Musician, October 1983

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US rock magazines


Elvis Costello

A man out of time beats the clock

Timothy White

Elvis Costello arrived on the British scene six years and nine albums ago with a blast of bitterness and brute honesty that made him the first new wave superstar. As his prolific intelligence moved musically from pub to punk to post-modern, even embracing cabaret and country, his career remained stormy and underacclaimed. Now, basking in a new Costello climate of warmth, honesty and commercial appeal, Elvis relaxes over sashimi with Timothy White.

He's sweating like a stevedore, running hard and sucking wind as he traverses a broad, sun-scorched street in London's West End, dodging tourists, spinning free of snippy shop-girls and seeming almost in the clear until two infernal lorry drivers decide to hit their accelerators and aim to flatten him. Truly. Good God, these devils wanna ruin his red shoes!!

"Aaaaye!!!" Elvis Costello wears the fear-frozen gape of a haunted man who's just awakened in a shooting gallery as he jumps back onto the curb. Dressed in a midnight-colored suit and matching tab-collar shirt, his swift reflexes have spared his life but not his smart crimson floaters, as the predatory trucks splash a squalid puddle of black water down upon them. "The cheek of those wankers!" he hisses as they roar past. Only momentarily shaken, he picks up his hectic pace again, hurrying from newsstand to newsstand, searching, searching.

"Damn, damn," he mutters, his unexplained efforts apparently fruitless, and abruptly suggests catching a hack to his favorite Japanese lunch spot. The car is cruising through Covent Garden when Elvis — "Aha!" he whoops — suddenly begs the cabbie to pull over and then he leaps out, returning a few moments later with the new issue of Melody Maker, hot off the presses. "Excuse me a minute while I look into this," he says and whips through the venerable British rock journal until he reaches the record review section. He eases his glasses back up the bridge of his pug nose and peers anxiously at a piece headlined IMPOSTER UNMASKED (The Imposter having been his alias for a limited election-time release of the scathingly anti-Thatcher/ruling class "Pills And Soap" on the independent Demon label).

"Ummm, ummmm — my God!! They like it! They like it!" he exults, waving aloft the magazine's glowing assessment of Elvis Costello & the Attractions' new album, Punch The Clock. When we reach the restaurant, the husky rocker wearing the tinted hornrims disappears into a phone booth and emerges moments later to announce that the first new singled issued in the U.K., the shimmering soul bopper "Everyday I Write The Book," has just hit the top thirty. As a result, a scheduled band rehearsal for an imminent U.S. tour will be shortened tomorrow so that Elvis & the Attractions can hold forth as guests on Top of the Pops. This calls for sashimi.

It's a steamy ninety-degree day in London in the summer of 1983, but it obviously feels like a deep-freeze for the former Declan McManus when compared with the pop purgatory in which he's been roasting since 1979. That was the year that Elvis and company hit the road for the third time in the States, at that stage in support of their acclaimed Armed Forces LP. Cocky and largely incommunicado off-stage, the characteristically taciturn leader of the band got into a drunken bout of fat-mouthing in a Columbus, Ohio ginmill with a belligerent Bonnie Bramlett and other members of the Stephen Stills band, and wound up odd lout out for his highly-publicized racial slurs about Ray Charles and James Brown. Costello has long since apologized for his grievous utterances, stating that he was pie-eyed, perversely petulant and just trying to irk his barmates with the most gratingly nasty remark he could muster. People do a lot of foolish things at the age of twenty-four, and western civilization rarely takes much notice, but this time a fair chunk of the world was watching, greatly unamused.

It was, of course, a bizarrely self-destructive move for the leading, most critically beloved figure in the new wave hierarchy after the stunning originality of his first two albums (My Aim Is True, 1977; This Year's Model, 1978) had established him as a rising rock craftsman sans pareil (he was twenty-two when he debuted) — and one of the few seemingly destined for mass acceptance. Ironically, he was also one of the few in his sphere of influence who had gone out of his way to reaffirm the enormous debt he and his young colleagues owed to the R&B, blues and soul greats, in addition to being quite active in the Rock Against Racism movement and a sworn enemy of England's fascist, anti-black National Front (his "Night Rally" was an unequivocal denunciation that put him in personal jeopardy with its rabid membership). In short, the Angry Young Man image which Costello cultivated had backfired, severely crippling his career's momentum.

Following the 1979 tour, the Attractions — Steve Nieve, keyboards; Pete Thomas, drums, Bruce Thomas, bass — broke up for a time, while Elvis weathered squalls in his personal life. When the group reunited in 1980 (thanks to manager Jake Riviera) it was to release Get Happy! a twenty-song celebration of rockin' R&B that demonstrated enormous energy and invention but little direction. The same year, Taking Liberties, a score of obscure B-sides, unreleased masters and cuts previously relegated to U.K. LPs, was shipped into the States. Like the previous record, it contained many fascinating tracks and was a testament to Costello's prolificacy, but was too diverse to digest and sold poorly. The year 1981 was a gloomy period that showed an even more reclusive Elvis come together with longtime producer Nick Lowe for their sixth LP, Trust, notable for the single "Watch Your Step," and a duet with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook on "From A Whisper To A Scream." The record received no radio response and a lukewarm sales reception in the U.S. market and Elvis shifted gears dramatically, heading down to Nashville in May to do an album with veteran country producer Billy Sherrill. A grossly underrated effort by a canny fan of George Jones, Don Gibson and the best of modern country, Almost Blue did well in the U.K. but only served to confuse Costello's loyal (and somewhat dwindling) following in America.

It took the bold, highly impressionistic Imperial Bedroom, with its elaborate orchestrations by the brilliant Steve Nieve to regain mainstream attention for all of the right reasons. Produced by George Emerick, it was a record that was fierce in its desire to flex new muscles and take freshly focused chances, and even the most dogged detractors were forced to unclench their fists and applaud a noble and sagacious compositional effort.

Now, with Punch The Clock, Elvis Costello has a shot at a full-scale artistic breakthrough as well as total access to the airwaves and a triumph at cash registers on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was clear as he took his place before the sushi bar that he was not going to blow it again. A highlight of the new album is "Mouth Almighty," on which Elvis asserts: "I know I've got my faults / And among them I can't control my tongue." Candid admissions of weakness are the first signs of real strength, and this year's model plainly has come to like himself for himself. Open, vulnerable — and unescorted — he exhibits an easy poise leavened with an engaging self-depreciation. Gone are the defensiveness and hair-trigger fulminations of the untempered, ninety-eight-pound weakling who once cooed "my aim is true" behind Coke-bottle lenses. He's been replaced by a broad-shouldered, affable, articulate, acerbic-within-bounds and enormously likable adult who laughs heartily at other people's jokes, offers to share his octopus and squid (no thank you), and during the course of a long, lively talk was at one point unable to suppress — I swear it! — a full-blown blush.

No longer a man out of time, Elvis Costello is learning how to make the most of whatever the clock still holds in store for him.

How do you see the evolution of your songwriting style?

Evolution isn't a word I'd use, but I'd constantly move from one style of writing to another as I felt I'd exhausted one or was selling my ideas short. I largely thought that the songs on Armed Forces — which coincidentally is my most successful album to date, and I hope won't be by the time this appears — were rather glib. I've since adopted a style of writing that's a bit more direct and honest. On Get Happy! the songs were shorter, very immediate; I didn't allow as much excess.

I'm a bit of a magpie — I don't play any instrument particularly well, so I do things by feeling rather than by technique. If I think, "Now I'm going to write a Four Tops song or an Erik Satie song" (laughter), obviously it's a bit limited as to how close I can get. But it's not important how close to somebody's musical idea it is. It's only important how well the song works, and if I've gotten something I'm satisfied with because it did the job. So I started using lots of other styles of music, if you like, quite consciously, but always trying to keep my musical identity in them. That culminated in the Imperial Bedroom album, where there are lots of loose ends and lots of potential directions. In each song there's some fake psychedelia or a 40s-style riff or things written with a strict format after the fashion of a standard ballad. I wanted to see what effect I could achieve.

Were these later record regenerative projects or exploratory ones?

Well, the last album was exploratory. There are a lot more deliberate obscurities in the lyrics on that one to allow them to work on the listeners' imaginations rather than making a specific point every time. I sometimes like to make an impression rather than a statement. "Kid About It" is an example, and "New Amsterdam" on Get Happy! Almost unconsciously, they give off the feeling of an event without describing it.

What was the first song you ever wrote?

I couldn't tell you what it was called. I was writing back when I was fifteen, so I should imagine it was all about the trials and tribulations of being fifteen — not to knock that. I'm just damned glad that I wasn't discovered then. A song I wrote before the first album which didn't appear until later should give an idea of the sort of songs I didn't choose to record at first — it was "New Lace Sleeves," on Trust. The arrangement was a later thing but that less direct kind of song was written in its entirety before my first album. "Ghost Train," which I've done a solo version of, was also written before the first album.

You appear to have a very fitful attitude toward the supposed war between the sexes. It's very Thurber-like acting as a jocular conscience of human folly.

James Thurber's one of my favorite writers. I never thought about it all along those lines, but maybe there is an element in that sympathy to Thurber's attitude that comes through. I've read a lot of his writing and I love his cartoons, so it might filter through.

Thurber's view is one of "I see you all doing this, and I give up! I don't know who's in charge here, but dammit, I do see patters, so I'm going to throw them all back at you!"

I think that's quite it, really, and people sometimes make the mistake with the songs of presuming that every one is written about my life. They say, "This has happened to him." but it could have been something I just saw in the same way that Thurber did. (grinning) But my life's not a cartoon. For instance, I didn't really meet my wife by finding her crouching on top of the wardrobe!

Could you at least detail how one of your better-known songs like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," was built up?

That's an odd one to pick, because I occasionally get visions in my head that I just write down, and there's no experience of having worked upon them — that being one of those instances. I wrote it all in ten minutes.

I go into a trance when I'm writing, and can remember very little, like, except sitting down once with the newspaper. It can just be a mass of print, or at other times, a mass of one-liners that stick out as possible parts of songs. With "Pills And Soap," I had written the title down as something that had come off the TV, and it suggested all these ideas. The substance of the later verses came from reading a newspaper, and these other things leaped out at me. It was as mundane as that.

That's a pretty angry tune. There's a cutting edge to most of your music that makes it dart and stab out of the radio. Would you say that most of your songs are angry?

Well, even if the emotions in my songs are negative, they are definite emotions. That's the main thing about them. To some extent I'm satisfied with the songs that give only an impression of an emotion instead of adamantly saying, "This-is-the-way-I-feel," but they're the ones that are the least memorable. They're passive songs — you have to come to them. The other songs, whether negative, positive, angry or glad about something, come at you.

There aren't any passive songs on this new record. There was one passive song called "The Flirting Kind" which is on the B-side of one of the singles here in England but was left off the album. I made a conscious effort to be as brief as possible lyrically. I try not to have so many superfluous things in a song but also take care not to strip them of any images that make them vivid and exiting to listen to. Chiefly, I want to keep the ultimate point of the song uppermost.

To my ears, virtually all the songs on Armed Forces seemed to have a definite quality to them, while the 1981 country album, Almost Blue, had a passive feel, as if you were basically in the act of warming up to them.

Yes, but it's not so much that on the country album as, "Why am I doing them?" To view somebody being that unhappy, or to be in sympathy with songs which portray that amount of unhappiness requires a degree of resignation on the part of the person carrying that out. You can't go in there and give those songs stink, you know, you can't give them hell.

But I was in that melancholy attitude. I was disillusioned with my own writing and therefore chose to sing those songs. Those songs reflected my frame of mind as well as any others I could have written.

You were disillusioned in what sense? You thought you weren't hitting the mark?

I think there was a period of a hangover from the Armed Forces era, which was very successful. So it was on the one hand not enjoying that, making rather a mess out of it in terms of my life and my career, and on the other hand, feeling that I'd squandered an opportunity to have a large audience. I was feeling that I didn't have anything to say for myself, and then when I did have something to say — on the Get Happy! and Trust albums — I no longer had the means of the medium with which to communicate with a larger audience. The fact that the audience was getting smaller at that point sort of led me to the conclusion that I should stop writing songs.

I decided to do a record of other people's songs to bring some other talent, if you like, to the fore — which was the ability to sing rather than just have my words out. It had gotten to where the reviews were just concerned with, "What's he saying on this one? Who's he having a go at now?" I mean, I like to be my own most vitriolic critic about what I'm bleeding on about, 'cause there are always those people who are not convinced by you at all and think you're a terrible sham.

Do you think that critics put too much emphasis on your words rather than the total composition?

Sure, but there's no point in being false about the fact that there's more substance to my lyrics than quite a lot of other writers — not to say that there aren't others who write interesting lyrics. But overall, there are a lot of very poor lyrics on records. I always used to say that the minute that the critics found somebody who could string three words together, they immediately called him the new Bob Dylan, they call him the new Bruce Springsteen. It's a very dangerous thing to pay that much attention to someone who perhaps can't withstand it. Whatever happened to Elliot Murphy? Whatever happened to Willie Nile? These people never had a chance because, when they came out, the critics presumed one exalted thing about them and so much was expected. It's extremely unfair.

It's been said that the reason so many American rock critics love Elvis Costello is because they look like Elvis Costello.

(booming laughter, blushing) That's quite a good one. But they don't, you know. Again, that's the thing: they look the way they think I look! I don't look anything like they think I look!

You spoke to me earlier, in the taxi, about the incestuous, elitist qualities of the British press as opposed to the rock-crit, self-importance of some of the American press. Do you think the music press makes any significantly positive contributions to the overall environment?

If they're not actually informative — which in different ways they are, I guess, on both sides of the Atlantic — and merely negative, then they set up something to work against. Fighting the American press is like disobeying your parents, because they're so pompous. Critiques in the States usually have the tone of book reviews a lot of the time. In live concert reviews they treat you like opera! — "Mister Costello did this"...and so forth.

There's the famous instance of Meat Loaf being referred to in the New York Times as "Mr. Loaf."

(laughing convulsively) Aaah! Mister Loaf! Mister Loaf! That's fantastic! Mister Loaf! (catching his breath, wiping his eyes) The rolling buzzards!

It must be incredibly frustrating to constantly have your gradual development, your emerging muse, sharply criticized. A lot of the times, just at the stage when artists are beginning to reach a big audience, they are not necessarily doing their best work.

I felt that I was at the time with Armed Forces, because I hadn't been one who simply stuck around a long time and suddenly gained a massive audience when they'd made their worst record. I actually felt that I w still ascendant artistically, but in retrospect I think that because everything happened so quickly my judgment wasn't at its best. My great enthusiasm for elements of the way my work went in the light of that initial burst of acclaim was misplaced. I'm not tally denying all the work, though. There were some damned good songs in that transitional period.

Do you have any absolute favorites thus far?

There are songs I still enjoy playing which are not necessarily our best-known songs. "Big Tears," which was the B-side of "Pump It Up" in England, is probably one of the best songs we've made. I still like "Pump It Up" as well. I couldn't imagine going in and making that record now, but I'm glad I made it then.

Your range of focus is an uncommonly wide one. How did you come to put "My Funny Valentine" on the back of the 1979 "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" 45?

I'd always liked the song, since I was a child. My parents played Sinatra's rendition around the house, and the band just needed another B-side, really. It was one of those situations where I was available and nobody else was, so we just did the guitar and voice and it seemed okay to me. I ignored all the criticism of it at the time, people saying that I had a lot of bloody cheek singing a song like that because, after all, I was a punk (sly grin).

It seems that you're really concentrating on your vocals this time around. In "The Invisible Man" in particular on the new LP, you seem to be paying a lot more attention to your singing. There's almost a delicacy to the vocal on that track — I also hear a bit of Ray Davies influence in there.

(delighted laughter) That sort of became the standing joke when we were recording it! We were not actually copying anything, but without any conceit at all — just an in joke among the band — a song will often become known as "the Al Green tune" or whatever because it has some little lick in there. While we were recording "Invisible Man" Clive Langer said, "That's like the Kinks!" and once he'd said that, I couldn't get it out of my head. You know, I'm not a bad mimic when I want to be.

On the Get Happy! album we consciously abandoned the arrangements we were working on and rearranged everything based on a load of soul records I'd bought to refresh my memory. "King Horse" had the "Reach Out" guitar part, for example, along with a long "Poppa Was a Rollin' Stone" intro which we chopped off the record. There were a lot of little jokes on the album, and I think that's quite good fun. You shouldn't be afraid of making those kinds of jokes between yourselves — it helps to deflate any conceit that you have.

The horns on "T.K.O. (Boxing Day)" on the new album have a nice Stax soul review quality.

It's funny, in America folks tend to treat Stax as a vaudevillian throwback. We have a lot more... I don't want to say reverence, but more...respect for soul and R&B overall. A lot of big bands in the States seem to be frighteningly ignorant of stuff that is really their own heritage. They have this rock and this heavy metal music in America that doesn't have any roots in rock 'n' roll and soul or anything. It's a creation of the 1970s. I'm talking about the Totos and the Rushes — those groups that sings, "We're a rock 'n' roll band!" or "We're rocking tonight!" And they don't have anything to do with rock 'n' roll, and wouldn't know it if it bit them (laughter). I think there are very true rock 'n' roll bands in America, such as the Blasters. The people who have the least clue of what's really good about rock 'n' roll hold it as a god that must be bowed down to. I think it's so bloody old-fashioned, behind-the-times. I can't understand why anybody would be the slightest bit interested in "We're-going-to-do-it-all-night" kinds of songs.

In terms of your style of composing and playing, I sense that you like to hurry the melody and rush the hook. Are you conscious of that? Sometimes it's almost an examination-in-progress of how mannered rock 'n' roll can be.

Well, more recently I tend to sing behind the beat instead of ahead of it, except on some of the uptempo songs. On the last album, I sang very consciously behind the beat, but I don't think I understand what it is you're saying.

There's a hurry-up quality to the structural resolution of your recorded material and to its live presentation that makes me as a listener hear with new ears. It's one of the things that I enjoy most about your music.

The music is built around my singing, and there is a particular tone in my voice at the register I sing at most of the time which tends to sound — some would say urgent, others would say agitated, depending on whether it jars you or is pleasing. So that might be it. My voice is very powerful in that certain register and it's the one that is most effective at harassing the listener (chuckling). You know what I mean? It cuts through backing and cuts through the beat as well, so perhaps that's what creates that effect. I've never really analyzed it.

I try not to get too self-conscious about my singing, for instance, and the only time I'm conscious of my singing is when I feel I've been consciously trying to eliminate sounds I don't like from my style. Over the years, I've dropped certain inflections and phrasings, but getting analytical about it is the worst thing you can do. In a few instances, I've allowed records to go out when I was unhappy with the vocal style, particularly on the last album, on which I indulged my experimentation. Normally, excepting the country records, I've always been produced under the disciplines of Nick Lowe, but because I wasn't producing myself on Imperial Bedroom, I was going overboard.

What was it like working with Nick Lowe?

I first knew him as a fan of Brinsley Schwarz, and he was the first person I ever knew who was in a professional group that made records and things. I knew him socially from around 1973, before I was a professional musician. I met him in a pub opposite the Cavern in Liverpool — this sounds like something a press officer would invent but it's true. He was playing there just before the club finally closed. I was in a little group, all of us working under our own names, and I met him at the bar. Then he was the first artist signed to Stiff and became the house producer by the time I was signed.

What specific contributions has Lowe made to your sound?

(smiles) when I first knew Nick, his attitude was, "Hell, it's no big deal that I'm in a group! You bang three chords together and you write songs!" Up until then, because I had no experience in recording. I always thought that the more complicated the song was, the more merit it had. To some extent, he was instrumental in making me see the benefit of simplicity — and I adopted that as a creed from there on.

As a singer, I always had an understanding with him that he would let me go so far with a vocal, but if he thought I was going past it and becoming too considered and losing the feeling, he'd stop me and use the earlier, imperfect take. He'd always allow me one or two wild takes beyond what he thought was it, in case I did something extraordinary that he wasn't expecting. He taught me a lot about craft and non-calculation — and that they needn't be in conflict.

Is Punch The Clock a title meant to comment on the drudgery of the work week or a rage concerning age?

No, but I like titles with double meanings, like Trust. It's got a great double meaning to it: you could say, "Trust me!" or "Trust them!" Punch The Clock could mean stopping time, or let's punch in and get to work, but it's not a manifestation of rage about getting old. We were going to give a deliberately pretentious title to the last album just to irritate people — we were going to call it Music To Stop Clocks. And then we were going to call it This Is A Revolution Of The Mind, which comes from "King Heroin" by James Brown — but I discovered that he did call one of his albums that! But I'm not a prisoner of time. (crooning) "Time is on my side..."

The first time I played "Love Went Mad" from Punch The Clock, I cracked up laughing because I thought I caught a certain ingenious obscenity in the lyrics that I believed I must have heard wrong, but I checked and yes, the lyric read: "I wish you luck with a capital F."

Hmm. I don't think that's a particularly good line. I think it's a lousy one, actually. I prefer the line before it, "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef." That's just my personal preference. The other one's a bit of an untidy payoff, one of the worst lines on the record.

Seriously? I love it! It's a line I'd use in a pub.

Well, yeah. I suppose you're right. See, that's a song about complacency from a comic opera that will never exist. The detail in it about Piccadilly being turned into Brands Hatch refers to a racing car track in this country that's like the Indianapolis Speedway.

The song is about Mr. Complacency being down in the fallout shelter, totally resigned to his fate just seconds before he's obliterated. There he is down there, playing his family favorites on a tissue and a comb and thanking God he won't have to be tempted by young girls dressed as older women anymore — "There'll be no more lamb dressed as mutton rather than mutton dressed as lamb." (laughter) He's counting his few blessings that are left, 'cause he's lived such a good, saintly life.

Your writing has always seemed concerned with a stark kind of political commentary that's almost Kafkaesque. There' s a line in "Pills And Soap that goes, "You think your country needs you but you know it never will." Do you have a sense of cynicism about these things?

First of all, concerning how much you belong to your country or your country belongs to you, definitely so. I think it's a really false belief when they tell you, "Your country needs you." Yeah! A great nonsense, isn't it? They only need you as long as they've got a particular function for you. It's not your country or my country — it doesn't belong to me.

Do you vote?

Yes, I do. I voted for the Labour Party in the last election. Why I would not vote for Thatcher is easy: I think that it's an insensitive government, it doesn't have any compassion for people who are not self-made business people. They have no feeling for people who haven't got any money or a job. They're quite prepared to damn large portions of the population to miserable lives. I don't think there's any way that you can justify voting any other way but Labour. I suppose you could say that's a very high-handed attitude to take toward any political party, but I should think it goes beyond politics — it's actually morally wrong to vote for the Tories.

Well, I would think that a country is only as good as the quality of life that its working class is experiencing, but do you see yourself as a champion of the working class?

No, I don't see myself as a champion of anybody. I've never stressed it enough that I write from my own point of view. I'm not writing for anybody else. What people identify with in the songs is their business. That's what use they make of the songs, the same way they make use of something they've read in a book or see in a film. I don't make any demands on the audience in terms of them seeing me as a spokesperson or a champion. I don't cast myself in any roles like those. I'm just an individual.

I think the atmosphere in the U.K. makes for a much more vital rock scene. In America the scene is so diffuse.

When you live in a spread-out country, you can't have it any other way. Still, you've got little close-knit creative cliques in particular towns and cities, like the new York community that gave us Talking Heads and the Ramones — that's an unusual scene that can spawn both those groups, even though they're both very arty in their way. But I don't put the vitality over in England down to class. Class is a depressing element of this society and I don't think it has any positive aspects except that it gives you something to kick against. And, of course, there's currently a much larger middle class — at least in their own minds — than there's ever been in this country. But in truth there's only three types of people in the world: people who work, people who are not allowed to, and people who don't have to.

Speaking of your own work, does it bother you that you haven't had any hit singles in the States?

(pensive) I don't know. It obviously bothers me that we seem to be able to have a degree of success, and the hit single is the key to a larger market. If reaching a larger market means that you have to sound like Christopher Cross, then I'd rather stay the way I am. I'm not going to make a record which I think is consciously intended to get the desired effect of a hit in America, a hot single which is gonna break us through so that we then are up there with Bob Seger and all the good ol' ones. I want to reach there when it's on the terms of making good music. Coincidentally, quite a lot of the people who are held in almost obscene reverence in America, like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, don't sell that many records.

What are your feelings on the music video boom and its relative importance to your group?

We've done one video for this record and we'll probably do another. We've done loads of them but you won't see them on MTV — except only at three o'clock in the morning. I don't think we're a particularly visual group, which is a drawback but we've made some quite good videos over the years; at least one for each album since Armed Forces. They're fun, but usually trite; the current English school of the "mysterious video" genre is to wear trenchcoats on them and walk through dry ice smoke — you've got to look like you're in Murder on the Orient Express. Or was that last year? God, I can't take them seriously. I think it's a big mistake to interpret the twenty-four-hour record company and its bored-brat indulgence in the shape of rock videos as some kind of innovation — that's very self-congratulatory. Actually I think it's a retrogressive step. It takes a lot of music out of it all, so you see what ugly, boring bastards most rock chaps are. I'd rather that you waited all week with some feeling of anticipating for one program that was genuinely great, in which you saw good bands that were exciting, than have twenty-four-hour access to a load of idiots with too much money and not enough sense. I'm afraid that's the standard of most of the videos that I saw when I watched MTV. That's not indicative of the idea; it just shows the paucity of imagination and genuine inspiration, and of the vanities of a lot of the groups.

Say, were you modest and well-liked as a kid?

(laughter) Oh, I never thought, "My God, I'm so much brighter than everybody else." Or (dreamily), "I knew from an early age I was special" — one of those kinds of remarks, of "I used to see things other people didn't." I did average work at school — but I don't think that's a reflection of intelligence.

I'm only curious if you had close companions with whom you could really confer as an adolescent.

I don't have very many friends, period — let's put it that way. I just don't choose to have many. I had few friends then and few now, meaning a few I value a lot rather than a lot I don't value at all. I don't worry about how sophisticated the relationship is, I just worry about whether it matters to me. It can be quite inane, because a lot of things that matter to you generally are things that lack sophistication, or what we laughably call sophistication — which is our ability to drown our real feelings in the cologne of sophistication. There you go! There's a good one! They're rolling off the tongue today, folks!

Getting back to music: what role does keyboardist Steve Nieve play in shaping songs?

I think it would be unfair to the other two Attractions, Bruce and Pete Thomas, to say that Steve has a greater say overall. Obviously, he has the most scope with his instrument because he's the main melodic interest on most tracks, and from the nature of his instrument he has more range than the bass or the drums. But I think overall it's a fairly even input. On the last album, we had songs which he arranged for outside players, as in the case of "....And In Every Home" and "Town Crier." That's a different matter. He contributed quite a lot to "....And In Every Home" because I gave him the song, said "give full vent to your imagination," and he gave it this deranged setting. It's marvelous that he has the technical, musical ability to write things down, that he can communicate complicated ideas to players that can only work with written music. I don't have that ability. I don't write or read music at all. I have to describe things to people if I'm working with a writer or arranger; I have to communicate by humming the lines, which can get very tedious.

Still, that's a great rock 'n' roll and R&B tradition.

I suppose it is. I wrote all the main horn refrains on this new album. I sang, "da da da da," and the phrasing and the harmonies of it were worked out between myself, Steve, Clive, Langer, Alan Winstanley and the horn section. Other punches, turnarounds and modifications came from a communal effort. With the song, "The Greatest Thing," we left a huge gape where we just vamped from E to C sharp minor in the middle of the song and said that when we did the backing track, we'd put some sort of horn bit in there. We just cannibalized a well known Glenn Miller Tune and threw in a bit of Kool & the Gang for good measure. You can do it literally like that, have fun, instead of thinking, "What are people going to think of this?" or "What's the significance of this?"

Is there an album of yours that you believe was the turning point, in terms of doing the work you'd hoped to hear yourself doing?

Get Happy! was it. I'd written about half the songs on it during the 1979 Armed Forces tour, which had ended in a lot of disarray both personally and professionally, for various reasons which I think have been well-covered elsewhere. I took quite a lot of time off to recover physically and emotionally, and I went off and did a bit of production, like the Specials' first album. Meanwhile, I had earlier been writing material for the next album and we rented a studio.

We put about two tracks down and I realized right away that the arrangements we'd worked out on the tour were going to come out sounding very cliched, like a parody of ourselves. The sound we'd developed was rather a rootless new wave sound; it sounded like the very things I criticize modern rock music for, yet it didn't relate to glitter rock, nor any of the modern trends, nothing at all. It completely stood alone. Some of the music for the album dated back to 1975; it was really ancient and the arrangements lacked the character that the songs required. I re-wrote a few and others we just rearranged — to varying degrees of success — after I'd gone out and bought some fifty soul records to refresh what I'd liked about that style and the strength of the vocals. If you have a love for the style, the song will often carry it along. You could cast "Many Rivers To Cross" as a country & western song and it would stand up — providing the singer matches the commitment (smirking slyly). Or you could do a Linda Ronstadt on it and fall flat on your — oh, no, I musn't get into attack her again!

Despite your wisecracks. I get the distinct impression from both Punch The Clock and this conversation that you are taking yourself more seriously as a singer — and hope others will too. The growth is there. Is the intent there also?

Maybe I'm getting better as I get more experienced.

<< >>

Musician, No. 60, October 1983

Timothy White interviews Elvis Costello.

Jock Baird reviews Punch The Clock.


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Photo by Chalkie Davies.

Cover photo by Deborah Feingold.
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Punch The Clock

Elvis Costello

Jock Baird

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Many of the writers I know are having trouble with Elvis' newest offering. Oh sure, the manage to swallow it eventually and some have even come to love it a little, but these are not the first instincts of a functioning critic. After all, Elvis has turned his highly charged confessional into a damn Stax/Volt revue, complete with fat horn section and two black female singers (known, in the pun of the year, as Afrodiziak). We're talking airplay here, folks. Elvis himself anticipates the critical dismay when he asks in the very first cut, "Have we come this fa-fa-fa to find a soul cliché?" (All of the Otis Redding fans out there will enjoy that one.) Well, soul much of Punch The Clock may be, but cliché it is not, thanks not only to slippery, smart chord changes and highly skilled arrangements, but, more importantly, to the lyrics' stubborn refusal to sweeten and trivialize.

The dominant theme of Punch The Clock is also sure to give any self-respecting anger-monger a headache: Elvis explores the happiness and hell of domestic bliss, announcing his basic enthusiasm for the concept ("Isn't this the greatest thing?") even as he sees the danger of being permanently housebroken ("Men made into mice") and forever compromised into political passivity ("I was committed to life and then commuted to the outskirts"). Mind you, this version of marriage is a shifting one, with attack ("It's a fight to the finish, let there be no doubt...everyday will be boxing day") and retreat ("I wish I'd never opened my mouth almighty") and the possibility of Elvis' being ultimately untamable ("Trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's arse"). Still there is an unescapable tenderness to many of the songs on Punch The Clock, especially the Smokey Robinson ("Being With You") and Stevie ("Looking For Another Pure Love") touches on the lovely single "Everyday I Write The Book" and the sheer singability of "The Element Within Her." Elvis softens his raspy, bittersweet voice into a haunting, tuneful intimacy and mixes it further back into the warmth of the instruments; yes, Virginia, the man not only has a heart, but a voice as well.

Musically, the fine production polish of Langer & Winstanley (Madness, Dexy's) must further enhance critical discomfort. The LP divides into horn-centered tracks, which do tend at times to sound like Stax Spam ("T.K.O.," "The Greatest Thing," "Invisible Man" and "The World And His Wife"), the middle ground of pop invention, (the reggae-ish "Charm School" and the neo-classical "King Of Thieves" are highlights) and two brass-knuckled views of British society that most will find the LP's best tracks. "Pills And Soap" is a remake of an election-campaign single Elvis released under the nom-de-plunder The Imposter; it's sparse, uncomfortable keyboard accompaniment thrusts bitter images of sacrifice on the altar of sugarcoated pills and squeaky clean hypocrisy (including a wonderful characterization of Charles and Lady Di as "Lord and Lady Muck"). The transition from this searing dissection into the transcendently superficial beginning of "The World And His Wife" takes the breath away. The second masterpiece in miniature is a ballad that Elvis and co-producer Clive Langer penned for singer Robert Wyatt, "Shipbuilding." This achingly beautiful rendition finds Elvis' voice (kissed by Chet Baker's trumpet) softly describing the dilemma of feeding a family by building armadas for the Falklands War, "diving for dear life, when we could e diving for pearls." For many, critics and otherwise, the pearls of Punch The Clock will have to be dived for, but their value will be all the more increased for it.

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Photo by Chalkie Davies.

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Photo by Paul Natkin.

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Photos by BBC and Davies & Starr.

Page scans.
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Page scans.


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