Elvis Costello was promoting his 1981 album Trust when he appeared on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder and surprised the host with his not-so-angry-young-man amiability.
"Do you know who the other guest was on that show?" Costello asks on the phone. "Frank Capra."
"Yeah, wow," he says. "So that gives you an idea of the kind of world that you were entering going on television then."
That world has changed, and Costello now is on the other end of a very different kind of talk show. The second season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ... debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel with Costello chatting and performing with U2's Bono and The Edge.
As he demonstrated in a 2003 guest-hosting stint on The Late Show with David Letterman and the first 13-show season of Spectacle, not to mention in concert over the years, the 55-year-old singer is a proficient talker and, it turns out, listener. He's able to elicit illuminating anecdotes from guests such as the Police, Elton John (the show's executive producer), Herbie Hancock, James Taylor and opera singer Renee Fleming, and then he straps on his guitar and converses with them musically.
In the second season premiere, he and his band, the Imposters, tackle U2's "Mysterious Ways" and with Bono and The Edge do a mashup of Costello's "Pump It Up" and U2's close cousin "Get on Your Boots."
Costello brought his chatty A-game to a recent conversation. An edited transcript follows:
When you were talking to Bono and The Edge, who brought up the similarity between "Get on Your Boots" and "Pump It Up"?
I thought it would be fun to have a bit of sport with that because people had written to me and all sorts of people had mentioned to me that there was some sort of similarity, and I thought the only way to deal with that was head-on. And we didn't even talk about it, we just played. I just thought it was fun. I wasn't trying to put one over on them or anything.
Were you always as collegial with your fellow musicians as you are on the show?
I don't think so initially. I think initially when you start out, you're a little bit more guarded, you know?
With contemporaries such as U2 and the Police, were you all buddies or was there more of a sense of competition back then?
I don't know about competition. I think we definitely ragged on each other a little bit. That's on record, and Sting mentioned it in the interview. There's always a sense of bewilderment that any group appears with a new sound, and you're doing just fine topping the bill with the sound that you've got, and they come roaring by you playing something that doesn't even sound like songs at first. U2, at their own admission, were not songwriters to begin with. It was like, it's a fantastic sound, but where are the songs, you know? And then you realize that they are songs, but they're just not shaped the way that you're familiar with, so that's an innovation of a kind.
Has doing the show added to your understanding of what these other people are doing?
I think it just really confirms that no matter who you are, there's nobody that's completely without some insecurity or anxiety about what they do. You see the humanity in people when they come into a situation, particularly when they're taken off their certain game or there's common ground.
Do you book the guests?
Well, I had the wish list, and then we go and see. I do call them up myself and write to them or whatever is necessary. I called Aretha (Franklin) and tried to get her on the show. And much to my surprise she picked up, and we had a very genial conversation, which unfortunately didn't conclude with confirmation to do the show. There's always people you wish for, but you can't really complain with the range of people that we had.
The New York Times wrote last year that Eminem was lined up.
I never heard that. But I also read Paul McCartney. You could theorize onward and onward. I think 20 episodes is a very good number to have achieved, and if there should be any more after this, then so be it.