Hot Press, February 23, 1989

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Hot Press

UK & Ireland magazines


Elvis unmasked

Neil McCormick

Out from behind the grease-paint that adorns his face on the cover of Spike, Elvis Costello emerges to talk about the music that runs in his family from big-band to speed-metal, his much-touted Irish connection, working with Paul McCartney, his contempt for much of today's pop music, and the feelings that inspired his death wish for Margaret Thatcher.

Call it coincidence, call it synchronicity. Maybe we should settle for bad planning. I was in Heathrow Airport, waiting to board a delayed Aer Lingus flight from London to Dublin. It was a hastily arranged trip to interview Elvis Costello in the Gresham Hotel. I was skimming through some old Costello articles I had long had on file, not so much in-depth examinations as evasive skirmishes from a time when Elvis spoke to the press infrequently and, it seemed, reluctantly.

"The press were looking for something to crucify me with, and I fed myself to the lions," said the singer in a rare 1982 Rolling Stone interview, referring to the petty, drunken argument with Bonnie Bramlett, when Elvis shot his mouth off about black music and then was forced to duck as American journalists returned fire. ELVIS COSTELLO REPENTS said the cover headline over a photo of a completely unpenitent pop-star, gazing suspiciously out through large, black-rimmed spectacles, as if irritated at having to break his self-imposed silence to explain off the unfortunate and unwarranted stigma of racism that was then still damaging his American career. I looked up from the page... and straight into the same face gazing vacantly back at me from across the departure lounge.

The face was a little heavier maybe, slightly bearded, sporting small, rounded, dark glasses and with a black cap pulled low on the forehead as if making a half-hearted attempt at celebrity disguise, but it was him alright. Elvis Costello, in person, his wife Cait sitting to his right, a WEA International rep to his left. Carefully folding my clippings, I ambled over to introduce myself.

Elvis saw me coming. Or rather, he saw someone making a bee-line for him, clutching Costello cut-out pictures. His eyes darted to the left and right, as if seeking a convenient escape route, but he was against the wall and far from any crowd. Realising he was trapped, he slumped in his seat and attempted a weak smile as he accepted my outstretched hand. Cait buried her face in a book, keen to avoid the homily of an ardent fan.

"I'm from Hot Press," I said, "I thought you were supposed to be in Dublin!" "You're the one who's supposed to be in Dublin," countered Elvis, understandably mystified. "What's going on?" asked the bewildered WEA rep.

The flight was announced as we gave our conflicting explanations of the communications complication that led to two people who lived in the same city flying all the way to another country to meet one another. "Bizarre!" laughed Elvis. "Why doesn't anybody ever tell me what's going on?" complained the rep. "Don't worry," says Elvis, "I've got some other things I've got to do over there." "All it takes is a phone call!" muttered the rep, despairingly. "See you in Dublin," smiled Elvis as we boarded.

"Sorry about this," apologised the rep. "Don't worry," I replied, "you've just given me an intro for my article."

Not that Elvis Costello really needs an introduction. Since the days of rock's re-birth in the baptism of fire that was punk rock, he has been a leading figure in the world of contemporary music. Britain's most critically acclaimed songwriter, with a world status and influence that far exceeds his (respectable} sales figures.

From knock-kneed, angry young man snarling that the only human emotions he understood were guilt and revenge, to slightly portly, genial elder-statesman singing "All You Need Is Love" at Live Aid, his career has twisted and turned with more convolutions than his own punning lyrics, following an agenda clear to no one, probably not even himself. He has always seemed as much agent provocateur as pop star, never a pin-up even as a chart-topper, just too viciously anti-establishment to win the respect of the respectable. He is awesomely prolific and while there have been, inevitably, lows as well as highs in his output, the sheer intelligence, melodic invention emotional intensity of his writing and performing invests his least impressive work with redeeming features. Elvis Costello, as he told me himself during our conversation, is not God, but he's a class act, and I'll settle for that.

After a turbulent flight across the Irish sea (when the stewardess kept reminding everyone to keep their seat-bells fastened and star and journalist both considered whether it might have been wiser to have stayed and done the interview in the departure lounge) Elvis offered me a lift into town. The record company limo, with its polished black body and plush, red velvet interior, resembled nothing so much as a mobile brothel. Elvis sprawled on the back seat like a visiting dignitary, holding court as the Irish rep, the International rep and the journalist listened to a round of musical anecdotes. Cait, with the indifferent air of one who has heard it all before, remained buried in her book.

Elvis recounted drinking in a club in Canada where the bar band played a version of his song "Mystery Dance". Much to the local musicians' surprise, Elvis and The Attractions got up on stage to join them but then found they couldn't keep in sync with a version copied direct from the record. "We were stopping and starting in all the wrong places," he laughed. "They were better at being us than we were!" He told how drummer Pete Thomas, formerly a notorious drinker (though now apparently reformed and "playing better than ever") got them a telling off from Top Of The Pops' producer Michael Hurt for miming drum solos on his head during a broadcast of "I Wanna Be Loved". "It's incredible," said Elvis. "They seem to really believe that people that watch Top Of The Pops think you're playing live. Someone should break it to them!" Although it was a dull, rainy day Elvis' dark glasses remained on throughout the journey, masking a hangover that had followed a night of carousing after a hard week promoting his new album. "I wanted to unwind a bit," he remarked. "I think I unwound a bit too much."

Elvis has long since made his peace with the press and indeed, it seems, with the world. He is affable and easy to talk to, waxing eloquently on a wide range of musical topics. But the sense of privacy that drove him to keep journalists at arms length for so long remains, and he is evasive if the interview strays too far from his work. "I don't really see what this has got to do with music," he said at one point, signalling an end to a conversation about his family background. To be guarded about his private life and persona is, of course, his prerogative; to choose to probe it is mine. When we settled down to talk in a suite at the top of the Gresham, next door to the rooms he occupied for three months in '87, I wanted to try and find out something about who Elvis Costello really is. I think I found out a little, though an hour and a half was too short a time to talk to the only recording artist in the world whose every record I possess.

Between 1977 and 1987 Elvis Costello released 11 albums, not including two compilations of obscurities and a Best Of. Throw in an impressive number of collaborations and production jobs and his itinerary for those ten years looks like the wet dream of a workaholic. The two year gap between Blood And Chocolate and his new album, Spike, is the longest of his career, but, as he explains, "I haven't exactly been holidaying."

He toured sporadically with the loose collection of King Of America session men The Confederates, "a difficult band to get together in one place at one time." He did get them together in Europe, then later in the southern states of America, in Australia and Japan. "I wanted to play down south with those guys just to see what happened," he says. They played Honky Tonks in Tulsa, New Orleans and Nashville where, he confesses, "the audiences were completely bewildered because they have a force-fed diet of that kind of music, and R'n'B and country, and when I go down there they kind of want punk rock or something!"

In '87 he also did a solo college tour in America and then came to Ireland and lived in The Gresham for three months while Cait was acting in the film The Courier. Elvis kept himself busy writing songs ("I must have written about half this album next door," he recalls) and got talked into doing the music for the film, which he found "quite therapeutic not having to worry about song structures." The Courier got released in '88 to quite an overwhelmingly negative reception -- Elvis thought that unfair: "It wasn't Citizen Kane but I don't think its makers thought it was." He did some work with Latin American star Reuben Blades, co-writing songs on his first English language album, played with a veritable galaxy of stars backing Roy Orbison for a special concert and, out of the blue, was asked if he would like to do some writing with Paul McCartney.

They had met on a few occasions in studios and on benefit shows, but, as Elvis wryly observes, "He's not the sort of guy you go knocking on his door saying 'Can I write some songs with you?'" A huge Beatles fan, Elvis had never really disparaged McCartney's solo work as many of his punk contemporaries had. "Even at his most nursery rhymish, there was always something musically redeeming in his songs. I learned a tremendous amount from The Beatles and it's in my songs, it's in me, and he's one half of the partnership that put it there in the first place."

"My father sort of became a hippy when he was about forty. He grew his hair and he started listening to The Jefferson Airplane and things, and that was the only time we disagreed about music. He gave me loads of psychedelic records and I was into Tamla Motown by then."

Two of the songs from the McCartney/MacManus partnership appear on Spike, another was a McCartney B-side and others will be on his next album. "On the face of it it doesn't look like a very likely collaboration but it worked out really good," he observes. "We were strangely compatible. You've got to remember that it's just a guy, you know? I'm at exactly the right age to be really intimidated by it and from time to time I'd look up and go 'God it's HIM!', but I had to put all those thoughts aside, particularly any thoughts like 'these are pretty big shoes to be trying to fill' because it's not Lennon and McCartney. He's Paul McCartney, he's been a solo artist much longer than he's been a Beatle and I'm sure it gets on his nerves to be constantly referred to in the past tense. Whether people find his music less exciting now than it was then, well, it's a pretty tall order to be more exciting! It's like being the King of The World for a few years then having to settle for being the ambassador or something. I shouldn't think it's that easy a job and he's a decent person I must say, very sane."

Elvis made no effort to curb his penchant for Beatle-like licks just because he was working with a Beatle. "The ironic part is," he laughs, "if it sounds like he wrote it I probably did and vice versa. He wanted to do all the ones with lots of words and all on one note and I'm the one trying to work in the 'Please Please Me' harmony all over the place. It was really fun."

Most of the rest of Elvis' time has been taken up with preparing and recording his new album. "There's thirty-two musicians on it and there was a lot of phone calls to make. I must have spent a month on the phone ringing people up trying to find out when they were free and make a schedule to accommodate everyone." This is possibly his most expensive album ever. "I didn't have any more money than I'd had on previous albums," he admits, "but this time I spent it all!" There was a lot of travelling and relocating as Elvis and his two co-producers T-Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen moved between Hollywood, New Orleans, Dublin and London "to get the best possible group to play each song."

From the outset Elvis and T-Bone Burnett had wanted to do something different from previous albums, T-Bone encouraging him to approach the recording with a 'similar abandon' to his Courier soundtrack. They began to draw up a broad list of instruments, approaching each song as a separate entity. "There is almost different instrumentation on every song," says Elvis. The 32 musicians include such famous names as McCartney, Roger McGuinn and Chrissie Hynde, some of America's finest session players including drummers Jim Keltner and Jerry Marotta, an 8-piece brass band he saw while on holiday in New York with his jazz-loving mother ("she really dug them") and an impressive ensemble of Irish folkies including Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Davy Spillane, Derek Bell, Frankie Gavin and Steve Wickham. "I think it was worth it if it has come out the way I heard it in my head," says Elvis.

"So all these things add up to the sum of the two years since Blood And Chocolate. Which isn't a long time, it's only a long time for me," Elvis sums up, pointing out that, "The Pretenders have released five albums in the time I've released twelve."

Spike encompasses music with its roots in '60s pop, swing, jazz and folk. As he has done before with musical influences from Tamla-soul to country and western, Elvis dovetails these diverse sources into his own identifiable brand of lyric-orientated songwriting with an astonishing versatility, rarely, if ever, sounding like a tourist or an impersonator. His astonishing range and almost instinctive comprehension for the subtleties of different styles can be seen as a legacy from a childhood surrounded by music. Both his parents were involved in music, his father, famously, as Ross MacManus, the singer in the Joe Loss Orchestra, a Glenn Miller style 14-piece big band. But his mother too had her influence.

"My mother worked on record shops, she ran record departments," says Elvis. "She's very knowledgeable about music, because in those days you didn't just flicker down a page torn out of Music Week to find someone a record, you had to know which was the best recording of "The Song Of The Earth" or something, you actually had to know something about music. So there were always records around the house. My mother says the first record I ever really liked was Songs For Swingin' Lovers. Apparently when I couldn't even talk I liked that record, the sound must just have appealed to me. So from even before I can remember I've listened to music that swung!

"Of course, up to a certain age you're not influenced by snobbery, you're just as likely to like a song that you heard Val Doonican singing as Frank Sinatra. I absorbed a lot of different kinds of music. When you're very small you can't tell the difference, you just like songs. You don't hear the bass on records, you just hear the whole record. If you listen to records you liked when you were 11, you suddenly hear what's happening on them now cause your ears are more attuned. In the same way, when I was a little boy I used to go with my dad to see the Joe Loss 0rchestra play, on Sundays and Saturdays, I s'pose to get someone in to clean out the house and not have me bloody running around! And although they were a dance band, I never really thought of them as a swing band, though that's where their sound was rooted. It was just like this big block of reed and brass sound."

There was no musical rebellion or generation gap antagonism in the MacManus household. "I never thought of rock 'n' roll as being particularly rebellious," says Elvis. "The first pop music I really identified with was The Beatles when I was eight or nine and most everybody of all generations, could appreciate that the Beatles were good. Most of the time I was in agreement with my father, not about the songs he necessarily liked but about the songs that he sang. Back in 1963, you got like two hours a week when you heard pop music on the radio and the rest of the time it was light orchestra music, you know swing, dance band music. And the more hip dance bands started to play the modern music, doing modified arrangements. The publishers were putting out records as fast as they could, trying to get covers, cause that was the way people had hits -- it wasn't necessarily through the original artist, it was by people becoming familiar with the song. The song was still king. It was The Beatles that changed that, playing their own instruments.

"So I had a big stack of A-label records, acetates of all kinds of stuff that my dad was obliged to learn. He's a very versatile singer and quite a good mimic and they had a tremendously imaginative arranger who somehow managed to score these pop records for this 14-piece orchestra. Now whether my father liked it or not I don't know. I'm sure some of the songs he hated, but he got lumbered with this, doing things like "Good Vibrations" and "Like A Rolling Stone".

Elvis can only remember rebelling against his father's tastes in the late '60s, when MacManus senior was becoming a little too radical for his son. "My father sort of became like a hippy, when he was about 40. He grew his hair and he started listening to The Jefferson Airplane and things, and that was the only time we disagreed about music. I didn't like all that stuff. He gave me a load of psychedelic records and I was into Tamla Motown by then."

It was a time when Elvis recalls his own tastes developing and changing. "As a teenager things change very quickly for you, sometimes yon feel brasher and I liked Tamla Motown and other times you get all angst-ridden and I liked Joni Mitchell or something. Then as you get older and you're writing yourself you become aware that this music isn't just something that is done to you, you can actually control it. Music stops being this magic thing that appears out of nowhere, you can dismantle it and find out how it works and use it as a language. Yet when it gels, it's still really magical. I wrote some quite sophisticated songs in my teens. "New Lace Sleeves," which turned up on Trust, I'd written that when I was 19. So you obviously incorporate a lot of things you've learned as a listener. And I know a lot of music. I've memorised it, I know more songs than most people I know.

Ross MacManus still performs, and has been known to include an occasional Elvis Costello song in his set. "We've sung together," says Elvis, with obvious pride. "I was on a show, a celebration of the Joe Loss Orchestra and my dad was invited back to sing on the BBC. We did "Georgia" together."

Digging deeper into the MacManus family background, Elvis reveals that his grandfather was 'a military trained classical player.' He also has four half-brothers from his father's second marriage "and they're mostly musical as well." He's not convinced it's a genetic thing, however. "I don't hold with those theories. The difference in musical experience between my father, my grandfather and myself is quite a lot. And my great grandfather was a coal merchant so I don't know what his input is!"

Elvis has a son by his first marriage, who is now 14 and into speed-metal and rap. Elvis doesn't think it too likely he will be the successor in a musical dynasty. "It's less dominant in his life than it was in mine," he comments. "He's tinkered around with something musical. He hasn't shown me. He's kind of interested more in art."

Elvis Costello was once a genuine Top 0f The Pops-star, playing with a shiny modern sound that a multitude of bands imitated, to the extent that Elvis And The Attractions were driven away from their own creation for fear of "sounding like a parody of ourselves," as he told The Face in '83. These days, hit singles are rare and his opinion of chart music low. He dismissed the hulk of late '80s pop as 'songs about shopping and fucking' in a piece he wrote for Hot Press in 1987. However he insists that he is neither out of touch, nor running out of time.

"I've always been fearing that moment that everybody must reach when they go 'I just don't understand this. I literally don't understand this music. It's incomprehensible to me.' The way, say, one of the great musical innovators of the 20th Century was Louis Armstrong and when be-bop first started he was really critical of it. That must have been a horrible moment for people that really admired him, who couldn't understand how he could not hear that this was really brilliant. But then again we'll never know what it was like to stand at that point in time. And I've been fearing that moment turning up and it still hasn't turned up. When I see a tot of pop music I just think, 'how very conservative it is, and how very lacking in any kind of daring.' Mainly because it's not done by individuals. We're kind of back to a time when it's designed by a committee of marketing men and producers. There's a few groups whose records I like but it's not music to live and die by.

"The difference I perceive between now and then, really from watching my son, is I think most kids used to put the records on and then want the clothes to go with the record, whether it would be 'who's got a Beatle jacket' or 'who's got a Kaftan' even, not that I ever had one! The look was sort of dictated by the music; the music came first. Now, you get tile hat, you get the skateboard and you get like some speed metal or rap, and it's kind of in the background. I think most music's like a Swatch now, it's kind of an accessory. It's not the dominant thing anymore. Obviously there's different types of music. Some music probably still dominates people's lives. I think the kind of people that like The Smiths or Tanita Tikaram would probably like them more than... oxygen! But I think a lot of the other music that's kind of exciting on the surface is really accessory music. It's not a matter of life or death: it's a peripheral thrill."

The fact that Elvis has a teenage son playing records that he as a father doesn't really like hasn't made him feel too old to rock 'n' roll. "It's almost a joke. He likes Guns'n'Roses and Public Enemy and that stuff is like cartoons. It's like cartoons to me and it's sort of like cartoons to him. He doesn't really believe it. Maybe he's just smart. You know why it's so cartoonish? Because it's so self-conscious. Something like Guns'n'Roses, the guy's got the cigarette hanging from his lip at exactly the same angle as the guy that he's copying it off. It's not even au original slant on somebody else's style, it's just slavishly copying it till it becomes a cartoon. It's like 'take a pinch of Led Zeppelin, take a pinch of Mott The Hoople', you know? At least it's funny.

"But the other stuff, the stuff in the charts that's so popular -- it's so desperate in its hand-grasping desire for money, its motives are so transparent. I don't think it's at all loveable. I could always love pop music. I always liked Abba, I thought they were fantastic, and that's the most calculated kind of pop music but it was done with some kind of flair. It had its own style. By comparison Bros are just so boring! There's nothing redeeming about them, they're just not interesting. And I think for young people to invest all their emotions into something so average is just disappointing. I want something thrilling. There's no humour, daring, adventure in pop music and I really don't think that's to do with me being old. Obviously I don't like Luke Goss's arse, but I can't find anything in the music, I can't even find a well-simulated emotion, the way you can in most good pop music. And it seems to be because it's fallen out of the hands of inspired amateurs into the hands of calculating professionals."

Despite his dismal view of pop charts with which he no longer finds anything in common, Elvis still considers himself a creator of pop music. "Having just said that I find the mannerisms and all the mechanisms of most music that's in the charts so lacking in daring, if I was choosing to make pop music I wouldn't be drawing on the influences of some stuff I already found boring, I'd be looking to synthesise things that I found exciting and that's what I've tried to do. It's all pop music... or folk music!"

Elvis laughs, recalling Louis Armstrong's famous quote: "Everything is folk music. You've never seen a horse playing music!"

Two tracks on Spike, "Tramp The Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling", where he is accompanied by leading Irish musicians, mark his first recorded foray into traditional style folk-orientated material. The musical area is not new to him, however. Of Irish descent on his father's side, his grandparents were Irish emigrees "from God knows where." His father grew up in Birkenhead, "an almost exclusively Irish town." The Irish roots were "close enough to have a strong influence on my father" and, as with other forms of music, Elvis grew up with traditional songs being sung and played around the house.

"I absorbed a lot of things that way but then, when I started playing, I grew to really dislike folk music because the attitude of a lot of the folkies was so prejudiced against anything original." Elvis comments, recalling his pre-recording days when he played the folk-circuit as a lone guitarman.

"Folk clubs were really, really conservative. There was a complete division -- there was contemporary and traditional, like trad and modern in jazz, and when you went looking for a singer spot you had to check in the paper whether it was a contemporary club, cause if you turned up at a traditional club and tried to play your own songs they'd show you the door. So when I was getting the odd gig and I was semi-professional (which meant I was sending my tapes around and getting them back by return of post!), I had a few of the songs from 'My Aim Is True' and 'Mystery Dance' was one of them. Even singing a mild rock 'n' roll song like that was like singing 'Anarchy In The UK' to the folkies! They were defending a tradition that a lot of the time didn't seem worth defending.

"It always seemed to me that there was a lot of very average singers that would just save themselves by singing some sort of rabble-rousing song like 'The Wild Rover' or something, and they would get off to a riotous round of applause simply because people could bang on the table in that one. And I saw no refinement in it, I didn't see it as preserving a necessary tradition. I grew to really hate the smugness of it."

When Elvis began doing short solo tours he found himself re-evaluating his own songs and opening his ears once again to traditional music. "I started looking around and finding the real stuff, the real beautiful traditional music, both English and Irish." Then he saw The Pogues. "Some people think The Pogues were bad for folk," he notes, "but I think they really saved it in a way. They saved folk from folkies. The music is a tradition, it's gotta be alive, I'm not interested in anything that's dead."

Elvis produced The Pogues' second album and had to "drag back all these things that I had filed in the back of my head about this music." His sojourn in Ireland, and sessions played with the likes of Donal Lunny, helped rekindle the interest. "Mix all of those things up and folk music just about comes up heads for me," Elvis laughs. Still he admits that much of it still gets on his nerves, "the preciousness of it."

The song "Any King's Shilling" is a plaintive tale of sectarianism, with an Irish historical background. It concerns a republican rebel warning an Irish member of the British army not to put on his uniform for fear of his life. "It's a true story," recounts Elvis. "It's something that happened here in Dublin to my grandfather, or so he told. He was orphaned in Birkenhead and he ended up in an orphanage in the south of England, and after he left that he was put in the army, which is a fairly logical progression for an orphan. That's where he went into the military school of music. And then the first war came and he was sent to France and he was wounded, badly wounded. He didn't just convalesce and go back into the line, he was out from fighting and was stationed in Dublin.

"It was one of probably many ironies, sort of in the wrong uniform on the wrong side at the wrong time, and he told that story as actually happening to him while he was here. He was from a completely Irish community in Birkenhead and he probably saw nothing unusual in having lots of Irish friends and they said to him, 'Listen, you better watch out.' The warning was given to him that trouble was brewing."

Elvis insists that the context of the story is unimportant. To paraphrase Bono, 'this is not a rebel song.' "The story is one that keeps happening," says Elvis. "It's happening right now. People will say it's about the North but I spoke to someone from Tel Aviv the other day and they said it could be Palestine."

Although of Irish lineage and married to an Irish woman, Elvis lays no claim to an Irish identity. "I don't think I have an anything identity, I'm just me. I've spent a lot of time in Ireland, I like it here, but I don't think there can be anything more nauseating than a cod-anything. I do notice that I tend to be Irish in the eyes of the press when it suits them now. I was on Self-Aid, me and Chris Rea were the only non-Irish. Chris Rea got on it because he called his album 'Shamrock Diaries'!" Elvis laughs. "That's a tenuous connection isn't it?!" he says, indicating that he is only being mildly facile.

"Obviously there's some sort of connection there in the blood but the problem is it's kind of green beer territory," he continues. "That stuff really bugs me. There's things in my life where I find sympathy with here but there's problems with wholly identifying with a culture, where you just go blindly into accepting that all things Irish are great. You usually find the worst offenders of that are the ex-pats or the 4th generation people. Whether it be politics or culture or anything, they're the ones that are blindly, uncritically Irish, and it's kind of dumb really, isn't it? You have to look at the place for its best points and its worst points."

Elvis admits that he no longer feels very at home in England. "It seems like I feel more and more like a part of a minority that don't feel the way a lot of people seem to about the society, and those things aren't any better here, but there are other things about this country where I feel certain things are valued more. Just... people have a different attitude to life here. But it's down to individuals that you get it from. Your friends. It's dangerous to make sweeping generalisations like 'I love the Irish'. It's like these people you see in restaurants..." Elvis puts on a contrived whisper, accurately mimicing snobbish pretensions, and chuckles to himself at his own impersonation. "'Oh, well of course, I love the French.' Every one of them. Every fucking nasty, horrible murderer!" Elvis laughs gleefully. "'I love those French people.' You know that kind of person? It's stupid. Countries are just made up of people, you have to work out what the individuals are about. I've always thought the 'national characteristics' are such a lot of shit."

His personal feelings of statelessness essentially derive from belonging to a state that is being systematically dismantled. His song "Tramp The Dirt Down" is a bitter, peasant attack on Thatcher that would make Morrissey blush. Elvis doesn't even like to talk about Britain's leader, a woman who has elicited more rock 'n' roll bile than any living politician. "She's a fairly repugnant person," he says, with obvious distaste. "The song is a very extreme version of the way I feel about her. I've felt more beyond words at times when some things happen and with her attitude to certain things. You end up with this sort of helpless catalogue of her doings, and I don't really want to go back through that, it's not very pleasant to contemplate."

For someone with an Irish background, who received his primary school education from Catholic nuns, Elvis' work, angst-ridden as it often is, has somehow avoided the prime topics of lapsed-Catholic guilt: God and religion. "God's Comic," a surreal, funny and oddly sad view of the afterlife is possibly the first time this most secular of writers has dabbled in the supernatural. His vision of God is penetratingly atheistic, a close relation of Randy Newman's singing deity in "God's Song", wearily observing that too many people mistake him for Santa Claus. "It's the big white beard I suppose," he sighs.

Elvis pictures God "lying on a waterbed full of exotic tropical fish, surrounded by everything that's useless. He's drinking coca-cola, he's got 3 televisions on with Sky on one and a colourised version of It's A Wonderful Life on another, and he's reading a book with each eye -- a Jeffrey Archer novel with one and a Bret Easton Ellis with the other one -- and listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, and he's just horrified about what's happened and thinking 'well I could have given the world to the monkeys.' Then he plays 'Last Train To Clarksville' on the guitar!"

Elvis laughs at this last elaboration. "I don't know whether it's really about religion," he says, "I think it's about frailty. I went up to Greenland on holiday and it's one of the most uncluttered places in the world, there's a few people clinging to the side of a rock next to a glacier, ekeing out a living, and thoughts occur to you out there about the comedy of what we call civilization. This big blue office block floats past the porthole, this ice, a beautiful pure looking thing that can just crush you. It reminds you how puny we are."

Recollecting our bumpy plane journey, he observes, "We all have moments of panic. On the plane today I wasn't quite down to praying but there have been times: 'I won't drink any more gin if you let the plane land!'" He laughs, but he is cagey when pressed on his spiritual leanings.

"Religion to a lot of people probably means a ritualistic manifestation of belief and I believe those things can be very individual and very subjective. I have religious feelings. I can't really say any more than that, they're difficult things to find the words for. I believe a lot of strange things, and I'm not being enigmatic."

He uses as an example the McCartney/MacManus song "Veronica" from his new album, about a senile person who is content within her interior world. "I believe that," says Elvis. "I suppose a Jesuit theologian might argue that what I'm saying there is there is a soul. My grandmother in the last few years of her life was what they call senile, she was going backwards and forwards in time, and talking about one thing one minute and the next minute leaping forward a number of years. And some of the time she was very happy in this world.

"They're always saying they've now got life down to its smallest fraction, they get the smallest possible division of matter and then twenty years later they discover there's a smaller one. It's not that long ago that they used to put leeches on people and cut them to bleed then, thinking that would make them well. Science is a fairly maverick entity I think, particularly medicine, and I just don't understand the brain to anything like the degree they understand the plumbing and the engine and all that stuff. And that's maybe a wishful sort of song but that's a religious belief. I believe that the person is somewhere that we don't know yet and when the body just stops being workable as a casing that the mind goes somewhere else, that it isn't without hope."

As a collection of songs, Spike is far removed from the intense meditations on love, lust and relationships that made up the bulk of his last two albums, but to Elvis that does not make it any less personal. "It came out of my head, didn't it?" People think there's some more distance in it because it's not confessional about my life, but if I thought those things and I was moved enough to write them. It's still me. All the songs are."

He concedes there are more third-person songs than ever before but points out that people are often mistaken in thinking that just because a song is written in the first person, then that person is the writer. "It might not always be," Elvis points out. "'God's Comic' is first-person the comic, then it's first-person God, and I don't think I'm God!"

As a writer who first came to prominence as a purveyor of "revenge and guilt," punk's most bitter observer of love and life's darker sides, Elvis is dismissive of the idea that his obviously greater personal contentment with his lot in life in any way threatens his abilities. He gives no credence to the cliche that "great art develops in adversity."

"The least happy that I can recall being for a sustained period I made the worst record I've ever made," he says, referring to his 1984 offering Goodbye Cruel World. "It's the most confused, least well-realised bunch of recordings of some reasonable songs where nearly always the emphasis was misplaced. Whereas I think this is as good a record as I've ever made. It's different to other records and I think that some people will say it's less personal but I don't feel that way. I think maybe it's less self-obsessed, but I don't think that's an entirely bad thing. There's eleven other albums, a lot of which are very self-obsessed. Maybe I've just reached a time chronologically where I start to look outwards. It might have nothing to do with being a happier person. Happier personally, yes, but with what? Happier personally on the day to day basis of being married and having a life that you enjoy and then having it brutally interrupted, albeit not in a very personal way, when you have the sort of thoughts that bring about writing a song like 'Tramp The Dirt Down'!"

Elvis stares intently over the top of his glasses, as if trying to communicate the bitterness of that song. "That's not a very pleasant thing to write," he says, earnestly, "I don't like having those thoughts. As much as I find the woman repulsive I don't enjoy contemplating anybody's death, actually wishing for it. I don't like being driven to that language. It's horrible."

Somehow I find it hard to believe him. There's still something in Elvis Costello, this amiable man, that takes pleasure in his venom, pride in the idea that, however small, he might be a thorn in Thatcher's side. "Try telling me she isn't angry with this pitiful discontent, "he sings in "Tramp The Dirt Down."

Soon we will both be returning to Thatcher's Britain, after flying hundreds of miles to share this conversation. As I leave the suite in the Gresham, Elvis is seated in an armchair before a rather poor, plastic imitation of a coal fire, chuckling over a photo of himself that appeared in the Evening Press. An enterprising art director had impaled a picture of Thatcher's head on the top of the singer's guitar. Elvis reads the caption aloud to himself." 'Elvis blows his chance of a knighthood!' I like that," he laughs, "But I don't think there was much of a chance!"

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Hot Press, February 23, 1989

Neil McCormick interviews Elvis Costello.

Bill Graham reviews Spike.

Hot Press reports on upcoming tour dates.


1989-02-23 Hot Press cover.jpg


Elvis Costello

Bill Graham

Rating: 11 / 12

Back in our tenth anniversary issue, Elvis Costello was explaining why "I would rather be a folk musician than a teen idol." That squares with any early critical read-out on Spike. If it isn't exactly his own tribute to the rhythms and regimes of the world, Spike nonetheless is an album of musical exploration and diversification which both flexes disused musical muscles and restlessly refuses to settle in any single slot.

Clocking in at an almost spendthrift 60 minutes 21 seconds – and that, bargain-hunters doesn't include the extra CD/cassette track, "Coal Train Robbery" – and recorded with an assortment of musicians in Dublin, Los Angeles, London and New Orleans, Spike is like one of those over-generous multi-course Chinese banquets that don't allow easy digestion. Furthermore all this globe-trotting with its variety of local flavours – jazz, Irish, trad, crescent city funk and waspish keyboard pop to name the most tangible – also means Spike lacks any common thread, any single immediately identifying sound to guide you through its maze.

Costello just isn't trying to claim or capture any particular pop territory. Instead taking "album" in its original meaning as a collection, a bagatelle, Spike could just be his own White Album, a record which lets each song dictate its own code and colour, veering from the essentially sell-made acoustic "Baby Plays Around" to the lavish Gothic melodrama of "Miss MacBeth" with its twenty-four separate instruments.

So while some songs immediately startle, others shyly malinger at the back of the queue. Much as I appreciate Allen Toussaint's warm piano and the Dirty Dozen Brass band on "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." I'm flummoxed by its obscure last verse, while Costello's preference to play the objective story-teller leaves me searching for the emotional focus of "Chewing Gum." "Satellite" too takes time though it's blessed by a swaying chorus harmonized by Chrissie Hynde at her most Junoesque.

Certainly on Spike, Costello enjoys playing virtuoso as the jack of all musical parades and trades, even leading off the second side with an instrumental, "Stalin Malone." But Spike will score most smartly for Irish ears when he tackles and toys with traditional music. As with "Any King's Shilling," his reflection on his soldier grand-father who got caught on the wrong side of 1916. Yet both this and "Tramp The Dirt Down" are coloured by a jazz inflection – Costello's personal musical manifesto will always unapologetically acknowledge both Christy Moore and Charles Mingus – which show his technical-skill in both subduing and harnessing styles, other lesser writers would find mutually incompatible.

That cunning means "Tramp The Dirt Down" is no crude protest song or anti-Thatcher rant. It isn't just that he sings "When England was the whore of the world/Margaret was her madam", it's how he sings it, caressing that damning couplet like a regretful poisoner's kiss. As with "Shipbuilding," there's a sense of the embitteredly elegiac, a feeling that mere vituperation is not enough and he also widens the song out into an indictment of any war-monger who "takes all the glory and none of the shame".

"Last Boat Leaving" and "Baby Plays Around" will also be shoehorned into that same acoustic cabaret mode though the former, a leftover from The Courier, has Costello and fellow producers, T-Bone Burnett and Kevin Kileen, having some mild psychedelic fun with the vocal echoes. As for the self-explanatory "Baby Plays Around" it must be the most starkly bereft and disconsolate track on Spike, further proof of how the range of his singing has developed through the last decade.

Because Spike is a Costello show of many voices. The blistering "Let It Dangle," his tirade against capital punishment, already ferociously previewed on The Season, spits gall ad acid yet he can then switch makes to be archly and teasingly malevolent on "God's Comic."

That song can be entered on many levels – as a deft wind-up of shamelessly trendy clerics; as a salvo against those philistines who sit "reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem" that perfectly nails the yob crassness of the enterprise culture; or finally as the glum true confession of a grumpy and disillusioned God who now figures he "should have given the world to the monkeys". Yet musically, it's always tantalizing, sounding as if written in the afterglow of his collaboration with Paul McCartney with a playfully jazzy and vaudevillian chorus that's typically softshoe Macca yet drained of any charming, cloying facility through its "Now I'm dead… I was scared" refrains. All of which makes "God's Comic" the most achieved advance on this album of experiment.

And though less weighty and ambitious, the two McCartney collaborations also work, "Pads, Paws and Claws" being another scampishly syncopated parable of marital claustrophobia while "Veronica" is a reminder of both partners' abilities to join an insightful character sketch to purring pop.

We've got far away from the jazz and the trad, an indication of just how Spike ranges. Indeed "Miss MacBeth" uses both the Dirty Dozen crew and his Irish aides like Davy Spillane and Steve Wickham strictly for spooky sound affects and again as a sinister fairground organ brays in the background, like "Veronica," it's about an older woman who's not all her image seems.

But if "Miss MacBeth" is the most playful track – the artist at recreation – "…This Town…" compounds the impression of the artist as moralist, angered at the now unashamed cruelties of the new self-made breed who can claim unabashed, "you're nobody 'till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard.".. The typical creatures of societies that now almost glory in being publicly red and raw in tooth and claw.

So ultimately Spike is an occasionally disjointed survey, a panorama of people and music that refuses easy and early framing and that finds Costello stretching towards and usually firmly grasping a new set of tools and artistic rules. Given the time and care he put into its creation, you'll soon find this Spike you'll like.

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Contents page clipping.

The Costello shows

Hot Press

Elvis Costello will play his first full scale Irish tour for over two years when he embarks on a series of dates here in May.

After an extremely productive 1986 in which he released the two classic albums King Of America and Blood And Chocolate and toured extensively, Elvis decided to take a hard earned sabbatical and has only this month re-emerged with a new LP, Spike. Recorded in London, New Orleans, Hollywood and Dublin, the album was produced by Costello himself along with T. Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen and features several Irish musicians including Donal Lunny, Steve Wickham and Davy Spillane.

A sometime resident of this country, Costello has turned up as special guest at gigs by everyone from Los Lobos to Christy Moore over the last couple of years. For his forthcoming tour, he will be performing solo at all shows but will be joined by his old cohort, Nick Lowe, for the finale each night.

Elvis Costello plays the Opera House, Belfast (May 16th, 17th) and Dublin's National Stadium (May 19th, 20th). Tickets are available from the usual outlets.


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