Boston Rock, March 1981

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The Elvis evolution

Greg Reibman

"If one more person says 'Have a nice day' I think I might kill him."   — Elvis Costello, Time magazine, 12/26/77

Two weeks before those words were read coast to coast, Elvis Costello hurled similar threats at a lifeless Paradise crowd. His angry glare alone should have been enough to rip anyone out of the nailed down chairs. But it did the opposite. With chins practically hanging on the carpet, the audience of Costello's first Boston gig sat frozen in their seats.

The Elvis Costello who first toured here in 1977 was offended, even pissed-off by American complacency. "People are basically quite phony," he said in an interview. "They become obsessed with this arrogant attitude about rock and roll being something special, and it's not. It's the lowest form of life known to man."

Why he became involved with something he had so little respect for isn't clear. But for less than forty minutes Elvis and his fiery back-up band the Attractions treated the Paradise low-lifes to selections from My Aim Is True (his only LP at that time) plus many numbers that would appear on his second album. And then, just as quickly as he'd begun, Costello bolted off the stage. Suddenly the crowd came alive. For ten minutes they screamed for more.

There was no encore for that first show. The next day. on Oedipus' Demi Monde show, Costello bluntly stated that he didn't think the crowd deserved an encore. They weren't appreciative enough.

Comparisons to Richard Nixon have been made before, and like the former President, Costello and manager Jake Riviera have a reputation for keeping lists of the "friends" and "enemies" they made on the road. After spending just two nights in Boston (including an embarassing situation where they were refused admission to The Rat) Costello was rumored to have assembled quite a list here. "I'm not trying to make myself out a saint," he said in another radio interview. "It's just one set of bad guys versus another set of bad guys."

Costello's next shoot-out occurred a few days later in front of a nationwide television audience. The Sex Pistols had been scheduled to appear on Saturday Night Live but had (or were) cancelled at the last minute. As their replacement Costello committed the unpardonable sin of going against the will of both network producers and record company executives. It had been pre-arranged that Elvis would perform two numbers: "Watching The Detectives" and "Less Than Zero" (a song about England's neo-Nazi National Front and its mentor Oswald Mosley). "Detectives" went smoothly enough, but just as they had rattled off the first few bars of "Zero," Costello called the Attractions to a halt and instructed them instead to play "Radio, Radio." The program's producers were furious.

This year, in an interview February 3 with Tom Snyder (his first time on US TV since the 1977 Saturday Night Live show) Costello joked about the incident. "1 thought it was a live show; something about the title suggested that... but I guess it wasn't that live! It ("Less Than Zero") was a song about a very English situation and it didn't really fit. And we had a new number about the radio which at the time wasn't recorded. So we just did that spontaneously... I think they told us not to come back. They said 'We'll see that you never work again.'"

In 1978 This Year's Model (the first album recorded with the Attractions: My Aim Is True featured a studio band named Clover) was released. Elvis returned to the States that spring with Rockpile and Mink DeVille. The enthusiastic crowd at the Orpheum offered testimony to Costello's phenomenal growth in a mere six months.

The afternoon before that show, Costello told WBCN's listening audience that despite being heralded as the freshest thing to happen to rock in years (announcer Tracy Roach's words) he didn't think things were getting any better. "They might not be getting worse," Elvis explained 'but they haven't gotten any better either. Part of what we're here to do is kind of annoy people just so you know there's something other than the Bee Gees."

His words that day echoed his angry sentiments of the year before, but they were spoken in a calmer, more relaxed fashion. "I don't go about in a permanent rage," he claimed.

Onstage Elvis was still his fiery self. Aside from the relatively complex use of stage lights, the main difference between that show and the 1977 Paradise show was that Costello had begun to move quite fluidly. But unlike Presley and most other rock and rollers, this Elvis has always moved in a non-sexist fashion; he doesn't wiggle his crotch around on stage.

In record time Costello was becoming a superstar. Dylan, Springsteen, Jagger and even Ronstadt were all seen at his concerts, apparently in pursuit of a spot on that famous "friends" list.

And of course Linda Ronstadt's hit version of "Alison" (slagged by Elvis as "sheer torture... a waste of vinyl") reportedly earned him about fifty grand in royalties. Since then Ronstadt's gone on to mutilate three other Costello compositions, "Girls Talk," "Talking In The Dark" and "Party Girl." Other songs of his have been recorded by everyone from Dave Edmunds and Carlene Carter to the Outlaws.

While hanging out with a few of those more traditional showbiz acquaintances, Costello found himself thrust into what had to be the most awkward and frustrating moment of his public life. The Village Voice ran a report of an alleged brawl that occurred in an Ohio hotel between (among others) Costello, Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills. Apparently after this supposed argument Bramlett and Stills went running to the Voice to accuse Costello of having made racist remarks. Specifically Elvis was quoted as having called Ray Charles "a blind nigger."

The cruel charges of the Voice article made headlines across the world, including a two page spread in People magazine. In a press conference Costello made the following statement to respond:

"It seems necessary for me to come here today to make just one statement, which is that I am not a racist. In Wednesday's Voice there was a report of an incident which occurred in Columbus, Ohio... and the details of it were somewhat confused, understandably, and I was quoted out of context... In the course of the argument it became necessary for me to outrage these people with the most obnoxious and offensive remarks that I could muster to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence. These people now seem to have chosen to seek publicity at my expense by making it a gossip item... The things that were printed were only the things about black artists because they make good copy. They didn't print the things I said about Crosby, Stills and Nash and they didn't print that Bonnie said all limeys are lousy fucks and couldn't get it up anymore."

With the damage already done, Costello went through the motions of completing his remaining tour dates which included his second visit to the Orpheum. When the first Voice article ran in late march of 1979, his third album Armed Forces had just reached Billboard's top ten. But when Elvis and the Attractions packed up to go home Armed Forces was quickly sliding down the charts.

Elvis did not play this country again until the recent 1981 tour, almost two years later. The other North American appearance during that time was this past summer's Heatwave Festival.

Much of the remainder of '79 was spent touring Europe and working on a fourth LP, an album that became victim of a long delay due to the folding of his British label, Radar Records. Also Costello produced the Specials' brilliant debut and the Attractions recorded a solo album last year.

Get Happy!! finally came out in the first few days of 1980 on manager Jake Riviera's F-Beat record label. Commonly regarded as his "soul" album, the record evinces strong admiration for the classic r&b music (Stax, Motown, Tamla, Atlantic etc.) of the fifties and sixties. The release of such an eloquent album as Get Happy!!, coupled with his work with the Specials and a career history of appearances at anti-Nazi rallies, all made Bramlett's and Stills' "racist" charges seem absurd.

In 1980 Elvis kept even a lower than usual public profile. Reports of a split between Costello and the Attractions proved untrue. Then last summer keyboardist Steve Naive was injured in a car accident in Los Angeles and was forced to miss the bulk of a two month European tour. The Rumour's guitarist Martin Belmont ("special Attraction" as Elvis has dubbed him) stood in on second guitar for the keyboardless gigs.

In the US, Columbia Records released an album of Costello's odd pieces under the title Taking Liberties. (A similar tape-only collection released in the UK was called Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers.) Two years before, when Nick Lowe released his debut LP Jesus Of Cool in England, Columbia feared the title might cause a stir and demanded Lowe alter the title. Ironically when Columbia suggested using the "Jesus" title for Costello's collection, the Elvis people turned Columbia down.

The new album Trust was released in January and Elvis has just completed a triumphant come-back tour (again accompanied by Martin Belmont but also with a well-healed Steve Naive) of America.

Back in 1977 the skinny Buddy Holly lookalike burst onstage in a poorly fitting soot grey jacket. This year's Elvis materialized under the Orpheum spotlight looking much more portly in his designer suit. For about two hours he belted out close to thirty songs including a fistful of classic ballads. "I think you can have strength at any volume," he once said.

There were four encores. For the first one, Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook joined the Attractions to sing "From A Whisper To A Scream" from Trust. Later a chorus of Stevie Wonder's hit of this past year "Master Blaster (Jammin')" was snuck into his remarkably similar "Watching The Detectives."

Despite his current success Costello still maintains that the complacency in music hasn't gotten any better at all. He said so in his only official interview of the tour, the aforementioned Tomorrow program. On the same show, Elvis dispensed with the old computer-programmer-turned-rock-star legend by insisting, "This thing about being a computer programmer is nonsense. I did it for about twenty minutes."

And despite Snyder's superficial pleasantries, Elvis showed no sign of the urge to kill attitude he maintained back in '77.

Tags: Orpheum TheatreBostonThe AttractionsMartin BelmontGlenn TilbrookThe ParadiseMy Aim Is TrueJake RivieraThe Sex PistolsSaturday Night LiveWatching The DetectivesLess Than ZeroOswald MosleyWatching The DetectivesTom SnyderThis Year's ModelCloverRockpileMink DeVilleWBCN-FMBee GeesElvis PresleyBob DylanBruce SpringsteenMick JaggerLinda RonstadtAlisonGirls TalkTalking In The DarkParty GirlDave EdmundsCarlene CarterThe Outlaws: In The Eye Of The StormVillage VoiceBonnie BramlettStephen StillsRay CharlesCrosby, Stills and NashArmed ForcesBillboardHeatwave FestivalRadar RecordsThe SpecialsGet Happy!!F-BeatStaxMotownTamlaSteve NieveThe RumourMartin BelmontColumbiaTaking LibertiesTen Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your FathersNick Lowe TrustBuddy HollySqueezeGlenn TilbrookFrom A Whisper To A ScreamStevie WonderMaster Blaster (Jammin')Watching The Detectives


Boston Rock, No. 12, March 1981

Greg Reibman profiles Elvis Costello and reports on his concert with The Attractions, Martin Belmont and Glenn Tilbrook, Thursday, February 5, 1981, Orpheum Theatre, Boston.


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Page scans.

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Photo by Michael Grecco (Feb. 1981, Orpheum, Boston).

Photo by Marcia Maglione (Dec. 1977, Paradise, Boston).
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Cover, contents page and advertisement.
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