Elvis Costello once shouted mockingly to an audience in Washington: "Next time we come back… we'll bring an army and take over!" It was one time when Costello's brazen boasting was sadly misplaced — it's taken six years for the British to invade America's airwaves, and Elvis is definitely not in the landing party. While the sweet new fa(e)ces of English pop have been converting Americans by the stadium-full, Costello's last tour of America consisted of several low-key solo concerts in small venues.
Like The Clash and Sex Pistols before him, Costello assumed that he could tackle the U.S. with the same arrogance and venom that had upended the British music industry. Instead, he very nearly upended his own career. The man who had vowed that he would never succumb to the trappings of rock careerism was in complete confusion by 1979. He had shut himself off from the press, left his wife, and taken on an inhuman schedule of touring, writing and recording. It was during this period that he toured Australia, playing erratically and causing a near-riot at Sydney's Regent Theatre by walking off after only 50 minutes. Later in Ohio, when he tried to provoke a bunch of American musicians by making racist remarks about Ray Charles, Costello finally blew it. The event was widely publicised and he did not return to the U.S. for two years.
The aftermath of these events was documented in a long interview in The Face last August. Costello and the Attractions recorded Get Happy under "extreme self-inflicted emotional stress" and then did a short British tour which left Costello so disillusioned that he momentarily quit the band. Almost Blue, an album of country cover versions, was a vain attempt to capture the old creative spark and a new audience.
Yet unlike others who have lost the thread since the heyday of 1977, Costello has clawed his way back to produce music of equal substance to his early years. Instead of fracturing his career into a myriad of interests — acting and video being the pet interests of anyone from Sting to John Lydon — he has sought to re-establish himself as one of Britain's most ingenious songwriters. Imperial Bedroom was perhaps the peak of his fluency as a lyric writer and while Punch The Clock was a disappointing lightweight follow-up, four recent records have proved anything but light-weight.
"Pills and Soap" was a jaundiced view of Thatcherism where…
"… all we get are pictures of Lady Muck.
They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy,
There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag-ends of aristocracy."
The "Shipbuilding" single recorded by Robert Wyatt, cleverly examined the Falklands War from the perspective of a shipbuilding town in England.
"It's just a rumour that was spread around town,
Somebody said that someone got filled in,
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding."
Subsequently, Costello produced The Specials' single "Nelson Mandela," a song about the jailed black African campaigner. His newest record is "Peace in our Time," another bleak prognosis of world events.
Whereas once Costello would have set these songs to blustering, hard music, often his most vitriolic lyrics are set to plaintive and unadorned melodies. Similarly, the arrogance and confrontational nature of 1979 has been tempered. At 30, he is as affable as he once was arrogant. He arrived for the interview wearing baggy pants, a woolly jumper, leather coat and a well-worn porkpie hat. But behind the bookish appearance, he is still a man with an emphatic belief in his own worth and a complete disdain for many of his contemporaries. When Costello's thoughts turn to those who displease him, his tongue is just as sharp as ever.
I'll start with a couple of general questions. The last few things that I have heard of you being involved in were "Peace in our Time" and a television series that you were possibly going to be involved with.
Well "Peace in our Time" is out in England as an Imposter record, which is just to separate it from the next record. Then we've got an album coming out, Goodbye Cruel World, at the beginning of June. "Peace in our Time" was recorded at the same time, I just wanted to put it out ahead of it, just as a song. I think its good to use different identities, different labels, just to make people approach a song differently.
Well, that certainly worked with Pills And Soap.
Yeah, it did. Of course that was more tricky, there was more intrigue with the release.
What about this television series?
Oh well, I play a very small role in that. I've written the title song for the series. The series is called Scully, the song's called "Turning The Town Red." It's about a young fella's ambitions and dreams, sort of a tragic comedy written by Allan Beasedale who wrote a series of plays about a group of unemployed fellas in Liverpool, about 18 months ago (a reference to Boys In The Blackstuff, recently screened on ABC). This is by no means as bleak as that, but some of the conclusions are quite tragic. It's about this lad and I play his elder brother. It's a very small part, I'm just a figure of fun in most of the scenes. I speak once.
That was one thing I was going to ask you about… there's been this trend over the last couple of years for your contemporaries, or people in a similar field to try and crack it in acting like Sting and Lydon.
Yeah, well Sting's got the looks y'know. He need only be on-screen on a video and it's arresting, whether the song's rubbish or whether it's good. It naturally follows that if he had any ability at all to portray a character he would be good at it, because he's photogenically very good. I'm not, so in that sense it wouldn't automatically follow. I thought he was pretty good in Brimstone And Treacle actually. He certainly made a more credible stab at it than Mick Jagger glorifying Ned Kelly or Mick Jagger playing anything really.
Because there's [ illegible] real diversification lately with people diversifying — people like Paul Weller starting a publishing venture.
Well I think he's to be applauded for that, it's better than just going and buying a castle or an island and becoming a recluse. He's got a lot of criticism in England from the Respond lobby because they haven't come up with too many people who are world beaters. But he has enough faith them to put his money where his mouth is, and sooner or later he's going to come up with something good. I think he had already — he's got Tracey (Ullmann). I wrote a song for her new album because I was impressed with her singing.
I don't think the diversification thing is bad, as long as it's honest.
I was more wondering why you haven't joined in?
Well I have. I've got the Imp label. Its not been terribly active… I put the Imposter Record out and then a record by a man called Philip Chevron which I produced. That was a Brendan Behan Song. And we're going to be doing an album with an Irish singer, she's a cabaret singer, does German cabaret songs: Agnes Burnel. I'm the executive producer , kind of the A&R man. She is about 60 years old and she's really good.
I have branched out into that area. I just don't really have the time to do any more. I will when I finish this tour because I'm taking a break of some indeterminate length from recording and touring, at the end of this year.
Your albums have sometimes been influenced by very specific styles of music. I was wondering whether this was true for this next record?
I thought it did when we started to record, but it changed half-way through. Put it this way, "Peace in our Time," is not representative of the album at all, in the same way "Pills And Soap" wasn't representative. I mean, if everything (on the last album) sounded like "Pills And Soap" and "Shipbuilding" you'd want to go out and kill yourself. The whole trick of that album was that it drew you into those songs because of the brashness of the rest of it. It is a little bit like boxing, that album, all the time egging you on with one hand and hitting you with the other one. Because you're not expecting a song that sombre or that thoughtful to suddenly appear among these quite cheerful sounding pop songs.
This album… overall I think these are the best songs I've ever written. In terms of songwriting, I think this is among the four best records that we've made, the four best being This Year's Model, Get Happy, Imperial Bedroom and this one. When I finished 'Imperial Bedroom' I thought that was the best songwriting I'd done up to that point, whereas I could find faults with parts of Trust even before the record came out. That's true of Punch The Clock as well: I was aware before it came out that there was some songs I thought were insubstantial as songs, even though they made good records. It's a good record; it could have been a great record, but we lost it somewhere. That's perhaps the least substantial lyrical album I've put out, but I'm still proud of some of the pop creations on it.
Yes, because your early records were fired by this incredible venom, really, and I was wondering whether it becomes increasingly difficult to…
Well, I don't go looking for the venom. There's quite a lot of venom in Pills And Soap, although it's not screaming. I think there's a time to speak softly and carry a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt once said.
But venom also about relationships
Well (laughs) you better hear the new record. I'm not always looking for that. You've gotta look inside yourself. Most of the most negative songs I've written are about something inside myself. I used to really resent the label of being a misogynist. Because most of the songs on This Year's Model were written for the pity of what a woman was made to be, not attacking her for being that. They just didn't listen properly. They didn't get past the sound of the record. You name me a song on This Year's Model which is as demeaning as Under My Thumb.
I mean, I had never heard the album Aftermath (the Rolling Stones' 1968 classic) until 1978, and a lot of the songs on This Year's Model were written as response to hearing that album. I think it's a very intelligent Rolling Stone album; it's not nearly as phoney-macho as some of their later records. I see them as these kids who have suddenly grown up and are in a sophisticated world, dealing with some of the hard realities of the adult sex world. And that was exactly what I was experiencing, except that it was 1978. I wrote an album that was parallel to that, so it therefore reflects the changes in attitudes. I wouldn't adopt that macho persona; it's so ludicrous. That's why those songs have a lot of compassion. The tone of them sounded like I was saying "You worthless slut" when in fact I wasn't saying that at all.