Overthrow, May 1979

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  • 1979 May


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The 'Big El' controversy

Spy Smasher and Johnny Guitar

While the rest of the world was worrying about nuclear devastation from Three Mile Island, New Yorkers were already on to a controversy that inflamed youthful passions far beyond those of a mere "nuclear accident." The big story here was Elvis Costello, Columbia Records' swaggering bad boy of new wave rock, who lately has taken his rage off vinyl and subjected other musicians and his fans to his own peculiar form of charm.

Big El really put his red shoe in his mouth this time. El had wanted his New York tour to assuage all impressions of him as an inconsiderate asshole by playing a lot of small clubs for people who couldn't make it to his sold-out (without even being advertised in advance) monster concert at the Palladium. If someone really wanted to see Elvis he could send his name to a local radio station for the lottery that gave out tix to his April First gigs at the Lone Star, Bottom Line and Great Gildersleeve's, and the ultra-loyal fan could even sleep outside the Bottom Line for SRO admission. But the Village Voice ruined El's April Fool's goodwill gesture by publishing a story alleging that, while on tour in Columbus, Ohio, El had called Ray Charles and James Brown "nigger", called Bonnie Bramlett a "slut", and claimed that America was full of "flea-bitten greasers and niggers" and that he only played here for the money. El made his off-the-cuff remarks over a midnight brunch at the local Holiday Inn with Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills who before dessert were swapping drunken punches with inebriated El and his entourage.

James Brown, when informed of Costello's remarks by Overthrow reporter Charley Crespo, replied,"I don't mind. People are entitled to that. I've been called that for a long time... and I hope he buys my next recording."

Controversy his been El's style ever since he changed his name from Declan Patrick McManus, quit his job as a computer operator, and got arrested outside an international CBS Records convention for "disturbing the peace" by playing his songs so he could get heard by the usually inaccessible pig execs. El got his CBS contract but kept his reputation as a troublemaker—he fought with other Brit punk bands while on the road (The Damned got so annoyed with El they gave him a hotfoot while he was dozing in their tour bus); he slurred a California radio station that was sponsoring and broadcasting one of his concerts; and he told his roadies to turn on white noise to get the audience out of the auditorium faster after a show.

But what do you expect from someone sizzling with as much pent-up rage as El? His records rant against fascism, racism, etc. Costello is like a guided missile that needs to be pointed in the right direction. What he needs to do is direct his anger at the proper enemy, as he did in the anti-Nazi song "Less Than Zero" and "Radio, Radio" ("Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools who try to anesthetize the way that you feel.")

Upon arriving in New York, El held a press conference to smooth out the furor caused by the Voice story. Declaring that, "I am not a racist," (a line strangely similar to Nixon's famous disclaimer, "I am not a crook"), El proceeded to apologize claiming that he was misquoted and that his remarks were taken out of context.

While the press interrogated El about his late night monologue no one, including Elvis, mentioned that El had played Rock Against Racism in Britain, a fact that adds credence to El's claim that Columbus was just one of those wild and crazy nights. Costello also reported — the Voice didn't — that Bramlett had called him a "fucking limey who can't get it up" and that El had slurred Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, for whom no insult is harsh enough.

The Quotations of Chairman El set off an impromptu demonstration by a group of ad-hoc Yippies outside the Bottom Line. The twenty five odd demonstrators, carrying signs that read "Send El Back to Computer School" and "Kick Him Again Bonnie", often exchanged angry remarks with El disciples waiting on line for the fifty standing room ducats. At one point four cop cars screeched up, having received a false report that gunshots had been fired within the vicinity of the Bottom Line. The cops, whose taste in music runs more towards the Ramones these days, quickly disappeared.

An attempted pieing of the miracle man by Yippie Aron Kay was squashed when a plainclothes security creep outside Great Gildersleeves kicked the paper-bagged pie out of Kay's hand and then proceeded to bop him on the arm with a blackjack for his troubles.

Hopefully Big El has learned that if he's going to get drunk and shoot off his mouth, his aim had better be true.


Overthrow, No. 1, May 1979

Spy Smasher and Johnny Guitar profile Elvis Costello and report on the Columbus incident.


1979-05-00 Overthrow page 11.jpg
Page scan.

1979-05-00 Overthrow cover.jpg


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