New Musical Express, February 14, 1981

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Elvis says Hi to yanks

Richard Grabel

It was really Elvis Costello week. First there was a three-night, sold-out stand at New York's Palladium (see Live! page 44), just one stop on his current tour. Then, the normally non-talkative one gave his first ever American interview on the NBC network's Tomorrow show, a late-night chat show seen, as they say, coast-to-coast.

Costello and the Attractions performed "New Lace Sleeves," and then Costello alone sat down with Tomorrow host Tom Snyder for the chat. Snyder, a bundle of nervous tics (eyes blinking, eyebrows going up and down) even in the best of times, looked distinctly ill-at-ease. Costello seemed in fine humour though, leaning back and arching his eyebrows over his shades, getting intentional laughs, while Snyder's questions were provoking embarrassed snickers from the younger members of the studio audience.

Costello's last appearance on American television was also on the NBC network, when he appeared on Saturday Night Live and totally freaked out that show's production crew by suddenly stopping "Less Than Zero" a few bars into the song and switching to "Radio Radio." (Ah, you saw Hendrix on The Lulu Show too, Elvis — Ed.) Snyder began by asking him about the incident.

Costello: "Well, I thought it was a live show, something about the title suggested it. And the number that we were sort of bullied into doing, it was written about a very English situation and didn't fit, and I had a new song that at the time wasn't recorded, about radio, and we just did it spontaneously. And evidently it's not that live. I think they told us not to come back.

Snyder: "Do you rebel against that, if the record company says 'Hey, we want you to do this song, this is the one we've got the money on'?

Well that was before we persuaded them that that isn't the way we work. After a little gentle persuasion we got a much better understanding on those matters.

You've been described by people who've written on you as being an angry man...

I don't know how they can see that.

We don't see it now as we might have seen it at one time. Have you worked that out pretty much, have you learned to channel your energies and not get angry at situations?

Yeah, well, to be really straight about it I suppose some of the time it was nerves, you know, which tends to make you more aggressive. Other times it was righteous, when we first came here and we might as well have landed on Mars the way people looked at us. So we were trying to put it over forcefully, and that was the way we felt at that time. We're trying to present a wider picture now, so inevitably you're going to get people who say you've sold out and you've gone mellow and God knows.

You've matured with those situations.

What a horrible word that is. Matured. No, no, I'm not in the business of maturing. Makes you sound like cheese or something.

When you were a computer programmer'

I was actually a computer operator. I was just a button pusher.

The reason I ask is, the company just sent me one of these home computers to play with.

I can't even work a calculator. It just happened to coincide with my getting a record contract. This stuff about my being a computer programmer is nonsense. I did it for about twenty minutes.

Was it frustrating for you, working a job like that and knowing you had this talent?

Oh yeah. It's all very well for me now, 'cause I've got a record contract and I can put out records, and if I don't I suppose they send the boys around or something. I was turned down by every record company in England. I just didn't present myself. Probably due to the fact that I'm a big fan of those old films where they go in and say 'Have I got a song for you!'

I actually believed you could do that. I used to sit down with these guys and play my guitar and say, 'Well what do you think?' They were used to getting demo tapes they could attach these polite notes to, and I did actually force people to sit and listen to me for twenty minutes between taking phone calls. It's particularly embarrassing when you're in the middle of a song and suddenly the phone rings and he's going: 'Yes darling I'll be home around eight, no, lamb casserole will be great, see ya later honey.'

There are still people trying to do that and they're not gonna find it funny. People come up to me and ask me if I've got any tips, and there ain't any. Just keep knocking on the door until they answer.

I get people coming up to me, giving me tapes, seeing if there's anything I can do, and I don't have any pull with the record company. They think I'm one brick short a load, you know.

Who are your heroes, as far as songwriters?

Well, no heroes, really... but there are people I admire. Some current people, and some people you might not expect. I admire people like Cole Porter, and, as far as lyricists, I really like Hank Williams.

What about your dad. Jazz musician?

Yeah, originally. Then he was a band singer. He's still a professional musician. He plays more dates a year than I do, he works very hard, drives up and down England. Plays social clubs, night clubs.

Do you love him? (Kid you not, he really asked this.)

Oh yeah.

Do you ever go see him?

Yeah. I used to play with him sometimes, but I could never get in tune.

I'm glad that you go see your Pop and that you realise he works very hard.

He was actually discouraging me from getting into this business.

This number that you're going to do now, "Watch Your Step," is this a warning?

I'll leave that up to you.

And Costello scored the last laugh.

This was very comfortable for me, thank you very much. I didn't expect it to be, and it was.

I just wanted to do that, because people said to me, 'If you're on, do the funny legs', because of the picture on the photograph, 'You've got to do the funny eyebrows'.

<< >>

New Musical Express, February 14, 1981

Richard Grabel reports on EC's appearance on Tomorrow Coast To Coast, Tuesday, February 3, 1981.

Richard Grabel reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions and opening act Squeeze, The Palladium, New York. (Jan. 31 or Feb. 1 or 2.)


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Elvis Costello / Squeeze

Palladium, New York

Richard Grabel

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What do Squeeze value? Professionalism. Tightness. Songs of classic construction. Entertainment. Making the little girls smile and yell.

What do I value in Squeeze? The humour and good feelinc in their voices. The way they make tired old commitments like 'professionalism' and 'tightness' seem not just virtues but positive fun. And they keep me alert and interested in what they do, even when it isn't entirely working. The way they make the little girls smile and yell.

Jools Holland, at least, used to be a bit of a live wire. Though Glenn Tillbrook is indisputably this band's leader, it was Holland who was always the rambunctious, funny one. With Holland replaced by ex-Ace Paul Carrack, Squeeze look more than ever like warmed-up pub rock leftovers. Fortunately they don't sound that way.

Tillbrook is not a great performing personality. There is no special dynamism to what he does, nothing to fire your imagination or make you wonder what he's really like. The rest of the band appear to be downright blase.

But then, they do a great job delivering those songs. Tillbrook and Chris Difford write some pop gems, songs with animation and lots of heart. Tonight the best ones sound more swinging, gutsy, alive and crackling than they did in their recorded versions. What more can you ask?

It's been two long years since Elvis Costello toured America, but the time has given him a chance to come back different.

Costello is growing. By leaps and bounds. It's really something to see!

As Ian Penman pointed out in his review of Trust, Costello is moving from accusation to exploration, spreading the blame for the way things are around a bit, letting some of it even fall on himself. Charges of emotional fascism are giving way to more subtle and more truthful resonances.

There's been a change in Costello's attitude on stage that mirrors these developments. His aesthetic used to be to exhort an exciting momentum out of audience antagonism. He used to use lots of red and green lighting, unflattering, psychologically provocative colours. His stage sets and lighting design had the principles of Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph Of The Will applied to a rock show, while Costello portrayed himself as a most unaccommodating and nasty Little Hitler.

His character now is less starkly drawn, a lot harder to define. He regards his American audience with a lot less suspicion than he did two years ago.

"You're a lively lot," he says at one point, actually smiling. "It's good to see."

The stalking around the stage, the tantrums and mock psychosis, have gone. He sang to, rather than at us.

The result is that he's more effective as a pop dramatist. He hasn't "mellowed" or dampened his fire; instead he has, finally, started to make the passions, heartaches and crises of his songs seem like potentially universal, shared experiences instead of private nightmares.

The Attractions, meanwhile, have become even more of a charging, unstoppable force. And more than ever it's keyboardist Steve Nieve who leads the band and defines its sound. His playing is full of surprises: snatches of classical piano, jokey trash organ riffs, odd, off-tone fragments are unexpectedly tossed in. Bouncing up and down on his red high-top sneakers, a bundle of nerves. Nieve is visually as intense a character as Costello. With a lesser singer he'd steal the show.

The set is mostly a tour through the riches of Get Happy and Trust, with a very few old favourites and surprises thrown in. There's a cover of "She's Got You," the Patsy Cline country hit, changing the gender and revealing an incredible sense of warmth and vulnerability; an encore of "Watching The Detectives," slower and more explicitly reggae-derived than before, gets a bit of Marley's "Jammin" stuck in the middle.

But the real surprise, the real impact of the night, is how Costello and the Attractions have grown in their effectiveness as a performing unit. Slower songs like "Watch Your Step" become small dramatic masterpieces, their pace and momentum perfectly orchestrated. Rockers like "King Horse" are upbeat, angry, full of fire. Costello is in great voice, and he achieves what a live performer should — he makes us hear his songs in a new light.

In the past, seeing Costello has usually left me feeling like a survivor after a battle, knowing I'd been through something intense, but worn out and glad it was over. Tonight I could have listened to him for hours more. He made me feel the pace of his heart and mind, which are both ticking very, very fast.

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