug for good. Costello was just getting started. In Austin that night, the band's regular equipment was snowed-in somewhere on the East Coast, but even playing on borrowed gear it was clear they were mounting a scorched-earth attack on the land of almost all of their musical inspirations.
Steve Nieve on keyboards had the air of an assistant professor of literature, but once he started attacking the piano there was no doubt he knew exactly what he was doing. Bassist Bruce Thomas sent out an indifferent attitude visually, but he played his Fender electric bass as if it was an instrument of assault. Tall and lean drummer Pete Thomas was clearly possessed by the big beat, as he punished his small snare drum with massive whacks, and rolled around the tom-toms like a lunatic on amphetamines. That left the cymbals, round metal objects Thomas was unafraid of and used for perfect punctuations, especially the hi-hat, which the drummer worshipped as a best friend in getting across how the song was supposed to roll. Elvis Costello stood front and center, directing this treacherous trio like a maestro in manipulation.
Song after song exploded from the stage, driving the Austin audience to levels of delirium that hadn't been seen in the spacious former armory since Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band had laid waste to it in 1970. So many great bands had shared that stage, but no one owned it more than Elvis Costello & the Attractions did that night in '78. When things really started to spin out of control, the singer grabbed the mic and called the audience the "most alchedelics I've seen under one roof in my life." He wasn't wrong either. By then, Austin had perfected the art of musical hedonism, mixing psychedelics and beer like peanut butter and jelly. What better night to let it all fly freely and welcome the obvious anointed king of new wave, or whatever you wanted to call it.
As the band traveled across American in 1978, they were marking their spot in the rock 'n' roll firmament of a newly born musical era like knights on horseback. Word quickly spread that this was not a show to miss, and with the new album This Year's Model kicking up their recorded credentials several levels, not only did they solidify that aspect of their reputation, Costello also announced he was here to say. For English bands, only The Clash lived in that rarefied air, but comparing them was like separating apples from oranges, not to mention that bands rarely last forever, while solo artists like Elvis Costello, even with the trusty Attractions alongside, had the field to himself now. His recorded output was right next to staggering, with what seemed like an endless supply of unforgettable songs and undying energy to bring them all to roaring life. As the 1980s started, there wasn't anything like him. Even with MTV rearing its monopolistic head, it really did feel like something amazing was being born right before our ears and eyes.
In 1983 Columbia Records' publicity chief asked if I wanted to go to Austin to interview Elvis Costello. I was living in Los Angeles then, working as music editor at L.A. Weekly. It didn't take asking twice. By then I'd seen Costello perform a half dozen times, both in Texas and California, and each time actually seemed to get better and better. What had started as a full-on rock 'n' roll night of revival stayed at that level, but also turned to many different areas of musical expression. Costello had thrown open the door on influences, and everything was game to be swirled into his gurgling mix. We started the interview around noon with Costello playing me a track he had just recorded at Allen Toussaint's studio in New Orleans. It was the Yoko Ono song "Walking on Thin Ice," which at first seemed like a peculiar choice until the song began, and quickly turned into a dream of semi-surrealistic lyrics, keyboard-punctuated lead lines and perfect horn accents, all driven by Costello's insinuating vocal. I was speechless, and the singer was happy to see the song had the desired effect.
After the formal interview, we spent the rest of an entire afternoon talking about music we both loved and compared notes on a lifetime of chasing the sound. I don't think I'd ever met anyone quite as deep in the thick of everything that music could be, and it was like meeting an old and new confederate at the same time. Costello was riding high on his eighth album in just seven years, Punch The Clock, and the Top 10 single "Everyday I Write the Book." That night he was performing at the Frank Erwin basketball arena in Austin, which had quickly sold out.
We talked warmly about the night at the Armadillo five years previously, and all he had been able to accomplish. What I most remember was his unstoppable enthusiasm for all things musical. The artist was consumed by it, and while he'd hit a few bumps in his career, there was no way anything would ever stop him. Some musicians have the look in their eyes. It seems to be infinite, and when they speak about their songs and fellow band members, a well of commitment and affection pours out of them. It's like they have discovered a secret road only they can travel, and while their lives are open to public inspection 24/7, even in those pre-internet days, the artists live inside themselves. While they share a public persona onstage and in public, alone it feels like there is a silent song pumping through their heart that only they can feel. As fans and, yes, journalists, we may endeavor to enter that precious space with them, but it cannot be. That's the engine room where inspiration and ideas collide and become something else, and as we continue the musical ride with them there can be no doubt it's a restricted zone, as it should be.
For Elvis Costello in 1983, he was on top of the world, a place very few musical artists get to. What he would do with what he found there remained to be seen, but the way he had earned the chance to continue his exploration is surely one of the most fascinating histories in what started as a career in rock 'n' roll.
Little did I know that in five years I'd become a small part of his musical world as his publicist at Warner Bros. Records, and beyond any expectations I could conceive that day in '83. But when I got back to Los Angeles, I received a 60-minute TDK cassette in the mail, filled with 27 soul songs, ranging from Curly Moore to Barbara West to Teacher's Edition to James Carr. It was a breathtaking trip through an American music that Costello found such heart and soul in. At least half of them were gems I had never heard, which of course I thought by then growing up in the South I'd heard it all. It was such a generous gift of what hit his own monkey nerve that I've carried it around for 36 years, when it's almost impossible now to find a cassette player to listen to it on.
On the front of the cassette J-card are only three words: The Guessing Game. And each song's title and artist is hand-printed in now-fading ink. I look at it often, and give thanks to the wonder of life and music and how when that intersection crosses, something holy happens. It is a creation that comes from sharing the most private of places where music enters and flows through our souls and eventually helps us become who we are meant to be. It cannot be second-guessed, nor even invented. It simply must be.