London Telegraph, December 18, 2008

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London Telegraph

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Elvis Costello: making a Spectacle of himself


Neil McCormick

The Elvis Costello chat show, Spectacle, debuted on C4 this week with a special on The Police.

I am a big fan of Costello. He is one of the most creative, enthusiastic and genuinely multi-talented musicians this country has ever produced, an incredible singer-songwriter and veritable musical polymath who has turned his hand to rock, pop, country, jazz, classical (and all kinds of unusual blends of these forms), usually with interesting results … but I am not sure he can cut it as a chat show host.

Why do celebrities always want to do other people's jobs? It's not like they don't make enough money, or get enough attention, doing their own. The funny thing is most famous people constantly complain about interviews, particularly noting the fatuous questions they are asked over and over again. But give them a chance to interview each other and they can't wait to swap sides, only to produce the kind of predictable, softball, ego pampering that they themselves profess to abhor (with an added element of randomness, so that one question never leads to another). Andy Warhol invented a whole magazine, the pompously titled 'Interview', dedicated to famous people applying their tongues to each other's posteriors, which were then presented as apparently unedited Q&A's. Like 'Hello' it was popular with celebrities because it was a world where the journalistic pen was as mighty as a butter knife.

Surely Elvis Costello would be different. He is incredibly intelligent, hugely well informed about music, but also a famously spiky character. He can actually be quite difficult to interview himself, because he talks at such length, with so many digressions, it is hard to maintain a framework for the conversation. But he is always interesting. At least, when he is on the right side of the microphone.

When I last met up with Costello, in Paris, where he was performing in an opera with Sting, he enthused about his new role. "We get to talk a little broader than you usually get on most television programmes about music, or about anything. As much as were on stage, under lights, being filmed, it's a real conversation and not just soundbites."

Sting was equally complimentary. "You are a particularly good interviewer," he commented (to Elvis, not me!) "because you understand what is being said, because you're a musician, and you listen, which most of them don't. It's just question, question, question."

Like "What is your favourite Police song?" Costello actually asked Sting this in front of an audience on television. I would be embarrassed to ask something so trite in the privacy of a hotel room. For the record, Sting diplomatically selected "Mother" (written by guitarist Andy Summers) and "Miss Gradenko" (written by drummer Stewart Copeland). To which Copeland shouted "Bullshit!" That was about the level of the conversation.

Costello had The Police on as his first guests, doing their last Television appearance before their final concert. This, of course, is the real advantage of a celebrity interviewer: their phone book. The show was produced by Elton John and his partner David Furnish, and between them they have managed to procure a quite fascinating line up, including ex-President Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Hancock, Lou Reed, Kris Kristofferson, Rufus Wainright, Elton John himself and Costello's jazz singing wife, Diana Krall (wonder where he got her number?).

Granted, The Police can't have been an easy introduction to the art of interviewing. With all of those egos on stage, it was a wonder there was room for Costello at all. Personally, I make it a rule never to interview a band all together, because all of the complications of the relationships between the individuals colour their responses, and you never get any sincerity or depth. What you do get is a lot of fatuous in-jokes, and Copeland's repeated shouting "You're fired" (to which Sting wearily responds, "No, you're fired") provided the best insight into why this group has reached the end of its shelf life.

But even given these problems, Elvis didn't seem to have a strong idea of where the interview was going, failed to construct a narrative, and didn't come up with any line of inquiry that might elicit a story they hadn't been told a million times before. It was fatuous stuff. I was hoping a musician would actually get in there and open up the music a little, dispel some of the myths about composition and get down to the technical nitty gritty, but all we got were bog standard questions about musical influences, and random tour bus stories. Costello also presaged most of his questions with anecdotes of his own, forgetting that an interview really isn't a conversation, it is something more directed and probing than that. But this was just banter, enlivened by musical performances. Which, of course, is probably all the TV company want, a bit of chat and all star jamming.

It is the Jools Holland approach. Although, to be fair, even on this first outing, Costello was miles better than Holland, who must be the worst musician turned interviewer ever to have had his own show on TV. When I watch Later, I see guests frozen like rabbits in the headlights of an oncoming truck, as Holland thrashes around, trying to formulate a coherent sentence. You are never quite sure what he is going to ask, partly because he doesn't seem too sure himself, although all that stumbling usually only leads to vague comments about the loveliness of their recording, often left hanging in a way that doesn't actually invite a reply. Then he interrupts them, to bring up some random bit of trivia from their career. And then he invites himself to accompany them on boogie woogie piano.

Holland gets away with it because he's a musician. He is one of them, a charming host that they can sit and idly jam with, so his guests do their best to compensate for a level of journalist skills that would get him sacked from a local paper.

When Costello told me that he had interviewed Lou Reed, I said, "I bet he was nice to you." Because, Reed is famously rude to journalists. He can be so sulky and unhelpful during interviews, you wonder why he has bothered to turn up, because, as Michael Parkinson pointed out in our recent encounter, it is "a consensual obligation between two people, otherwise it doesn't work". The first time I interviewed Reed, all he would talk about was the sound quality of different amplifiers. The second time was a phone interview set up to garner quotes for a piece on ambient music, which had been set up in connection with his release of a sound piece, 'Hudson River Wind Meditations' and which Reed started off by berating me for using the word ambient. He was so rude and boring I decided to cut the interview short, and never bothered quoting him.

He was, of course, nice to Costello. "Lou was funny and he spoke with tremendous affection and he showed us how to play 'Sweet Jane' properly. He was actually really great. I know his reputation. Obviously there's a little bit of trust because I am a musician and a songwriter."

Maybe I should stick to interviewing other rock critics.

Am I being mean to Elvis because I resent him doing a music journalist out of a job? It was only the first show and it looked like it had been rather brutally edited. Hopefully it gets better, and given the quality of his guests, many music fans will be watching just in case it does. If he gets anything at all out of Lou Reed then maybe he really could teach us rock hacks a thing or two.

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The Daily Telegraph, November 20, 2008


Neil McCormick interviews Elvis Costello and Sting about Spectacle.



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