Musician, March 1986
The Last Elvis Costello Interview
When Elvis Costello called his last album Goodbye Cruel World he wasn't kidding. After eight years he was sick of the whole pop star deal. For the rest of 1984 he played solo acoustic shows, turning his back on rock 'n' roll. 1985 was not easier. After a decade of ups and downs he and his wife Mary agreed to divorce. Relations with his non-working band, the Attractions, grew strained. It was just time to lay the whole Elvis Costello thing to rest. So he went and legally changed his name back to Declan Patrick McManus. He added one more name — Aloysius — in honor of the years lost to the character he'd created and who had taken over his life.
"I don't know why I ever changed it in the first place," Declan said. "Maybe it had something to do with actually believing the myth. It had something to do with actually believing I was in the wacky world of pop music. It happened too quickly to think of the implications. There was only my parents saying, 'That's a bit odd.' I can't see escaping it too easily. When people write about me there'll always be a dash between the names."
There were some positive signs. T-Bone Burnett, opening act on Costello's solo tours, became a good friend and the two songwriters collaborated on an exuberant 45 called "The People's Limousine." Better still, Declan fell in love with Cait O'Riordan of the Celtic punk group the Pogues.
I first caught up with Declan, Cait and T-Bone in London in mid-'85, where Costello and Burnett put on a two-man "Coward Brothers" show in a small theatre. Spirits were high early on, but crashed when the Attractions — alerted by sour Costello roadies — confronted Declan with the accusation that he planned to dump them and record his next (Burnett-produced) LP with American session musicians. As it turned out that wasn't quite the case — the Attractions would be included among the players on the new record. But it would not be an Elvis Costello & the Attractions album.
"The record will come out under the name 'The Costello Show,'" Declan explained to me later. "It was almost 'The McManus Gang.' I tried to play down the whole thing. I want it to be gradually assimilated. Otherwise the trash press in England, the Daily Mirror and the Sun, will make a gimmick story out of it. I've been an oddball to them for ten years. I'll be even more of an oddball for changing from one stupid name back to the stupid name I was born with.
The morning after we met in London, history-buff Elvis/Declan and his ten-year-old son traveled to Russia for a short holiday. Unfortunately, Dad forgot about the American dollars he'd stuffed in the bottom of his bag during a U.S. visit. The Soviet customs commissars pulled out that wad and as quick as you could say "currency smuggler" yanked Declan off to an interrogation room. As the door closed the protesting songwriter saw his boy standing alone in the middle of the Ellis Island of the Evil Empire.
That mess got cleared up just in time for Declan to get back to Britain and sing "All You Need Is Love" at Live Aid.
A few months later Declan was in Hollywood. T-Bone and recording engineer Larry Hirsch came into the TV lounge at Sunset Sound to tell him they thought they had a final mix of "You're So Lovable," an uptempo number the former Costello co-wrote with new fiancee Cait. Heading for the mixing board, Declan displayed an impressive knowledge of the technical side of record making, pinpointing an elusive echo that seemed to be on the vocal track as the fallout from an effect on the guitar. He wanted it all as dry as could be.
T-Bone said later, "I don't think anybody's realized yet how good he is. Because he came in on a trend that was part of a street movement in England. The guy can really sing, can really play, and can really write songs. For me one of the failings of his other records was that while the Attractions play the type of music they play brilliantly, to take them out of their idiom is really unfair to them. They end up sounding not as good as they really are. And most of this record was out of that idiom. This record is a break with his past. It's back to what he really cared about in music in the first place."
For the new album Declan and Burnett wrote up a wish list of perfect players, ignoring voodoo warnings about the alleged incompatibility of diverse styles. T-Bone knew his way around different music scenes, and had no regard for what NRBQ's Terry Adams calls the Musical Border Patrol. So the California Costello sessions mixed together jazz greats like Ray Brown and Earl Palmer, the core of Elvis Presley's TCB Band (James Burton, Jerry Scheff, Ron Tutt), the Hall & Oates rhythm section, Southern hotshot Mitchell Froom, L.A. session vet Jim Keltner, and those perennial Attractions, who rolled into town late in the project and played the pants off "Suit Of Lights" — a sort of requiem for Rhinestone Cowboys and other Last Year's Models. "That song's about the dubious embrace of celebrity," Declan explained. "The first verse came from seeing my father play to a very rude audience." Yes, the elder McManus was a musician, too.
The album Declan dubbed King Of America sounds so perfectly unified it would be easy to believe the same band played throughout. The tracks were cut live in the studio with Declan singing and playing acoustic guitar. And the players always focused on serving the songs.
Which is as it should be. Because these may be the best songs Elvis Costello — by any name — ever wrote. Declan stripped his work down to its emotional core, eschewing flashy chord structures and virtuosic wordplay. There is great delicacy in the composition, but not extravagance; skill and humor in the lyrics without showiness; deftness in the performances rather than flash. In its feeling of standing outside time and trends, King Of America recalls the first two LPs by the Band. Some of the album is concerned with a traveler arriving in America. This inspiration came from Declan's grandfather, a one-time ship's musician who regaled the family back in Britain with tales of New York. A less skillful writer might try to summon the disorientation of a British immigrant in the new world with images of skyscrapers or the Statue of Liberty. Declan accomplishes a lot more with the phrase, "new words for suspenders and young girls' backsides." Real funny, real evocative, and real true.
In the emotional intensity of its best songs, King Of America is a little like Blood On The Tracks. Like Dylan Declan seemsto have used his recent emotional ups and downs to create extraordinary narratives. King Of America sounds like a record made by a man who's been through the darkest night and come out of it convinced that goodness is possible.
Which is exactly the sort of pretentious rock criticism Declan McManus hates. When we finally sat down in New York in early winter to start what became a series of interviews, the man the world still calls Elvis admitted, "Before you came over Cait said, 'Tell Bill that how you write songs is, I just say mad things and you put them down.'
"There comes a point," he said, "where you recognize one thing is what you do for a living. Then you play that game of musical chairs and charades for a while. It's sort of like, if Goodbye Cruel World was a fudged attempt at a full stop, this album is a colon." We both burst out laughing and he added, "How's that for pretentious?"
COSTELLO: There's not an easy answer for that. I think a lot of the one-upmanship, a lot of the game-playing, was part of the persona. The reason I've changed my name back is to divorce myself from that. I mean, I'm always going to be known as Elvis Costello. Columbia is never going to stand for me abruptly abandoning the name. Also, I don't want it to become a statement, like becoming Robert Velline [Bobby Vee] or John Cougar Mellencamp. I mean, it's a simple thing. I want my life back. This Elvis Costello thing is a bit of a joke really. He doesn't exist. Except in the imaginations of people who've got the records and come to the concerts and wait for me to throw some stupid tantrum. It came out of insecurity. Some of it was real and some of it was playing with reality and some of it was playful.
But this record is more straightforward, there is more generosity. There's more love in this. My last couple of records were kind of dishonest, really. I think there is an honest person lurking in them somewhere. It's hard to talk about this without it coming out sounding pompous.
"Generosity" is a word that flew around a lot. It's something to do with T-Bone's influence. It's unusual to have a producer who prods at your motive in writing and singing the song, who keeps reminding you, "Think of the song!" Not in the sense of "Don't put strings on it" or "It'll be alright when we get the horns on." This was more like making a method record. There would be times in recording when we'd get stuck and no matter who we had in the studio, it would start to sound like a Tom Petty record or something: like a really good modern pop record with all the right sounds, but kind of flat. Those days when it went wrong we'd go back to the hotel and sometimes I'd suggest, "I'd better re-write it." T-Bone would go, "No, there's nothing wrong with the song. We agreed the song was good. You're not singing it right." It was always down to me. It's being generous with what you've got; giving the song enough space to actually be what you originally intended, instead of trying to turn it into something else. Which is what I used to do. With the Attractions, if we didn't get a song in four takes I'd twist a couple of things around at the last minute, and instead of it being a stroke of brilliance I'd completely fuck up.
Whereas T-Bone was saying, "Remember what the point was. Why did you write it?" People don't often do that. Producers obviously don't do that enough. It's an unusual kind of production in that sense.
Before we started, T-Bone and I would sit around and play songs, which is something you don't really do in England. His friends would come over and we'd play songs for each other. I realized that I had actually gotten away from ever sitting down like that with the Attractions. We'd known each other for so long and worked together so much I got inhibited. I got secretive about actually playing the songs. Maybe it was a lack of confidence, thinking I always had to do something better than the last record. When they're people you're always with, you wonder if they're thinking, "Oh, here he goes again, same old crap." I got to the point where I'd be mumbling the words until we got to the final takes of the songs.
But I got my confidence back through this process of playing them for new people. I read a biography of Hank Williams which said he used to go right up to people's faces and play them, like "Your Cheatin' Heart" and say, "That's a good one, isn't it?" That was an inspiration for me, that you could play a song like doing a card trick. Maybe I gained confidence from playing solo, where it became obvious that the way to record the songs was to try to make them as clear as possible.
And because I was recording with new people, when it came time to do the songs I had no way of masking it. I didn't have any mannerisms of the band to hide behind. Which I suppose is why the band didn't end up playing on much of the record. The only mannerisms were my own limitations of pitch, of voice, of technical ability. By the time we finished the record I felt more at ease with the strangers than with the Attractions. It was weird.
MUSICIAN: How did you approach working with such a range of musicians?
COSTELLO: We started off with the TCB Band, which was perhaps the most daunting. Everybody was daunting to play with, but because they were Elvis Presley's band I wondered what they'd think of my using the name. But they were so easy-going and open-minded. It was very heart-warming. Ron Tutt made one little joke about it.
Perhaps the payoff to working with those guys — and with respect to any possible tension there might have been over the Elvis identity — was when I left the booth with only four strings left on my guitar while the band was still playing the end of "Glitter Gulch." As I passed Jerry Scheff he said, "That kind of reminded me of playing with Elvis." My heart nearly stopped. I got just past him and he added, "Except with Elvis, the ballads were like that."
T-Bone suggested that we don't keep secret what the songs were about. If we were attempting to make emotionally involved records, we had to let the musicians in on the secret. So first off we'd gather the musicians in the center of the studio and I'd play them the song on acoustic guitar. I'd even explain anything that was a little guarded in the lyric. Perhaps it's easier to talk openly to people who don't know you well. The Attractions played really good on "Suit Of Lights" and we got some other things in the can that will come out as B-sides.The band that got the most tracks on the record, the TCB Band, were also the people who recorded in the first weeks, so I'm not saying any one group of musicians were better than any others. I'm finding it a lot more fun to go in and do it like this, and the results seem to be better. Next year I might do something completely different.
MUSICIAN: When you sing "I was a fine idea" — or ideal — "at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake," it sounds like a sadder, wiser sequel to your old notion of "This year's model."
COSTELLO: Yeah, it would be very arch not to have any recognition of mistakes. But not in the sack cloth and ashes sort of way that certain ex-members of the Beatles went through. You can do it with a little bit of humor. That song's an introduction to the record; a disclaimer, if you like, for everything else on there. It's not supposed to be some gigantic statement. It's not supposed to be confessional or anything, but there are things on the record that are quite true. There's no point in being coy and hiding behind a load of mannerisms any more.There's bits and pieces of a story going throughout which are not necessarily the pages of my life.
"Brilliant Mistake" is a sad song, but it's also sort of funny. It's about America and it's about lost ambition, not lack of inspiration. It's about a disappointed or frustrated belief. It's a song that people are going to read wrong. One line in it is, "There's a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals." It means celluloid and mirrors, movie cameras. It occurred to me the other day that people will think it's a reference to cocaine. I could have written a big song about America, like Paul Simon's "American Tune." But I think "Brilliant Mistake" is more like "Peace Like A River," a personal thing in the face of a big disappointing artifice.
I've always tended to qualify in songs. I never wanted somebody to point and say, "What a naive position!" And I suppose in doing that I betrayed naivete in the long run. That's the irony of it in retrospect. It's only on the new record that I've written any songs that are completely straightforward. The older ones were always qualified, whether by the weight of songwriting technique necessary to write something like "The Only Flame In Town," or the obscurity, the convoluted writing of songs like "Kid About It" and "Man Out Of Time" — which are actually true songs.
MUSICIAN: "Alison" stood apart from the rest of your early work. Was that an attempt to be confessional?
COSTELLO: Well, it was as revealing as I was capable of being when I wrote it. It avoids mawkish first-person revelation. It's written into the technique of the song, the way it says, "I know this world is killing you." That ambiguity was something I used quite a lot to reinforce meaning way beyond what you'd get by saying something straight out. "Watching The Detectives" had the same ambiguous quality. I was conscious of a certain amount of lyrical technique, and one was the use of ambiguity to make a thing more potent than it would have been if I'd just said, "Look at me with all my wounds." Which makes people just go "Ugh!" and turn away.
On the first two albums there's a lot of what people took to be the "wimp" and "loser" thing. Because I was really anti the posturing of rock 'n' roll, the crotch-thrusting element of it, I tried to write the opposite of that. I am really grossly offended by Led Zeppelin, not only because they're total charlatans and thieves, but because it actually embarrasses me. I grew up being bludgeoned with Deep Purple and all that heavymetal shit. That was uppermost in my mind when I wrote "Miracle Man" and some of the other songs that seemed to be making some sort of myth out of the wimp. It wasn't a conscious thing of me trying to make a myth out of what people took me to be; it was more an attempt to redress the balance against the weight of tasteless songs.
Two types of rock 'n' roll had become bankrupt to me. One was "Look at me, I've got a big hairy chest and a big willy!"and the other was the "Fuck me, I'm so sensitive" Jackson Browne school of seduction. They're both offensive and mawkish and neither has any real pride or confidence. Those songs on the first couple of records helped mold my persona, but to me there was a lot of humor in it. I was laughing at the alternatives. It was wanting to have another set of clichés because the old clichés were all worn out.
I had a lot of songs written before the first album came out. I wrote songs from the time I learned to play the guitar when I was about fifteen. I don't know why I did it; I didn't have any ambitions to be a professional musician. But I always wrote songs. I remember quite distinctly certain songs occurring tome when I was still working in a day job. I just wrote them down on the train on scraps of paper in my pocket — lines snatched out of nowhere. The first tape I touted around had about thirty songs on it. I think two of those songs ended upon the first album. All the rest were scrapped or remodeled. Once I had the opportunity to write an album I set about dismantling all the affected complexities of my songwriting. When you're not working for any audience you experiment with different styles. You say, "Can I write a song like such and such?"
MUSICIAN: "Blame It On Cain" sounds like the Band.
COSTELLO: That was one of the ones from the time I was sitting around saying "Can I write one like this?" There was a real idea behind it, but it was very stylized, very much after the fashion of a Robbie Robertson song. In live versions I would even put in a guitar break with the same sort of modulations he would get into — like in "Just Another Whistle Stop" where Robertson goes through a lot of lower modulations. Of course, it wouldn't come out anything like I planned; it probably sounded like Bob Quine on a bad night.
A couple of the other songs on that album, like "Sneaky Feelings," were arranged after the style of Tamla/Motown, but you couldn't tell because I recorded them with Clover, a California bar band.
We were learning a big stack of songs and they couldn't always remember the names. I wanted to do "Red Shoes" and they said, "Oh, you mean the one that sounds like the Byrds?" And I kind of blushed because it was obvious. As the song is about the compromise of age, I'd written it with something of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" in it. It needed that same kind of ringing sound. Whereas on "Waiting For The End Of The World" I had in mind the Velvet Underground. I don't think Clover had ever heard the Velvet Underground, so it came out sounding nothing like them, which was good.
I was using yesterday's records as blueprints, as all pop music is. All the good pop clichés had been written and there hadn't been any new ones for a while. I wanted to take some of the ready-made clichés that Goffin & King or Smokey Robinson would come up with and come up with my own photo-negative versions of them. Almost every song on my first album was an opposite — a diseased version — of another song. Like "No Dancing."
MUSICIAN: When you say you dismantled the "affected complexities" of your songwriting for your first album, do you mean because of the punk climate in England at the time?
COSTELLO: I went out and got those records, the Pistols album and the Clash records, and I thought, "This is what's getting all the attention." I knew that the songs I'd written would sound really precocious, I knew they had a lot of American influences and that was very out of fashion. I thought I would just get dismissed out of hand. My accent on the first record sounds much more American than it does now. I can't get away from it; it's just the way I learned to sing. I suppose it's derived from the singers I really admired at the time — Rick Danko, Van Morrison, Randy Newman. It never occurred to me. That's why Johnny Rotten was so great: he was the first actual English rock 'n' roll singer.
Given the opportunity to actually make a record and given the musical climate in England at the time, I thought my songs were going to sound very diffuse. So I scrapped most of the material, keeping only the songs that were the most jaggedy.Then I wrote a load more that were very concise. That's where that first album came from. And that meant I was an album ahead, 'cause I had songs that got dismantled or certain lyrics got used again. For about four years I was always an album ahead in terms of material. I always had a lot of songs on hand, which was quite useful because it meant I could discard a lot of things.
It sounds a little calculated in retrospect. But I'd been trying for three years, and I really did think I had some good songs.Some of them resurfaced later on. "King Horse" from Get Happy was a song I wrote when I was eighteen. "New Lace Sleeves" was written when I was nineteen. You can imagine if that song was on my first album? It's a precocious melody. It would have sounded very precocious at the time. People would have overlooked or sneered at it.
I wanted to simplify it. I'd had the fantasy of being in a group. I really thought that I had something. I'd been banging on the doors and being all self-righteous about it and obnoxious to A&R men and publishers. Then when I finally had a contract thrown in my lap by Stiff Records I figured, "Well, you better do something now. Better not make some gullible sounding records and let yourself down." I was afraid it would just sound too open.
That self-made straitjacket became a real Frankenstein's monster. Because along with it came that image. The image was slightly out of insecurity and self-defense and slightly manufactured by circumstances and timing and fortunate and unfortunate accidents. Public events and things that went on in my career just reinforced it and made people look at the songs in a different way. As things went rolling along it quickly got very stylized.
Suddenly you've got a contract and have to make a second album. I never felt pressured by deadlines, but they must be in the back of your mind. You have an audience and you have their expectations to dash or hold up or try to surpass. Also your experience gets broader through travel and experience. Where the first album came from jotting down bits of observation and fantasy on papers in my pocket, the first time I came to America I got a notebook and half the Armed Forces album came from just jotting down things that went past the bus window. That's why a lot of the phrases on that album are all broken up. You could drive down Santa Monica Boulevard and five shop names could turn into a song. They were so alien, so different. It was like riding on the tube train to and from work, writing songs about the mundanities of daily life to the rhythm of the track, but on a completely different scale. It was really the same thing; it was still my job and I was still going to work. Only now I was going to work at the Whiskey A Go Go. The songs were influenced by success, the change, the fact there was now an audience, and by the increasing experimentation in my life, including drinking too much, taking drugs, and things that change the way you write only in that they slightly change the process of your thinking.
On the one hand I was looking out the window of a bus driving through America, going to Manhattan for the first time, absorbing all these things like a movie going by. At the same time there were the rigors of being in a professional band and working much harder than I'd ever imagined working.
I'd spent a lot of time when I was a computer operator, reading the music papers. I knew the traps of getting a mannered sound. On the musical side I was real conscious of breaking out. So the second album, This Year's Model, is harder than the first. That's also because it was English musicians and they played with a different attitude. The next album, Armed Forces, was much sweeter. As it worked out the style in itself and the stance became the straitjacket, not the music.
MUSICIAN: Yet the sound of the Attractions itself put a similar cast on the songs.
COSTELLO: I kind of liked that. Because the Attractions were really good musicians — a lot of the bands at the time had a lot more attitude than capability — there was the danger of it appearing to be just a super-cabaret band or something if we got too slick. So it wasn't bad. That's why I kept changing; I didn't want to refine the sound too much. We kind of filched the sound off a lot of styles to begin with. The second album is all complete rewrites. It seems a bit dispassionate to say so now. I don't want to belittle it, and equally I don't want to make it sound more important than it really was. But there were about three albums that made up the blueprint for This Year's Model: Aftermath, the first couple of Who albums and some Kinks records. It was written following the structures of those.
I liked the weirder, slightly arty punk groups, not the ones who sounded like speeded-up heavy metal. I liked early Talking Heads. I was never above nicking ideas. Because the structures of the songs — particularly on the first record — sounded sort of 60s, because of the image and the Elvis name, people never looked close enough to home to see where I was stealing ideas from. People were always looking in the back catalog of rock 'n' roll for my influences, when I was just as likely to be listening to Talking Heads. There were a lot of red herrings, a good smokescreen. We could listen to a current record, get a good idea from it, use it, and because the Attractions played it all differently anyway, nobody would ever detect it. Quite often I wouldn't even tell the band what I was basing a song on. Because they'd balk and say, "You want us to play like a band that can't play?" It always got warped.
The process of writing wasn't such an artistic endeavor as some of the more pompous critics would like to believe. Every record wasn't the bloody tablets of stone. In the construction it was a lot more of a hack job. But hopefully in the heart of the thing, in the good songs, was the true bit. I don't have any purist tradition to lean on. Every pop musician is a thief and a magpie. I have an emotional affinity for certain styles, but none of them belong to me.
Though I'd lift musical ideas from anywhere, I don't want to make it seem like the content of the thing was done with the same reckless abandon. There was a lot more feeling behind it, even if it wasn't pondered over. I never considered writing songs just a craft. It was like if you sat down at a desk and scrambled for a pencil and couldn't find one, you'd write in lipstick. The same thing happens with musical things. If I couldn't find a rhythm I'd borrow one and then change it.
On Armed Forces there's a contrast between the music and the lyrics. The lyrics were plucked out of things going by the window; the music reflected the monotonous, rootless music we were listening to: Abba, Kraftwerk, David Bowie.
MUSICIAN: What's an example of a phrase plucked from something going by the window?
COSTELLO: The "Quisling Clinic" in "Green Shirt." There's a Quisling Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. Anything that sounds like it should be in quotes probably was. Those songs are actually not very well written. They're kind of fragmented. If you take the songs apart they don't actually make any sense.They don't say very much. It's more the intention with which they were said. That was my moment record. Probably the only one I will have because that was my pop star record.That's when I was a pop star in England for about ten minutes. I was self-conscious of that. The record inevitably doesn't make any sense because we were all completely mad.
After making three records you realize you've sort of created your own tradition. Then the process becomes a little more difficult. When we got to the recording of Get Happy I'd written a lot of the songs on the road. We arranged them following the fashion of the previous record, except slightly more up-tempo — because things were getting more frantic. We were taking more drugs, drinking more, had a more manic attitude. That inevitably led to a more frenetic sound. We went in to record and it sounded hideous. Really hideous. It sounded crass, cute, everything I despised about a band with "a sound." I'd already seen a few people I admired fall into that trap and get stifled by it. So we went down to the pub and had a drink and said, "Let's do it like Booker T and the MGs." Then we went back upstairs again. It was a really crass, almost joking suggestion. But we made a whole record that was our soul album.
Again, everything was played too fast because of our attitude at the time. It wasn't in control, it was very maniacal and emotional. But somewhere in the heart of the better songs is some sort of purity.
I garbled the words and bellowed. Sometimes I was overbearing. Sometimes I got right to the point, other times I blew straight past it. "I Stand Accused" should have been a lot more from the heart, because it was the way I felt at that exact moment. But because of my condition I just bellowed it like some thug.
That album was demented, and the way it was recorded was crazy. We did it in Holland. We'd go to the cafe and see a beautiful waitress and say as a joke, "I want to possess her." "Possession? That's a good one!" I'd write a song about it on the way back to the studio, just to see if I could do it, then we'd record it. It got to be a game. It ran away with itself. Which is probably why a lot of those songs aren't very good. When you push yourself that hard, the songs come out over wrought. Yet sometimes when you're throwing things away like that, you'll write something really true to your secret feelings in spite of yourself.
Sometimes I'd exasperate the band by changing the arrangement every ten minutes. Then I'd start re-writing in the studio, saying, "What we need is a couple of extra chords here!" By the fourth and fifth albums a lot of our songs had irregular structures, so they were hard to learn. And I'd start knocking out bars and bits. We worked from very rough chord charts, and that makes it harder to adapt quickly. "King Horse" has three superficially similar-sounding verses which are all totally different in length and chordal structure. It would be quite frustrating for the Attractions if I kept saying, "What we need to do is add an extra bit here!" Then I'd decide to change the whole rhythmic feel. By that point the bass parts, particularly, would be a problem. Some of the songs had too many chords for the bass player [Bruce Thomas] to get around fluidly, and then, once he'd found a bass pattern that would work around those changes, I'd halve the feel or something. Which made his job even more impossible. We'd quite frequently go through frustrating rounds of a couple of hours of finding a feel that felt right for me to sing it in, and then find that by playing it like that the song was now seven minutes long.
MUSICIAN: When you were recording in this hyped-up state did you and the other musicians get into tugs of war over which way to pull a song?
COSTELLO: People would get very intense about one particular thing. For instance, Steve Nieve would walk out of the studio because he thought we were playing a song too fast. Like calling time out in a football game. In retrospect, that was very effective, but at the time we weren't really aware of what was happening. It was just that suddenly one wheel had fallen off the wagon.
I probably wrote too many songs and made too many albums. I think I've made twelve albums. Twelve albums is a lot in eight years. Inevitably a quarter of the songs must not be worth having written, let alone recorded. Just by the law of averages. [Laughs] Some people would tell you it's quite a bit more.
MUSICIAN: Yet you have fans who hang on every word.
COSTELLO: Yeah. In a nice way. It's obviously very satisfying to find somebody's invented their own complete meaning for a song. Some have their own personal, emotional interpretations. That's great. That's what I always wanted. Then there's the people who hunt for hidden meanings. If people are searching these songs it just shows how bad things are, 'cause some of them are just word games. Or they're really what they appear to be on the surface.
There's certain techniques of being clear or obscuring meaning or fragmenting images — just simple techniques of writing. I've got a mind for wordplay and punning. I tried to calm it down because I got a reputation for it and then everytime I put one in I got criticized. Like the line in "Possession": "You lack lust, you're so lackluster." People said, "That just proves how crass he is!" But that line made sense to me!
MUSICIAN: T-Bone told me he's seen you knock off a lyric in minutes that looks as if it were slaved over.
COSTELLO: Yeah, it's like some people can do crosswords, some people can do anagrams. It's just a short-circuit in the brain or something.
The only album with squandered images that could have been made more of if I'd been in a more ordered state of mind is Trust. There are things in there that do have a good ring to them that are not well placed in the song. By then I should have understood better how to weight the thing, how to measure it out. There are things in there I wish I could rescue. "Strict Time," which is one of those druggy, word-play songs has the line, "She was smoking the everlasting cigarette of chastity." That's about that moment when you want to kiss the girl but she won't put the cigarette down. A lot of people would have written a whole song on just that one thing, but I was trying to cram too much in. There are four or five lines that precede it that are just gibberish.
MUSICIAN: If you'd saved that line for this album you'd have had a rhyme for the line about "the fag ends of the aristocracy." Do you think you've ever romanticized pain or anger in your life for the sake of your writing?
COSTELLO: Around the time I made Trust I felt I'd reached a cul-de-sac. I thought, "Maybe I'm living all these things out." It wasn't so much romanticizing as I thought I was starting to deliberately do dangerous things — physically and emotionally — just for the experience. I started to worry that maybe I was toying with people, with myself, just to see what happens, just so I'd have something to write about. I wrote one good line in "The Imposter," which otherwise isn't a very good song: "When I said that I was lying I might have been lying." The minute I wrote it it scared the hell out of me. It's like saying black is white. A very undermining thought, that. Doubting the things you know is the road to madness.
Rock 'n' roll has a potential for evil — far beyond any conception of it as "the Devil's music" — simply because it runs away, it belies any sort of responsibility. If you write from that perspective, you don't have any morality or responsibility.
I got frustrated at that time. After Trust came out I tried to take stock, take a bit more care of myself. A lot of the feeling of that album was defeated by the tenor of the record. It was very tense. It still puts me on edge to listen to it. If Get Happy was manic and played too fast, Trust was made on the very ends of our nerves. We were completely worn out. When I pulled "New Lace Sleeves" and "Watch Your Step" out of the past I thought, "This may be the last record; I'm digging up the old stuff." I thought I was being cheap by recording them. In fact, they're two of the best songs on the record. When they came back through the speakers they made more sense, they said more than some of the others. They were written with a clearer head, four or five years before. Something like"Luxembourg" didn't make any sense at all. I sounded like a barking madman. It could be in Chinese! It wasn't 'til I did it solo last year that anybody knew it had words.
After a few months I got dissatisfied with Trust. I felt I wasn't actually speaking to anyone, I might as well have been talking to myself. I was just repeating this thing. I had the reputation of being able to spin a few words. So what? Anybody can spin a few phrases. I was given enough rope to tie myself up in knots. It didn't have any meaning, it didn't communicate to anybody, and it wasn't how I felt.
My five minutes of stardom was definitely up. I was staring at cultdom and thinking, "Is it worth wrecking my health and getting so upset for this?" If it wasn't important to anybody else, why should it be so important to me? I could see myself slipping into that rather pathetic, self-pitying stance.
I made the country record, Almost Blue, to get away from songwriting. I didn't anticipate the violent reaction some people would have to it. It became sort of a joke. We put a sticker on it saying, "This record may bring out a violent reaction in narrow-minded people." I'd completely underestimated the false and hypocritical way some people in America assume ownership of this music. People who couldn't give a damn about it actually, who couldn't name five country songs. It annoyed me because I probably cared more about the songs I was singing than all the bloody hacks in Nashville. Billy Sherrill, the guy who produced it, turns out yards of music every week. He's a complete and utter hack. Hasn't got an ounce of feeling in him.
But in getting away from what I had been doing I realized it wasn't so bloody important. When I straightened up I had enough sense to say, "If you don't look after yourself a bit more you're going to be dead. Stop taking drugs, stop drinking so much, and behave a bit. You're really turning into a bore about being an artist. It's not important to anybody, and if you carry on like this you're not going to do anyone any good. You're just going to be a dead boy."
I wrote a load of songs during the time I was doing Almost Blue. I actually had time to consider things. I became conscious again of technique. I had a piano and I sat around and wrote almost all of Imperial Bedroom on the piano. Which I can't play! My father taught me a little bit when I was about seventeen. I would dance up and down the keyboard, learning chord shapes on the piano like people learn chord windows on the guitar. I developed a bit of this spidery technique and went off, making up a lot of chords that weren't strict majors and minors. I didn't even know the names of them. I'd show them to Steve Nieve and he'd interpret them, voice them better ways. I was bored with rock 'n' roll and conscious of the screaming sound being self-defeating. I thought maybe if I didn't scream and shout and whine so much, I might put it over a bit better. If it's right for the song, that's great. But I'd become aware of the pitfalls of bellowing beyond the point of feeling.
I'd been listening to a lot of standards, and thinking maybe I could write something styled after that, sort of crossed with baroque psychedelic records like the Left Banke. I had lots of piano meanderings. I sent one tune to Sammy Cahn to see if he could write lyrics for it! This sounds a bit pompous, but I had this mad notion that I wanted a link with that era. He's a bit of an old ham, but he wrote "All The Way" — and that's a pretty good song. I talked to him on the phone and he was a bit bemused by me, I think. But in the end the piece was far too meandering in structure for him to get an idea of and he sent it back. Chris Difford then wrote some lyrics for it and it became "Boy With A Problem."
I can't actually play any instrument properly. I can't read music. And here's the New York Times calling me the new George Gershwin. It was so ridiculous, really embarrassing. It was embarrassing to watch these people fall into the trap of their own critical conceits. And it tainted what I was doing, as if the conceits were my own! I simply liked those records. Like, "Almost Blue" is directly modeled on Bill Henderson's "The Thrill Is Gone." It's not close enough to be a plagiarism suit, but it's transparently modeled after it. I had Chet Baker in my head when I wrote it. But it's a sincere lyric, and if the tune's not totally original, there are millions of songs based on that kind of minor blues progression. You don't have to be a virtuoso to write those.
So I wrote all these songs, we rehearsed them, and when we went into the studio the ballads stayed more or less the same but the more up-tempo songs changed. Geoff Emerick, the producer, got a very different vocal sound from Nick Lowe's. I didn't change the keys, but I changed the register on about half the vocals on the record. After we recorded the backing tracks, three or four of the songs ended up being an octave lower than we'd rehearsed them. Then I started chopping up the structures of the songs. "Beyond Belief" became a different song completely. When the band came back the verse and chorus structure had disappeared and it was one continuous conversation with over-lapping vocals. Imperial Bedroom was the only time I ever used the studio as part of the writing process.
During the recording of Imperial Bedroom, Bruce Thomas of the Attractions thought I was being too obsessed with - that I couldn't write about anything but - domestic strife. But it wasn't that I was obsessed with it, it just made the strongest songs. It's not because of that subject; the saddest songs make the strongest songs. I always write better sad songs.
MUSICIAN: Do you sometimes reveal more of yourself than you intend?
COSTELLO: Sometimes when you're found out you run for cover. You don't want to admit it. There are certain songs I'd be fearful of when I sing them, either because I associated them with some time I didn't want to consider, or because they said something so bleakly personal that even the morbidity of the song didn't do justice to the darkness of the thought behind it. For "Man Out Of Time" I invented a series of stories to illustrate the point of the song. But it could have been just a simple country song based around the four lines of the chorus. When I consider what the words are and what made me think that way.... If somebody said, "I've got you now" and pinned you down and put a spotlight on what you felt at that moment, it gets embarrassing. It's too personal and it's too important to you. It's embarrassing to other people and it's just not polite. It's like farting at the table.
MUSICIAN: After the excursions of Almost Blue and Imperial Bedroom, Punch The Clock found you back in the pop/rock style. Why did you pick Clive Langer to produce that album?
COSTELLO: He was really hot at the time. He'd had these hits with Madness, whom I really liked: they were sort of carrying on the English pop tradition of the Beatles and the Kinks. He'd just done "Our House" and "Come On, Eileen." It didn't occur to me at the time that it wouldn't fit what we did very well.
We'd never gone in with a hit producer. Clive was really on me. It was the first time a producer said to me, "There's no point in me agreeing with you all the time." In a sense, Nick Lowe never really produced the records. He'd never question what I was singing about. With Armed Forces he got more involved with production sounds. He went with the mood of Get Happy; a mixing fader in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. We got a bit perplexed when we were doing Trust and it was quite obviously coming unglued. We were looking at each other in the studio like, "What are we doing?"
But Imperial Bedroom with Geoff Emerick had been an actual disciplined attempt to make a record, as opposed to just going in and recording songs. That's when I realized what I really did for a living. Then with Punch The Clock I promptly forgot it. I went back to making records like a pop singer. It was just dumb. It was daft. I had written some good songs that didn't make it on there because Clive said it would make the album too slow and morose. He said, quite rightly, that there was no sense in repeating Imperial Bedroom.
Punch The Clock was the first time the band did backing tracks and over-dubs. I don't think there were any live vocals on the record. It contradicted everything I'd believed about going in and playing your songs and getting performances. Some of the things worked within the framework of 1983 English pop music. Like "Every Day I Write The Book," which is kind of a hack pop song. It doesn't have any feeling behind it. It's just an exercise in writing that sort of bad Smokey Robinson song with all the tricks of the trade. And a few of the songs that were kind of heartfelt got steamrollered by the production juggernaut. Like "Mouth Almighty." When I did that solo people were amazed it actually sounded like a song instead of just the confection on the record.
MUSICIAN: "Mouth Almighty" appears to be a true, autobiographical song.
COSTELLO: Yes, but it was robbed — it doesn't have the sound of it because of the bad production. I followed all the worst musical aspects of it, trying to make it big and blown up when the song is quite confessional. After the critical conceits that greeted Imperial Bedroom — the stuff about George Gershwin — I thought, "This is stupid. I'll just write the first thing that comes into my head." So I wrote "The Element Within Her" which is just a complete load of gibberish that I wrote in three minutes. It's like a Paul McCartney song — just a load of phrases that sound nice and make about as much sense as....
MUSICIAN: "The movement you need is on your shoulder."
COSTELLO: Yeah. There are little bits in a couple of the songs that make some sense, but over all they were molded into whatever we needed to make the album work as a pop record. "Let Them All Talk" doesn't mean anything at all. "The Greatest Thing" sort of means something, but the arrangement toppled it over.
MUSICIAN: "Love Field" is a good song, but as always you had to stick in a twist. The whole song's going in one, positive direction in its description of a couple and then you say, "She's so tense but it's never mentioned."
COSTELLO: I think that was an insecurity of mine. Somebody — I think it was Morrissey — said, "I could never write a love song without having a get-out clause in verse three." There was something of that in a lot of my writing. There was always the unwillingness to be vulnerable. There was a kind of perversity in the writing and also a lot of cloaked meaning around that time. I didn't want to say things any clearer for personal reasons. And therefore they are actually bad songs in a sense, because they are guarded about things it would have been better to be overt about.
There's probably four real songs on that album. "Shipbuilding" which wasn't written for the album as such; Clive handed me the music and I went away and wrote that. "Pills And Soap" which I'd recorded the Christmas before but included on that album. "Mouth Almighty," which did have a real idea behind it. And "The World And His Wife."
It's inevitable you get more self-conscious as you go on. It's just not possible to go around pretending to be a primitive. I turned my back on writing rock 'n' roll songs for a couple of years because I thought it was false. I did know these other chords, so I was being dishonest by not playing them. "I mustn't put a diminished chord in, people will think I've soldout!" You know that kind of shit? The inverted snobbery of rock 'n' roll.
On Goodbye Cruel World I had another moment where I thought I wasn't going to do it much longer. That's the only time I ever wrote by going and sitting in an office. I put an electric grand piano and an amp and an acoustic guitar in there and deliberately didn't let myself write any place else. Usually I collect fragments of songs — verses, titles, lines — over a period of time. I might write a song in ten minutes, I might write it over two weeks. It's like a water tank filling up; enough time goes by collecting phrases and fragments and at some point songs start coming out. The only time I ever stopped the process was when Goodbye Cruel World was coming up. I didn't let the songs come out. I deliberately stopped myself. Just to see what would happen if I waited and then went and sat in a room and let it all come out in a rush. I didn't know if it would make it better or worse. Some of the songs on that record were pretty good. As songs they're much better than the ones on Punch The Clock. It's also the worst record I ever made. Punch The Clock, for all I don't like about it, is the record we went in to make. When we went in I was going to make Goodbye Cruel World almost a folk record. Clive and Alan really didn't want to do it. I said, "I don't really know who else I can ask. Will you do it anyway?" Clive said the songs didn't fit their style of production. I said, "I know that, but you do know how to put things on tape. Just sit there and do that."
But their production process is completely at odds with that. We play live; but they assemble things. Halfway through they talked me into doing some songs their way. Clive said,"Well, there'll be a contrast between the songs." Then we started doing things like "I Wanna Be Loved" and "The Only Flame In Town," which was a perfectly good 6/8 R&B ballad I'd written with Aaron Neville in mind that we jazzed up into a hyperactive pop record — a second division "Every Day I Write The Book." It actually made the song sound less sincere. It was nice on the radio, but it didn't have any feeling at all.
And I let the keyboard parts get disproportionate to the strengths of the melodies, the weightiness of the arrangements, because Clive's production ethic leans heavily on keyboards. The actual nuts and bolts of recording became longer hours. Instead of doing it spontaneously it became a crafted thing. I was guilty of losing patience with being in the studio so long. A lot of strange sounds that I didn't like crept onto that record. Some of the keyboard things didn't make any sense at all. Like on "The Deportees Club," a funny, ranty song that suddenly had all these serious synthesized keyboards. It was that problem of a sound being made obsolete by the next synthesizer to come out three months later.That record is identifiably the 1984 DX7 synthesizer. It gives a bit of a "flavor of the month" aftertaste to the whole record. You can't hear any of the songs!
There are some good lyrics on that album but some of the songs aren't well constructed and they're very badly arranged. But I didn't let Clive and Alan do their job and without wishing to, they obstructed me simply by being the wrong choice of producers. I should have been braver and done it myself. It was a loss of nerve.
One of the most disappointing things was that I knew about my failure of nerve on Goodbye Cruel World before it came out. Because immediately after recording it I went on the road solo and discovered exactly what was wrong with every track that failed on the album — which was almost every song on it.That made it even more disappointing 'cause there was no way I could stop the record coming out. Before I recorded the new album I made sure I went out and did all the songs live, finding out how far I could push them and how much I could lean on them.
MUSICIAN: The songs from Goodbye Cruel World that you introduced on your first solo tour went over great. "Peace In Our Time" was a big crowd-pleaser.
COSTELLO: See, I don't like that as a record and I don't like that as a song. I wrote it sincerely, but it's another of those things where I was susceptible to audience reaction. There were all these compliments handed out for "Shipbuilding" and "Pills And Soap" and it was like, "Well, here's something I've got to continue to do." That song is tainted for me by the presence of those two other much better songs.
Clive and I disagreed about what records are supposed to be. He doesn't like things to be too personal and real. "Home Truth" is an unpleasant, uncomfortable song. It's not written in any cute way; it's quite straightforward and quite pathetic in the true sense of the word. He didn't like that very much. He didn't want me to record it. And of course I had to. I should have stood up for the songs more if they meant that much to me, and the simple truth is some of them are not that good.Some of them are a load of wank.
MUSICIAN: People assumed "Worthless Thing" was an attack on MTV because of the line about shoving this cable down our throats. It seemed to me a lot bigger than that.
COSTELLO: Yeah, that song's about why I couldn't write rock 'n' roll songs anymore. The opening line ("How many times can you jump out of the cupboard before someone gets suspicious or someone gets discovered") is about the disproportionate importance placed on rock 'n' roll, particularly in America. It's about the Elvis Presley industry, all that bloody nonsense, how it's all blown up, including the stuff I've been party to. It's a bit of a write-off. "Sour Milk Cow Blues" is another one. It's a bit of an update (on Presley's "Milk Cow Blues Boogie"); that world has turned sour.
I said I used to write the songs from looking out a window. Now I was writing from looking at the television, the stupid things that jump out at you but aren't worth a whole song. You see a preacher with his hand up saying he'll heal you through the screen. You could write some witty singer/songwriter song about that. You could see some people I really like, like Randy Newman or Loudon Wainwright, doing that. But so what? That's a trap in itself. So I just dashed off a lot of these things, but in the end the record didn't cut it musically and the whole thing was a waste.
I always had this credo of simple performances; that a song that was a real song could be played on the piano or guitar and didn't need a symphonic production extravaganza to make it live. That really brings me to the current record. It's to T-Bone's credit as a producer that he pushed me toward thinking like that. We sat and prepared and talked a lot about those things. Not to get fraught about the artistic creation, but to keep reminding myself what records I really like, to not get too affected by pop.
I've lost interest in pop music. Most of it bores the pants off me. You get to the point where you're looking for something new to like and you convince yourself you love a record that's a load of crap. There's nothing wrong with listening to the same record twice, whether it's five minutes old or twenty years old. I've lost my love for the neurosis of the pop process. My new songs are clearly written; there are less obscure meanings in them. There's less trickery in the words. It's recorded and arranged in such a way as to put the voice and the song absolutely first. I just tried to talk more straight.
MUSICIAN: Certainly on "Indoor Fireworks" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" all artifice seems to have been scraped away.
COSTELUS: That's as clear as I'm capable of making it now. Maybe I'll get more clear, but I think any more than that might put me in danger of becoming the very thing I said I abhorred: the "Fuck me, I'm sensitive" school.
Once I discovered ambiguity and irony could be strong techniques, I started thinking that obscurity was as well. You start kidding yourself that a song is really evocative, and it's just muddled. If the music isn't clear it isn't evocative.
I never thought of it like "This is my quest! I must be clearer!" But that's the way it came out and maybe it's time to stop messing about and hiding behind things. One of those two songs is very sad and one's very loving, and that's as clear as I could possibly make them now.
"Indoor Fireworks" has technique in it; it's almost one of those metaphor songs like "The Only Flame In Town." It's just technically better written, regardless of whether it's more important to me.
MUSICIAN: What makes "Indoor Fireworks" such a better song is that with "Only Flame" — as with Joni Mitchell songs like "Electricity" and "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" — the metaphor seemed more important than the content.
COSMANUS: By the middle of the second verse of "Only Flame in Town" you start to think, "Oh god, that's a good one,""Aw, that one's a bit dodgy!"
MUSICIAN: Whereas in "Indoor Fireworks" when you say, "I'll build a bonfire of my dreams and burn a broken effigy of me and you," the fact that it extends the fire metaphor is completely secondary to the emotion.
McMANUS: I tried to write one that had some chill in it. Like "May Ye Never Be Alone." I was aiming up there. Whereas when I wrote "The Only Flame In Town" I was trying to write like Allen Toussaint. I was thinking, "How tough does Hank Williams ever get?" He didn't ever shy away from the matter. If you're going to be true to yourself you've got to say, "Could I say it as cold as Hank Williams did?" You have to keep reminding yourself how strong the really strong songs are.
Musician, No. 89, March 1986
Playing with the big boys
Pump It Up
Photo by Ron Delany.
Photo by Barry Schultz.