Hot Press, March 12, 1992

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Hot Press

UK & Ireland magazines


Elvis Costello — Anti-star of the new wave

Niall Stokes

Our series of Classic Rock Interviews, from the back pages of Hot Press, continues with this September 1977 interview with Elvis Costello. E.C. had already released his acclaimed debut My Aim Is True and the forthcoming album to which he makes a number of references turned out to be the powerful This Year's Model. The interview was conducted in London by Hot Press editor Niall Stokes.

Nineteen seventy seven has been a weird year, I'll tell you that.

Weird, that is, in the real meaning of the term.

Diverse weirdnesses have surfaced in rock 'n' roll, usually connected with the whole New Wave bit, that just aren't going to lie down and go away. By now that much is obvious.

No, the only way they're going to become unweird is by being acknowledged and assimilated — and thus they'll have done their bit to transform the face of things, generally for the better. And who's to say that something won't have the strength, cunning and resilience to go that bit further — to change things on a wider scale?

The proliferation of independent labels, most of 'em into one form of weirdness or another, has been integral and essential to the flowering of New Wave kulchur. Such a development automatically poses a challenge to the existing majors, throwing them back on fundamental resources in an attempt not to lose their foothold. Labels like Island and Virgin, who themselves grew up on the tide of cultural wave which was similarly building to a cresendo a decade or so ago above all must feel the wind of change as a potential danger flashpoint.

Maybe not so much Virgin indeed, since they're still small enough to be able to roll with the punches and then come up with their own angle. Their successful courting (so far) of the Sex Pistols and on a similar scale, their brilliant recent advertising job on the Motors first album testifies to their ability to match weirdness with weirdness.

Indeed what labels really are in danger may not become clear for another six months or thereabouts. But what can't be denied is that change is in the air.

Among the independents, Stiff and Chiswick have been the leaders right down the line and if anything, recent developments have seen them consolidate that position, with both of them consistently registering increased and very healthy sales.

Between them, however, for downright weirdness, Stiff take the proverbial biscuit.

Just look at their advertising. The flair which has marked their promotional work, both graphically and linguistically makes them a far more interesting label to work, or deal with than any of the boring old farts responsible for promotion generally. They've got a sense of humour that literally mocks at the serioso gunge churned out for the likes of Harley,Yes, Wakeman and so on... and on . .

Interestingly, both labels straddle in a laudably maverick fashion the whole New Wave bandwagon, when it comes down to the music. But what makes their success so intrinsic to the rise of the 'new music' is the set of attitudes which go to create their respective characters. In particular, both acted as pioneers for the movement away from costly budgets and over-elaborate productions, which, as a general phenomenon were getting in the way of the unearthing and recording of new talent.

The unearthing and recording of new talent... a vital function for the ongoing health of the music and the major labels more or less give it up as a bad job. Maybe it's just as well. If it hadn't happened that way Stiff Records mightn't exist or even if they did, they mightn't have the name of one Elvis Costello on their books. That'd be some loss.

On that whole subject E.C. himself feels strongly... 'cos he did suffer at the hands of A & R departments who didn't want to know. And lets set it down straight away that he's both intelligent and articulate — and a formidable critic for lethargic sods everywhere.

Elvis: "That's their loss. They couldn't work it out first time round. But the point is, without getting too heavily into territory I've covered in other interviews — and I've tended to come over as a bit paranoid about the music business — is that the music business is very, very lazy. They can't be bothered to find out about things and their attitudes are very cloistered .

"They're not at all open minded unless you've got a track record. The only time in the last ten years that the music business has actually come out to take a look at what's going on in clubs has been the I don't know what you want to call them — punk bands, New Wave bands or whatever label they care to stick on them in order to sell them...

"It's only that they've got scared that something's going on that they don't know about, that people might actually make some money out of it without them being in on it. But when it came to actually finding out about something that didn't have a huge sticker or a huge uniform "This is the New Thing," when it's a question of sussing out individuals, then they couldn't really be bothered."

Thing is though that Elvis Costello fits so well into the Stiff weird scheme of things.

Because he's weird. And before anyone's head goes off on one of those "oh yeah... the weed... the Buddy Holly/Hank Marvin connection I know... weird... ha ha!" tangents, forget it. I'll let Elvis himself pass comment there.

"I think that's just... it's a question of `oh well, it's not really punk, so what is it? We'd better get something a bit peculiar out of it. And they're making something out of nothing because of a lack of imagination. They don't want to work their heads too hard on thinking about... (laughs)... music or anything.

"In some cases it's a question of thinking 'Oh let's get some kind of peculiar angle' Oh sure, he looks a bit odd because he's got those funny glasses and he seems to wear some funny clothes. Well, we could make a lot of copy out of that,' rather than actually straining themselves and really listening to the records."

Yeah, laziness and ignorance all round...

"With most journalists, it's been a case of the same old questions being trotted out repeatedly. People have come along not actually knowing anything about me... people come along that haven't even heard the record, they're just sent along on the assignment. I'm not interested in talking to them... there's just no point."

So we're not going to do the weed number here — it's a load of shit, based on a bunch of stupid assumptions anyway. No — when say that Elvis Costello is weird mean that he's highly individual, idiosyncratic and independent, Both as a writer and a person. I mean weird in the positive sense that implies someone who's found a niche that's entirely his own, which is likely to arouse the nosey, uncomprehending disapproval of your average (meaning paranoid) person.

Like recall the interview Costello did with Nick Kent in NME. In it, the fact that E.C. is into revenge was stated. Rampant paranoia! Get that weirdo off the screen! Snuff 'im! Revenge... I mean, you just don't say things like that, Elvis.

"That's being played up in a very one-dimensional way — like, who am I going to get next? It's not really like that.

"It just happens to be something that came out on a lot of the songs on the album, so it's something that I felt needed to be explained. But you're somewhat at the mercy of the journalist, when you say things, to understand the full implications of what you're saying. (Incidentally Costello selected Nick Kent as the one journalist he'd met whom he respected.)

"I don't want to sound one-dimensional in anyway. I tended to make a point of it to draw a contrast with the majority of singers who are interviewed and talk about various other aspects of their personality — like how good looking they are or whatever. Or what strings the bass player uses or various other boring things.

"It was something that was definitely important, but it's not something that I necessarily want to glorify. I'm very anti this glorification of more-or-less-anything, that's rampant now. The whole point of the album is that it's aside from the usual things that are glorified in rock 'n' roll songs.

"But I'm not any more into glorifying these rather negative things. I don't like this feeling for revenge. I just haven't been strong enough to put it down."

The trouble is that Nick Kent's piece did tend to glorify — and possibly exaggerate — the impulse. So lets get Costello's feelings on it down for once and for all ...

"In a way you're just getting at yourself `cos it comes down to trivial levels. I will do trivial things to hurt people who in the past might have got in my way. I have had people taken off guest lists and things like that because I don't think I want to see them now that it's fashionable to come to me, when they couldn't even give me the time of day last year.

"I can see how someone could quite easily criticise me for it but I don't give a shit 'cos I'm quite enjoying it. They equally enjoyed their position of privilege when they closed the door in my face — so I'm just showing them what it feels like. I don't think it's a particularly virtuous thing to do.

"It's just a question of giving them a taste of what they do to other people. It's not just me, there's a lot of other people they treat like that..."

Costello's ability to see himself objectively and his evident honesty in relating his feelings pre-empt any righteous moralising on the subject.

Significantly the same kind of current runs through his music. Rather than painting relationships in a rosy light that obscures so much of the reality of how people feel and interact, Costello lets out the bitterness and the sarcasm, which so many suppress.

"If something really unpleasant happens to you and you keep dragging it up for the sake of putting _ the person that did it to you through it, it might not affect them that much but it probably makes you feel fucking miserable. I've had that feeling about some of the songs on My Aim is True — things like "I'm not Angry" and "Alison." They're quite hard to sing, and I don't mean that to sound ultra-sensitive — I was consciously trying to avoid self-pity on the record."

In that, Costello succeeded. As with his conversation, there's a weird kind of distance and objectivity involved, which nevertheless burns with feeling. Nobody emerges from the following passage in "Alison" looking any the better.

"Well, I see you got a husband now / I believe your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake / You used to hold him right in your hand / Until he took all that he could take... Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking / When I hear the silly things you say / Sometimes I wanna put out the Big Light /`cos I can't stand to see you this way...

Down on record, those lines are devastating.

"There's a lot of things there that I wanted to write 'cos they hadn't been written before. Like "Sneaky Feelings" (the title says it all) — there's no song like that to my knowledge.

Conventionally, even if people do write put-downs, they're framed as a glorification of the put-down, whereas I was trying to get into areas that are uncomfortable to look at — areas which people feel embarrassed about revealing."

Despite this highly original streak, people have so far tended to lump Costello into 'the Morrison school' — along with Parker, Seger, Lynott, Armatrading and others — as a convenient means of labelling him. Elvis is balanced in his rejection of the notion.

"There's no point in denying that you've listened to people — and they must have some effect on you. But I've never listened to anyone obsessively so that it would have totally dominated the way I think. The next record, I think it'll sound very different to some of the people who've got a set idea about what little pigeon-hole they've got me in. On the tracks we've already recorded, to my ears the vocal sound is quite different. I don't see any point in making another record that sounds like My Aim is True. Also it's the Attractions who are doing the backing, which changes the sound."

The commitment to continuing to evolve runs deep with Costello. Already he's playing a substantial amount of new material on stage ("We do about 50/50 old and new now and it's getting more biased towards the new") He often refers to established stars as boring — clearly he'll go to some pains to avoid that judgement.

"When the new album comes out 1 want to have another half set of new material again, so we're always pushing on and doing new ,stuff. .I do write quite a lot so it shouldn't be a problem.

"From the point of view of a show, I really like the idea of being able to go out and do something fresh, 'cos it keeps people on their toes. They're not just coming along to see you' do a live version of the album, which is what it's like with a lot of bands."

Don't let the word 'show' deceive you either: "I don't like theatrical things. I'm not very into show business. Well, I'm not very into it — I hale it. I don't regard myself as being in showbusiness at all. I'm just playing songs. I don't think of rock 'n' roll in the Nils Lofgren sense — trampolines and scarves. I don't think of it as another world."


"No I don't give art any thought at all If I worried about art I'd really be in a bad way. Just songs and the effect they can have on people."

He can't really be more specific than that. But the basic point is that it'd be a mistake to inflate the importance of his work.

"I don't expect anything to change anybody's life or change the world. I'm not interested in that. But people can make what they want to of them... Equally, I'm not into entertaining people in the sense that they come and say 'Oh yes, it was a nice show, dear. Let's go and have a wimpy.' Like, fit in with your evening along with a family movie or something. I don't mind what people get from it, but if it's unsettling, then it's probably good for them."

He doesn't, above all, want to be elevated to the status of demi-god.

"I don't pretend to have any big 'in' into all this information. I'm not saying — 'Listen, 'cos now I'm going to tell you the way it is.' I hope people don't take my word for everything. In the '60's people were built up into kind of gurus but one by one they fell to pieces, or copped out or died or something. Everybody was left mourning them and really they should have said they're just human beings and they're fallible.

"I hope people would never take anything I write seriously in that sense. I am serious about what I'm doing but I hope they'll never come and say 'Oh yes, he knows. He's got The Word.' cos I haven't got `The Word' anymore than anybody else."

What Elvis Costello does have is the ability to make us look inside ourselves in order to reassess the way in which we relate to other people. His songs may not have the word and he may not have any special 'in' on the ultimate truths that evade us, but his work can stimulate people . to dig that little bit deeper than they've been used to. What you come up with then is your own business.

Meantime . . . Elvis Costello, you are not the future of rock 'n' roll. Don't worry.

The fact that your whole attitude spurns that kind of crap should insure you against the trap.

Really, you've got better things in store.

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Hot Press, March 12, 1992

Niall Stokes interviews Elvis Costello. {From Hot Press, Sep. 17, 1977.}


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Page scan.

1992-03-12 Hot Press page 17.jpg
Page scan.

Photos by Steve Wood.
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Photos by Steve Wood.

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