Creem, February 1985

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Elvis Costello's Cruel World Blues

Lisa Traxler

Bad news was waiting for me backstage after Elvis Costello's show in Dallas in early September. There are times when even the best laid plans run amuck, and his management knew nothing of the interview I thought I'd confirmed. For the past couple of years, however, the Costello camp has been quite hospitable. and Elvis himself accessible if not downright gregarious. I pulled him aside to ask if we might have a few minutes to chat, and to my surprise he suggested we meet for lunch the next day before they left for Austin.

Aided and abetted by Road Manager Colin Waters, I found myself seated in the lobby of a posh "European-style" hotel, waiting rather apprehensively for the elevator doors to open. I'd interviewed Costello twice before, and it had been no easy task. When he finally appeared, Elvis seemed somewhat tired, guarded, and rumpled — but his mood lightened to amiable, and eventually jovial, as our 15-minute interview stretched into a two-hour visit.

After rejecting the seafood buffet and inquiring about bacon in the Caesar's salad (one of his crew describes him as "a fussy vegetarian with expensive tastes"), E.C. talked openly and intensely. The tape stopped for the main course: what's missing here is discussion of video, family history, the Monkees, fast food, and religion.

You've been compared to numerous songwriters, like Cole Porter, probably a lot more than you'd like... One reason why your songs are so extraordinary is the way they are performed, with the horn arrangements, the blue notes, and the way the voice is used as an instrument. What is your inspiration for this type of technique?

I think that comes from the fact that I got a little disillusioned with rock 'n' roll as such a few years ago, and just decided to build myself a couple of bridges back to kinds of music — well, not necessarily back, sideways if necessary — to kinds of music other than rock 'n' roll, still employing them with the rock 'n' roll instrumentation. Whenever people try to incorporate other styles of music in pop music, it's often pomposity, self-importance — "Look at us, we're classical rock — why isn't everybody impressed?"

Without making too much of a fuss of it, I was just trying to find some new musical ideas. So I did start listening to a lot of pre-rock 'n' roll music — a lot of jazz ballads and the sort of songs of that era — and I even wrote a couple of songs which were after the fashion. The song structure of "Almost Blue" from Imperial Bedroom, for example. But obviously I'm not from that era. I can't really just make myself turn into that kind of thing. And also the world has changed as well, so it would be inappropriate and a bit of a sham, really. You end up being some show-business recreation of it, like Manhattan Transfer: technically correct, but they always seemed to be devoid of any feeling. So this was the challenge in doing that — trying to employ some musical ideas which were exciting and fresh to me, ones I hadn't used before — incorporate them into my own sound and try to mold them into something new.

How about the country material? The country album, Almost Blue, came out of a rock background. Do you think there's any more country in the future for you?

I don't know. I think that was a very punk thing to do, to go to Nashville and make a record with Billy Sherrill. I've had a liking of country music. It's a style, obviously, which is not natural to me. It's something I've learned, but something I really fell in love with quite a few years back. I've ended up incorporating it in different degrees.

There was a country song cut at the very first session I ever did — "Stranger In The House" — although it didn't come out for a few years. There was a country song on Trust, a quite pronounced one. There's country influence on quite a few of the guitar sounds on other songs. So I think there's always a possibility we may cut another song. I don't know whether we'd go and do another album. If we did go to Nashville, it would be to record our own material, or if we were to record another country record, it would be songs that I wrote. There would be little point in doing another covers album.

At the same time, I sometimes play "I've Forgotten More Than You'll Ever Know About Her" — the Davis Sisters song — as a solo number at the end of the show. So it's not like I've run away from country music because it wasn't commercially successful over here — it was quite commercially successful in England. That should never be the consideration of why you do anything, anyway. I did it because I simply wanted to make that record, and if the mood took me again I would, you know. It would be less of a surprise now, 'cause people kinda know that we have an interest in it.

What about people covering your songs? How do you feel about it, and which one is your favorite?

Uh... I've been very... ungracious in the past about the covers. I suppose I could've been more generous. I don't actually like hardly any of the covers, technically speaking. Edmunds's cover is good. I'm proud of the George Jones record that I did with him, but I think he would be the first to say it's not his greatest performance and it's certainly not mine. But the thrill of doing it with him kind of precluded me...uh, the nervousness...

Well, the appearance on George Jones TV special was wonderful, but you had the mumps, right?

I've never seen that, 'cause I felt so awful and looked so dreadful. I probably sang better on that program than I did on the recorded session. I was more confident about singing that kind of material by then, and he put me at ease, because he'd been very generous over the making of that program. Everybody was standing miles away from me. I occasionally hear interesting versions of my songs. I only have knowledge of one mercenary cover — where I know for a fact that the producer of the record strong-armed the group into recording one of my songs. That was the Outlaws. I believe they've no interest at all in that track ("Miracle Man"), they're totally embarrassed by the fact that they were made to do it because it's so out of what they normally do. I only heard it for the first time very recently. But the rest of the versions, whether I like them or not personally, the people did them with sincerity because they liked the song. I think that's as much of a comment as I should make. If I personally have reservations about their ability to interpret the song, that's my personal feeling. Theirs is that they could, otherwise they wouldn't have attempted it. There are versions which I find quite interesting.

How about the songs that you cover? For instance, last year you were throwing in the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" in the middle of...

"King Horse." There are songs that are like musical references because there'll be something in the songs — a riff — that suggests throwing in another song. I mean, in "Pump It Up," there's "I Ain't Got A Lot Of Love," the Sam & Dave song. It also has "Tears, Tears And More Tears" by Lee Dorsey in it now, which is something that we just started to work up. And then there's always a ballad. Every year there seems to be a new ballad I really want to sing that we do on the road. Last year it was "The Bells," the Originals' Tamla-Motown song, which is a very weird song for me to sing, but I took a liking to it. And we've done Joe Tex numbers, and Joe Stampley & The Uniques numbers. Things like that. And Bobby Womack songs. You can throw them in the middle. We did a song last night, "Young Boy Blues," a Ben E. King number. I think that's quite good, 'cause if the audience is generous they're not going to be howling to hear the most obvious selections of our repertoire. They will listen to me do a Ben E. King song, whereas they probably wouldn't have to listened to Ben E. King do it.

You've covered other people's songs, Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding," for example. What kind of feedback do you get from other people when you cover their material or borrow their styles?

I met Booker T. Jones in Atlanta this year, but he's moved onto so many other things — production and that — he hopefully looks back fondly on some of the great records he was involved with. Same with Allen Toussaint — when we worked with him last year, he looked back rather bemused by the fascination that these English guys have with these records that he made 20-odd years ago. There's a lot of that. I met the Holland Brothers in Los Angeles two years ago, and they were of the same attitude — "You know that song?" You mention some song, some obscure composition of theirs. I'm usually struck by the humility of these people. They're not overwhelmed; they often appear very surprised anybody should take an interest in stuff they did so long ago, but they don't have an overwhelming ego about the fact that somebody is doing the material.

I've met quite a few of the writers. I met Doc Pomus once, who wrote "Young Boy Blues" -- I think he wrote it. He wrote "Little Sister," which we've done in the past, and "His Latest Flame." Again, a very modest man. I've never really heard any reaction on style. I think that the country fraternity was completely bemused by our making a country record. It got no airplay by country radio, and the people that were there were very confused. Even Billy Sherrill was completely confused as to why we wanted to cover all these very old, well-worn songs. Most of the songs had been recorded at least two or three times, sometimes by the same artist. So he was rather confused.

You've worked with a lot of different artists. Just out of curiosity, isn't that you on the backing vocals of Nick Lowe's "American Squirm" from Labour Of Lust?

Absolutely, yeah. The irony of it was that, when it came out as a single in England, that was the A side, and the B side was "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding," credited to Nick Lowe And His Sound. Everybody was completely taken in that it was Nick Lowe except for the fact that it appeared to be me singing the lead vocal. But they completely overlooked the fact that I'm all over the other side, quite prominently. Nick had me deliberately on the session to sing as much like me as possible, 'cause it was the sound of the two voices, to use certain words. I'm very recognizable singing certain words — it's just a quirk of my voice. So we used that technique, but nobody ever noticed it. We did a track together again recently — "Baby It's You," a Shirelles number...

Is there anything planned in the future with the new Difford and Tilbrook project?

We're still good friends, but we've never talked about doing anything else. At the moment, anyway. I'd always be happy to work with them if they ever needed an outside influence, other than a regular producer. I think in some ways Glenn, particularly, is so strong-minded musically that another musician is perhaps the best foil for him in the studio. Not a producer, because he has a very clear idea of how things should go. I do quite honestly think that the best performances that the band ever put on record — performances — were on the East Side Story album, because one of the producers was another performer who was able to coax the best out of them. But I think they have songs which are as good, if not better.

Your songwriting has been marked by pent-up frustration whether it's "Mystery Dance" or "Peace In Our Time" from Goodbye Cruel World.

Well, I've never written "it's a wonderful day today, I want to be in Margaritaville," you know. I can't write like that. I'm not saying I can only write when I'm unhappy, or only about negative things. I try to write about the positive, but I can only write about strong feelings. What is that quote? "Strong convictions, weakly held..." It's been said of somebody. I really cannot write about feelings that aren't strong — they're not inspiring. I write bad songs, or I get into writing kind of academic songs, and if the idea isn't really forceful I tend to drift off. Some of the less successful songs had some really good ideas behind them, but they're quite mysterious to me as to what they mean 'cause I'm lost in the multitude of meaning that might be there.

A song like "King Of Thieves," I know what I wanted the song to say, but I don't think it clearly says it. So I left it as a bit of an enigma in the album. Actually, as a piece of songwriting, it's quite unsuccessful, but it has some really nice bits of melody, and some nice lines. I didn't want to write a documentary song, because I didn't know enough of the background, but I wanted to write about something that went on in Hollywood in the '50s. That's what the song's really about. The root of it is that, but I wanted to try and transfer it into a more modern scenario. It doesn't quite come off. But things like that happen.

So unless the feelings are very strong... The strongest songs are ones like "Worthless Thing." People tend to get distracted with this Goodbye Cruel World album because they hear "The Only Flame In Town," they see Daryl Hall in the video, they hear "I Wanna Be Loved," which sounds like a Teddy Pendergrass song or something, and they imagine that we're going for a very commercial sound. In fact, I think they were the icing on the cake, really. They weren't the most important things on the album. I'm really proud of "The Only Flame In Town" as a record. I want to occasionally make pop records like that, which arrest the ears and move the feet if possible, as well as the heart. And are lighthearted, rather than everything being deadly serious. The substance of the record is some of the grim songs, like "Home Truth," things that really mean a lot to me personally — and I couldn't have written these things if I didn't feel them that strongly.

I want to talk for just a minute about Imperial Bedroom. I play that album more than anything else in my collection. I think it's unique because of your perspective in it — Elvis Costello matures and finds skeletons in the closet.

The album in some ways is almost like a solo album, that one. In some ways it's got some of the best Attractions playing, some of the most free playing. Although, overall, it's nowhere near as aggressive as we sound live — the playing overall is more muted than on the other albums. In some ways it's similar in willful attitude to the way we can play at our best live.

But I loom very, very large on that record. Having co-produced it, I didn't credit myself with co-production — 'cause I wanted to make sure that Geoff Emerick got as much credit for the job that he did, which was a remarkable one from the technical point of view. I made all of the musical decisions on the album, except the orchestrations that Steve (Nieve) did. I re-wrote half the songs in the studio, and in some cases rewrote new melodies and new lyrics over the tops of existing backing tracks. "Beyond Belief" was a song called "The Land Of Give And Take," and I completely changed the melody, the structure of the song and everything, and just kept the backing track. Things like that. So I was really playing around.

It took the longest to make — 12 weeks, 12 solid weeks in the studio — with a lot of experiments using instruments we've never considered using. Nick Lowe's attitude was get in there with just the basic four or five instruments, and put the thing down. Here we were weaving in glockenspiels and celestes and harpsichords — and getting real harpsichords, not synthesizers — we spent about a thousand pounds on various bizarre instruments that we went across the road to the music shop and bought... xylophones and bass marimbas and things, half of which you can't hear because I put so many things on some of the tracks. In one sense, that's what makes the record very playable, because there are a lot of little nuances in there which are almost lost but for Geoff Emerick's remarkable job in the mixing of it. When [finished it, because of some of the backwards things on it, and the harpsichords, I imagined I'd make this bright.. almost like a Left Banke record. I imagined that Imperial Bedroom sounded like the Left Banke. I mean, I was so close to it by then.

I told Barney Bubbles, the artist who died last year. who did the painting on the cover, "I want you to paint what you hear." I know that when Barney played the record he was just shocked that I'd suggested that it was in some way a bright record. He said. "This is the most depressing record I've ever heard in my life!" And the painting that he did as a representative of what he heard for the cover has got these dark things in it, which are lurking in the lyrics. But I suppose when you produce yourself — this is one of the dangers of self-production — the initial thing is you write the songs and you know what they're about, then you get into embellishing them musically and you start just to hear the music — and you stop hearing. And I've always worked with the idea of having a contrast, a juxtaposition of quite evil lyrics against a very sweet tune. We did that with "Oliver's Army." And there's quite a lot of that on Imperial Bedroom, and therefore by the end of it, I was quite convinced that it in some way counterbalanced the darker things in the lyrics.

What did your wife think about Imperial Bedroom when she heard it? Did she say "Don't talk about us...?"

Well. I don't know that everything on the record... I mean that's inevitable, when you're close to anybody, there's a point of, like if you write a song, is it from experience or is it from observation? And... I'll be as ambiguous as I ever am about answering that question.

But it wasn't a confessional record or anything. The confessional record is Almost Blue, ironically enough, which I didn't write any of. That's perhaps the most unhappy record I ever made — I was the most unhappy when I made that record, which is why it was called Almost Blue.

Why were you unhappy?

I just was. I got myself in that melancholic mood, a self-fulfilling prophecy, I suppose. I sing these songs, therefore I am.

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Creem, February 1985

Lisa Traxler interviews Elvis Costello.


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Page scans.

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Photo by Ross Marino.
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Photo by Ron Wolfson/LGI.
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Cover photo by Ron Wolfson/LGI. 1985-02-00 Creem photo 00 rw.jpg

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Cover and page scans.

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