Cut, March 1989

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Cut (UK)

UK & Ireland magazines

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Out of hibernation!


Andy Spinoza

Tired of music business backslapping Elvis Costello settled in Ireland to record Spike, his first album for two years. Armed only with a pint of Guinness, Andy Spinoza took on the great punslinger and found his aim still true.

"I don't know whether it's anything to do with the Irish background. I like it here, yeah. For one thing it's not England, I'm sure people that read Cut will appreciate the distinction. One of the reasons we're here now is because of where Cut's based — the further away Scotland can get from England, the better it is for everybody.

"I just suppose it's the size of the town. The mass of London is pretty soulless and Dublin's a bit more like Liverpool, where I spent two years before going down to London. And the fact that it's a major capital and it's got a lot of music going on in it — it's just great to be here."

Elvis Costello is explaining why the last couple of years has seen him spending more and more time in the congenial atmosphere of the Republic of Ireland's elegant capital city. Its vibrant musical community, served by state-of-the-art recording facilities, has played its part in attracting him away from the backslapping and hype of the London music scene. As more and more musicians are discovering, with an international attitude and a fax machine, you can base yourself anywhere you like.

Spike, Costello's new album, has certainly got that international spirit. Recorded in London, Dublin, New Orleans and Los Angeles, it brings musicians working in disparate fields together on vinyl to perform a set of songs that once again mark a new and inspiring departure for Costello.

Spike is very much a synthesis of reference points for the man with an encyclopedic knowledge of, and a passion for, music marginalised by the radio and record business machine. If King Of America was a country-influenced album, and Get Happy his Stax/Motown reworking, Spike in places draws from an Irish folk sound that, while providing inspiration, doesn't dominate at the expense of classic Costello pop music.

While the album can't be pinned down as a Gaelic experience, being in Ireland seems to have helped shape it. In a culture with a traditional regard for the ballad singer as a teller of truths, maybe the respect Costello is freely given in Dublin is the reason for him, and his wife Cait O'Riordan, settling there. Then again, maybe he's just keen on the Guinness.

Elvis and Cait have been living for sometime in a spacious suite on the top floor of a grand old Dublin hotel which the visitor can only reach after digesting labyrinthine instructions. It's been a productive time for both of them, taking in Cait's acting role in The Courier, a movie thriller set in Dublin.

For Costello aficionados Spike is a long-awaited record, the first after all the activity of 1986, when even the hungriest appetites must have been sated by the release of two LPs, King Of America (hailed by many as his best ever) and Blood & Chocolate. A tour of live dates the following year often saw him onstage for an exhilarating three hours a night.

It's a smiling Mr. Costello who rescues me, lost, on the aforementioned top floor. Slightly unshaven and wearing black frames, he immediately gives the impression of being an assured and relaxed guy, with none of the awkward-bastard attitudes he was once notorious for.

He turns out to be open and articulate, garrulous even, with a wryly funny turn of phrase which you might expect from one of pop's great lyric writers. Through the distinctive gap in his front teeth, the accent is well-travelled Scouse.

"I literally just stood there," he says, pointing at the corner of the room by the window. I had my keyboards set up and my guitar here. Cait was doing The Courier and we were up at seven in the morning and I had a whole routine going. It was a good opportunity to write like a real discipline. I wrote maybe six or seven of the songs on the album here, and the instrumental was written here, plus the music for The Courier, so it was a busy sort of time."

The only album that Spike is comparable to with its Attractions-less personnel, says Costello, is King Of America. "I didn't want it to be one set group of musicians who I allied myself to. It was more a question of reaching out and getting people who I thought would illuminate the song."

So Costello took his songs, and co-producers Kevin Killen and T Bone Burnett — "he was kinda like the provocateur and musical conscience of the group" — to the musicians and their instruments. In New Orleans they hired the amazing marching band-cum-funky stuff of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and got soul/jazz arranger Allen Toussaint to play grand piano. In Ireland they employed the skills of a whole crop of Moving Hearts to play fiddle, bazouki, pipe and drum, and even got Christy Moore in to play bodhrán. They grabbed former Byrd Roger McGuinn while he happened to be in Los Angeles, before Elvis came back to London to work with Chrissie Hynde among others, and record the two songs he wrote with Paul McCartney. The ex-Beatle, says Costello is "a very good musician who knows an awful lot about songwriting which he doesn't always apply to its full extent."

While working with him Costello added 'a little bit of friction,' and McCartney's positive reaction helped him overcome the shock of writing with somebody in the room. "He'd had 10 years of it, with somebody pretty good," laughs Elvis. "It's an ambitious record — I spent every penny they gave me on getting the people that I wanted."

Costello launches a pre-emptive strike on charges of musical tourism. I didn't want to do anything where I felt I was putting on an ill-fitting suit, because there's nothing worse than these records where people go to exotic places and run around like demented tourists. You know, when you go on holiday and you buy a shirt that looks great when you're there, and then you put it on when you get home and you look like a complete prat... well there are loads of records like that."

The production sound on Spike is not as unembellished as the practically intact live recordings of King Of America or the Nick Lowe-overseen bawl 'n' brawl of Blood & Chocolate. There's a lot going on, but it's all used for interesting ends.

"I'm not anti-machines or anything," says Costello of his attitude to technology, explaining it's the blandness of some programmed sounds that he objects to. "On this record, we used a lot of technology to achieve a sometimes bizarre effect, juxtaposing instruments that might not naturally go together.

"I can defend every musical transition on this record. There's a definite reason for it, there's never a case where I just pluck something out of the air because it sounded exotic." Listeners to the LP's New Orleans instrumental strut by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or the Irish ballad-inflected "Any King's Shilling" will agree that the only defence Costello need invoke is the music.

Costello's last top twenty single was his version of The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" from King Of America in 1986; Costello himself seems itching to find out if a younger record-buying generation can make his singles at least minor hits. Is he a contender in today, pop arena with the Stock, Aitken and Waterman puppets?

"Well have to wait and see when this record comes out," he says. "It's been two years since I released any kind of record. Blood & Chocolate really was at odds with the music of two years ago, but possibly the commercial undoing of it was that we released two six-minute singles from it, which you don't expect to get on Radio 1!"

So does he crave singles success? "I don't crave it. If I craved it I would probably have tailored my stuff much more. I think anything can be a hit, it's the will of the radio to give it a fair hearing, and not box it up in a little evening cult. It's just will on the part of the Press and the taste-makers."

And today's dancefloor delirium? "The scene has become really, really trivialised and splintered, very hard for anyone to make a career opinionating about acid house or even just ordinary mainstream dance music because it's so lacking in substance that demands words. Its all about being there. I'm not saying it's good or bad — it's all about the moment. It really doesn't stand up to analysis because it has no content. It is by definition anti-music, it's anti-words. It's just sound. And I don't know whether that's a revolutionary creative form or whether it's a crass, unimaginative form. I think the jury's still out."

Hasn't the Costello following got older? "I've no idea, you see. You get funny notions being formed about things. I turned round one day and I was a veteran. I always feel I'm just starting out, I hadn't noticed the time going by. I don't feel out of step. I can't really become nostalgic because I don't have an identifiable audience who have grown up with me. If you go to a show there's all kinds of different age groups. I got a letter from a guy recently who said 'I saw you on American television when I was seven years old and you changed my life.' And he's now only 14! I mean that's obviously an extreme case — what was he doing up at one o'clock in the morning?

"But I also get mail and meet people who are way older than me who like my stuff. It's not like I want to be the thinking person's musician. It's just what I do, it either appeals to you or it doesn't. But that doesn't really exclude it from being a pop record because that's by definition a record that's popular."

As Costello points out, after a 12-year career he's outlasted most of his one-time New Wave contemporaries, and now no longer feels "in a race with anybody — most of them have retired."

What does he put his inspiration down to? "Oh I don't know, it's not the sort of thing you even want to question. If it ain't broke don't fix it. I'm not even gonna tempt fate by assuming that it's even inspiration. Sometimes it's just hard work... I do work hard, because I enjoy it and it doesn't bother me. It hasn't got stale, 'cos I've changed it every time I started to get tired of it."

Costello seems less thrilled to talk about his old work in detail. He will, however, say that "early on the songs were easy to understand, then I got into trying to convey different things and wilfully experimenting with techniques of saying things, sometimes kidding myself that this mysterious way I was saying it was actually more profound. Some cases worked, but inevitably you end up with a lot of songs, not all of them crystal clear. And a lot of people get worked up about how much punning and wordplay used to be in the songs.

page 10

"These songs are very easy to understand," says Costello of Spike, and he's right. Perhaps that's due to a parallel slackening off of an explicit autobiographical content, something which has made his music so queasily compelling. But that doesn't mean it has lost its emotional force — it's just that these days Costello is as likely to spin a tale of tender affection or daft humour as one of spurned paranoia. The Elvis Costello psychodrama has evolved, along with his musical personality, into a more rounded experience altogether.

He replies to the old question about whether he's driven by guilt and revenge with more good grace than it deserves. "I don't think so. I think this record's very humorous, and if it were driven just by those things they would be reflex actions — its a very consciously written record. So I'd say that's not true any more.

"Some of my songs that are personal would be the last ones you'd expect," he says of his work before Spike. "I think it kind of spoils it if you do that... I've never been one for writing what may have been an honest, very personal song, and then bragging about it to reinforce it. If the song wasn't real enough as I wrote it, then there was something wrong with the way I wrote it, and me going on whingeing about how much it meant to me afterwards wouldn't make it a better song."

The publicity afforded Elvis and Cait's relationship made him even more antagonistic of prying questions than before. It's clear he's not in the market for a pop-star-confesses-all interview. "No-one's really done it that effectively," he says. "There's been a couple of crap books written about me and a few interviews where people have asked questions that I didn't want to answer, and I thought it was none of their business and I would just tell them so. It's their business whether they want to get into an unpleasant discussion about it or whether they want to shut up, or ask another question."

But is he really tabloid material? Laughing, he says: "I don't know whether that's a compliment! I get it, you'd be surprised. An amazing thing is that somebody rang up the place where I go for a swim to find out how many times a week I came in, so they must have been planning some stakeout story, 'Is he fighting a health battle?' or 'Battle against the bottle,' y' know?"

The second half of this interview is conducted in a Dublin dockside pub on the bank of the Liffey. While I get the drinks in, Elvis is busy signing beermats for inebriated patrons. Cait is now with us, but ain't too keen to chat. We sit down, me with a pint of Guinness, them with a spring water each — well, if someone asked you for a Ballygowan, wouldn't you think it was a whiskey?

The songs on Spike dominate the conversation. The opening track "This Town" features Roger McGuinn and his 12-string Rickenbacker. It's got a rousing, chiming chorus and infectious melodies — very Elvis. It's a series of recognisable, stereotypical little vignettes, featuring philistines and power merchants in the Rupert Murdoch mould. "They're out there ready to get us, and the song is just sending them up.

"And then 'Let Him Dangle' is from real life" says Costello. In 1952 Derek Bentley was hanged for his accomplice Chris Craig's murder of a policeman. It's a stark and stripped-down treatment about a hideous miscarriage of justice, with sardonic singalong vocals and icy lead guitar licks from Marc Ribot.

"I thought it was time to write a song about it," says EC. That case, it'll never be put right. I happened to read an interview with Derek Bentley's sister and I thought well, I'll just put down her side of the story. I used a lot of the details. It's one of those famous murder tales that gets told to you like Hanratty and Ruth Ellis, but that case seemed particularly to be a travesty." The point of the song, Costello says, is to get people talking. "It's not gonna bring Derek Bentley back, neither is it gonna convince a load of people that hanging's wrong."

"Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" owes a lot to Van Morrison's Celtic soul ballad style, and takes it in a gospel direction with the talents of the Dirty Dozen and Allen Toussaint on the ivories. "Chewing Gum" is another triumph of style, a red-light district of jumpy, seedy funk, about a businessman and an oriental mail order bride.

Costello explains: "Have you ever been in a place where you might invent a history for those people sitting over there? And then it becomes a reality to you? I was biding my time in an airport and I made up that story about people who happened to be in front of me in the queue. It just turned into a real story, and they became the people in my head. The story came to life about this guy taking this girl back from somewhere in the Far East and then dumping her. I imagined this guy taking her to some bloody awful place in Germany, like Düsseldorf or one of those terrible, empty soulless towns, and she imagines that the West is going to be all like she's seen it on TV. And he abandons her there with no language, nothing."

"Satellite" also deals with emotionless relationships, this time in a not too distant sex-via-global-TV future. Costello calls it his "science fiction song, what might be. One woman going in this booth and doing this one show. She goes in good faith thinking she's going to be on TV and she's set up to create instant porno."

It's a weird tale, made weirder by the most hummable of melodies. "It's like a Phillip K. Dick story. It's a possible reality. And I do think that some people have got so far removed from their feelings that they're scared by their lusts and desires and the only way they can satisfy them is by watching other people doing the things they wanna do."

Another distinctive track is the fragile "Baby Plays Around," words and tune by Cait. A ballad about infidelity and pain, it's interestingly enough the sort of song Costello might have composed himself, but without the bitterness that was once his imprint.

There are fifteen tracks on Spike. The task of picking out any one stand-out is made easier by "Tramp The Dirt Down," in which our hero looks forward to the day he'll dance on Margaret Thatcher's grave. It's an emotional crystallisation of the sedated state of political dissent as we clock up a decade of Conservative rule — "And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run / Try telling that to the desperate father who has squeezed life from his only son." It makes Red Wedge look like the Moral Majority.

Says Costello: "It's a devil that has been conjured up. People voted for that. People asked for it, and so the blame must be distributed around a little bit."

Channelled rather than blind hatred is what gives the track its whirlwind ferocity: "A lot of the trick of recording angry or aggressive songs is what the voice is measured against," he says. "That's the best thing about the Sex Pistols records — he wasn't really bawling his head off, he was actually quite held back... the instrumentation makes it focus on the words, less on how much I'm shouting."

His "Pills And Soap" didn't stop the Conservative Party winning the general election (Costello rush-released it and appeared on Top Of The Pops the week before polling day in 1983). What can pop music really change?

"I don't think the purpose of the songs is to change history. They're like tiny little marker buoys — where the ship went down. They're something that people can dwell on and get some kind of sympathy or comfort from when they feel the same way. Why does the devil have to have all the good arguments? A lot of the time, when you watch a discussion programme like Question Time on the TV, you'll see some very well-meaning person argue their point really inarticulately, and leave themselves open to an Edwina Currie or a David Mellor to be so supercilious.

"Well, there's no answering back to a song, it's just there. It doesn't achieve any more than the amount of people that are gonna hear it, but you can't take it out of the grooves, you can't put it back again. You can stop it being played on the radio, but you can't put it back in my mouth."


Tags: SpikeIrelandCutScotlandEnglandLondonDublinLiverpoolNew OrleansLos AngelesKing Of AmericaGet Happy!!StaxMotownCait O'RiordanThe CourierBlood & ChocolateKevin KillenT Bone BurnettDirty Dozen Brass BandAllen ToussaintMoving HeartsChristy MooreThe ByrdsRoger McGuinnChrissie HyndePaul McCartneyThe BeatlesNick LoweStalin MaloneAny King's ShillingThe AnimalsDon't Let Me Be Misunderstood...This Town...Roger McGuinnLet Him DangleDerek BentleyMarc RibotDeep Dark Truthful MirrorVan MorrisonChewing GumGermanyDüsseldorfSatelliteBaby Plays AroundTramp The Dirt DownMargaret ThatcherThe Sex PistolsPills And SoapTop Of The Pops

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Cut, March 1989


Andy Spinoza interviews Elvis Costello.

Images

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Page scans.

Cover and page scan.
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Contents page.
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