Palm Beach Post, November 11, 1983
Costello borrowed his name from Elvis,
ATLANTA — British singer and songwriter Elvis Costello took his name from the most famous rock 'n' roller in history He greased and cut his hair much like his famous namesake, and when he burst onto the musical scene in 1977, his music evoked many of the sounds of '50s rock 'n' roll.
But at the age when Costello stopped playing with toy soldiers and became interested in music, he listened to the Beatles.
"When I was 11 years old, I thought Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were archaic," Costello says in a clipped British accent from Minneapolis during a stop on a tour. "It took me until a year before I became a professional musician to realize how great the Sun stuff (Presley's early label) was."
Through an amazing nine LPs in six years, two of which have gone gold, Costello, who recently turned 29, has emerged as one of the finest pop song craftsmen since Bob Dylan.
To hear Costello tell it, his emerging musical tastes as a young adult were only as catholic as his measly bank account would allow. He was employed as a computer operator and had moved to Liverpool to live with his divorced mother. His father was a big-band jazz singer.
Musically he was the product of many disparate elements. He emerged from the pub-rock scene in England and enjoyed listening to Joni Mitchell and other "songwriters who had been around a while and weren't current.
"I liked elements of what was happening in 1977, and I had a real love of '60s pop music."
At first he sniffed at the punk group Clash. "The music that I liked at the time was a lot more sophisticated," Costello says, referring to the witty and thoughtful lyrics of American singer/songwriter Randy ("Short People") Newman.
But in 1977, during England's Silver Jubilee celebration, when all the old ladies on his block were having a party for the Queen, Costello holed up with the first Clash album and listened to it for 36 hours straight.
Shortly thereafter he dashed off one of his biggest hits, "Watching the Detectives." The song is about a young man who is trying in vain to get his girlfriend's attention while she's engrossed in a TV detective show.
Once he decided what he wanted to do musically, Costello snagged his recording contracts through talent and sheer nerve. After some unsuccessful forays into record company offices with his tape recorder, he waltzed unannounced into the office of Jake Riviera, then-supremo of Stiff Records, in 1976 and proceeded to wow him. Shortly thereafter, Costello snagged his CBS contract by staging an impromptu audition on the street in front of a London hotel where CBS representatives were attending a conference.
Costello remembers the year 1977 clearly, for that was when his first singles, "Less Than Zero," "Alison" and "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," came out in England. It was also the year his debut album, My Aim Is True, was released.
Costello's reception from the British public was enthusiastic. The LP remained on the U.K. chart for 12 weeks, reaching the No. 14 spot, and received favorable notices from members of the music press who sensed a change in the air.
It was rougher going in the U.S., where Costello toured later that year at the age of 22.
"They just sat there as if on Valium and refused to give anything. This complacency was born from the music which had a stranglehold on them so long."
American audiences were more inured to the sounds of heavy metal groups Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and the pop/rock of the BeeGees and Fleetwood Mac during the mid and late '70s.
When much of rock was decked out flamboyantly, Costello, who wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses, came on like a mean Woody Allen armed with a guitar — or like "Buddy Holly after drinking a can of STP oil treatment," to quote the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Inside baggy suits that looked like hand-me-downs, Costello moved spastically to supercharged rhythms.
Another barrier for audiences was that his lyrics compelled careful listening at a time when a lot of rock was just good times. Costello's songs included some incredibly intelligent, well-crafted material. His subject matter was similarly serious, including everything from ruminations on politics ("Less Than Zero") to personal relationships ("Alison").
In the face of frequently stony receptions, Costello says, he began to compensate with frenetic, uptight performances. He zipped from short tune to short tune without a word of explanation or introduction.
Because Costello was so much on edge, there were even some violent incidents associated with performances on those early U.S. tours. A heckler broke his concentration in a California club in 1977, and Costello threw a drink in the man's face and then brandished a broken glass at him. Today he would handle the situation "less dramatically," but he still becomes angry recalling it.
Then during his 1979 tour, the notorious Ray Charles incident took place. Costello denounced Charles as "a blind, ignorant nigger" during a drunken argument with members of the Stephen Stills Band in Ohio. He also assailed James Brown and American black music in general as simplistic. The incident has become the single most well-known piece of information about Costello.
The comment sparked such an emotional response from the public here and abroad that even an elaborate press conference held later in New York couldn't clear the air.
Costello used a Rolling Stone interview last year to try to set the record straight: "... We were very drunk... And we started into what you probably call joshing... And I suppose that in the drunkenness my contempt for them was probably exaggerated... I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say..."
Today Costello prefers not to discuss the incident further except to say, "Those remarks were meant to incense people in the band and were not reflective of my opinion.
"It's not because I'm being evasive. ... But if they harp on it, then I'm carrying it around like a weight."
Costello hopes the incident is behind him. He hopes he can shake hands with James Brown should the occasion arise.
One subject Costello is more expansive about is his enthusiasm for playing Atlanta. It was during the tense period of those first few American tours that he was received warmly by Atlanta audiences, which he categorizes as less narrow-minded than those elsewhere.
"The first time we played Atlanta was at the Capri Theater (now the Buckhead Cinema 'N' Drafthouse). We played there with the Talking Heads in '78. Neither of us could sell out the house so we had to be on a bill together. Perhaps for the Marshall Tucker fans, this was an alternative to Southern boogie. "Atlanta was one of the first places down South to show an interest (in his music). There's a lively kind of scene and it has to do with the B-52s coming from Georgia.
"Although I don't personally like the music I think it always meant there was a bit more modern following there, that peoples' ears were open to other styles."
Costello's stage demeanor has relaxed considerably in recent years. On his American tour two years ago he appeared at the Fox Theatre in a conservative business suit with neatly cropped hair. He introduced each number, introduced his musicians and thanked the audience several times during the evening.
Costello attributes the change to an increase in confidence. After all, he was a relatively unseasoned performer when he burst upon the scene six years ago.
"I think it was a question of just learning the technique of being on the stage," he says. "1 didn't really regard it as my right to be onstage for any length of time longer than 45 minutes in that I didn't have the command of it. I didn't have the respect to want to be there, to want to give. I mean, you can't actually force people to listen to you."
As he has matured, Costello, who is married and the father of an 8-year-old son, has become willing to show more vulnerability in live performance. This summer he even did a show with Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Band at New York's Pier 84. He and Bennett collaborated on a version of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing."
"My initial attitude was that I didn't really want to do it because it was too far away from what I do. But it was Basie who said, 'Look, I'm what, 79? And I'm still going, so let's get on with it.' So you feel a bit of a fool (not to.)"
His willingness to be more open on-stage has undoubtedly come with acceptance, too.
Costello's debut album in 1977, My Aim Is True, created a huge splash. It was on every Top 10 list of the nation's rock critics and received Rolling Stone's "Album of the Year" award.
With the release of each of his eight subsequent LPs, the public has been further impressed with his range. One album, Almost Blue, consisted of country material by other artists; and his complex, talky eighth album, Imperial Bedroom, was hailed by some critics as a masterpiece for breaking through the stock formulas of rock 'n' roll.
His newest album, Punch the Clock, is less startling in terms of originality than the previous eight but in some ways is more elegant and better crafted. This is important to Costello, who says, "I love simplicity in music and I try to achieve it." As in his other work, the intelligence and humanity of the lyrics bring to mind comparisons to George Jones, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan.
"Sales have been very, very encouraging both here and in England, which is quite nice, because it's hard to make a record that appeals to both." He explains that in England, where cults come and go much more quickly, audiences are prepared to listen to a wider diversity of styles and aren't quite so put off by new directions.
"It's encouraging because it seems that we're reaching new people," he continues. "I've been accused of making music that is inaccessible for a mass audience, but I'm not prepared to compromise that just to make a bland formula that will appeal to everybody. It's a question of winning over people's confidence, of putting a toe in the water and listening to what we have to offer — not only on this album but others we've done that have been overlooked."
Costello's fans should rest assured that while his stage demeanor has relaxed, "I haven't mellowed." His passions are still strongly held, although he is, perhaps, surprisingly generous with people he might be expected to disdain.
Take Tony Bennett. "I'm not 'a big fan of his, but you have to admire him. People mock that type of singing because it's become a hackneyed style, but the man actually has the equipment of a great singer."
Or how about the royal couple, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who appear in the form of look-alikes in the video made for his new single, "Everyday I Write the Book"?
"We wanted a typical couple, and who could be better than them? I'm not a royalist, and people who know that will think it's odd that I've got them on the video and don't make some further point. But perhaps you can have an opinion about something but not let it get in the way of a sense of humor."
Costello's personality doesn't translate well into one-liners and quick characterizations. He absolutely chafes when people try to constrict him with labels such as "New Wave" or "working class," to name two.
"I've always despised labels like 'New Wave' because I never could see how you could compare us to the B-52s."
His essential honesty has often worked against him when short comments were taken out of context. Divorced from further explanation, they simply sounded brutal.
Last year, for instance, Costello made headlines when he declared that he was thinking of changing his name back to Declan McManus. (Jake Riviera of Stiff Records named him Elvis after Elvis Presley and Costello after his father's grandmother.)
Costello said the reversion would only apply to the U.K., since in America "it takes five years for them to wake up long enough so you can sing to them."
"We (he and his three-man band, the Attractions) were going through a barren period commercially, and I said flippantly that I was beginning to think I was jinxed and maybe should change my name. Written down. it got quoted out of context and looked very dramatic, something like, 'David Bowie Retires Onstage.' "
He has also resented the labeling of his songs as "angry" in the American music press.
"I don't think It was the all-consuming emotion. I think there were others right from the start, more compassionate elements, but I can understand that it made better copy."
Throughout his prolific output, Costello has kept his listeners on their toes. It's never been easy to predict what direction his music will take. Asked whether his new album signifies a turn to a more mainstream pop sound, he resists categorization yet again.
"Well, you can never tell what we'll do next. It's too soon to tell,
Palm Beach Post, November 11, 1983