Elvis Costello (Icons of Pop Music)
Elvis Costello (Icons of Pop Music)
Review by John Foyle, July 2008
It's hard to figure who this book is aimed at. As a collection of information it is excellent but exhausting. Fact upon fact is presented. As a text to be examined upon I imagine it would present a perfect example of proof of a student's ability to retain information. To the casual music fan it may be a handy intro. to Elvis. It may be slightly off putting; the sheer scale of the amount of work may make one think ' Where do I begin?'.
Time and again I found myself thinking I would prefer to just listen to the albums and not bother with all this ancillary information. That's probably a reflection of my primary use of reading matter ie. for pleasure, not for work related information.
Dai does leaven the sheer steamroller effect of all the information by chipping in with some witty asides. P.32. British musical culture bore a striking resemblance to a neatly organized class system . For example , Costello would have aimed to be heard on BBC Radio One ( pop music for youth), his father would have appeared on Radio Two ( popular music for adults), while for both of them Radio Three ( classical music ) would have been beyond reach , the pair of them like father-and-son builders turning up in a white van to fix a big house in the posh, leafy part of town.
A description of the 'descending, diatonic bass scale' in Suit Of Lights reads ( in part) P.37 '..at the bridge (1'50)Bruce Thomas wanders lonely as a cloud from the G an octave lower twice
I loved this - p.43 ' ...Steve Nieve is the key to thinking about Costello's musical development , at least up to Spike , the Steve Dedalus to Costelloe Bloom. Similarly this - P.83 '...Costello is Marmite on slightly burnt toast for breakfast next to the pains aux chocolat of Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright.
I was rubbing my eyes after reading this P.110 -
'Episode Of Blonde’ (When I Was Cruel) displays a superb control of verbal space ,built on a lively chord progression with salsa piano flourishes. The terrific first line — “I spy for The Spirit of Curiosity’ — establishes an eleven-syllable “norm” for the tempo. By the time of the line beginning “a tornado dropped a funnel” (024), we’re used to the idea of two syllables per beat. The chorus occupies 16 bars between 0,55 and 124, its lines working out as a syllable count of 13, 14, 16. 16 (59 in all). The next section is the one to home in on, a kind of rap between I ‘24 and 209, occupying 24 beats, eight more than the chorus, all in groups of four. Here the syllable count rises dramatically to encompass lots of wordy detail, to I5, 13, 11, 13, I I, 16, 10, I5 — 104 in all (and that’s the same space as the 59 syllables of the chorus) — followed by the extension with I 5, 14, 19 (48 in all), making the rap 152 syllables in total. That’s a lot of words!
And so on. He also tackles the apparent contradictions in Elvis' public personae. The hater of Thatcherism who fires a hapless engineer ( as told in the Kojak Variety re-issue note) , and so on. Many other facets are explored, way beyond my means of commentary/summarising. His summary is encapsulated by his use of this quote from Suzanne Vega
‘Although my ideal, and I have to say lately [19921. I’ve been listening to Elvis Costello, all his songs over the last ten years, and the great thing about what he does is that he still writes about love, thwarted ambition, jealousy, all these basic things in life that aren’t particularly ambitious. Everybody writes about love. But at the same time he’ll do it in a way that it’s his and it’s distinctive. He’s not afraid to use long words, he’s not afraid to use his vocabulary. He’s not afraid to say ‘I want you’ and say it over and over again for five minutes. And it’s still Elvis Costello. As a songwriter I need to be able to say those things that are a part of everyday life: I need you, I want you. War must end. How you get to say them without sounding like a jerk or sounding simplistic, that’s my next challenge. Because everyone says, ‘Oh. she’s so intellectual’. But I am trying to communicate. How do you say it but say it in such a way that it seems as if they haven’t heard it before?”
Amongst the insights I was intrigued by was his suggestion that the Brinsley Schwarz 1972 recording of Surrender To The Rhythm was a template for Pay It Back and Sneaky Feelings on MAIT. I played them back-to- back and , lo and behold, it was like they were all recorded on the same day.
The book is worth a read but do prepare to be swamped!
This extract from Dai's preface gives a more specific detailing of the books contents -
In planning the book, I was keen to avoid a chronological presentation, feeling that a thematic approach was due in Costello’s case.
The first chapter adopts the perspective of the past, in two ways. It examines the basic issue of what we refer to in talking about Elvis Costello’s work, finding examples where this has been presented as a matter of contradiction. An interlude discusses Costello’s “iconic” status by reference to his spectacles. Finally Costello’s various allusions to the music of the past offer a platform to consider the wide range of influences upon his work.
The second chapter is a survey of Costello’s music, with additional sections on recording and voice. The main survey is presented as a conundrum, whereby Costello fits uneasily into being described as a “popular” musician, having later produced works by the procedures of “classical” music. The chapter selects examples from the entire range of Costello’s output, and supports its musical vocabulary with references to specific points in recordings so that, by listening to the recording, the reader will hear the point made. For my part, the musical detail is based primarily on listening and working out at the piano, although, where available, scores were also consulted. The section on Costello’s recording talks about the producer Clive Langer, while the section on voice makes reference to his father, Ross MacManus, among many others.
The third chapter is a discussion of the words of Costello’s songs, and includes a brief review of his collected prose, the liner notes he produced for reissues of his recordings on CD. After a brief review of other authors on Costello’s words, the chapter examines aspects of technique in songwriting, and discusses examples under the familiar division into political songs and songs of romance. In both cases, boundaries to the range of Costello’s subject matter are suggested. The chapter selects from the range of Costello’s output. but focuses on examples from King Of America, Blood And Chocolate, and Spike.