Creem, May 1979

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Elvis Costello

Ask him no questions he'll tell you no lies

Nick Kent

Chaperoned in the back of a hire car, taking in the sights, partaking in entertaining chit-chat about the industry with fellow passengers, I shouldn't feel this damned uneasy. But impending duties weigh heavy and a sizeable part of me is getting more and more dispirited about the deal I've gotten into.

The brief was simple enough: an interview with Costello was all that was required by the firm, the only problem being the subject had spent the past year making it plain to the world's press that he didn't wish to converse whatsoever, to the point where recourse to physical violence had not been uncommon as a final solution in nailing the point home. Manager Jake Riviera once defined a potent side of the Costello personality when he pinpointed that line from The Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" — "Say something once, why say it again — as being his protege's essential credo. Thus, when the obstreperous, overzealous Jimmy Olsens of this world have found their way backstage at an E.C. gig and ignored that first denial for a quick quote from the star, the outcome has turned distinctly ugly, with fists flying and subsequent reportage of the contretemps making for depressing reading.

Speaking to Riviera on the phone a couple of days before this drive up to snowbound Sheffield, he was amenably adamant about the no-go interview situation: "We've finally reached the stage where they've all got the message and nobody bothers us for interviews."

Approximately a year before, however, Costello did break his silence to give me an interview just as This Year's Model hit the stores — the only interview he consented to in '78 despite apparently unrelenting pressure from record companies and the like. (Without going into details that have as much to do with coincidence as anything flattering in reality, Costello deemed yours truly the only journalist worthy of his trust and consequent occasional documenting of his intentions and so forth after our first interview in the summer of '76.)

At first it seemed straightforward; just latch onto the Costello UK tour at some likely whistle-stop, infiltrate the camp and having once lucked out on some sympathetic little scenario wherein El and I would be alone, coax the prized confessional and return triumphant to headquarters. Hit, git and split, the name of the game is professional journalism and it was my turn to play it like the big boys.

All of which brings you back to the scene with the professional journalist in the hire car pondering the assignment at hand, at once looking forward to the task and yet feeling oddly depressed.

The official deal on the Riviera-Global (Costello's management) end was uncomfortably double edged. I could talk to Costello, sure, but there would be no official interview.

Personally, I saw no reason why Costello should do an interview anyway. In the motor whilst idly perusing one of the music rags, I'd come across the quote "silence makes legends," which in its given context (manager Peter Grant's jive explanation for Bad Company's sluglike dormancy this past year or so) was laughable, but in regard to Costello made perfect sense.

In a purely objective light the fact that Elvis is a loquacious and intriguing subject seems secondary to the contention that it's an art in itself to remain inscrutably silent in the face of continual media harassment and that those who have successfully kept mute — the Dylans and De Niros — usually just coincidentally happen to be the mightiest talents in their particular line of work.

Take a rain check on Elvis Costello's current state of grace on the rock front — and let's dispense with the unnecessary superlatives — and one is near blinded by the fact that here is a man playing for "big stakes," I mean, let's ignore his popularity in Blighty a moment and note that Costello is the first New Wave artiste (along with Talking Heads who skipped lightly over the lower echelons of the U.S. Top 30 with their second release) to make an appreciable dent on the ultra-reactionary American market. All the rest of the New Wave's diverse constituents haven't done more than tickle the soft white underbelly of the great hulking beast.

Unsettling, irritating he may be to the smug Yank megabuck big boys, but in 78 they all learnt ifs better not to underestimate Elvis Costello.

It was the veritable hailstrom of activity surrounding and being perpetuated by Costello and his crew in the last 12 months or so that provided one with the basic bait for this whole affair. No one else is currently working at such an audacious pace. This Year's Model was released at the outset of '78 and left virtually everybody reeling, except for the artist himself who was already putting the final syntax on his next little volume.

From there on out, the sky seemed the limit. Costello and the Attractions toured all over the world ceaselessly. The 50 states of America were all traversed unrelentingly; in Australia Costello's feisty manner caused a nasty little riot, and finally in Japan, the Attractions scored yet another accolade by being the first New Wave band both to visit the country and play small clubs instead of large halls.

When not doing concerts, the band were in Eden Studios for two weeks, knocking out 17 tracks, 12 of which formed the "next album," tentatively titled Emotional Fascism but finally known to all as Armed Forces (title gratis Attractions drummer Pete Thomas). Another cut — "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding" — was cheekily released under the name of the song's composer, one Nick Lowe, as a single late last year. Another, "Tiny Steps," made an impromptu appearance on the B-side of "Radio, Radio" and another two peaches ("Wednesday Week" and "Talking In The Dark") emerged on a collector's only item handed out to the lucky folk who make it to the Dominion gigs over Christmas. Only one song, "Clean Money," remains unreleased in any form whatsoever, going the way of other stray Costello items like "Dr. Luther's Assistant" and "Crawling To The USA" which somehow don't quite cut the final test with their creator.

Meanwhile, '78 also saw Elvis getting chummy with many of his peers and even some heroes of yore. The cryptic country waltz — "Stranger In The House" — last sighted on the Model freebie 45 was chosen by Billy Sherrill, producer of country music giant George Jones, as a suitable number for the inclusion on a special George Jones Duets With His Contemporaries album. Costello was thus elected to join the likes of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt out in Nashville for the sessions, although an elated El never got to meet his hero as Jones, pretty much a ruined man owing to chronic alcoholism, was too sick to make the sessions, appearing later to overdub his vocals to Costello's counterpoint.

And then there was Bob Dylan who'd been introduced to Costello's music by the Alpha Band's (and current Dylan sideman) Steve Soles and, impressed with what he heard, went out of his way to meet this young contender. Costello and Dylan first met in Los Angeles and struck up a friendship that apparently blossomed when the two outfits by chance found themselves touring Europe at the same time (at an Amsterdam gig, the Attractions backstage list credited "Bob Dylan plus 30"). Dylan, by all accounts a pretty fastidious sort who chose to while away the hours sequestered in his hotel room obsessively reading his Tarot cards, even fell in love with the relatively outrageous (compared to the dour, timid bunch the Big D was toting around anyway) behavior of the Attractions and seemed an all round decent sort of chap.

As did one Bruce Springsteen, another burgeoning E.C. fan who came backstage to acquaint himself and to find out, apparently, how Elvis got the sound on his Aim album. A remarkably mild-mannered sort, he only got visibly upset when addressing the subject of Patti Smith's "Because The Night," apparently procured by Easter producer and the Jerseyites' old engineer Jimmy Iovine in a decidedly dodgy fashion.

Even Linda Ronstadt, undeterred by Elvis' documented broadsides against her in the past, made overtures about having a tentative tête à tête with the man behind the horn rims. Costello may yet condescend to the encounter if only because Ronstadt's pathetic misreading of "Alison," more than any other endeavour, has lined his wallet with an unexpected royalty check of at least some $60,000. However, it would be wise for her not to hold her breath...

All this flashy folderol is only one side of the overall picture, however. Over these past 12 month's, whilst manager Riviera and bassist Bruce Thomas both chose to wed their respective ladies, Costello's marriage collapsed in circumstances that are obviously nobody else's business. In what many viewed as a particularly bizarre move, Costello left his house in Whitton to move into a flat in Kensington with Bebe Buell, one time Playboy pin-up, well known model and former girlfriend of such as Todd Rundgren and most recently, until her meeting with Costello, Rod Stewart. As the year ended harried lawyers were seen attempting to track down Costello in order to serve divorce papers. A particularly touchy situation as it stands, the affair has made Elvis even more determinedly guarded about his privacy than ever.

Meanwhile amid this personal strife, Costello, his band and manager Riviera have to face up to easily the heaviest professional maneuver of their career. Having viewed Costello as very much in the Springsteen mold of burgeoning megastar, U.S. Columbia are determined to go all out on their third shot in much the same way as they did with Born To Run. Riviera knows the score exactly. "We either make it all the way with Armed Forces or we don't. If this album doesn't break in America, then Columbia will still keep us but we'll be considered pretty much a spent force."

It's this sort of pressure that's caused Riviera once again to hassle with Columbia bigwigs over the actual track listing on the new album, having to concede to the deletion of "Sunday's Best" — with "Peace, Love And Understanding" slotted in its place as the necessary "obvious choice for single" airplay.

As far as prior Stateside form goes, it's intriguing to note that This Year's Model didn't sell as well as My Aim Is True (Aim by the way holds the record for being the all-time biggest selling "import" of this decade) due mostly to the lack of that one track that radio stations can pick up on en masse to use to push the album.

In Britain, after arduous double-checking, the choice for the new single has settled on "Oliver's Army," although Forces has at least four other tracks with equally nagging hook-lines and all sound high-grade commercial potential. In its own intimate way Armed Forces is Costello's most fervent declaration of intention yet for the title of great 70's pop subversive. The old parallels with Van Morrison, Graham Parker, etc., now seem doubly redundant — the only comparisons even worth making are with the Beatles (the quote from Abbey Road is no mere coincidence) and Bowie (again that "Rebel Rebel" coda on "Two Little Hitlers" replete with is stylistic nod to "TVC15" in the vocal inflexions) and they scarcely scratch the surface.

In the current set that Costello and the Attractions are playing around Britain, amid the invigorating versions of Forces material and stalwarts like "Chelsea," "Detectives" and "Radio, Radio," Costello plays a new song entitled "I Stand Accused" (a vintage B-side to a Merseybeats' single) which in many ways eclipses the rest of the set simply because it reminds one again just how exceptional this band is.

There was a definite apprehension, a certain fear that the horrendous touring workload of the past year and all the things that go with it might well have deadened much of the spontaneity of the original band at its audacious best. It was a fear confirmed to some extent at the gigs played at the Dominion last Christmas. Where once Costello and his band maintained a constantly inspired attitude, not merely playing the acknowledged classics impeccably but always willing to take a chance, to throw in new songs, new arrangements, new lyrics, etc., they suddenly seemed stilted, fired, more professional but uninspired.

Tonight in Sheffield though, Costello and the Attractions are magnificent and the impromptu rendition of this exquisite piece of beat group fluff marked the real return of the prodigal for me. After that, "Chelsea," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Red Shoes" sounded sparkling. Only "Pump It Up" and "You Belong To Me" seemed lack-luster, just "going through the motions." And thereby hangs an irony, as "Pump It Up" was composed as a direct result of Costello's last package tour, when he was the young blood battling it out on the Stiffs live tour alongside Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric.

" 'Pump It Up' was actually the last song I wrote for the Model album and it was conceived very much as a reaction to that tour.

"My feelings about that tour ... well, it was fun because as far as I was concerned it was principally down to pushing Ian's album. Like every night the encore would be 'Sex And Drugs,' right, and Ian knows there's more to it than that, obviously, but it quickly reaches a point where the tour started to take on the manifestations of the song. And like it was getting so ugly I was compelled to write "Pump It Up" as, you know, well just how much can you fuck, how many drugs can you do before you get so numb you can't really feel anything?

"The Stiff tour was a failure as far as I was concerned. It failed initially because Ian's album didn't immediately take off anyway. On the other hand there was plenty of human chemistry but lots of it was just down to basic negativity. In the last two weeks it can really start to show on certain people's faces.

"It was no great trial for me as such though I did go strange towards the end. I'd like blank out and just see red. It's hard to explain."

The matter of personal compatibility on tour was one topic dear to Costello's heart after the Sheffield gig, when he continued to adhere to the party line of no one-to-one interview. In an attempt to compromise the situation, I first of all suggested providing him with a list of several questions to which he could compose a written reply. No, he didn't like that idea much either. He became candid.

"It's not a personal thing against you at all but I honestly don't want to deal with New Musical Express. I think the paper has become cheap and offensive. It's like Rolling Stone used to be a good paper but it blew it, lost its perspective. I don't like the NME much anymore and I particularly don't like some of the things that have been printed about my personal life."

Finally I play my last card, which is simply to get the three tour participants — Costello, Richard Hell, and John Cooper Clarke — together and start up what hopefully will become a reasonable dialogue, first about the tour and then on to ... well, virtually anything. This idea Costello finds surprisingly agreeable and the three duly assemble in the hotel lounge. A preliminary question about the tenuous relationship between the three in terms of each other's notoriety is immediately scuppered by Hell who unfortunately plumps for the easy option: cynicism. Our four-sided discussion begins to turn into a three-against-one, with the question master on the losing side.

It's quickly becoming a pointless escapade.

Three or four false starts later and Hell abruptly leaves the room. This particular shot at human chemistry isn't sparking. I'm forced to shoot trivialities like asking Costello whether he swiped the "reader's wives" reference in "Sunday's Best" from Clarke's opus of the same name.

"No, that's weird actually. I wrote that before I'd even heard of John but..."

"But we read the same magazines," chips in Clarke with characteristic good humor. Suddenly Clarke disappears, leaving me with Costello — still amenable to talking. Time to aim for the pressing issues. An opening salvo on Armed Forces seems appropriate enough. Like, why has Costello relented from calling the album by its initially intended moniker of Emotional Fascism?

"Because it became obvious that it was impossible to get away with it. And also because Armed Forces seemed actually more appropriate with its double meaning and all. It was Pete's (Thomas) idea actually."

Just as it seems a dialogue has begun, a finger taps on my shoulder and Costello's lackey PR man peers down and informs me its time to split. When I counter that I'm happy to spend the night at the hotel the message has to be spelt out. "It would be, uh, better if you came with us," he lears. I look at Costello who sits there smiling inscrutably and I realize that I've been set up. The whole thing has been a performance, impeccably acted out with Costello the likely instigator. He'll probably get a song out of it.

And that would be that, if it weren't for some revelations on the drive back. Jake Riviera, as always still functioning on enough adrenalin to equip a small field battalion, reveals that Elvis has already composed the whole of his next album while bassist Bruce Thomas reckons the maestro has enough to fill four new albums.

The main vision for the future, however, is that Costello is thinking of breaking into the burgeoning rock film market. I immediately think of a Don't Look Back type documentary but Riviera is thinking more of a "real rock film like Hard Day's Night or Help." In fact the two clips directed by Chuck Slatter (well known for his prior films with the dread Devo) to accompany "Oliver's Army" and "Peace, Love And Understanding" shamelessly plagiarize/mimic the latter Beatles epic, with the Attractions miming "Oliver" on a desert island, et al. A script for the full scale Costello flick is already written and waiting, Riviera tells me.

"McLaren's movie will knock the whole rock movie thing back two paces," predicts Riviera firmly. "The one that'll do it with any luck will be the Ramones/Roger Gorman effort. I mean, we want to make the film to follow up The Girl Can't Help It."

Finally one has to express a certain awe at the sheer immensity of Costello's output, Bruce Thomas, who usually rooms with him when the band tour, confides that Costello is an insomniac who spends the sleepless nights feverishly composing. "He is a workaholic. The only thing I'm worried about is him having a heart attack at 26. He's driving himself insanely hard."

Sudden flashback to my first Costello encounter. "I'm deadly serious about this. I don't want to be around to witness my artistic decline."

One year later I addressed that same quote to him asking whether success had amended that feeling.

"It's still too close to that. I'm already getting paranoid about what is usually petty bitchiness. Like, someone from England saw me in the States and said something like, 'Oh he's not hungry anymore.' Like I'd lost that edge or something. And it scared me. Sometimes it's just fatigue, other times you can really start to doubt yourself. Sometimes it can be healthy because complete conviction about one's rightness at all times is the worst sort of vanity. Like I've got areas of megalomania which are sometimes the only things that keep me going.

"Sometimes even now I can feel absolutely washed up. If two days go by without an idea for a song, I become obsessive about writing. That's what taking it up as a career does as opposed to it merely being a hobby. The thought of me drying up doesn't scare me so much as the thought of me just repeating myself in a series of diminished echoes.

"Watching someone you admired struggling to be inspired is the most pathetic sight imaginable. Ultimately I just want control over what I'm doing.

"Complete control."

Reprint courtesy New Musical Express.

<< >>

Creem, May 1979

Nick Kent profiles Elvis Costello. (From NME, January 1979.)

Robert Christgau reviews Armed Forces.

Penny Valentine's Letter From Britain focuses on EC.


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Cover and page scan.

Armed Forces

Elvis Costello

Robert Christgau

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Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrase-maker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person. He needs words because they add color and detail to his music. I like the more explicitly sociopolitical tenor here— "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and The Times" evokes the conscripts in Her Majesty's Senior Service more directly than any lover he's inclined to pick on. But I don't find as many memorable bits of language as I did on This Year's Model. And though I approve of the more intricate pop constructions of the music, I found TYM's relentless nastiness of instrumental and (especially) vocal attack more compelling. A good record, to be sure, but not a great one.


Photos by Brad Elterman and Lynn Goldsmith.
Photo by Brad EltermanPhoto by Lynn Goldsmith

Waiting for the end of the world

Penny Valentine / Letter From Britain

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Two good things about rock music: how it makes even cynics get emotionally involved when they least expect it; how the best moments are the ones when something takes you off guard. When punk started, people were slumped over the table at our place, full of booze, arguing all night about what punk meant. Some of us had been out and seen it, some of us hadn't, but everybody had a violent opinion (the trouble with British critics is that they are self-conscious. It's not enough to like or dislike, you have to know what it all stands for. After all, why did thousands of kids want to jump on each other's heads?). When Elvis Costello started I couldn't understand the fuss. Simon Frith and I would phone each other after a gig: "Does it make any sense?" No.

Having to have an opinion, I decided I probably didn't like Costello at all. Repressed little bloke with his paranoia. It Wasn't just that I had a sneaky feeling he didn't like women much — he didn't like anyone. But he didn't dislike them the way Johnny Rotten did — positive, angry. Costello was just plain spiteful. Like the kid at school you feel sorry for because he hung around the playground banging the chalk brushes on the wall to feel useful — until he sneaked to teacher because you wouldn't let him join your gang.

With all that going against him, why can't I stop playing Armed Forces? Definitely the element of surprise; the music winking its allegiances back to early 60's U.S. groups, even Phil Spector; spreading his voice ... I was corrupted and I don't hold it against him at all. Yet he's still full of sly fear — a more positive paranoia than Stephen Stills ever showed on "For What It's Worth." Maybe Armed Forces is really an overtly political album in a way that his others weren't.

I liked Joe Jackson's first single. "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" came out late last year and I thought it sounded a lot like "Watching The Detectives" (even if I didn't like Costello I had to admit he wrote clever songs) except that it was cheerful. Back from America after three weeks, I found that the British music papers had gone Joe Jackson crazy, the single was in the charts, and I'd realised he sounded a lot like Steve Miller and used Steely Dan chords. One minute Jackson was just a funny little bloke with a record about standing in his room looking out the window (and a great first line: "Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street" — not Costello's armed boys, the furry kind). Now he's The Next Big Thing. Even NME's Charles Shaar Murray can't find anything bad to say about Jackson's new album Look Sharp — except that it's time Joe bought a new tie.

At Dingwall's, a club where you're lucky to see the stage never mind hear who's on it (and where last time gentle Jesse Winchester played three fights broke out in ten minutes not ten feet away from us), Jackson provoked nothing more than good feeling. I'm not sure that's enough for me but his songs are quite clever, he seems to enjoy himself in a fairly poker-faced way, and certainly must be sharp in that he managed to reproduce his on-stage performance so accurately on the album that you don't really know which came first.

Jackson comes from a seaside town, did all those Elton/Rick Wakeman things like going to the snotty Royal Academy Of Music, started a "new wave" band, Arms and Legs, even worked cabaret at the local Playboy Club to raise the cash to make a demo. Which may explain why he's so determined to be heard but that what he has to say isn't unusual. He's taller than I expected, bit of a receding hairline, and looks at the mike all the time he sings as if it was both the cause and answer to his problems. Kitted out in a striped suit, big tie and white shoes, A&M package him as the first — and so far only — exponent of "Spiv Rock." Less meaning than "punk" or "new wave," just an off-shoot of the old pub circuit "good time" band ethos, but still, any label in a storm.

His songs are about not having a girlfriend while all his friends have one (and sneering at the principle of "Happy Loving Couples"); the usual '78/'79 anti-consumerism stand; and one good stab at what Women's Liberation has done to his libido. The thing is that Jackson is really comfortable about all this, much as he tries to convince you otherwise. His songs are artful but eventually harmless, which is okay. But they just reflect a scenario; Costello actually creates one. Joe will probably go on recording little songs about "life," nicely crafted jobs, which most people can identify with without fear to their psyche. But it's unlikely people will sit around tables wondering what he stands for.

The same week, I saw Costello for the first time in six months. Hammersmith Palais is a local dance hall where big bands come out on a revolving stage and a staircase runs up the side for exits and entrances of lead singers. Costello didn't use the revolve, but he did run up and down the stairs like the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, even unhooking his guitar strap as he went. I liked the gig better than Joe Jackson's even though Costello still doesn't leave himself the space on stage to play his new tracks with the deliberation of the recordings, and the act doesn't build so much as run over you. "Green Shirt" sounded terrific, but it was the only one of the new numbers that did. Jake Riviera, who fashioned this model in the early days of Stiff then took him to Radar, would have smiled if he'd seen the set piece going on in front of me. Two lines into "Oliver's Army" a nice touch of irony occurred when a young, weaving, stoned guy make it across the stage twice, was hurled off by bouncers and finally did a face-out, stage left, with one of the larger "protection" boys. Meanwhile, the Attractions played up a sweat (and sounded better than ever) while Costello stood in his unnecessarily drip-dry shirt.

Costello seems to have a problem Joe Jackson will never have to face — holding on to his anti-establishment stance while moving a few rungs further up. Some people think he's lost the former already. It's the same all over. The critics who thought he was subversive stuff on the early Stiff tours have become disenchanted. Their boy made it big and started dating Todd Rundgren's ex. Must mean a credibility gap. (I bet this time over Bob Christgau will accuse him of selling out.) Meanwhile the new converts, like Frith and myself, are enthusiastically seduced and love it. Britain's had strikes for three months and we kept being told there's a "crisis." Crisis, what crisis? Nothing really changes.

Photo by Roberta Bayley.
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Photo by Chalkie Davies.
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Photo by Roberta Bayley.
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Page scans.
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Page scans.
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