Folk Roots, July 1989

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Folk Roots

UK & Ireland magazines


Floor singer's revenge

Colin Irwin

In case you hadn't guessed, Elvis Costello knows his folk music. Colin Irwin hears all about it

He's ready and waiting with an anecdote. The one about his live debut as a nervous 15 year-old floor singer at a folk club, playing some crappy song he'd knocked up, while the main guest of the evening — a gentleman called MacColl — fell asleep in the front row. Elvis Costello is the perfect host... "A drink? Coffee? Perrier? It's not too cold for you is it, only it was so hot in this room earlier, I opened the window..."

His warmth is something of a surprise. A far, far cry from the man with the surly reputation and the acerbic wit who spent years not giving the time of day to journalists ...and if he did, it was to eat them up for his breakfast.

Costello, after all, was at the very vanguard of punk, the aggressive young creature with a voice like a foghorn and songs that sliced you in two. Interviews? On your bike, son.

A few people remembered him playing around the folk clubs... and not being well received. Whatever... riding on the crest of a wave with his exceptional band The Attractions, Elvis wasn't telling.

In the ensuing years, Elvis has firmly established himself as one of the finest songwriters of the era which, he will probably tell you, isn't saying a lot. And if the sheer stridency of his delivery sometimes distracted from the vision and ingenuity of his lyrics, this reservation was buried for this observer at least by his brilliant 'solo' album King Of America.

Indeed, his lust for music is legendary. Already he'd shown his mettle delving into a variety of musics — from the Motown inspired Get Happy to his country album Almost Blue recorded in Nashville with Billy Sherrill and a Melvin Bragg camera crew. And more recently he was headlong into the rewriting of modern folk music, producing The Pogues' album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash.

We've been trying to get him to do an interview for Folk Roots for years. With the release of his latest album Spike — which explores Irish folk music in some depth on a couple of tracks, notably "Any King's Shilling" and the anti-Thatcher tirade "Tread The Dirt Down" (featuring many Irish folk luminaries) — Elvis has agreed to that request. He is, in any case, a regular Folk Roots reader, full of educated opinion on the developments in world music.

Today, he is only too willing to voice those opinions. Far from the ornery individual whose obsession with privacy created such mystique in his early days, he is full of reminiscences about his early days around the folk clubs — and the heroes and villains he encountered there. His wife Cait O'Riordan, once a Pogue, sits reading Time Out, keeping her counsel beyond the odd incredulous expression (?). Elvis, the perfect host, offers Perrier and anecdotes...

I was interested by the Irish tracks on the new album and your whole attitude to folk music and its recent rebirth...

I was thinking about this today on the way here and what we'd be talking about specifically in relation to the magazine. It's funny that it's called Folk Roots. It's really changed, hasn't it? And the acceptance of what would have blandly been called folk music ten years ago. People's perception of it, how hip it is, all those things have really changed radically over the last three or four years. So I thought you might ask something with regard to the actual instruments that obviously come from folk music. I think that everything's folk music personally. If it comes from folks, it's folk music.

Oh, that old Leadbelly thing, "I ain't heard no horse sing"!

Was it Leadbelly? I've heard it attributed to several people.

Yes, Louis Armstrong was one...

Yeah, it's like that quote about "I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member". That was attributed to Groucho Marx and numerous other people.

I do believe it, though. There's some music where you can't hear the humans in it very much and we all know what that is so we don't have to talk about that. But I was thinking about how much I hated folk music when I first started out, simply because of the resistance that I found...

Because you played on the folk club circuit didn't you?

Yes. It's ironic really some of the things that have happened. This train of thought dates back to when we were doing The Pogues' record and we did "Dirty Old Town." I had it in my mind that was going to be one of the big tracks off that album despite the fact that I really thought that Shane wrote much better songs. It was obvious that people would be able to identify with the song and it would be a rallying cry as a live song and that version was something I'm sure that Ewan MacColl never intended.

It was funny because the very first time I played in public I was a floor singer and Ewan MacColl was the main singer. I got up with my little guitar and I was 15 or something, and he sat in the front looking exactly the same as he does now and he sat there, head bowed all the way through my set, and I'm sure he just nodded off!

Which club was this where you played in public for the first time?

That was the Crypt at St. Elizabeth's in Richmond, which was a well-established folk club. I used to go every week whether or not I played. I was just about turning 16 when I moved to Liverpool. It's funny — I'd completely forgotten this division there was at the time. Demon have just released a couple of compilations of early '60s guitar stuff... a couple of John Renbourn albums and things. I'm actually a little bit young to have been a fan of that kind of scene... they were the established heads that you didn't really see in the clubs — they'd already graduated to playing the Albert Hall before I started going to folk clubs. But you did have the Ewan MacColls coming around. I'd forgotten about this division between the two sides until somebody mentioned it on the sleeve notes to one of these records. It was like the trad. v. contemporary thing, I'd forgotten about all that.

So I had a traumatic first appearance with this old bloke falling asleep, or pretending to fall asleep during my song — as you can imagine, that was pretty crushing. But apart from that I was fortunate because I got to see some really good people. It was very open. I didn't go to that many clubs but you could get to see somebody like Noel Murphy, Tir Na Nog, Mike Maran, Sam Mitchell, Jo Ann Kelly, Mike Oldfield and his sister, The Sallyangie. If you played acoustic guitar you could basically get up there. This was all one summer — I had a great summer. I played when they let me and I made my first faltering steps — and then I moved to Liverpool.

And what happened in Liverpool?

I found a folk scene dominated by Jacqui & Bridie and sub-Spinners people and it was like running into a brick wall — it was horrendous. That was where the contemporary/traditional paradox was at its strongest. Contemporary was a dirty word.

Were you singing your own songs at the time?

Yes. I don't have any tapes of those songs — they were probably pretty awful. Aren't everybody's first songs? Mind you, these days you can usually get your first songs out on a record. People would tolerate you at the beginning of the night — somebody had to get up and sing first. That was a way of learning and I didn't object to that. You didn't think about it as ambition. And then I got up to Liverpool and it was all that bloody stuff.

My two revenges on folk music were to have The Pogues trash "Dirty Old Town" and have it turned into a football chant, which I thought was a marvellous disembowelling. And the other is "Wild Rover." "The Wild Rover" in Liverpool was the "Johnny B. Goode" of traditional music. A traditional singer could get up and be terrible and he could do Wild Rover and do an encore, and he'd come back and do The Holy Ground! I hated those fucking songs!

[Cait is feigning terrible shock-horror at this revelation]

It's true! The Pogues thought they were manipulating me but it was just a ruse to avenge myself!

Were you modelling yourself on anybody at that point?

Everything! You'd get one record one week and try and sound like that and the next week it would be something different. Then I got in a group in Liverpool with a couple of other guys and then the others went off to college and there were just the two of us left. We used to do anything to get gigs. We used to gatecrash poetry nights and they'd let us sing if we didn't do anything too poppy. And some nights we'd go out into somewhere like Widnes and play anything that was in the charts that we could play on two guitars — people just wanted a good sing-song.

But back in Liverpool it was really down to running your own clubs if you wanted to do anything. There was a place called the Songwriters Club that only allowed original songwriters — that was a bold experiment because you couldn't do covers or traditional material. Other than that it was down to running your own club. Sometime we'd get an off night in a night club — Tuesday night or something when there wasn't much going on and we'd get about five people along and the club would say it's not worth them opening because the people who came didn't drink anyway. Well, it wasn't the carousing crowd — it was the sensitive types in greatcoats. That's what we were anyway.

It didn't put you off for life?

No. When you first start you really just want a break without someone riling you. You'd get some really hostile reactions from organisers. You'd go somewhere that supposedly had an open policy and you'd get shoved on at the worst possible time — after the raffle or something. I think why I ended up in rock 'n' roll was that my voice got so loud from shouting people down.

I came back to London after two years in Liverpool because I realised there wasn't any scene in Liverpool to get into. It was completely dead in Liverpool in the early '70s. So I came down and did that for a while, and then I got into a group and when that hit a dead end I went solo again. All semi-pro. At this point I was getting the odd gig for a tenner. I was resident at the Half Moon in Putney for a while — I used to get 50p and a plate of sandwiches!

Did they listen to you there?

They did by that point because I was so fucking loud they didn't have any option. I'd really got the volume up by then. I'd abandoned all attempts at playing subtle guitar. I'd really wanted to play guitar when I first started because of that acoustic thing from America — all the Americans playing open tunings. But I walked into something I really didn't know anything about — all that Renbourn and Jansch stuff. And John James. I sometimes wonder whatever happened to him. Tremendous guitar player. I was fascinated by that — you know transposing those rags onto guitar. I always wanted to play like that but I could never get the co-ordination together. And I was never happy playing with nails so I tried to play with pads which means you're not very loud, so I just had to go to a flat-pick. And from a flat-pick it got into rhythm because rhythm gave me more cover. So the style came from having to cover myself in noisy clubs. You wouldn't try and fingerpick stuff and sing quietly so it was mostly rhythmic things with a lot of strumming, and occasionally open tuning. But I used to dread open tuning because I could never get it back up in tune. It would always end up in some kind of Chinese tuning.

So was it working with The Pogues that got you interested again in folk music?

No. If somebody slaps you in the face you tend to say "Fuck that type of music!" But as you get more confident and you get more response you see a traditional act and you can see the beauty of it. So by the time I did The Pogues I'd had six or seven years of making records. I was looking at all kinds of music and trying to see something that I could appreciate in it. So although I hadn't used any accepted folk-type instruments, there were songs that owed things structurally to folk melodies.

I like all kinds of music. I've become more broadminded about music as I've got older. So by the time I did The Pogues thing I liked a lot of things that were pertinent to it. So it wasn't like they turned me on to folk music, which is one of the delusions that certain members of that group seem to be labouring under, that they re-invented me as a born-again folkie. That's complete nonsense. I was already playing solo when I even met The Pogues!

But on Spike some of the songs seem deliberately structured in a traditional way... particularly "King's Shilling."

On "King's Shilling" it was really a question of trying to make the language sound real and of the time that it took place. It's meant to be an early part of the century way of speaking. I made an effort that the people in the song should address each other in a slightly more formal way.

Was that song based on a specific story?


But you're not going to tell me what it is?

Oh yes, sorry! It happened to my grand-father. He was born in Birkenhead but his folks were from Ireland. They came over like everybody else and his dad was... well, nobody's really sure, but they think he was murdered. And the kids were orphaned and my grandfather ended up from the orphanage in the military school of music. When war came he was sent to France and was shot and wasn't fit to go back to the front. So he ended up in the British Army in Dublin in 1916 on the wrong side, as you might say. I'm not saying that James Connolly came to him and said "Matt, keep your head down" but some Scallies that he knew there said "You'd better watch out". It's a good starting point for a story that could happen anywhere.

What about the musicians you've got on it? Davy Spillane and Donal Lunny and Christy Moore...

I started off having a tussle with folk music but after nearly 20 years I've come to peace with folk music and I've got friends who are completely unapologetically in that tradition. Donal Lunny asked me to do a TV show in Ireland — he did this O'Riada retrospective concert and he had this great line-up put together and he asked me if I wanted to come up and sing some songs with them. So I took some songs along — Let 'Em Dangle and Any King's Shilling and something from King Of America. So we did that. It's a very cliquey sort of music. It's like jazz in that because it goes largely unrewarded and uncelebrated, people jealously guard their own corners and it makes them more bitchy than pop people who get everything landed in their laps... and then they get bitchy! So when I was doing the record I went to Donal and asked him to help me put a band together for it. So he got Davy Spillane, I got Derek Bell, Christy Moore agreed to do it, and he suggested Frankie Gavin and I got Steve Wickham and between us we assembled this band. It's like a little orchestra and plays in a very formal way.

Derek Bell wrote his part — he's like a classical musician — and Davy Spillane is the other extreme. He's anxious to make the plunge as far out as he possibly can. He's remarkable. Pipes and pedal steel are the two instruments which can go the direct route to places, which other instruments can't do. They have abilities to shift gear musically in a way that's barely been tried yet and he's one of the few people that's doing it.

There's an almost sacred attitude towards the pipes...

I don't think it's in any way demeaning to the instrument or to other players if one pipe player decides to step out. He's not trivialising the pipes by taking the pipes into other areas. He's proving what a fabulous instrument it is. Considering it's a limited instrument in that it can only operate in certain keys, inside those keys it's incredibly flexible.

What did you think of the Van Morrison collaboration with The Chieftains?

I loved it. I don't know all the other versions of those songs so I go to it with an open mind as a Van Morrison fan. It's a mistake to compare him with someone else who works in a pure consciously folk tradition. He sings them like him and not them — why can't both exist? Some of the criticism of the record is completely wrong-headed. It isn't a record that can be compared with anything because it isn't like anything else. It's the same old debate, isn't it? Purism against interpretation... I'm really disappointed we're still having those debates.

Nobody thinks it diminishes June Tabor's singing because she had a synthesiser on her record. But for my taste I'd rather just hear her unaccompanied, or with real cellos rather than imitated cellos. Her voice is such a remarkable instrument that a synthetic approximation of a beautiful string instrument cannot compare with the natural beauty of her voice. In that respect her performance is slightly diminished by the accompaniment... but not so much that you can't enjoy it.

You did one of her songs didn't you?

Yeah, Smiling Shore.

You're quite a big fan then?

Yes. She's remarkable. She's one of the few English traditional singers that I like. I just can't stand the sound of their voices — I don't like the accent. It's a peculiar thing, I've just grown up with American sounding voices, and it's prejudiced me against it. And again it's that thing of what you had to put up with, of them being so full of themselves when you just wanted that five minutes at the start of a night. It just turned me off and it's taken me a long time to get over that bigotry that I had driven into me.

But June Tabor... if you can't appreciate that then you should just stop listening to music. And Martin Carthy... and a few other people.

Presumably you're in favour of this world music thing with the barriers breaking down?

I see a danger that it could become a flavour of the week. I have a dreadful fear of artists being left high and dry by a change in the wind, particularly when they're from another country and they come here with an open attitude to the machinery here and suddenly it's "Oh sorry, it's not Algerian music this week, it's Czechoslovakian now". That element worries me — I worry about the motives of the entrepreneurs... but then I worry about the motives of entrepreneurs all the time! There are songs about it on the record!

But that's the only aspect of it that bothers me. I went to see Balkana at the National Sound Archive — that was a weird one. It's like a drawing room in the 1800s... there they are at one end of the room and there's all these people sitting there in this brightly lit overheated room and they were sort of on display. But they did it with great dignity. There was this amazingly severe woman translating who put the fear of God into anybody who blinked and it only really broke through because of the personalities of the people in the band. People were applauding their passion and their fervour, which is much more important than putting it all under glass.

If it wasn't for the language there wouldn't be any barriers at all between the traditions. There's so many parallels, there's so many meeting points musically. There are certain musics that seem alien to you in a very attractive way and that's the very thing you like about them. But the stories that they tell are all told using other mediums — the stories are basically the same because they're stories about humans. They're stories about folks — it's folk music, literally! People live, they die, they get sent away to war, they get transported... all those things happen everywhere. That's the strength of it.

It's just whether it becomes like "Do you have this one?", "Have you got the Penny Black?" It becomes like stamp collecting after a while and that becomes as negative as "Oh is it electric blues — I only like acoustic blues". Or "I only like trad., I don't like modern". That's bullshit. It's all stuff. We all need Dumbo ears.

So you think there's plenty more for you to explore?

Yes. I have to trust people haven't become too cynical and will hear what's on this record honestly and without cynicism. That it's not "Oh now he's doing folk music". That's shit! I don't think I'm doing folk music! I hear sounds that I think are entirely appropriate not only to the context but to the subject and the emotion of the song so I'll use them. In the same way that I've used the pipes and the fiddle, I think the horns are entirely appropriate to the songs they're on, and the more conventional pop-sounding arrangements with electric guitars — that's right for those songs.

It's not like a series of overcoats that I'm wearing. It's not like "Look at me, haven't I got a big wardrobe?" That's not what it's about. What it's about is telling the stories as well as you possibly can.

You must have got that reaction when you went to Nashville to record Almost Blue...

No, I don't think that's comparable. That was just indulging something that I wanted to do. To sing songs of a certain emotional stamp without having to write them myself. That was one attempt at doing it and I think I could do it a lot better now. In terms of the kind of emotional area I was trying to move in, I think I wrote better songs of my own for my voice to sing on King Of America than me attempting songs that I'm not equipped to sing.

It's more like a rock 'n' roll singer doing a country record. It's more in the tradition of Charlie Rich doing his Hank Williams record. To my mind Charlie Rich is a great R & B singer, not a country singer... but he brings that sort of blues eclection out of the Hank Williams songs, something different out of those songs than you would get from George Jones singing Hank Williams.

That's more what I was doing with Almost Blue... 'Him the nasally punk singer doing his country and western songs like a bar band'. I didn't see any friction or obstacle there. We jumped the queue. Not many people can go in and get Billy Sherrill to produce their album, for better or worse. A lot of people probably wouldn't want to, but others are queueing up for it. We got out of that pretty much what we asked for.

You go very far afield and you find the most outlandish things. When you start going to West Africa and finding that guy who wants to be Jimmie Rodgers. How did the pedal steel guitar get into West African music? I think that's great — let's mix it all up. Like Miles Davis in the '60s. He could have been the king of jazz forever and he wanted to be Sly Stone. I think that's really cool. Cool and brave. It's all there. It's not so much world music, it's just a world of music.

What do you think of Billy Bragg?

He's written some good songs. I don't agree with him all the time and I don't agree with the stance from which he appears to work, but it seems like he's now working out the paradoxes in his songs, rather than the "we're in this position — you're in that position" way that it was a few years ago. He's more involved in life.

His best songs to my ears are the ones where he takes a little story to illustrate a point rather than the big slogans, which was the failing of the protest movement in the first place because nobody that disagrees with you listens. You don't stir up an argument. The main thing you should do with any song that's about anything you can call political is start a fight with it. That should be the main aim. It's not going to change anything. Me singing Let 'Em Dangle isn't going to stop them bringing back hanging. The best you might do is start up some sort of punch-up which might get people talking about it... that's the very best you can ask for. The least you can ask for is to be completely ignored and for it not to be played — that's Leon Rosselson.

What about a vicious song like Tramp The Dirt Down (which unequivocally wishes death on M. Thatcher). What do you hope to achieve by that?

It gets it out of my system. That's more personal than the song may appear at first glance. It's a horrible thought — I don't like the idea of wishing anyone dead, no matter who they are or what they've done to whoever I love. But that's the case and therefore it's a very personal song. It's an unreasonable argument, it's not intended to be a balanced, liberal view. It's a psychopathic song.

Therapy for you...

It is. It also says some things that are true. I do think that England is a whorehouse. If anyone takes exception to that line I'll argue the cases where I think it is. And if you qualify everything you're never going to win any arguments or change anything. If you've always got to have a let-out clause... there's no let-out clause in "The Times They Are A-Changing," there's no let-out clause in the real version of "This Land Is Your Land."

It's a much more complicated psychology these days because nothing they say is true. When Woody Guthrie was writing songs it was like "You are worthless dirt farmers and we're gonna kick your butt off this land" — that was a fairly easy thing to understand. They didn't try to dress it up in any way. Now they would have an advertising campaign to explain to you why it's better that they come and steamroller your house. So a song as simplistic as that one won't work any more. It's ironic now. When Bruce Springsteen sings This Land Is Your Land it's really beautiful because it's so obviously not true. It's like when I sang All You Need Is Love at Live Aid I thought it was entirely appropriate because it is so transparently not all we need.

How and why did you get involved with Paul McCartney?

He asked me to. And I said "Yes". He's written some good songs. People tend to forget he's really good. Most people think he's really great... it's critics who think he isn't any good.

Some people might see a paradox in someone like you who rose with the punk brigade supposedly hell-bent on throwing over the old guard suddenly getting involved with the old guard.

I never said any of that shit. That was all nonsense. I mean, Johnny Rotten had Ginger Baker on his last record! That was all in Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes' heads! If the year of punk was '76/'77, '78/'79 had some of the worst dinosaur music ever. Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Foreigner, Journey and Boston. I hated those people with a passion. It was just so unfair — we just weren't given a break.


Folk Roots, No. 73, July 1989

Colin Irwin interviews Elvis Costello.


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