Elvis Costello spun the discs for a couple of hours on Radio One's "Star Special" last week, and the result was the kind of radio show I used to dream about in the early Seventies.
His choice was eclectic and his manner subtly affectionate, which revealed something of his character as well as a lot about his tastes — but then, has anyone ever found a better method of analysing a stranger's personality than examining his record collection? What pleased me as much as anything was that it showed up as fictional the character who once alleged: "I've already forgotten who Bob Dylan is."
As often happens when an "amateur" gets hold of a studio, the programming was more adventurous, enlightening and enjoyable than the "professionals" can ever contrive.
Using a maximum of 30 words introduction to each record, Costello spanned what must have been virtually his entire history of listening to pop music — from Hank Williams' hilariously mawkish "Too Many Parties And Too Many Pals" to Madness' "The Prince."
Even a spot of blatant nepotism — labelmate Clive Langer's "Lovely Evening" and the current hit by the Specials, whom he's producing — slipped pleasantly by among the 30-odd records.
The real magic of the programme was this: whenever he announced that he was going to play a record by a certain artist, in the next split-second I tried to guess which one he'd pick (i.e. my favourite by that artist) — and I was right every time. Lowell George's "What Do You Want The Girl To Do," Otis Redding's "Try A little Tenderness" and the Four Pennies' "When The Boy's Happy" had me turning cartwheels.
His sense of programming was almost impeccable; he started one mini-sequence with the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next To You," moved into Al Green's "Tired Of Being Alone" (among Green's early hits was a cover of the Tempts' song) and followed up with the Otis classic (Redding was Green's inspiration).
His comments were terse, but often amusing. On Fleetwood Mac's "Need Your Love So Bad": "The great Peter Green ... the less said about Fleetwood Mac's Fate, the better." On Brinsley Schwarz's "The Ugly Things": "From the days when Nick Lowe would admit to knowing more than five chords." On the Marvellette's "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game": "Proof of why Bob Dylan once said that Smokey Robinson was America's greatest living poet."
These asides made me think that Elvis Costello operates with what is conventionally held to be a rock critic's mentality: he examines records carefully, cherishes ingenuity and originality, and feels a sense of sharp personal hurt when he's let down by people he admires, expressing his disappointment via sarcasm.
He sounded much warmer than I expected. I spent a long time trying to figure out who he reminded me of, but the penny didn't drop until he played a couple of tracks from Dusty In Memphis. He sounded just like Elton John's more cynical younger brother.
Anyway, there must have been some alcohol in the studio because he mellowed considerably after the first hour, to the point where he sounded like Elton John after a draw in the first-round away leg of the League Cup.
He Played the Clash's "Cheapskates" and "White Man In Hammersmith Palais," Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman," the Heptones' divine "Mama Said," Jerry Lee Lewis' recent cover of "Every Day I Have To Cry," Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain," the Stones' "Off The Hook," Sonny Boy Williamson's incomparably menacing "Help Me," Van Morrison's supernatural "Linden Arden Stole The Higlights," LKJ's "Sonny's Lettah", the Pretenders' lovely "Kid," Johnny Taylor's "I've Been Born Again," and the Spencer Davis Group's "When I Get Home."
Having inserted Lennon's "Instant Karma" half-way through, he finished off with Wings' "Every Night" and Lennon's version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out." I don't understand the significance of that, except that he evidently hasn't forgotten who the Beatles were...
When I said that this was the kind of radio show we needed ten years ago, I was referring to the time when pop radio had no sense of historical perspective on the music.
Since that time we've had new wave, and during the punk evolution it was obvious that any DJ who played oldies wasn't doing his
Now, perhaps, we could do with that kind of perspective again; at any rate, Elvis Costello gave me the best radio show I've hard in ages. We don't use great reviewers on the MM's singles page any more, but he's welcome to it any time he wants.