London Guardian, August 16, 1977

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London Guardian

UK & Ireland newspapers


Mediocrity is beautiful

Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow meets Elvis Costello, the latest sensation in rock music

In just four weeks, a bespectacled 22-year-old computer operator from Hounslow who looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and Woody Allen has released his first album, been arrested for busking outside the Hilton, caused a riot when police dispersed a crowd trying to see him in a London pub, and turned down an offer of several nights at the Rainbow. The gentleman in question trades under the name of Elvis Costello (the second part is real, he refuses to admit his first name).

He is not a comedy act, and neither is he a punk (though he is handled by those clever young men at Stiff Records). His music is the fashionable blend of early Sixties styles, with echoes of early Beatles, Dylan, Spector and rock 'n' roll, delivered with an American twang and unmusical harshness, sometimes reminiscent of Mink DeVille and Graham Parker. It is noteworthy because of his lyrics — original, deceptively bold, carefully written, and dealing with areas that rock normally leaves alone.

His album My Aim Is True (Stiff SEEZ3) includes a handful of songs with the best lyrics from a new British artist that I've heard in years. He manages to sing about ordinary life, the not pleasant but never horrific, and about normal human experiences like failure and rejection, without sounding self-pitying, melodramatic or maudlin.

The personal songs are the most obvious, with lines like "Why do you have to say that there's always someone who can do it better than I can," or "I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress," but there's also a track called "Less Than Zero" that starts like early Beatles, develops into a dance tune, and is about Mosley.

"I was watching him on television one night, defending how he wasn't anti-semitic and it was all 40 years ago anyway, so I had to write something. But it shouldn't be a boring protest song or like Leonard Cohen. It had to have a twist."

Mr Costello (I found it hard to address this serious, fast-talking and apparently humourless young man as Elvis) takes his work very solemnly, but doesn't care what people think of it once it's done. "It's difficult," he explained, "the things I write about are so mundane that there has to be a twist in them to stop them being glamorised or melodramatic or just dull. I work on the lyrics for a long time, with an obsession for getting it right — it seems more like painting than writing."

He admires Country music — a style he has played in the past and may get into again — "because it deals with real things. It's real like "Crossroads" is real because it's ordinary like people's lives. It deals with cheap emotions, but then people's lives aren't like Gone With The Wind.

"Rock only covers a small section of people at the moment — there are singers who pretend to be super-good or super-bad, but how many rock songs are there about real people? I'm interested in mediocrity."

Having said that, Mr Costello agreed that he didn't want to become trapped in his instant image. "The next set of songs are going to be different and will surprise people. I've been promoted as a hero for all the weeds with glasses, but I didn't come out to be the patron saint of all that. People who think I just write about rejection will be shocked."

He thinks that already his lyrics might be taken too seriously. "I'm not on a crusade and I don't want to change peoples' lives. I don't want to be considered a guru and I don't want to be considered a big guy for admitting things in my songs. They can happen to anyone."

Until he formed his new band and went professional last month, Mr Costello did most of his writing at work. "I was just an operator, sticking computer tapes on and taking print-outs off. I didn't have to think much and I regarded it as a hobby I got paid for and writing as my real job. I'd finish the songs off at weekends. I thought it was just a matter of time before someone woke up and did something about it. The best I could do was take the tapes to record companies, but I'd exhausted them all when Stiff appeared.

It was Stiff Records who got him to change his name. "It's great, because there are only two of us and I'm so anti-sexy while Presley is such a sex star. It's not a spoof — quite the opposite." He enjoyed the publicity stunt outside the Hilton during the CBS Convention "because it's not every day you get a few feet from the president of a multi-million dollar record company and sing 'Lip service is all you'll get from me.' "

As for the scenes at the Nashville, West Kensington (where I nearly got arrested a week ago when I turned up to see Costello, not realising the police had ordered his milling fans off the street) he just added that to a long list he gave me of things he doesn't like. It had started off with music, ("only a couple of people in the last seven years are any good, but this is the best year since '66. I prefer listening to jazz and Hank Williams") and had then gone on his personal life.

"My songs are not like a diary, it's just that there's a whole set of pop cliches I didn't want to repeat. I'm not a miserable bastard. But then I don't like concerts, or parties, or going out. I don't like anything. I like performing, while I'm doing it, but I don't like applause, except it shows we are doing a good job. I don't like adulation, and I don't want to be a celebrity. I hope to divert the interest off onto my songs, and that's why I do interviews. I don't want to be loved, because I'm as worthless as anybody else. But I do think my songs are great."

Tags: HounslowLondonBusking outside the HiltonRainbow TheatreStiff RecordsThe BeatlesBob DylanGraham ParkerPhil SpectorMink DeVilleMy Aim Is TrueLess Than ZeroOswald MosleyBuddy HollyElvis PresleyCBS ConventionThe Nashville, West KensingtonLip ServiceHank Williams

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The Guardian, August 16, 1977

Robin Denselow interviews Elvis Costello.


1977-08-16 London Guardian page 08 clipping 01.jpg

Photo by Chris Gabrin.
1977-08-16 London Guardian photo 01 cg.jpg

1977-08-16 London Guardian page 08.jpg
Page scan.


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