You could hardly move in the ramshackle Stiff Records offices. Secretaries scurried to and fro, rockbiz hopefuls, promo-men, journalists and photographers squeezed into the gaps between the precariously balanced piles of boxed singles that filled most of the available floor space, exchanging New Wave gossip. Operating from a discreet former shop-front in Bayswater, Stiff, the most vigorous of all the recently formed independent companies born out of the reaction to the endless stream of formula products from the music business monoliths, was getting ready for the big fight.
Stiff boss Jake Riviera sat behind a desk piled with papers, ranting down the phone, taking frequent swigs from a bottle of Taunton Dry. With characteristic adrenalin-fuelled mania, he was putting the final touches to a party sot up to introduce his greatest hope — Elvis Costello — to the sales reps from Island, the company in charge of Stiff's distribution. The new Elvis did not exactly stand out in his identikit drain-pipe turned-up jeans, `sensible' thick-soled shoes, tight-fitting mod era jacket and pre-Mop Top short hair.
It would have been dead easy to miss him, with his suburban Buddy Holly looks, except that his face stared down from every poster-filled wall, transformed into a new rock image by the inevitable alchemy of publicity.
Elvis was waiting to be photographed by Pennie Smith, regular portraitist for the New Musical Express, as he nervously ate numerous lemons and throat lozenges, anxious to preserve his voice for the Island gathering and the string of all-important gigs on the nights ahead.
It had been only a couple of weeks since he had given up the security of his clerical job to start on the hard road, doing the clubs, the necessary first step on the stairway to rock heaven. He admits to having been just like `all those people who go along to gigs and pretend to play guitars in the audience. They all do that because they would really like to be on stage.' That is just about all Elvis Costello is willing to reveal about his first 22 years, growing up in Hammersmith, Richmond and Liverpool, a romance with rock 'n' roll that had started with the first record he had owned — "Please Please Me" by the Beatles, and the 400 songs he has already written — the best of them his current single "(The Angels Are Gonna Wear My) Red Shoes" composed in 10 minutes on the train between Lime Street and Runcorn. Somewhere along the line, he had boldly grabbed the name Elvis — a touch of arrogance which he was unwilling to expand on, but which now looked as though it might not have been totally unjustified.
On going professional, he had travelled from his home in Hounslow to Davidstowe in Cornwall, where he rehearsed for a few days with a hand-picked band, the Attractions. On the fifth day they played in Penzance, and on the sixth they hit the Woods Leisure Centre in Plymouth, a bizarre meat market of a club, stuck in the bravo new no-man's land of Drake Circus, the town's soulless showcase of a shopping centre.
In the dim light, Terylened troupes of office boys and girls eyed each other like plastic-wrapped steaks; a few provincial pseudo-punks put on a freak show of a pogo dance, and bunches of sailors ogled at anything that passed their way. Not an easy gig to crack, and yet, after half a dozen numbers, each skilfully built up to a gripping climax, there had been no doubt that Elvis Costello was getting through. People stopped talking, and the merry-go-round of boy-meets-girl slowed down for all to listen. It may have been the acute relevance of Elvis's songs, so many of them about the trials and tribulations of a tough teen dreamer, forever jilted but always hitting back, or perhaps the simple strength of the catchy melodies and the band's tight and uncomplicated approach to the music.
Elvis, understandably nervous, stood almost totally immobile at the mike-stand: no superstar antics or punk dislocation, no mike-swinging or kneeling on stage and no lengthy virtuoso boasts on the lead guitar. Elvis used a simple Eddie Cochrane-style rhythm technique and hardly ever took a solo.
Elvis Costello's music, along with much of the British New Wave, stands for a return to greater simplicity and accessibility. Until the recent explosion, rock had grown increasingly respectable — exploring the inner space blown wide open by the psychedelics, providing a vehicle for the cerebral agonies of singer-songwriters, and emasculating itself in partnerships with symphony orchestras. Above all, with the development of complex studio technology, recording created a homogenised universe which bore little relation to live sounds. In Elvis's words, `people started thinking critic-wise instead of "Can you dance to it?" or "Is it going to make my girl-friend weak at the knees?".' They would be busy asking `Is it art?' forgetting that rock was never meant to be dissected, let alone included as a subject for O-Level examinations, but heard on car radios and juke boxes, or bopped to at a Saturday evening disco.
The moment Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger had started showing signs of spiritual flab, and the other megastars and tax exiles looked as though their astronomical record sales had driven them out of touch with reality, rock developed what Elvis sees as `an antidote to the music that the bands trot out from their hideaways in the tropics.' His first album, My Aim Is True, provides one of the very best examples so far of such an antidote, packed as it is with three-minute classics, songs with hook lines that grab you the first time around and a pure unadorned mid-sixties sound created by Stiff's brilliant house producer Nick Lowe. Like all the best pop music, it has a timeless quality: there are traces of a wide variety of styles — but Elvis Costello is no plagiarist; he has since "Please Please Me" listened to just about everything, and the best of it has left its imprint.
Everyone at Stiff knows that they hold a very hot property. They are pushing very hard for a chart placing, but their whole approach to promotion and advertising is curiously unconventional, as if they were all continually aware of the absurdity that underlies the traditional rock moves they are playing: every ad or poster is something of a self-parody, a gentle wink in the direction of the rock mythology, critics and historians. Jake Riviera's coup for the album release was a cut-out maxi-poster of Elvis spread out in six sections printed separately in the three major music papers: selling a star before he was born, and with the teen hero delicately posed with his guitar, reviving a whole genre of fan-worship iconography.
Elvis Costello, along with many musicians of his generation, seems acutely conscious of the alienating power of fame and money, the very mixed blessing of stardom. Like Jake Riviera, he has seen all the rock movies, soaked up the rock myths. But there is one important lesson he has apparently ignored, taking no interest in the business side of his affairs, which he has wholly entrusted to his managers Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, who — it just so happens — run the record company as well. There is no doubt, however, that he is in good hands: the energy on tap in a small company like Stiff will serve his original talent far better than the smug somnolence of the larger companies.
As the hour of the Island party drew closer, the energy level rose. Other Stiff stars-in-the-making rolled into the office: Wreckless Eric, a waif of a singer with the battered look of someone who has spent too long in Social Security queues and the author/singer of "Go the Whole Wide World", a haunting revival of Troggs-style primal rock, and Ian Drury, founder lyricist and lead singer of Kilburn and the High Roads and about to be unleashed as a solo artist, again singing his own songs, on Stiff.
Someone phoned up for Jake Riviera and the secretary who took the call said enthusiastically: "It's someone who wants to start an Elvis fan club." "We don't want a fan club," Riviera shouted. "We want Elvis to be ordinary." Elvis watched in silence as Jake, protecting him from the pressures of success, now played at being Colonel Parker, the legendary archetype of a total manager, the man responsible for moulding the original Pelvis Elvis's image, and shielding his creation from the world.
The script rolled on: Stiff's designer walked in, brandishing his latest opus, a poster with ELVIS in large bold caps and a huge upper half of Costello's bespectacled face. The `wows' and 'greats' poured out around the room. Elvis gazed at his new image. Its very existence guaranteed that, however conscious of the rock game they were all playing at Stiff, he was no longer an ordinary young man from Hounslow. That part of his life had abruptly ended two weeks earlier, when he had left his office job. Pre-programmed fame was already taking its toll.