London Times, March 13, 1993

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London Times

UK & Ireland newspapers


A good year for the rosin

Alan Franks

Elvis Costello has always been a bit of a clever so-and-so, reinventing himself with every album. Alan Franks meets the new improved classical version, still experimenting — and still angry

There was always going to be trouble. It happens every time a rock 'n' roll star tries to make common cause with the classical music world, and it probably always will. As such collaborations go, the one between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet has demanded a more conciliatory ear than most, so distant are the disciplines of raucous rocker and finely tuned foursome. When the contrast between them is at its starkest, it is as if a pick-up truck has smashed into the side of a conservatoire; now, at the enquiry into how this was allowed to happen, Costello says with a beam: "It's only music, I didn't kill anyone."

He is saying it with the air of a wounded innocent, but cannot possibly expect this to be taken at face value. He is a big boy now. He knew perfectly well that there would be rejection lurking in both constituencies; that there would be as many reactionaries on the rock side of the tracks as on the classical; and that he would relish the energy from the heat surrounding his alleged vandalism.

"This is a bunch of songs," he continues. "It has a unity and a breadth of structure that allows considerable freedom. I have no time at all for the view that everything must obey the rules, or at least if you break them you must do so in a preconditioned way. And I become angered by the idea that you can rebel but only if you ask permission first."

The bunch of songs to which he is referring is The Juliet Letters, a cycle of 20 linked by the notion of missives unreceived. The spark was a small newspaper item spotted by his wife, Cait O'Riordan, a former member of the Irish band The Pogues. It told of a Veronese professor who had sent replies to letters that has been sent to Juliet Capulet. The lyrics, as the music, were the joint effort of all five musicians, with certain members predominating in certain compositions.

The "band" has given just two British concert performances of the cycle, in London and Glasgow, since the release of the album and is now in the United States, nearing the end of a short world tour — nine European dates, three Japanese, tomorrow Los Angeles, Monday San Francisco, Wednesday Boston and Thursday New York. The bad news for sceptics is that once Costello and the quartet have resumed their "proper" careers, The Juliet Letters will still be in the pending tray, ready for delivery in the United Kingdom.

From the critical reaction to the music, the world at large has been more forgiving than the British; Classic FM has left it off its playlist because of Costello's presence, while the progressive Vox magazine awarded it a mark of just three out of ten. Time Out thought it "messing around with Victorian parlour pop," while Melody Maker heard "stuff that smacks of the local operatic society." In America it has received a respectful amount of airplay and had sold more than 100,000 copies two weeks before the tour arrived there. Over here, it reached the 30,000 mark at the same time. Small beer for a new album by a major rock star, but a substantial increase for the quartet, whose recordings hitherto had averaged sales figures of about 10,000.

"There's no doubt about it," Costello says. "If you take a poll of the overseas press, you find they are much more accepting than the British. We are so much snider. Actually, it's not so much the British, as London. There has been this terrible suspicion that it [the collaboration] was all some kind of trick, or that we were trying to get away with something. We haven't been trying to get away with anything at all. Everything here seems to be so measured, with people so anxious to know exactly where it fits in, and whether it's part of the modern classical/rock crossover progressive thing, or what. As I say, it's just music and if you don't like it, don't listen. There's plenty of other stuff about. Personally, I love rock 'n' roll more than any other music, but I also abhor it in some of its forms. It has become so dead and stiff, so very corporate; it has turned into exactly the things it was meant to be knocking down."

The disparity between the public and the private Costellos these past few weeks has been almost as marked as that between his musical sources. On stage he has been, if you can believe it, diffident, sneer-free, patently nervous and very nearly staid. However you judge the fruit of his labours with the Brodskys, there can be no denying the bravery of standing there with his defiantly untrained voice as the fifth voice in what is effectively a quintet, thus setting himself up for comparison with four consummate technicians. As the quartet agrees, it is "different" to work with a singer who is not absolutely certain of his range. When Elvis goes for a top B, he does so in the way a goalkeeper might go for a high cross, reaching with everything he's got. Whether he wants it or not, he has the knack of making difficult singing look difficult. There is some hammy balladeer in him, some chanteur, some Tom Lehrer, some Buddy Holly, and more than a little Randy Newman.

Privately, he is as confident as you could wish. Very intellectual, very ahead of the game, truly catholic, and so talkative that he comes across as pre-emptive about any subject that comes up, except for his two forthcoming rock albums, on which he is not saying anything beyond the fact that he has written 50 songs in the past year. For the rest, his sentences glide effortlessly over the points at which you might expect a full stop to squeeze itself in. Imagine a cross between a youngish John Lennon and the novelist Howard Jacobson, with the best of both brands of pitiless articulacy, and you have the picture.

Close to, he is surprisingly heavy on top these days, of medium height, with a stiff trunk in a great wallet of a jacket, and legs that seem to taper away into little Teddy-boy ankles. His image has fluctuated almost as much as his weight since the scrawny, post-punk waif of his first hit, "Less Than Zero," in 1977. Since then he has reinvented himself repeatedly in the course of his excursions into different musical styles. The early trade mark of thick-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses has been replaced by rimless, Lennonesque specs. The hair is remarkably as it was then, except that the recession is beginning to tell, and he is usually the only one of the quintet to be seen with a tie.

He has shed the wilder vowels of Liverpudlian in favour of a strange mingling: something Mersey, something southern, but unplaceable beyond that. When he speaks, and the face grows animated, you wait for something to happen, as you do when watching John Cleese being serious. Something a little loopy, or leery, and more in line with what happens on stage. If you did not know differently, you might think he was an integrated young member of a straighter profession: an advertising consultant or a lecturer in popular cultural studies.

He does not regard himself as an Englishman, although he still has a passport. He lives in Dublin, comes from a family with Irish origins, and has an Irish wife. Yet socially, as musically, the idea of home seems to imply too much stasis for someone whose whole progress is tied up with the business of visiting. His musical knowledge is huge and eclectic, as you might expect from someone who has not only savoured but also immersed himself in the idioms of folk, jazz, Irish rhythm and blues, country and now this. At your peril do you mention the word "crossover." This is the label stuck rather lazily on his work with the quartet and is more accurately applied to the type of collaboration that, for example, the classical guitarist John Williams undertook in his days with the group Sky a decade ago.

Mention his critics, however, and there is a promising curdle on his features. In fact you have no need to mention them since he has taken care of this already. Do not think that the inhabitants of the classical world have somehow debitched him, or made him go all demure and reverent. (Who are they to talk, anyway?) His hostility can consume. And perhaps it is reassuring to know that he still goes berserk when he sits on a drawing pin. Besides, it is such fun.

"There is this composer on TV who seems to have made a career out of attacking The Juliet Letters. He slagged it off once, but then went straight on to The Late Show a few nights later to have another go. I suppose he thinks that just because he's got cropped hair and wears his braces over a T-shirt, he's got some kind of street style. So he thinks he's a hard man because he's from Liverpool, and that his job is to attack anything modern and to be a professional Mr Angry. I've heard some of his music and its deeply dull. You can hear the ambition in it to be pop; he even hired the woman who sang in the Communards, and released a dance record as a single, and it failed totally — musically and commercially."

There is plenty more where this came from, most memorably this modest proposal for improving the quality of coverage. "I think the British media could be greatly improved by the use of a machine gun in the Groucho Club." He also believes that some newspapers of the right keep "tame bulldogs" to reinforce the middle-class idea that the working classes have no appreciation of art or beauty. "It is part of the newspapers' political agenda, and so they keep these people on just to attack and attack. That's all they do. They have graduated from doing it as snotty teenagers to doing it as aging speed freaks."

He is not so much a man to harbour grudges as to remember names. "But I'm not going to name them. Why should I give them free publicity? They know who they are. I am not talking just about people who are failed musicians, but about people who are failures as people, full stop."

This is an alarming level of resentment for a busy man to sustain. In a conversation lasting just over an hour, he returns time and again to this theme of his critics and their own poor performance. Sometimes the rage sounds like an old ritual that he could abandon — if he put his mind to it. The core of his gripe seems to be that he has to be judged by people whose jobs he could do as well as they, but who could never begin to do his. It is not exactly that he is bitter — in fact you have rarely seen a more composed and requited-looking fellow. It is just that he has put a preservation order on this corner of his private rage.

Its public counterpart still lives, too, despite rumours that his appetite for outrage has waned. The figure fronting the quartet might not have anything like the venom of the man who ranted the anti-Thatcher anthems of "Shipbuilding" in 1983 and "Tramp The Dirt Down" in 1989, but at his London concert he introduced one of the Letters — "This Sad Burlesque" — with a wildly applauded swipe at the "clowns, charlatans and harlequins" who are running the country today.

On that first, nervous night at Glasgow, the reception by the audience was exceptionally warm, even if the hall was only three-quarters full. There were the inevitable calls for "Alison," "Oliver's Army" and a couple of the other colossal rock hits of a 16-year career, which he waved away like old food. However, when the calls came, they were plainly humorous, rather than rejecting. The whole peculiar hybrid, for which specialists in both fields have vainly sought a true precedent, was not laughed off the stage and out of court. Far from it.

The assumption has been that Costello got hold of the Brodskys in the same way that "rock stars going through changes" have always bought the services of classical musicians. Yet, from the story as told by members of the quartet, a very different picture emerges. In this picture we can find a far fuller explanation of what this rock star means to these classical musicians, and of the mutual influences of two supposedly irreconcilable cultures.

At first it comes as a surprise to hear Michael Thomas (violin) recall his affection for Costello's country album Almost Blue, which was recorded in Nashville in 1981 and reached number seven in the UK charts. "I'd been playing that for about 11 years by the time I met Elvis," he says, "and I really rated it." Just for a moment you could be talking to a Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette man, rather than a player of Shostakovich and Haydn. "About four years ago," he goes on, "I remember driving through Spain with my wife, listening to Elvis's Spike album. During one particular track, she and I both looked at each other, almost as one, and we said, 'Wouldn't it be just great to hear that with a quartet?'"

Then Costello, for his part, attended several Shostakovich recitals by the quartet on the South Bank in London. The four heard that he had been seen regularly in their audiences, sent him a boxed set of their Shostakovich CDs and, by return, received a CD set of his output. After this elaborate exchange of calling cards, Thomas phoned Costello, the two arranged a meeting at the Archduke wine bar, next to the Royal Festival Hall, and almost instantly began discussing the possibility of a collaboration. And that, at its briefest, is the true provenance of Costello's vandalism.

Thomas and his fellow violinist Ian Belton admit to have been thrown by Costello. "He was simply not what we expected a rock star to be like," Belton says. It is ironic that he should make such an observation, given that the Brodskys themselves have been conducting their own battle against stereotyping for almost as long as their lead vocalist, refusing to wear bow ties and tails, opting instead for designer gear by Issey Miyake, playing old Dave Brubeck numbers for encores and generally getting into bad odour with certain concert bookers for their failure to conform. "He seemed to have so much time and he was so knowledgeable about classical music. He was also extraordinarily diligent. Over a period of about two months he learnt how to score music, became properly literate if you like, and that is a terrific achievement by any standards."

Costello, whose real name is Declan McManus, is from Liverpool, the son of a highly gifted singer and bebop trumpeter, who worked for several years with the bandleader Joe Loss. His mother ran store departments selling records and the house had "absolutely everything, from Bach to Latin." Ian Belton, Michael Thomas and his sister Jacqueline (cello) are from Middlesbrough, the last two being the youngest in a family of nine children, in which the other seven listened to nothing but pop. Belton's favourite bands include Dire Straits and Weather Report, Thomas's Nirvana and U2. The three members of the quartet have been together for 20 years, since they were in their early teens. The fouth member, Paul Cassidy, a newcomer of 11 years standing, is the youngest of 14 children from Derry, and is married to Jacqueline.

The fact is that the "crossover" had taken place long before the contact, with the Thomases, Belton and Cassidy often preferring an evening at the old Hammersmith Odeon seeing bands — including Costello's — play live, and Costello for his part probably putting in more appearances in the Wigmore Hall audiences than the four of them combined. "I tend to discover new composers by following a particular performer of conductor," he says. "It is impossible to have heard everything there is, unless you start when you are three. You get certain passions. For me, it was Schubert for a while. I went to all the London concerts and was hearing about half the sonatas for the first time. More recently, I have been listening a great deal to Anne Sofie von Otter and discovering some beautiful Scandinavian songs. I am not just some stranger who once heard Eleanor Rigby and though that I fancied a bit of that."

Although the album has suffered from Satanic Verses syndrome (more discussed than consumed) anyone who has listened carefully to the songs will know that they are a world away from Ms Rigby, and make that record sound even more like cod-classical oompah than it did when it first came out. If we persist in the search for precedents, then the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" is far nearer the mark, emerging as it did from George Martin's properly integrated arrangement for string quartet. Paul McCartney, who enlisted Costello's help to write the song "Back On My Feet" in 1987 — and has since collaborated by him on an album by each (Flowers in the Dirt and Spike respectively) — told him while they were recording Spike that some of their joint output reminded him of his collaborations with John Lennon. Meanwhile Costello, in some of his more sucrose moments on The Juliet Letters, sounds uncannily like McCartney.

Martin sees little resemblance between Lennon and Costello, but agrees that Spike had a pronounced Beatle-like quality. "I don't see that in any of Elvis's other work," he says, "and I suspect it had to do with some innate or subconscious desire to supplant John. There was an awe in them about the echoes of that partnership. I think he [Costello] is terribly good. Ten years ago, when I was doing more recording, I would have given my eyeteeth to work with him."

Martin argues that today there is a growing number of music-lovers and performers who are eager for the barriers to fall. "One problem of classical music can be its sterility and deadness," he says, unwittingly mirroring Costello's remarks on contemporary rock. "I've always wanted more fusion between the vitality of pop and the quality of classical, and I think this is a very brave attempt by Costello."

The obsession with precedents may be as irksome as the wish for labels, but it has not entirely stopped the five musicians joining in, or at least casting a backwards glance. There they spot all manner of fusions and experiments, undertaken with wildly varying degrees of success: Deep Purple's 1970 collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic; McCartney's much-derided Liverpool Oratorio; the hardly more popular Concerto for Blues Concerto written by the film-music composer Michael Kamen for Eric Clapton; the tireless rummagings in the classical sweetshop by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and later Rick Wakeman; umpteen bits of Lloyd-Webber; the list goes on.

"Rock itself has a lot to answer for," Costello says. "It might consider itself as the main music of the people, and yet it erects these colossal barriers between itself and the audience. Classical music does not do that, nor does jazz. In jazz there is that sense of community. I remember going to see Chet Baker play and, at various points, he would wander off the stage, go and have a drink at the bar, and let the guys solo. There is also much more sense of community there. Rock has become a strangely alien and impenetrable world, both to the musicians and the people who listen to them."

"This [The Juliet Letters] on the other hand, has had the effect of drawing people towards us. I am glad it has irritated people as much as it has, because those people are the ones I have always despised." The barbed reprise is coming around again.

In the view of Danny Kelly, editor of Q magazine, Costello occupies a bizarre, probably unique position in the rock world. "With the exception of Sting, he is the only notable survivor from those early days of the independent labels," he says. "None of the other products from that time and that movement have endured. But Sting is different, because he has gone off and done so many things apart from music. To Costello, music has been first, second and last, and there has been absolutely no irony in anything he has done. When he takes on these various guises, he does it for real. He believes that his records are terrific, but my feeling is that he's going to have to make another very good rock album soon if he is not going to stretch people's patience."

Few Costello fans, or detractors for that matter, know that he already has one short piece, called "The Trouble With Dreams," that has already been played in public by the Composers' Ensemble, which specialises in the performance of modern classical compositions. Just like the Brodskys, John Woolrich, artistic director of the ensemble, talks of the elation experienced by trained classical musicians at working with someone in Costellos's vernacular mould. Put at its simplest, it is the fascination held by the aural world for the literary. Costello says he felt the complementary pull and that he was at times awed by the players' virtuosity. But he would be wrong to think he was the only one who thought he would never understand, let alone attain, the skills of the other side.

"When I hear The Juliet Letters," Woolrich says, "it sounds like Weill. It also seems to use some late romantic Mahlerian techniques in parts, but it has a curious language that is all its own. I think it has opened a rich vein of musical expression and I am very curious to see how it develops from here. Pop music is about the central areas of human emotion, like falling in love. While in my world there is a separation between out lives and our art, a lot of these [Juliet Letters] songs are devoted to the conveying of simple, powerful feeling and I find it at times overwhelming. I caught this feeling at the Amadeus Centre and at Dartington Hall. There was a sniffiness all right there, and quite a lot of 'Elvis who?' but he grabbed them by the throat."

Dartington Hall? The Amadeus Centre? He kept those gigs pretty well hidden and seemingly unreviewed. It transpires that the real world premiere of the Letters was held on July 1 last year, in front of fewer than 300 people, at an arts centre in northwest London with which the quartet was already involved through charity work. They twisted his arm to play there and he eventually agreed. They had finished composing the last song of the cycle 24 hours before and Costello sang without a microphone, something he had not done for 20 years, when as a teenager he worked at a cosmetics factory and sang at folk clubs in the evenings.

"As I went through that piece ["The Trouble With Dreams"]," Costello says, "someone who was teaching me said 'There will be people there who will be wanting to know why that B flat, and so on.' And I said, because it's there, that's why. If you don't want a B flat there, then write a piece without a B flat there. I said, I am not trying to write in the sonata form. I have written 12-bar blues, 32-bar pop songs, and for once I think it's nice to put these structural disciples to one side."

"I always think, when people say the trained voice is the only thing for them and that if it's not trained then they can't hear it, that's such a shame. I don't mean to sound patronising, but I really do feel sorry for people who cannot hear the beauty in a damaged voice like that of Hank Williams or Billie Holliday. It is as though they have been educated away from the ability to feel."

"Everyone has been called a vandal at some point, even Beethoven. You can always find someone to say music has never been any good since 1919, or another who says it's been a load of rubbish since 1977, or 1340, or I don't know when."

But the barbed reprise seems to have passed. He is sounding ominously full of goodwill. Michael Thomas introduces one last fresh theme. "When we [the Brodskys] were touring behind the iron curtain, and especially when we were in Bucharest, the audience was just like a pop one. Everyone was there, from all generations and all backgrounds. But whoever they were, they all took what we were doing as their own popular music. Michael Jackson had been there the week before and Sting was due the one after. But it was our music the audiences really felt comfortable with. Perhaps in the West there is not the feeling that this music belongs to them any more."

I had been told before I met these two disparate musicians that their views on the art were surprisingly "harmonious." After a while, it sounded less like harmony and more like unison, although it was hard to tell the difference by the end; besides, here was another technical distinction over which there was really no point getting into a state.

Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1993.

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The Times Magazine, March 13, 1993

Alan Franks interviews Elvis Costello about The Juliet Letters.


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