"Don't ask me to apologise I won't ask you I forgive me"
"Hand In Hand," Elvis Costello & The Attractions
It's only when you see the age and note the reactions of his audience that you realise what an elder statesman of rock Elvis Costello is. Following the triumphant return of the Attractions earlier this year with the Brutal Youth album, the band hit the road for a tour which Costello described as "a cross between Five Go Mad In Devon and The Last Of The Summer Wine." Watching them at the Royal Albert Hall (in July), they tear through their back catalogue with gusto and have played more classic songs in the first ten minutes than Take That will manage in a career. The scene is set with "No Action": fans of Costello circa '78 will be pleased to hear that This Year's Model is back in favour bigtime and strangely complements the songs off Brutal Youth, sharing their energy and instant appeal. Costello, of course, has been treated like the prodigal son this year. He's spent several years in the "wilderness" doing very much whatever he wanted (biggest charge against him: being in possession of a beard), to the chagrin of many a critic. But then, music critics aren't Costello's favourite people anyway; "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it's a really stupid thing to do," he once remarked.
Now he's back, and he's clean-shaven. The most predictable thing about Elvis Costello is his unpredictability (okay, and the Woody Allen/Buddy Holly glasses). The former computer programmer for Elizabeth Arden has consistently defied expectation. I blame it on Huey Lewis myself. Lewis appeared on My Aim Is True along with other members of pub band Clover who provided the backing music for Costello's debut album (released four days after Elvis Presley died, quirkily enough). After that beginning, it seems reasonable to assume Costello would do pretty much what he wanted from there on in, The first signs of his contrary nature surfaced on the American Armed Forces tour in 1979 when the infamous "Ray Charles incident" occurred — Costello got into a drunken argument and fight with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett after calling Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." Later on he recalled it as "the most horrific incident of my whole career and I've never been able to sit down in an unemotional atmosphere and say I'm very sorry. It was a drunken brawl and I wanted to say whatever would outrage those people the most, but that's no excuse. A lot of people were very angry, and rightfully so." Costello received 120 death threats (he didn't get that many when he collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet!) but though scuppering his immediate plans to be king of America, it did have one positive effect. "The incident coloured everything I've done since. The next album I made after that, Get Happy!!, I set out, subconsciously at least, to make a soul record. Not just in terms of style, but a record that was warmer, more emotional. And I think all the records I've made since then are more directly emotional, more personal. I've been trying to cut back on the clever wordplay and write songs with more heart." He tried, but Costello songs without wordplay are like Abbott without, er, Costello. One of Brutal Youth's many strengths is Costello's mature lyrics and even during the "wilderness" days, the lyrics were always on a par with anything else he'd written (particularly on Spike and the anti-Thatcher hate song, "Tramp The Dirt Down"). It was typical of Costello that on his 1981 Almost Blue album the cover contained a sticker warning, "This album contains Country & Western and may produce radical reaction in narrow-minded people." Whilst his "Song Sequence For String Quartet And Voice," The Juliet Letters, didn't have a warning, it didn't need it: the oh-so-respectable cover tacitly said it all. Ironically, back in the Seventies when Costello was coming to terms with being successful, he stated, "There's a lot of rock music that's becoming exclusive and it's of no use to anyone. Least of all me. Music has to get to people — in the heart, in the head, I don't care where, so long as it gets them."
Where some of Costello's albums have got people is anyone's guess. Having said that, that's just the reaction of the media. We're constantly being told how Elvis fans were disgusted by musical changes leading to the likes of Spike, Mighty Like A Rose and The Juliet Letters. Yet chat to fans and you'll find staunch supporters of all his albums (myself included). In a career spanning 17 years, it seems inevitable that someone wants to try different styles. Costello admitted earlier this year that "I'd have been bored to death if I'd just done combo records since 1978. If someone had told me then that I must not deviate from that blueprint, I would have stopped years ago."
As well as his own diverse work, Costello has also written for a variety of other musicians: Wendy James ("We did it as a kind of gag — ten songs in a weekend"). Johnny Cash, jazz diva Annie Ross, Robert Wyatt: "There's a constant interest in writing songs for other people, either specific commissions or mad things where you just dash off songs," he explained last year. He's also becoming a regular talking head on any TV music documentary. He's appeared offering soundbites explaining the magic of Abba, Dusty Springfield and Van Morrison in recent times, as well as recording songs on tribute albums to Van Morrison, Larry Adler, Charlie Mingus and appearing with Tony Bennett on Unplugged.
There's talk of a play with music for Nottingham Playhouse (no definite dates yet, but the theatre has received an Education Award to produce the work) and now that he has learned to read music properly (a result of the Brodsky collaboration — he had previously complained that "it's sometimes very frustrating, a bit like being an illiterate novelist") it's hard to believe he hasn't got some more grandiose plans in the pipeline, despite his humble description of his music and style. "I'm a bit of a magpie — I don't play an instrument particularly well, so I do things by feeling rather than by technique. [Playing music] is my job, like some people make chairs, I make songs and make records out of it."
He may be approaching 40 and have 17 successful albums to his name, but Elvis Costello's aim is still true.