Elvis Costello and the Attractions have a huge catalog of music — more than 300 songs, by Costello's estimate. So, during the band's first incarnation from 1977 to the mid-'80s, why were the same few dozen played over and over again onstage?
Now the truth can be told. The pre-show partying that led to Costello and the Attractions' legendary roaring live intensity also tended to muddle memories and turn fingers sticky.
"Some of our early tours were fairly abandoned efforts," Costello, 39, said in a recent interview.
"We're not going to come out and pretend to be 23 again and 'Let's drink a bottle of vodka before we go onstage because that'll make us play better.' It might conceivably make you lose your inhibitions when you're 23, but it'll probably just make you sick when you're 39.
"I personally want to play a few tunes that perhaps in the past we maybe only played on the first few dates of a tour, and then they'd get a little bit too difficult."
"That's what makes people want to buy the tickets. But there'll be some good ones," Costello said.
With stints at Universal Amphitheatre and Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre this week, fans will get their first look in seven years at one of the most acclaimed bands of the past 20 years. Critics have long praised Costello as a writer rivaled only by Bob Dylan. Plus, the Attractions (drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and pianist Steve Nieve) as a musical unit have been declared as seminal as the Sex Pistols or the Clash. The band fits Costello's changing styles — abrasive one minute, tender the next.
The four got back together on several songs on Costello's new album Brutal Youth. Making it a full-blown Attractions tour "seemed the most logical thing. The four of us were in the room together. We were getting along. It sounded great. So let's do it," Costello said.
The tour opened in Oregon and will take the band around the world. Anything goes live, whether it's new, unreleased songs, acoustic versions, complete reworkings or obscure cover versions.
"We used to have a mass repertoire," he said. "After a seven-year layoff, it's obviously difficult to build that back up again in just a few months."
Costello's self-taught guitar playing has improved over the years, as the three-chord riffing of "Radio, Radio" evolved into the delicate acoustic lines of "Baby Plays Around."
"I could always play if I was calm. If I'm not nervous, I can play all right. I get nervous when I play, and I tend to get a bit frozen up. Sometimes, live, it turns into noise, but at least the noise is exciting," Costello said.
Radical reinterpretations of his work have had fans clamoring for a live album since the late '70s, and Costello has been recording his live shows since 1977. He's popped out the occasional bit of concert work — a live "Blame It on Cain" B-side, the Live at Hollywood High EP, the El Mocambo CD that makes up the recent box set. But there are dozens of unreleased songs he's performed live, along with his own interpretations of everything from the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink" to Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away."
When are we going to hear those songs on CD? Someday.
"It's like an insurance policy. If anything were to happen to me, my family could put out live albums into the next millennium — the one after this next one coming up," Costello said.
But it may take that long to surface.
"I have a couple of other albums that I'm thinking about making already," Costello said.
"There's a lot of music to be made," he continued. "I'm not sure if I'd have the patience myself for wading through a retrospective and live versions."