Melody Maker, October 31, 1981

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Melody Maker


From Elvis in Nashville

Adam Sweeting

Adam Sweeting reviews a South Bank Show TV special due to be screened on November 8

As London Weekend Television's blurb mercilessly points out, "Elvis Costello is well known ... for his hostility towards the media and his reluctance to do interviews." Oh really?

Faced with "Elvis Costello In Nashville," all the frustrated music paper scribe can do is bite the bullet and wish it had been him behind the microphone.

"He just loves to talk," the show's researcher David Hinton told me after I'd watched it. It's hard to argue. Costello proves to be a lucid, articulate speaker, acutely conscious of the reasons behind his shot at country music and the possible pitfalls.

Despite Riviera's efforts to persuade everybody otherwise, Costello is palpably human, almost academic in his knowledge of the history of country music and even capable of nervousness when confronted with legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill.

The apparent incongruity of Elvis in Nashville is homed in on right away. The opening sequence shows us Costello plonking out "Good Year For The Roses" on an acoustic guitar in his living room. Then it's into flashback — Elvis and the Attractions pumping out "Lip Service" and "Watching The Detectives" in 1978.

Next, a familiar face. Hang on, it's ... Allan Jones! (green shirt, clean shaven, can of Heineken just in-shot). Jones has been known to pen the occasional grudging word of praise for Costello, and director Peter Carr has used the assistant editor here to frame Costello in a musical perspective.

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Costello (says Jonesy) managed to harness the raw energy of punk while writing about personal relationships with venomous accuracy. Thus, why shouldn't he be attracted to the stark emotional extremes of C&W, which can be "lachrymose" when handled incompetently but can also inspire awesome peaks of performance from the right artist? (Exit Jones in pursuit of Bo Derek).

Costello then presents his own case. What he's aiming for, he says, is to "say things with sound as opposed to just words." What he wants is to retain the essential personality of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, but have it "transferred to Nashville and filtered through other people's songs."

As anyone who's seen Costello perform recently knows, the man's always looking for new boundaries to trample — consider his accomplished reading of "One Day I'll Fly Away," for example.

"There are so many complete imbeciles in rock 'n' roll," he remarks casually. He wants his voice pushed right upfront, to sing — like Hank Williams ("the greatest country writer ever") or Frank Sinatra. "A lotta people probably don't think I can sing well enough," he observes. The gauntlet is down.

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Next stop, Nashville, home of hits, hicks and random killing. It's also home for producer and sometime songwriter Billy Sherrill, enlisted for Almost Blue. We meet him cruising down-river on his motor yacht and passing laconic observations on the project. He's droll, very rich and never enthusiastic.

Sherrill, says Costello's voice-over, is apparently uncritical when he's working in the studio. "But if he leaves the room for more than half an hour you're doing something wrong."

Costello's relationship — or lack of it — with Sherrill is the film's pivot. Sherrill's whole style is an impassive "look-you-kids-I-seen it." "You sure know how to make a man feel old, Elvis," he remarks from behind his console as the boy feels his way through Charlie Rich's "Sittin' And Thinkin'." "Ah remember the original recording session for that song 20 years ago ..."

There's some subtle point scoring. Sherrill spots that Elvis has substituted the word "drunk" for Rich's original "loaded." "I wouldn't use the word 'loaded'," argues Elvis. Next time we hear the song, Elvis is singing "loaded."

At no point does Sherrill let slip any hint that he's impressed.

He won't discount the possibility that Elvis might pull off a good country album, but he doesn't know if it'll be commercial — and good in popular music terms means commercial ...

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There's some sleight of hand at work here too — we see Sherrill at work in the studio, commenting on various takes of songs, suggesting changes of mood and pace, and even performing one of his famous walk-outs after Costello and Attractions have finished a take of Elvis' own song "Tears Before Bedtime."

Later, Elvis and the group discuss Sherrill's departure from the studio — did he like it or didn't he? The scene may not have been scripted, but it sure as hell was set up for the camera. Still, it communicates the nature of the working relationship, even if it is too neat and tidy.

Other segments explore the tension between Elvis, the (relatively) young Turk, and the suspicions he arouses in the entrenched Nashville establishment Sherrill so effortlessly embodies.

Sherrill manages to persuade the Attractions that they should double all the parts on their version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me?"

Cut to Sherrill on luxury yacht: "I loved it, I really did. I may become an Elvis Costello fan after all."

The real heart of the matter, though, is the interview footage where Elvis talks to the camera. He comes out with some striking observations — about Gram Parsons for example, who wrote Almost Blue's "I'm Your Toy" (alias "Hot Burrito No1").

El notes that Gram was in the Hank Williams tradition, addicted to the notion of living fast and dying young. It's a myth "which I don't subscribe to — yet."

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Later, after shots of the group playing some of the songs at a country music club in Aberdeen, Costello probes deeper into the same topic, confessing that he feels some of the self-destructive urges implicit in the lyrics. He admits he can't tell whether he's just flirting with the idea or if he's really being taken over by it.

"I think this business sucks you in eventually ... I've had the disturbing impression that my work has been based around the perversion of truth for quite a while." It's a chilling confession, smartly hammered home by a cut to Costello singing "I'm Your Toy" in Aberdeen.

We'd seen him recording it in Nashville eerier, standing guitarless at the microphone and wringing the lyric out of himself with clumsy, almost spastic gestures with his two clenched fists. Onstage in Aberdeen, he sings the song to a real audience and re-enacts the same distracted motions.

Costello recalls working with the Nashville backing singers hired by Sherrill.
 [unknown text cut]
the control room during the playback and heard the singers hitting their full stride, Sherrill turned to him, grinned, and said: "Welcome to Nashville."

This programme is not to be missed. It's an education — about the Nashville mentality, country music, and most of all about an artist who's crossing boundaries most "rock 'n' roll" performers don't know exist. It may even be art.

<< >>

Melody Maker, October 31, 1981

Adam Sweeting reviews the South Bank Show TV special.

EC takes part in a blindfold test of recent singles and random lp tracks.

Also includes a contest to win a copy of Almost Blue.


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Cover, clipping and contest clipping. Photos by Tom Sheehan

Elvis Costello in Blind Date Revisited

Melody Maker

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This is what we used to do. Back in the days when pop stars were celebrities and would gladly offer their opinions on everything from cardigans to the imminent collapse of western civilisation, we'd drag them off their pedestals and into a reviewing room.

Confronting them with a record player and a whole bunch of the latest releases, we'd play them and demand an immediate opinion. Without identifying the bands, sneaks that we were.

Still are, actually. Since Elvis Costello once let slip that he affectionately remembered the feature, we invited him to lock his hearing tackle around this week's singles. And, being as sneaky as ever, we also threw in a random selection of LP tracks.

Just to keep him on his toes, you understand…

DR FEELGOOD: "Waiting For Saturday Night" (Liberty).

It serves you right if you missed the great "Case Of The Shakes" singles. Now, Dr Feelgood, Britain's best R'n'B group are back with a new guitarist and, it sounds like, Vic Maile at the board. But please, fellas, no more songs about Saturday night.

SIMPLE MINDS: "Sweat In Bullet" (Virgin).

Is it Japan? It's got all the right modern sounds. Very wet in more than one sense.

FUN BOY THREE: "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" (Chrysalis).

Strange that the Fun Boy Three should make such a conscious follow-up to "Ghost Town" if they are escaping the Specials, but an admirable statement, excellently produced by Dave Jordan, I believe (make mine a large one, Dave). Neville and Lynval make like the Volga Boatmen and Terry is all his deadpan best.

I anxiously await the next bulletin from Crazy Jerry and the second best rhythm section in England (just kidding …). Meanwhile, this is a hit.

THE GO-GO's "We Got The Beat" (IRS).

This is the Go-Go's — weak-kneed LA new wave, about as tough as the Cars. Being girls is not enough. At least "Our Lips Are Sealed" sported a decent hook.

MEAT LOAF: "Dead Ringer For Love" (Epic).

This has to be Meat Loaf, this has to be dreadful — sorry, I can't share the joke. Everything sounds speeded up, to make it sound more urgent, or then again to get it over with a bit quicker.

JOHN FOXX: "Dancing Like A Gun" (Virgin).

Is it Japan? No, it's the HeeBeeGeeBees doing David Bowie.

ABC: "Tears Are Not Enough" (Neutron).

I heard this on the radio, it's ABC. It's coming in for some fully justified raving. A bit like Heaven 17, only with better lyrics and better produced. One of the best records of the year. I'm off to buy this one.

IAN DURY: "Lonely Town" (from the Polydor album, Lord Upminster).

With Madness and Bad Manners carving up his Kilburns legacy, the last two years have seen Ian Dury chucking catch-phrases over punch riffs with diminishing returns. In a recent radio interview, he suggested that he might return to the detailed song style of New Boots. I hope he goes to it, as this is uninspired stuff.

MODERN ROMANCE: "Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey" (WEA).

I have to say I don't care much for Salsa, but I hate phoney Salsa. I bet this is those berks Modern Romance. They are the kind of group who probably started off as The Snots, then became Rudie Modvespa, before getting a synth and becoming The Digital Dummies. Now some fool has bought them a Kid Creole album, so they trade in their Numansuits for maraccas. Give me Peter Allen any day.

VIRNA LINDT: "Young And Hip" (Compact).

Virna Lindt's "Attention Stockholm" was a great B-movie record. So this is a big disappointment, sounding like Sparks at their most smug.

JOAN ARMATRADING: "When I Get It Right" (A&M).

It's Joan Armatrading under attack from a Steve Lillywhite production. It was fine for "Respectable Street," but here it is hopelessly heavy-handed.

TENPOLE TUDOR: "Throwing My Baby Out With The Bathwater" (Stiff).

It's a bit K-Tel punk, a rousing chorus, a dash of early Clash, and no unpleasant added politics. Still, I like Tenpole Tudor and I think this will help keep Dave Robinson in tee-shirts for another month.

JAPAN: "Visions Of China" (Virgin).

I'm really sure it's Japan this time. It's got all the right sounds …

Q-TIPS: "Love Hurts" (Rewind Records).

Already have this one, it's the Q-Tips, and as they are mates, it pains me to say it's a bit weak. The song has already been murdered by Jim Capaldi and Nazareth, and it's hard to improve on the version by Gram Parsons or the Everly Brothers original. Still, where were you when "A Man Can't Lose What He Don't Have" should have stormed the charts.

TAMMY WYNETTE: "Crying In The Rain" (Epic).

This is another Everlys' cover. Tammy Wynette is such a great singer that finding good "new" songs must be a problem. I'd like it to be a hit, if there's a country coup — better that there be quality than novelty.

JOE "KING" CARRASCO: "That's The Love" (from the Hannibal EP, Party Safari, US import).

Is it Japan jamming with the Tweets?

CHARLIE DORE: "You Should Hear" (Chrysalis).

Oh dear, this is Charlie Dore. Why are they trying to turn her into Barbara Dickson? Remember country music?

DEPARTMENT S: "I Want" (Stiff).

Okay, I've heard the Modern Lovers, too. This is Department S sounding like Dexy's on dexys. "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" — made in their Guns For Hire days — was in a different class. It might grow on you.

STYX: "Rockin' The Paradise" (A&M).

I haven't the first idea who this is, and the only reason I'd want to know is so I could avoid future encounters.

TV 21: "Something's Wrong" (Deram).

It could be Teardrop, but I believe it's TV 21 — a bit dull to be honest.

MINK DE VILLE: "Love And Emotion" (Atlantic).

Well, if it ain't my old mate Willy "Laughing Boy" DeVille, the man who has a rubber "testifying mat" to cushion his 'caps when he goes for those "spontaneous" J.B. style kneedrops. Perhaps Roger Scott will play it for all those Gary U.S. Bonds fans who are pining for Bruce Springsteen. Aptly enough, the new album contains a good version of "You Better Move On."

PRINCE: "Controversy" (Warners).

This is probably some esoteric masterpiece that I am about to display my ageing ignorance by not recognising. It's a good record but not extraordinary, placed next to something like "Wheel Me Out."

RANDY CRAWFORD: "Desperado" (from the Warners album Miss Randy Crawford).

I'd hate to think this was Gladys Knight or Randy Crawford although she already has one single out). I can just about take the jazz-funk thing, but nobody should be made to sing Eagles' songs. They should both record soul ballads, preferably written by yours truly.

RODNEY CROWELL: "Shame On The Moon" (from the Warners album Rodney Crowell).

Pointless country rock with pathetic chest beating lyrics.

GENESIS: "Keep It Dark" (Charisma).

Neat muso-rock. It must be Genesis. I suppose it will be a hit. I fall asleep.

THE SOUND: "Silent Air" (from the Korova album, From The Lion's Mouth).

Is it Japan? Very precious lyrics, dull synths, even duller guitar.

WALL OF VOODOO: "Ring Of Fire" (from the Index EP Wall Of Voodoo).

The original horn riff of "Ring Of Fire" would have made a great basis for a ska hit. I'll just have to wait for the next bluebeat revival (due next August). This version is very silly.

QUEEN & DAVID BOWIE: "Under Pressure" (EMI).

Oh my God, it really is David Bowie this time, only with Queen. The very idea makes me feel sick, the record is worse. I can't see why he would want to team up with that prancing megalomaniac ("We Are The Champions Of The World"). Then maybe I can … there's always money.

As I only like his last four albums, my disappointment is not as great as the real fanatics'. This bombastic drivel could get him shot by some space cadet. Unfortunately, it will also be number one.

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Pages 24-25.


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