Elvis Costello is somewhat uncertain about his stage name. He thinks the associations of "Elvis Costello and The Attractions" are those of a few years ago, in England at least. "I thought of possibly changing my name to King, from Elvis Costello to King Costello, like Count Basie. Now, Count Costello, that sounds a bit Transylvanian," he says.
He started out 28 years ago as Declan McManus, son of Ross McManus, singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra. He was surrounded by the music of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. "That music was going on in the background and it didn't jump out at me because as a child it probably wouldn't, it's not that kind of music. Jazz and all that was just a sound to me. Pop beat groups, they really did hit me hard."
Before he was struck down, he had met Máire ("with a fada," she insists) Borgoyne, also of a musical family, and of Irish background. Her father ran the Vic Borgoyne Dance Band but the tourist high jinks at Seapoint in front of his daughter persuaded him to move to England.
Declan and Maire, or Mary; met at school when he was 14 years old. Now they have a son, Matthew, aged eight. Before he did the rounds of the record comnpanies with tapes of his own songs, Declan/Elvis worked as a computer operator at Elizabeth Arden's in London. Stiff Records was one of Costello's later targets — after he had tried his tapes unsuccessfully on the major record companies. He was attracted to Stiff by its quirkiness. At that time, the company was run by stroke-pulling Irishman, Dave Robinson and the speedy Jake Riviera, now Elvis's manager.
"Stiff was just three people and a few boxes of records. It wasn't like going into Atlantic or Warner Brothers where they have potted plants and secretaries every where," Elvis recalls.
Having failed with the main records companies, he had already moved on to the publishing companies with the hope of being accepted as a writer. "Then I ended up at Stiff where they seemed to recognise both things at once and where they were prepared to record people who didn't simply write formula songs."
When he recorded his first LP, My Aim Is True, which met with critical and commercial success, Elvis was recognised as an important new discovery. Then Elvis Presley dies and the American media, in particular, seized on the possibility of spinning out the story of Elvis Presley's death with the story of someone who had taken over his name, or, as Elvis puts its, "someone who has a dog that can whistle all of Presley's hits." The new Elvis explains. "It was not intended either as an offence or a tribute taking the name Elvis. But, at the time, they were reading all kinds of interpretations into it so in the end we had to shut down all media."
That legacy remains. Elvis very rarely talks to the media. The interview he gave me in Dublin recently was his fourth in all, his second with me, in two years. He was in this country on holidays, having previously visited his wife's home ground of Galway. This week, he starts a tour — premiering new material — in Ireland. His musical references extend over 40 years of popular music. He has even recorded the Rodgers & Hart number, "My Funny Valentine." The first record he owned was the Beatles' "Please Please Me" and he has paid his tribute to early British beat with his own version of The Merseybeats' "I Stand Accused" and the recent single, "From Head To Toe," which he got from the early 1960s cover by Liverpool group, The Escorts, and not from the Smokey Robinson Tamla Motown original.
Lately, Elvis has gone back to the music of his parent's era, through his contact with mainstream jazz trumpeter and singer, Chet Baker. He plays on the recording of "Shipbuilding," a song by Robert Wyatt, which will also be featured on the new LP by Elvis and the Attractions.
It is one of his proudest achievements of the past year to have contributed to Wyatt's recording of that song for a single, now back in the charts a year later. Clive Langer, who is one of the producers of the next Elvis Costello album, had given him a backing track of the song and asked him to write lyrics.
He took the tape with him to Australia, where he was touring while the Falklands conflict swept through Britain. "I saw it as a horrific exercise in the worst kind of patriotism — people, being distracted from the political inadequacies of the government, drumming up a phoney militarism. One of the ideas I had was the irony — as we kept hearing of ships going down every day — that work might come back to those yards only to be transporting the children of the shipyard workers to their deaths."
Elvis was well chuffed with the result of his collaboration with Wyatt, for whom he did the vocal production. "It was a marvellous experience. He's a beautiful singer. I was almost in tears. Listening to it, it sounds corny to say it now, but it was so moving to have written something that I feel very strongly about and then hear it done so exquisitely."
Clive Langer, who had arranged that teaming up had also been largely responsible for having Elvis sing with Madness both on a 12-inch single version of Tomorrow's "Just Another Day" and in concert in London and Brighton. Along with Alan Winstanley, Langer has been working on the forthcoming Elvis Costello album. "I admire the way they can adapt SO well to different artists. If you compare Too-Rye-Aye (Dexy's Midnight Runners) and Rise and Fall (Madness), you wouldn't deduce that they were done by the same producers except for the excellence of the records. I needed someone to push me around a bit," says Elvis.
Elvis regards his adventure into country music, with the LP Almost Blue, as almost a diversion. But it did take him to Johnny Cash's mansion. While on a guided tour ("it's so full of things, you wouldn't believe it"), Elvis noticed a copy of Johnny Cash's very first records, "Cry, Cry, Cry." Spotting Costello's joy at seeing this artefact, Cash insisted on giving it to him, and signed it "To Elvis".
Word came through the grapevine — from Cash's wife, June Carter, to her daughter, Carlene, to Carlene's husband, Nick Lowe — that June was hoppin' mad at her husband. That record had been Johnny's first-ever.
Cash also took Elvis and the Attractions through his acres. Elvis grins as he imitates Cash's dark brown voice: "And see that hill over there? Bob Dylan was building a house a-top of that and the wind clean blew it away. I guess the Lord never intended for Bob to live there."
I happened to be in Stiff Records' office when Elvis Costello came in with his tapes all those years ago. I came to know him as brittle, tense, nervous, agitated. Paranoid would not have been too strong a word. Today, Elvis Costello sleeps less often with clenched fists. His talent as a writer and singer doesn't seem to hurt so much. And he laughs a lot.