"New wave" has become such a buzz word these days, using it causes cliche cringes. But let's face it, no matter what you call it, something happened to music (thank God) in the years between 1975 and 1978. Elvis Costello found himself in the middle of that change, and, of all the promising upstarts it produced, he has been one of the few to deliver. The Stiff Records slogan "surfing on the new wave," was curiously prophetic in Costello's case. He benefited from the trend without joining it himself. He could not be further away from what is considered "new wave" now.
As a performer and songwriter, Costello has few equals in popular music, and, after eight albums in five years (seven in the U.K.), he shows no signs of slowing. This year he has released Imperial Bedroom, an album that has critics falling all over themselves, finished his most extensive U.S. tour year. and has been on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. He was even nice to David Letterman on T.V. Costello has attracted attention again by doing the opposite of what is expected of him.
He is stripping himself of the revenge and guilt image. The interviews he's granted (at least three, and that's three more than he granted in the previous three years) on this tour reveal a cool, confident Costello, sure of his every word. He's not one dimensional, he insists. And above all, he's not anything close to the incident many people judge him by — the Ray Charles remark in Columbus, Ohio. So let's examine Costello's rise and near fall and see what clues to this change can be found.
Costello (real name. Declan Patrick MacManus) began playing publicly in a bluegrass band called Flip City, the house band for the Marquee in London, where they played on a weekly basis. A computer operator at an Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory ("the vanity factory" he later called it), MacManus had mailed demo tapes to every imaginable label. When that didn't work he decided on the personal approach, knocking on doors with his guitar. Nothing seemed to move the moguls.
And then there was Jake Riviera. The brains behind Stiff Records, the historic British independent, Riviera (real name: Andrew Jakeman) received a demo from MacManus in response to an ad in the paper. Costello was signed in late 1976. (It was Riviera who decided he should be called Elvis; Costello is a family name on his mother's side.)
And then there was Nick Lowe. Veteran of the pub rock scene and former member of Brinsley Schwartz, Lowe became the producer of such Stiff artists as the Damned, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and our anti-hero. His highly unorthodox approach to the studio and production in general proved the perfect foil for Costello's songs. The two entered an eight-track studio with a budget of about two thousand dollars to make a record.
Three singles "Less Than Zero," "Alison" and "The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes" — preceded the album, each meeting with progressively better success. My Aim Is True was released in July of 1977 (Costello was 22) and stayed in the English charts 12 weeks, reaching number 14. It soon became the hottest import on these shores. Often compared to the debut efforts of Graham Parker and Bruce Springsteen, My Aim Is True is a more distinctive effort in both style and material than either Howlin' Wind or Greetings From Asbury Park.
Since My Aim Is True was recorded using Clover as a backup band, the next logical step was to form a permanent band around Costello. Pete Thomas, who played in the first band Riviera managed, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, easily landed the drum spot. Bruce Thomas (no relation), bass player for Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, made the band after a shaky audition and conversation with Costello. The last and most valuable member signed was Steve Nieve on keyboards, who had just graduated from the Royal College of Art. The Attractions have proven to be a major part of Costello's success. The rhythm section of the two Thomases is unshakable. The enormous talents of Nieve are becoming an increasing factor in Costello's writing, particularly on Imperial Bedroom.
Accurate chronology here is impossible. Things began to move very quickly. But somewhere in there, Riviera decided to attack Columbia records in hopes of obtaining a Stateside deal. The American conglomerate was holding its annual convention in London. Costello and the newly formed Attractions set up on the sidewalk across the street from the swank hotel site of the convention. As they cranked out songs, various Stiff employees marched dressed in barrels, cartoon style. They were all arrested, but the gimmick worked. Costello inked his Columbia contract in a London jail.
So Elvis began a worldwide assault He toured incessantly, taking note of anyone who ignored him or got in his way. When he hit the U.S., the complacent crowds drove him crazy. (He later commented on Tom Snyder: "We might as well have just landed from Mars the way people looked at us.") His shows were one-hour sets of unbridled anger and frustration.
Then Riviera abandoned Stiff with Costello and Lowe. In the few weeks between tours, Costello and the Attractions recorded the vitriolic This Year's Model with Lowe producing. This record is one hundred percent unadulterated bile. From it such gems as the anthemic "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up" (the best song ever about doing everything too much) were culled for singles. Again Elvis hit the States, even more angry than the first time.
The night the Sex Pistols were to do Saturday Night Live, proved to be a historic one. The Pistols had just disintegrated in San Francisco and Costello was called in. (In the performance, Pete Thomas wore a shirt saying "Thanks Malc" — a jibe at Malcolm Maclaren, the Pistols manager.) This Year's Model wasn't out yet, and Elvis wanted to do "Radio, Radio." Lorne Michaels and some CBS people wanted him to do familiar stuff like "Less Than Zero." What happened is rock history. Elvis stopped in the middle of a song and ripped into "Radio, Radio." Elvis was beginning to make a lot of waves.
His live shows, like many horror films, were not for those with weak hearts. He maintained an almost unbearable tension. Demanding that he be heard, even resorting to insult to prod many slow-to-respond audiences, Costello would grind and spit out his songs and refuse to do encores. He would continually bombard crowds with new material, refusing to let them be comfortable with him or his songs.
But in 1978 it all backfired. In the middle of the tour to support Armed Forces, an ambitious and awesome record, he ran into Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills in a bar in Columbus, Ohio. In a drunken argument, the two camps began to trade insults. Bramlett is a friend and great admirer of Ray Charles, so Costello chose to slur his race and handicap to rid himself of their annoying presence. It blew up in his face. He was labeled racist, which he is not, and received quite a bit of bad press. He's still apologizing for the remark and admits there was "no excuse" for it, but still wants people to not judge him by something said in a drunken effort to enrage Bramlett and her companions.
That incident brought a sharp change in Costello's attitude. He stopped touring and drinking so much. His next album, the 20-song homage to soul, Get Happy!!, was deliberately more soulful and feeling. Costello has said that the venom was beginning to take him over, and he decided to change his approach. In the Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Costello said, "I was becoming not a nice person."
How seriously he took this change is indicated in his records and concerts done since the incident. He chose not to tour here for quite a while, but when he did return on the heels of Trust, the masterful followup to Get Happy!!, he showed us a new Costello. His shows lasted longer, featuring the amiable pop of Trust. He would even do two or three encores
Almost Blue and the Almost 1982 Tour that followed further established Costello's more relaxed mood. The country album provided him with a time of reflection on his own writing and showed his ability to interpret old material anew.
Which brings us to the present and Imperial Bedroom, Costello's most ambitious effort. He has picked up where serious songwriters left off over a decade ago with an album that blends craft and content into inseparable combinations. In the forty-odd city tour he did this summer, he paced the two-hour shows with tasteful covers (Smokey Robinson's "From Head to Toe," and the Temptations' "Don't Look Back" are just two selections), rockers like "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio" and selections from all his albums, ballads and rockers alike.
Costello has shown that he has few peers in popular music. His writing and vocal ability have continued to expand, making him possibly the most important songwriter of our time. Long after Leagues of Seagulls and Flocks of Humans have ceased to twitter, Costello will be around practicing his craft.