Superficially a throwback to the singer-songwriters of the late Sixties, Elvis Costello was a far from obvious contender when he appeared on the Stiff records catalogue in 1977, at the height of the punk ballyhoo. However, his aggressive stance and the ever more obvious breadth and quality of his work quickly established him on both sides of the Atlantic as a man to be reckoned with. The single hits of his early career — "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," "Watching The Detectives" — were something of a red herring, for, Costello's principal currency would be that of LPs, one that would take in an assortment of genres as he progressed. Hence Get Happy!!, his tribute to Sixties soul, and Almost Blue, a country music album recorded in Nashville. But it is his non-genre work, taking in several pop strands in an invariably meticulously arranged potpourri, which makes him perhaps the most important single talent to have emerged in Britain in several years.
Costello says: "The second album by The Band was an early favourite. It was a kind of pure rock 'n' roll record, almost as if it was done just before rock 'n' roll was invented. The fact is that they never seemed glib like a lot of groups of that era, like Steely Dan or Little Feat. This record has stayed with me, weathering all the various changes of fashion and attitude. If music can stand up to all that sort of pressure, then it's definitely got something going for it (The Band Capitol EST 132).
"Another long-standing big favourite is Gram Parsons's GP (Reprise K 44228) — and his Grievous Angel LP. Although they were influential it was quite a long time before the influences really came through in my own work. Parsons wrote a lot of great country songs, and covered some equally great originals; it all adds up to a great album.
"Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (Atlantic 588066) is almost a greatest hits album. I had it when it came out and wore it out and then got another copy some three years ago. It has some really strong songs she wrote herself alongside classics by Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. Later, on her Columbia albums, she wound up doing note-for-note copies of other people's songs. It was like one of those Woolworth's albums.
"I've been a fan of Dusty Springfield since I was a youngster. I liked all the hits but I never had any albums until relatively recently. Dusty In Memphis (Philips SBL 7889) was pretty special: it must have been quite daring at the time for someone to go to the home of soul music and do an album. Again, she had some great writers — Goffin and King, Randy Newman.
"I couldn't talk about songwriters and leave out Randy Newman's album, 12 Songs (Reprise K44084). That's still an all-time favourite.
"I could have picked any number of Lee Dorsey LPs because his stuffs so scattered around. I chose Yes We Can (Polydor 2489 006) for two reasons: one, it's a great album; secondly, because it's been plagiarised so thoroughly by other vocalists like Van Dyke Parks and Robert Palmer. Dorsey's just not like any other soul singer — very few people can imitate his voice because it's such a very unique instrument.
"With Al Green I just picked up on his pop hits at first. Then I went to see him, I think the last time he was here. I just happened to be drunk and I was in ecstasy — I can remember almost everything about that concert and yet I can't remember how I got there or how I got home. "Call Me" is just a great song. Again, it's the songwriting which makes the record so strong. But one of my favourite Al Green things is "I'm A Ram," which is hardly a song at all; but it has really great singing (Call Me, London 8457).
"I don't think that albums which are made as a tribute to one songwriter usually work but Frank Sinatra... Sings Mercer (Capitol SRS 5167) is one of my all-time favourites. Interestingly, it was made with a very small group, a quartet or quintet and that's great because instead of him fighting against an orchestra as usual, swinging out and finger-snapping and being brash like he usually was, he had an entirely different feel, quite unusual for the time.
"The first album by The Clash is a really great record; I think it still stands up and from what I have read recently, they agree. There's a story I've told many times before, but it's absolutely true, I did stay up playing it for 36 hours solid when I first got it. Something I didn't grasp right away is there's quite a bit of humour in the songs, and that gave The Clash a genuinely human feel — as opposed to the earnestness everyone was peddling then. But the whole LP gets better all the time. (The Clash, CBS 82341).
"Scritti Politti's album, Songs To Remember (Rough Trade, Rough 20); that's an appropriate title, because they really are. The record's far from perfect, but it's one of those sort of records. There's a song, "Slow Soul" that's got some really great alto; but the trouble is that it goes all the way through the track and in the end becomes a distraction.
"I still think the first album by The Specials is a very strong sounding record. I'm very fond of the records I've been involved with and I like this one, and the Squeeze album I co-produced much more than most of my own records (The Specials, Two-Tone CDL TT 5001). This record was really simply produced. But it came out after my Armed Forces album, and be-cause that had been accused of going back on the punk thing and being a 'production' record, a lot of critics accused The Specials LP of the same thing. But it wasn't slick; I just felt they were a very exciting group and all the album did was to try and translate the live sound into studio terms. Jerry Dammers is pleasantly mad but he's made some of my favourite records — including "Racist Friend," "Free Nelson Mandela" and "The Boiler." It's just unfortunate that The Specials got it in the neck because of my involvement.
"One last recent addition: T Bone Burnett. I know he comes out of the Dylan tradition, but he's done some very different things with it. And if I'm going to include any one thing from the last 18 months, then his albums would have to be it (Proof Through The Night, Demon FIEND 14)."