London Guardian, January 6, 2022

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London Guardian

UK & Ireland newspapers

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Elvis Costello — The reader interview


Dave Simpson

Elvis Costello answers your questions about Liverpool FC, Neil Young, and his new music with Burt Bacharach.

Best gig ever: 3.30 in the morning, sun coming up, watching from the front as you played to an uninterested crowd at Oxford's Trinity College May ball, 1981. You must have thought you'd sold your soul to the devil. — kiwisimmo

The fee was good and we needed new amplifiers. I remember lots of "girls" — as they might have called them in an upper-class novel — being sick in the bushes and people tearing around in outfits. They made the mistake of giving us rooms and free champagne. Pete [Thomas], our drummer, was an enthusiastic drinker in those days and took off into the night wearing a gown and a tiara.

Does accepting an OBE show you are not the person who wrote "Any King's Shilling"? — pipini

It's just another bauble in my china cabinet, along with the MTV Video Music award, which no one knows I've got, either. Look, my grandfather Pat MacManus was in the Royal Irish Regiment and died from illness resulting from wounds he got fighting for king and country. My dad [Ross MacManus] went in through the tradesman's entrance to sing at the Buckingham Palace staff ball in 1962. So, apart from the fact that my mum told me to go and have a laugh, I thought: "I'm going in through the front door." It doesn't change my view of the idea of empire as ludicrous and hideous. One of the gentlemen working there was a fan and he'd written this great setlist on Buckingham Palace notepaper. That's my nicest memento of it.

I loved "The Death of Magic Thinking" [from his new album, The Boy Named If] on your recent US tour. Does it have anything to do with Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking? — justalackey

The song is about the terror of leaving childhood, when the wonderful inventions of your imagination come up against teenage lust and algebra. The Sopranos writer David Chase gave me the title when I met him at a supper 11 years ago. I told him my boys had started school and he said: "School. The death of magic thinking." I knew exactly what he meant.

I believe This Year's Model is your best LP. Do you agree? — aubraccity

Every 35 days I'd agree, and on another day I'd recommend something like North, which a lot of people didn't like, but came from the heart. The music industry prefers the orthodox to new ideas, but I've always tried to do something else, even at the risk of losing some of my audience.

"Oliver's Army" contains a phrase that seemed shocking then, but now is considered unspeakable. If you rewrote the couplet, what would its replacement be? — Dave Dumanis

I believe I was wide awake when I wrote the song about career opportunities, but sadly that two-word slang is a historical fact. It was a derogatory term for Irish Catholics, which I sang to make the point. One dreads to think how the officer class spoke about people of colour. Perhaps I'd express the same idea differently now. I've tried changing that verse, but after 44 years I'm done singing it. I'll sing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" instead.

Seeing Taylor Swift release new versions of her albums, are there any of your albums you would like to revisit? — TeardropsStart

We did This Year's Model as Spanish Model, with Spanish-speaking singers, but if Taylor Swift wants to record all my albums, I'll not stop her.

What percentage of your audiences is female? — FifiCorr

It depends on whether I open my eyes. I told Iggy Pop that I'd always imagined the [Hollywood venue] Whisky a Go Go would be full of girls in hipsters doing the pony dance, like in films, but by the time I played there it was people wearing bin liners. He said that in the 1960s it was exactly like I'd imagined, but often the reality — in the words of John Cooper Clarke — is some shaven-headed chap with his long-suffering wife saying: "I'm freezing, Charlie, haven't they finished yet?" while listening to our set.

Any news of the long-mooted new Burt Bacharach/Costello music for a possible Broadway show? — Paul Hocker

Burt and I were in Capitol studios in the summer with a 30-piece orchestra, cutting two new songs for a collection looking at our nearly 30-year collaboration. We worked on two musical scores simultaneously about 12 years ago, but sadly Painted from Memory and a proposed Austin Powers musical ran into legal complications. At least we got to work together again. He's 93 and the intensity of his focus is undimmed. He'll go: "Elvis, in bar six, you're not singing the right melody."

Which cover versions of your songs have you enjoyed, apart from Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding"? — NewProfile

Robert's is the original and mine is the cover, because it was written for Robert to sing. My favourite cover is Roy Orbison doing "The Comedians" live at the Cocoanut Grove [in Los Angeles]. I was the rhythm guitarist in the band and when you met this lovely gentleman you'd never imagine he had that power of voice. Oddly enough, my most covered music is The Juliet Letters. There's an incredible Polish cabaret version, a piano version, string quartets, all sorts.

Have you ever met or wanted to work with Neil Young? — quilt

The first time I played the Bridge School benefit [Young and his late wife Pegi's event for speech-impaired children], in 1990, I heard this disembodied voice singing harmony during "Alison," and Neil walked out with a hand mic. It was great. He played Slane Castle in Ireland when I lived there and my agent, who is also Neil's, said I should surprise him and sing on "Rockin' in the Free World." I slunk on stage, Booker T from the MGs was singing backing and he pointed to a piano and said: "Take it, Elvis," like in a dream.

Fiona Apple's performance of "I Want You" on YouTube is stunning, disturbing and even upsetting. What more can you tell us? — Strawwdog

Imagine being stood next to Fiona when she did it. It was at some crazy production in Atlantic City. I'd never assume that anyone from a younger generation would know who we are, but she threw herself into it. As the guitarist, I was just trying to match her intensity. By way of thanks, we put a lot into our version of her song "I Know."

Do you agree that your Saturday headline on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 1987 is the festival's finest two hours? — Bestbeforeoctober88

I could win money in a pub quiz or provoke uncontrollable laughter by suggesting I ever headlined the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, but it was different then. I'd say '84 was better. More recently, I was third on the bill to the Rolling Stones and managed to get into the inner sanctum. I was chatting to Keith Richards, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood when Charlie Watts, bless him, came up and, without saying hello to me, said: "Hey Woody? Who is this fella, married to Diana Krall? What's that about?" It was fantastic, because, being a jazzer, he was a huge fan of my wife.

How do you feel about the lemonade? — wjelly

[He laughs.] In the 70s, I was the backing vocalist on an advert my dad did for R White's Lemonade. "Secret Lemonade Drinker" saved Christmas when we were broke, and after I had a hit they revived it. I actually preferred Moorhouse's green cream soda, which was big in Birkenhead. I've discovered that Moorhouse's became R White's, so it seems I was drinking R White's long before I knew it.

"Tramp the Dirt Down" and "Shipbuilding" being obvious exceptions, why have you steered clear of political songwriting? — Ummmmm

I never sit down and think: "I am now going to write a political song," but if we're speaking about things I've sensed or seen, then perhaps I can interest you in the following titles from our catalogue of human misery and wickedness and the groovy lessons there: "Less Than Zero," "Night Rally," "Oliver's Army," "Little Palaces," "Pills and Soap," "Invasion Hit Parade"; [This Sad] "Burlesque" from The Juliet Letters; "Bedlam" and "She's Pulling Out the Pin" from The Delivery Man; The River in Reverse; "Red Cotton" from the unfinished opera The Secret Songs; "Bullets for the New-born King" and "One Bell Ringing" from National Ransom, "American Gangster Time"; all the songs with the Roots on Wise Up Ghost; "Blood & Hot Sauce" from the A Face in the Crowd score; "We Are All Cowards Now" from Hey Clockface; and I guess Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Does that answer the question?

What would be your favourite Liverpool FC XI? — TheJohnYoung

The 1965 FA Cup side, which I can still name. When Roger Hunt died this year, it was really a moment. When people ask who my ultimate hero was, expecting someone from music, the only person I ever thought of in heroic terms was Roger Hunt. I could never play football any good, but Roger looked like a footballer; he never got sent off. He was like a Roy of the Rovers kind of invention and after he stopped playing he went back and worked in his family business. He didn't haunt the club.

Which is the best invention — space travel or gravy? — Stuntman

Gravy is ghastly. I don't like it, because I come from another planet.

For years, in "Little Palaces," I heard: "The sedated homes of England / Who does defend the lies?" instead of: "The sedated homes of England / Are theirs to vandalise." Any other examples of this? — peilefella

I like that line and might use it from now on. I once recorded a demo of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" for a George Jones record I was hoping to persuade him to let me produce. I sang it as a country song and in all honesty sang: "Relationships have all been bad / Mine have been like lanes and rambles." Much later, somebody pointed out that the line was actually: "Verlaine's and Rimbaud's." My guess is that George Jones was not a huge fan of French symbolist poetry.

You find yourself on stage at the 2024 Republican National Convention with Donald Trump in the front row. You turn to the band and... what song do you count in? — Voodootoyoutoo

"Baby's Got a Brand New Hairdo."

The Boy Named If is released on 14 January on EMI.


Tags: Neil YoungFiona AppleBurt BacharachPete ThomasAny King's ShillingOBEPat MacManusRoss MacManusThe Death Of Magic ThinkingThe Boy Named IfThis Year's ModelNorthOliver's Army(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?Spanish ModelIggy PopJohn Cooper ClarkePainted From MemoryRobert WyattShipbuildingRoy OrbisonThe ComediansCocoanut GroveThe Juliet LettersKatarzyna Groniec: Listy JuliiBridge School BenefitAlisonBooker T. JonesThe M.G.'sI Want YouI KnowAtlantic CityGlastonbury FestivalThe Rolling StonesKeith RichardsFootballTramp The Dirt DownLess Than ZeroNight RallyLittle PalacesPills And SoapInvasion Hit ParadeThis Sad BurlesqueBedlamShe's Pulling Out The PinThe Delivery ManThe River In ReverseRed CottonThe Secret SongsBullets For The New-Born KingOne Bell RingingNational RansomAmerican Gangster TimeThe RootsWise Up GhostBlood & Hot SauceA Face In The CrowdWe Are All Cowards NowNick LoweLittle PalacesBob DylanYou're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You GoBaby's Got A Brand New Hairdo

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The Guardian, March 1, 2020


Elvis answers readers' questions, as told to Dave Simpson.

Images

2022-01-06 London Guardian G2 page 3.jpg
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Photo by Mark Seliger.
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2020 photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images.
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1984 photo by Adam Beeson/Alamy.
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