New Musical Express, October 8, 1983

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Master blaster

Barney Hoskyns

When it comes to soul, this man beats all your Wellers and Rowlands hands down - but for Elvis Costello passion has never been just a fashion. On the eve of his British tour, Barney Hoskyns meets a man who has discovered (self) respect.

If the great grey they put the numb into number and the boot into beauty, then who, pray, puts the El into the element within?

It must be a question on all our lips at the time of year when Elvis Costello comes back to raise us from our daily death, the video'n'roll stupor of the Top Teen Hit Pops.

Something under his skin perhaps. I'm ashamed now that I ever doubted him, that I couldn't accept how soul, whatever that is, could be made by someone who knew what he was doing. There was a time I'd sneer if you blue white stax in my ear. And still I went home to "Can't Stand Up," "New Amsterdam," "Motel Matches"…

As a simpleton I had problems with the bejewelled jungle of Imperial Bedroom (nothing that wasn't remedied by a little concentration), but the Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley-produced Punch The Clock gave no quarter. Either I plunged in there or it was pension time.

Now, having accepted that total physical co-operation is demanded from its first to last brass bar, the record causes me to hurtle dangerously about my abode and even to testify to various rather dilapidated household gods none of whom respond to my anxious requests to be sanctified, but who may possibly share a polite chuckle at this ungainly spectacle.

But we have little time, and even less space.

What I've tried to get on tape and paper here is not Elvis the Last White Hope, the elder statesman of Real Pop, but Costello the fan and fanatic. My view was, why ask questions about Neil Kinnock if this guy knows about Aaron Neville? I hope that makes sense.

Today Elvis starts a British tour with the full ten-piece troupe of Attractions and Afrodiziaks and TKO horns which should establish him as the most formidable entertainer in contemporary music.

Let's make that precious.

Elvis, why are we here? Don't you sometimes wonder if Smash Hits and No. 1 aren't being more realistic about pop music?

Well, there's even some idiots in the record business today who think that I should conform to that — they're people who want to see everybody in those terms, because they run scared whenever this happens in pop music. And it does happen periodically, that you get a load of people pretending to be homosexuals in shorts. There's nothing worse than that fake effete pop. Some of these groups write good songs, but when the record company people start trying to get me to do that…

At the same time, you may be treated as an artist, yet not want to speak "as an artist"…

I was asked some pretty serious questions in America, so I was hoping for some light relief here!

The consensus seems to be that Punch The Clock is a return, or at least a part-return, to the soul base of Get Happy.

Listening to it the other day, it struck me as being simply a pop record. It had some mannerisms which you could call soul, but it didn't have the edginess of Get Happy, which was in any case made by a different group, in a different frame of mind.

I wouldn't want to return to anything, regardless of how good it was at the time. I might want to remember some good qualities that you put a premium on, because you don't want a standard to drop, but I don't think of that as returning.

People seem to be quibbling that the record isn't as ambitious as Imperial Bedroom, but you yourself have expressed doubts about the way some songs on Bedroom were "overdeveloped."

On Punch The Clock, we had the discipline of a production team, who do actually take ideas and put them in a bit more logical order than I did when I was ordering the music of Imperial Bedroom. I mean, what Geoff Emerick did on that record was nothing short of a miracle, to make sense of some of the stuff that I wanted to do.

In that way, the songs were overdeveloped, because nobody was stopping me and saying, no, take that bit… and the same thing goes for Steve, particularly, because Clive was really ruthless about getting him to play the same thing twice, since Steve comes up with lots of brilliant ideas, any one of which might make a good piano figure on a track. I have the same problem with singing, sometime I get bored with singing something the same way. But I don't think Punch The Clock was any less ambitious, it may be less diverse but then we were actually attempting to make something brighter and more forceful than Imperial Bedroom.

Was it reasonable of one reviewer to suggest that Imperial Bedroom was a kind of cleansing, a purging of obsessions?

It never occurred to me at the time, I thought it was quite a cheerful record. Because of all the sounds on it, it seemed quite bright to me. After Almost Blue, which was the most depressing record both to make and to listen to, Bedroom sounded like a positive holiday. When you're still close to a record, it's difficult to hear what other people hear.

But there's already songs on Punch The Clock which I think have a misplaced arrangement, that don't get to the heart of a song, which I can correct later in, for example, live versions. "King Of Thieves" is a song that has more heart than the record suggests.

It wasn't so much that Bedroom was depressing, it's just that the production was so clear it was like every word, every phrase, was being picked apart…

The voice is incredibly loud on that record, it's almost like this voice alone in the room with you. There was a conscious effect to turn all the instruments down and put the voice up. It's like if you listen to old Walker Brothers or Dusty Springfield records, the backing is compressed and only surges up when the voice stops, and we were attempting to do the same thing in a modern recording studio.

In fact Geoff did use old, I think they're called Fairchild, compressors, which are his secret weapon and which give that dynamic effect that modern solid state just can't achieve. I don't understand an awful lot of the technical side, but I understand enough to know that the loss in humanity on records coincides with the revolution of the solid state valve.

Besides "Pills" and "Shipbuilding," though, the new record is pretty upbeat. I liked your description of "The Greatest Thing" as a 1983 version of "I Saw Her Standing There."

Yeah, even down to the fact that we tweaked the vocal up, leant on it so it's slightly higher, younger-sounding. They do that on Michael Jackson records. But yes, a lot of the planning, the imaginary production, of this record relates very much to pop music of the moment.

"Pills And Soap" was "The Message" UK, you know… we've got Wham! UK, now we need Message UK. I was intrigued to know that Jerry Dammers has also got a line about Wham! in one of his songs, coz the second verse of "The Greatest Thing" is about Wham! In fact, that song is sort of an answer record to "Young Guns," because I love answer records, I think that's a tradition that should never have died out.

Some of the things Wham! say really irritate me, because I think they're making people feel small for things they believe in. There are plenty of people who are 19 and married who must resent being told that they are jerks. I resent it, because I was married when I was 20 and my wife was 19.

You've said you were trying to get away from "soul" singing in Imperial Bedroom and there seem to be more non-black influences there, like Dylan on "Man Out Of Time," Lennon on "You Little Fool."

I'm not sure about Lennon, I think I was trying to do an Errol Brown there. On Imperial Bedroom, it was just less of the man-alone-in-the-spotlight, the idea being to disperse the emotional responsibility.

It's funny how a singer's image can interfere with one's impressions of a song. The first time I heard your "Getting Mighty Crowded," I didn't know who it was and assumed it was a version by a '60s soul singer. When people have an image of you, perhaps they don't register the pure soul power of your voice, which beats all those Wellers and Rowlands hands down.

You can do yourself a disservice that way, because over a period of time you build that up, whether consciously or just by being around. I never really think about it, along the lines of "now I'm gonna put these people in their place," I just sing for the way I feel. I do think that this tour is something that you're not gonna see again, unless we do it again. The sort of sounds that we're getting, with the horns and the girls, there aren't very many groups capable of playing like that.

Now that I have that power behind me, the problem is to control myself and not let myself go too far. It's like, you know, when's the cape coming out!

When you turned to Stax and Motown for Get Happy, did you feel you'd exhausted the Abba and Heroes influences you were experimenting with on Armed Forces?

I thought that everybody had. I was obviously wrong, because we've been getting David Bowie rammed down our throats for the last six years! I just felt that the new wave sound that had build up had exhausted itself a bit, it had already become a ready-made cliché, and I thought the very rootlessness of it was what was making it sound insubstantial.

That's why I thought it was necessary to draw on music that I felt had a more natural feeling, a more natural swing to it than rather enforced jerkiness of the rhythm guitar and certain drum patterns in new wave. When that jerkiness was done out of technical limitations, as in punk, it was great, but when you found better musicians playing badly, in this stilted kind of way, it sounded terribly false.

Is Armed Forces still "glib" for you?

I haven't really heard that in a while, though I heard a track on the radio in America, and it sounded a lot rougher than I'd thought, where I'd imagined the production was somehow very smooth. You know, generally speaking, I think I'm almost at peace with my recorded catalogue, apart from the songs that I know are just bad songs. I don't currently have a hatred for any of the albums. I tend to have more of a negative reaction to them when I'm working on a new record.

I agree with you that Armed Forces now sounds quite brash, particularly the drums. When it came out, it did seem almost slick, but now everyone's using drum machines, the Nick Lowe beat sounds rather metallic. That said, I think I prefer the Langer/Winstanley drum sound to the garage sound on Trust or the somewhat muted one of Get Happy.

It's a more natural drum sound, isn't it? Without giving anything away, though, they do use techniques to doctor the drum sound, it's not all natural. That's one of the ironies, that they often use lots of trickery to get a simple, natural sound. "Let Them All Talk" was a real marathon job to make, yet it sounds quite live, it doesn't sound like an ABC record. The sound of Get Happy was probably due more to the studio we were in than anything else, but it was also a very radical approach to that style of music.

Madness' "Our House" proved Langer & Winstanley were probably the best production team around. How do you compare them with Nick Lowe?

Clive and Alan have the patience to construct something the size of "Our House," which Nick Lowe lacked. Nick is like Stax, whereas they're more like Motown or Van McCoy.

When you described Get Happy as "somewhat unfinished," you probably gave away its secret. For me, it's like the bare bones of a sort of new wave MG's sound, as opposed to an attempt to match the Stax sound. It means it's a great record to sing along with… there're gaps to fill in.

We've got live arrangements of Get Happy songs that fill in those gaps, like "Possession" and "King Horse" are now much more realized numbers. "Clubland" is also vastly improved. As I remember, it sounded absolutely devastating to play in the studio, because the torn torn sounds were very deep, but they were almost impossible to get on a disc. If you play Trust extremely loud, it sounds great.

I think you should recognise your failures, as I'm beginning to do with the weak songs on Punch The Clock. I think, for instance, we tried to cram too much into "King Of Thieves." If it had been slower, there might have been more time to build it up, but as it is the heart of it is missing.

I knew there was something wrong with "Little Savage" on Imperial Bedroom, even before we put it out — I knew it was just another of what we call the "F-Beat songs," one of those straight four-beat songs that we do really well, but which don't mean anything. "Love Went Mad" is one on Punch The Clock, and I never wanted it. Clive said we had to put it on because it's a good tune, but I knew that overall it didn't happen.

Clive's attitude to the whole album was, I suppose, quite single-minded. He didn't want anything that was like Imperial Bedroom. Consequently we tried to modify the songs that did sound like Imperial Bedroom, which was why "King Of Thieves" and "Mouth Almighty" were not totally successful.

In retrospect, I'd much rather have had "The Flirting Kind," which was on the album until two days before it was pressed, because it had some heart, whereas I felt things like "Love Went Mad" went half way to being "Let Them All Talk" without succeeding, you know, they had a certain amount of power but they were a qualified success.

"Let Them All Talk" is a thumping great super-Stax anthem. Is there anything specific intended by the question, "Have we come this fa-fa-fa to find a soul cliché?" Is all the new blue-eyed brass a lot of bunk?

I think perhaps when I wrote it I was asking myself the question. You know, is that all there is? Is there nothing more from within than just saying there's stuff from within? Is it enough to say "I'm a soul man," without being one?

I always suspected songs that spoke about how much you spoke. I love a lot of Graham Parker's stuff, but there was one song I could never abide called "Pouring It All Out," because it was a whole song about how much he was going to tell you. I'd much rather he'd just told me. And that's my bone of contention with Kevin Rowland, that he spends his time saying "I'm gonna tell you, I'm gonna tell you, I'm gonna tell you," but what does he tell you? At the same time, I like a lot of the mannerisms he uses.

What did you think of Culture Club's "Clock Of The Heart" as a piece of nouveau Miracles?

I like a lot of Culture Club songs. I don't so much like the calypso element, I didn't like "I'm Afraid Of Me" or "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," but like everyone else in the world I loved "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me," and I loved "Time," and I love the new song "Black Money," though I haven't heard the album version yet.

The album's interesting, because it really is a slow soul album.

That's what I think could be the next interesting development. I don't think there's any more perfect beats to search for, in terms of mid-to-uptempo. Either you could have a return to rave-up type soul, which I don't think anyone has either the guts or the technique to do, or you have a soul music that brings people together. In other words, a dance music that isn't a narcissistic display of agility. Nobody ever dances together anymore, which was presumably the point of dancing in the first place.

So one of the challenges I think Culture Club should address themselves to, since they have the ear of the world, is to bring people to dance together. There's probably more great singers languishing in obscurity for the lack of a reason to sing slow songs than there are for any other reason. The soul ballad is still a pretty overlooked medium, unless you count the soft jazz-funk stuff like George Benson. Culture Club are in a position to rekindle that style.

Before we left for America, I was on Round Table, and they played The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her?," and it sounded so fresh, and the idea of people dancing together really appealed to me.

With Punch The Clock, you've broken back into pop, yet the album is almost a critique of pop. How disenchanted are you with trends and clichés?

Only as tired as I've ever been. If something lacks substance, lacks anything to move you, then it's only of any use to the people who like that flavour of candyfloss, but I don't have a hatred of it.

I've been somewhat amused by the attitude that I'm a good guy now, which seems to be the current popular opinion. Last year I was supposed to be in search of an audience, which again was a blanket opinion subscribed to by both people who don't think and people who think too much… people like Julie Burchill, who is currently top of my hit list. She just makes me really sick, you know, she's the Glenda Slag of modern pop writing.

I really object to a little thing she wrote in The Face, which I thought was really unnecessary. I think for someone who has a child herself, that was a pretty spiteful thing to do.

At the end of "Town Cryer," you said you were never going to cry again, you were going to be as strong as them — the "tragically hip" young boys of teddy bear tenderness and trembling lip. Does Punch The Clock bear that out?

That's taking something from a song and seeing it as mirroring my career rather than my heart or my head. I don't write songs about my career. In that sense it's wrong, but I suppose that's why "The Flirting Kind" was left off the album, which is an otherwise good song, because lyrically there's much more doubt and sadness in it. There's no sad songs to do with the heart on Punch The Clock.

Not "Charm School"?

Not really, it's sort of sad but in a different way. It's a pornographic sketch, if you like, not sad like "Shabby Doll" is sad. "The Flirting Kind" is much more related to that sort of song, "Boy With A Problem" or "Long Honeymoon."

Basically, Punch The Clock is outward-looking, where Imperial Bedroom was inward-looking. The more uptempo songs, like "TKO," are modern day equivalents of "I'm So Proud" or "Keep On Pushing"… even "The World And His Wife," which, despite its nauseating scenario, is really music for a big knees-up.

You recently voiced a certain chagrin that you don't have the "direct communication" that Paul Weller or All Campbell have with their audience, which goes back to that feeling of "And In Every Home," that "I don't have a job, I'm disconnected." Does it really matter?

It seems to have limited them, actually, coz they've both run away from it, or at least decided they wanted someone else to take the strain of being spokesmen for their generation. What I find a little sad is if somebody is going to take that position, it's important that they do it with some intelligence than just in a rather empty way… I mean, put it like this, "When You're Young" is nine times the song of "A Step In The Right Direction." What you really want is not songs that tell you what to think but songs that teach you to think for yourself. It's not a mantle I would want to pick up, and clearly no one else wants to either.

Jerry Dammers is another person who doesn't step into the light, promising to show us the way.

Jerry's about the only person I really respect at the moment. I think that "Racist Friend" is a fuckin' brilliant record. It was very funny to come back to England and read the reviews which said "oh no, you can't actually tell people that they musn't talk to someone who's racist, that's going too far."

When it comes down to it, the liberals always chicken out. I wish I could write songs which said it that clearly and that simply, and not make it sound like a cliché. People talk about crucial, essential records — as far as I'm concerned, that is the only essential record that's come out all year.

Whose idea was it to put that chillingly emotionless claptrack on "Pills And Soap," which is really the key to it?

In terms of sound, I wanted "Pills And Soap" to be like a rap record, but I didn't have the patience to do that. If I could have persuaded Sylvia Robinson to produce the backing track for me, and then just sung over it, maybe that would have been the answer. So I decided to use just one mannerism from rap, which might be enough to trigger off people's response to it. The rest of it was just a sub-Dave Brubeck thing that I was messing about with. There was a whole sort of be-bop horn part in my head that I again didn't have the patience to get someone to work out for me.

People have said your "Shipbuilding" lacked Robert Wyatt's essential plaintiveness. Is that fair?

Well, obviously I sound different to him. It took me a long time to get the vocal on it, because of being in his shadow. He gets the sadness through with the sound of his voice, so I was paying more attention to the melody. I knew everyone had paid attention to the words by then. I simply wanted to sing the song, there was no doubt about that, and at the time I didn't know Robert's version was going to be reactivated over here. Therefore I was thinking of the singing of it, of getting a sound in my voice which would be complementary to the trumpet, so I was thinking of it more musically. Perhaps there was something of the affection of the father that I felt I could put in my version. I think I've done better versions of it live.

To go back to the earlier point, do you feel any more "connected" now?

I feel this tour is much more challenging than last year's. For one thing, it's sold out! Which means, there is the interest. Plus Punch The Clock is a gold record, the first since Armed Forces, and we've had two singles in the Top 30, even though one of them was totally unexpected. I don't know what plans we have for future releases, because obviously the failure of "Let Them All Talk" is something of a mystery.

Did the American tour reveal anything new about that glorious nation?

No, just the capacity for changing their minds, or their self-deceit, depending on whether you look at it favourably or cynically. I don't know to what extent their acceptance of us is genuine, or whether it's just our turn, but "Everyday" is currently 44, so we're enjoying success in an area that's previously been closed to us there. It's difficult to tell whether there's a much bigger American audience for us or not.

Do you think there's anything to the theory that Get Happy and Almost Blue were resented there for appropriating American musics?

Almost Blue might have been, but I don't think it applies to Get Happy, since they tend to treat any references to soul music as a joke.

It struck me that Almost Blue was maybe the most soulful of your records, even if also the most depressing, especially if one sees country as the white man's soul music…

Well, the title was a giveaway. After a while we just got overwhelmed by being in Nashville, and the pointy boots were too much, and in that respect the more successful songs were "Sweet Dreams," "Success," "Colour Of The Blues," "How Much I Lied" and "I'm Your Toy" — that's the soul stuff. I believed in "Sweet Dreams," that was the one that I thought had all the feeling, and that's the one I naturally wanted to be the big record, the same way I believed in "Accidents Will Happen" or "High Fidelity."

It's interesting to play Mighty Sam's "Sweet Dreams" or Bobby Bland's "Too Far Gone" alongside your versions, because many of the great deep soul records are in fact songs written by country artists or musicians. And just as it's possible to listen to Charlie Rich or George Jones as great soul singers, so Bettye Swann's "Today I Started Loving You Again" (a Merle Haggard song) is in a sense a great country record, though she was black and the record was cut at Muscle Shoals. Country and southern share pretty much the same themes, ie drink, destitution, and infidelity, and really, ever since Sam Phillips took Elvis into Sun, the racial boundaries of Southern music have been more subtle and intercrossed than perhaps we Brits assume. We tend to think of Nashville as some redneck bastion, but tons of great soul was made there too.

Right. You know "Tell Me" by James Carr, I think that's a Merle Haggard song. There's another song by James Carr called "What In This World Can I Call My Own," in which for a split second a pedal steel actually comes in. A lot of those records cut in Memphis or Muscle Shoals are country records, they're just made by people who happen to be black.

I mean, my introduction to country music was the Burritos, that was my introduction to Merle Haggard, and here was a country rock band covering James Carr's "Dark End Of The Street" and Aretha's "Do Right Man—Do Right Woman"! Just like The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo has a version of that William Bell song "You Don't Miss Your Water." So many eulogies of Gram Parsons have been written saying how important he was and how he crossed country with R&B, but I just liked the guy coz he liked Aretha Franklin too, you know.

Your favourite singer early on was Rick Danko — now you're talking country soul!

I finally met him on this tour, actually. Him and Levon Helm were doing this folk thing at the Lone Star in New York, with just a bassist and a dobro player, and they did a few traditionals, a few Band things like "Ain't No More Cane," and then halfway through the set Danko did "It Makes No Difference," which was actually a very sophisticated song to be doing in that set, but he was so brilliant, I was practically in tears… just unbelievable.

You did a lot of swearing in the early days, were if truth be told a right ranter, even, dare I say it, an emotional fascist. At the time you said you sometime felt like a child and sometimes like an old man. You seem a lot calmer, a lot more sober today. Do you feel more your own age?!?

The thing is, I never was an angry young man, I was always an angry old man. I always felt older, and always looked older, than I was. Things can still get me really angry, like this Julie thing, and I'm afraid my response to that is not a logical one, it's not calm or intelligent, it's fuck this, let's just get into major physical violence right away.

The thing is, I am a good bloke, I don't actually hate myself, and I don't think I deserve the vitriol dealt out to me by these people. All it shows is either their own self-disgust or the fact that they simply don't know me. And they don't.

Is this tour gonna slay us?

Now is the time, and the time is as good as any.

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New Musical Express, October 8, 1983

Barney Hoskyns interviews Elvis Costello. (reprinted in RAM, Nov. 1983)


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Cover photo by Peter Anderson.

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Photos by Peter Anderson.
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Photos by Peter Anderson.


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