Jamming!, September 1983

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The Elvis Costello Interview

Dave Jennings

When told that I would be interviewing Elvis Costello at the television studio used to make Channel 4's Switch, my first reaction was one of simple excitement and pleasure; the reaction of a fan given the chance to meet one of his favourite artists. Costello has been responsible for some of the most literate and incisive pop songs of recent years, from 1977's My Aim Is True set right up to the present Punch The Clock collection which was to be previewed on Switch. When I considered the prospect of the interview rather more calmly, I began to wonder what the Switch studio would be like, imagining some starkly modern building made entirely of concrete, red brick, glass and neon. I could hardly have been more wrong — in fact, the home of Switch is more like a small mansion, complete with spacious gardens, and it was in this elegant setting that the following conversation took place...

I'm very glad that you've agreed to talk to us — How did it come about that you broke off diplomatic relations with the music press? What was the reason for that?

I think I just got a bit tired of the way every article was written with a huge preconception, and I didn't really feel that anything I said made much sense, because it was written with this preamble before it, assuming that I had this one attitude. So I thought, "Well, they're going to write nonsense about me anyway, so why should I contribute?"

What kind of audiences have you been getting recently in Britain?

Mixed, really ... I was quite pleased with the attendances on the last tour – we did about 75% at most halls. We hadn't had any hit records, which bring in the kind of people that are not really crazy bout you, that just saw you on Top of The Pops last week. When we had "Oliver's Army," and things like that in the charts, we got a lot of those kind of people, and now it tends to be a different crowd ... more people that know a lot of the songs, know the album tracks. So I suppose it's a more dedicated crowd, though I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing, to only play with those people in mind. Certainly, it's not a good idea to make records with only those people in mind.

Are there any of your records, that are other people's old favourites, that you wouldn't want to perform now?

We don't do "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" very often, we just dig it out occasionally for a bit of fun. It was the mainstay of the set when we didn't have very much material, so we kind of exhausted it. Some of the older numbers we can still do ... we still do "Pump It Up." Now we do it with the horn section, it's a different number, y'know ... it's got a whole different character to it. It's a sort of anti-rock 'n' roll song, that's the joke of it, really. And I still enjoy the perversity of playing it, and people all leaping around, and acting just like they do to a regular rock 'n' roll tune, when the song is actually ... the opposite of "Satisfaction", if you like! (Laughs).

At one point, when I was a little bit more serious — I took things maybe a bit too seriously — things like that used to annoy me. Now, I see the humour in them, and I can appreciate the irony of it, rather than get wound up about the fact that people are not understanding my Art! Just 'cause you write a song with a certain thing in mind, you can't demand that people listen to it with that certain frame of mind. They've got to listen to it with whatever frame of mind they've got — if they've got one at all! I know I've done my job properly if I'm happy with the song and I'm happy with the recording. And if you want to seek it, there's stuff put in there deliberately so that people can get out of it whatever they want. I don't demand that people sit there with a set of rules on how to listen to our records!

Wouldn't it worry you, though, if you wrote one particular song that a lot of people seemed to take the wrong way?

Well, I'd think it was a badly-written song, then. I think there are a few songs which are so obscure that the lyrics don't mean anything to anybody.

I would never, even though I'm personally unemployed, have guessed that "...And In Every Home" was about unemployment, if I hadn't read the NME interview...

Yeah, that was deliberately... you see, I think there are plenty of other people that write very specific songs about social problems, in very, very bold, very cold terms, and do it very well. They have a kind of relationship with the audience which allows them to do that, like Paul Weller, and UB40 to some extent at the height of their powers, anyway. And it's not a relationship that I've ever cultivated — I've never pretended to be A Man Of The People. I'm an individual — I'm not masquerading as Joe Ordinary, so I think it would be really pretentious of me to try and write an anthemic song for the downtrodden people, which a lot of writers try to do and look really stupid.

To try and write something which even they will understand ...

Yeah, it's really patronising! So I wanted to write a song that is a story, and it's about some of the crueller ironies of unemployment rather than just the bold facts which everybody knows.

I did hear a story about that song, that you'd done a fairly simple demo of it, given it to Steve Nieve to do an arrangement, and he'd come back with this enormous wide-screen production ...

Yeah, well, it was just a simple piano tune ... not that simple, the chords are all a bit peculiar. 'Cause I ramble around the piano a bit, I don't really play it properly, so some of the more eccentric tunes are written on the piano! The straight forward ones are written on the guitar, normally; I play neither really well, but the piano leads me to odder things! So I had that, and Steve did write the rest of the arrangement. I said to him, "just go mad" and he did!

How much of a role do The Attractions normally play, then, in how the songs sound on the records?

It's hard to say, really ... I come along with an idea of the general rhythm, and sometimes that's the way it goes, and everybody works out their parts, like, Bruce and Pete work out a rhythm pattern, which you have to do to propel the song. Bruce is very good on harmonies, he's not just a good rhythmic bass player. In fact, his strength is really the melodic lines that he thinks of; he often adds really interesting notes which help bring the melody out. Steve is an excellent musician, he's capable of all that as well. Then sometimes I'll bring a song along, and I've got the idea of the rhythm, but it won't sound right, so we'll play nine different arrangements, you know! We'll play it as a tango, play it as a waltz, play a reggae arrangement, and we go through all the comical arrangements! Sometimes you might hit on something really interesting; more often, you come round to some variation on the original idea. The trouble with Imperial Bedroom was that I took a lot of the vocal ideas to an extreme: I was working with just Geoff Emerick in the studio, and making a lot of the production decisions myself. That’s my only criticism of Imperial Bedroom: I’m really pleased that I did that record, it has all of these almost experimental ideas on it; but a few of the songs are maybe over-developed. They’d gone past the point where they were good, and I got bored with them, and did something else to them, and it wasn’t always a good thing.

Do you think that the other media, apart from the press, have treated you reasonably well?

Er ... I think there's always been the people that have kept an eye out for what we've been doing, particularly on the radio. There's other people that, whenever we're having a success, will always tell you that they played that record, when in fact, they probably didn't!

With TV ... well, we don't really have a relationship with TV! The only way you build up a relationship with them is by having lots of hits! I think that overall, television does treat pop music rather shabbily. Pop music programmes are all shoved on at dodgy times, or they're given tiny budgets ...

You think that's still the case, even with the new ones on Channel 4?

I still think there's a way to go. I think they are getting better; just the fact that there's more of them, means that hopefully there has to be more exposure for bands. I think it's good that there are magazine programmes where you get live bands and videos; I wouldn't like to see an innovation like MTV, the American system where it's just 24-hour videos. Musicians are an uninteresting bunch of people to look at anyway; loads of people miming to their records, over and over again over the space of 24 hours — I think it'd drive you right round the twist, to watch it!

There were some people, not very long ago, who would have had you believe that making a video was, in the future, going to become part of the creative process of making a single, and that bands with no visual ideas wouldn't be able to succeed.

We did some videos in late 1978, when we were on our way from Canada to Japan — that was just where we were touring, we weren't being flash! — and we stopped in Hawaii, and did some videos on the beach there, a sort of a parody of Help!, if you like! It was great, because it was so unusual then — everybody was standing up against brick walls and snarling in leather jackets, and there we were on this beautiful sunny beach, and running into the Pacific Ocean! I thought they were really humorous, but you compare them to Duran Duran videos, where they're taking themselves so seriously — or at least I think they are; maybe they are really sending themselves up all the time, but I suspect they're taking themselves seriously — and they really look like Bounty adverts to me, y'know! I happened to bump into one of them up at AIR Studios where we were recording, and I might be wrong here but he seemed to give the impression that they were considering making the video first in the future – that there might be some future date where they would make the video first, and then put the music to it! Which seems a really odd way of going about making records, but then maybe they're not making records! Maybe they're a new innovation — they're video makers, like ... singing male models! If that's the future, it might just be the future of that one particular branch of it, 'cause obviously people like me wouldn't fit into that at all; so records would be one thing and videos would be another. I think it's stupid to have an attitude against video, on the basis that other, good-looking groups do better with video — that's just a childish attitude.

Yeah, because good-looking groups do better with pictures in the paper ...

Yeah, right!

On the subject of television, how did the breakfast TV appearance come about — when you were on reviewing the newspapers?

It was just one of those things — the researchers on those kind of programmes looking for people that might be a bit different. Generally, they have journalists, or actors, or politicians ... The one thing about news, or current affairs programmes, on the rare occasions I've guested on them — or even chat programmes — they always seem amazed that anybody in a group can string three words together! I think they always think we're all illiterate, y'know, and all our speech is obscene! And of course, a lot of groups would probably confirm their prejudices — they probably are inarticulate, and illiterate, and profane!

You'll probably never get a good review from Julie Burchill again, after what you said in the hanging debate ...

Why, is she pro-hanging?

Violently so.

That girl's got problems!

Was that what you were getting at in "Pills And Soap" — the lines about, "give me the needle, give me the rope"?

Er ... no; that's a very cynical song. One night, I was watching the television, and saw coverage of a funeral ... it was somebody in Northern Ireland, it might have been a soldier or an IRA man or an innocent, I honestly can't remember. It was just the insensitivity with which the camera dealt with the mourners — it really made me angry. Prying into people's grief — I mean, abject grief — and at the same time, matters that really should concern us are trivialised or hidden away, and replaced with cute articles about dogs and cats, and children — and not really about things that matter about kids and animals — but the nice, cute stories that fill the newspapers. And it was a rather nasty suggestion that we did away with them all — what would they write about then? (Laughs) It was a very black song — and I was watching a film called The Animals Film, and I just wrote down the title "Pills And Soap" — it transpired that that's one of the by-products of the misuse of animals. And then I started to expand the idea to the misuse of the human animal, in all its many ways ... particularly with reference to misplaced sentiment, including patriotism — misplaced emotion along those lines.

So that was why you felt you had to get that song out in time for the election campaign?

I just wanted it out. It wasn't going to make the slightest bit of difference to the election; I thought it was, as much as any song I've ever written, pertinent to that moment. Had things gone the way they were supposed to, in terms of our business arrangements, our album would have been out by then — but, as it was delayed it suddenly dawned on me that there was nothing stopping me putting that record out on its own, as a single, under another name and on my own label. So that's what I did!

What made me think of the connection with the election was the fact of it being deleted on June the 9th ...

Well, obviously, there was a suggestion there ... I wasn't going to get up and make a big political speech; I left it open to people's interpretation, and if they can't work that one out, then there's no point, y'know!

What was the legal position that forced you to put that out as "The Imposter"?

There was no legal position that forced me to put it out as The Imposter; I simply put it out as that to distinguish it from, "a new Elvis Costello And The Attractions single", because, strictly speaking, it's only Steve and I on the record; and I knew that within a month we would be releasing "Everyday I Write The Book," on one record label or another.

The first thing I thought of, when I saw that you were going to put this record out under an assumed name, was the line in the NME interview where you claimed that you were seriously thinking of dropping the name "Elvis Costello", at least for Britain ...

I think I said that fairly flippantly ... and of course, in cold print, it looked quite dramatic! I did think that there is a possibility that you can get tied to a time, in people's minds; people associate us, and The Buzzcocks, and The Clash, with 1978. And to some people's minds, they're only interested in The New Thing, and whatever kind of record we make, they're not going to give it a chance.

But then they cheat themselves out of a lot of great music, because I know a lot of stuff that's a damn sight older than what I do, and still gives me a lot of pleasure.

So I can take it that you haven't got a lot of time for the current crop of punk bands?

No, no ... they're tired and boring. Rage is one thing, but it doesn't age very gracefully! You can only shout for so long at somebody, and you either lose your voice or they stop listening! And that's something I learned pretty early on ... there was quite an aggressive intention behind a lot of our early records, and it's not something I left behind; I've just found new ways of saying things with similar intent. I don't think there's any song on my first or second album, which purists can hold up and say, "That's when he was good, that's when he was really young and angry". There's no song on there that's in any way as vitriolic as "Pills And Soap". I have learned better ways of putting the point over — and you don't always have to shout! In some ways, the most frightening threat you can make to somebody is to whisper — if you go right up close to them, and (whispers) "I'm gonna break your neck!" — that's a lot more threatening than suddenly going wild! A threat, or anything aggressive, done quietly, is much more sinister than anything done like a ranting idiot.

Could you tell me what "The World And His Wife" is about?

Yeah, it's about a family of exiles — it's not any particular family I know, it's just based on certain people's attitudes. I set it in almost like a play situation, about a family gathering of exiles, constantly moaning on about going home to "The Old Country". It's just a sort of cynical view of them, really, I suppose.

This is something that Siouxsie and the Banshees have touched on in about three or four songs; people idealising a foreign country, and imagining it to be like heaven ...

Yeah, well, what's worse is when it's some place that you're talking about going back to; as if it were The Homeland. People do it all the time, I think; I'm sure people that are abroad from England do it; but certainly Irish people do it. Lots of nationalities do it, and sometimes it's a positive thing, it sustains you, but I'm writing the song about the negative side of it, because it builds up a lot of bigotry. The last verse goes: "But late on in the evening, through the tears and fol-de-rol / Come the sentimental feelings for the lure of vitriol / Longing thoughts go hankering for the old home overseas / With a blindfold and A National Anthem sung in different keys" So obviously I’ve got Ireland in mind more ... not to take one side or the other, just the nationalism on both sides. Idealising any country is going to lead to grief.

Do you still feel that the extreme right in this country is a serious threat? It seemed you did around the time when the "Rock Against Racism" thing was quite big ...

Yeah ... I think they've made such fools of themselves that only people of very limited intelligence give them any credence anymore. The thing is that they had a kind of caravan rolling at one time which looked rather dangerous. But I don't think you can ever write people like that off, because when you least expect it — and when things get very grim for everybody — it's very easy to persuade people who are easily persuaded that "These people are the cause of all your problems". It's easy to manipulate the public using those kind of arguments; I think you've always got to be on your guard for those people, and never give them the chance to gain a foothold. I don't think there's perhaps quite as imminent a danger of them taking hold of a lot of people's lives, the way it appeared about four years ago; but all the time there is that feeling- and there's an underlying racism, not just against black people, but against lots of races in this country — inherent in the national character. It really came to the fore during the Falklands War. If they'd been Germans, or something — well, not the Germans, because we hate the Germans as well! But if they'd been Canadians — if it had been the French Canadians it wouldn't have been so bad! But they were dagoes! That’s the attitude! It's like, go and kill the wops! All that "let's bash the Argies" attitude we saw in the papers — there's no doubt it had a lot of sympathy with people, you've got to accept that that's part of certain peoples character. The extreme Right can mobilise that kind of ignorant bigotry, because it's in a lot of people.

It was very clear that the "Falklands factor" played a tremendous part in boosting Thatcher's popularity ...

Oh yeah ... she took full advantage of it. I think you don't need to look so far to find the Right now — the Right's in power! I think you've got a very cunning Right- wing Government, so every day of your life is affected by their decisions, and their lack of compassion. They're content that they seem to hold half the population in. Now I don't think you have to look so far for the people that are threatening your freedom of choice, and freedom of life ... particularly children. They're just gonna grow up to a completely different society if the Tories have their way.

So did that recently motivate you to start writing more obviously political songs, like "Shipbuilding" for example?

Obviously, it reflects what I see about me, the same way as all the songs do, but they're about different things. Some of them are much more light-hearted; there are songs on the new album like "The Greatest Thing", which are much lighter. That's another song about pride, but in a different way. Instead of being a cautionary tale it's a celebratory tale. You know ... "Everybody stopped when she walked into the room / Isn't this the greatest thing?" It's "I Saw Her Standing There," if you like ... a 1983 version of "I Saw Her Standing There"!

You are one of those performers who has a very devoted following — does that ever get unnerving at all, when you know that people are wanting to know every possible little detail about you?

Only if it's in any way sinister; fortunately, it's usually fairly positive. Some guy that wrote some magazine about us was pestering my father — I thought that was a bit much. I don't personally draw a distinction between work and life, but I think it's wrong that people allow anybody's work to dominate their lives to the point where they feel they have to seek out these really pointless pieces of information, y'know.

I promise this is the most trivial question I'm going to ask you; but nobody knows when your birthday is ..!

It's funny, that, isn't it? Even the BBC get it wrong! It's the 25th of August 1954. People always seem to have been lying about my age, saying I was older or younger — usually older!

Have you ever come close to parting company with The Attractions? There were rumours to that effect circulating around the time of "New Amsterdam".

Yeah ... there wasn't a rift between us, I quit the group. At the end of the Get Happy! tour I decided I didn't really want to do it any more. That was the tour — not the Armed Forces tour, funnily enough — where a lot of people that had only seen us on Top Of The Pops and didn't know anything about us, just came to hear "Oliver's Army" and "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down." And it got a bit frustrating ... I just felt that I hadn't really got the bulk of the songs over to a lot of people, I'd just got one or two; and I didn't just want to be one of those one-or-two-number singers, like Gene Pitney or somebody! I quit, and we went our separate ways, but we had a European tour to do! And then Steve had gone over to America, and he was in a car accident; and while he was recovering, I had second thoughts — I didn't want to go out and cancel tours and everything. Martin Belmont came in, and we played as a four-piece, with two guitars and no keyboards, and we did a whole European tour like that. It was very odd — I played a bit of organ on a couple of numbers, terrible organ, y'know! But we muddled through, and we had some good gigs; and it re-activated my interest in doing it, somehow. When I was actually faced with the reality of quitting, I realised I was being a bit spoilt, really.

I am in a very privileged job, to play music and make records for people. Sometimes you get a bit depressed that your record didn't go up in the charts — instead of which, you should be glad that you're even making a record! And now if we have a massive success, I think I'm much better equipped to deal with it than I was at the time. I always thought that I handled it pretty well, but looking back at some of the things — particularly personal matters — I didn't handle big success at all well. I don't think very many people do. And if the records aren't massively successful, as long as I'm happy that I'm making the best record, and not wilfully trying to make obscure records ... I wouldn't put out shoddy records, or I try not to, I can only think of one record I really dislike — "Party Party."


Yeah ... I don't like the title. I like the bridge, and I quite like the horn part; but it was written in ten minutes, and it sounds like it. It wasn't really our new single, it was for a film. That's the only one I really hate; some of them I feel awkward with, 'cause they're that much longer ago. You change, and you think you're getting better, but you might just be getting different ! I think it's more likely that I'm getting better at song-writing. I don't know physically how much better you can sing. I mean, I've only got the voice that I was born with; I can stretch it, and push it, and mess around with it, but I can only achieve so much with it. I just can't sing certain ways I'd love to be able to sing; like Marvin Gaye ... like Chet Baker ... like Frank Sinatra ... like Stevie Wonder ... to have that kind of dynamic range, and for all this to be effortless! The way you can improve as a singer is just ... more care for the song. Trying to reach the feeling ... the voice will do what you want it to then.

You've now got this deal by which F-beat is licensed to RCA — is that a deal you're happy with? Have you got as much control as you'd like?

Yeah, we were in negotiations with all of the companies up to a point, and RCA just simply sounded the keenest. They certainly didn't offer the most money — that was Virgin! I think Virgin reckon they can buy everybody, but that just proves them wrong; 'cause I dislike the company, I dislike their attitude. And they once offered me a 5% deal, before I signed to Stiff, so I thought, "You had your chance there, mate"! We've never gone with the biggest money offers; when we re-signed to CBS in America, we were offered much more money by Arista. Record companies are very impersonal things, so we've always tried to keep some identity. That's why we've got F-Beat, so that we can make the decisions about packaging, about releases, and videos, and all of those things; whereas, if you're in the hands of a big company, you're passed along a conveyor-belt of Departments. So I am happy — I've got my own label now, the IMP label. I'm going to keep it for one-off things; it's not going to be like Respond, where I'm actually seeking out new acts. If a lot of things turn up, then I'll release a lot of good records!

Do you intend to produce anyone?

If something presents itself, and I think I've got something to offer, then I would get involved. I'm not very technically-minded as a producer; I'm good at getting performances out of people. That's one thing I know I am good at.

So, is there anything planned after this extensive tour that you're doing?

More touring!

In the weeks since the interview, I've had the chance to get properly acquainted with Punch The Clock; and I can only say that I think that's a chance you should take, too. Elvis Costello continues to shine, to confuse, to excite and to frighten; and I hope and believe that he will still be doing so for some considerable time to come. As he says; even in a perfect world where everyone was equal, he'd still own the film rights — and be working on the sequel ...


Jamming!, No. 15, September 1983

Dave Jennings interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photo by Bleddyn Butcher.
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Photo by Bleddyn Butcher.

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