Creem, February 1978

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Welcome to the working of Elvis Costello's mind

Revenge! Guilt! Frustration! (A tense saga)

Nick Kent

(As Elvis Costello is set to tour the States, as Elvis Costello has a brilliant debut album out on CBS Records, My Aim Is True, and as we're tired of your whining that there's nuthin' new and good, we would like to introduce you to Elvis via this English article. We don't have to introduce you to writer Nick Kent, who has often graced these pages. Elvis signed to Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson's Stiff Records in August 1976. Recently the partnership between Robinson and Riviera was dissolved, and Riviera departed the record company with Elvis and a few other Stiff acts. At presstime Elvis still had no U.K. record company, but thanks to his American deal with CBS, YOU can have Elvis. OK? — Ed.)

El's already had his share of controversy, y'know. Yessir, even the National Front have apparently been trying to dog his tracks ever since the release of the first-ever Costello vinyl artifact "Less Than Zero" (a Stiff 45) which bears a heavy anti-N.F. bias the song itself being a tacitly fanciful depiction of the landed gentry's lave black sheep boy of the Isherwood era, Oswald Mosley.

"Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo" ... croons our El before pointing out the innate British hypocrisy that forbids your favorite new wave band, say, from polluting the main media outlets while some gnarled pathetic self-confessed anti-Semite like the senile Mosley can blithely saunter into the BBC studios and run off at the mouth for 45 rivetting minutes over his sordid reminiscences.

It's OK with everyone except for one Mr. Costello, computer operator of Whitton near Twickenham, married with one child, whose brain somehow has been left unaffected by TV-land brain-cell bleach-out, who is offended by having this slimey old fascist drooling away in his living room and who, instead of penning a barbed missive to his local MP, sets down and writes a classic work of sly simmering anger.

"Let's talk about the future now we've put the past away."

We're in a pub just round the corner from Island Records' St. Peters Square building, Elvis and me, talking about the subject matter of "Less Than Zero" when Jake Riviera suddenly pipes up with the information that all the Yanks who've heard it think it's about Lee Harvey Oswald.

"Yeah right," Costello's terse gruff voice breaks in.

"In fact [he's quite animated now] just for the States, I'm going to write a song about ... a guy, yeah, this guy's watching the box when he suddenly sees his girlfriend right behind Lee Harvey Oswald just at the moment when Jack Ruby shoots him. And the screen ... the shot freezes, y'know ... "

He sits back with a self-satisfied smirk, savoring this perverse little morsel while Jake, whose job it is partly to deal with all the little weirdnesses spurting from the Costello cerebus" gives his protege a part-"pained," part "aw come on," and part ... well, impressed squint.

His song-vignettes — a lot of them anyway — are pretty damn weird, starting from simple everyday occurrences the composer finds himself observing on the tube, or maybe on his way down to the pub, and then blossoming into raging chunks of perfectly matched melody and savage eloquence.

Like even I'm in an Elvis Costello song. El reckons he saw me one night on a tube bound for Osterly and ... 'You were obviously pretty out of it 'cos you didn't even notice all the other people in the compartment staring at you. I was just amazed that one person could draw that much reaction from others. After I saw you there, I came up with 'Whiting For The World To End'. You're the guy in the opening verse.

I touch my forelock at the imparting of this factoid. After all, being in a Costello song is a deal more prestigious than being a name in this little black book he carries around, and which possibly might soon be making quite a name for itself.

Elvis's black book? Oh, it's just full of these names of folk who have crossed our El, who have hindered the unravelling of his true destiny these past years. Maybe they were responsible for not signing him to their label (prior to the Stiff inking this is) or maybe they referred to him as another Van Morrison sound-alike.

Whatever the cause, they're all marked men, cows before the slaughter, names and livelihoods about to come under the thunder of Costello.

Elvis is very into revenge, see. "The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs," opines Costello with a perverse leer, "are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about, that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs.

"Like" — he's into this discourse now — "when I played earlier in front of all those reps or whatever they're called — all those guys working for Island — did you hear me introducing `Lipservice'?

" 'This song is called 'Lipservice' and that's all you're gonna get from me'. That was straight from the heart, that, 'cos last year I actually went to Island with my demo tape and none of them wanted to know. Back then they wouldn't give me the time of day. But now ... "

And of course, all the pop pen-pushers are latching on fast, getting nosey about the past and generally pushing for an intimate gander at the man behind the horn-rims and insect ungainliness.

Results thus far have been pretty uneventful, however, what with the press boys generally getting scatter-gunned by Elvis' tight-lipped "Fuck-you" fiestiness.

My single encounter with Costello was revelatory basically because we both ended up drunk and talked for some four hours. Still he refused to discuss his past musical endeavors in any detail and it was only afterwards, by chance, that I learnt about his former identity as one D.P. Costello, lead singer of a bluegrass group called Flip City whose collective high-point was the totally unexciting fact of them having a residency as house support-band at the Marquee maybe two years back.

" 'Course nobody wanted to know back then. And" — Costello turns quite venomous at this point — "neither were you! I remember the time you came down to the Marquee when we were supporting Dr. Feelgood and you spent all your time in the dressing-room talking to Wilko Johnson. You didn't even bother to check us out. Oh no! And I really resented you for that, y'know. For a time, anyway. You were almost down there on my list."

Costello always seems to double back to this unhealthy infatuation of his with wreaking vengeance on his self-proclaimed wrong-doers. He now almost relishes the fact that literally every record company in Britain he approached with his demo tape turned him down, and admits that the years of bottling up the vast frustrations of being a nonentity out in the cold looking for a foot in the door have granted him the basic ego-drive with which he intends to bring the whole music scene to its feet right now.

His taste for vengeance is the first, most tangible human emotion he intends to whip out here. His penchant for further anti-social emotions he will blithely display as our talk proceeds.

But let us return for a moment to the budding mystique building up around the Costello past. Facts he cares to own up to are these: born in the London area, spent most of his formative years in Liverpool, possibly the only town in the world he still looks upon with any kind of affection, raised as a Catholic — "I had to either be Catholic or Jewish, now didn't I" — and married when he was young.

He refuses however to talk about his wife and one child or the nature of this relationship with them at all, slyly noting — "I'm very, very 'country music' in my attitude to talking about my marriage."

Musically speaking, Elvis Costello's career commenced last year when he noticed an advert in the music press calling for demo tapes to be sent to a brand new small label, Stiff Records. He took down the address and was over the same afternoon with his previously universally-rejected demo tape.

Jake Riviera takes up the story from here. "Elvis's tape was actually the very first tape we received at Stiff. It was so weird because I immediately put it on and thought, 'God, this is fuckin' good' — but at the same time I was hesitating because after all it was he first tape and I wanted to get a better perspective.

"So I phoned up Elvis and said, 'Listen, I've listened to your tape, it sounds really good and I'm interested, but could you give me a week in which to check out a bunch of other tapes and I'll get back to you?' Elvis said 'Fine' and so I waited a week, received a load of real dross in the mail and immediately got back in touch."

Anyway, the interview is going along quite amicably, if a little on the stilted and impersonal side, in the garden of this pub, when all of a sudden a delegation from Island Record corps descends upon the scene.

Costello eyes them all suspiciously as they file past before resuming the thread of our chat. Then one of the delegation chooses to seat herself at our table.

The lady, who seems to have a thoroughly predetermined belief in her chosen state of grace as a truly wonderful human being, definitely wants "in" on this conversation. At first she just sits there, causing Costello and I to look at each other uneasily. Then she opens her mouth.

I cower back, but Elvis seems in the mood for a bit of retaliation. This, after all, is just the sort of person he loves to hate: a trendy female who looks like she walked straight off King's Road. Her approximate stereotype has been set up to be ripped apart in numerous Costello songs.

Anyway, she makes her point. She says she's very interested in Elvis. She wants to know just what makes him tick, or words to that effect.

"Oh I'm thoroughly despicable," retorts Costello quite pleasantly.

"But don't you have any friends?" she enquires.

"Absolutely none," comes the reply.

Elvis goes on to inform her that success means nothing to him, going to America means nothing to him ("I'd rather go back to Liverpool"), that everything, in a nutshell, all conventional desires, means less than zero to her sudden object of fascination.

"Oh all you people are the same," she retaliates, her initial disappointment now souring into rabid aggression, "'You're all so boring."

"Oh yes that's it. I'm absolutely despicably boring. You're quite right.

Satiated by her enquiries, the girl finally gets up from her seat, feigning extreme boredom with a low farting noise ushered from her divinely facile lips to register full disgust. As she retreats Costello looks quite triumphant.

He's now close to being fairly drunk — after one amiable Islandeer innocently asks him what he was drinking and consequently had to foot the bill for a triple Pernod. He leans over to me in a confidential gesture.

"I was just waiting for her to bring her 'macho boyfriend of hers over. That would have really been fuckin' confrontation. I'd have either smashed my glass and gone for him that way or... '

The words trail off into a deft silence, the eyes glare triumphantly and our El quietly digs his hand into one of his four jacket pockets to produce an enormous bent steel nail, the kind of oppressive-looking affair that would be ideal for pinning whole limbs to crosses at a human crucifixion. This, Costello is stating wordlessly, is his chosen weapon of defense: it glistens menacingly against the glasses strewn over our table, far more menacingly than any cold gleaming switchblade wedge.

Satisfied by this display of sinister deliberation — yes we get the picture, Elvis — he pockets the nail once more and the tete a tete continues.

Costello's slightly nervy abruptness of manner has vanished completely to be replaced by the style of a man totally coldly calculatingly confident. The real Elvis Costello finally is now ready to open up.

The first volley goes something like this, tying in with Costello's surprising infatuation with country music, particularly the work and lives of two heroes of his, George Jones and Gram Parsons. Parsons' blighted life and times he is particularly enamored of.

"Yeah Gram Parsons had it all sussed. He didn't stick around — he made his best work and then he died. That's the way I want to do it. I'm never going to stick around long enough to churn out a load of mediocre crap like all those guys from the '60s. I'd rather kill myself. I mean, Parsons' exit was perfect."

So you want to snuff it about four years from now, O.D.'d on morphine on the floor of some cheesy motel in the desert with ice-cubes up your arse and some moron groupie giving you a hand-job, do you Elvis?

El considers this for a moment, then replies — "Well, not exactly like that I suppose. I see my exit as being something more like being run over by a bus. But ... you think I'm joking, right — but I'm deadly serious about this. I'm not going to be around to witness my artistic decline."

O.K., but this Gram Parsons fetish — (G.P. is El's very favorite album, by the way) I mean, he was a champion drug abuser and you don't look the type who'd be into that at all.

"Yeah, right. I don't take drugs. I mean, I can't even be in the same room as other people doing cocaine because just being in contact with them, I get three times as wired as them just being there. (Pause) But ... but I do know what it's like being out of control. I know all about alcohol, for example, because well, let's say! went through my phase of drinking heavily. Really heavily."

Costello's not over-anxious to go into details concerning those years of clouded anonymity cloistered amongst the computers, just as he adamantly fends off queries concerning his wife and child. It's only some weeks later that I'm informed by another source that the exact nature of his job was as computer operator for the firm run by "beauty consultant" Elizabeth Arden.

However, he claims that he was viewed upon as a factory "freak" — an object of mild affection and ridicule even though he looked as pastily anonymous as he does now (El's worn the same hairstyle, clothes and bi-focals for years now, or so he claims).

We talked about other songwriters — First, the obvious ones like Springsteen who El reckons to be a lousy lyricist — "His stuff about being on the streets is trite and unbelievable — the only song I like of his is 'E Street Shuffle'. I heard it in the bath once and thought it had a good riff."

And Van Morrison — El just sneers and claims he's never even heard Astral Weeks. So much for influences. Lou Reed and Patti Smith El's hardly heard a note of — "though I never miss reading one of their interviews."

Only the name of Pete Townshend produces anything like an interesting retort.

'Yeah well his early stuff of course — I mean, 'Substitute' is a perfect song but he blew it by being too bright for his own good, too analytical. Actually, that's one thing — I'm wary of falling into the same trap that Townshend did. There's parallels there — they've already been noted. It's the same thing as being called the balladeer of the new wave' by one paper because of 'Alison'.

"See I'm 22 — that's only one year older than Johnny Rotten, isn't it. I just don't want to become the 'elder statesman of punk' or whatever, which is just what Townshend got locked into back in the 60's. It's a dangerous position."

A few more things about Elvis. He hates trendies.

He won't allow any other guitar players onstage with him in this band.

He really has no friends.

He's just written another song about the National Front called "Night Rally."

He personally scans all gig lists making sure that anyone whose name was down but who didn't turn up the last time his name was included is struck off the Est forevermore.

Jake Riviera and Nick Lowe both think he's loopy but a genius to boot.

Finally — if they ever do another Rock Dreams book Elvis Costello will surely be in there along with the rest. He'll be the mousey figure, all insect anonymity, seated in a tube train carriage in his insurance clerk-suit and misty bifocals mostly hidden by a copy of the Evening Standard with Elvis Presley's death announced in grandstand type alongside the latest tales of National Front marches and King's Road Punks-Teds confrontations.

Only his hands will be prominent — all shot through with cold-blue veins bulging as they form clenched fists, the knuckles of which scream forth with two blood red tattoos. On the left fist reads "Revenge." On the right reads "Guilt."

The main headline will read "A Walking Time-Bomb — The Man Who Would Be King."

"Watch Him Closely."

Reprint courtesy New Musical Express.

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Creem, February 1978

Nick Kent profiles Elvis Costello. - from NME, Aug. 27, 1977; slightly edited.

Mitch Cohen reviews My Aim Is True.


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My Aim Is True

Elvis Costello

Mitch Cohen

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This bandit summer, this snatcher of heroes, loved ones and possibilities, will be remembered also for leaving behind intoxicating rock and roll, with this album near the top of the pile. Since August, competing for attention as a Stiff import with posthumous programming of Costello's namesake's output, My Aim Is True has been an antidote to the power failure all around us. In his preoccupation with frustration and mental revenge, his cynicism stemming from a realization that life's guarantees are worthless, and his imperturbably buoyancy in the face of it all, Elvis Costello is a contender. It doesn't even hurt that he styles himself a '50s schlemiel; his voice is captivatingly abrasive, his songs are, without exception, expertly crafted miniatures: there are 13 here (Columbia added his new U.K. single), and not one your stylus begs to skip, not one that doesn't reveal something special about Costello's sensibility or talent. Every song has ideas to burn and a memorable chorus. The title (from the hauntingly tough-tender "Alison") speaks chapters: his aim—his purpose and prowess—is true.

Yes, you can call it "new wave": a tactical combination of the anarchic and the absorption of "classical" influences. My Aim Is True is so dramatic an entrance, such a total picture of its maker's worldview and personal use of rock grammar, that it's like Breathless. A B-movie with a difference. Even Costello's moral stance fits. He's a sensitive punkabilly, continually getting dumped on by girls. In his (our) world, the men are romantics, looking for touchstone love; the women more practical and self-preserving. Belmondo and Seberg. "We could sit like lovers staring in each other's eyes/But the magic of the moment might become too much for you," he sings. On "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" a strange Faustian bargain doesn't prevent a girl from telling him to drop dead as she leaves with someone else; on "I'm Not Angry," another tale of rejection, the key word is "anymore": one suspects that anger stopped only when turned into art. Girls are hard to please, he discovers on "Miracle Man"; they make comparisons, and fools of men who leave their wounds open. Costello is so tormented by this treatment that he makes the inability to do the "Mystery Dance" seem a sexual dysfunction.

And all the time this tension is going on — he does have other subjects, like ad hoc guilt transferral ("Blame It On Cain"), the horrors of employment ("Welcome To The Working Week") and surrealistic depictions of societal breakdown ("Waiting For The End Of The World," "Watching The Detectives," "Less Than Zero") — the music, the Nick Lowe-produced environment for all this rancor, is being sensational. If he's his own lead guitarist (the wholly admirable musicians are anonymous), he's got the touch: economical, versatile, adept. Snappy rockers alternate with modern blues, lovely ballads, mood pieces. "Sneaky Feelings" crackles and pops. "No Dancing" reminds us that a wall of sound is next to nothing without a gliding melody beneath. Throughout, there's witty background singing and spare, aggressive playing, close in spirit to The Rumour (as vocally Costello is temperamentally akin to Graham Parker).

The only questionable aspect of Elvis Costello is how far he'll take his misogyny, how long he'll keep blaming women because he was raised on romance and has had it pulled out from under him. He snarls, "Everybody loves you so much baby/I don't see how you can stand the strain" with the passion of mid-'60s Jagger, and it's great, it's even honest, and lesser men have made such sentiments springboards for whole careers. But such petulant putdowns indicate that he has some way to go before his emotional maturity matches his prodigious artistic skill.

Photo by Barry Schultz.
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Page scans.

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