Hit Parader, August 1979

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Hit Parader

US rock magazines

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Armed force accidents


Richard Robinson

Notations Re: Peace, Love, and Understanding Elvis Costello

Okay, the basic premise is that you've at least heard of Elvis Costello. That's a start. Listening to his albums isn't absolutely required to understand what follows, but it will help.

I'm amazed at the number of people I know (mainly Toto and Foreigner fans) who have heard of Elvis Costello but have never actually listened to any of his albums. There must be something wrong when a melodic, catchy songwriter with a penchant for clever teenage lyrics is practically ignored by the rock establishment.

Of course there's something wrong with the rock establishment, but we won't pursue that, except as it reflects on the talent and commercial potential of Elvis Costello.

Some critics have likened Elvis to Bruce Springsteen, not an impossible comparison. Both artists present an energetic, sometimes angry, honesty in their lyrics; each has a gift for melody that is unusual among rock artists. And both, I'd say, have a little bit of poser about them, they have developed colorful stances about cars, girls, politics, white lower class life, and older people's values. But these comparisons only outline a general category of 70's rock and roll singers; a list that also includes Patti Smith, David Johansen, Tom Verlaine, David Bowie, and a half dozen others.

One thing that puts Elvis apart from other rock personalities of the new wave generation is that he is particularly inaccessible. He stands behind his guitar and glasses onstage, seeming to maintain a distance that becomes even greater when he's offstage. This includes a general rule of thumb that no photos of Elvis are to be taken when he's offstage. Like Orwell's political campaign for Big Brother, all we see is that one image, Elvis the poster staring out at us from behind his specs.

The Private Elvis.

Who cares.

Nobody really cares, but it is interesting to observe. It also makes it tough to find a nice color snapshot of Elvis to put on the cover of a magazine. But then, maybe that's what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding.

As we move along, let me interject that Elvis' new album, Armed Forces, is not as good as This Year's Model. The later album has two hot sides, one of the few records sold in the last five years that you can actually listen to band for band, side one and side two. Armed Forces, disappointingly, has only one completely hot side (side one), and one that's barely so-so. I presume this doesn't mean that Elvis has peaked, but you never. His next album, whenever it's released, will be the key that tells us if Elvis has flashed his pan or if he's here for good with his catchy songs and snappy observations on the passing scene. For me, the verdict isn't in yet.

A large number of reviewers who criticized the Armed Forces album make mention of the fact that the original title was to be "Emotional Fascism." As witty a title as we've heard in these parts since "Footsteps On The Ceiling."

Is Elvis angry with us. Is he one of the new wave of angry young men who have something to say about how we chose to waste our time. Come to think of it, is he the only angry young man in rock and roll. Maybe, depends on who's emotional and who's the fascist. In my experience among the fields of rock stardom, I've encountered a few artistes who are both fascist and emotional when it comes to what they've got to say, though what they say may not spell out the fascism except by audience participation.

My favourite description of Elvis comes from the April Trouser Press when Ira Robbins refers to him as "the Sultan of Spite."

Maybe that's true. But the Private Elvis (you know, the one who won't do interviews) isn't saying.

I'm writing as if nobody liked poor El. Well, the people I know who know him personally say he's an alright guy. But many of the people who want to write about Elvis, ask him questions about his music, expand on what he his and what he wants to do with it, well those people seem to spend most of their time quoting his song lyrics. The truth is that if Elvis didn't have the obvious talent to write slightly bent teenage love gulpers, I seriously doubt if anybody would bother with him at all. He's got that special talent to pied-pipe and it gives his music a hypnotic quality even when you're in on the gag.

Elvis Costello Facts: And who knows if they're true: Elvis' real name is Declan Patrick MacManus. He was born in London and although his father was a jazz musician, it wasn't until he was in his late teens that he got involved in rock. He's 24 or 25 years old and has a wife and a child. He got discovered through an audition cassette that he dropped off at Stiff Records in London.

"Actually I think I'm more devious than obsessive," says Elvis in the only in-depth interview with him we've seen. It appeared in London's New Music Express last spring. In it he talked about himself and his music. It's peppered with words like "disorientates," "one-dimensional," "revengeful," "vicious," "emotions," "hate," "viewpoint," "impersonal"... and by the time you've finished reading it you know less about Elvis Costello than you did when you started, except that he doesn't know Nick Lowe (his producer) very well (they work together but don't socialize). Wonder what the socialists have to say about that.

Are you beginning to get the impression it's impossible to write a feature about Elvis Costello that says anything worth reading?

Stories about Elvis (with or without quotes from El himself) are like his songs. They're bright, personable, enjoyable, but not in the least bit memorable. (Elvis has claimed that his dislike of the music biz is what keeps him from maintaining closer contact. A stance which we can agree with, but he is recording in the U.S. for the best large company in the biz.)

The truth is that if Elvis wants to be more than a presently popular singer (and there's some question that he does), he's going to have to put himself on the line a little bit more. No matter how dimensional he thinks he is and thinks he has to be, he obviously doesn't understand the USA and what his music could mean here. Not that that's anything unusual, when it comes to America a great many of the English don't get it.

The Public Elvis: Ignoring the convolutions of the Private Elvis and various theories relating to that figure, let's consider the Public Elvis. What's wrong. The songs are the best, the production is excellent, the intent is right. Frankly I can't figure it out. I don't understand why Elvis isn't a complete sensation. How deaf can people be to the sexy, catchy voice and its plaintive cry. This is why they invented the electric guitar. I don't get it. Unless most people are made uncomfortable by the Private Elvis that sometimes peeps through the Public Elvis. I don't think any more of those people than Elvis does. Whether they're the majority of the rock audience, I don't know. But since Springsteen isn't an out and out sensation coast to coast I think it's possible. (At this point you may not know what the possible is I'm talking about, but take my word for it.)

And that, is the secret service from this magazine for this issue.

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Hit Parader, No. 181, August 1979


Richard Robinson profiles Elvis Costello.

Images

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Cover and page scans.

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Photo by Richard E. Aaron.

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Photo by Bob Gruen.

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