Record Collector, October 1995

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Record Collector


Elvis Costello

The Record Collector Interview, Part Two

Peter Doggett

As a man who professes complete indifference to the workings of the rock press, Elvis Costello has occasionally let down his guard. "There is nothing at all the matter with some journalists that a quick slap in the face couldn't sort out," he wrote to one particularly dismissive reviewer of his adventurous song cycle, The Juliet Letters in 1993.

The feeling has been mutual. After a decade, from My Aim Is True to Blood And Chocolate, during which Costello enjoyed hometown-hero protection from critical disfavour, his work since 1989's Spike has been the focus of continual petty sniping. Sometimes, he's raised his head from the trenches and fired back.

Maybe that's the price you pay for ambition. After abandoning his seemingly permanent backing band, the Attractions, in 1987, Costello dared to venture outside the cosy matiness of the London rock scene. Albums like Spike and the much under-rated Mighty Like A Rose, with their Los Angeles sessionmen and guest appearances from the U.S. rock aristocracy, appalled those who reckoned that the man's natural home was singing "Oliver's Army" on stage at the Hammersmith Palais.

But it was the semi-classical The Juliet Letters which severed his insider status in the rock press. No matter that the project sparked his most eloquent and compressed lyric-writing in years: former pub-rockers from the Hope & Anchor circuit weren't supposed to dress up in penguin suits and hang out with the local symphony.

A much-hyped reunion with the Attractions — including bassist Bruce Thomas, author of the Elvis-baiting novel, The Big Wheel — for the admittedly impressive Brutal Youth restored his favours with the Nick Hornby crowd. But the sneering reviews for Dark Deep Blue, a mini-album from his genre busting week of concerts during the recent Meltdown festival, confirmed that the rock establishment still finds it hard to accept any Costello record that doesn't comprise three-minute Beatlesque pop songs.

Without even a biographer in the last eight years to attempt an explanation on his behalf, Costello's recent work can often seem wilfully eccentric, to the point of self-destruction. Which is why it was important to find out where Elvis had been heading, and why, since Blood And Chocolate destroyed the predictable progress of his career in 1986. As you'll see, conforming to anyone else's expectations is low on the man's list of priorities. And if that means annoying his audience or his record company...

RECORD COLLECTOR: You made about a dozen albums in nine years before you joined Warners. In the nine years since then, you've only issued about half that number. Is there a clause in your contract that says you cant make albums more than every two years or so

ELVIS COSTELLO: I think that their machinery isn't geared up for it to be your turn more often than that, though I have been pushing them and also, I've been working on other things. I've written more songs in this period than in the period before, so from that point of view, my output is higher. I've had the opportunity to do things like, I'm on my third film project now, or fourth if you count the children's thing I did last year, and there have been collaborative things I wouldn't have had time to do if I'd been constantly on the road.

The main thing that altered my schedule after 1986 wasn't so much the record contract as the absence of a regular band. It meant that I toured less, because I either toured solo or had to put a band together — and to justify that expense, it had to be in support of a record.

When my first album for Warners, Spike, was made, it was such an ambitious record in terms of instrumentation that I wasn't planning on touring at all with the band. In fact, the first tour I did after Spike came out was solo. It was only after the record started to become a success that I assembled a band to go on the road.

The success was somewhat unexpected, because all the way through my time at Columbia in America, they kept saying "If you could just do This Year's Model or Armed Forces again, everything would be sorted out. So we gave them stuff that, without actually sitting down and working it out as a formula was as close to that as we could get. With Blood And Chocolate, we said, "This is us truthfully, we're 32, a couple of us have got divorced, we're pissed off, and we've taken all the drugs and we've done all that stuff and we're still alive, and this is what we sound like. And you know what? We're much much better at it now." They didn't like it. They hated that record at Columbia.

So then I went to them and said, listen, I don't want to fuck about like this anymore. You tell me what record you want, and I'll make it for you. You name the producer — I'll go in with him. I'll fight with anybody, I don't care, with Mutt Lange or any of these guys that were making the big hit records of the mid-80s. I'll pit my musical personality, voice and strength of will against his, if that's what it takes.

But they didn't want to do that. They said I could make any record I wanted. I said I've got two or three different ideas. I want to make a sort of orchestrated record like Burt Bacharach used to make, using tuned percussion; and I'd like to do some stuff in New Orleans. I've got five other blueprints for records I can make."

As it turned out, I ended up on Warners with Spike, and I combined all those ideas onto the same record. They could all have been different albums, but that seemed a bit indulgent. And oddly enough, that was exactly what I got accused of being when Spike came out — though I don't know if people would have thought I was being even more indulgent if I'd done a whole record on each theme. Maybe it would have been more digestible. But I wasn't sure that I actually wanted to sustain any of those themes to that extent. To me, they were all different parts of music that I like.

Obviously I moved pretty far away from the Attractions' sound quite consciously. There were a couple of moments that hinted at the old sound: the bad guitar player's friend, the tremolo guitar, features throughout my career, so there's some of that on Spike. But the arrangements were very different to what I'd done before, partly be cause it was very rare for more than three instruments to be played simultaneously during the sessions. As a result, the arrangements are very painterly, with little bits added here and there, and then you rub that bit out and add another bit — it was a very creative use of the studio. But it frightened the hell out of people who were used to safer, combo sounding arrangements.

Then out of the blue we had this massive hit with "Veronica," which was much more successful in America than anything else I' ever done. With the single I wrote with McCartney, "My Brave Face," I suddenly had two Top 20 singles out of nowhere, after years of Columbia saying "if only he'd do what we told him." Suddenly I was a pop singer again.

I don't know what the people who bought Spike on the basis of hearing "Veronica" on MTV made of the rest of it, particularly "Chewing Gum" or "Miss Macbeth." I think there are some really beautiful songs on that record, and I'm really proud of it. Sometimes when I put it on, I go "What on earth is going on there?," because I've played some of the songs in more concise, more organic band arrangements since I made the album. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" has been played by the Rude 5 and then the Attractions, and it's become a very tough R&B song. When you hear the skeletal version on the record with two sets of piano and a tambourine for most of it, and then the Dirty Dozen Brass Band coming in, it's a very peculiar construction.

There was also some very light-hearted music on Spike, like "Pads, Paws & Claws," and "Chewing Gum," the playful stuff that I love. And the album's got "Tramp The Dirt Down," which worked very well on the recorded version, and as a rawer solo performance.

RC: Having seen you perform that live, I always found it rather an uncomfortable experience, as if you were getting a cheap round of applause by hitting an easy target. The audience seemed to be congratulating themselves for hating Margaret Thatcher.

EC: It was cathartic, though. Perhaps better than shooting her, but not very much better.

RC: I almost ended up feeling sorry for her. Remember that Neil Young line in "Campaigner," "Even Richard Nixon has got soul"?

EC: But she doesn't have a soul. She will burn in hell.

I can see what you mean, though. Some times when you see a big gang of people baying for blood, it can be uncomfortable, but that's not my fault. I'm not there in the audience, I'm on the stage singing the song.

I hadn't sung "Tramp The Dirt Down" for a while until recently, but I started again be cause the principles that the song was reacting against seemed to be creeping back. But before then I'd stopped singing it, probably for something like the reason that you say, that it's kind of an easy round of applause. But there are times when it seems appropriate. Like any song that's written as a reaction, the further away you are, the more it assumes irony. The distance changes the meaning slightly.

RC: Your next album was Mighty Like A Rose, which seemed to have more of an organic feel than Spike.

EC: Maybe it's the presence of a band, even though it was a session band, so it didn't have the same we're-all-in-it-together-and-we're-all-on-the-same-payroll mentality about it as the Attractions.

Since King Of America, I'd toured on and off with the Confederates, who were Jerry Scheff, Jim Keltner, Mitchell Froom and James Burton. Elements of that band became the core who played on Spike, along with Marc Ribot and Michael Blair, and after that I toured with them.

So then I recorded Kojak Variety in the spring of '90, and after that the original plan was that I would record Mighty Like A Rose with the Attractions. We went to Barbados for two weeks and cut Kojak Variety as a sort of farewell to that band. I'd been working with them since '85 in the studio and '86 live and it was getting to be like a bunch of old friends. I thought, well, I won't see these guys for a couple of years — maybe not ever again, if I get back going with the Attractions, and we like what we do. So we went and had some fun recording these cover versions. By then I had Larry Knechtal playing piano, who was the only person that I hadn't recorded with up to that point.

Then the plan to do the record with the Attractions fell through, so I went back to Hollywood. I still used a floating cast of musicians — James Burton came back in for a couple of things, and Nick Lowe played bass on one track. The drumming was split more evenly between Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas, whereas on Spike I used a variety of drummers besides those two.

When it came to Mighty Like A Rose, I just tried to find the solutions to the questions inside a group of musicians, rather than using any instrumentation that flew into my head. Though that isn't to say that there weren't some quite bold arrangements.

RC: "The Other Side Of Summer" had an obvious Brian Wilson influence.

EC: It was more like a musical satire, because his early music was celebrating summer, to a great degree, and using all these devices to sing about the soured side of that ideal was a fairly obvious musical joke — the same way Mozart did musical jokes. People took it far too seriously. I think it's a beautiful track.

But my favourite track on that record was "Hurry Down Doomsday." In retrospect, I think it's on the wrong place on the record, straight after "The Other Side of Summer," because it reduces both those pieces slightly. I heard it in isolation and I thought, wow, that's a wonderful piece, very original sounding, there's nothing quite like it.

It says something that I really believed at the time — I still have days like that when I feel, fuck this, let's get it over with. Let's drop the big one now, as Randy Newman says. It's the same impulse on a cosmic level as "Tramp The Dirt Down" was on a personal level. It's fighting the negative, which comes upon all of us. Then there was the more spiteful level which operated on "How To Be Dumb." Quite a lot of the songs beyond that are either disguised love songs, or they're sort of allegorical songs. But when you tell people that, it just makes them even more furious.

RC: Why?

EC: Because pop singers aren't supposed to write allegorical songs. And in England, at least, Mighty Like A Rose got some extremely hostile reviews — very much more to do with the fact that I apparently let some people down who didn't want me to change my image. I'd successfully buried the geek guy for good.

RC: And they seemed to object to you growing a beard.

EC: But it's my life and my body, and if I want to fuck myself up and have a beard and wear my hair long, that's my business. That just goes to show that people only like liberty as long as it's the kind of liberty they like.

I have my own reasons for that change of image — some of them personal, some of them just damn wilful. I can't say that when I look back that I think, yeah, what a great style that is. Some of the pictures with the beard I kinda like; others I see and think, god, you look terrible.

RC: There was a great picture of you and Jerry Garcia on the cover of Musician as if you were having a lookalike contest.

EC: I love that picture. I was really happy. And I loved Jerry Garcia, I think he was a great musician, he had a big heart, he loved music, and I was delighted to be there with him. You don't always have to be scowling and trying to stare the camera down like I used to do — mainly out of defence, early on. I'm not that aggressive a person unless I'm pushed. Like most people, I just want to get on with what I do.

RC: How important a stepping-stone was the orchestral G.B.H. TV soundtrack on the way to what you've done since, like The Juliet Letters?

EC: I was doing G.B.H. at the same time as Mighty Like A Rose, so some of the orchestral thinking transferred across. I didn't have a command of musical notation at that time, and I was working with Richard Harvey, who would take these themes and sometimes reorchestrate them quite radically away from the sense that I had. But I was able to put a lot of that same thinking into "Couldn't Call It Unexpected," which is my other favourite track on Mighty Like A Rose. Then there's a couple of things that don't work on that album, like "Playboy To A Man." But the one that's most fucked up is "Georgie And Her Rival." It's a beautiful melody, and we got far too tricky with the arrangement. It should have been about half the speed, and the story should have been much more tragic.

Anyway, before I began work on G.B.H., I'd started listening to a lot of classical stuff. I used to borrow a riff, the same way I used to from Howlin' Wolf, only now it was from Mozart — or if not the riff, the instrumentation. It was a natural step from that to write music down. I got slightly frustrated by not being able to be more help to Richard by saying, look, this is exactly how it goes and it should be these instruments. He did a fantastic job: his score was wonderful, and a lot of people seemed to appreciate the way it complemented the drama.

Then when I collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters, I went from being able to just write down a melody line, to doing piano music and four-part for strings in six months. Which is apparently pretty quick, but when you're inspired by the necessity of wanting to put your ideas over, it's amazing how something you really had a block about doing suddenly became possible.

RC: The songs on The Juliet Letters about a time machine, "Damnation's Cellar" has a line about Nijinsky coming back to life — and while the critics want "Nijinsky the dancer, of course, the punters would probably prefer the horse." Wasn't that pretty much the reaction to the album in rock circles — that people wanted a pop record from you, not something artier?

EC: In rock circles, maybe, but it's one of those records ... actually, it's not one of those records, because there's nothing particularly like it. It has a life of its own, aside from the ordinary way of promotion, and from whether or not somebody who writes for the Melody Maker likes it. What does that matter? They should be writing about 17-year-olds, not me. I would much prefer it if none of them ever mentioned my name again. Because frankly they don't understand what I'm doing. They pretend they know the answer to everything, and when they get to where I am, they'll know they don't know, just as I had to learn that I didn't know everything. Why not celebrate the stuff that they do like, and stop wasting their pencils on some thing they don't understand?

Everywhere else I've toured with this thing, I've met an incredibly curious audience. From the first writing sessions through the recording and the touring, to, the work I've done with the quartet since, The Juliet Letters has had an independent life which is completely free from the infinitely more conservative and conventional world of rock 'n' roll.

RC: It seems to have liberated your vocal style in some way, as well.

EC: Yeah, I sing a lot lower — I'm not covered up with a lot of low frequency instruments, so I can use more of my speaking voice, which makes it sound more intimate. That's another reason why the people who hadn't closed their minds to it in advance realised that it was a very heartfelt piece, that has a lot of personal things in it as well as a lot of very universal ideas. The entire piece is about people communicating, or failing to, which is a universal experience. Far from being an elitist or pretentious thing, it's incredibly down to earth. The fact that one or two rock critics, who are ignorant about many things about music, don't understand it, is not going to stand in my way. England's more closed to these things than other places. We're about to make our third trip to Spain just playing The Juliet Letters. Swedish TV plays the film quite frequently. It's England that's got the problem — I blame The Late Show, that kind of sneering mentality.

Over the last year or so, we've started to do mixed concerts, where we take some of The Juliet Letters songs out of context and do them alongside some of my songs and pieces by Tom Waits and Brian Wilson and songs we've composed since the album. Then at the Meltdown festival, on the South Bank in June, we did stuff with an 11-piece ensemble, just to get different colours and moods, and to avoid being restricted to the quartet format. It was very much a high-wire act on the night, but it was very exciting. In fact, I can't remember anything being that exciting, apart from what we're doing now — which is learning the next record's material, and playing it in New York next week.

Though the songs aren't brand-new, they're ones I've written for people over the last few years that I haven't recorded myself. Many of them have not been heard widely, and some of them have never been heard before. We've certainly never performed them with these arrangements.

So you can have that adventurous experience in music if you want to, but you've got to be willing to take the risk, and not settle for the easy round of applause you'll get by doing a very popular song — whether it be "Oliver's Army" or "Tramp The Dirt Down." What's even better is leave. to do them and the other thing as well, which is what I did at Meltdown — I did some well-known songs, but got away from relying on the fact that I automatically would be singing "Good Year For The Roses" or "Watching The Detectives" at the end of the night, to a situation where I might not be singing any of those things.

If that eclecticism upsets some people, you can't let it stop you, because if you do, the people in your audience who are prepared to follow you would resent you for being so cautious. To be honest, though, I've got to the point where I realise that it's not about making everybody love me. I don't care about that I really don't. Not everybody that buys your records can be your friend. It's not about people loving me because I do this. That's an illusion. You don't love Michael Stipe because you buy his records. You admire him, because he turns you on in some way, intellectually, sexually, or whatever it is.

But if people don't like what I do, because it doesn't conform with what they thought it was I did, they can leave. They know where the door is. My life won't come to an end, and neither will theirs. I'm sorry if they feel betrayed. The thing I find hardest to accept is the "spurned lover" aspect of some of the critics, when referring to this as a betrayal, cos it isn't. They didn't invest anything in it, I did. If they lost contact with my music along the way, then I'm sure they found other stuff that they did enjoy.

RC: What happened to the "Idiophone" album that was promised in the booklet notes for The Juliet Letters?

EC: I always have two or three vague ideas for titles when I'm working on something. When I wrote the notes for The Juliet Letters, I put some red herrings in there — like I referred to my "most recent touring ensemble, the Conquered Dogs," and there was no such band. Similarly "Idiophone." It just served as a working title for the project I started about six weeks after The Juliet Letters which was when I went into the studio. Originally I went into Pathway Studio on my own, and cut several different songs. Having already done the demos for the Wendy James stuff there, some of which — later surfaced on my B-sides, it seemed a very good method of approaching certain kinds of material. Unfortunately, I hadn't really calculated how much work I'd already put into working that year, and I wasn't as ready to record as I thought. Plus the material I'd finished wasn't suitable to that way of working.

So I ended up cutting "20% Amnesia" and "Kinder Murder", which suited that approach perfectly, plus "A Drunken Man's Praise Of Sobriety" and the daft instrumental which I eventually called "Idiophone." I also cut a version of "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone," which has been recorded for this new record. There was also a heavy, distorted affair called "Poison Letter," which I later carved up — the riff ended up being the foundation of "My Science Fiction Twin" and the words were "All The Rage" with a completely different tune. So to some extent I was still writing the stuff.

I didn't realise until I tried to record that some songs needed a more considered approach than I was able to get at Pathway. And also a piano player, and probably a bass player as well, as opposed to me trying to do it all. So I called a halt to the proceedings. I did make some progress, like Steve came in and put piano on "20% Amnesia," and I added marimbas, so some tracks were finished. But there wasn't that much of a plan.

I thought about it over the Christmas period, called Mitchell Froom up and decided I'd be better with a producer, rather than trying to do everything myself. I brought in Nick Lowe to play bass on the tracks that suited him. And the extension of using Mitchell was that he'd been working with Bruce Thomas, and it smoothed the process of getting back with him. I probably wouldn't have made that call if it had been down to me. But once we met up at a party at Pete Thomas's, we got along fine, and it seemed a natural thing to use him.

Nick has this great pretence that he can't play anything with more than five chords in it. I wouldn't say he's lazy about things, it's just that he prefers songs where he can get a groove figure that goes through all the chord changes. Bruce loves the challenge of trying to thread the same sort of line through a more complex set of changes. That's the difference in their approach. Some songs suited Nick, some Bruce, and in between I ended up playing bass on "Kinder Murder," and the bridge of "Just About Glad," just because the amateur approach seemed to be appropriate.

RC: Your estrangement from Bruce Thomas can't have been helped by his novel, The Big Wheel. What were your reactions when you read the book?

EC: I was a bit sad that he hadn't had more fun. That's truthfully the answer. I could nitpick and say, hang on, that punchline wasn't yours to tell because that was somebody else's joke. But we were sufficiently estranged that I didn't really give a shit at the time. I knew that only about 12 people in the world would read it, and would give a damn. The real inside nuts and bolts stuff — that was really there to wound the individuals concerned, rather than entertain the general public — passed me by, because the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness and bitterness, that he hadn't had more fun and found the adventure more satisfying.

We've been able to put all that behind us, and say, here we are, working together again. It was just an expression of his frustration at the time, just as much as anything I might have said or done.

RC: Why did you end up writing an entire album of songs for Wendy James (Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears)

EC: Well, it was just a challenge. She was working with Pete Thomas, and asked him if he thought I'd write her a song. I didn't want to give her one song to put amongst all this cartoon punk. I was up for writing a whole album of cartoon punk songs for her. In double-quick time. It would give her a whole story — I always thought she was much more of an actress than a singer anyway, so it was an acting role for her. It was a fun way of spending the weekend. My wife and I wrote the words, I wrote all the tunes, and it was done. That was the end of it — in more senses than one!

RC: Were you actually friends with her before that?

EC: Actually, I've only ever met her once. I went to see U2 at Earls Court, and was back stage in this little tent, sitting across the way from Boris Becker. It was a funny scene. There were all these people who were individually quite well known in their field, but didn't appear to have any social glue. The only glue was the band.

I was sitting in the corner, and Wendy came across and basically asked "Why?", 'cos she was still somewhat bemused about why I'd done it. And I just wished her luck with it: I knew she had a bit of a challenge on her hands, but that was the whole point.

If you go round telling the world that you're going to win an Oscar and dominate the world and all the things she foolishly said — though you've got to give her credit for the front she always had — then when that doesn't come off, you've got to develop a sense of humour. I think the songs were probably my attempt to provide her with the platform for that. I can't say she really got the joke all the time, but she did as creditable a job ... you know, nobody ever said she was Maria Callas. There was no pretending. I think the production on the album made a grave mistake in pushing her voice out so far in front. If it had been hidden in a trashier sound, the thing might have come off better.

When I recorded the demos, I didn't make any attempt to sing them in a pristine way. I happened to have a cold, so I wasn't in any voice to sing them. I tended to double-track the vocals, so it took away the personality of the voice. But you can still hear that the songs are better for a much rougher handling than Wendy's producer chose. It was a fumbled opportunity. But not my opportunity — it was a weekend's work on my part, well, two days to write the songs, two to record the demos. I had a lot of fun doing it.

RC: Were you happy with the way that Warner Brothers marketed Brutal Youth as being this great "comeback"?

EC: It's a common way of selling anything. How many times has Bob Dylan been back? If you have one period of your career that everybody points to and says, that's when they were hot, then the record companies will always try and associate you with that. It was a lazy way out — I think everybody at the company recognises that now. We were going through the beginnings of the recent upheaval, the corporate insanity at Warners, which affected everything at the company. It gave the troops of the company much less leeway to be creative. Therefore they grabbed hold of the one thing theysaw as a saleable feature, which was, hey, the band is back, and they're rockin'! It's a bit of a simplification.

RC: Was that before or after they did exactly the same thing with the Pretenders?

EC: Just before, actually. Ironically, both those records had strengths that lay in different areas to the ones that were being promoted. It wasn't the whole story. The track on Chrissie's album has probably the best vocal of her entire career, but it took ages for the record company to realise it.

Similarly, with our record, particularly in the States, they couldn't get hold of songs like "London's Brilliant Parade" and "All The Rage," which didn't fit into a soundbite sales tag. It was much easier to sell the record on the strength of "Sulky Girl" and "Thirteen Steps Lead Down".

Quite rightly, the US media didn't buy the whole "return of the punks" idea. They said hang on, there's plenty of young bands that do this just as well — and they're young. There's only room for one Godfather of Grunge! Magazines like Spin said it was a trick — and as a marketing device, it was purely a trick. It had nothing at all to do with us.

RC: Is it a trick that Warners haue asked you to repeat?

EC: Quite the opposite. The last thing one of the more whimsical Warners people said to me was less Guns N' Roses, more Juliet Letters! Really, it's just follow your own instincts. We did Brutal Youth because it felt right. I never thought any of it sounded anything remotely like our 1978 sound, or Blood And Chocolate either. It's less dark than Blood And Chocolate, and much noiser than the early stuff. In England, people came to terms with the breadth of it, and it was the biggest-selling record we've ever had in Japan. But America's a country where you need your record company to understand what you're doing. If they sell it the wrong way, they just confuse the hell out of people.

RC: There were reports of you being rather grumpy on stage towards the end of the seven months of touring for Brutal Youth For me, it brought back memories of seeing you at Canterbury in 1978 — a 46-minute set, then you went off stage for ten minutes, came back, shouted "About fucking time too," did one more song and went home.

EC: We used to love baiting the audience then. We had 35 minutes of material, and after the first couple of tours, and our first brush with amphetamines, we got that down to 25 minutes — and we didn't have any more songs. Then it became a kneejerk thing, that we didn't play encores. In the States, when we did show that were being broadcast live on radio, we used to like leaving the radio DJ still talking — "hey, I think they're coming back to the stage" — and we'd already be halfway back to the hotel. You can see how the mischief of that would appeal to a group on the road, who have this claustrophobic feeling of being holed up in a trench together.

Last year, it was different. I got sick on the road. I'd just split from my manager, Jake Riviera, and I decided the healthiest thing was to prove that I could still function professionally without him. Plus I wanted to promote London's Brilliant Parade," which had just come out as a single. The record company in England had released two singles in quick succession without much success. "Sulky Girl" they'd managed to chart and we'd gone on Top Of The Pops — but basically it was the usual major record company hocus-pocus that got us into the charts, it didn't actually sell convincingly. Apart from cases of sheer luck or good timing, most of our sales are going to be on album these days. Then came "Thirteen Steps Lead Down," for no better reason than the fact there was a video made for it. But I knew that was never going to be a hit in England. I reckoned that "You Tripped At Every Step" was the real hit single, but there was no longer the willingness to find the budget for a video, and despite the fact we put it out in an attractive set of packages, it never really clicked. Radio didn't seem to like it — I thought it sounded like an Abba record, but what do I know?

So I became convinced that "London's Brilliant Parade" should come out as a single, even if it wasn't a hit — much the same way that I wanted "Tramp The Dirt Down" to come out off Spike, and was stopped by the record company because of the politics of it. Certain songs should be singles just so they appear on the radio, however slight the probability that they'll sell. I no longer have any vanity about whether records chart. The days of our consistent chart presence are long gone.

So we put "London's Brilliant Parade" out, and I went on a tour. If I seemed grumpy, it was just frustration, 'cos I'd planned the whole thing myself. If you get sick in the midst of that, it's very frustrating.

RC: What can you tell us about the album you're recording at the moment?

EC: I'm still none the wiser about it, really. Records are never made until they're made. I know what the songs are, though I don't know which ones are going on the record yet.

The songs for this project have either been recorded already by other artists, or I originally wrote them with people in mind — they have a history. In some cases, the artists received the tapes, didn't hear what I heard in the songs, and didn't record them. But I'm not trying to make this a tribute to the people I've written for. Sometimes we've been faithful to the way they were composed, sometimes we've been able to take them far away from the original concept. Most importantly, they all have to belong to us, otherwise they won't go on the album. There's no point if they sound like a poor parody of the person they were written for.

RC: Will the album include the song you wrote for David Crosby?

EC: Maybe. Yeah, I'm sorry he didn't do that. But I think I found out why when we did it, because it's very much a mouthful. When you idealise somebody, and their singing style, you imagine that they can get their tonsils round anything. But I'm used to bashing out a lot of words — a lot of my songs have a lot of words — and though I felt it approached the kind of song I could imagine hearing his voice doing, I think maybe it would have rushed up on him a little bit. It might be the same with the one I wrote for Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave. It's a tailoring job. You might have the style, but you haven't quite got the cut.

Anyway, it's still comparatively early days. We've only been in the studio two-and-a-half weeks. You always have to be prepared for a change of direction on any record. In fact, it's very rare for me to ever talk about anything that's in progress, so I'm not saying anything more than that!

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Record Collector, No. 194, October 1995

Peter Doggett interviews Elvis Costello.


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Cover and contents page.

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Page scans.

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Playboy to a man

Elvis Costello's second decade

Record Collector


Remainder of text to come...

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Elvis for everyone

The cameo roles

Record Collector

Text to come later...


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