Bono wants to feed the starving, Sting to save the rainforests, and Billy Bragg to end wars. From Elvis Costello this festive season comes a charitable appeal with a difference: "Don't buy my new record."
The spindly sometime Scouser, 56, is fuming over the price being charged for a special edition box set of his works. It isn't hard to see why. For £212.99, you'd expect Elvis to perform in your front garden. Admittedly, the package comes with a glossy coffee-table book, a DVD and a signed greeting card, but, as Mr Costalotto rightly complains, the price put on it by his record company, Universal, has to be "either a misprint or satire."
Or is it something else entirely? Whispers in the music business suggest that the whole thing may, instead, be a crafty wheeze to get the record talked about while simultaneously refreshing Elvis's somewhat exhausted anti-Establishment credentials. The youthful post-punk agitator, possessed, in his Eighties heyday, of jibes sharper than his winklepickers, now lives in apparent domestic contentment in Vancouver, Canada, with his third wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, and their two young children.
He no longer drinks, takes drugs or has to call emergency press conferences to explain his previous night's outrages, and, if it wasn't for the Joe 90 glasses and gappy teeth, his old fans might be hard put to recognise him. Thus, the release of The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook has given Elvis a fresh chance to stand up for the exploited. In a website posting headlined, "Steal This Record," Elvis explains his thinking: "There was a time when the release of a new title by your favourite record artist was a cause for excitement and rejoicing," he writes, "but sadly no more. Unfortunately, we find ourselves unable to recommend this item to you…"
Elvis is in dangerous territory. Especially in Britain, where his once warm ties with the natives are currently, shall we say, shaky. Things began to go seriously wrong six years ago after an ill-received appearance at Glastonbury that the rocker described as "a f------ dreadful experience" and blamed on the poor attitude of the fans. "I don't care if I never play England again," he said later. "I'll say that right now. That gig made up my mind. I wouldn't come back."
He accused British rock fans of lacking imagination and harbouring "ageist" prejudices against mature acts such as his own. "I don't dig it," he huffed, "and they don't dig me." What has changed? Diehard fans of the old Elvis are prone to blame his marriage to Krall, 47, whom he met at a Grammy awards ceremony in the mid-Nineties and married in 2003, following the end of his second marriage to former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan. Many suggest that Diana has "refined" Elvis to his detriment, steering him into the realms of balladeering and elaborate classical arrangements.
The flip side to this is that Krall, one of the world's biggest-selling jazz artists, has caught a dose of Elvis-itis. Once noted for her distinguished interpretations of the standard American repertoire, Diana has, of late, begun writing her own material. Not everyone is impressed.
Elvis's career has, nevertheless flourished in America – perhaps in a way that it couldn't have done here, where he is best remembered for classic hits such as "Watching the Detectives" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." In the US, he is considered a regular rock polymath, capable of most things, including hosting his own TV talk show, Spectacle, to such effect that he has occasionally filled in for David Letterman.
When he first emerged in the Seventies, Costello was the sharpest, smartest, most intriguing new boy on the block. He was part-familiar, part-ulterior – a vagabond versifier wreathed in deadly cool. Elvis was born Declan Patrick MacManus in Paddington, west London, the only child of exuberantly musical parents – Ross MacManus, a featured singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and his wife, Lillian, who ran the record department at Selfridges.
Declan grew up bathed in the sounds of Sinatra, the great swing bands and the songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. He went to a Catholic private school, to which he credits his lifelong preference for dressing in black, and, although his parents split up when he was young and he soon left the bright lights to live with his mother in Liverpool, there was never much doubt that he would end up on stage.
In his mid-teens he formed a folk duo called Rusty and, on returning to London, founded Flip City, a loosely punk-influenced pub band, and took the stage name Elvis (from the Memphis maestro) Costello (from his family's Irish roots). Life on the circuit wasn't easy, especially as he was now married to Mary Burgoyne, his teenage sweetheart, and they quickly had a son, Matthew. To make ends meet, he worked in an office job at Elizabeth Arden and later at the Midland Bank, but in 1976 the newly launched Stiff Records – an outfit whose darkly humorous slogan was "Undertakers to the Industry" – signed him up.
The deal at least breathed life into Elvis. Relaunched as a wiry-limbed, permanently hacked-off, British Bob Dylan redux, his first album, My Aim is True, reached number 14, and his third, Armed Forces, became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
These days he greatly prefers it on the other side. It isn't just the fans over here that he's iffy about but those in the business who want to keep him trussed up as a kind of tame exhibit in a Seventies time warp – even though he has collaborated in recent years with artists such as Burt Bacharach, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the London Symphony Orchestra. "Some people can see beyond those prejudices," he allows, "but, because of the self-satisfied fantasy that passes for rock writing in England, there isn't much room for another view."
The artist as martyr? Or grumpy old man? "Elvis has never suffered fools gladly," says his old comrade at Stiff Records, Nick Lowe. "Unfortunately, he happens to work in an industry made up almost entirely of fools." Not that it doesn't have its moments of brilliance. A little-mentioned footnote to the Songbook controversy is that only 1,500 copies will be minted. Who doubts they will be sold? If only as a tribute to a man who cares so much about his fans.