Elvis Costello's contribution to Bringing It All Back Home has been singled out by all concerned as crucial. Philip King points to his enthusiasm and his accessibility as particular sources of encouragement for the producers of the series. Elvis was also one of the first major songwriters to agree. to write a new song specially for the project.
Born Declan MacManus into the Irish community of Birkenhead on Merseyside, Costello has always been acutely aware of the influence of Irish music on other forms. For proof of this, you need look no further than his 1989 Spike album which is laced with traditional flavours or his work with The Pogues or the recordings he made with Donal Lunny as part of the first series of The Session. But his Irish traditional and folk links go even further back than any of that. In fact, the young Elvis' first ever gigs as a singer/songwriter were in English folk clubs. do one occasion, he actually had Ewan MacColl sitting in the front row of his audience. The great man was not, however, very impressed with what he heard and he fell asleep half way through the set.
And, if you want even further evidence of Elvis Costello's Irish sensibilities I can tell you that he spoke to Hot Press last week about an hour before the Ireland V England soccer match and expressed the solemn wish (and indeed belief) that Ireland would win soundly by at least three goals.
"Philip just rang me up and outlined what he had in mind for the series," says Costello, "and I was very pleased to be involved in any way I could. I've always felt that the story of Irish music and how it insinuated itself into other musics was a story worth exploring. Anyone who plays rock 'n' roll knows that you can take it apart like a child with a toy and you see that there's blues and country and all the rest. And if you go back far enough from there, you end up in Scotland or Ireland eventually. So it's worth having a chronicle of how all that came about."
Costello gave a lot of consideration to his own contribution. to the series before eventually deciding to write and perform a new song, "Mischievous Ghost". "I didn't feel that the just doing my favourite traditional song or ballad would be good enough," he explains. "That wouldn't be part of the story they were trying to tell. So I decided to write a new song, something that maybe made some sort of comment on one element of the story."
The mischievous ghost of the song's title is a dead poet who in life outgrew his own legend and died before it could catch up with him. His audience are so scandalised by this ungenerous act that they dig hint up, rehabilitate him and put him once again on public show. "It's a life after death song," says Elvis.
Musically, he describes it as "a collision between chamber music and a melody derived somewhat from traditimial music". It features a string sextet — two cellos, two fiddles, two violas — arranged by Fiachra Trench, Donal Lunny on bodhran, Davy Spillane on pipes and Mary Coughlan singing a traditional-style backing refrain.
"I'd like to have hired a small chamber orchestra but that wouldn't have been fair to the budget", says Elvis. "But what I like about this song is that everybody plays a little differently on it, everybody stretches a little. I sing differently, Davy moderates his pipes to play what is quite a strange air, Mary's voice sounds a little strange. Everybody moved a bit so the collision could occur."
What would Elvis say to people who feel that he's sold out his rock roots by playing with traditional musicians?
"Yeah, there is a feeling that people like me are trying to authenticate ourselves in some way by this sort of thing." he replies. "But I think that's being overly suspicious. If you write a song and it sounds good with certain traditional instruments, it's crazy to set a puzzle for yourself to find something else to play it with. Music isn't sacrosanct, writers should be able to draw from different sources. I think there's a defensive nature to a lot of musical criticism which reacts against that kind of thing. I don't know if that is reflected in how the general public feel.
"I did an interview in Folk/Roots a while ago in which I spoke about how I started playing in folk clubs, which is not something I normally talk about because I didn't think people would be interested. Anyway, they got these letters in from irate folkies saying that I was trying to pass myself off as some sort of secret folk legend. They said they didn't remember me playing these places. Of course, they didn't. It was 1968 and I was a sixteen-year-old nobody floor-singer. But as you see, there's a lot of hysteria on both sides about this sort of thing."
What do you think of the current crop of raggle-taggle musicians?
"I don't know much about them really," he says. "I still have a house in Ireland and as far as I'm concerned that's my home but I'm not back there as often as I'd like. Obviously. I've read about the raggle-taggle thing but I'm suspicious of anything that has a label tagged to it, if you pardon the pun. I can, however, understand cynicism about all these windswept bands trying to look mystical. Mysticism is something you achieve, it's not something you get by not washing your hair and wearing your shirt unbuttoned. But it's like punk and 2-Tone
and mods and all the rest , the people who are any good will survive after the label is gone."
Did you ever meet Ewan MacColl after he fell asleep at your gig?
"Oh, you know about that," he laughs. "No, I never met him, unfortunately. He was right to sleep, though. The songs weren't very good."
Finally, what about rumours that Elvis And The Attractions are going to play Ireland this summer?
"No, definitely not," he says emphatically. "There's no such group. I've a record coming out shortly and I think that me and the band from that record will be playing two dates in Ireland, one in Dublin, one outside. I want to play more gigs outside Dublin so I think we'll probably finish our next tour with a few dates around the country. I want to finish up somewhere good."