New Musical Express, May 20, 1995

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They think it's all covers... er, it is

Terry Staunton

After 18 years of being either a sneering young turk or cumudgeonly old bugger, Elvis Costello has decided it's time for a change — he's smiling!... well, figuratively speaking. Could it have anything to do with the outcome of the Premiership? Or is it just that he finally gets to meet Terry Staunton?

Half-time in the Serie A derby match between Genoa and Sampdoria, and still no score. Channel 4 has got sod all action to replay during the interval, so it's over to this week's guest pundit for some expert analysis.

So who have we got this week? Big Ron Atkinson? Ray 'Butch' 'Tango' Wilkins? The perpetually sidelined Gazza? Lordy no! Nothing so mundane from C4. Forget your fading footballers or your out-of-work managers with sunbed tans. This week, someone introduced as "the thinking man's Gary Barlow" will dissect every disputed decision, half-realised play and goalmouth scramble. Step forward footie fan supreme Elvis Costello. Yes, that Elvis Costello.

Elvis, as the great Mojo Nixon once remarked, is everywhere. His new old album of covers Kojak Variety is in the shops this week; he's just finished a stint opening for Bob Dylan in London, Paris and Dublin; he's the "musical director" of a somewhat highbrow festival on London's South Bank next month; he was the first guest on Radio 3's new classical equivalent of Desert Island Discs he recently performed before that "sad bog" the Prince Of Wales and, beyond his valued contribution for C4's Football Italia. He's also been managing a team for BBC2's Fantasy Football League, finishing the season with mid-table respectability.

If 1994 was a busy year for Costello — constant touring with the reconvened Attractions, promoting the Brutal Youth album — then 1995 is turning out to be even more hectic. But what links this year's activities is Elvis the fan. He's been hanging out with his heroes (both musical and sporting), indulging himself like never before and seems to be having fun.

For the best part of 15 years Costello appeared to wear the crown of King Grumpy, a moody bastard with a particular dislike of the media. Then, after 1991's Mighty Like A Rose (what Elvis himself refers to as The Beard Years), everything changed. The Costello who greets the press at a West London hotel today has a hearty handshake, a wide smile and is liberally offering throat pastilles to all and sundry. He's also talking a mile a minute and you have to be on your guard to reel him back in every now and then, as he's inclined to go off on one.

Elvis is playing the charming host to talk about the new album Kojak Variety, his second collection of cover versions. But where 1981's Almost Blue was a no-nonsense country set, this time he's spread the net wider. Perhaps the best known tunes are The Kinks' "Days" and Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away'", but then we have largely undiscovered gems like The Supremes' "Remove This Doubt," The Louvin Brothers' "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face" and Randy Newman's "I've Been Wrong Before" (a modest hit for Cilla back in '65, fact fans).

The album, featuring session greats like guitarist James Burton (also a favourite of the other Elvis) and drummer Jim Keltner (a Lennon regular in the '70s) was recorded over a two-week period in Barbados in 1991, but shelved until a gap in Costello's release schedule for his self-penned material.

"With a major record company it's a bit like circling over Heathrow waiting to land, sometimes it just isn't your turn to get a record out," he explains. "I could have put this out shortly after Mighty Like A Rose but I got involved with The Juliet Letters (Costello's pseudo-classical song cycle with The Brodsky Quartet) and that sort of took priority.

"But I had to record Kojak Variety when I did. These were some of my favourite musicians and I'd worked with them before on specific tracks, but this was the only chance to do something with them all together. I really wanted a record of my time with them. I never really wanted to make a big thing about this record, I actually had the idea of trying to get it into the racks before anybody knew it existed, just sneak it out with a minimum of fuss. Sadly, the record company didn't exactly go for that."

Elvis is fond of other people's songs. Beyond Almost Blue and Kojak Variety he's released something like 40 cover versions, including two of his only three Top Ten hits ("Yeah, so much for me being the great songwriter"). But isn't the bulk of the new collection (Screaming Jay Hawkins, James Carr, Willie Dixon, Mose Allison) nothing more than Costello being wilfully obscure?

"No, they're just some of my favourite songs. Everybody's got a favourite song they bet no-one else has heard. Everybody likes to surprise, but there's nothing exasperating about this that I can see. What would be exasperating would be to do a whole record of songs that you can't possible get out of the shadow of. What's the point?"

You wouldn't be talking about the recent Annie Lennox and Duran Duran covers albums by any chance?

"I haven't heard either of them, to be honest."

But you're aware of the stuff they've covered. Are they just slaughtering sacred cows?

"Well, I suppose if you've got a big enough gun you can do that. I heard the Annie Lennox single and loved it. I didn't know the song, didn't know it was a cover version, so I didn't approach it with any preconceptions. A few of the things on Kojak Variety have that advantage."

Costello himself has been covered by several of his heroes (George Jones, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Chet Baker, Roger McGuinn), but has he heard Duran Duran's take on "Watching The Detectives"?

"Well, they sent me a tape of that one track, although I haven't heard the whole record they put out. I've seen the posters around town, y'know, 'Duran Duran Thank You'. They sound so sincere, are they thanking us from the bottom of their hearts?"

Never mind all that, don't change the subject. What do you think of what they've done with your song?

"Um... (long pause) it sounds extraordinarily like Duran Duran playing "Watching The Detectives"... with everything that implies."

That's very diplomatic.

"Well... (even longer pause) not long after I'd started out, Linda Ronstadt did "Alison" and I was pretty rude about it. I was pretty ungracious."

You actually described it at the time as "a waste of vinyl", and then she went on to do another three of your songs on her next album.

"Yeah, I didn't exactly discourage her, did I? The thing is I was snooty about the recordings, but I wasn't so snooty about the money. The money actually allowed me to do a lot of things, I could go my own way. I wasn't under any pressure from my own record company because I was getting money from her covers. The record that 'Alison' was on sold four million copies. That was a lot of money, probably paid my bills longer than any record of my own."

Did you really need the dosh at the time?

"Oh yeah, there's this illusion that, because I had a lot of hit singles, that I was a really big earner. But it's the same with a band like Blur, y'know? They don't sell outside of England, do they? Maybe a bit in Europe, but not in America. You're not really a massive pop star if nobody in America knows who you are."

Is America the be-all and end-all?

"I think most groups want to break America, I know the Attractions did. But The Jam were never that keen. Back in the '70s my manager Jake Riviera approached John Weller (dad and manager of Paul) for us to do a co-headlining tour of the States, but they weren't into it, so it never really happened for them over there. To some extent, The Attractions had a free run of America for quite a few years. Made a proper pig's ear of it, but that's another story..."

Costello's workload rarely lets up these days. As soon as he's finished promoting Kojak Variety, he'll record his next album of originals with The Attractions, having given some of the songs an acoustic dry run when opening for Bob Dylan earlier in the year.

"We share an agent in the States and she'd had word from Bob about me maybe doing something with him in Europe, joining him on stage for the encores. But it also gave me a chance to try out the new songs and learn to sing them well, get acquainted with them in front of an audience. The thing about Dylan's audience is that they really listen; I had a naturally disposed curious audience who were used to listening to words, either in new songs or, to use a horrible modern word, deconstructed versions of familiar material."

So basically you used 4,000 Dylan fans a night as guinea pigs?

"Well, they didn't seem to have any objections, they got it as a free bonus. Probably more than once, because he gets the same people coming to his shows night after night.

"That's not something I usually understand, people who go to multiple nights of the same artist, although it does sort of make sense with Dylan. There's something different every night. I try to do that myself, but he takes it even further.

"Him and Neil Young are people I'm very encouraged by, they still make a huge effort. You know what it is? They haven't settled for a safe version of themselves the way a lot of artists have. There are people who get to a certain stage in their careers, put on the grey suits, get some endorsements and go out with a carefully tailored version of what they used to do really well. There's no chance of failure, there's no chance of success, it's just sad."

You're a bit keen, then?

"Yeah, I watched the Dylan shows from every different perspective; in Paris I watched from the side of the stage, I watched all three Brixton shows from a seat in the balcony, and I wandered all over the place in Dublin. It was fascinating to see what was going on. You can learn a lot from watching a guy like that. I really like the band he's got, they manage to rein the song back in just when it starts to go out too far, but they know to go with whatever happens. There were heart-stopping moments every night."

Have you always been a big fan?

"Not right at the very beginning. I'm not old enough to have been a teenager that would have bought the albums faithfully as they came out, I always regarded him as being just a pop singer who had hit singles. He was just part of the '60s to me, but as I got older I started to get the idea that this was the sort of stuff I should have been listening to more intently. In about 1970 I went out and bought — I think — Blonde On Blonde and then I slowly collected four or five others. I was a bit late, I suppose."

Elvis has been known to express his fandom by, ahem, "borrowing" lines and melodies from other people's songs and sticking them in his own. The keenest ears will detect Dusty Springfield in "Accidents Will Happen," The Beatles in "Possession," Aretha Franklin in "I Want You," The Supremes in "High Fidelity." The list goes on and on, and it's something our beloved entertainer is proud of.

"That's good, I think. It's a noble musical tradition that goes right back to classical music. Classical musicians often did variations on other people's themes, all the baroque composers did it like crazy.

"Then if you go forward into popular music, a lot of European composers brought their influences to America with them. Don't you think that when you listen back to old American songs you can hear bits of Europe in them, they're not wholly American? Kurt Weill is an obvious example, but here's a thing; George Gershwin was a Russian. Can you think of anybody more American than Gershwin? Yet, he's a full-blooded Russian. What music did he listen to as a kid? Jewish-Russian. All European."

On a classical note, Costello is in charge of this year's Meltdown festival on London's South Bank, an annual season of concerts bringing together "serious" music from all walks of life. Over eight days in June, apart from a solo show by Elvis himself, there will be The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, avant garde composer Bill Frisell, indigenous Pakistani spiritual music, and several other projects that could comfortably be described as "worthy".

Meltdown's a bit of a shit title, isn't it? It sounds like a Channel 4 "youth" show.

"Yeah, I'm not too keen. It has that sort of, 'Hey! Aren't we dangerous!' ring to it. Terrible. It also sounds like some dreadful thing off an American diner menu, y'know, something with plastic cheese on it. But the festival was established two years ago and it's only mine to play with for one week, so I can't really ask them to change it.

"It's one way of selling classical music. In previous years they've had more what you'd call contemporary composers, people working on the new edge of modern composition. It gives them a valid excuse to look at various schools of composition over the years, like there's also something marking the tercentenary of Henry Purcell's death going on. There's no real linking theme to Meltdown, though."

By having your name on everything it's designed to attract an entirely new audience, wouldn't you say?

"Well, inevitably this is the trade-off, yeah. There's perhaps a lack of what you might call intellectual rigour but in return they get to use my name, which is perhaps better known than some of the composers who've done it previously, at least better known to a general public.

"I'm genuinely enthusiastic about a lot of this music. I've got a little tired over the last few years with the predictability of certain types of concerts, I always knew what was going to happen, a bit like knowing the end of the thriller. But when it's the kind of music you don't know so much about it helps you open your ears. I was lucky to find some voices, composers, performers including The Brodsky Quartet — that helped me get past a lot of the natural inhibition that everybody has to the unexpected or unfamiliar."

Isn't there a danger that people will see this as being a tad too arty-farty, and you're just showing off your musical intellect?

Elvis puts down his mineral water and gives me a cold stare. Eek!

"Yeah, I can imagine some sections of the media sneering at it, there's whole corners of the media that thrive on doing that all day long. That's all they can do. Do these people really like the taste of bile in their mouths?"

Elvis Costello; music lover, media hater.

"I read a thing in Time Out, which is a comical publication (Surely highly respected London listings publication? - Ed), a review of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which they described as 'odious'. Now, there are many things that are odious in this world; Jonathan Aitken, the old regime in Haiti, the Holocaust, but I don't think you can put a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical in the same bracket, no matter how bad it might be.

"But that's the way some of the media talk, it's like a sneering form of Tourette's Syndrome. And as for 'arty-farty', that's a phrase that should be forcibly removed from the dictionary with a pair of scissors. They can sneer as much as they want, but I don't think Meltdown is a chance for me to show off. Everything is being presented on a one-time basis but, to be perfectly truthful, we don't know how anything is going to turn out. What is there to show off about?"

Meltdown will be Costello's third project with the Brodskys this year, following on from a brief Arts Council-supported tour of Spain and a very special performance organized by his old mate and boyhood hero Paul McCartney. Nice gig, shame about the royalty appears to be the verdict...

"Yeah, we did this wild thing at St James' Palace that Paul had been asked to put together to raise money for the Royal College Of Music. It was a dinner dance in this picture gallery, these sort of things go on all the time but you never hear about them unless you read the court pages.

"You know how it is, they get someone famous like Paul, who's probably the most famous British composer of this century, to sort out a musical evening and a load of rich people come along and get fleeced. That's the way charity works. The Brodskys and I did an arrangement of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows," which is really something, and a new Clive Langer arrangement of "Shipbuilding" — people always forget Clive wrote the music for that, I always get the credit which is totally unfair.

"Paul and me got up and did an old Beatles tune, "One After 909," and then Paul did this amazing set with the Brodskys; "For No One," "Lady Madonna," "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby." It was f---ing unbelievable. You can think what you like about McCartney, but when we're all dead and gone those songs are still gonna be around.

"It's a pity more people couldn't have seen it, but it was pretty exclusive; Prince Charles was there."

Did you meet the Prince?

"No, I made my excuses. He seemed like a bit of a sad bog, really. He must be aware of the fact by now that it's not like the old days anymore. It's not like the old Pathe newsreel where Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret are off on holiday and there'd be f---ing 50,000 people on the streets of Southampton to see two little girls get on a ship. He must know that every room he goes in now there's at least 50 per cent of the people thinking. 'What a prat'."

You're not a fan, then?

"There's people who want to meet him and it's a big deal to them, it ain't a big deal to me. I was there at Paul's invitation, not his. I mean, if you want to get political about it, his family could have done one important thing in the last 25 years. Never mind whether the IRA lay down their guns, any time there was a Loyalist outrage in the last 25 years, the Windsors could have said, 'This is not an expression of Loyalism'. That was the one good thing they could have done and never did, so I don't want to shake the Prince's hand."

There are handshakes aplenty at Fantasy Football League a few hours after our interview, when Costello is introduced to his fellow guest, Liverpool and Scotland's Alan Hansen, now the acerbic voice of Premiership punditry on the BBC. Elvis is pleased to be in the company of one of his biggest heroes, and his passion for Liverpool FC is legendary. He's been known to delay gigs if there's live commentary on the radio, or at least have someone in the wings shouting out the score.

"I don't get to go as often as I'd like, I don't live in Liverpool anymore, but from the time I was old enough to go to Anfield on my own I took every available opportunity to be there. The last time I went was the 3-3 draw with Manchester United last season. Brilliant game, United were three up after 26 minutes and we pulled it back. It was the first time my wife had been to Anfield, what a match to see! Incredible!

"Hansen was in the team when I went regularly. He's great, he's a funny guy. He's the only one on TV who talks any sense about football. Everybody knows he could do a better job than most managers, he's got the brain for it."

Wasn't he in the running when Graeme Sounness got the chop last year?

"Yeah, but would he want it? He plays golf, he does his punditry, he writes the odd column for Radio Times, would you trade all that for the life of a football manager? I met Kenny Dalglish once, a really nice man, but he was in a real state when he left Liverpool, he practically ran out of Anfield, he couldn't wait to leave. He's an intelligent guy, one of the best players who ever walked on the field, and if he couldn't stand the pressure, why the f--- would anyone else want it?"

Traditionally there's always more pressure at Anfield.

"Definitely, there's the fans' expectations. I mean, all this stuff about Man United, I don't know what all the fuss is about. What have they won so far? Not really that much. They had 25 years of nothing and then they get a couple of trophies. It's a couple of shelves, no big deal."

The rest of the year will see Costello collaborating with one of his biggest heroes of all time, Burt Bacharach, on a film score before beavering away in the studio with The Attractions, and it's his reconciliation with his old band that many people see as the turning point in Costello's fortunes.

With Bruce Thomas, Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve back on board after an absence of seven years, 1994's Brutal Youth was a magnificent return to form. Costello's songs had a potency and fire that had been lacking from its predecessors Mighty Like A Rose and Spike. Elvis turned 40 while touring with The Attractions last summer, but anyone who saw the shows would have been stunned by the attack and thrust of four men who had first been described as one of the most exciting live bands in Britain as far back as 1977.

There's a spring in his step and a sting in his songs again, Declan Patrick MacManus is enjoying being Elvis Costello once more. Elvis is everywhere and he's smiling. Yup, very big deal indeed.

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New Musical Express, May 20, 1995

Terry Staunton interviews Elvis Costello about Kojak Variety.

An ad for Kojak Variety runs on page 7.


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Page scan.

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Photo by John Cheves.
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EC with David Baddiel, Alan Hansen and Frank Skinner.

Photo by Derek Ridgers.
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Photo by Derek Ridgers.
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1995-05-20 New Musical Express page 07 advertisement.jpg

1995-05-20 New Musical Express cover.jpg


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