Q, February 2008

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Elvis Costello

From Angry Young Man to National Treasure, he is the British songwriter McCartney compared to Lennon

Simon Goddard

"I'll try and get through this without saying anything bad about England," says Elvis Costello, speaking from the distant sanctuary of his Vancouver home. Despite being one of our most celebrated living songwriters, Costello riled the UK press last November after vowing never to play here again in the wake of his 2005 Glastonbury performance. All a big misunderstanding, apparently.

"I was asked about Glastonbury and I said it was dreadful," he explains. "Meaning I was dreadful, not the festival. I said I'd never play again and I meant it humorously. A few weeks later, my mum's on the phone telling me it's all over the papers that I hate Britain. Which isn't true. But it's a storm in a teacup."

It's now 31 years since the London-born/ Merseyside-bred Declan MacManus was christened Elvis Costello by his manager and Stiff Records' boss, Jake Riviera. Though his debut album, 1977's My Aim Is True, allied him to punk, Costello's traditional American influences, from Motown to country, and craftsman's approach ran counter to that movement's feral spirit. Despite this, he successfully surfed punk's riptide after forming The Attractions, notching up a string of late-'7os hits, including his biggest, "Oliver's Army" (Number 2, March 1979).

But it was during the '80s that he cemented his reputation as one of Britain's most erudite songwriters. Giving lie to the myth of the '80s as the decade of synths-and-shoulder-pads superficiality, Costello proved himself a master of both pristine pop (from 1983's "Everyday I Write The Book" to 1989's "Veronica," co-written with admirer Paul McCartney) and some of the most poignant protest anthems of the Thatcher era, none greater than his timeless Falklands War elegy, "Shipbuilding."

Today, Costello is still revered by artists young and old. McCartney, Burt Bacharach, New Orleans' R&B legend Allen Toussaint and the late Roy Orbison have all requested his services (as has Hillary Clinton, who invited him to sing at her 60th birthday fund raiser last October). Radiohead once nominated "Shipbuilding" as the song they'd like to see reach alien life on the Voyager satellite probe, while bands as disparate as Kaiser Chiefs, Green Day and Jamie T have all cited his influence. Even the Spice Girls gave him a cameo in 1997'S Spice World movie. Costello is a national institution, whether he still loves these shores or not.

"And I do," he laughs. "People assume I say everything with a sneer . So I hope you can tell when I'm joking."

When you "became" Elvis Costello, Presley was still alive. Did your pseudonym change significance after he died in August 1977?

Within a few days of Elvis dying, ABC TV in America rang up Stiff Records and asked to have me on TV. It was very tempting for them because it would have been a great way to get exposure, but we knew the only reason they wanted us was because Elvis was dead, I was called Elvis and they were trying to concoct a daft story. The first few times I toured America it left a bad taste in the mouth, especially in the South where they were very reverent about Elvis and I was always cautious about saying my first name. It was something of a dare to take the name in the first place. But it's just a stage name, same as Duke Ellington or Joe Strummer.

You arrived during punk and were swept along as part of the "New Wave". How did your own musical influences, artists such as Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell, sit with punk's "Year Zero" mentality?

I always thought that was bullshit. It was the provocateurs and entrepreneurs behind the punk groups who made up all these theories about "Year Zero." I loved The Clash and the Pistols but I also loved Tamla Motown, reggae and country. I never believed you had to deny the past. Strummer was a huge music fan. He even used to call himself Woody after Woody Guthrie, so it was all rubbish. Even the term "New Wave", bunching together all these groups who had absolutely nothing to do with punk whatsoever. I never took any of it seriously

The '70s ended with your biggest hit, "Oliver's Army," written about the British Army's recruitment of school leavers to be deployed in Belfast. Did you anticipate a song with such specifically political lyrics could be that successful?

I don't think its success was because of the lyrics. I always liked the idea of a bright pop tune that you could be singing along to for ages before you realise what it is you're actually singing. Of course, the downside of that is some people only hear the tune and never listen to the words. After a while I got frustrated at that.

Did you know it was the only Top 10 hit to reference Oliver Cromwell until Morrissey's Irish "Blood, English Heart" 25 years later?

Well, where I go, he follows. Hahaha! That's interesting. I know the title but I don't know that song.

Some of the most important songwriters the British Isles have produced have Irish ancestry — McCartney, Lydon, Morrissey, Noel Gallagher, yourself...

I'm not particularly nationalistic, but obviously l am Anglo-Irish and, yeah, there's a lot of us in English rock 'n' roll. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were all Irish descendants. Even George O'Dowd [Boy George] There's something in that.

It's l979. Margaret Thatcher's just become Prime Minister. You're producing The Specials' debut album. Were you optimistic that political music could make a difference in the decade ahead?

For me, the sad fallacy of protest singing was that the songs were mostly being heard by people who were agreeing with you. If you look at the history of protest music and a band like The Weavers ['40s US folk group placed under FBI surveillance] the stakes were slightly higher. We never had to contend with anything that serious. You could get a record banned, but that was it. The best you could do was try and write songs which rallied people's minds to a certain thought. The Specials' Jerry Dammers was great at that. Even though we made it in '79, I still think of that [The Specials' debut] as a very '80s album. Their best stuff came later, though, and had nothing to do with me. "Ghost Town" was amazing.

A real political anger fueled the likes of "Shipbuilding," "Pills And Soap" (both from 1983's Punch The Clock) and especially "Tramp the Dirt Down" (Costello's vow to dance on Margaret Thatcher's grave from 1989's $pike). Has that subsided or will you still pop the champagne corks when Thatcher dies?

You shouldn't really celebrate when anybody dies, but I think she did this country a great disservice in the things she tricked out of people. I standby the words of those songs absolutely. It's funny you ask because quite recently I was accused by a British broadsheet journalist of being 'embarrassed' by the lyric, of Shipbuilding. So I wrote what was intended as a private letter to this journalist to explain why they were wrong.Which that person then made public by posting it on the internet. That in itself says a lot about the kind of person they were. But, for the record, I'm not in any way embarrassed by "Shipbuilding." How could I be? I still sing it.

At the time you called "Shipbuilding" "the best lyrics I've ever written". Are they still?

It's a pretty good lyric, yeah. The key line for me is, "Diving for dear life / When we could be diving for pearls." That we should be doing something beautiful, better than this, I wrote that lyric before the Belgrano [Argentinian Navy cruiser sunk by British forces during the 1982 Falklands conflict in controversial circumstances] I've been to see the monument, stood and read the names of all the men.., well, boys who died. Whatever you say about the conduct of war, that crime alone will see Thatcher in hell.

By today's standards, The Attractions' productivity between 1978 and l984 was phenomenal. 1980's Get Happy!! alone had 20 tracks crammed on a single LP. What fueled that Herculean work rate?

I don't doubt drugs and alcohol had something to In with it but I was just writing a lot, it didn't mean every song was a gem but we had a momentum. We actually recorded something like 50 tracks for Get Happy!! so there was still quality control. I don't think it's excessive for a band to be that productive.

You described l981's Trust as "easily the most drug-influenced record of my career", created on a diet of "scrumpy... Seconal and Johnnie Walker black label." But it sounds surprisingly sober?

After a certain point there's a plateau. A lot of those songs weren't recorded during the mania, it was the morning after when you come into the studio with a terrible hangover and you need to play really quietly. The reason I'm singing in a low register on "Watch Your Step" is because I couldn't move my head because it felt like it was going to fall off. That happened a lot. I remember doing "Green Shirt" [from Armed Forces] with a bloody dreadful hangover. But we were 26, 27 years old. I'm not trying to make us sound big, but we lived extreme lives and we still made great performances. I still don't understand the fuss in the media these days over musicians in their 20s taking drugs, the press following singers around worrying whether they're falling over or not. Why make such a drama out of it? There's plenty of other people going through the same thing who aren't in the media and don't have the same resources.

A sticker on 1981's country covers album Almost Blue warned potential buyers: "This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners." Was that aimed at your audience or your critics?

That was Jake Riviera's idea. He liked to be provocative. That sticker really made me laugh. I remember early on listening to a tape of country music while The Attractions were on tour when a journalist was about to come on the bus for an interview. Somebody said, "Don't let them hear you playing country." They were serious, because they were worried it would pin me down with being something to do with music from before 1977. Which was nonsense. But that was the climate back then.

A little known Costello fact. 1979's "Accidents Will Happen" features subliminally in the biggest sci-fi blockbuster of the '80s, Spielberg's ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Did it pay handsomely?

No. I don't think they offered any money. We had no way of knowing it was going to be so huge so there was the chance we'd given it for nothing and they'd use it for some big alien production number. Haha! But you really have to be paying attention to notice [Elliott's brother MichaeL played by actor Robert MacNaughton, sings two lines under his breath] Somebody once told me I was mentioned in The Rockford Files as well, which is insane.

Throughout the 80 you used pseudonyms - "The Imposter", "Napoleon Dynamite", "The Beloved Entertainer". Why choose to hide behind so many guises?

I don't think any of it was hiding. There came a point in the '80s when I wanted to reassert my family name. I'd briefly got a passport with Costello because I was fed up being asked, "Is that your name?" Then I thought you can't change your birth name, so l had it changed back to MacManus. But a lot of those pseudonyms were for B-sides, or separate projects outside The Attractions.

In the reissue notes of 1982's Imperial Bedroom, writing about Man Out Of Time you recall, "looking at my reflection in the frozen window of a Scandinavian tour bus without any idea who the hell I was supposed to be." Were all these pseudonyms a direct manifestation of that insecurity?

Perhaps. I admit it was more than just branding. There was also a very personal thing going on. It's difficult, because as an artist you go through life struggling to keep your head on, and then you write about it for public consumption. You have to try not to become in awe of the amount of drama in your life. But I also think too much can be made of the psychology behind name changing.

Paul McCartney said you reminded him of John Lennon in that you both wore glasses and "people with glasses have a different attitude to the world, they can be a pussycat (on the inside) but more aggressive on the outside." Is that fair?

I think he was trying to pay me a compliment but it then backfired because other people tried too hard to make the Lennon comparison fit

But is it true that having glasses gave you a "different attitude", that maybe the whole "punk Buddy Holly" image you cultivated was a shield you could hide behind?

No. I just happen to wear glasses! Admittedly, after a while it became a way of exaggerating certain characteristics. In some ways, yeah, I was happy being the contradiction of the typical rock 'n' roll singer which at the time was probably someone like Robert Plant. I wasn't that guy and I was happy not to be. If you wear glasses people often smear you as being geeky or weedy but I had a tremendously robust build when I started out. Looks can be deceptive. Remember, Superman wears glasses.

These days you dabble in music journalism for Vanity Fair magazine. But wasn't it you who said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture"?

Oh, God! Can I please put in print that I didn't say that! I may have quoted it, but I think ['70s US actor/singer] Martin Mull coined that. It still follows me around, that one. It's probably in some book of quotations credited to me.

In 2000, Vanity Fair published your list of the "500 albums you need". There was little British music from the '80s in the list, though the likes of Madness, The Pogues, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Smiths made it. Why those bands?

People think of the '80s and they picture big hair, baggy trousers and synths. For me, the best stuff was completely out of sync with that, like The Specials and The Pogues, who I both produced. Madness were as good for their time as The Kinks were for theirs. Great lyrics, great melodies. I loved the first Smiths album, especially "Still Ill" and "Reel Around The Fountain." Morrissey's a great lyricist. But when I think back to the '80s, it was more singles from that indie period I loved. Those early singles by Echo & The Bunnymen and The Fall. These weird, little records that are going to sound as mad as old hillbilly records in the future. In 50 years' time, how are you going to be able to explain Mark E Smith? I think that's brilliant.

So we had Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and The Thompson Twins. But the '8Os weren't all bad?

At the time, being in the '80s was like wading through treacle, but looking back a lot of it was great...[Splutters] Did I just say "great"? God, what's happening? I'm making it sound like my favourite decade!

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Q, No. 249, February 2008


Simon Goddard interviews Elvis Costello for Q magazine's feature on Fifty Years Of Great British Music.

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