Fresh, March 1989

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... Bibliography ...

  • 1989 March

UK & Ireland magazines


Elvis Costello

Dave Fanning

He's returned to the front line with an album that's been critically acclaimed as the highest musical point in the year to date. Dave Fanning talks to 'a happier man'.

"To some extent you plan things in advance and you pretty much have a good idea how your plans are going to work out. Some things disappoint you slightly but, in the main, I was very lucky with this new record — most of the people's contributions bring the songs to life even more.

With "Stalin Malone," I was still working on the words and, as you can see from just looking at them, they're not in a very even meter. It wouldn't be the easiest way to sing it 'cos it's a very broken up story. And really what it came down to was that I was going to recite it. But I wasn't happy with my delivery of the recitation — I thought it was distracting from my music — and I wasn't sure that people would play the track more than once. So I figured that I liked the story, I liked the words well enough— maybe it's just a piece of words.

It's sorta one of those cases where the words are inspired by the track; I just couldn't make them coexist so I just printed them on the sleeve. Whereas most things are worked out in advance, that was kinda like a workshop aspect of the studio actually coming to my advantage 'cos I've ended up with a piece of music I really love and the story is not going to be remembered as something that intrudes upon this great piece of music. It's just there, two for the price of one.

On the question of singing it live, I dunno — I just haven't thought about going out with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or anybody like that I could conceivably improvise another piece of music that might be more compatible. Maybe that music and those words weren't as compatible as I originally thought and maybe at some future time I'll write another melody that would be compatible. It'll need a very rambling sort of melody for one thing.

I thought that the nature of the main figure of "Stalin Malone" would suit a very uneven metered piece like "Stalin Malone." But it didn't actually work out. And particularly since the music part is so strong and I really love the music part of it. In the past people have accused me of having too many words in songs and on albums."

Elvis's new album Spike will do nothing to quell the accusations. It's packed with words. So is Elvis. After years of steering clear of the press he's happier than ever to talk, explain and offer opinions on just about anything. In the same hotel where he wrote much of Spike — Dublin's Gresham — we go through 1989's most critically praised album so far, track-by-track.

That opening salvo was a description of a song that doesn't even appear on the album. There's no room on the inner sleeve for the lyrics. They're printed on the back cover. On the album, "Stalin Malone" is an instrumental. We'd be here 'till page 94 if I continued to relate the dissections and discussions on each track but in order that you may be able "to amaze and baffle your friends" (a phrase that has stuck with me since the age of ten, written on the back of a set of trick playing cards!), let's delve, not too deeply, into one or two more numbers.

"There's not necessarily a lot of laughs on the new album. There's two songs that I think have, but maybe I've just got a warped sense of humour. The opening track, "...This Town..." and "God's Comic." I think "Chewing Gum" is very funny but it's very sleezy. Neither character could be referred to as a nice person. He gets a mail-order bride from Bangkok and takes her home but the joke is on him 'cos she puts the chewing gum in her ears so she doesn't have to listen to him. It's a very dark joke. Neither of them are any picnic. She's a bit of an opportunist 'cos she went with him in the first place. It's not 'Pygmalion'. It leans towards that. It's more to do with the idea that he just gives her the very words he wants her to hear and she doesn't hear him at all. It's kind of a joke, a nasty little song."

The closing track on side one is called "Tramp The Dirt Down," one of the tracks heavily populated with famous Irish traditional musicians described by journalist Mark Cooper as "the curse that never preaches. Instead of repeating the usual dismayed shake of the head rejection of Thatcherism, Costello plunges in and winds up vowing to trample on her grave." What about it, Elvis?

"I wrote most of the song in one go, in about ten minutes. And then a friend of mine suggested that he thought it needed more of a catalogue of these people who felt put on, not just by her (Thatcher) but by everything and the way the world was generally. And it wasn't going to be like a catalogue that built up and got worse and worse and worse. One person's idea of what the worst thing could be — it's not like an equation where, for instance, in the long verse, "Try telling that to the father..." — he's saying that obviously a child murderer is not the equivalent in his desperation to the schoolboy, say, who can't get a job, but to them it's the most important thing in their world. So all that, which forms a litany, is not intended to be connected. They're all unequal, unreasonable, unreasoning ... each verse should be taken as a whole rather than any one line be more important than the other, in the same way as those things can't be prepared. It just builds up to the frustration of it all."

At the age of 34 it's quite clear that Elvis has put a lot of his well-documented frustrations behind him. There was a time when the artistic venom of Costello, the musician, "started to take over" his life with the result that he was "rapidly becoming not a nice person", as he confessed. In his 69-day, 53-concert tour of the U.S. ten years ago he alienated audiences and American rock musicians as well as the press with his contrariness, culminating in the infamous Columbus, Ohio incident, where in a drunken argument with Bonnie Bramlett and other members of the Stephen Stills band, he decided to say whatever he thought would outrage people the most. His racist slur on American black musicians created a major scandal.

"I had a very depressing thing happen to me. Somebody asked me was it true because they'd read it in a pop trivia quiz game and I thought, I'm probably not in there because of my many hit records. That's my contribution to that and I thought then, that's the last time I'll even mention it. If I drag it round with me ... I know who I am in my heart. I've made my peace with it. I'm not going to live it for the rest of my life."

Today Elvis, married to Cait O'Riordan for the past three years is a happier man.

"Because rock 'n' roll has this image of rebelliousness, people expect so much of it. They think that you have to live it on the edge and I've been as far out on the lip of it as I care to go. I've also seen myself and others turning into boring morons from living out on the edge. I think there's a time for that and a time for enjoying it when you're younger, when you can afford to burn a certain energy or more brain cells and there's a time for coherence and actual deliberate work. I appreciate a lot more things now.

I must say I get disappointed by a lot of what I see because I just think it's so dull. 1 see a lot of younger musicians and they're so conservative. I wish they'd go out and get drunk or something and create some kind of ruckus, not because I'm living in the past and I want everyone to be Jerry Lee Lewis and live out some rock 'n' roll fantasy.1 just think they might find out something about themselves if they just let loose a little."

When Elvis himself was first let loose upon an unsuspecting public he was just about the unlikeliest hero to emerge from the media-created punk/new wave scene of 12 years ago. His glasses made him look even weedier than he already was but, with a combination of inspired judgement, fierce committment, an erudite command of pop and rock traditions and a savage wit, he has been for more than ten years, the consummate artist. He has constantly broken new ground with total confidence and immense style, usually unwilling to remain working in the same musical confines for too long. He has long since developed into one of rock's most articulate and challenging songwriters comfortable and impressive across a wide spectrum of contemporary music.

Elvis was born in London, the only child of Ross MacManus, a British big band singer, cabaret performer and trumpeter. He took his surname from the maternal side of the MacManus family, the Costello's, Irish catholics who settled in Liverpool. He attended schools in London and Liverpool and went to live with his mother when his parents divorced. He was in secondary school at the time. In the club The Beatles made famous, The Cavern, he once met Nick Lowe, his future producer.

By '74 he was back in London, programming computers for cosmetics giant, Elizabeth Arden. In his free time he was busy writing tunes, recording demos, trying to get his songs played on the radio and looking for a contract with a label. One day in June '76, unannounced and unknown, he walked into the fledgling offices of Stiff Records — a new independent label with a roster headed by Nick Lowe and was signed up immediately. London was burning with the fury of punk and Stiff were on a high with their 'street cred' artist, Graham Parker. Costello had produced an original fusion with his trained and astute musical mind. He'd played off the bitter-sweet tenderness of jazz, the self-pity of country and western and the vitriolic contempt of rock 'n' roll. The first time listener learned the passion of punk and the craft of Parker.

"In the late sixties I was more into Tamla Motown or Rocksteady. My friends were envious that I had hip parents — my dad was able to get a lot of records. In fact, my father was pretty far out as Dad's go. I listened to all the pop stuff that went beforehand but I got out of beat group music. I liked The Beatles and I really liked The Small Faces but from there I really got into R 'n' B more. Except for the singles, I never really liked The Stones. When I say I like Tamla Motown, Stax and soul it wasn't obscure stuff — just singles. Wilson Pickett and stuff."

My Aim Is True, his arresting and imaginative debut album was on its release universally acclaimed by the media and public alike. Over 12 years, and as many albums, he's never let up and his list of collaborations, through singing, songwriting, producing, performing etc. is impressive. The list includes John Hiatt, The Pogues, T Bone Burnett, Eurythmics, Paul McCartney, Was (Not Was), Bruce Springsteen, Roger McGuinn, Roy Orbison, Daryl Hall, Tony Bennett, Dusty Springfield, Squeeze, The Specials, Jimmy Cliff, 'Til Tuesday etc. Although Elvis has been collaborating in the studio with various artists since the release of his last album 2½ years ago (Blood & Chocolate) is he going to have to psyche himself up to go back on the road this year?

"Well people don't seem to realise that after I did the Stadium shows here in Ireland, which were the last shows with The Confederates (his King of America backing band) here, I went off to America for solo shows, but that obviously doesn't get into the papers. And in the Autumn I did another Confederates tour in honky tonks in the Southern U.S. States — then we went to Australia and Japan. It all takes time. I did the Roy Orbison Black and White Night thing. I started writing with Rubén Blades and McCartney. We were living here for three months when Cait was doing The Courier, and during the music for that I started writing these songs. So it all takes time. It doesn't make headline news but it's fine by me.

With The Confederates it was an indulgence on my part. I was really fascinated at the thought of what it might be like having really enjoyed playing with them over here — to play in places like, say, Tulsa. That was the best place actually, a ballroom in Oklahoma. That was where Bob Wills played. And we played Willie Nelson's club, the Texas Opera House in Austin. Some of the other places weren't really honky tonks, they were just southern state gigs. The trouble is that when you go down there many of the kids have kinda been force-fed country music, so many of them want you to play industrial funk or something 'cos it's a novelty to them. I get up there with what, to them, is this bunch of old guys and they're not actually as hip to it as people in New York are. But we had fun doing it and it was fun trying to convince them. The good thing is I don't have any easy options with that line-up. I can't suddenly start playing all the singles. I just get to play my tunes and the tunes they've learned, so we have a much smaller repetoire. You have to make the show work every night. There's no cruising. Not that we generally slap with The Attractions but sometimes, on long tours — in America particularly where people are much easier to manipulate, if you want to be cynical, you can sort of get away with murder basically — if you're tired or have a hangover or whatever, by just pandering to the audience."

As someone who never had to change with the times because you were never really part of any identifiable movement as such, how do you look upon the state of rock 'n' roll as we move into the nineties?

"Well, earlier you used the phrase 'post Live-Aid rock.' I think there's too much piousness in some people on the one hard, as hare as they try to deny it. It's been bolstered up by a commodity behind their backs. It seems now that the behind-the-scenes people, whether they be record people or management, are the ones that are kind of stroking and stoking this image of world saviours, when the individuals are quite sincere about it. They're being blown out of all proportion. I think the biggest mistake is to keep trying to re-create Live Aid, and every statement has to be 9 foot tall because the Stadium thing requires those gestures. The problem is to deflate the thing. It's much easier if you take it down to a small group of people because once it gets to the big stage you have to say things in such large and crude terms that the subtleties get lost. In the end people only think in slogans or cliches. People really don't think at all. They just assimilate all these things. It's not enough."


Fresh, March 1989

Dave Fanning interviews Elvis Costello.


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