Melody Maker, May 13, 1978

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Melody Maker

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The man who would be King


Allan Jones

A year ago, Elvis Costello made his first public appearance at London’s Nashville. In those 12 months, he has grown into one of the major figures on the British music scene. Allan Jones assesses the rise and rise of Costello.

"I used to be disgusted — now I try to be amused."
  — Elvis Costello, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."

The Stiff tour was in its third week and the gang had reached the Apollo in Glasgow. I'd been out front watching Wreckless Eric and then decided to wander backstage to see if the extra beer and peanuts had arrived. Walking into the dressing room that Thursday night was like walking into a room where someone at a party has suddenly died, leaving the guests wondering quite how to continue the conversation without sounding off a note of alarm. I wasn't entirely sober, but it was clear even to my befuddled senses that something reasonably unpleasant had recently gone down in there. Off the bat, I thought perhaps Nick Lowe, who'd been drinking fairly heavily earlier, had had words with someone; but he was right across the room with Dave Edmunds and Larry Wallis. The Blockheads were all propping up a wall together and there was no evidence there of any friction. Well, it turned out that Elvis had been bickering with one of the Apollo security goons over some ostensibly trivial matter, and had, without warning, decided to suspend formalities and gone after the guy barking like a berserk rat. It seemed like a perfectly reckless move. You simply don't wind up the muscle in Glasgow like that; unless you're actually looking for a skin graft. Especially when the muscle in question looks like a mountain with a Charles Atlas diploma, a certificate in unarmed combat and A levels in GBH. So, Elvis' outburst had sent a shiver of panic down the collective spine of the Stiff tour. But, then, it looked to have blown over by the time I arrived on the scene; so I grabbed a couple of beers and split for the stalls and the rest of the concert, expecting no further trouble. However, the monkey who'd been so severely tongue-lashed by Elvis wasn't prepared to let it drop and he harassed our boy for the rest of the night. It reached a showdown when the gorilla refused to allow into the dressing room the girlfriend of a fanzine writer who was interviewing The Man. This was just after the gig, and when I arrived Elvis was ready for nothing less than total bloody war. Ian Dury and his roadie, Spider, were attempting to cool out the monkey, but Elvis was taunting him, with no sign of mercy on the horizon. One of the monkey's superiors was called in and tried to placate Elvis. "Listen," he was saying, "if you feel so strongly about this why, don't you make an official complaint to the management?" "This IS a f------ official complaint to the management!" Elvis snarled, waving a bottle. People were wincing by this time, those conscious, that is, of fracas. I was nervously clocking the premises for the nearest escape chute. Ian and Spider managed to hustle the monkey outside. They locked the dressing room door behind them. No one was allowed out after them. Ian returned. "Spider's taking care of it," he said. "Just stay in 'ere Jonesy boy... Elvis, cool it..." I just hoped that Spider was taking care of it; those stairs down to the street to the coach were narrow and dark, and I didn’t want to get involved in an ambush on the way out. Elvis was unrepentant. “Fuck Im” he muttered, grabbing a large can of fruit juice. He took the open flap of metal and bent it back until the jagged edge was at a vicious angle. Then he squeezed the body of the can until he had a secure grip on it’s buckled frame. Then he tucked it beneath his overcoat and walked out the door.

Hell; I don’t know whether Elvis would have had the nerve to use the wretched weapon if the worse had happened and a gang of Glaswegian knuckle merchants had come screaming over the banisters to avenge their insulted compatriot (Elvis wasn't, I reflected, from the kind of background that encouraged such behaviour — was he?) But I had an uncomfortable feeling that he was prepared to push himself past the point where there existed any possibility of retreat and the only way to go was straight on and straight in and, well, damn the consequences. That, I think, is when I started taking him very seriously and realised he really wasn't joking.


Three years ago I wrote a piece in this paper that amounted to a cursory account of the then current rock scene; it makes a depressing read, in retrospect. But, then, there was sod all happening. And so I numbered a few of the obvious targets of the slumbering lethargy afflicting the state of the game at the time, Yes, ELP and their mindless cohorts — and bemoaned the lack of vital new talent, and the reluctance of the record companies to take a few more chances with whatever maverick talent was then lingering in a hopeless limbo. And, in the course of this bitter tirade, I wondered just where we were going from here, from which direction the next exciting pitch would be coming. I didn't know, but I made a few haphazard guesses. I wanted someone who sounded authentically angry, frustrated and vital; someone who could celebrate the real juice of rock 'n' roll, without sounding affected or artificial. I wanted someone who could send the adrenalin racing like the Stones had done, or the Kinks or the Who. Of course, I hadn't anticipated the advent of the new wave, and the blistering indignation expressed by its principal attractions. And I'm still not sure I could have been satisfied by that particular movement. Maybe I was already too old to pogo, but I found that I could take very little of it all that seriously. More encouraging, I thought, were the subversive activities at Stiff, who were then lashing together something far more interesting, and — even more significant, but still allied to this particular operation — the emergence of Graham Parker. Greil Marcus, in a widely quoted but decisive observation last year in Rolling Stone, took the advent of GP as a defiant sign that "the decade was finally toughening up." And, God knows, he was right. Parker, suddenly unleashed, was like a clean, vivid breeze; but Elvis Costello, when he followed in Parker's determined stride, was still more like a brazen hurricane. Elvis had first been heard on the Stiff sampler, A Bunch Of Stiffs; a wayward compilation that included contributions from Nick Lowe, Sean Tyla, Martin Stone, Dave Edmunds, Magic Michael, Motorhead, Wreckless Eric and, of course, El's prototype of "Less Than Zero." Initial reactions were marked by an interest that fell a little short of infatuation. "Less Than Zero" had a set of lyrics that bit deep at the frazzled surface of current desperation, with a black humour carried vehemently by the rasping tones of the author's vocals, but the basic form was familiar from repeated exposure to Parker (and the attendant influences that had shaped his style).

It was released in a slightly different form as a 45 — with a flip, "Radio Sweetheart," of such gloriously infectious proportions that it established Costello as a master of the throwaway pop classic — and interest deepened. When its successor, "Alison", a tear-your-heart-out ballad that was emotional anathema for the squeamish, such was its naked onslaught on the senses, was finally released, I was hooked. This, clearly, was not the kind of talent that came every morning free with a packet of crackers: and if Elvis was that ready to burn I was more than willing to fan the bloody flames. This article almost coincides conveniently with the first public appearance (Flip City dates aside) of Elvis Costello. Friday, May 27 it was, at the Nashville. Elvis had been persuaded to support the Rumour, who were making their debut without Graham Parker. I've already recorded my reactions to that particular event; but I'll repeat the observation that he bowled me out of my Kensington cowboy boots that night.

The Rumour were superlative at that gig; but I found it difficult to concentrate upon their excellence after the wild blitz rained upon us by Elvis. He appeared without a band, armed merely — MERELY!?!!! — with a beat-up Fender and a string of songs most performers would have sacrificed their children for. I can still get emotional at the very mention of that performance, as tunes like "Red Shoes," "Zero," "Welcome To The Working Week" (I hear you saying this is all right / When you only read about it in books / You spend all your money getting so convinced / That you never even bother to look / Sometimes I wonder if we're living in the same land"), "Miracle Man," "Waiting For The End Of The World," "Mystery Dance," "I'm Not Angry" and "Alison" ("I know this world is killing you / But my aim is true"), came tumbling over the footlights in agonized charges like Elvis had a hotline to God's own hit factory. Elvis just stood there, whacking out one brain blistering tune after another, hardly moving, barely acknowledging the mounting applause, and B.P. Fallon sidled up to me. I was bouncing on my heels, totally locked into this. "Who does he remind you of?" Beep wanted to know. "I dunno," I replied, barely thinking about it, "G.P.?" "Yes... yes..." Beep insisted "He SOUNDS like GP... but who does he REMIND you of?" I couldn't focus on the question... "I dunno... I dunno..." Bernard was exasperated... "It's Dylan, man... It's DYLAN... can't you see it?" Well, I couldn't at the time. But it became nearer the more I thought about Bernard's proposition. It wasn't so much that Elvis was copping Dylanesque attitudes, lyrical stances or anything as specific as that (though it was clear that Dylan had left an emphatic mark on the boy). No; it was something a little deeper. Later, I realised that this was something close to what it must have been like to have been drawn for the first time, in the Sixties, to Dylan's mesmerising universe. Not that I felt inclined to lumber Elvis with the "New Dylan" tag that had dumped most of his talented predecessors. God no: all I felt was that here was someone who could potentially provoke similar associations, similar sympathies, a similar correspondence of emotions and perceptions. Someone who could sound as rabidly angry as a barracuda with a psychotic temperament and yet still not lose sight of an articulate perspective and an eloquent sensitivity. And, of course, I wanted to talk to him.

Jake Riviera arranged that first encounter. Elvis was still working as a computer analyst somewhere in Acton. He telephoned me at the office and told me where and when I could meet him: in a pub during his lunch hour. How would I recognise him, I attempted to joke. "You'll know who I am," Elvis countered; even the operator had the smile wiped off her face. The next day Elvis was on the blower again. He couldn't make it, but he still wanted to talk. He rearranged the interview for the next day, at Stiff. He didn't ask whether this might inconvenience me (Christ, I might have had an interview set with Barclay James Harvest or Judas Priest!). It was as if he just expected me to be there. And, of course, I was. I had not expected Elvis Costello to be particularly shy, but his forthright determination, supreme self-confidence, outspoken derision of the rockbiz (prompted, initially, by the thoroughly offhand insensitivity of the record company hacks to whom he took his original demos — most of whom could barely be bothered to listen to his songs with any show of interest, much less sympathy) and its attendant pretensions and showbiz scams, and his overwhelming sense of ambition, rocked me back on my heels. It was not wild arrogance that provoked his verbal onslaught. Elvis simply had no time to waste on modesty: he KNEW how good he was, so what was to be gained from adopting any self-effacing, ingratiating stance? He was impatient and hungry to impress; not because he was eager for financial reward — though he expected that, too-----but because his talent was burning to be unleashed. His ambition and his frankness were infectious, and I believed him when he insisted that he was ready to tear the scene apart given the merest chance and half-way shot at the title.

His manner could be described as caustic and abrupt, but he was not impolite. He just didn't want to waste anyone's time; especially his own. I should say, though, that his general demeanour and persistent intensity has made some wary of him (one or two with good reason, actually). He can, I've found, be uncomfortable to be with in certain moods. I remember him on the Stiff tour coach, clutching a bottle of whisky in one hand and a flick-knife in the other (the property of either Larry Wallis or Ian Dury), eyes shrouded in wraparound shades, hair cropped violently short — "I was waiting for the train at Euston, I had nothing to do for an hour so I had my head shaved" — looking remote and even morose. But Terry Williams, one of the most generous and outgoing souls on the planet, dragged him — at no great cost or effort — into the conversation and a game of cards, and soon he was babbling enthusiastically about mutual tastes in music to Williams, and eulogising Gram Parsons and singing along to Beatles' songs. "He's NOT so bad," Terry reported later," once you cut through that moody distance... I dunno why everyone thinks he's such a hard nut. But mostly Elvis did keep himself at a distance; taking little part in the alcoholic antics of the fabled 24 Hour Club, for instance, the ligging organisation designed by Wallis and Dave Edmunds. But he had earlier made it abundantly clear that he was not in the game for purely hedonist pursuits, and had no interest in hanging round bars, boozing and posing until the lights went out. "I don't want to be successful so that I can get a lot of money and retire to a house in the country," he began. "I don't want any of that rock & roll rubbish. I don't want to go cruising in Hollywood or hang out at all the star parties. It's the arse end of rock & roll. I'm just interested in playing music." And he knew exactly the kind of music he wanted to play. "Too much rock," he stated belligerently, "has cut itself off from the people. It's become like ballet or something. Ballet is only for people who can afford to go and see it. It's not for anybody else. You don't get ballet going on in your local pub. "There's a lot of rock music that's become exclusive and it's of no use to anyone. Least of all ME. Music has to get to people. In the heart, in the head. I don't care where as long as it gets them. So much music gets thrown away. It's such a waste." It was a tirade that lined him up alongside the discounted minions of the new wave, of course, in its attack on the rock Establishment (if you don't know who he was talking about, you probably still loathe him, preferring to sit in your corner with your Lasky's hi-fi complex and your boxed sets of Mike Oldfield and ELP). But, it would transpire, he was no more enamoured of his new wave contemporaries and their adolescent ravings than he was of the tired gestures of the rock elite. "I'm not," he said, tersely, "a great believer in youth as the answer to anything. And, as I'm only 23, I'm not sure where that leaves me." As far as my present addled mental state permits me to remember anything with any clarity, my initial reaction to Elvis Costello's debut album, My Aim Is True, was one of incredible elation. It forced Graham Parker's Heat Treatment off the household turntable and stayed there for the next six months, played almost daily until the sound of Elvis cranking out the watts on "Blame It On Cain," "Alison," "Red Shoes," "Miracle Man" and "I'm Not Angry" and the rest drove the neighbours to distraction. I'm still playing it a year later and it still has the power to thrill the socks off me like few other records recently released. I mean, I was expecting fireworks and got a brilliant explosion of energy and glorious talent. From the moment, almost, that My Aim Is True hit the deck, I was more or less convinced that Elvis was The Man; one of the few possible contenders for all the rock 'n' roll accolades on the shelf. It wasn't that Elvis was, immediately and undeniably, presenting us with anything especially unique. The influences were there to be ticked off. Most commonly he was compared to Van Morrison, Graham Parker and Springsteen; and the ghost of Dylan hung ominously over the grooves.

But familiarity drove such tedious comparison straight under the bed ("Comparisons — uh, that's a game for dullards" — Lou Reed). And, if you wanted to pursue the matter, it was becoming clear that any affinity between Elvis and Van Morrison was essentially confined to the morose Irishman's early American recordings. The Springsteen comparison was inevitable (Parker had suffered this, too). And, true enough, there existed superficial similarities of style, if not intention. Both are stylistically rooted in urban r&b and rock 'n' roll (as opposed to late Sixties and Seventies rock — a crucial distinction). Both have a love of vivid rhythms and sweeping melodies that balance the acerbic against the romantic. And Elvis has Springsteen's love of language, but none of the latter's overbearing inclination toward florid, often fatuous, imagery. At our first meeting, I recall Elvis viciously berating Springsteen for always romanticising The Street; something he found quite unbearable. "I'm BORED," he declared vehemently, "with people who romanticise the street. The street isn't romantic. I mean, I don't pretend to live in the heart of one of the worst areas of the world, right... I live near Hounslow (he still does). It's a very BORING area. It's a terrible place. Awful. Nowhere. Nothing happens. It's all council houses. There's not an off-licence open after ten..." (This last would, I imagine be Nick Lowe's idea of hell). "There's nothing exciting or glamorous or romantic. There's nothing glamorous or romantic about the WORLD at the moment. It's gone beyond all that." And so, on My Aim Is True, we had "Blame It On Cain", which in one startling swoop numbered that whole street-mythology malarkey; a song, at last, that went some determined way toward capturing the actual boredom and resentment and pent-up anger and violence of crazed suburban isolation. Sod The Sound Of The Westway (the Clash's clarion call): this was more accurate as an approximation of that hopeless mood in the suburbs, where behind every door, every lace curtain, people are murdering one another with their silences and inability to even communicate any more. Elvis roared out of the suburban mess, expecting disaster, not glory. His bitterness and impatience allied his music to the new wave's violent indignation, and so they found him as acceptable as they had Graham Parker, whose songs, similarly, dealt with vicious frustrations and the repressive attitudes of the English class system. But Elvis was advancing on a broader front than G.P. (and I don't mean, here, to either denigrate Graham Parker's achievements, for I love dearly Geep and the rumour, or instigate some kind of neo Hendrix v Clapton argument of the kind that had Mailbag writers scribbling so furiously in the Sixties). But it's increasingly struck me that Parker virtually relishes the role of loudmouth but sensitive street urchin that he's adopted in perhaps several too many songs. He sounds as if he'd definitely be more comfortable on the block with the gang than Elvis; and fair enough, that might be his chosen milieu, and he certainly has his creative finger securely on the beat of that particular pulse. But Elvis wants nothing less than the keys to the kingdom (to paraphrase a line from his "No Action”); and he's perhaps more ruthlessly prepared to push himself to the necessary limits. And Parker, too, is probably the more conventional of the pair; Parker, as I've just suggested, has been more prepared to (brilliantly) play the roughneck lover, deceived and betrayed but still violently arrogant. And Elvis overturned that whole cool, uncaring stance with Aim. His songs about sex and love turned the whole rock 'n' roll laconic machismo vibe on its head. He came on grovelling and snarling; his guilt, his complicity in the failure of the various relationships he portrayed so clinically, a brazen fact, not a cruel excuse. The principal failing of My Aim Is True (well, I never said it was perfect) was in the musical accompaniment of Clover, who played on most of the sessions; and although they performed, for the most part, quite superlatively, they narrowly failed to lend to Elvis’ compositions a truly cohesive identity.

But by the time he made his official public debut in Dingwall's in August he'd formed a band, and on the evidence of that gig, and the subsequent appearance at the Hope & Anchor the following night (the crowd was almost tripping over the kerb on Islington Green when I arrived to fight my way through shouting “make way — I'm Jake Riviera, Elvis doesn't go on unless I'm here!") they were nothing short of perfect. The Attractions boasted no ferocious virtuosos; just a precisely balanced aggregation of talent in total sympathy with the aspirations of their ostensible leader. Pete Thomas (drums) had played with Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers (who'd been managed by Jake) and John Stewart, had flown back to Britain from America, originally to join Wilko's new band, but soon switched his allegiance to Elvis. Bruce Thomas (bass — no relation), had played with Quiver and the Sutherland Brothers before retiring "because nothing exciting was happening." He once claimed over double and then treble pernods that he wanted to gig with Elvis only because Neil Young already had a band and John Lennon wasn't working any more. Steve Naive (keyboards and terminal bouts of weirdness) was recruited from the Royal College of Music — ask him to play you some of the tapes of his compositions sometime; they're a certified guffaw — auditioned for the gig and got it by admitting that the only rock music he'd ever heard had been performed by Alice Cooper and T. Rex, and by then falling asleep while Elvis and Jake Riviera slumped through a squadron of Dave Greenslade keyboard impersonators. The Attractions, as they were christened by Riviera, were hot at Dingwall's. By the time they launched themselves onto the Stiff tour they were like a scalding cauldron. God, they were so on the case they seemed to be dangerously obsessed. The band were so wild to push their music to even further limits that one found them on that tour constantly whacking new songs into their repertoire. Elvis would write 'em, they'd bash them into shape during the sound check and they'd be performing them onstage that evening (I heard "Hand In Hand" being lashed into shape more or less like that). And when they didn't have a new Elvis song to learn they'd be knocking together ace covers of things like Richard Hell's "Love Comes In Spurts," Abba's "Knowing Me Knowing You," Wreckless' "Go The Whole Wide World", Ian Dury's “Upminster Kid," Bacharach's “I Don't Know What To Do With Myself," and even the hoary old "Price Of Love" and the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat."

They were like bloody cannibals; hungry to push out from an established centre toward some new experience and it was always remarkable stuff, chum; no doubt about it. I seem to recall another rather drunken conversation (one does have to enter the mood of these things, I've found) with Bruce Thomas on the Stiff tour coach as we tramped back to Bristol after a gig at Bath University. "This band... THIS BAND," Bruce was blabbing laughing that hyena screech of a laugh that he will always be remembered for "is getting DANGEROUS... I don't know half the time what we're actually doing. I just have a good idea where we're going and follow it. There are so many silences in those songs it gets eerie. Like, everything will drop away and it's just me and Pete . . . and Elvis will start singing over the top of it and I'm wonderin 'where's the guitar? Where's the keyboards?' But it still hangs together 'cos we've sussed each other and we're prepared to take those kind of risks… I haven't heard anyone else who's close to us." Numerous sympathies aside I'd be forced to agree. This Year's Model, the second album, has too recently been released to warrant a full-scale reappraisal of its virtues. It was recorded just days after the group came off the Stiff tour, before they embarked on an American jaunt that brought home to the Yanks just what brilliant rock 'n' roll was being concocted within our shores these days. My Aim Is True was already nudging the higher echelons of the U.S. charts when Elvis landed in America, and his appearances there knocked it even higher. Deservedly so, as far as I'm concerned.

As someone who saw them out there pertinently observed, Elvis Costello and the Attractions are possibly the most sophisticated and imaginative rock 'n' roll export since Bowie, and the colonials seem to be lapping him up. All that really needs to be said presently about This Year's Model is that it presents more than adequate evidence of Costello's remarkable maturity as a songwriter and performer, and a collective performance by his musicians that sets them at the vanguard of modern rock 'n' roll. I don't really have to discuss individual songs to support my argument: I'd just have to list the track titles. Every song is marked by an inspiration that is all too rare at the moment. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the definitive albums of this decade; for much the same reasons that I've already recommended My Aim Is True. I don't particularly feel the need to defend it. I'll stand by my original review (MM March 11), and simply endorse the enthusiastic notices of most of its other champions. I mean: who're you going to throw at me? I’ve already dismissed the Pistols, Jam, Damned (RIP), Clash (don't make me laugh!)... Tom Robinson? Well; he's released, so far six songs — is it — to which I wouldn't give space to overnight in a chicken-coop. Sham 69? See the Clash, bimbo... Pere Ubu? Devo? Lord save us — what're those? Brains or potatoes? I can't think of anyone else worth numbering; and it doesn't really matter. Elvis Costello is the only one of us who knows for sure how far he's willing to take it, and he knows the risks. He's not courted success; he's demanded it. And he's so far met little determined resistance (a few quibbles about his recent Roundhouse gig from people so wound up in what they'd read they clearly weren't listening to the bloody music). Hey — at the risk of bringing down the wrath of at least one of my superiors, I'll just say this: I listen to Elvis Costello like I used to listen to Lennon, Dylan, Townshend, the Stones, Neil Young, Bowie and Gram Parsons, and everyone else worth listening to. With my ears. And I like what I hear. Are you going to tell me I'm wrong? (PS. Now what about that interview, Elvis?)

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Melody Maker, May 13, 1978


Allan Jones profiles Elvis Costello.

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