Hot Press, April 6, 1994

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Bill Graham

Calm down, it's not the start of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer revival! With Brutal Youth, Elvis Costello has once again exercised his aural brushstrokes to assemble a collection of songs that are truly worthy of such a great master. Resident Hot Press art critic Bill Graham thumbs through the latest catalogue which finds Costello reunited with old sparring partners The Attractions and drawing on influences that extend far beyond rock 'n' roll's "year zero."

Why oops, there goes my intro. Only a minute into our interview and Elvis Costello has consigned one key line of questioning to the shredder. He's worked in Pathway Studios quite regularly in the seventeen years that separate his debut My Aim Is True from his latest album, Brutal Youth. "It's not the romantic return to my youth thing you would like to think," he says.

So that's my ghosts of Pathway studio question blown out of the water. Likewise the return-to-the-original-unpolluted-source-to-recapture-lost-inspiration angle. Whilst I'll also need to be circumspect with any nostalgic punk-related queries. Elvis Costello, I am immediately advised, is not attempting to reinvent his own spirit of '76. It just sort of grew out of his inquiry-frustrating line on Brutal Youth, his first album with the Attractions since 1986's Blood And Chocolate.

There was no elaborate plan for a reunion. After what he himself describes as his pair of "more orchestrated albums," Spike and Mighty Like A Rose and then The Juliet Letters, his totally unforeseen digression into chamber music with The Brodsky Quartet, the pendulum was probably bound to swing back to a more Spartan approach.

He did want to record a simpler, more urgent record that concentrated on the raw materials not the sauces or the garnish. Then as the project progressed from the early demos, he gradually realised that Steve Naive, Pete and Bruce Thomas, his three former allies in The Attractions, were his most natural partners.

Nor should commentators view Brutal Youth as a commercial ploy to rescue a faltering career. That's to misread his progress through the faulty lenses of the British music press and Elvis Costello is not one to promote his latest album by denigrating and apologising for his earlier work.

Besides sales are rather perky, thank you. He doesn't usually discuss such figures but, unprompted, he reveals that thanks to his alliance with WEA which delivered him new audiences in countries like Spain where his earlier albums were patchily serviced, both Spike and Mighty Like A Rose are his best sellers.

And yet — I know, I did my damnedest to avoid the dread phrase — it is and it isn't back to basics. There are uncanny prophetic echoes of the increasingly clownish sex scandals that are disabling and disfiguring John Major's regime. Early press on Brutal Youth has already linked "13 Steps Lead Down" to Stephen's Milligan's satsuma-spiked demise but you can just as handily link the Continental adventuress of "Sulky Girl" to the Spanish Lady Buck who throttled Sir Peter Harding's military career through the tabloids.

But the music doesn't clone his early work with The Attractions. The sound may be slimline and the first three tracks, "Pony Street," "Kinder Murder, "13 Steps ..." and the later "20% Amnesia" do revert to the fast-punching combinations or olden times in the ring but elsewhere, the music's mood is more reflective.

Take "Clown Strike," with its acknowledged debts to Van Morrison courtesy of the album's other bassist, Nick Lowe. Once Costello and co. would have clattered along so boisterously there'd be no time to survey the scenery whereas now, there's restraining hands on the brakes. Costello now relates to social disease with unease rather than quaking, querulous aggression, asks a few more questions before he punishes the prisoners of his songs and doesn't so readily presume to be admonishing his victims from a superior, cutting sense of morality.

And being more economical with his outrage, the music also steps back into a new perspective to colour deeper-hued if less startlingly immediate moods. If he isn't offering any redemptive solutions or visions for the future, the music of Brutal Youth may not so much hark back as gradually reveal the foundations of a new mature style.


Explaining it, no grand new manifestos are outlined. Rather it's almost as if Elvis Costello's merely saying: here's a few oul songs I had hanging around the house.

He will concede that his dalliance with Wendy James for her Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears album was a partial reaction to his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. With the classical musicians, he explains, "I had to put a lot into it because I had to learn notation and listen to the quartet. But I also didn't want to lose sight of the other way of writing songs, just picking up a guitar and making a noise and getting something out quick."

So the James project kept those muscles exercised. And after demoing them in Pathway with drummer, Pete Thomas, he figured he'd begin from the same starting-tapes for his next album. In fact. he even claims with some relish that "some people who heard the Wendy James demos said this is the best record you've ever made. But maybe, that's because it's so carefree. So I thought, maybe 1 should approach it with the same carefree thing but with songs that I feel are right for me."

An Attractions reunion wasn't in the early scripts. Costello was going to be a one-man band save for Pete Thomas as percussive assistant. So he initially intended it "to he as personal as possible and the opposite of the orchestrated albums as I think of them, Spike and Mighty Like A Rose. where I brought in different people for different roles. But if I played it all myself it. then had to exist within my considerable limitations as an instrumentalist."

This style, he says "worked very well for 'Kinder Murder'. You're on 8-track, you go in and do the performance and it's very raw and spontaneous. It's not dressed up because it's an ugly story and if you try to embellish, it's going to go wrong. My bass playing is just about as stupid as it needs to be for that kind of music — it's just rumbling around and the guitar is also there with the right kind of attitude."

But this piecemeal approach didn't suit every song. By now, Steve Naive was delivering keyboard seasoning and Costello found himself calling on Nick Lowe. another old ally from his early Stiff days and a bassist, he believes "most people underrate because he's mainly known as a producer and a songwriter. Although he says himself that he's no virtuoso, he's got a certain thing and I've always responded to him. ever since I first met him."

"But then," he continues, "there were other songs like 'London's Brilliant Parade', 'This Is Hell' and 'You Tripped At Every Step' that have a bit more architecture and Nick said 'these aren't my speed'."

Producer, Mitchell Froom who'd worked with Bruce Thomas on Suzanne Vega's records then suggested the last missing Attraction. "We were edging towards it," Costello reflects. I had my doubts that we could pull it off. Not from the musical point of view but more from the personal point of view. Because though we've not exactly been at each other's throats. there's been plenty of screaming and shouting about each other over the last few years,"

Discuss the songs and you soon start roving down endless paths of digression. People might decide the relationship songs on Brutal Youth are full of wrath and weeping, I submit. Costello demurs.

"Not entirely, though I think some of them do. Maybe when you first listen to them in an analytical frame of mind, which is your job, those things tad to dominate more. But later on, people get the sense of what the tune is expressing and maybe balancing it a little. There's certainly sad songs on the record but 'Clown's Strike' is an example. Somebody described it as very cruel but I said no it's not.

"I'd read this story somewhere about this strike of clowns at a circus. It really happened. And so that's how I was thinking that you don't have to tumble round the room and bounce off the walls to make me love you. So really, it's a very affectionate song. It's somebody frustrated by this person who hides behind this facade.

"Then in a darker way, 'You Tripped At Every Step' is the same, about dealing with people who aren't in control of themselves. There's fighting and there's drink involved but I think the tune tells you there's a lot of love in it. It's not a dark tune, it's quite a bright time — I think it's an exasperated love song."

Citing "13 Steps Down" he also suspects people may miss his black humour. The image of "instruments of torture" is, he says. "about high heels. Men love to torture and women love to torture themselves with high heels. It's a funny line. I can understand that by the tone of the voice and the way the music is rushing past you, humour may not be the first thing that you think of. But it's sort of about this exasperation at the things we put ourselves through, the inevitability of going back to that place that you know is going to do you harm whether it's drink, sex, drugs or emotional blackmail"

"This Is Hell" is far more obviously comic, a life sentence in the basement of the waxworks of the mind. He laughs: "All this ugly drug music starts happening and I start playing guitar like Steppenwolf. You can either dig it as it is or think it funny, I don't care as long as it has an affect. But I think you have to acknowledge that some people would really love hell because it's full of drama and pain, the hell of pictures, the hell that some of us were taught. And in fact the mundane hell of the bad nightclub when the lights come up and you realise that you've spilled ketchup on your lapel and you're trying to be so suave is far worse."

Elvis was ranked among those who paid tribute to Van Morrison at the recent Brits awards and he accepts "Clown Strike" borrows from the Belfastman: "It was more of a shuffle thing when I wrote it on acoustic guitar. And then Nick came up with the bass line which I liked because it was more funny then. And I suppose it does owe a little debt to Van in the harmonies. I put that little doo-wop-thing in the background. I thought he might get a kick out of that.

"It's not that he started that style of music because it obviously comes from jazz," he explains. But in terms of rock 'n' roll, he kind of defined it and Tim Buckley in a kind of way picked up on it. It's a kind of acoustic-based jazz, a sort of light R'n'B. Actually my favourite Van Morrison record is His Band And Street Choir, funnily enough, not one of the great mystical records. I just like it because it's so free."

"But I'm not saying I'd never like to hear Astral Weeks. It's like Mingus or something. It's one of the great pieces of music of the 20th Century, I really believe that. But I can't listen to it too often because when you put it on, it's so extraordinary. And all attempts to do anything like it have completely failed. Including Van who doesn't seem to be able to go back to such an extraordinary leap because he's such a great bandleader at doing the other thing. Maybe, you can only do that once in your whole life.

"What's amazing is that he's made so many great records after that one. Because it would have stopped a lot of people dead in their tracks. Like 'I've made this I'd better stop'. That's what I admire about him, the way he keeps going on."


Elvis Costello may be associated with Liverpool but he was born in London, a Paddington Virgo in 1955. The accidents of birth, later adult residence and the timing of his breakthrough in the wider Punk/New Wave alliance place him in a school of urban songwriters beside Squeeze, Madness, the Clash, the Jam and the Pogues, who really tell the story of London from the late Seventies till the late Eighties. "London's Brilliant Parade" returns to those themes.

"But," he cautions, "it isn't the then of when I started. It's the then of the Sixties, that illusionary London. My dad was a hippie for a while. Not a hippie exactly but he grew his hair long at the end of the Sixties. So I used to go out with him down the Kings Road and I saw the tail-end of that. And of course, it was all contained in just one street. And because of the newsreels and the films, it gave the illusion that everybody in the country was in uproar.

"And the same happened with punk. The music papers, and of course the straight press who reacted like it was the fall of civilisation, like to give the impression that punk was a nationwide revolution. And yet, I was on the road in '77, sometimes arriving in places like Scarborough the night after the Sex Pistols had played there. And we'd have to deal with the aftermath because we were regarded as similar. And we'd get there to find three rather timid-looking young boys with three safety pins in their lapels, that was the extent of the rebellion."

He wrote the song in Dublin. "Maybe it's the old thing of leaving the town to see it," he muses. "When I was there constantly, perhaps it was all too on top of me to see the difference. When I sat at the piano to write it, it all became clear, like a story I'd seen go past myself without really recognising it"

"I've always resisted the fact that I was born in London," he adds. "Because my family's from Merseyside, and I have also lived there, I identify that much more as my hometown because it's my family town. And the reason to some extent why I live here is not so I can be a tax exile, it's because there are certain things about Dublin that remind me of Liverpool when I was younger. Only some things, not as many as people would like you to believe. But it's not London. One of the main reasons for being here is that it's not London."

My own strong suspicion is that London has lost its dynamism of ten years ago.

"Yeah," he concurs. "It's running down. That's what the song's trying to capture. But it's a sort of melancholy feeling. Because I'm not there and it's not affecting me, it's not like I really want to criticise it in a damning way. The feeling is ambivalent. In the song, it's 'Just look at me, I'm having the time of my life'. Some of the time when I sing it, I mean it. Some of the time, it's obviously tongue-in-cheek. It isn't an absolute judgement, the definitive word on London."

But if there's a barrowload of scaldingly observant songs about London and other British cities from '76 till about '84, hardly anybody's writing quality songs on those themes now?

"Well there are. Do you know who's doing it? Me," he ripostes. "I'm doing it. I guess other people have other concerns, I can't answer for them or why it's changed. I think the danger is always to see music in terms of social movements. Sometimes they reflect movements that may be going on and that may be true of some of my own songs. I think it's easier and more tempting when you're younger to get involved with slogans and the reason I can sing most of my old songs is that there aren't many or any slogans in them."

"Like my favourite Clash song was always 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais' because it was really true and it was also funny. Not funny in laugh out loud and split your sides but true funny, illuminating humour."


But why is Elvis Costello such a solitary creature, a social carnivore situated on the food chain above all the other ambient New Age grazers. Take away Morrissey, another vegetarian with carnivorous songs, who is already a decade into his career and where are the younger songwriters with both the ability and desire to speak for England. It may be an exaggeration to claim something's rotten in the state of English songwriting but it's definitely a hatfull of hollow.

One neither needs to be snooty about all dance music or appeal for a politically correct sloganeering agenda for songwriters to fear that with the passing of each year the themes and territory investigated gets more confined. See a movie, watch a documentary or hear a comic; generally, they're more stimulating and reliable carriers of the message than rock which seems to have degenerated into an adjunct of tabloid sex.

So I'm being the Guardian reader as Mr. Grumpy. And yet there is a crisis in contemporary British popular culture that seems to have affected rock. It really does have a most peculiar relationship with the past, recycling the Seventies but totally amputated from earlier eras. So how does Elvis Costello see new songwriters dealing with their own generation?

"I can't speak for them because I don't know what the younger songwriters feel like. There's a lot of very timid music that I hear. It's as if they're making tentative steps towards an audience without being very sure that it's even there. Maybe the whole sense of the song has lost its bearings because there's so much other music constructed with so much less effort that is more successful."

Americans have all their musical history to exploit but Brits have a Year Zero about 1955 that acts as a cut-off point. English folk music, music hall and pre-war dance music are alien resources, virtually uynusable by the majority of British writers. But Elvis Costello is the exception. a songsmith who's comfortably worked with folk musicians, albeit Irish ones, and the son of a father who sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. Not surprisingly, he's more adept at crossing these great British divides.

"A lot of the songs that inspire me to write come from before 1955. Even English ones," he claims. citing The Very Thought of You' by bandleader. Ray Noble about 1929.

"Ray Noble was doing the same thing as Lennon and MacCartney" he continues, "in that he was copying the American songwriting tradition, the Jerome Kern/Irving Berlin tradition. But I think there is a problem in that only Richard Thompson has managed to make a happy marriage between rock 'n' roll and English folk music. It's much easier here. Now some of them are shotgun marriages of free-form jazz but the forms in Irish music are much more open to modern interpretation because though there's songs and ballads, the instrumental forms are much more open-ended. They lend themselves to collaboration — otherwise it's obvious the Chieftains wouldn't have a career."

But, I argue, an American or an Irish writer can create a song about notionally, 1924, confident that he or she can find the musical language to naturally bridge the seventy years whereas with an English writer, the resulting song may sound jerrybuilt.

"Will I tell you why that is'?" he responds. opening another avenue of speculation. "To some extent, both these countries have revolutionary cultures in that they come out of some sense of rebellion. Literally, the whole founding of the country still has some semblance (of rebellion), whereas in England, the last revolution they had besides the imitation one of greed in the 80s, was in the 17th century. You have to have a fucking long memory to be able to sing about that.

"If you go into an English folk club. you'll obviously find people who'll sing about mining and try to keep that working-class perspective alive but they find it harder to get into the popular culture, unlike here and unlike America."

He's edging back to Brutal Youth. Now Margaret Thatcher's retired, John Major doesn't inspire the saint vitriol. "It's much tougher," he concedes "now we have this lot in. The danger is that it's too easy to assume that they're a bunch of grey clowns like the Spitting Image puppet of Major. And so what I'm trying to get over in that bridge of '20% Amnesia' — "it's a dangerous game that comedy plays / It doesn't always tell you the truth / Sometimes it delays it" — is that there's a real danger to reduce him to caricature.

"People feel sorry for Major for some strange reason. I don't know why the fuck they feel sorry for him, he's got a job. And you don't get to be the Prime Minister of any country without being a ruthless bastard. It doesn't matter what your P.R. says, they've just got cleverer and realized that the strident, more belligerent leadership just doesn't work. It's just like here, isn't it? People put up with Charlie Haughey and his quirks and his shenanigans and suddenly, it got too much and it was time to go and time for a guy who finesses it a bit more. He might be up to all the same stuff but we won't know till it's too late. We never do."


Let's put a wrap on the politics and rescue the reunion. Elvis and the Attractions will be touring together but he resists any notion that they've replugged into their own ghoulish version of the Crosby, Stills & Nash syndrome. Both Steve Naive and Bruce Thomas were inducted into the Attractions because they were the players most sympathetic to his songs at the original auditions and he says: "It's kind of the same now in a peculiar sort of way. Because it's the songs that have reselected them. Rather than all of us getting together and saying let's make a bit of money."

Take it as a temporary dalliance between old flames rather than a return to marriage after a long separation. I suspect Elvis Costello will continue to experiment and write in a variety of styles that will dictate a similar diversity in his musicians. Besides, his pride will always make Elvis Costello hostile to any taint or taunt of nostalgia.

As he says himself: "I think that's in the minds of particularly the writers in America who see it as a golden age before I lost my mind and grew my hair. But that's a load of bollocks, really.

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Hot Press, April 6, 1994


Bill Graham interviews Elvis Costello.

Images

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Postscript


Bill Graham

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More than any of his more wilful, tangential projects, The Juliet Letters, Costello's collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet, confused and divided his supporters in the press and public. Since we missed our interview with him on its release, this provides an opportunity to explore it.

I can't claim to champion the album. The Juliet Letters is clever, intriguing and dense in its complexity but I miss the rhythmic vigour of bass and drums and so lack the key to unlock its secret intentions. I'll take jazz when I want demanding art music. For me, classical music works best as a flavouring: Spector strings or Massive Attack's luscious "Unfinished Sympathy." It seems to me that classical music is generally antithetical to rock 'n' roll.

He's mild in his defence: "I don't agree obviously but equally obviously, we accepted that this was going to bamboozle some people who wouldn't have the time or patience for it. Some people would accept the glib judgement that anyone from rock is automatically disqualified from ever using any of those sounds because of what it represents socially. All of which is total bollocks."

Still he accepts that "some people might miss the noise and excitement. Obviously, in a string quartet, though you might have harmonic dissonances, it's a much more concordant sound overall. In the way it's developed over hundreds of years — these instruments operate in their different registers and blend in a certain way. And there's always going to be a more gentle effect whereas rock 'n' roll is all about roadcrashes and that's what makes it exciting. The drums smashing into the bass, smashing into the guitars and the voice screaming over it.

"It's two completely different approaches," he continues "but they're both equally valid for the kind of songs. Like there are some songs on it that, funnily enough, could do very well rearranged for a more conventional pop backing. I actually believe that 'Take My Life In Your Hands' could be a big hit for Barbra Streisand if she wasn't so busy running America.

"If somebody doesn't get it, I say fair enough" — but he's less tolerant of those 'who talk it down from the point of view of ignorance. Then you'll get an argument from me. The rest of the time if those instruments don't cause you to respond to them or miss the other things, then fine. There's other records to listen to, including mine."

Perceptions got further confused when he wrote the Wendy James album but he justifies it as a refreshing release from the more intense Brodsky project. He says: "I didn't really have time to sit back and consider whether people perceived it as perverse because I'm not really aware of a public out there watching me. Why should they? There's plenty of other things. I just get on with my work and when it comes time, it goes on public display just like a painter with an exhibition and then it gets judged.

"Going on tour with The Brodsky Quartet gave me hope," he adds significantly. "When you play with a rock 'n' roll band on stage, you don't have a tremendous sense of the people. The audience is this sort of massive, shapeless thing that you can sometimes get a sense of if it's going well. But with The Juliet Letters, it was very different. For one thing, we didn't have a lot of theatrical lighting and when we looked out, sometimes we could see every face in the audience.

"That's very unusual and we were completely without any paraphernalia to hide behind. We had the minimum of amplification and I wasn't even singing directly off the microphone. Yet the reaction was so spontaneous. And the music, even though it was notated music and for some people in this forbidding form, it was so changable and volatile from night to night."

Artists may be temperamentally prone to exaggerate but Costello insists that the tour gave him great heart about playing ... "I'd really lost faith in playing live before that tour," he confesses. "Not in Myself, but I'd just felt that people had lost the sense to recognise good music when it was being played."

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