Classic Rock, May 2011

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Classic Rock

UK & Irish magazines


100 Greatest Songwriters

Elvis Costello

Jake Burns

It's always difficult to pick out a favourite songwriter. How can you compare a Hank Williams with a Brian Wilson? Both geniuses, but the different genres and time frames make comparisons pointless.

So, limiting myself to "my generation," I'd plump for Elvis Costello. This Year's Model really swung it — not a note or word out of place on there, and the intelligence and melodies were outstanding. A lot is made of Costello being "clever," like that's a bad thing. I don't think I've ever noticed him do that for its own sake. Yes, there's a lot of clever wordplay, but it's for a reason.

The other thing I admire hugely about Costello is his willingness to take a risk. Given the "angry young man" stance he was lumbered with at the start of his career, who could have seen him branch out to make albums with Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie von Otter, Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet. Not all of those were successful, sure, but a lot of the music was.

Leaving aside the experimentation and the witty lyrics, it's impossible to over-emphasise his fantastic way with a pop song. "Alison," "Watching The Detectives," "Veronica," "The Other Side Of Summer," "Accidents Will Happen" and the song our erstwhile manager said to me he wished we'd written: "Oliver's Army." A lot of bands attempted a comment on my home town [Belfast] and the vast majority failed and ended up sounding mawkish or foolish, yet this song manages to sidestep all the pitfalls, and makes a very strong statement wrapped up in an Abba-esque melody. Now, that's impressive, subversive songwriting.

Jake Burns is the frontman with Stiff Little Fingers. The band are touring the UK now.


Classic Rock, No. 157, May 2011

Jake Burns profiles Elvis Costello for Classic Rock's 100 Greatest Songwriters.


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