"...Elvis' audience, for instance, consists not only of people who are music enthusiasts, but also a lot of young girls who really get off on him like they do with Gary Glitter or did with Marc Bolan. I think that's healthy because rock 'n' roll or pop music is the property of young people. Certainly younger than me."
If Elvis Costello has any sense of humor at all — and he must to have survived three albums, several U.S. tours and hundreds of articles written without the benefit of interviews he never gives — he'd probably have a good hoot over that quote from his producer, Nick Lowe. Somehow picturing the Duke of Disturbance fighting off teeming nubile masses while prancing to "Bang-A-Gong" seems an impossible task. Nevertheless, there are plenty of women — and men for that matter, pigs — who can't get enough of El's horn-rimmed, pigeon-toed cool.
"I am starting to function
In the usual way
Everything is so provocative
Very, very, temporary...
("Big Boys" from Armed Forces)
While Costello's music is certainly provocative, it's anything but temporary. Now, he wouldn't necessarily agree with that but would certainly hope it were true. Pressed in vinyl on two continents doesn't assure immortality, but if Elvis isn't listened to 50 or 100 years from now by some musicologist somewhere we haven't done our chronicling very well.
"Oh I just don't know where to begin..." sings Costello as the opening line of "Accidents Will Happen" and his latest LP, Armed Forces, but it's a lie. The then-married (currently estranged and pulling the arm of ex-Rundgren-fille Bebe Buell) British computer operator named Declan Patrick McManus had to know something to get the attention of England's bull goose loony record man — Jake Riviera.
Once that marriage had taken place (not without some difficulty, but hey, dues is dues), Riviera's Stiff Records ("If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a fuck.") released Elvis' first disque, "Less Than Zero/Radio Sweetheart" BUY 11. This was quickly followed by BUY 14 and BUY 15, "Alison/Welcome to the Working Week"' and "Red Shoes/Mystery Dance." All except "Radio Sweetheart" were included on SEEZ 3 — My Aim Is True.
By now (say, late '77, but who keeps track?) the most asked question in America was "Who is Elvis Costello?" My Aim Is True was getting a fair amount of airplay in markets where people aren't afraid of their own shadow, especially the most sentimental song Costello has recorded so far, "Alison." Though the public didn't much notice, when radio movers and shakers heard La Ronstadt sing an Elvis Costello song, they brightened up to the fact that he might be more than just another "punk" artist.
This Year's Model endeared Costello to a whole new group of fanatics. People scrambled for the import to get "Night Rally," a different cover and two extra songs on a single. Stiff 45's went flying out of America's specialty record stores faster than day old bread, and various El paraphernalia (buttons, posters, stand-up displays) dished out by his U.S. label, Columbia, were at a premium.
But Elvis wasn't a star.
The curious but non-concert-going types caught his act on Saturday Night Live and figured they had it right all along — this guy's not very good. True, Elvis didn't translate well to telecide, but then he didn't care to. He was building a career — if that's what it is, on his own terms. Anyone who didn't like it — fook 'em.
And what about Nick Lowe? Truly one of the most hysterically sly people to ever hold a control knob, Lowe has produced every song Costello's ever set to vinyl. From album to album the studio tricks increased in number until on Armed Forces, it's hard to tell sometimes who is making the record.
Nick Lowe can easily be called the Walter Mitty of rock 'n' roll. On Armed Forces alone he pays musical tribute to Roy Orbison, Abba, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, ? and the Mysterians, Bowie, Procol Harum and Bruce Springsteen — never once letting you know for sure who he was thinking about. Even if Nick will never be quite comfortable enough doing this for his own records, he has learned well how to do it for Costello.
While This Year's Model contained an acceptable blend of pop songs ("The Beat," "You Belong To Me") and social consciousness ("Radio Radio," "Lipstick Vogue"), many complain Elvis lost his bite on Armed Forces.
It can be argued that "Chemistry Class" and "Moods For Moderns" are harmless exercises in cute rhyme for no reason, but there's always reason to believe Elvis had more in mind:
"Sparks are flying up a lectrical pylon
Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons
Ready to experiment... ready to be burned
If it wasn't for some accident, some would never ever learn.
"Goon Squad" is more This Year's Model's speed and along with "Oliver's Army" and "Senior Service" provide the sharper edge of Costello's two-sided sword. But no matter what the message, Elvis' new songs bounce rather than brood. And let's face it — Costello has little to brood about at this point in time. Better he should frustrate listeners and rock critics than be frustrated himself.
Even riding the crest of a Top 10 album and major headlining tour (come to think of it, Elvis has always headlined), Costello plays it close to the chest. While coming to the close of his 18-song set (six Model songs: six Forces songs; two Aim songs; and four made up of 'B' sides and one new track), Costello was having a hard time getting the somewhat reserved crowd to their feet. "Maybe if we ask 'em real nice," he sneered, "they'll stand up for us." Nice work, El. I'm still confused.
Do you want to be a star? Do you think you are one already? Do you care whether people walk down the street singing your songs? Will the little hitlers in your mind fight it out until one little hitler does the other one's will? Are you ready for the final solution?