"I'd like to be a funeral director..."
— Elvis Costello, 1980
The memory is a funny thing; it plays tricks on us. We clothe it in make believe-if we want sympathy, only seeing the bad; if we want relief, remembering the good, and always erasing those parts that don't keep with the way we view ourselves. Elvis Costello showed an excellent memory on his '77 debut album, My Aim Is True, reviewing the predicament of teenage lust for an average angry young misfit. He doesn't care about small pleasures. Rather, he totals it through a rage against his youth, a rage not entirely cloaked in solipsism and misanthropy, a rage easily shared by those of us who never got the girl.
Backed by American country rockers Clover, My Aim Is True was a '50s LP (think of the Buddy Holly that sang "Not Fade Away") for a current punk audience. And just as punk was the revenge of the guttersnipe, so Costello was the revenge of a male (Brian De Palma's) Carrie wrecking the high school graduation dance with a splattering of vicious puns and Chuck Berry guitar chords. When he sang "I'm the one you see at night / And I don't want to do it all in vain," Elvis caught a frustration of desire and inferiority, an ignored burden on average ugly boys suffering through puberty. And it was a converse rocksex: his namesake was the embodiment of teenage lust; he was the ghost of teenage lust using his music not to get the girl but to get back at the girl.
A brief resume: Born Declan McManus, Elvis Costello was raised in London Catholic schools (hence the "revenge and guilty" quote); his father was a professional musician who divorced his mother in '71, his mother taking him to Liverpool. Costello learned guitar and played in high school bands, leaving for London upon graduation and becoming a computer operator by day and a member of a pub-rock band by night. Elvis got married, went solo, was turned down by all the major labels, and accepted by a young independent record company called Stiff Records, run by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. Jake changed Declan's name (several months before the King died), put him in the studio with ex-Brinsley Schwarz guitarist Nick Lowe — who had produced the first punk album Damned Damned Damned (and would produce El's next five albums) — and backup band, Clover.
With the release of My Aim Is True, Elvis went on the first Stiff tour and began to stretch his hardly complete persona. The performance, though certainly obdurate and hard, included a touching cover of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," his ballad "Alison," and the anti-nihilistic story of fascist politician Oswald Mosley, "Less Than Zero." My Aim Is True became the most popular import LP in America, and Costello made two trips over there. Meanwhile Jake and Dave had a falling-out, so Jake and Elvis formed Radar Records for British releases and signed to CBS in America. Elvis also formed a proper backup band, the Attractions, with ex-Chilli Willi Pete Thomas on drums, Dave Thomas on bass, Stevie Nieve on keyboards, and, of course, Elvis on guitar and vocals.
The vinyl result was This Year's Model, the first masterpiece. Costello would tell Greil Marcus that it was strongly influenced by the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons. He didn't mean his "The Last Time" rewrite, "You Belong To Me," but a connection between the misogyny and contempt for high society Jagger and Richards displayed on songs like "Backstreet Girl" or "Yesterday's Papers." For Costello, memory no longer played a part. Like the Stones, he was fighting the "lipstick vogue" he had become a part of, and he was aiming at the contemporaries who would make him a mediocre pop star. Pushed by a rock band 10 times harder than Clover, his playful, punishing words remind me most of the Dylan that wrote "Positively Fourth Street" and "Ballad Of A Thin Man," and similarly, the song constructions seem most strongly to come from the mid-'60s. The British version concluded with the anti-National Front (a quasi-Nazi party then garnering many converts) "Night Rally"; the American with "Radio Radio," an indictment of the music business ("I want to bite the hand that feeds me"). Both songs cautiously allowed some compassion within the unreality and hypocrisy of fashion. There was a free 45 with some copies of the album featuring the harbinger of country yet to come, "Stranger In The House," and the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat."
Supported by Rockpile and Mink De Ville, Elvis returned to America a Star, turning down the covers of Rolling Stone and Time with a "Why make life any easier on yourself than you absolutely have to," and leading rockcrit Nick Kent on a merry dance in England for a non-interview on the cover of NME and Creem. During the tour, he would have a brief affair with the gorgeous "Be My" Bebe Buell. The concerts themselves were a tiring experience, Costello arguing with the audience, insulting them, and using "Pump It Up" (about the Stiff tour where he was playing second fiddle to Ian Dury) for a scathing monologue nobody could understand a word of.
Album number three, Armed Forces, (born Emotional Fascism), began with the "I just don't know where to begin" ended with "I shall return / I shall not burn," and in between found a perfectly flawed Costello tackling the use of force in and out of the boundaries of love. It was his pop album, but with far too much from the Jesus of Cool, especially on big nothings "Mood For Moderns," "Chemistry Class," and big fears "Goon Squad" and "Senior Service." Which is not to say it didn't have its moments; the message was loud, clear and spelled out (on postcards included with the British LP): DON'T JOIN. And on his only English number one, "Oliver's Army," the advice was well put with a Neil Sedaka sweet melody enhancing the lyrics, "All it takes is one itchy trigger / One more widow, one less white nigger" (for which CBS refused to release it as a 45 here). There was also his best ballad since "Alison," "Party Girl" (reputedly for Bebe) — both songs which, incidentally, L.A. songstress Linda Ronstadt was to eventually cover. But if there was a little sign of fatigue on the LP, the tour was different — stories of an arrogant rude Costello ended in a bar in Cleveland, Ohio. A very drunk Costello and Pete Thomas got in a fight with Steve Stills, Bonnie Bramlett, and their entourage. Elvis called Ray Charles a "blind ignorant nigger," for which Bonnie bashed him on the nose. When the story got out, stores began to return his records, there were death threats, Elvis had to get a bodyguard and called a press conference to apologize. It was solely a moment of madness, and proof of the stress he was under.
He didn't tour America with his next LP, maybe my favorite all time album by anybody, Get Happy!!, an ironic title for a deeply touching record. Part of my love is personal. Get Happy!! is a view of America by a successful outsider trying to make sense of himself and a country (and not managing to). I'd lived in the country a scant six months and still felt (and still do) like an exile. But there is more to it than that; Get Happy!! is almost a concept album. The woman who appears in at least four songs is — possible metaphorically — a prostitute. It's not "Man Called Uncle," it's "look at the men that you call Uncle," who want to "sink their teeth into you / For the pride and pleasure and the privilege of having you." And the woman who won't take his love for tender, or another with tears on her blackmail turning to ransom. Which leads me to the second theme: money. The relationships revolve around finance and the ambiguity of being rich in that they are always paying for love. And a lot more. The music itself could fill a story, some 20 songs worth of bedeviled modern Motown, in many ways unkind to their source. The songs are short, clipped off just when you expect the second chorus, and the mood is tense but seldom rocky, coming from the exemplary production. Nick Lowe would say of the sessions: "Costello was great to work with. I'd tell him 'now whisper the next word,' and he'd know exactly what I wanted." In a sense, you can tell the strength of a Costello album from the outtakes. "Watching The Detectives" and "Radio Radio" from My Aim Is True. The superb "Big Tears" and "Tiny Steps" from This Year's Model. The weak "Talking In The Dark," the awful "Wednesday Week" and the touching "My Funny Valentine" from Armed Forces. From the Get Happy!! sessions in Holland, a splendidly rewritten "Clowntime Is Over"and a cover of Van McCoy's "Getting Mighty Crowded" that should replaced "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" on the album. Anyway, if there is only one Costello album to buy, it's Get Happy!!, and any history I ever write about him will have it as the centerpiece.
Still in 1980 came 16 songs on Taking Liberties, odds and sods from Brit singles and tracks not on the American LPs, plus "Hoover Factory," an oldie yet to see vinyl (although I owned it on the bootleg, 50 Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong). Also three new songs on the Costello-produced New Amsterdam EP, the best being "Just A Memory." The transition of Get Happy!! went one step further with '81's Trust, which was something of a comedown. Trust might be considered a rowdy, thinking man's rock LP, but the rowdier it got ("Luxemburg," the Chris Difford duet "From a Whisper To A Scream," "Clubland") the less interesting it became. Yet, it also included his best political song, "New Lace Sleeves," the new Costello, "White Knuckles," in which he suggests wife-beaters be "hung by their tongues," the Bo Diddley-inspired answer to "Clowntime Is Over," "Lover's Walk," and the oldie-but-not-recorded "Watch Your Step." Suffice to say that the best song wasn't on the album but the flip of "Clubland," and already covered by Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt, "Girls Talk."
The accompanying tour was much better, his best. "Shot With His Own Gun" was thoroughly disturbing live, and being his first appearance since Armed Forces, his innate sense of dignity and the depth and clarity of his performance made his earlier youth and angriness beguiling, giving it grace and humor. As Jeff Nesin wrote in Creem, E.C. had become a Long Term Artist. And was treated as such, being interviewed on Tom Snyder's show, appearing on a George Jones HBO special (though sick with the mumps), in dueting with George on "Stranger In The House" (which was a track on George Jones and Friends), and putting all concerned to shame with is tearjerking rendition of Patsy Cline's "She's Got You." Produced by Billy Sherill and inspired by the late (ex-Byrd) Gram Parsons (he'd also write the liner notes to a Parsons compilation), Elvis released his "tribute" to country music album, Almost Blue. But he was too kind to his country heroes, never transcending the pathos the way Parsons or Jones would have, and it is easily his worst LP.
Costello brought in 1982 with a three hour concert at the New York Palladium, followed it with a London concert backed by a full orchestra, and gave us album number seven, Imperial Bedroom — a work of brilliance by a fully grown man. The album views the many sides of (mainly) marital relationships and the ways in which they break down. The music (produced by Geoff Emerick, who started life engineering for the Beatles) is some sort of pop music peak. The comparison made was Cole Porter, and maybe so, if Cole Porter had been raised on Smokey Robinson, the Beatles, the Kinks, even latter day Paul McCartney ("Human Hands"), and worked in the '80s. I think it is a stunner and the best album of '82.
I only saw Costello on the following tour once, and I've never seen him worse, though a friend tells me it was a particularly bad night. I felt he was working hard but pandering to his audience, the reason being that, though he is one of the most respected modern pop musicians, he doesn't sell much compared to say, AC/DC. His albums tend to jump in the charts as the fans buy them, and then disappear without a trace. At the concert, the high spots were the new songs, the Middle Eastern flavored "Imperial Bedroom" (not on the album), "Shipbuilding" (recorded by Robert Wyatt — about the war with Argentina and now his best political song), and the covers of Smokey Robinson and Bobby Blue Bland's tunes. The courting continued with "well well fancy that" interviews in Rolling Stone, New Musical Express and the New York Times, plus TV appearances on the hilarious Entertainment Tonight and less amusing David Letterman Show (why not PM Magazine?). Costello came across as a witty, smart, compassionate man.
A long way from My Aim Is True, his anger's still there but tampered by comprehension and age, possibly one of the reasons he (finally) won the Village Voice "Pazz and Jop" critics poll for the best album of '82. And there's obviously no end in sight, except maybe a personal one. Costello said once he'd never repeat himself. I have grown from being a teenager to being on the wrong side of the 20s with him, and he has never really let me down. In that sense, he has kept his word, and, for better or worse, that makes him the only artist in this Close-Up who can truly claim that.