Penthouse, June 1980

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Penthouse
  • 1980 June

Magazines
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Elvis Costello

I can't stand up for falling down

Gerard Van der Leun

Having crawled from the wreckage that was punk, Elvis Costello is now the people's favourite. However, people aren't favourite with young Elvis, whose reclusive image makes him the Garbo of rock

"Now seriously, do you know where we can get some drugs? Any kind. A little something. You know how it is."

I'd like to help the man. After all, I do know how it is. And they seem so … well, nervous. Think of it. A rock band on the road with no drugs! For a well-known rock band to run out of drugs before it runs out of road simply does not happen; or rather cannot be found out to have happened. The situation is embarrassing.

But if you can't speak French and you're a band wandering the Cote d'Azur, and you have no drugs, and are looking for A Little Something, a passing American is always a good bet. Being a passing American, I'm therefore a potential go-between. The fact that I can't speak French either and have, truly, no one to go between doesn't matter. The mere asking for drugs seems to calm the band. The mere question is in itself a connection and makes them feel at home, almost comfy.

And if the Elvis Costello band is in need of anything these days it is a comfy home complete with mum.

We are standing in an 18th century courtyard in an obscure town in southern France. The band has a concert in Cannes in a few days and is busy recording its exploits on film.

"Wanna try for a take, Elvis?" asks a voice. It belongs to a scruffy American filmaker complete with World War Two flying jacket by Cerruti. He is fondling the zoom-lens of his 16mm Ariflex and gazing distractedly around the courtyard. A tiny generator rattles away, making it difficult to hear in this enclosed stone space.

"What?" Elvis Costello squints through his thick National Health glasses trying to locate the cameraman who is standing about four feet in front of him.

"I said do you wanna try for a take?"

"A take? Oh. Yeh. Gimme a second to practice my moves."

Elvis takes a coin from his pocket and stands off to one side flipping it backhanded from hand to hand. Behind him the rest of his band slouches around the drummer and mutters. Elvis turns and joins the band. After a few minutes of consultation they begin to move around the courtyard to the steady chug of the generator; goofing, jerking, grimacing, stumbling and, in general, enacting a tired version of rock and roll hi-jinks circa Hard Day's Night.

"Publicity," the red-eyed head roadie informs me in a hung-over East End mumble. "Footage for Top of the Pops. That sort of rubbish. You know how it is."

And that's exactly how it is. No surprises, even less excitement. Not even here in the French provinces where only a few years ago any mid-level English rock band goofing around these twisting medieval streets would have drawn fans out of the mortar between the stones. All Elvis and the band can manage to attract are a few wine-sodden teenagers, with neither energy nor interest, loitering in the near distance and gazing at the group's antics with vacant expressions.

The antics seem limited to: Elvis solo flipping a coin from hand to hand with arms and legs held slightly apart; the same trick repeated with limbs akimbo à la Conway Twitty; various robotic twitches of the head without moving the shoulders; a less varied series of eyebrow twitches without moving the head.

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Ensemble, the Attractions and Elvis have perfected a sort of shambling, staggering run at the camera from various directions complete with stiff gestures and empty expressions.

This is the lively bit and awakens the filmakers. They ask the group to repeat it three times. They beg for a fourth but the group is a wheezing wreck by this time and thus decline.

The tall and exhausted drummer manages to walk over to where I'm keeping the shattered roadie company. "Honestly, don't you know anywhere we can score?"

The roadie, who is not too sure of exactly who I am, is uncomfortable with the subject of the conversation but too cool to protest. Elvis, recovered from his exertions on behalf of Top of the Pops, wanders over and begins to examine the flagstones with total absorbtion as he listens to the drummer persisting.

Drummer — "Just a little bit of this or that."

Elvis — "Seen me coat?"

Author — "Don't have any, haven't had any, don't know of any. Just passing through, really."

Drummer — "We don't have any either."

Elvis — "Don't even have me coat."

Drummer — "Got a great villa here though. Just outside of town. Belongs to Kurt Jurgens."

Roadie — "Must be worth three million quid."

Author — "Have you sold out?"

Elvis — "Did that years ago."

Author — "I meant the show in Cannes. Besides, rockers don't really sell out, they buy in."

Drummer — "That's too many for me."

Roadie — "They got a new record coming out. Just finished. It's a cracker."

Elvis — "Right. A real cracker. Where is that coat?"

Drummer — "Come see the show Monday. We haven't done one in a long time."

Elvis — "There it is. That's better."

Drummer — "Come by. It's going to be a sharp show."

Elvis — "A cracker. I need a drink."

The film crew has assembled its gear. Outside the courtyard the crowd has swollen to six or seven local teenagers, any two of whom look unconscious enough to advise the band on where the local illegal chemist can be found. I suggest this to the roadie.

"Naw. The lads don't really want drugs. They just talk about it. Just having you on, you know. They're not serious. Besides, we can't speak French. Nasty lingo, what? Have a pint?"

I decline.

"Right. See you at the show then. And keep a look out for the new record, it's a real…

"…cracker?"

"Right."

The group assumes a ragged phalanx, with Elvis wrestling his way into his coat at the centre, and lurches off down the narrow pavements of the town. From the stained, yellow stone walls large posters of Elvis in grainy black and red leer down at the group scuttling below.

And the distance from the cool, laid-back and archly ironic pose that the poster's image portrays to the hunched man in his Petticoat Lane garb at the centre of a group of lost musicians looking for a drink, a connection, a location, a little bit of something, is not measured in meters, but on a more intangible scale of human dimension. On this side street in Cannes, for just a brief moment, it's a simple thing to see how completely the media, by expanding the image, shrinks the reality; how it's easier to wear a fashion than to be one; and how nothing ages faster than the new.


No one would suggest that Elvis Costello is the greatest thing to come out of England since Paul McCartney turned into Bing Crosby. But still, Elvis is, in his small way, a significant phenomenon. For he is, as much as any other musician now on the scene, the essence of the present pop reality and its immediate history. If one does not know who Elvis Costello is, one has simply not been paying attention.

Rock and roll, like Peter Pan, does not grow up. Ever. Rock and rollers may, and indeed do, grow addicted, rich, stupid, old and dead. But rock and roll remains what it always was; a kid's game. Those stars that try to take it with them into the mists of middle age either fail, die, or turn to disco.

Working class kids in Britain, having little in the way of material possessions or hopes for the future to distract them, were the first to act against the geriatric bent of late-Seventies rock. The dubious result of their reaction was a rag-bag of nihilist fashions stitched together with threads of pointless violence and egregiously anti-social behaviour. Set to music, naturally.

And, lo, they called it Punk and it was the Next Big Thing. And behold it brought the promoters tidings of great joy. Or, rather, it would when they worked out how to market it!

Marketing was a big problem for Punk. On its sordid, soiled surface, it seemed to be unmarketable.

For a start Punk was not pretty. It was ugly. And not the kind of ugly that gets pretty. It was as ugly as Sid Vicious twisting a hunting knife in his girl friend's stomach.

In the service of ugly, Punk was cheap. Really cheap. It cost nothing to be a punk. Its positive virtue was cheapness. It gave one real class. If it was expensive, it wasn't Punk.

This problem kept promoters up all night. Apart from a few sleazy t-shirts, some day-glo hair rinse and tickets once a week to clubs that seemed to be one step down from the public urinals in Barnes, there seemed to be nothing attached to Punk in the way of PPP (potentially profitable products). The records weren't selling either.

Well, maybe they were selling but they weren't going platinum and that was no fun at all.

In short, the only things that sold were cheap. They had to be since no punk worthy of the title had, by definition, any money. And finally, punk goods were (first principle) ugly.

The Sixties had taught promoters to market pretty-pretty pretty cheap. Nobody, however, knew how to sell cheap-ugly cheaply.

Still, driven ever on by naked, raw greed, certain eager promoters took the dilemma by the horns.

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These few avant-garde merchants clasped their behinds in both hands and took a giant leap of faith. If it was too risky to sell ugly cheap, why not sell ugly as expensive?

The t-shirt rescued from the garbage tip and renewed with two pence of spray paint, had a designer label sewn in and retailed in the more exclusive trendy-deco shops for £20. Fantastic profits followed as must night follow day.

With such a heady stimulus, the major fashion designers were not slow to sink even lower than they had previously yearned to go. Punk became a fashion in a season. In two seasons it became the fashion.

The records were still a worry. They were not going platinum.

There was a reason for this singular failure on the part of the pop world's Next Big Thing. Punk sounded the same over a transistor radio as it did on the most sophisticated £5,000 stereo system. And Punk didn't sound good. It sounded bloody awful. That was its point, of course, but the sound did not sell enough records to ship platinum. And that was bad. Very bad.

Rock stars made great, serious and elevating music. Punks made noise. Punk clunked and clunk did not sell records.

Rock stars not only sold records, they began to have opinions. Informed opinions. Opinions on everything. Blessed by the magic wand of rapid wealth, they became miraculously intelligent and eloquent.

This was the limit. Something had to be done. Punk did it. Punk went dumb. It didn't know anything, it didn't care about anything, it didn't want to care about anything. It didn't need it.

Smart was out and stupid was in.

Still the bloody records did not ship platinum! Even after "major recording companies" had signed "significant new wave groups." People had invested in Punk and their job futures were looking bleak. What to do?

Brain storm!

Export it. Export Punk, the New Wave, the Next Big Thing. Put it on the road. Send it to distant lands. After all, if the world bought the Beatles, it would buy Punk. Don't talk about talent. Punk's talent is no talent. Get it? We can't lose. It's sure fire. Still … what form will the export take?

Try the real thing. Try the Sex Pistols.

One murder later it was no go.

All right, too real, but nobody's perfect. Let's try something that seems real but also seems hip to itself. Something that is Punk but mocks Punk. Something that's ugly but accessible at the same time; something that looks cheap but costs real money; that sounds bad but with the ghost of an unchained melody; something that looks dumb, sings dumb, but seems smart. Something like … how about Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Perfect. Despatch him as the Messiah of the Next Big Thing; a man and a band made to ship platinum.

All of which floats us to the surface of history outside a well-used disco on a side street in Cannes deep in the south of France on one of the last nights of the Me Decade. The stars have fallen and Punk is booked into the bistros.

A chill Monday night on the south coast of France. After a few wrong turns we come across scattered clots of people leaning into the cold wind and moving in one direction. Following them we find our way to the venue and duck inside.

Outside was damp, clear cold, inside is a vibrating fetid pink fog. The place is full but mercifully not packed. Disjointed bodies lurch about under an arching domed roof lined with neon tubing that pulses pink and blue to the beat of the taped music.

Costello and his band have been lavishly hyped throughout the area for weeks. Posters everywhere, records incessantly on the radio, displays in the shops, hand-outs, hired word of mouth; all the flotsam of hype cast onto the waters of pop-oblivion. Still, tonight's crowd seems somehow listless. It is as if most people were here simply because there was nowhere else to go and nothing interesting on television:

As is usual with the present day rituals of the disco generation, the room affords no place to sit down other than the floor. Many, considering the contents of the rug and the cost of dry cleaning in France, look upon that possibility with the same enthusiasm they would approach a self-inflicted lobotomy. As a result there is a constant movement in the room that is not so much excited as uncomfortable.

In the centre of the room the Costello roadies are making tests on the multi-channel mixing board. The main mixer wears a faded t-shirt with the legend "The Who, Tour '79" and looks afraid of the crowd when it presses close to him.

Up on the diminutive stage framed by the flat black towers of the speakers, other assistants to the band are checking connections, testing mikes and tuning guitars. In the crowd, snatches of floating conversations are more concerned with the name of the shop where American cowboy boots can be had and the price of the trendy pink haircut than with the dim possibility of being excited by the music about to be offered up by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

The lights drop. The lights come back up. There is smattering of applause. Bang goes the guitar. A rumble of drums. The lights flare to red and there they are, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the latest, very latest English import. Elvis squints into the light and waddles up to the mike.

"Hello France. It's good to be here. This is from our record, Armed Forces."

Which did not, need it be said, ship platinum.


Some historians have grown overly fond of the phrase, "What's past is prelude." The performance inflicted on the hostage French youth by Elvis Costello this night hints that what's past is quaalude. Narcolepsy, that dread disease in which the sufferer keeps falling asleep at almost every moment, seems to have afflicted the star and his band to an incurable degree. In their less than mute agony, the group seems determined to infect their audience with the virus. Being highly susceptible, the audience is not slow to respond with a community coma.

Elvis and the Attractions are old hands at the business. They have their act very together. They are homogenised reality. On the surface they look, play, and seem to be, the very model of a modern major rock band. But deep down they are shallow.

Elvis parades in that studied neglect of dress and image so essential to the reigning anti-fashion fashion. It is as if he just happened to stumble onto the stage fresh from a night in a doss house.

Steve (keyboards) is as pale and sickly as the underside of a lizard. To emphasise this quality he favours clothing which clings to every inch of his emaciated frame. His smoked granny glasses complete the impression of a wasted human being whose chances of surviving his adolescence are slim.

Pete Thomas, clearly at pains to conceal a certain elegant ability with his drums, looks like a young Uriah Heep and flails out the tattered signatures that are the major motif of the hopelessly mixed music.

Bruce the bassist has delivered himself over to that musical stupor so typical of bass players the world over and seems about to demonstrate the reality of levitation at any moment.

Together, the band shake and twitch their way through the set with that meticulous slovenliness of stage choreography that is as much an element of punk performances as the manual of arms at Buckingham Palace. The overall effect of the band is that of a slow, planned accident in which all risks have been eliminated months in advance by Lloyds of London.

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Neither the lights, the costumes, the stage moves nor the canon of songs seems to make any impression on the crowd. A few islands of dancing float to the top for a moment among those unfortunate enough to have ingested stimulants, but these sink quickly back into the expanding miasma and oceanic lassitude.

During a previous incarnation in London, Elvis Costello seemed all that his name implied — a clone formed of equal parts of Elvis Presley and Lou Costello. The result was a wry, sardonic performer of real promise and a great deal of fascination. Without ever seeming to be self-aware, Costello had the subtle ability to represent both the aching nihilism and the smirking irony of Punk; to be at once helpless, threatening and funny; to be a serious musician without ever seeming to take his role seriously. It was as if Costello was at the centre of the stage and far outside it at the same moment. This quality gave his performance and music a reach that involved and energised his audience. Like all good performers he created an edge and then led his audience out along it. With this edge Elvis could slash at his songs, his image, his audience and his industry and make them all love the pain. It was a promising weapon.

Somewhere in the middle of the magic land of making it, Elvis lost this edge. In its place is something as featureless as the Gobi Desert viewed from outer space. Elvis himself is blunted. Physically, he is no longer thin but shading quite perceptibly towards the plump.

His music is plump as well. The biting sarcasm of his earlier songs has lost its teeth and his singing literally gums all the numbers to death. His once aggressive digs at the audience and the self-conscious world of pop and punk have weakened and become almost "mellow." Elvis is ready for a suite at the Hotel California.

At no time is there any sense of risk on the stage. Indeed, all the risk seems to have been taken by those members of the audience that paid to enter. The French, even the hip youth, hold their francs dear and will not easily forgive those who have taken them under false pretences.

To compound this felony, Elvis slavishly pushes his albums at every available moment. At one point he so forgets himself as to announce, "I don't speak French and I've got a sore throat." Neither item is news to the audience, the wiser members of which have already made good their escape. Others are forming queues to assault the guards on the exits.

Like a dream from which one struggles to awake, the show grinds on. The songs rise and fall in sluggish drones: "Possession," "Girls Talk," "Five Gears In Reverse," "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," and so on. Some of these tunes approach excitement but Elvis and the band are unable to build from these moments, much less sense them. At one particular pass the lighting combines green and puce to give Elvis the aspect of a young man in dire need of copious and regular doses of penicillin. This is the Elvis the audience has been searching for all evening and they respond hungrily. Clots of dancing erupt and the applause, for the first and only time, is genuine and sustained. Elvis, determined to resist all temptations to be spontaneous or interesting, ignores this and withdraws once more to his solitary meditations.

It is not to be denied that Elvis sweats out the set. He sweats out about two pints' worth. But nobody in the audience is fooled. No one is ever under the impression that he is working. Work means the expenditure of real energy and there is none being handed out tonight by Elvis and the Attractions.

The set ends. Band thanks audience. Audience applauds band. Band leaves and returns for compulsory encore. Band leaves. Audience applauds encore. Band returns for compulsory spontaneous encore. Further diminishing applause. Exit band. Exit audience. Both sides are much relieved. Outside the night is like any night; no one in sight.

Inside the head roadie watches over the equipment with red-rimmed eyes as the tired crew dismantles the lights and the mixing board.

"Fuckin' country. I wouldn't give ten pence for the whole lot of it.Great show though. A real cracker."

Out on the edge of Cannes, the French police are pulling cars fleeing from the disaster to the side of the road to search them for evidence of crime. The real felony has already been committed in the disco and its perpetrators have escaped scot-free.

But would the music stand?

Would it ship platinum?

Would Punk, pre-packaged and pasteurised for ease of export, regenerate the Empire and ease the burden of the mother country's extortionate payments to the EEC?

Would Elvis Costello as the leading candidate for the Pope of Punk survive his second incarnation and elevation?

Would Ugly, Cheap, Clumsy and Stupid become the dominant values, aesthetics and styles for the fashion setters of the 1980s?

Would Elvis Costello like to answer a few questions on what he thinks he's doing up there on the stage?

"Not bloody likely," said the roadie "never has yet."

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Penthouse UK, Volume 15, No. 3, June 1980


Gerard Van der Leun profiles Elvis Costello and reports on his concert with The Attractions, Monday, December 10, 1979, Cannes, France.

Images

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Page scans.

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Page scans.


Animation stills by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton at Cucumber Studios.
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Animation stills by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton at Cucumber Studios.


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Cover.

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