New Musical Express, June 29, 1996

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A good year for the composer

Keith Cameron

After a prolific career spanning 20 years it's probably easier to list the things Music Man Elvis Costello hasn't done — 'cos he's done tons of stuff. Now he's back with a new album, All This Useless Beauty and talking to Keith Cameron about being 42! Ireland! Weller! Feminism! and, er, being in a steam room with Björk and Brian Eno!

He is the Music Man, he comes from down your way. And he can play. Oh, he can play pretty much anything you care to think of.

That's upwards of 20 years' craft behind him, look: 17 albums, hundreds of songs and tours and Holiday Inns and Astoria theatres across the globe. He survived punk rock stardom. Got prolific, went to Nashville, came back and made a pop masterpiece with The Beatles' engineer. The great and the good and Linda Ronstadt covered his songs. He played with James Burton, Presley's guitarist, wrote with Paul McCartney, sang duets with Tony Bennett and Yoko Ono, got married and changed his name.

He grew a beard. Gave an album's worth of songs to Wendy James. He ditched the beard and booked a renowned string quartet. He bade farewell to the string quartet, reassembled his old band from the early days and made a loud record, just like they used to. Except different. Did Glastonbury and got upstaged by a fellow survivor. Staged his own music festival. Worked with Eno on the X-Files album but didn't get asked to play for War Child. Appeared with Dylan. Wrote a song with Burt Bacharach. Called the old band in again to make a record of mostly quiet, invariably intense, frequently beautiful songs concerning the perennial capacity for human beings to disappoint, titled it All This Useless Beauty, then walked up to the journalist in the hotel lobby and said: "You don't want to stay here, do you?"

Ooompah! Oompah! Oom! Pah! Pah! Elvis Costello appears, Mr Benn shopkeeper-like, as if by magic, in the lobby of Westbury Hotel, Dublin. He is in possession of an HMV carrier bag, triangular sunglasses and a slight frown.

"You don't want to stay in here, do you?" The question is pitched in a curious sub-rhetorical way. What he is actually saying is: "I don't want to stay here. There's a pub across the road, let's go and sit outside."

"There's a pub across the road," says Elvis Costello, glancing around at the Westbury's late-morning tea-takers, "let's go and sit outside."

The Music Man moved to Ireland seven years ago. He lives with his wife, former Pogues bassist Caitlin O'Riordan, about nine miles outside Dublin, a domestic arrangement that satisfies his modest needs "peace and quiet or the freedom to make as much noise as I want at three in the morning".

From this base he sits strategically removed from both the seething ephemera of Britain, and the cultural equivalent of the million-eyed swamp monster that is the USA. In the former, his shadow hangs over the more obviously intelligent products of pop's new aristocracy. Regardless of whether Messrs Albarn, Cocker and Gallagher really are entitled to use the Great Songwriters' Executive Toilet, it was Elvis Costello who reframed the poetic sensibilities of the original Britpoppers for the generation weaned on punk.

But if the chief peril of elder statesmanship is having one's presence increasingly taken for granted, God bless America and its subtle variation on the class system. There, Costello has routinely traded his wares on the enormoshed circuit for the past ten to 15 years, playing to audiences in the highly respectable neighbourhood of 12,000 a night. "People come up to me in England going, 'What do you do now?' They think I've quit. And I say, 'I've just played Madison Square Garden!"'

So we meet a Music Man resplendent in dark apparel but sunnyside humour. He discreetly but regularly checks his watch: the Attractions are in town rehearsing for their upcoming summer tour, and he's anxious not to keep his old sparring partners waiting too long. Yet at 42 he maintains a novice's enthusiasm at his continued involvement in this crazy-when-you-think-about-it way of life: "I don't look down on anybody. One of the gravest mistakes musicians make is to become as cynical as some of the people that work in the business side of the music industry." Ancient history might have mellowed the bug-eyed misanthrope of tabloid outrage, but his frenzy for fine print remains undimmed. And there's some points to prove too, Mister. Like he says on the new record, "If you still don't like my song then you can just go to hell..."

"Melody is very subjective isn't it?" says Elvis Costello, apropos of nothing immediately obvious. "I've read criticism of my work becoming tuneless, as I would say it's become more tuneful. The Juliet Letters is very, very tuneful. So is Mighty Like A Rose, there's a lot of really strong melodies on it, but it's almost like people couldn't hear them. I would say this record is very tuneful. Of course, a dummy will say there's no fire in this..."

Two disbelieving Music Man eyebrows somersault from behind the sunglasses. "We could bash these songs out if we wanted to, it's just defeating the whole object of them. The songs are written a certain way and that's the way you play 'em."

The songs on 1994's Brutal Youth were conceived with bashing out high on their perpetrators' list of priorities. The first EC and The Attractions album since 1986's virtuoso bile-fest Blood & Chocolate, it had critics jumping cartwheels, relieved that the contrasting cul de sacs of Mighty Like A Rose (an elaborately overdone pop curdle) and The Juliet Letters' (Elv gets not noticeably funky with The Brodsky Quartet) had been eschewed for a main road whose contours they recognised and remembered with fondness from those halcyon skinny tie-tastic days of '78.

Emphatically satisfying as it might have been, a degree in clairvoyance was not required to deduce its successor would head off down the grass verges again. And so, nimbly side-stepping Kojak Variety, last year's belatedly released "what I did on my holidays" covers album, we have All This Useless Beauty. Predominately composed of ballads, it sees the Attractions in slow-fuse smoulder mode, a case of 'Brutal Middle-Age'. This, the Music Man opines, is one reason the album was presented to the public with what he regrettably perceives as a "lack of urgency". More significant, perhaps is that a fair few of the songs were written either for, or with, other people in mind, and have thus been sitting around a bit. With the likes of Aimee Mann, Roger McGuinn and June Tabor having already released "their" songs from All This Useless Beauty, to the casual onlooker the record might have the air of a collection rather than an album, of Costello dabbling again when we'd much prefer it if he got down to Some Proper Work — ie, 'More Brutal Youth', Music Man, thank you.

"It makes it seem like a rather more studied record than it is. I have to be honest, it's been written about very positively, but inside those compliments there's been a sense of, 'So what?' which I think is a grave misreading of the contents. The problem with making a record like 'Brutal Youth' is it's very easy to get excited about a record like that because of the reference to the previous sound. That particular Attractions combo sound is one that particularly the older critics get misty-eyed about. 'Cos it makes 'em feel young. The old bastards! They have much more of a problem with being old than I have. I have no problem with being the age I am. I hated being young, it was f---ing terrible. I like being this age. I can say, 'Young man' to people now, it's great!"

So irked is Elvis Costello, he spends 15 minutes outside a Dublin boozer explaining to someone he's never met before the thematic links between certain songs. Then he tries to explain how the Attractions searched for "a new way of using rhythm", in order to make the slow songs swing. He finally spots his companion's bewilderment and lobs up an old Music Man fave: the contentious, hard-to-verify-but-impressive-sounding pronouncement.

"Rock 'n' roll's very rigid isn't it? It's perhaps the most conservative music of the last 40 years. The music's supposed to be rebellious! Even punk. Once they'd worked out the few gestures, they could only be repeated, just by definition, they couldn't do anything else. The minute it becomes a style, it doesn't mean you can't use it to some effect, it means you have to be aware of what it's saying when you use it. I like watching groups with smarts like REM and U2 get out of the corner that they've inadvertently painted themselves into by becoming incredibly successful. It's not their fault. I think U2 are making better records now than ever."

Do you think you could cope with success on that scale?

"Not on the evidence of what actually happened when I had something like that success, no!" he laughs. "People go, 'Why don't you make pop records?', and I say, 'Cos I already have done.' Already did that, didn't like it. I mean, I don't mind if I have a hit. I had a big hit in America with 'Veronica', which I didn't expect. I had two Top 20 hits in three months, one on my record and one off McCartney's record. And that didn't change my life, it just meant that a lot more people bought my album. Where as when you're younger it changes your life because people project onto you personally and you react 'cos you don't know how to deal with it. It changes the whole circumstances of your life, and if you just have that for 20 years, eventually you don't know what you're talking about. I see people who've had uninterrupted success for 20 years and they're talking utter bollocks. But I don't hate them or despise them and I'm certainly not envious of them. I'm quite happy with what I've got."

Why did you leave England?

"Just wanted a bit more space. I couldn't live on the edge of London, it's full of all those English people. I've always lived where there's been a mixed community, west London and Liverpool, and the minute you move to the country in England it's full of English people, it's horrible! Undiluted Englishness, I can't stand it! I'm part Irish so I fit in here, but the Irish don't accept me, you have to have green blood to be Irish. I don't mind that, I understand why that is. England's like wearing a crash helmet that's too small for you. It keeps the brains in too much. I grew up at a school with 14 nationalities in my class. Doesn't make any sense to live somewhere that is undiluted in one thing and hostile to everything else. It's alien to me."

Even despite his impeccable Angry Young(ish) Man credentials and the likes of 1983's "Pills And Soap" — now enjoying an afterlife thanks to Tricky sampling it for his Nearly God album — Elvis Costello could never have been properly termed a Protest Singer. Too ambiguous in his use of language, too unconventional in his range of subjects, maybe just too damn clever to align himself anywhere other than his own conscience.

"Once you start doing that, it becomes your job. That's when you get back to this us and them thing, spokesman for a generation bollocks. What a load of crap. Whoever could think of themselves as that? I don't even think Townshend believed that."

It didn't exactly make Paul Weller's life easier either. Costello recently claimed he'd never play another festival after the Attractions died when they had to follow the re-ascendant Weller at 1994's Glastonbury. How does he regard his contemporary's current renaissance?

"He's a very brave boy isn't he? He followed his feelings, and because it didn't have the tightness of The Jam a lot of people hated it. But then people got to the root of what they liked about him in the first place, which was his sincerity... I don't know him very well. Our paths crossed over the years and we've always been friendly. I remember doing a show with him one time and we sang 'My Ever Changing Moods' together and he was really anxious to improve the way he could sing. I thought, 'That's f---ing great, this guy's just had 12 Number One hits and here he is worrying about whether he's singing well.' Most people don't give a shit once they've had that. He really wanted something that was just beyond his reach and now he's got there. I'm really happy people have come round."

Weller's latter day work is characterised by a preoccupation with his own and other people's shortcomings. From its title inwards, All This Useless Beauty seems galvanised by a similar strain of sadness at the inadequacy of man -and men in particular.

"Melancholy rather than sad," the author considers. "There's always a bit of humour. I tried to make the songs really melancholy so that they're like blues, they lift you out of the thing rather than you come to a totally negative conclusion. I'm not trying to make bubblegum records that everybody will listen to once then discard after a week, that's somebody else's job. I can't see the point of making a completely obvious record. You can use plain language but it needn't necessarily give up all its secrets in the one hearing. And I've got the real feeling I'll be singing songs from this recording in ten years' time."

Expect to see 'Why Can't A Man Stand Alone?' on the setlist. Written for Sam Moore (as in Sam & Dave), it gets the ticker punching via vintage Costello invective: "Why can't a woman just be what she seems? Must she be tarnished by men who can only be men in their dreams?"

"Boy is that true!" laughs Elvis. "You just see it all the time. I was thinking about the guy shouting from the building site, but it can be somebody much more sophisticated. I must be turning into a feminist or something! But it isn't like a dogma. Some women like to flirt, that's not taken into account. It isn't a politically correct world where we've all adjusted to a more balanced view. I don't think it is anyway, you see people being very overt and playing with the role they've been handed by nature. There's a degree of danger involved in messing with that stuff."

There are those who argue that all the problems of the world are ultimately of a sexual nature.

"Of course they are. That is true for an actress who has to portray roles that are placed on her largely by men, or somebody who's on a stage portraying an attractive figure, whether it be Liam Gallagher or Alanis Morissette, it's somebody's idea of a poster. Have you seen Eno's diary? It's really funny. And I'm in it! He must obviously go swimming at the same club I go to when I'm in London, but there's this reference where he goes, 'In the steam room with Elvis and Björk', 'cos we just all happened to be there on the same day. Now what must people think of that? It sounds a bit pervy, what were we doing?!

Throughout the book he's very open about his sexual feelings, he's very candid, and I think a lot of people lock 'em up. We wear these definitions like armour skin colour and kin and even manhood. And I'm just as guilty of being unable to take 'em all off. Except when I'm in the steam bath."

With Björk and Brian and the rest.

"Hey, it's like the Tardis in there!"

Punk never died, it just got a new prescription from the doctor. Two weeks after the Sex Pistols' reformation, Elvis Costello & The Attractions play the first gigs at London's temporarily reopened Roundhouse, having been one of the last groups to play this legendary railway shed at the foot of Primrose Hill before it fell into disuse at the end of the '70s; 'What Goes Around Comes Around,' proclaim the bill-posters.

At the risk of getting a tad apocalyptic, it's obvious Elvis Costello will be dealing with the ramifications of "Oliver's Army" until the day he dies. No matter how many great songs he has since written and has still to write, it is upon that early standard that popular opinion shall judge him, and his entire subsequent career can, at a push, be read as an attempt to reconcile himself with such a defining moment.

"Football hooligans could sing that song if they wanted to," he remembers, "and did, so there would be that element in the crowd. We did a tour in 1980, we played Sunderland rather than Newcastle, all the next places down the road, just to make a change, and it was hit and miss. Every night was different, but that was the main characteristic — the only song they knew was 'Oliver's Army'. It was the only thing they really wanted to hear. And by that point, with the way we were playing and how drunk we were most of the time, the rest of the material was incomprehensible. They just couldn't get it, and I felt like we were in a fish bowl or something.

"As you get older you get more rational about dealing with it and less selfish about it, less spoilt kid about it. It's quite good fun to be a spoilt kid while you are a spoilt kid. It's not so attractive when you get a little older and you just seem like an arsehole.

"As soon as you make a record, particularly if it becomes a big success, it doesn't belong to you any more it's that 'Wake Boo!' situation. A similar thing happened with 'Veronica' in America. I never liked it. And recently I did this show with Steve (Nieve, Attraction's keyboardist), and I changed the key and the whole song changed completely. Suddenly I didn't have to think about the record. It went back to why I wrote it, how I wrote it about my grandmother and it really meant something to me, and I kind of regained it. I'd got my song back from the evil success that it had had."

There's a great line on the title track of the new Elvis Costello album: "Nonsense prevails, modesty fails / Grace and virtue turn into stupidity". How does the Music Man keep his spirits up?

"I got a lovely gift recently from America. Two CDs' worth of my stuff that had been covered by people on the Internet. There was a version of 'No Action' off This Year's Model that sounded like 20 Homer Simpsons at the bowling alley! F---ing marvellous! That'll be the end of the record industry if that happens, and good luck! Brilliant! It'll all go completely random. Let's take all the paintings out of the galleries and put 'em on the Internet. Then we have all this useless beauty. See, that's what I meant, it's a prediction! I've no idea whether it's a good or bad thing, but there's one thing it isn't and that's a safe thing."

He finished his drink, shook the journalist by the hand, then went to get his picture taken. What was it with him and photographers and dark, smelly side streets? He disappeared off into Dublin's lunchtime hub. Resumed his rehearsals with the old band. Played the gigs at the Roundhouse. Went well. Felt good. What had he said on All This Useless Beauty again? "There's still some pretty insults left... '

Throughout it all, he was the Music Man. He knew of no other way.

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New Musical Express, June 29, 1996

Keith Cameron interviews Elvis Costello.


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Page scan.

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Clipping and page scan.

Photos by Stefan de Batselier.
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1996-06-29 New Musical Express photo 02 SdB.jpg

1996-06-29 New Musical Express cover 1.jpg


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