Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1983

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Costello's aim is still true

Robert Hilburn

Kathy, an assistant art director in Santa Monica, has been a big Elvis Costello fan ever since he stormed offstage during his celebrated Santa Monica Civic concert in 1978.

She likes the fact that Costello the most acclaimed rock songwriter of recent years finally has his first U.S. hit single ever: the playful "Everyday I Write the Book." And, she'll probably be on hand for at least a couple of his local concerts, which include stops Sunday and Monday nights at the Universal Amphitheatre.

But Kathy admits she's not quite as enthralled with Costello as she once was.

The reason: She thinks he made a mistake by breaking his long-standing press silence last year to explain that he's not really the angry young man the media — and his record company — first portrayed him as being. Kathy thought his testy personality and sarcastic barbs were actually endearing.

Well, Kathy can relax.

Costello, now 29 and with eight albums behind him, can still be angry. And oh-so sarcastic.

Just mention Rolling Stone magazine to him.

"Rolling Stone," he repeated contemptuously. "How often even do you see musicians on the cover of that magazine any more? They've just had three in a row... How nice of them! That's a rarity.

"All Rolling Stone is these days is Playboy magazine for the cocaine generation."

Costello was upset about a Rolling Stone review of his new album, Punch the Clock. Though the reviewer called Costello the most "consistently interesting songwriter in rock," he also charged that Costello sometimes uses words pointlessly, just for the sake of a clever rhyme.

Retorted Costello, "I object to being told that I shouldn't use the English language just because the guy that reviewed the album isn't clever enough to think of using it himself. It's like they want you to make everything into a simplistic, idiot-speak — the way most rock bands do."


When I mentioned Kathy's comments about the "old, angry Elvis," Costello smiled knowingly.

"It's the same thing with some of the reviewers on this tour," he said as he ate a salad Wednesday at a West Hollywood-area hotel. "Some of them have taken that same approach (about how they miss the angry Elvis on stage). It's like they're weeping over my passing or something.

"The truth is most of those people didn't like me when I was 'angry.' They probably weren't even at the shows. They were off listening to their (boring) Boston records."

Don't get the idea that Costello was always Angry or Sarcastic. During a 90-minute interview, other aspects of his personality emerged as strongly: the same humor, compassion, combativeness that are also woven into his songs.

For someone whose image has almost overshadowed his music, Costello is unusually unaffected offstage. He showed up for the interview, his face so wet that he looked as if he had just gotten out of the shower. He had just walked in blistering heat the two miles from Tower Records, where he stocked up on some cassettes.

In the same vein, Costello was as eager to discuss his favorite record or musicians (the Neville Brothers, Style Council, Aztec Camera, Squeeze were among the ones cited) as his own work. He also spoke humorously about some of his own foibles and eloquently on the troubled socioeconomic conditions back home in England.

Costello, who'll also appear Saturday night at the Santa Barbara County Bowl and Thursday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, is pleased that his new single is doing well and that the album is shaping up as his biggest seller since Armed Forces, which went gold (more than 500,000 copies sold) in 1979.

The bespectacled singer said that he set out to make the production and material on Punch the Clock more accessible than last year's Imperial Bedroom, a marvelously ambitious and complex album with sophisticated lyrics and classic melodies that resulted in some critics comparing him to Cole Porter. (Costello's reaction to the Porter comparison: "I'm not trying to be Cole Porter. I don't live in a penthouse and walk around in a dinner jacket, waving a cigarette holder.")

But Costello denied the greater accessibility of "Punch the Clock" represented an artistic compromise. He believes that two of the new songs are among the best he has ever written: the stark, painfully ironic "Shipbuiding" (a look at British involvement in the Falklands War) and "Pills and Soap" (a sobering look at Britain's tarnished ideals).

In fact, Costello is apparently going to break his pattern of recording an album a year—partly as a move to guard against being tempted to parlay the success of "Punch the Clock" in counterproductive ways.

"I have no plans to go in the studio again," he said firmly. "I think it might be a mistake to race in and make another record to sort of capitalize on this slight (upward) bleep in my commercial standing in this country.

"I'd hate to be overeager to jump on a bandwagon that's painted the wrong color. Then I really would end up compromising myself. I've no more intention making Punch the Clock — Part II than I had of making Imperial Bedroom — Part II. The important thing is to avoid formulas so that you always keep your alternatives open."

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Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1983

Robert Hilburn profiles Elvis Costello ahead of his concerts with The Attractions, Sunday-Monday, September 18-19, 1983, Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City, California.

(Variations of this piece ran in the Hartford Courant, Indianapolis Star, Los Angeles Times, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Wilmington News Journal and others.)


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Photo by Jose Galvez.
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Page scans.


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