Melbourne Age, May 19, 1984

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Elvis Costello is clocking off

Richard Guilliat

Elvis Costello made his concert debut in Australia six years ago at Sydney's Regent Theatre. He stalked off the stage after only 50 minutes, creating a near-riot in the audience and provoking a fist-fight between his manager and the concert's promoter, Zev Eizik.

Eizik still has a shirt-sleeve pinned to his office wall, a legacy of one of the many backstage fights on that tour. In those days Costello was 24 and riding a tidal wave of popularity; he was the most successful and original British songwriter in years, and hungry for revenge from a music industry which had spurned him.

Ask him about his state of mind in those days and Costello laughs. "What mind? I make no pretence about the fact that most of the time, I was completely drunk. We took drugs then, drank all the time, and that tends to put you right over the point where you are unreasonable. Any kind of conflict and it was all-out war straight away.

"There was a lot of complacency here about music — it was at least five years behind what was going on in England. The Press portrayed me as some sort of punk madman. They were trying to antagonise us and I just wasn't prepared to be made a monkey out of. You try and plant some ludicrously attired girl in a photograph with me, and I'll punch you. I still would."

At 30, Costello is in many ways a complete contrast to the skinny, neurotic individual of 1978. He walks into his Sydney hotel room clutching a copy of his own songbook, looking like an English music teacher. He is a lot plumper, wearing baggy trousers, pork pie hat and the ubiquitous horn-rimmed glasses.

Costello's 10th album will be released next month with the appropriate title Goodbye Cruel World — at the end of this year he is taking an indefinite break from touring and recording. But despite this, and despite his disdain for the music industry, he is adamant that this is not a result of the mid-life disillusionment that afflicts many rock artists.

"I know that rock 'n' roll is a useless term," he says. "Rock 'n' roll as we know it and love it on MTV (the American video channel) or as purveyed by the Stray Cats... if that's all it's worth, then it's really come to a sad and sorry state.

"We've gone past the pomposity of 1973 and what have we got left... a cartoon of something that was once really proud. I think there's still some music of pride and danger to be had, but I don't necessarily think you're going to find it wearing crepe-soled shoes and a quiff.

"I don't play rock 'n' roll exclusively. I can, and I can play it a damn sight better than the Stray Cats. But it's much harder to hit a moving target."

Like most pop musicians who have been through the treadmill of stardom and world tours, Costello has had a turbulent life. From his debut 1977 single, "Less Than Zero," he was the most successful of England's new wave musicians, bringing a literate touch to the vitriol of the day.

But despite Costello's promise that he would never kowtow to the music industry, after three years he was developing all the symptoms of World Tour Psychosis. He left his wife to live with an American woman, Bebe Buell, whose previous liaisons had included Rod Stewart. And in an Ohio bar in 1978, Costello's sharp tongue finally got the better of him — he provoked a group of American musicians by making a racist remark about the great singer and pianist, Ray Charles.

The incident was given widespread coverage, and hung like a pall over his career. Since then he was never regained his ground in America, while the English pop purveyed by The Police and Culture Club has become a phenomenal success here. Costello was not so much ostracised as left behind in the rush.

It is somehow appropriate that on his third Australian tour, Costello will appear in the hallowed portals of the Melbourne Concert Hall. (His two concerts are on 25 and 27 May.) He still has few peers as a songwriter, but his music today is more measured.

"I think there's a time to speak softly and carry a big stick," he says. "I don't go looking for the venom; you have to look inside yourself. Most of the negative songs I've written are about something inside myself.

"I used to really resent the label of being a misogynist. Those (early) songs have a lot of compassion in them and it just got overlooked because of the tone of them. The tone of them sounded like I was saying 'You worthless slut...' when I wasn't saying that at all."

The hypocrisy of post-Falklands England has provided plenty of inspiration for songwriting. "Pills and Soap" sold 160,000 copies by dint of its gentle melody, but the lyrics were the sting in the tail. Costello also produced "Nelson Mandela," a song about the jailed black African rights campaigner of the same name.

Despite the fact that both songs were big hits, Costello harbors no illusions about their subversive influence. "There's no handbook about how to listen to my songs; people get from them what they want. I don't demand any way of listening — I think it's arrogant.

"I know what effect 'Nelson Mandela' had on South Africa," he says. "None. He may conceivably be heartened for one minute of his miserable day by the fact that there are so many inquiries about his well-being because of that record. I can't think for one minute that it's going to make much difference to his life, but it heartens the people who are fighting for him.

"But there are other songs that mean just as much to me, so how much effect do they have on people? Presumably, you might write a love song that moves somebody, makes them cry, might be important in their life. That's always been my ambition with any kind of love song, whether it be a sad one or a cynical one... although I'm, trying to avoid cynicism now. One that writes of the sadder realities, as I see it and as I can get it down on the page and on the disc.

"I hope it would be as important to somebody else as the songs that have meant a lot to me. That's all you can achieve, really."

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The Age, May 19, 1984

Richard Guilliat talks to Elvis Costello ahead of his concerts with The Attractions, Friday, May 25 and Sunday, May 27, Melbourne Concert Hall, Melbourne, Australia.


1984-05-19 Melbourne Age page 14 clipping 01.jpg

Illustration by John Spooner.
1984-05-19 Melbourne Age illustration.jpg

Page scan.
1984-05-19 Melbourne Age page 14.jpg


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