Mojo, December 1993

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2½ Years

Elvis Costello & The Attractions / My Aim Is True,
This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Live At El Mocambo

Andy Kershaw

Stimulation was in short supply in late-'70s Rochdale. There were no music clubs. Gigs took place when a local progressive band booked itself into Whitworth Civic Hall. 'Going out' was something more confident lads did with disco-dancing trainee typists. To look cool, trainee bohemians needed only to linger at the bus-stop with a Rory Gallagher album tucked inside their great-coats.

For a shy youth with no money or transport, few friends, a heavy Dylan and Loudon Wainwright habit and a bewilderment with most punk arrivistes, you might say I had it rough when I was a lad. There was the Peel programme and ... er ... that was it. We'd stay up all night, ferchrissakes, if they were showing a Spyro Gyra concert on Rock Goes To College.

Ten miles down the road, though it might have been a thousand, punk was shaking the cellars of Manchester. And here it was, like a hand-grenade coming through the screen, on the regional TV show, Granada Reports.

Embodied in this bug-eyed little bloke in the baggy black suit ripping through "Lip Service" in a Manchester nightclub was something that sailed above the heads of the spit-and-cider brigade. There were depths to this geek not apparent in, say, The Adverts. He had all the attitude, and the tunes besides. Elvis Costello was clever, cool, wordy and, from that moment on mine. My dad lowered his newspaper and locked his headmaster's frown on the TV set: "He looks like he goes to a special school," was Kershaw Snr's memorable judgement.

Elvis had visited Rochdale one year earlier as part of the first Stiff tour, though, typically, I managed to miss it. The publicity machine at the Champness Hall, better geared to pulling them in for lunchtime cello recitals, somehow failed to speak to Rochdale's Costello and Wreckless Eric market. Consequently the most inspired package tour of the age played to a thin audience of disorientated old ladies sucking Mint Imperials.

A year later, and I was a fresher making undignified and unsuccessful attempts to shag the girl in the flat next to mine at Leeds University. She had a copy of This Year's Model, I had learned to play my first tune on the guitar so that I was able to bore the arse off her in the hallway with an acoustic reading of "You Belong To Me," whilst she, no doubt, dreamed of rugby players.

I'm ashamed to admit, though I've been wracking the memory since the second paragraph, that I can't recall where I first saw the great man live. There were so many electrifying Elvis & The Attractions shows to be seen once the government had, recklessly, put public money into my pocket. With my university chum, Dave Woodhead (these days freelance trumpeter to Billy Bragg and others), I must have seen every Costello concert in the North.

For five years, Elvis had to face us both, mouthing the words from the front row like a couple of theatre prompters. Our unfamiliarity with newer material could really bugger him up. Woodhead actually subscribed to a Dutch-based newsletter, disturbing in its obsessiveness, called something like Costello Watch. Together, we amassed and circulated an archive of bootlegs that could have caused the BPI a seizure.

I even appear in a supporting role on one of them. At one of the `Spin The Wheel' shows at London's Royalty Theatre in November 1986, Elvis relishing a short-lived role as Mr Showbiz, picked members of the audience to dance in a cage at the side of the stage and invited requests from the assembled. "You Win Again, Elvis!", I bellowed from the back. Instantly, he slipped into the Hank Williams lament. "And don't think Andy," he said at the end having recognised my voice from just four words, "that just by shouting that out you're going to get away with not coming up here." The audience rippled at the prospect of such public humiliation. Happily, I was not forced to dance.

This historic encounter on rock's lost highway is not, mysteriously, one of those captured in this box set. We do have some of the Charlie Gillett Honky Tonk demos, but I have my own collection of Elvis encounters. When I recall 'filling' dementedly at Live Aid — interviewing John Hurt for 20 minutes without knowing who he was — because Speccv was late on. I still want to go to the toilet. ("Four eyes, one vision" was the introduction to his singalong "All You Need Is Love"). And later, on the Whistle Test, Elvis snuck up behind me during my long-winded introduction to his set and placed the crown from King Of America on my head. That night, I was the proudest kid on the planet.

For the Attractions' last stand, I was there on stage, as DJ, at Glastonbury 1987. I doubt if I'll see as magnificent a performance again. With the stage in darkness, he began with the unaccompanied first line of "Hope You're Happy Now." The Attractions kicked in with the impact of someone tipping an entire dinner service into the sink. The curtains flew back on the beat and every lamp on the lighting rig came on at once in a blinding onslaught of sight and sound.

Of all the rarities they could have released, the much-pirated El Mocambo promo album was always one of the least interesting. Lacking light and shade, and any evidence of own eclecticism and curiosity that characterised later live bootlegs and early demos such as his acoustic jazz and country fumblings on Charlie Gillett's radio show, El Mocambo is a breathless, flat-out rush to secure, one suspects, Noo World Noo Wave credentials before an audience of hooting Canadians.

Any pretence of pursuing a politics degree at Leeds went belly-up the day I became Entertainments Secretary Academic disgrace climaxed with an Elvis Costello concert. There was to be no UK tour around the Almost Blue LP. Elvis may have outed a few of us harbouring latent Nashville tendencies but only in George Jones-friendly Ireland did he arrange the country concerts. A phone call direct to his manager, Jake Riviera, with the promise of £3,000 in cash, brought the only British performance to the university refectory Trickily, the only date available fell on the day of my Political and Social Theory final. The trucks carrying the equipment arrived as I was waffling around a question on Aristotle. I left the exam halfway through. "Mr Kershaw is not a graduate of this university," they will tell you curtly should you enquire at the registrar's office this afternoon.

Who cares if he helped me flunk my degree? So what if he's not made a decent album since King Of America? Does it matter that he's been defiantly melody-free from Spike onwards? Hell, he's even strayed into the scoundrel territory of soundtrack album and classical music collaborations. (Come on, when did you last yearn to put on The Juliet Letters?)

The days may be gone when life was marked out by Costello albums. Listening again to this celebration of the finest songwriter of the age engaging triumphantly with its most accomplished band, I feel no betrayal. As Hank Williams put it: I guess that I should not complain. I love you still. You win again."

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Mojo, No. 2, December 1993


Andy Kershaw reviews the 2½ Years box set.


Also includes a short article about Stiff Records, circa July 1977.

Images

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Page scans.


Photo by Barry Plummer.
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Stiff Records


Mojo

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The scene is Stiff Records' West London office, in 1977 — a world where the air rang to slogans like "Three No's Don't Make A Yes" and "If It Ain't Stiff It Ain't Worth A Fuck". Chalked up on the board are activities for the week: Elvis has a Peel Show on Monday, and plays Liverpool Eric's on Saturday; The Damned, meanwhile, are meeting the NME's Roy Carr on Thursday. On the left is gifted sleeve designer Barney Bubbles, whose short life and unhappy end are described in the story on page 74 of this issue. Lining up with him are (from left) Stiff staffers Suzanne Spiro (destined to marry Bruce Thomas of the Attractions), Jake Riviera (still managing Elvis and now running Demon), Cynthia Cole, Paul Conroy (nowadays MD of Virgin) and Elvis Costello's tour manager Des Brown.


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Illustration by Paul Hamlyn.


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Cover and contents page.

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