The billboard has already gone, but everybody agrees it was great while it lasted. For two weeks it stood there hidden under canvas — just to keep people guessing — before being unveiled to reveal a portrait of the singer, perhaps 30 times larger than life, crouched behind a camera, as if taking note of the industry barons and tastemakers cruising below on Sunset Strip. Great impact — in spite of it being removed, by some unfortunate quirk of planning, a week before the singer himself arrived in Los Angeles.
But still there are enough reminders of his presence. At the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the club on the Strip where the music is loudest and the gloom most stygian, patrons are able to feast themselves on the Elvis Costello Special — a dish that turns out to be nothing more exotic than fish and chips — while across the street a record shop offers prizes to the customers who can dress most like him. With his swept-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses and ill-fitting budget suits — a look best described as early Sixties impoverished filing-clerk — Costello is easily parodied. "That competition is nothing to do with us," snorts his manager, Jake Riviera. "It's bloody annoying. It makes Elvis look like some kind of geek. Just because nobody else in California wears a tie they behave as if he comes from outer space. It's his songs they should be emphasising. That's what's important."
Costello and his group, the Attractions, are staying at the Tropicana Motel, an establishment that prides itself on its rock music clientele. It is cheap ($12 a night, no breakfast) but atmospheric: 14 years ago Sam Cooke, the soul singer, was shot dead in the room which Costello now occupies.
Three tours of America in 12 months, too many hours spent in anonymous hotel rooms and the converted Greyhound bus in which the band travel, have dispelled whatever sense of wonder Costello might have felt — when working as a computer operator for a London cosmetics company only 18 months before — about being in what he calls "The Promised Land." When on tour he seldom rises before noon. And when he appears at the poolside he is dressed in spite of the heat rather than because of it: perspiring in a grey suit (one of a job-lot, bought for £7 in a clearance sale in Liverpool) and a tab-collar shirt, buttoned tight to the throat. Perhaps it is the heat which gives him the brusque, rather impatient air of someone who appears always to be on his way to somewhere else — or at least wishes he was.
Elvis Costello's ascent has been positively meteoric by any standards. Without so much as a recording contract to his name in May of last year, within nine months — around the time "Watching the Detectives" gave him his first Top 10 single — he was being described by Elton John as the best rock singer in Britain. Both his albums have enjoyed considerable success in this country (his third will be released shortly). But it is in America that his greatest potential lies. His first release, My Aim Is True, was the biggest-selling British import record of 1977. Rolling Stone magazine, the bible of the American rock business, named it one of the best five records of the year. His second album, This Year's Model, coasted into the best-seller charts on a wave of equally extravagant critical praise.
The highly stylised aggression of British punk rock may have been greeted with indifference by American audiences. But in Costello they appear to have found the perfect antidote to the comfortable complacency which has infected American pop: an artist who combines excitement, wit and a refreshingly challenging intelligence in his songs.
Elvis is not, of course, his real name. Nor, come to that, is Costello. He was born Declan MacManus. His father, Ross MacManus, was once a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and now earns his living on the northern club circuit and singing in television commercials. Elvis would accompany his father to concerts and recording sessions. "But, if anything, that was a discouragement," he says. "Being a musician never seemed like a good job to do; it's not a good job. I mean, it's not guaranteed to make you a better person or give you a stable kind of life. It's something you do in spite of your better judgment."
He left school at 16, in 1971, with neither qualifications nor ambition. "I squandered my education," he says drily. "I probably could have gone to university if I'd put my mind to it, the same as anybody could. But I was just lazy." Moving from the family home in Twickenham to Liverpool, Costello took a job as a computer operator, writing songs in his spare time. The job, he says, was money for old rope. He did it for four years, always careful to appear less knowledgeable about the subject than he actually was, so he would not be given more work. He moved back to London in the meantime and married. He and his wife, Mary, have a three-year-old son, Matt.
Costello had already made up his mind to pursue a musical career. In the evenings he played in semi-professional groups; by day he would use the office stationery for his songwriting, and the telephone to call record companies and music publishers, trying unsuccessfully to interest them in his work.
"I was actually walking into people's offices with my guitar to play them songs because I figured a direct form of communication would do the trick," he says. "I've always admired people like Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen who would audition a song for someone like Frank Sinatra by just sitting there and hammering it out. It wasn't professional, but it did get the melody across. I figured if it worked for them it could work for me. But it never did."
It was a newspaper advertisement for new talent which brought him to Stiff Records and Jake Riviera. A 30-year-old ex-grammar-school boy from Pinner, Riviera had formed Stiff out of the conviction that most people in positions of power in the record industry "are complete dinks who wouldn't know good music if it bit them in the arse." Styling Stiff "the undertakers to the industry," Riviera has made a vocation of developing the careers of those misfits and oddballs either passed by or discarded by the major record labels.
Costello's tape was the first Riviera received, and Costello was his first signing. "Elvis just didn't conform to anybody's idea or a rock star," Riviera says. "Because he didn't look like Peter Frampton — all long hair and aviator-shades — nobody could see it. Record companies don't like self-confident, cocky people, which Elvis was. They like the beholden, forelock-tugging approach. But guts, determination and character are really useful. Other managers see that as a handicap — oh-oh, this chap's got too much of his own viewpoint. I liked his attitude. I've always liked people who are so wrong they're right."
Riviera christened the singer in a West London pub (Costello is a name father Ross would sometimes use for professional purposes) and the first album, My Aim Is True, was launched with a promotion proclaiming 'Elvis Is King' — a statement both of intent and of heresy against Presley, then still alive.
Like everything about Stiff Records, the campaign was a tongue-in-cheek parody of the po-faced earnestness with which the music industry usually goes about launching new idols. Riviera put the company on the verge of bankruptcy with an advertising campaign which included a full-sized poster spread across six pages of three separate British music papers (readers wanting the complete Elvis were obliged to buy all three). Elvis himself was arrested for obstruction after setting up his guitar and amplifier outside the Hilton Hotel and giving an impromptu performance for the American executives of Columbia Records gathered for a company convention.
No longer with Stiff, Costello now nestles in the ample corporate bosom of Warner Brothers Records in Britain and Columbia in America (his Hilton gambit was successful). Ironically, Columbia's English subsidiary was one of the companies who originally turned him down. "When we headlined the Columbia convention in New Orleans the head of English A&R came up to me and said, 'Sorry I couldn't do anything with the tape you sent me, but it's worked out all right, hasn't it?' I said, 'Yeah — for me'." Costello gives a mirthless chuckle. "I derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from crossing people like that off the guest list when they come round for favours — all the company men who wouldn't give me the time of day when I needed it. I defy anybody to tell me they wouldn't do the same thing in the same situation."
While privately gloating over Costello's potential, Columbia are being careful not to subject him to the sort of hyperbolic promotional overkill which almost destroyed their last discovery, Bruce Springsteen. They have spent $70,000 promoting Costello's This Year's Model — a campaign which includes special promotional records, with the singer's face printed on the plastic, and Elvis Costello dollar bills. Riviera vetoed the idea of giveaway Elvis horn-rims.
His refusal to court the media, his uncompromising stand before audiences and his infrequent public pronouncements ("I'm here to corrupt American youth," he told Newsweek, "but my visa will probably run out before I get to do it") have led the American Press to tag Costello as rock's new "Angry Young Man." Incidents in which a persistent photographer was physically ejected from his dressing-room and when Costello himself threw an apparent fit on stage, destroying two guitars and an amplifier — an aberration which puzzles even him — have only compounded the image.
Costello prefers to describe himself as an irritant. "I'm contrary and awkward by nature," he says. "I like to disrupt people's preconceptions, to disrupt things generally. Not simply from a destructive point of view, but any other way would be dull, and I'm not interested in dull things. That's the enjoyment that I get out of all this — that it isn't dull, and I intend to keep it as varied and different as possible. It's the only way to survive; otherwise it would be just impossible. It's all too easy to be pigeonholed and written-off; become a captive and a hasbeen. It happens all the time."
His disdain of fashion in all its manifestations — and of its followers — is a recurring theme of Costello's work. In one song, "This Year's Girl," he decries the way in which glamorous images are promoted and the inadequacies which they so often disguise in those who adopt them.
A bright spark might collar the market in this year's girl
You see yourself rolling on the carpet with this year's girl
Those disco synthesisers
Those daily tranquillisers
Those body-building prizes
Those bedroom alibis
All this but no surprises from this year's girl
Costello harbours few romantic illusions. His best songs are impressive by virtue of the universality of the feelings expressed — frustration, rejection, and the thirst for revenge, which are not often grist to the songwriter's mill — dealt with in tones veering from barely suppressed rage to ironic humour. In "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" he sings:
I said "I'm so happy I could die"
She said "Drop dead" and left with another guy
Costello says that much of his inspiration is drawn from the atmosphere of mediocrity which he believes permeates English life — what he calls "the schoolteacher mentality" of the country. "In America things are either dazzling or totally mundane: that middle ground which exists in England is so much more interesting — that seething sort of atmosphere in which nothing ever gets out of control; nobody ever raises their voices above a certain pitch, and if they do they're looked down upon for it; that underachieving the whole society is based on. You mustn't be too clever. At school you're not encouraged to think for yourself, to be too smart. 'Who do you think you are?' — that's a favourite phrase. Passions are suppressed; any extremes or freakishness are just soaked up. It's a country totally based on mediocrity."
He is a prolific writer, borrowing his ideas from snatches of overheard conversation, television and advertising billboards, and he writes very fast. His first recorded song, "Less Than Zero," was written from a strong sense of repugnance after he had watched Oswald Mosley being interviewed on television. "It appalled me," he says. "That complacency — that attitude of 'it can't happen here' — can be quite scary when you suddenly look round and realise that maybe it could."
His appearance at the recent Rock Against Racism carnival was not, he insists, a political action. "To some people being associated with Rock Against Racism or the Anti-Nazi League automatically means you're associated with the Socialist Workers' Party. But I couldn't give a damn about the SWP. To say you're anti-Nazi is a political statement; to say you're anti-racist is a humanitarian statement. Obviously, I am anti-racist. But the festival was a good thing for us to do musically.
"I have no sense of mission whatsoever. There's a James Thurber cartoon in which two people are watching a woman picking flowers in the garden and they're saying: 'She has the real Emily Dickinson spirit, only sometimes she gets fed up.' That's how I feel about politics."
When Costello first performed "Less Than Zero" in America, audiences thought he was singing about Lee Harvey Oswald. When told, Costello promptly wrote a new set of lyrics, so that song was in fact about him. Now that audiences have started shouting for the song, he has dropped it from his performance altogether. It is precisely this sort of quirkish unpredictability which has so endeared him to Americans.
For his concert at Hollywood High School students have decorated the auditorium with blow-up portraits of the early rabble-rousers of rock — Presley, Eddie Cochran et al. — a clear indication of the tradition in which they see Costello working. But when he takes to the stage he confounds their expectations by starting with an impassioned ballad — a new song called "Accidents Will Happen" — sung against a simple grand-piano backing, only later turning to more powerful and direct rock.
Backstage, girls who have somehow insinuated themselves past the security guards stand in a patient line outside the dressing-room door, as if queuing for a bus. To sit down with the group and pick at the chocolate cake and salad laid out for refreshment is the highest of privileges, for which some are prepared to suffer any amount of personal humiliation. The previous night a girl, dressed in a white nurse's uniform and a lapel badge announcing her as "Dr DNA-Clone," was attacked by one of the Attractions with a handful of cold cuts after she had despatched the last of a bottle of vodka. Banished now from the inner sanctum, she hovers uncertainly outside the door, inspiring equal measures of contempt and awe from the group. Costello regards the scene with ill-concealed disgust. "I do feel like Jesus in the temple sometimes," he sighs. "I start getting in that mood. All this can make you very puritanical."
He has no great love for the vicissitudes of touring. "I'd give it all up tomorrow if I felt it had become pointless — like working in a factory, just filling in a quota. I'm not addicted to the applause in the way some people are. The smell of the greasepaint — that's a load of crap as far as I'm concerned. I'm not in showbusiness." He pronounces the word as if it were a disease. "I'm not interested in routines. If you can't keep a fresh view of things you should get out."
Costello says he is very careful to keep it all in perspective — the attention and acclaim. He has observed the fate of enough rock performers to know the Faustian bargain fame can so often entail. He has even noticed some of the symptoms in himself: moments of complete megalomania and moments of complete unworthiness of it all; a complete contempt for everything, including himself — "the usual things everybody goes through, only magnified."
He becomes uncomfortable discussing such things, shuffling in his seat, enhancing that impression of someone who wishes he were somewhere else. When pressed he admits that sometimes he wishes he could wind the clock back two years, to that time before he had even become Elvis Costello. Sometimes, but not often. Is there anything he feels he has lost since then? "Oh, yeah, yeah, a lot," he says quickly, and then checks himself. "But I'm not going to tell you what."
If Costello has learned anything over the past 18 months it is that, if it is not too late to start having regrets, it is certainly too soon to start making them public.