Mojo Classic, Vol. 2, No. 5, 2008

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Mojo Classic
  • 2007 Vol. 2, No. 3
  • 2008 Vol. 2, No. 5


I Stand Accused

Nobody did songs about revenge and guilt as well as Elvis Costello. As Peter Doggett reveals, punk gave the struggling songwriter the platform he needed and the balls to name himself after a rock icon. But not everything went to plan...

Peter Doggett

It's three days since his second album, This Year's Model, reached the shops, and Elvis Costello and his new band The Attractions are following the well-worn promotional trail around the cinemas, bingo halls and seaside theatres of Britain. Tonight they're in Canterbury, the Odeon filled with student hippies and timid punks. The city has already played reluctant host to The Damned and Tom Robinson, but now it's March 1978, and Canterbury is ready for the New Wave.

After a set of earthy pub rock from Mickey Jupp, the lights dim and The Attractions arrive on stage. For the next 40 minutes the shell-shocked audience is subjected to a sonic and psychological barrage as Costello — bug-eyed, stick-like, his flesh dissolving into sweat before their eyes — unleashes his demons via a dozen vitriolic musical exercises in self-doubt and contempt. "Lipstick Vogue" is stretched into a Velvets-style attack on the senses, racked with tension and fire. The band segues sharply into "Watching The Detectives," Costello spitting out the lyrics like broken teeth. And then, without warning, he stomps off stage. The audience erupts into the ritual call for an encore. Five minutes later, they're still stamping and cheering, but growing increasingly uncertain. Is that it? Has Elvis left the building? Or is he sneering from behind the curtain, mocking his fans' dog-like obedience?

After a hiatus that seems longer than the gig they've just witnessed, the fans are rewarded. Costello marches back to the microphone and glares at the audience. "About fucking time," he snaps, acidly, and Pete Thomas's snare drum marshalls the band into a crushing rendition of "Pump It Up." The fans troops home, feeling as if they've been mugged.

"We used to love baiting the audience then," Costello told me two decades later. "We were on a crusade. It tended to make you more defensive. We had 35 minutes of material, and after our first couple of tours, and our first brush with amphetamines, we got that down to 25 minutes — and we didn't have any more songs. Then it became quite a knee-jerk thing, that we didn't play encores, particularly in the States. We liked the idea of leaving the radio simulcast still talking — 'Hey, I think they're coming back to the stage!' — and we'd be halfway back to the hotel. You can see how the mischief of that would appeal to a group on the road, who have this feeling of being in a lifeboat — or a trench — together."

The Canterbury audience wasn't alone in finding Costello an unsettling, if exhilarating, proposition in 1978. As Costello told Mojo in 2007, his father attended one of his shows that year: "When he came backstage afterwards, he was concerned about the audience. He said, 'This is not a nice relationship — there's spitefulness out there.' He saw straight through it."

Elvis's father knew what he was talking about. For years, Ross MacManus had been the featured vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra, Britain's premier dance band from the bobbysoxer years until the dawn of psychedelia. When he left Loss, MacManus forged a solo career, sometimes adopting the pseudonym of Day Costello. A regular guest on BBC pop programmes, Ross listened avidly to everything from Sinatra to Santana. His son, christened Declan MacManus, was around music from the moment he was born.

"I had very sophisticated taste until I was about 11, when I discovered The Beatles," Elvis told me. "They became everything, and beat music dominated my thinking until it was overtaken by Motown and soul and reggae and rocksteady. I was really into Marvin Gaye and those Return Of Django records — the stuff we listened to at teenage parties. Before I was 11, though, we listened constantly to Ella, Sinatra, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, so I knew all those songs. They were all stuck in my head."

As early as 1979 traces of these formative influences leaked out, in the guise of a tender cover of "My Funny Valentine," tucked away on the flip-side of his biggest hit single. But when Declan MacManus embarked on his own musical career, he adopted a more contemporary pose. "I had several false starts at getting bands together," he recalled. "Some of the

Remaining text and scanner-error corrections to come...

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Mojo Classic, Vol. 2, No. 5 — New Wave Special: 1978

Peter Doggett profiles Elvis Costello.

Kieron Tyler reviews This Year's Model.

Will Birch writes about Stiff Records

The Photos section includes a few rare photos.


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Page scans.

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Page scans.

This Year's Model

Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Kieron Tyler

This Year's Model was a gamble for Elvis Costello. His first album for new label Radar Records, it was also his first with The Attractions. There was success to build on. Although only one of his four Stiff singles, "Watching The Detectives," had charted in 1977, his debut album, My Aim Is True, had climbed to Number 14.

In November 1977 his manager Jake Riviera left Stiff Records, the label he'd co-founded in '76. Two of Stiff's biggest draws, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, transferred to Riviera's new Warner Brothers-backed imprint, Radar. This Year's Model hit the shops in March and peaked at Number 4. His first Radar single, "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," had been issued two weeks earlier and also charted high. As if uncertain that the album would click, the initial 5000 copies included a free 7-inch single: a studio version of the George Jones country song "Stranger In The House" was paired with a live cover of The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" — the past and present combined, much like Costello's music.

Produced by Nick Lowe in December '77 and January '78 at London's Eden Studios, This Year's Model's brittle, shiny sound echoed that of America's '60s garage bands. Jon Savage's review in Sounds noted the ? And The Mysterians-style organ sound. Nick Kent's hyperbolic NME review said This Year's Model shared Dylan's 1966 wild mercury sound.

Together, Costello and The Attractions were seamless, effortlessly showcasing the songs. "Most of the melodic and harmonic activity would be from Steve Nieve," said Costello. "I was really the rhythm guitarist in the group." Commenting on The Attractions' "ability to explode," he continued, "there are well-known songs like "Pump It Up" where they locked tight, just a great sound."

Jon Savage's review argued that This Year's Model was a 1978 Aftermath. The Rolling Stones' album featured "Stupid Girl," "Under My Thumb" and "Out Of Time," among Mick Jagger's biggest put-downs. This Year's Model shared that rage, with Costello venting his spleen at the fashionable set. There's "(Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea"'s "I don't want to go to Chelsea, oh no it does not move me," and "This Year's Girl's" "Time's running out, she's not happy with the cost, there'd he no doubt, only she's forgotten much more than she's lost." Overall, the tone was hunted, paranoid: "I don't like those other guys looking at your curves" (in "Living In Paradise") and "If I'm gonna go down, you're gonna come with me" ("Hand In Hand").

This confrontation was echoed in the cover image, which depicted not a model, but a sullen Costello behind a camera. Photographer Chris Gabrin explained that Costello was taking a picture of the person buying the record, who was "this year's model".

Listening today This Year's Model is still a whirlwind. Once drawn in, you realise that all this energy — like the deliberately wonky front-cover, designed by Barney Bubbles — is off kilter and furiously negative. In cloaking such vitriol with such instant music, Costello had triumphed as a wonderful subversive.

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Page scans.

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Photos by Paul Slattery.
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Cover and contents page.


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