The young Elvis Costello was certainly a sight for sore eyes even if he had based his image solely on a sneering Buddy Holly. The music had a lot of edge too. It was exciting. But what of this year's model?
To look at him things haven't changed much. The same nondescript dark suit, the shades, the infamous Costello cool that always distances him from an audience. Of course he's a bit fatter now, crammed into the new wave clothes like a middle-weight Alexai Sayle, and his following are looking a bit worse for the wear too — all well trimmed beards and check shirts. Upwardly mobile whites reliving the "golden" days of pub rock. Yes, they came to sweat and drink beer, to remind themselves just what it was like to go out again.
Since his first blistering pop songs Elvis has been through the lexicon of popular music. He's played around with soul, country and even folk ballads. He's become what they cringingly call a "wordsmith," he writes "perfectly crafted" songs. He's a real pro. Don't you ever get the feeling that if you ever hear another perfectly crafted pop song you'd trash the radio there and then? Sometimes it's hard to believe that Elvis doesn't write his songs by numbers these days.
Still the last time I saw the great Costello he had a nice line in fake soul and The Attractions could swing like there was no tomorrow. Sadly that's one thing that has changed, and much for the worse. The current band sound like the classic mid-Seventies rock group. A drummer that runs all over his kit instead of holding a sure beat, horrible swirling keyboards courtesy of Steve Nieve, and a mix that gells everything into a stodgy glob. Even the faithful seemed unsure what was happening.
If Costello has largely lost his way as a writer (his work as The Imposter aside) but honed his other talents, it was natural to expect the emergence of
a classic performer; on this evidence nothing could be further from the truth. His sense of pace bordered on the insane. In a medley of "hits," hardly what you'd expect from a man of taste, he shoved songs like "Watching The Detectives," "Mystery Dance" and "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" into one long jam delivered at breakneck speed as if to dispatch them as soon as possible. I mean soul and reggae at that kind of momentum was like a bad joke. A 33⅓ on 45.
Throughout his epic performance the Elvis voice, a rather croaking instrument prone to its own range of cliched phrases at the best of times, was near to collapse. This didn't stop him from slagging off Boy George before launching into a pointed "Worthless Thing" and a demolition job of The Byrds' timeless "So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star." No doubt everybody got the irony but really it was Elvis and his clod-hopping group that seemed to be playing the seedy old rock game.
The most satisfying moments arrived when, mercifully, the band were banished and Elvis, accompanying himself on guitar, did his Billy Bragg impersonation, reeling off the only worthwhile songs to come his way in recent times. Richard Thomson's "The End Of The Rainbow" stood out like a jewel plopped down into a bowl of cold rice pudding. "Peace In Our Time" and Robert Wyatt's exquisite "Shipbuilding" completed a trilogy of saving graces, and only served to further underline how ugly this contemporary Costello group sound.
But it was the crude rock bravado of "Pump It Up" that most accurately summed up an oppressive performance. A show that took Elvis full circle, dumping him in the same old vanguard he once vowed to crush. Like Johnny Rotten yesterday's punk, today's old fart. Sad really, Elvis Costello playing to a horde of leg twitchers and fist shakers. Some revolution.