Rock and roll rarely breeds songwriters who are able to confront contemporary issues in nearly any musical idiom. Most would rather play it safe, and then keep playing it safe. Fans don't usually like to see their favorite artists change; they would generally rather hear the old hits.
Yet at least one performer has managed to change styles radically from album to album, successfully tackling a wide range of musical forms, without losing sight of issues ranging from racism and bigotry to modern culture. That man is Elvis Costello.
Born in London in 1957, Declan Patrick McManus was the son of a moderately well-known jazz musician. The Elvis moniker was substituted 19 years later by his manager, Jake Riviera; the Costello came from a pseudonym his father used occasionally. At the age of 17, Costello began performing country music in Liverpool bars and sent a demo tape of original songs (under the pseudonym of D.P. Costello) to the newly founded Stiff Records. The tapes earned the respect of the label's president, Jake Riviera, who hatched a plot to get Elvis a recording contract with a major label.
Riviera had heard that a number of Columbia Records executives were meeting in London, and he found out at which hotel they were staying. He and Elvis dragged an amp onto the streetcorner outside of that hotel, and Costello began playing as the executives returned to their rooms from a meeting. Elvis was subsequently signed to CBS. after being arrested for what the police termed soliciting.
What followed this brief one-man show is one of the most stunning examples of musical progression. Costello has always said that he wants to do everything and do it well. He proceeded to do just that in the context of pop music, a medium notorious for repressing change.
His first album, My Aim Is True, was recorded with a country-rock backing band from California called Clover. The cover depicts Costello striking an awkward, gawky Buddy Holly pose, and the record too bears an unmistakably simple sound which recalls the older days of rock and roll—simple, uncluttered, trashy. The cover bears the legend "Elvis Is King" printed all over it, a fact that Stiff downplayed due to Elvis Presley's death only months after the album's release.
The songs on My Aim Is True are filled with bitterness and cynicism, traits with which Elvis has ever since been associated, despite his continued move away from the subject. The album yielded several hit singles in Britain but failed to make much of an impact in the States, with the notable exception of "Watching The Detectives," which became an underground hit. At the time of the album's release, punk rock was in full swing in England, and many rock fans in America mistook Elvis for just another snotty punk. Those who bothered to listen to his music found that, although he was as angry as any punk, his music was literate, not stupid, and on a different level altogether from trash-and-smash bands such as the Damned and Sex Pistols.
The next LP, This Year's Model, was released in early 1978. This time around the backing band was Elvis' own recently assembled Attractions, with whom Elvis is still touring and recording. This Year's Model left behind the simple production of the previous album. Elvis and producer Nick Lowe took the power-pop three-minute formula and gave it a twist by combining it with angry lyrics and vocals that weren't so much sung as sneered. Demo tapes from the sessions reveal that the songs were even more fiery in their original forms, Lowe having toned down some of the fury on the final product.
"I wanna bite the hand that feeds me," "Every time I phone you I just wanna put you down." "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out," are just a small sampling of the lyrics on This Year's Model. That album, more than any, put Elvis in the pigeonhole labeled "angry young man." The music was more forceful than on the previous album, too. Bruce Thomas provided thudding yet melodic bass lines, Pete Thomas pushed the songs along with remarkably crisp drumming (especially noteworthy is his intro to the furious "Lipstick Vogue") and Steve Nieve (then called Steve Naive) added piercing keyboard fills. Nieve almost singlehandedly re-established the high-pitched Farfisa organ in pop music, some dozen years after it had gone out of fashion among the garage bands that made it popular in the first place.
This Year's Model, like My Aim Is True before it, spawned several hits in England, but also failed to break through in America, though large audiences flocked to Costello's shows in the cities where new wave was catching on. Possibly the inclusion of "Radio Radio" (missing from the British version of the album) with its lyrics of "Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetize the way that you feel" alienated many a D.1 and programmer. Wonder why?
Armed Forces (originally titled "Emotional Fascism") was released one year after This Year's Model. Again there was a major shift in style, from power pop to pure pop. The lyrics and the music were more complex than before, and "Accidents Will Happen" was a minor hit in the U.S. The sweetness of the melodies belied the anger and accusations of the lyrics. There were snatches of classic pop riffs nicked from Beatles albums and other sources, and against such a background Elvis sang about fascism. party girls, the National Front, and peace, love and understanding. The contradiction between the saccharine music and the serious lyrics effectively emphasized the weight of the themes.
The tour that followed the release of Armed Forces was a bust critically and marked the first time that Elvis' live shows were thoroughly panned in America. Sets were pared down to 40 minutes with no encores. As the tour wound its way through the Midwest, Elvis became more and more caustic on stage and more and more disgusted and bored with the U.S. In a bar in Columbus, Ohio, singer Bonnie Bramlett knocked him down for calling Ray Charles an ignorant blind nigger during a drunken confrontation. The incident generated considerable publicity, and ultimately alienated the fans who had, up to now, judging from his lyrics, thought him as far removed from racism as possible. Costello called the obligatory press conference in New York and explained that he was simply trying to rouse Bramlett and her companions (from Steven Stills' band) in the bar out of complacency. But the damage was done. Elvis Costello is possibly better known in America by that one incident than by any of his songs. Whatever his intent may have been at the time, his words will possibly follow him for the rest of his public career. Ironically, Costello appeared in the film Americathon several months later and sang "Crawling To The U.S.A." a powerful, critical song about America that ranks with the Clash's "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A." for putting down the States. Costello didn't tour America for the next year and a half following that barroom incident.
Meanwhile Elvis recorded and released a 20-song LP in late 1980 called Get Happy! Costello had always harbored a taste for soul music, particularly the old Stax collection, and Get Happy! reflects that taste in every way possible, from the music to the cover art, which was labeled with "pre-worn," looking as if it had been under a stack of record for years. This album was a turning point, a move away from the angry young man stance found on previous records. The 20 songs are, ironically, not happy, but are bitter reflections on love and love lost. Six months later, in 1981, Elvis released another 20-song LP called Taking Liberties, containing all of Elvis' previously hard-to-acquire B-sides of singles, unreleased songs, and rarities, such as a couple of country songs. During this time Costello also collaborated with country singer George Jones on a Costello-penned duet, "Stranger In The House."
Only a couple of months after the release of Taking Liberties came Trust. Costello's most personal album to date. Now he was trying his hand at lounge music, toning down his delivery and letting Nieve's tinkling piano set the mood. "I don't mean to be mean much anymore," sings Elvis on "Pretty Words," and indeed it seemed that he had resigned himself to accepting many of the problems he had earlier attacked. The songs are tame by comparison with earlier works, and are mainly sung in the first person. Elvis seems to be pointing the finger at himself this time, but many fans still couldn't trust him and found it hard to believe that this was really their Elvis. A successful tour of the States followed the release of Trust, and so did an appearance on the Tomorrow show, during which, to the surprise of many, Elvis was humorous and actually polite to host Tom Snyder.
Instead of returning to England to begin work on his next album, Costello decided to record an album of his favorite country songs. He enlisted the aid of Clover's guitar player, John McFee, and country music's top producer, Billy Sherrill, and recorded Almost Blue in Nashville. Recording classic country songs was something Costello had wanted to do for some time. Such shifting of gears proved a bit too bone-jarring for many of his fans, though, especially in America, where he had only recently redeemed himself. In a typically Jake Riviera move, import copies of Almost Blue bore a sticker on the shrink wrap that read, "Warning: this album may cause a reaction in narrow-minded people." Almost Blue, predictably, fared worse commercially than any other Elvis album.
Again a tour of the States followed, his most successful thus far. Having reinstated himself in the public eye, Elvis granted Rolling Stone and a couple of newspapers interviews, his first with any journalist in over two years. In New York, he visited a couple of radio stations as guest DJ. Was Elvis going public? Simultaneously he released his latest album, Imperial Bedroom, which continues in the mellowed vein of Trust, but takes its cue from torch songs. It is lushly orchestrated by Nieve, and Costello turns in his best vocal performance yet. Again the songs are about love and lovers, and most of Elvis' early fans have given up hope that he'll return to the anger and passion that he once had. Imperial Bedroom is finding him a new audience, though, and many critics are calling it his masterpiece. It is far from a rock album, and many Costello-ites wonder if he's left rock behind for good, to head in the direction of "Adult" pop music. But trying to second-guess Elvis Costello is not bound to be a fruitful venture.
Chances are that Elvis would rile if somebody told him that one of his records was a masterpiece. As he has said many times, it doesn't matter to him if people like his music. In fact, he would rather that people didn't like him than like him for doing the same thing over and over again. If there's one person who shouldn't have to worry about being stuck in a rut, it's Elvis Costello.