On July 22, 1977, Elvis Costello stood with an electric guitar and a small amplifier at the entrance to the Hilton Hotel on London's Park Lane. The venue for a convention for the executive class of CBS and Columbia Records, the 23-year old greeted the arriving dignitaries with a four-song set drawn from his debut album, My Aim Is True, released earlier that year. His tone was one of menace. "If they knew how I felt, they'd bury me alive," he sang.
His chat was minimal. "I am Elvis Costello," he said, "sign me." Alerted to the singer's presence by an anonymous phone call from Dave Robinson, the co-owner of his label, Stiff Records, Costello was duly arrested by the Metropolitan Police and treated to a night in the cells. But his proactive performance in front of an unwitting audience of bewildered high rollers paid dividends; months later, he signed to CBS and Columbia Records.
Costello had spent years developing his venomous edge playing original songs in unforgiving clubs. He then spent 12-months shopping his demo tape to every label in the country. Despite being better equipped than any other artist to fully capitalise on the promise of punk — and, when the time came, to easily escape its suffocating clutches — no one was interested.
"I went in and said, 'I've got some fucking great songs, why don't you get off your fucking arse and put them out?'" he told the journalist Allan Jones. He added that "I'm not starry-eyed in the fucking slightest. You can tell what these people are like instinctively. You just have to look at them to know they're fucking idiots."
The opinion held. As late as 1986, his final year as part of the Columbia roster, Elvis Costello refused to be photographed with the company's top brass "in case it turned up as evidence in some FBI mafia investigation." In response, the label buried the masterful King Of America under a rock. He then signed to Warner Bros. and released the expansive Spike album, the cover of which featured his head mounted on a wall beneath the words "the beloved entertainer."
"That's what the record companies do now," he said. "They shoot their artists and hang them like a trophy in the boardroom."
With Elvis Costello presently embarked on his first tour of Britain in four years, now seems like a good time to mark the astonishing impact of the man who once claimed — wrongly, as it goes — that love "doesn't exist in my [earliest] songs." These days looking like the world's cuddliest uncle, in 1977 he arrived into the public space like a visitor from the planet Aggro, armed only with a ream of flawless, literate and vengeful songs that were the envy of all.
Provocative and aggressive, in one early interview he claimed to carry with him a little black book that contained the names of his enemies, as well as a giant bent nail that would prove useful in a fight. In concert, he and The Attractions, his supremely talented backing band, would literally sprint onto the stage and smash their way through half a dozen songs before anyone in the room had the chance to draw breath.
He learnt to utilise the energy and economy of punk after spending an entire night listening to The Clash's self-titled debut album on headphones in the flat in suburban West London he shared with his first wife and their newborn son. At first outraged by music that sounded like "a sea lion barking over a load of pneumatic drills," the following morning he wrote "Watching The Detectives," his first hit single. "You snatch a tune and you match your cigarette, she pulls their eyes out with a face like a magnet," he sang.
His music was often deeply sinister. "Listen to the decent people, though you treat them just like sheep, put them all in boots and khaki, blame it all upon the darkies," he sang on "Sunday's Best." Costello was adept at sniffing the air and spelling out the logical conclusions of the times in which he lived. Describing the shaven-headed goons of the National Front, he warned that "you think they're so dumb, you think they're so funny, wait until they've got you running to the night rally."
The critics loved him, a state of universal adoration that led David Lee Roth to observe that "most journalists like Elvis Costello because most journalists look like Elvis Costello." Linda Ronstadt covered the songs "Alison" and "Party Girl" — much to their author's theatrical disdain — while Elton John, upon receiving the award for album of the year from Capital Radio in 1978, opined that the prize should have gone to Costello's eviscerating This Year's Model.
By this point, Elvis Costello & The Attractions were throwing out albums at the rate of one a year, some of them masterpieces. The band undertook six American tours in just 18 months — the front of their tour bus read Camp Lejeune, the facility in Jacksonville, North Carolina, at which US Marines are lashed into shape — with predictably chaotic results.
Keeping company with Bebe Buell, Costello woke the model in the middle of the night and accused her of dreaming about someone else. In a drunken argument with members of the Steven Stills Band in a hotel bar in Columbus, Ohio, in 1979 he issued insults that, were they spoken today, would end his career in an instant.
"It was at that point that everything — whether it be my self-perpetrated venom — was about to engulf me," he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1982. "I was, I think, rapidly becoming not a very nice person. I was losing track of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and my own control."
The setlist now being played by Elvis Costello & The Imposters — the band The Attractions became following the departure of bassist Bruce Thomas — for audiences from Southampton to Edinburgh leans heavily on material from this period. As well as much else, the three-week caravan offers listeners of a certain age the chance to recall the time when Costello haunted the singles charts with songs that featured words such as "torture," "victim," and "capital punishment."
They'll also hear "Oliver's Army," the most subversive smash-hit single in British chart history. With a piano trill knowingly lifted from ABBA's "Dancing Queen," the track is both a perfect pop song and a neat inquisition into the nasty habit of imperialism to "always get a working class boy to do the killing." Featuring references to Palestine and Johannesburg, the single sold half a million copies in the UK alone; it might have sold even more in the United States were it not for its author's refusal to scrub the phrase "white n_____" from its second verse.
Despite its bounty of glorious songs, Elvis Costello's current reliance on his most iconic period is not without problems for anyone who believes that his status as the finest songwriter of his generation endured beyond the point at which he stopped being a pop star. For an artist that has often enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with his most popular songs, this spring's British excursion is so lacking in deep cuts that it could be staunched with a Kleenex.
For some, this is good news. There is a body of opinion that maintains that Costello lost his edge after he signed with Warner Bros. and, for a time at least, dispensed with the services of The Attractions. Writing during this time, the journalist Nick Kent opined that "his most recent albums… have been full of wit and detail but lack an awful lot as well — memorable melodies certainly, 'focus' perhaps and the old 'intensity' definitely."
Kent is talking nonsense, for once. At least one of the albums from this period, 1991's Mighty Like A Rose, features songs that are at least as scabrous as anything to which the singer had placed his name. From the turbulent "The Other Side Of Summer" — "the dancing was desperate, the music worse, they bury your dreams and dig up the worthless" — to the doubtful "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" — "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again" — this is not an LP content to recline in the La-Z-Boy chair of encroaching middle age.
Starker still is "Tramp The Dirt Down," from Spike. An ode to the death of Margaret Thatcher, it remains one of the most remarkable political songs of the 20th Century. The track identifies the Prime Minister by name, and contains the sentiment "when they finally put you in the ground I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down." In a final chorus that is even more striking, the lyric imagines mourners at Mrs Thatcher's funeral who "stand there laughing [and then] tramp the dirt down."
Speaking about the song on the BBC programme Arena, in 1989, Costello appeared so aggrieved that he struggled to find the words with which to express his contempt. "I'm not some little kid where they can say 'there there, you're having your moment of protest,'" he said. "I'm 35-years old. I'm a man. And I'm fucking sick of it, what's going on in this country."
In concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, in the summer of 1991 the singer went further still. With John Major in office, and with his predecessor granting endless interviews to the press, he sang of pitying "those who forgot and forgave [because] I think she should be hounded down into her grave." Training his sights on the House of Windsor, he also added lines about "kicking the royal cuckoos out of the nest, and putting the Queen Mother under arrest."
As late as 2012, Costello told an audience at the Royal Albert Hall that "I've been an anti-royalist all my life." This antipathy, though, wasn't enough to stop him pootling off to Buckingham Palace last month to receive an OBE from Prince Charles for services to music. "I am, perhaps, closer in spirit to Eric Morecambe than Harold Pinter," he said last year, "as anyone who has heard me play the piano will attest."
He added that "it would be a lie to claim that I was brought up to have a great loyalty to the crown, let alone notions of Empire. I used to think that a change might come but when one considers the kind of mediocre entrepreneur who might be foisted upon us as a President, it's enough to make the most hard-hearted "Republican" long for an ermine stole, a sceptre and an orb.
And, anyway, "to be honest… [this honour] confirms my long held suspicion that nobody really listens to the words in songs or the outcome might have been somewhat different."
An apparent softening of his attitude to what he once described as "the fag-ends of the aristocracy" is not the only sign of change. In common with most musicians of late middle age, Elvis Costello's recorded output has slowed to the extent that only three studio albums have emerged in the past decade. Of these, the most recent — Look Now, issued in 2018 — is the equal of anything he has recorded in the last 43-years.
Even so, one cannot help but wonder what has happened to the explosion of songs that have peppered so much of his career. In 1993, when preparing the flawless Brutal Youth LP, Costello knocked out six in a day, each of which made it onto the record ("I did have to have a lie down after that," he said). In 1992, he received a letter from Wendy James, the former singer with Transvision Vamp, asking him to contribute a track to her solo album; instead, he went to the park and composed the entire record in a single afternoon.
"She danced like an ambulance, talked like a cartoon mouse, she took off her clothes and it brought down the house," he wrote.
Back in the days when Elvis Costello liked to occasionally make life difficult, in 2002 he appeared onstage at an awards ceremony for Q magazine. This time playing inside the Hilton Hotel, he performed the tricky "When I Was Cruel No. 2," from that year's When I Was Cruel album. Seven-minutes long and a complicated sell for an audience that was not his own, the song drew the irritation of John Lydon seated at a table near to the stage. During the ceremony the former Sex Pistol shouted, "You were boring [back] then, and you're boring now."
For once, Costello was equanimous about his detractor. Writing in his autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he said that "nothing can touch you if you've already made "Pretty Vacant" and "Poptones" [by Public Image Ltd.]."
Despite Elvis Costello's current desire to douse his audience in (fabulous) songs from a receding age, the same can be said of the man that made "I Want You" and "Little Palaces," "God's Comic" and "London's Brilliant Parade," and "All These Strangers" and "Tripwire," too.