At the Canterbury Odeon in the spring of 1978, it was business as usual for Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The mayhem of the first Stiff packages behind them, they were touring the colleges and cinemas of England, supported by the workmanlike R&B of Mickey Jupp. No more than 45 minutes into a set that breathed new meaning into the word "intense," Costello stomped off stage, followed a moment or two later by his unquestioning band.
We hadn't had our money's worth, so we brayed like sheep for an encore. A full ten minutes later, Costello marched back out again, his trusty crew in his wake. After a vicious glare at the audience, he snarled, "About time too", and gifted us with a two-song grand slam. Outside, it was cold; it had felt that way indoors as well.
Three years later — scarcely time for Sting or Peter Gabriel to consider a new album — Costello and the boys were at London's Hammersmith Odeon. In a set that ranged from country ballads to driving R&B, Elvis smiled benevolently at the crowd, told jokes between songs, and offered a version of Randy Crawford's "One Day I'll Fly Away" so tender it broke your heart.
What happened between those two shows was three albums, a Stateside scandal, a near-breakdown and a personality reversal. Gone (at least until he read the reviews of The Juliet Letters last year) was the raging, restless spirit of guilt and revenge: instead, Costello reinvented himself as a music man for all seasons, a traveller prepared to cross the vast deserts between rock's violently opposed genre factions, equally at home with George Jones, Aretha Franklin or the MC5.
Since then, Costello has revisited the experimentation of the Beatles on Imperial Bedroom; scorched the ghost of Hank Williams on Almost Blue; out-popped the London clubgoers on Punch The Clock; excavated the roots of the 50 states on King Of America; played Lennon to Paul's McCartney; and confounded friends and critics alike with the cocky ambition of The Juliet Letters.
After all that, the Elvis who confused love and hate on "Alison," "Red Shoes," "Watching The Detectives" and "Accidents Will Happen" seems like a man from the twilight zone. While boxed sets of magic moments from the 50s or 60s sound like yesterday, the four Costello albums revamped on Demon's retrospective, The First 2½ Years (Demon DPAM BOX 1), arrive as refugees from a foreign civilisation, where no-one has separated tge punks from the new wave.
In that other lifetime, Elvis Costello stood for angst and accusation. Oppressed by the burden of personal relationships, paranoid about the political state, bored with nostalgia and joy and hope, his early albums chronicled "emotional fascism", as he almost called his third LP.
His aggression — in song, on stage and whenever he met the evil tyrants of the press — pigeonholed him as a punk, even when his music was obviously in debt to such old wave icons as Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles and the Band. Some remembered him from the one-man demos that DJ Charlie Gillett had aired on Radio London's 'Honky Tonk' — emphasising his love for country-rock as much as the Sex Pistols. Obsessed with America, but having grown to hate English rock's similar obsession, Costello looked, sounded and felt like a man out of time.
The brooding visage that graces the cover of Demon's box is an accurate guide to much of what's inside. The 30-minute counter-punch of My Aim Is True sounds amiably ramshackle in the hi-tech 90s, but it still hits you in the face, knuckles first. This Year's Model filtered the same ingredients through the Attractions' remarkable pastiche of 60s pop. And Armed Forces heightened the synthesis, to the point that there was too much pastiche for pop to handle. The possessed ex-lover of My Aim Is True and the skilled social satirist of This Year's Model had been replaced by a cynical manipulator, who hated himself as much as he did everyone else.
At the time, the promo-only album Live At The El Mocambo, recorded within a few weeks of that Canterbury show in 1978, was seen as a fun collector's item, nothing more. Now it burns with the crazed passion of a fanatic, and captures the desperate heart of the man far more accurately than the studio efforts. The Attractions hit everything at full volume and speed, and Elvis reels from one poisoned love-letter to the next, careering towards a one-man apocalypse. Loud, ragged and thrilling, the El Mocambo album delivers every boast Costello made in that first flurry of press hype.
Fittingly, that's the only one of the four albums delivered here untouched. The three studio offerings come with the welcome bonus of out-takes, demos and singles. Years after their first appearance on bootleg, here are the best of the "Honky Tonk" demos — one man and his guitar, already programmed for the heart of the sun. Besides hits and B-sides like "Watching The Detectives" and "Radio Sweetheart", there's also a rare acknowledgement of the pre-Elvis past, via a mid-70s cut from country-rockers Flip City.
This Year's Model adds the expected "Radio, Radio", the mighty "Big Tears", the throwaway "Crawling To The USA" and three demos for what came next. That proved to be the over-slick Armed Forces, which I recall buying and then selling again within a fortnight — unenticed by the free Live At Hollywood High EP, included here alongside another batch of 45s.
Betrayed by the third album, I was re-enlisted by the fourth, the stunning Get Happy — for which we'll have to wait until Demon prepare another box. The First 22½ Years is maybe the first prestigious retrospective not to receive the leather-bound, antique book treatment: with its cut-out cover and horrendously 1979 graphics, it's as ephemeral as pop records are supposed to be. Elvis Costello, though, wasn't quite that easy to throw away.