Elvin Costello's head is buried in a booklet. He's not being rude; he simply must check this out immediately. The booklet is about Elvis Costello.
"Extraordinary!" says the singer, oblivious to the reporter whose tape recorder is still running a few feet away. "How did they get all of this? They even have the medleys that I did. And look at this! How did they find out that I DJ'd in a club six months ago. They must follow me everywhere."
Elvis Costello looks up for a brief moment. "You know, they even called my dad once for some information. Can you believe it?" His head returns to the booklet, a skinny mimeographed sheet from Holland by a group of fans calling itself the Elvis Costello Information Service. He'd heard about them but had never seen one of their published reports before. "Would you like their address?" the interviewer asks.
"Absolutely! Oh, now look at this. They've got this wrong. I never played 'Ready Teddy' or 'Rip It Up' And I certainly never played 'Dance To The Music.' And not 'Imagine' either, although I think Steve might've played that. But how in the world do they know that we once recorded 'First I Look At The Purse'? This is too much."
Costello shaking his head, puts aside the fanzine's list of every song he's ever covered by another artist. He still can't believe that someone would take the time to document his every breath. But his promise to get in touch with the club and straighten things out proves at least one thing other than Costello's perplexity over the whole thing. It proves that Elvis Costello, who wouldn't talk to press for nearly five years, has come out of his shell. The new Elvis has something to say.
But is he really a new Elvis or has the man just outlived the myth that grew up around him? In many ways Elvis Costello is a changed man. But in other ways it is obvious that time has simply eroded some of the confusion and fury that made this bespectacled, rather soft-spoken, dedicated musician into the pigeon-toed "Angry Young Man of the New Wave" in the late '70s. The Costello one meets in 1983 is cordial and down-to-earth, hardly a threat in anyway. And one gets the impression that had things not ballooned the way they had over four years ago when he became one of the first successful new wave artists, Costello would've been just a regular nice guy then too.
So why did this Costello avoid the press throughout the entire period that he was attracting the most attention? Simple. "When you're first starting out and you do interviews, you only end up talking about what you did when you were 12," says Costello in his diamond-shaped hotel suite overlooking New York's Central Park.
It's the morning after his New York concert date and the former Declan Patrick MacManus, hair still rumpled, blue horn-rims in place, and shirt buttoned to the neck, is sipping from a pot of Twinings tea. His room is littered with clothes, magazines and records (everything from 12" funk records to a Motown boxed set to new ones by Style Council and Aztec Camera, the latter who supported his tour). An Aretha tape plays on a portable stereo as the interviewer enters. There's an Elvis Costello tour booklet lying on the floor. The TV set, sound off, is tuned to a show about gorillas, later giving way to Sesame Street. But Costello is wide awake and lucid at this early hour, every bit as intelligent and well-spoken as his songs would lead one to believe he'd be.
"I have some things now that can bear explanation," be says. "1 guess I just have more to say than I did five years ago." Costello is acutely aware of his own history and everything that has surrounded his career. He knows about the myth that defined him to his fans during those silent years and he has an answer for it. And his answer is that it wag no big deal.
"The reason was very basic. People wanted to turn it into a myth, but all it was was that we didn't have anything to say. It got blown into this thing that I must be very aggressive. But we didn't have time far some of the niceties that some of the bigger record companies did. When we first started out at Stiff Records, it was all of us doing whatever had to be done, even taking the records and putting than into sleeves. We were very proud of what we were doing and we saw no reason that we should conform to some of the niceties that we regarded as bullshit, receptions and that kind of crap.
"I had a very disillusioned attitude towards the record companies, because they were so unimaginative. I disliked most of what was going on. It seemed convenient to them that they could just pigeonhole us as new wave and then they could just absorb it all up. So I was very wary of that as well. Perhaps that's why I'm still going and a lot of the bands that thought they were so outrageous are all split up and beck on the dole. You've got to have the sense to see them try to absorb you. The record business took a step backwards when '77 happened. Then they just absorbed it all and sucked people in. You have to be a bit cunning to sidestep them, or you become ridiculous."
Costello has sidestepped the rules at every turn. When be saw himself becoming, in his own words, a "parody" of himself, becoming a typical new wave act, be recorded Get Happy!, a tribute album to Stax-styled soul music. That was the beginning of Elvis Costello's liberation from his own myth. A couple years later came Almost Blue, an album of country standards. At that time he also appeared on a George Jones TV special and a Jones LP. That was followed by Imperial Bedroom, including lushly arranged ballads, completely ignoring the big beat that brought him recognition in the first place. It was a gamble perhaps. but one which paid off; the album was Costello's most critically lauded, proving to any doubters that he is a master musician who refused to lock himself into any trends or expectations. (He's even taped a spot on a TV special dueting with Tony Bennett!) But by that point, Costello had learned enough about the workings of the biz to be able to shoo away the eulogizers; he wasn't buying any new images to replace the old,
"Imperial Bedroom made people give me a whole new set of labels," he flatly states. "The new George Gershwin and all that kind of stuff. I found it ridiculous. It's very flattering, but if you took it seriously you'd be a fool. There are a lot worse things 1 could have been called though, like the new Loverboy."
Costello knew when he recorded Imperial Bedroom that he would alienate some of his rock audience and wipe out, perhaps permanently, the image that had followed him since he emerged with his first album, My Aim Is True, in 1977. That's what he wanted to. "That record (Bedroom) was consciously made in willful disregard of the mainstream. It proved that you have to be in an already commanding commercial position to do something as different as that, and not be overlooked by the larger part of the public. If the Police had made Imperial Bedroom it would have been a million-selling record. It's not that radical a record, but it's radically different than a lot of other things.
"On Imperial Bedroom, I wanted nothing more to do with rock 'n' roll," he continues. "As a style, I just thought it had served its purpose for me. I'm not dismissing the possibility of somebody coming up with another three cord trick wholly and totally original. But I think we're more likely to end up with things like the Stray Cats, which, although they're excellently done, lack the excitement of originality. A lot of people would say the same about me, because a lot of the earlier songs were very conscious quotes. On Imperial Bedroom I dispensed with it altogether and just used all the other forms. There is so much other music, although a lot of it is too unfamiliar to people to be effective. In some cases I think we were being too subtle on that record; you almost have to make a more conscious effort of parody if you want to use an old-fashioned style."
On Punch The Clock, Costello's eighth LP discounting compilation, he steers clear of extremes and presents the listener with a neat cross-section of the familiar and the unexpected. There are some brilliant new songs and some standard fare. A four-piece horn section and a pair of female backup singers lend a stirring soul edge to the majority of the record, while some of the more introspective ballads seem to be carry-overs from Imperial Bedroom. Costello agrees, with reservations, with the interviewer's contention that Punch The Clock seems in some ways a cross between Bedroom and the earlier soul experiment Get Happy!, minus the extreme feeling generated by either.
"You could say that, yeah," he says, "but I don't think you could compare it to Get Happy! in mood. That one had a very extreme mood and this one doesn't; it's a much saner album that Get Happy!. And as much as I didn't want to pursue the complexity of Imperial Bedroom any further because I didn't think it would serve as well, there are obviously elements of it that have to be continued on.
"The most abrupt change was between Trust and Imperial Bedroom because there was two years between them in which I didn't record any songs. So it appeared as though I'd changed my style completely and I'd had a lot of time to develop a new style of writing. But naturally there had to be some similarities in the style of writing; I couldn't have changed that much."
What has changed, perhaps, is the public's willingness to accept new ideas. As he stated, Elvis Costello could not have gotten away with an album like Imperial Bedroom earlier in his career. His fans wouldn't have been ready for it. But he says that he was capable of writing that kind of material even in his early days. "I'd written more complicated songs before I made My Aim Is True, like 'New Lace Sleeves,' which didn't turn up until Trust, which was the fifth album. So it wasn't like I started off real simple and got more complicated. I was just as capable of writing complicated songs when I was 18 as I am now. It's more that I've refined the way I write. You're more conscious after you've written a bunch of songs of not writing them again. So I don't see there as being that much of a change, in terms of technique. It's more a change of attitude, change of the person."
Costello says that he had no specific idea in mind when recording Punch The Clock, but that a recording does seem to take on its own personality after it's in progress, and often that dictated how the record turns out. "I never really have a concept in mind," he explains, "but if a song is disrupting what I think is the general feeling of the record, it will get left off. There's a song on the B-side of the next English single called 'The Flirting Kind', which was left off of Punch The Clock because I felt it was more like something on Imperial Bedroom. It was too soft for this record; it didn't have enough presence."
There are no purposeful intentions of establishing a defined lyrical direction on Costello's albums either, he says, but still there are certain themes that reoccur. There's a reason for that: "Having written all the songs (for a given album) over a certain period of time, I suppose there must be certain things and thoughts on my mind. But I don't think like, 'Well, I've written about that, now I think I'll carry it over in chapter three.' I don't write like a novelist. If there are certain parallel things or continuing things, it's only because I wrote the songs over a certain period of time and I can only think of so much. There's only so much life. I'm not going to be willfully weird, looking for odd things and writing about witches and goblins and so forth. But I think you can look at the same elements of life from a different perspective as you change yourself, and get something new out of it."
One thing Costello says he has learned is not to give away too much of his lyrical intent by printing the words to songs on the inner sleeves of his records. He only started doing that with Imperial Bedroom and now the new record, but he won't do it again. He'd rather let people figure out for themselves what he's singing, although many critics argued in the early days that his words were often difficult to hear.
"I don't agree with critics who've said that the lyrics are too clever, that the word play is too clever," he comments. "I made a conscious effort this time to tone down being clever for clever's sake. I think the only reason critics have had that reservation is that we've printed the words clearly for the first time; they were printed rather obliquely last time. Therefore some things that they wouldn't have gotten until the 20th listening they're getting the first time because it's easily readable. I won't put lyrics on any other record. I've learned that that's a mistake. I might consider printing a book of lyrics some time in the future for those who are really interested.
"It's not my fault that people aren't bright enough to have thought of these things in the first place. That way of looking at it might sound arrogant, but I can't help what goes on in my head. I'm not going to write like an idiot just because some guy can't respect the use of language. I think this is particularly true of critics who have become hardened and brutalized by awful work and have become cynical. But the public, the person who buys the record and doesn't get it for free, had a different attitude because he's looking for the good in something, not the negative. He's not saying 'Oh, he's being clever again.' Rolling Stone picked up a verse in 'T.K.O.', the lines "They put the numb into number they put the cut into cutie / They put the slum into slumber and the boot into beauty." I think that's perfectly acceptable; it's not just being clever for clever's sake. It makes a point. All of those things are true, they are things that are happening. I can't see what's so difficult to understand about that."
"One of the most critically praised songs on the new album is "Shipbuilding", a rare collaborative effort by Costello. The music was written by Clive Langer, who, along with Alan Winstanley, produced Punch The Clock, and was also recorded by Robert Wyatt, vocalist/drummer formerly with the British progressive outfit Soft Machine. Wyatt had a hit single with it in England. Costello cites Wyatt as one of his favorite vocalists, and described how the song came about.
"Clive dragged me out to his car one night during a party and told me he wrote this tune and he wanted it to be sung by Robert Wyatt. He asked me if I'd have a go at writing lyrics, and he gave me the tape. I took it to Australia with me as sort of a traveling project. When I got there the idea became fully formed in my head. The Falklands War was current at the time and we were hearing all about it. Rather than having some reaction to the actual horror of the war, being away from home I tended to see some of the more ironic aspects, one of which being the loss of ships. If the war had gone on and on it would have led to actually having to build more, which would have been a rather odd way of re-employing those who had been out of work. "Fortunately the lyric came out very simply, maybe because I was writing to someone else's tune. The song has a beautiful melody, and what Robert managed to do was to understate the lyrics by using the sound of his voice. When I recorded it, it took me a long time because I was, in effect, covering my own song, because I didn't write the music. If I would've written the music and Clive the words, I'm sure I would have found it easier to sing. I quite enjoy singing the song and if you can get something out of it that suggests what it's about, then you don't have to understand every single line."
Two other songs on the new album that have received quite a bit of reaction are "Pills And Soap", which Costello released on his own newly christened Imp label under the pseudonym "The Imposter" in England, and "Everyday I Write The Book", a punchy, light pop-soul number. The latter became Costello's first-ever entry into the Billboard Hot 100, but ironically, Costello calls it "not a big deal song". It was written, he says, while he and his band the Attractions — Keyboardist Steve Nieve, who recently released his first solo album, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — were on the road in Europe.
"I usually tend to avoid writing on the road because life on the road is quite inane," he explains. "But I wanted to write just a simple kind of love song, a pop song with a very formal structure. I wanted to write one that followed the rules, one that Carole King or someone like that could have written. It's just light. One of the ideas I had when I started working on this album, to get away from Imperial Bedroom, was to write almost deliberately inane lyrics. Not really inane, but they wouldn't have this heavy meaning to it. I wanted to do it with all the songs, but only a few survived. 'The Element Within Her' is another of that kind, where it's more or less free association."
"Everyday I Write The Book" is also the first video from the Punch album, but to Costello, video is another thing that's no big deal. For one thing, he's been making videos since 1978, long before the MTV days. For another, he feels the whole "revolution" is overrated.
"I think people are getting very overexcited about it. All it is is like having adverts on for 24 hours. I don't think that many musicians are that interesting to look at, unless they're very pretty. It works for Duran Duran and the Police, but most of the others look really ugly. And boring and conceited. I don't agree with it when they start trying to be movie actors; that's why our videos are just a bit of fun. We just did a straight performance."
Like many others, Costello is critical of the bias against non-white artists exhibited on MTV and other rock video programs. "We have two girl singers in our video so I guess we have two of the four black artists on MTV," he says with more than a hint of contempt, "along with Michael Jackson and Prince. I mean, Rick James doesn't even get played and he's now the biggest artist Motown ever had.
"I saw an amazing video I wish would be released. It was Marvin Gaye singing 'The Star Spangled Banner' at a basketball championship. Ooh, it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Just such grace. Just him and a rhythm box. It brought tears to my eyes, and I mean why should I get emotional about the American national anthem?!
"I think there's a lot of potential with video but it's got to be handled better. It takes a lot of the mystery away. That's why I like radio; it's very personal. Video is all very tedious; it should have a lot more humor. English groups use a lot more humor, especially Madness, who make the best videos. I think they're the kings of the medium. And I like Culture Club's videos as well, because they have both warmth and humor."
As for the radio medium, what does the man who penned the scathing "Radio Radio" — in which he claimed that the airwaves were "in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way that you feel" — think of the developments in radio, particularly so-called New Music radio, in the last couple of years? "Well, I wrote that song about English radio, because I hadn't even been to America at that time. But it seemed more applicable to American radio when I first came here. I think the dinosaurs of the past are being dispensed with somewhat now, but I just suspect they'll be replaced with new dinosaurs. I don't think they have a really open-minded policy. As long as America works in age and, particularly, race ghettos, I don't see how it can be open-minded. So long as there's a conflict over whether it's a black record or a white record, and you can't just go over the air and play some music, I think it's always going to be very limited and unimaginative.
"I think there are too many consultants. I think the DJs and the people working at the stations, who are fans of music, would like more freedom. And it's often not even the senior person at the station; it's someone at management level. There's so much research done, but not enough listening to the musk. I think a more open attitude would make for more interesting music. If you just play one kind of music, that's the kind of music that's going to be developed, and there can be no other influence. unless people seek it out for themselves. That's why there's no interesting stuff coming out of America, that I can hear." He cites the Blasters, NRBQ and the Fabulous Thunderbirds as examples of American bands he does like.
Costello does enjoy the freer-form programming of college radio. "That's the open-minded part of radio," he states. "I remember turning on a college station somewhere in Massachusetts and hearing 'Don't Let Go' by Jerry Lee Lewis from that last really great Elektra album he made. Then they played Sonny Boy Williamson after that. I remember thinking 'What the hell is this radio station?' I mean, it was so loose compared to the other stations."
These days Costello finds his own listening habits covering quite a few areas. He's trying to find out more about instrumental jazz (though, he says, "I'm mostly a words person."), and he's admittedly hot on R&B both new and old, and recently went to record stores (he's a devoted record collector) seeking out obscurities by such forgotten artists as Howard Tate, Garnett Mimms, and James Carr. His luggage contains albums by Otis Redding and the Chi-lites, but it also holds a stack of current black dance records and British imports like Paul Young and the latest 12" single by Style Council, featuring ex-Jam leader Paul Weller, whom Costello says he admires greatly. And he considers the British band Aztec Camera's 19-year-old Roddy Frame a brilliant songwriter. But as in everything else, Costello finds himself bored when the once-inspired is repeated to the paint of cliche. He's not too keen on the mechanical rhythms of much dance music, for example.
"There are so many records strangled by that clap-track thing. When I recorded 'Pills And Soap' my original aim was to make it sound like 'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash, hence the clap-track. But I simply got bored of the idea of doing it and made it more like Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five', like a jazz thing. I can see the point of the clap-track in a club, to keep people on the floor. But I've heard a lot of soul records I thought would be great if they didn't have that pounding. That's not to say I wouldn't want to make a dance record, but maybe one that's really original. Production is subject to the same constraints as radio; it's kept in these boxes."
Indeed, innovative production has played a large part in the direction Costello's music has taken over the years. And so has the input by his band. Costello worked with Nick Lowe as producer for the first five albums, and each one showed a marked difference from the one before. However, by the time of Trust, their fifth LP together, and Costello's least favorite of his LPs, the liaison was troubled.
"My relationship with producers has changed over the years," Costello admits. "At first I knew nothing about the studio. With Nick Lowe, I think the last really good album was Get Happy!. The collaboration was less successful on Trust. It was a difficult record and I wasn't really on top of it. "The reason was not entirely one of musical stagnation.
Costello's personal life had gone through some traumatic events prior to the recording of Get Happy! and it would take him a full two years, during which those final two-Lowe-produced LPs were made, to emerge with renewed confidence and artistic enthusiasm. The most highly publicized event was a brawl in Columbus, Ohio. Costello, in a drunken state, spoke some racial slurs regarding Ray Charles. He explained afterwards that he certainly didn't mean what he said, that he only said what he did to get rid of the American musicians (Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Still's entourage) who were also at the bar. The press, however, perhaps goaded on by Costello's policy of not talking with them, blew the event up. Costello called a press conference in New York to explain his actions but it too became a fiasco. He laid low after that occurrence, releasing the soul-heavy Get Happy! and Trust. He didn't tour again for nearly two years. Get Happy! was a deliberate attempt by Costello to change his image as the aggressive new waver, a part which he had no desire to play.
"I wanted to strip away all the conceit. That's what I saw as the weakest part of the previous album, which was Armed Forces. It was a very emotional time, and the idea of taking the soul records I'd been listening to as a starting point, was to dismantle the sound that we'd developed, which I thought was starting to sound like a parody of itself. It was a very extreme period physically. I was drinking a lot, and taking drugs. So it was very emotional. That was all we were capable of recording. We weren't able to record anything more disciplined than that.
"(The Columbus incident) was the root of the change of feeling. When all of that crashed down it seemed time to get to a more direct and honest way of writing. Get Happy! was a result of the whole Armed Forces period when we were riding high and thought we knew everything." The record traded in the pop, Farfisa-beat dominated pure rock 'n' roll of the first three records for Memphis soul. Costello says it's one of his favorites of his recordings, along with This Year's Model and the two most recent LPs. (He says he can't even listen to his first album.)
Following Trust, Costello and Lowe parted ways and E.C. went to work on his country album, with famed C&W producer Billy Sherrill handling production chores. The album was panned by many critics and applauded by others, but it sold dismally. For Imperial Bedroom, Costello worked with producer Geoff Emerick, who'd once worked in a technical rapacity with the Beatles, and for the new LP he turned over the production to Langer and Winstanley. Each producer, says Costello, is "as different as the records sound," and he has good words to say about each of them, calling Lowe the "last great rock roll producer," and pointing out that the pair never had a falling out, that they simply decided it was better not to work together anymore. The current producers, he says, have a knack for being able to "get the sound better than you could possibly get if you were playing live," although they used the "layering" method of recording drums and bass first and working their way up to the rest.
As for the band, they have "quite a tremendous amount of input," says their leader. "Bruce is a very melodic bass player as well as having a very good rhythmic understanding of Pete. And of course Steve is just an incredible musician. He's got a lot of melody. Sometimes they've got so many ideas we have to pick one. Clive Langer was very good at being able to say, 'No, don't play that one, Steve. Play the one you did before and then do it again next time around.' Steve tends to get bored with a melody because he's so imaginative, so rather than repeating it so it becomes memorable he'll play something else. To him it might be more interesting but to the listener it might not be memorable."
Manager Jake Riviera, whose own reputation a few years back made even Costello come off like a pussycat, also has a certain amount of input. But, says Costello, it's in the form of enthusiasm, not music. "He's a great motivator; that's what he's always been. He has that bad guy image but he's really not as much of a monster as some press would like to portray. He's got the front to be aggressive when he thinks it's necessary to protect us when people are taking liberties. We all have that same attitude. I'm pretty tolerant of most people but I'm pretty intolerant of people who are taking liberties."
But Costello admits that the hands-off attitude concocted by Riviera and himself in the past contributed largely to the image the press and public had of him as a spiteful punk. "There's no doubt that the image did limit us a bit. People actually thought I hated everybody." But, he says, "There was actually a lot of affection on This Year's Model. I used to really resent the label of a misogynist. I love women, and I saw that record as more of a hatred of what they were made to be, not what they were. I think women are foolish for playing those roles but it was more a hatred of roles than of individuals."
Costello's non-interview stance shielded from his fans the facts of his family life as well. And though he still prefers to keep his private life private, he has acknowledged that he is married (his wife's name is Mary) and has a son, and that he did indeed work as a computer operator before his music started paying his way. He now talks freely about his parents' influence on his musical involvement, however.
As a youth, the former Declan MacManus was exposed to the records his father kept around the house. Ross MacManus was a singer in a popular big band, and Declan's mother worked in the record department at a local store. So there was always music in the house. "But there was never anything like 'You must like this. This is what's good,"' relates Costello, who took his famous surname from his grandmother on his mother's side, And there were never any forced piano lessons or anything like that. "In fact, just the opposite. They were very conscious of not pushing me into that, to the extent that I almost wish now that I'd had that, because I don't read music. But I think they did the right thing because it would've really been easy to turn me off in an environment full of music. And I don't insist that my son take lessons; if he wants to, that's up to him."
Still, the music obsession took hold at an early age. "I kind of always knew I would do it from the time I was about 15. But it wee more of a fantasy or a game then. I didn't know I was going to do it for sure until I actually started doing it when I was 22." Allegedly, he started out playing folk and bluegrass in a band called Flip City, in Liverpool to which he traveled, perhaps to pay homage to some heroes, from his London home.
Before long, he started sending around demos of his songs to record companies, which rejected them flat out. He read the music weeklies such as Melody Maker and when he came across an ad for a label looking for artists, he sent his tape. It was the first tape that Jake Riviera received after forming Stiff Records. He wasn't signed until the next year, 1977, when he became Elvis Costello at Jake's suggestion and released his first single, "Less Than Zero"/"Radio Sweetheart" (a pure country song), produced by Lowe. The message in the runoff groove read: "Elvis Is King". In a few months, the Elvis for whom he was named would be found dead.
After two more singles, Riviera left Stiff and took Elvis with him to Radar Records in the U.K. But Riviera's most pressing problem was to land a U.S. record deal for Costello. By no small coincidence, the singer set up with his guitar and amp in front of a building where CBS execs were holding a convention. He started to play and before long attracted the attention of several bystanders, and a local officer of the law, who gave him a few warnings before placing him under arrest for disturbing the busy business district street. But not before the new artist impressed enough CBS officials to land himself a deal with Columbia Records in the U.S. He's been with the label ever since, although he left Radar for his own F-Beat label in England, for which he still records.
His first U.S. tour attracted a fair amount of attention due to the burgeoning popularity given the British punk movement Costello was lumped in with it although he clearly had little in common musically with the Sex Pistols or the Damned. When this writer caught Costello's first-ever U.S. concert in San Francisco in late 1977, there were maybe 100 people in attendance, but the reaction was ecstatic and a live radio broadcast of the show game him momentum. By the time the tour hit New York, Elvis Costello was on every critic's must-see list. His debut album, My Aim Is True, recorded with the California band Clover as backing outfit, made many top 10 lists for the year '77 and sold respectably for a debut. He assembled the Attractions in time for This Year's Model, which increased the following, and by the time Costello toured with Nick Lowe's Rockpile and Mink DeVille, he had no trouble filling medium-sized halls in the country's "hip" pockets. Before long, the rest of the U.S. was his, and he's been news ever since.
Today, Costello looks back on those days with mixed feelings. While he recalls fondly the early days at Stiff, which he says were a lot of fun though hard work, he can probably do without the reputation that was forged for him, although it admittedly helped build him his following. And the songs themselves run hot and cold with him. "I don't do the old ones unless I really want to do them now," he says. "For a while I wouldn't do 'Alison.' I developed an aversion to it because everyone got so reveled about it." Also, Linda Ronstadt's cover of the song, which, Costello says made him more money than he made on his own that year, was not a particular favorite of his.
"I think it's arrogant to demand a certain response. I sing a song for what I sing it for. If I didn't think I could sing it I wouldn't, even if they set fire to the whole auditorium. On his last tour we were able to rearrange a lot of songs with the horn players we added. Some of the songs that have gotten too loose, we can tighten up again."
Costello hasn't begun thinking about the next record just yet, but he says that some time in the future he'd like to record an LP of nothing but R&B covers, a soul counterpart to Almost Blue. And he'd also like to do an album of songs that are more recent. Plus, he has his own label, Imp, on which he'll be releasing non-mainstream singles by other`artists, and he's somewhat involved with the F-Beat family of labels, including Demon and Edsel, which often release compilations. (They've put out a series of records by lesser-known Merseybeat groups such as the Escorts and the Merseybeats. Now Costello would like to release a vocal album by Jazz great Chet Baker and perhaps reissue some of Curtis Mayfield's early solo work.)
Plus, as if he's not busy enough, Costello has been hit with offers to write a book and act in films. So far he's turned them down. "The publishers send me letters saying 'We believe you're writing a book.' They think that after six years I must be working on one but I've never written anything like that" And the filmmakers have asked him to star, although he's never acted (he had a performing role in the flop film Americathon). "When we were at the peak of our so-called pop success I had all of the typical offers," he says. "I think it's a mistake to assume that just because you've made a few records you can act. Fortunately, things went wrong for us at the time and saved me from that fate."
Elvis Costello lets out a chuckle at that. The laughs are more frequent now that those days of despair are behind him. After what he's been through the guy deserves a few laughs. Fortunately, he knows how to balance things better now, and the serious, reflective side still shows up in his music. This is the new Elvis and his aim is true again. Elvis is King! Long live the King!
(Editor's note: The preceding article was originally written for another publication. Elvis Costello, being one of Britain's more fanatical record collectors, granted Goldmine permission to reprint the piece. Our thanks go out to Mr. Costello and Columbia Records for this honor.)
(Note: For more on Elvis Costello, including discography, see Goldmine #80, Jan. 1983.)