Exclaim!, March 2006

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Elvis Costello - The many faces of The Imposter


Jason Schneider

"The only motivation points for me writing all these songs are revenge and guilt. Those are the only two emotions I know about, that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs." Thus went the opening salvo of Elvis Costello's first major interview with the NME in 1977. At the time, these words struck the perfect chord in an England consumed by its social disintegration. But as punk's con was eventually revealed, Costello's position as spokesman for the cheated masses only grew stronger. Erudite, unabashedly vicious, and above all, musically gifted, within three years Costello had produced the most concentrated cache of brilliant songs since Bob Dylan's mid-'60s output. And like Dylan, just when fans and critics alike thought they had him pegged, Costello abruptly changed course. This has remained true throughout a career that has ranged from blood-and-guts rock to country, jazz and classical. He has tested the waters in seemingly every genre; his latest, My Flame Burns Blue, was recorded live in Holland with trusted keyboardist Steve Nieve and the Metropole Orkest. Although an example of Costello's bombastic side, the album also reveals the versatility of many of his best songs via daring big-band arrangements. With it, Costello again proves that he's the only figure from punk's first wave to unarguably rank among the greatest songwriters of all time.

1954 to 1975
Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus is born Aug. 25, 1954 in London; his father is a professional big band singer and his mother manages a record store. In 1971, after his parents split, he moves to Liverpool with his mother where he forms a folk duo called Rusty. In 1974, he moves back to London where he forms roots-rock band Flip City, in which he appears under the name D.P. Costello (his grandmother's maiden name). Flip City begins slogging it out on the London "pub rock" circuit with other punk forebears like Dr. Feelgood and Brinsley Schwarz (featuring Nick Lowe). Being married and a father at a young age forces him into a nine-to-five to support his family. "I had something of an ambition to be a professional musician," he would tell Rolling Stone in 1982. "I was writing my own songs, which were dreadful. I met Nick Lowe just before I came to London. That was the first time I'd ever spoken to anybody in a proper group. When we've worked together it's been, 'I can't see what's so difficult about it; it's just four chords,' and he'd bang them out. It was quite a revelation to me."

1976 to 1977
Having been rejected by major labels, Costello answers an ad for fledgling indie Stiff Records and sends his home-recorded solo demo. Label head Jake Riviera signs him and becomes his manager. "On the first demo tape that I sent to Stiff," he'll say in '82, "there were a lot of raw songs, and looking at them now, rather precious songs with a lot of chords. Showing-off songs. They came out convoluted; they weren't poppy at all. I ended up writing a lot of songs in the summer of 1977 in reaction to punk and the Queen's Jubilee. 'Welcome To The Working Week,' 'Red Shoes,' 'Miracle Man,' 'Alison,' 'Sneaky Feelings,' 'Waiting For The End Of The World,' 'I'm Not Angry,' all more or less came in one go, in about two or three weeks." Still at his day job, Costello records at night with Lowe, backed by visiting San Francisco band Clover, who will later become Huey Lewis & the News. The image-conscious Riviera convinces him to adopt the name Elvis and change his eyewear to oversized horn-rims, in tribute to Buddy Holly. The overall look is shockingly nerdy. Reminiscing to journalist Nick Kent in 1991, Costello says, "I knew there was only going to be one chance to get my foot in the door. And if I didn't make a really strong impression, then I wouldn't buy myself the time and space to do other stuff." That first impression is made explosively with his first single, "Less Than Zero," a tirade against Britain's tacit acceptance of fascist ideologues. It is followed by My Aim Is True, which creates instant underground buzz in the U.S. To protest the album's import-only status in the States, Costello busks outside a CBS Records convention in London, and signs an American deal with Columbia in short order. By year's end he also forms his own band, the Attractions, anchored by Steve Nieve's garage-y organ playing, and heads out on tour.

1978
During his American television debut on Saturday Night Live (as a last-minute fill-in for the Sex Pistols), Costello stops midway through "Less Than Zero" to play the yet-to-be-released "Radio Radio." The incident infuriates SNL producer Lorne Michaels and he bans Costello from the show (for the next decade, anyway). Costello later admits he got the idea from a similar stunt Jimi Hendrix pulled on the BBC. The attention pushes My Aim Is True into the American Top 40. Costello and the Attractions quickly follow up with This Year's Model; it contains an even stronger batch of songs, including "Pump It Up," the ska-inflected British hit "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," and the stinging indictment "Radio Radio." With his chart success, Costello distances himself from the rest of British punk. He explains to Musician in 1985: "The second album is all complete rewrites. There were about three albums that made up the blueprint: [the Rolling Stones'] Aftermath, the first couple of Who albums, and some Kinks records. I was never above nicking ideas. People were always looking in the back catalogue of rock 'n' roll for my influences, when I was just as likely to be listening to Talking Heads. There were a lot of red herrings, a good smoke screen."

1979
Creative and commercial momentum hit an early peak when Armed Forces cracks the American Top 10. Its energy is undeniable, from opener "Accidents Will Happen" to a cover of Nick Lowe's protest classic "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." "That was my moment record," Costello tells Musician. "That's when I was a pop star in England for about ten minutes. And it was self-conscious of that. The record inevitably doesn't make any sense because we were all completely mad." Costello's heroic intake of gin and tonic while on tour in America eventually lands him in hot water when, during an argument at a Holiday Inn bar in Columbus, Ohio with members of the Stephen Stills Band, he calls James Brown an "ignorant nigger" and Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." The Stills Band inform the press, which immediately sensationalises the incident, forcing Costello to apologise during a press conference in New York a few days later. "We started into what you'd probably call joshing," he tells Rolling Stone. "Gentle gibes between the two camps of the Stills Band and us. It developed, as it got drunker and drunker, into a nastier and nastier argument. And I suppose that in the drunkenness, my contempt for them was exaggerated beyond my real contempt for them. I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them, that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else. The first thing that a lot of people heard about me was that incident. I think it outweighs my entire career, which is a pretty depressing prospect." Costello rebuilds his reputation by producing the Specials' debut album, and working closely with Britain's "Rock Against Racism" campaign.

1980
The Attractions' manic sound reaches its apex when they record Get Happy! in Holland. Although planned as a tribute to their R&B influences, it is crammed with 20 more staggeringly literate pop songs that draw complex imagery out of seemingly mundane events. "That album was demented, it wasn't in control," Costello tells Musician. "We'd go to the cafe and see a beautiful waitress and say as a joke, 'I want to possess her.' 'Possession, that's a good one!' I'd write a song about it on the way back to the studio, just to see if I could do it, then we'd record it. It got to be a game. It ran away with itself." Costello brushes off criticism of this technique by dubbing himself "rock 'n' roll's Scrabble champion." Despite ongoing polarised opinions of Costello in America, Get Happy! cracks the Top 20. This prompts Columbia to release Taking Liberties, an equally jam-packed collection of UK singles, b-sides and outtakes.

1981
Trust is Costello's most overtly pop record yet, but an absence of a hit single and general lacklustre sales hints that his creative stamina is waning. Costello realises it; he later tells Musician: "Around the time I made Trust I felt I'd reached a cul-de-sac. I was starting to deliberately do dangerous things — physically and emotionally — just for the experience. It still puts me on edge to listen to it. We were completely worn out. My five minutes of stardom was definitely up. I was staring at cultdom and thinking, 'Is it worth wrecking my health and getting so upset for this?' I could see myself slipping into that rather pathetic, self-pitying stance." His solution is to revisit his early country influences; he brings the Attractions to Nashville to record with legendary producer Billy Sherrill, and Almost Blue is released by year's end. Many of the cover songs have links to Costello's personal hero, Gram Parsons. Despite a minor hit with "A Good Year For The Roses," the response from fans and critics alike is overwhelmingly negative. "I didn't anticipate the violent reaction some people would have to it," he tells Musician. "It annoyed me because I probably cared more about the songs I was singing than all the bloody hacks in Nashville. But it was good I did it, because in getting away from what I had been doing I realised it wasn't so bloody important."

1982
Re-invigorated, Costello comes back strong with Imperial Bedroom, a more musically sophisticated set. Production by frequent Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and absence of a single creates assumptions that it is Costello's first true concept album; there's no denying its theme of marital breakdown. "I wrote almost all of Imperial Bedroom on the piano, which I can't play," Costello tells Musician. "I'd show [the chords] to Steve Nieve and he'd interpret them. I was bored with rock 'n' roll, and conscious of the screaming sound being self-defeating. After that album, the New York Times was calling me the new George Gershwin, and it was so embarrassing to watch people fall into the trap of their own critical conceits. It wasn't that I was obsessed with [domestic issues], it just made the strongest songs. I always write better sad songs."

1983
Punch the Clock is another deviation; he works with then-hot producer Clive Langer and pieces the album through overdubs, including female backing vocals and a horn section. He hits the singles charts with "Everyday I Write The Book," but the album is mired in a sterile '80s sound. Its saving grace is "Shipbuilding," an indictment of the Falklands War that features a heartbreaking trumpet solo from doomed jazz great Chet Baker, for whom Costello had written Imperial Bedroom's "Almost Blue]" Costello is outspokenly against Margaret Thatcher's government and attacks her in "Pills And Soap," which he releases as a single under the guise of the Imposter, to coincide with the 1983 election.

1984
During the making of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello hits another creative block. He intends to make a folk record, but is persuaded by Langer to repeat the process of Punch The Clock. "Clive and I disagreed about what records are supposed to be," Costello tells Musician. "He doesn't like things to be too personal and real. I should have stood up for the songs more if they meant that much to me, and the simple truth is some are not that good. Some of them are a load of wank." Upon its release, Costello does not hesitate to call it his worst record. With his first marriage dissolving, he also announces his retirement from the Attractions.

1985
Costello marries Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, following his production work on the band's breakthrough Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. He collaborates with American musician/producer T-Bone Burnett; they release a single as the Coward Brothers, and work together on Costello's next album, King Of America. He stays true to his word to retire his well-known image by using his real name, growing a beard, and working with many American session stars, including former Elvis Presley sidemen James Burton and Jerry Scheff. The album's innovative, rootsy approach is critically well received, but confusion over Costello's perceived identity crisis doesn't help sales. To partially rectify this, he plays multiple dates in each city, one with the KoA band (dubbed the Confederates), one with the Attractions, and one solo. This proves to be too much of a strain on both Costello and fans that want to attend each show, and by the end of the year he reunites with the Attractions, shaves his beard and puts on the horn-rims again.

1986 to 1987
Blood & Chocolate is hailed as a return to the classic Attractions sound, largely due to Nick Lowe's presence as producer, but apart from a few memorable songs like the chilling "I Want You," it doesn't stir up the excitement of the late '70s. Costello attempts to do that in other ways through a new alter ego, Napoleon Dynamite, an important presence on both the album and the subsequent tour where he appears as an obnoxious MC. He neglects to copyright the name, allowing it to take on a new life in Jared Hess's 2004 film. Simmering tensions within the Attractions come to a boil and at the conclusion of the tour, Costello puts the band on the shelf again. An unusual period of reclusiveness follows, apart from his memorable role as Hives the Butler in Alex Cox's film Straight To Hell, which also features Courtney Love, Joe Strummer and the Pogues.

1988 to 1989
Costello leaves Columbia for Warner, writes with Paul McCartney, and heads back to the studio with Burnett and a host of session stars for Spike. The solid album gets even more attention for the McCartney connection; one of their collaborations, "Veronica," becomes Costello's only American Top 20 single. It's enough to persuade Lorne Michaels to invite him back to Saturday Night Live. "It's funny — you take an opinion poll on Paul McCartney and you find that almost all music critics dislike him and almost all music fans think he's great," Costello tells Nick Kent in 1991. "I mean, compared to who is Paul McCartney not any good? Compared to the Inspiral fuckin' Carpets?"

1990 to 1992
A long haired and bearded Costello befriends Jerry Garcia and contributes to a Grateful Dead tribute album, but his new album, Mighty Like the Rose, follows the Spike formula, with many of the same players and more McCartney collaborations, including the devastating "So Like Candy." But the album receives a much cooler reception than Spike and Costello starts to look elsewhere for inspiration. He records another album of covers, released in 1995 as Kojak Variety, and participates in a tribute album to bassist Charles Mingus, the first of many collaborations with former members of the jazz legend's band.

1993
A clean-cut Costello makes his first foray into the classical world by teaming with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters. It delivers on its collaborative promise but in the end seems little more than a successful songwriting exercise. "I grew a beard and I grew my hair long and it freaked people out," Costello tells Scotland On Sunday shortly after its release. "They thought I had gone mad or I was being tremendously self-indulgent. Then The Juliet Letters was something that wasn't for everybody, and I make no apologies for that. But the people that had never bought a record of mine because it was too loud, too shouty or too twangy heard that it's not that different from other composed music. I'm not trying to sell a million records every time." Rykodisc begins extensive reissues of his catalogue on CD with the 2 1/2 Years box set, which includes a previously bootlegged 1978 show from Toronto's El Mocambo.

1994 to 1995
After Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James asks for a song for her solo project, Costello gives her an album's worth, written over one weekend. Some of them appear, along with other commissioned songs, on 1996's All This Useless Beauty. Work begins with producer Mitchell Froom, who's also been working with Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, leading to an Attractions reunion on the hard rocking but uneven Brutal Youth. Throwing himself into a hit-packed American tour, he also makes numerous TV appearances, including a notably hilarious turn on The Larry Sanders Show. The year ends with a little-noticed album with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell called Deep Dead Blue.

1996 to 1998
The worldwide Brutal Youth tour continues but old band hostilities resurface and Thomas leaves acrimoniously after the last show in Japan. Soon after, he publishes a tell-all book called The Big Wheel that details his time with the Attractions. The release of Kojak Variety and All This Useless Beauty fulfil Costello's Warner Bros. contract. He records "My Dark Life" with Brian Eno for an album of songs inspired by the TV show The X Files, then attains a lifelong goal by working with composer Burt Bacharach on "God Give Me Strength," for the film Grace Of My Heart. The song wins a Grammy, and the pair continue on with a full album. Costello signs a new deal with Polygram that gives him unique flexibility; he can release albums on any of the company's subsidiary labels, and the first is Bacharach album, Painted From Memory. They promote it with a handful of acclaimed shows in North America and Europe, after which Costello carries on touring, accompanied only by Steve Nieve.

1999 to 2000
Costello at the movies: "She" is featured in Notting Hill, and he teams with Bacharach again for an appearance in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Most of his time is spent touring with Nieve; Polygram fills the gap with the superfluous The Very Best Of Elvis Costello.

2001 to 2002
He gets busy again, first working on opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter's pop album, For The Stars, then accepting an artist-in-residence position at UCLA, which results in four separate performances of works in progress. Among these is a ballet score for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," entitled Il Sogno, that will be released in 2004. He also starts work on a new rock album, drafting former Cracker bassist Davey Faragher for the "new" Attractions, now called the Imposters. When I Was Cruel is released to rave reviews. The band embarks on a lengthy world tour, and by its conclusion in September 2002, Costello and O'Riordan announce their split. Rhino Records purchases the rights to reissue Costello's entire catalogue under Costello's strict supervision. The results are now seen as the definitive versions, with each release packed with bonus tracks and Costello's own liner notes.

2003 to 2005
Costello and the Attractions are inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame around the time he falls for Canada's jazz sweetheart Diana Krall. He quickly writes and records the brooding torch song suite North as an expression of recent romantic turmoil. Costello and Krall are married at Elton John's London estate in December 2003. Six songs the newlyweds write together appear on her album, The Girl In The Other Room. Memorable TV appearances include a guest shot on Frasier and guest hosting for David Letterman during the host's recovery from heart surgery. He also appears in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely, but it is the renewal of his partnership with T-Bone Burnett on the Oscar-nominated song "Scarlet Tide," from Cold Mountain, that inspires Costello to bring the Imposters to Oxford, Mississippi in the summer of '04 to record the raw and soulful The Delivery Man. A loosely themed Southern Gothic concept album, it is easily his most successful stab at American roots rock. "I remember the night I played 'Heart Shaped Bruise' for the first time, five years ago at Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville]," he tells Rolling Stone at the time. "I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and read a rough draft of the outline. This was long before I had the title song. The story is just a way of creating an environment. There's a style of film-noir song that I've been attracted to since 'Watching the Detectives.' A particular kind of mysterious figure reoccurs as a motif in those songs — and in The Delivery Man." His only release in 2005 is Piano Jazz, taken from an '03 session with pianist Marian McPartland featuring standards and two Costello songs.

2006
My Flame Burns Blue is a live recording from '04 with Steve Nieve and Holland's Metropole Orkest. The set covers his entire career and displays the diversity of his craft. Another album, The River In Reverse, recorded with producer Joe Henry and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, is expected in May. "I'm terrifically impulsive, but I see things through," he told Rolling Stone in '04. "I'm very patient. Maybe I have a misplaced belief in my own immortality. I believe I can wait out any fashion. I waited out the whole '80s. Those fuckers all went away eventually, with their stupid haircuts and synthesisers."


The Essential Elvis Costello

Armed Forces (Columbia, 1979)
The first four albums are essential, but Armed Forces gets the nod as an early masterpiece for capturing the band in full flight after long months on the road. Costello's skill at wrapping his lyrics around equally astounding melodies was inspiring a new generation, and it remains the standard for any young songwriter longing to let their geek flag fly.

Imperial Bedroom (Columbia, 1982)
The first glimpse of the "mature" Costello, this ambitious song cycle is nearly impossible to digest in one sitting. Melancholy abounds, from his deep vocals to the overriding theme of domestic unrest. While now arguably the blueprint for later jazz and classical excursions, Imperial Bedroom retains the spark of an artist confidently breaking new ground.

The Delivery Man (Lost Highway, 2004)
Fans of the old Attractions sound might lean toward When I Was Cruel as a recent high point, but this album fulfilled every notion Costello had of being the next Robbie Robertson. The Delivery Man drops listeners in the middle of a steamy Southern night, with all the dangers and temptations that come with it, and rocks convincingly all the while.

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Exclaim!, March 2006


Jason Schneider profiles EC.

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