Elvis Costello could have been a contender. Maybe, just maybe, he was … for a while. But he isn't now. David Bowie, Sting, Peter Gabriel – almost a decade ago, it looked like Costello was going to be just as big as them. But something went wrong, really wrong. You see, Elvis Costello wanted to be in control. He wanted to be in control of his music, his life, his personality, even his name.
The great tragedy of this spring/summer batch of rock tours is not the gross irrelevancy Bowie has shown himself to be, or the cancellation of a few Michael Jackson concerts, or – need it be said – the Supertramp pull-out. It's the incredible fact that Elvis Costello and the Confederates have been unable to notch up even one sell-out performance at Festival Hall: Elvis Costello – the writer the New York Times hailed as the new George Gershwin (admittedly, much to the performer's chagrin).
For anyone who is even remotely interested in popular music and its vicissitudes the ways in which it can build up instant fame and self-delusion, and then leave its victims prostrate in the remnants of half-remembered adulation – Costello's working history is an essential text.
Here is a guy who has turned out, on average, an album of original material every year since 1977. Here is a guy, aged 32, who can't read music. who – given that he's a professional musician – can't even play any instrument very well. Yet he tosses off songs – real songs with verses and choruses and middle eights, not three-bar dirges written to the accompaniment of a drum machine – and intricate wordplays like most of us fill out Tattslotto forms. So what has gone wrong? Why isn't Elvis Costello — or Declan McManus (sic), for that is his real name — big? I mean, really big.
He wouldn't talk to The Age for this article. Indeed, according to the people entrusted with publicising his fifth Australian tour which begins next week, neither Costello nor any of his touring party will give any interviews while they're here. (No surprises there. He's granted interviews here in the past during only one out of four tours.) So we are forced to base this look at one of the truly outstanding musical figures of the past 20 years through his past public pronouncements.
In 1978, Costello was on the fast track to mega-success. Punk rock had run like a bushfire across Britain's music scene but had stopped at the Atlantic. In America, where corporate control had long been achieved in the music business, the exciting new music form was treated with bemusement.
People in the business, and a lot of American fans, saw the energy of what was happening in Britain but were scared of acts like the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
Then came Costello. With his first album My Aim is True, released in late 1977, he was the first British artist to successfully take the aggression of the punk music era to the United States. This was deeply ironic given that Costello's early music was a light-year away from punk.
Costello himself was certainly no punk; he was only a few months out of his job as a computer operator, a married 22-year-old with a two-year-old son, who had taken his provocative new name on the advice of his manager.
Costello's first three albums, released in a 15-month period, had an enormous critical impact (My Aim is True made number 11 in Rolling Stone's recent list of the top 100 albums of the past 20 years). He was hailed immediately as the songwriting genius of the '70s.
Linda Ronstadt covered two of his songs (she was thought of as an important artist back then). And Costello was playing it tough with the media, with anybody who had not supported him as he tried to break out of the straitjacket of his nine-to-five job and become a full-time performer.
He told a reporter: "I derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from crossing people like that off the guest list when they come round for favors – 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."
Already, however, the things that had driven Costello – the belief in his own talent and the correctness of his musical vision – started to find their way into his persona. A persistent photographer was reportedly ejected from Costello's dressing room. In another incident, he threw an apparent fit on stage and destroyed two guitars and an amplifier. Sadly, he all-too-readily served up his own tag to the media and the music business: he was The Angry Young Man of rock music.
The payback from journalists and the industry was not far away. In 1979, during a tour of the United States, Costello's career went into free fall. In a bar in Columbus, Ohio, he became involved in a drunken slanging match with Bonnie Bramlett and other members of the Stephen Stills Band. Costello attacked black music and spoke disparagingly of Ray Charles and James Brown. A punch was thrown and the incident found its way into the newspapers and People magazine. A subsequent press conference called by Costello in New York only served to continue the controversy.
"It had approximately the same effect on our career (as John Lennon's 1966 comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus). The minute the story was published nationally, records were taken off playlists … about 120 death threats – or threats of violence of some kind. I had armed guards for the last part of the tour," he said later.
"It was at that point that everything – whether it be my self-perpetrated venom – was about to engulf me. I was, I think, rapidly becoming not a very nice person. I was losing track of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and my own control." The theme of control is a recurring one in Costello's music: emotional control, political control. (He wanted to call his third album, released at the height of his fame in 1979, "Emotional Fascism – Our Place or Yours," but instead entitled it Armed Forces.)
As Costello's career unravelled in early 1980, he recorded Get Happy – a tense, frenetic soul album bursting with musical ideas and clever-clever lyrics ("'Til I step on the brake to get out of her clutches/'Til I speak double dutch with a real double duchess").
The chart career of Get Happy was testament to Costello's newly-acquired place in modern music. The album reached 13 on the US charts but sold a meagre 350,000 units. In other words, as soon as it was released the fans went out and bought it, and propelled it to near the top of the chart. But with little or no radio airplay – and all the bad publicity Costello had received – sales quickly fell away.
While the quality of Costello's work has varied since then, there is no doubt he has continued to build on his ability. But his records have sold only in modest quantities and, while he is much more than a cult favorite, he does not command mass appeal. His last album, Blood and Chocolate, for several months was available here only on import – there was no local distributor.
In 1985, Costello realised that the persona which had been so powerful early on, and then so destructive, had to be publicly jettisoned. He recorded King of America with members of the TCB band (who backed Elvis Presley in the early '70s and some of whom will be backing Costello in next month's Australian performances) – session musicians. His longtime backing band, the Attractions, considered too closely associated with Elvis's past, were used on only one track. Nowhere on the album cover did the word "Elvis" appear. Instead, it was "The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates."
He explained the change: "I'm always going to be known as Elvis Costello… I mean, it's a simple thing. I want my life back. This Elvis Costello thing is a bit of a joke really. He doesn't exist. Except in the imaginations of people who've got the records and come to the concerts and wait for me to throw some stupid tantrum. It came out of insecurity. Some of it was real and some of it was playing with reality and some of it was playful."
Declan McManus wanted more control. But if you swap the labels on the jam jars on a supermarket shelf, you don't change the contents. There will probably always be a bit of the old Elvis Costello in the revamped version. For example, McManus/Costello still reads reviews and slags off at journalists whose work he doesn't like. I've been on the receiving end of a Costello tirade and it's an experience which, shall we say, concentrates the mind.
In 1985, when he was touring solo (supported by T-Bone Burnett) I wrote a negative review of his first night at the Concert Hall. The next evening, as I sat in the third row of the Concert Hall for his second Melbourne concert, I listened to him ridicule the review, reciting parts of it and telling 2000 people that I would make a "good old man."
He was still quoting from it in interviews a year later. And there were reports from the US earlier this year of Costello ridiculing reviewers from the stage during his 'Spectacular Spinning Songbook' tour. The point is: someone as immensely talented as Costello simply shouldn't need to be concerned about the nine paragraphs a bleary-eyed reporter has written to go next to the comics.
Although he only confesses guardedly to it, Costello sees himself carrying on a songwriting tradition straight from the mainstream of 20th Century American popular music. (He even tried to make real the link between his work and that of post-war American songwriters by asking Sammy Cahn, who wrote "All the Way" for Frank Sinatra, to write some lyrics for him. Sadly, Cahn couldn't empathise with the melody line Costello produced and the idea fizzled.)
He is a writer of great sensitivity who sometimes articulates his art with the blunt end of an axe. For example, compare this explanation of his work with the evocative imagery of the lyrics which follow: "I was really anti the posturing of rock and roll, the crotch-thrusting element of it. I tried to write the opposite of that. Two types of rock and roll had become bankrupt to me. One was 'Look at me! I've got a hairy chest and a big w…' and the other was the 'F… me. I'm so sensitive' school of Jackson Browne seduction. They're both offensive and mawkish and neither has any real pride or confidence."
And, the lyrics:
"Don't think for a moment dear that we'll ever be through,
I'll build a bonfire of my dreams
And burn a broken effigy of me and you"
So why isn't Elvis Costello BIG? Probably because he made a mistake. And probably because that mistake showed him that refusng to compromise, and being anything other than true to yourself, is dangerous. "I like to disrupt people's preconceptions, to disrupt things generally… That's the enjoyment I get out of all this – that it isn't dull, and I intend to keep it as varied and different as possible," he once said.
"It's the only way to survive: otherwise it would be just impossible. It's all too easy to be pigeon-holed and written off; become a captive and a has-been. It happens all the time."
Elvis Costello said that nine years ago, so perhaps we should have known all along that he would not be big. Perhaps we should be glad.