The cavernous rehearsal studio is littered with amplifiers branded "Elvis Costello, London." But we're in Dublin's dockhands, not Elvis's old stamping ground of Acton and Brentford.
Scattered provocatively around the studio are cassettes marked "EC Demos 95," and stacks of lyrics. They're the skeletons on which Elvis — a Dublin resident for several years — and the Attractions are building a new album, preceded by some plunging-in-at-the-deep-end-shows at New York's Beacon Theatre in late July. Like Costello's recent Kojak Variety covers set, this record has a theme: the songs that Elvis has given away, or at least tried to.
Under consideration are semi familiar tunes like "The Other End Of The Telescope", co-written with Aimee Mann for her former band, Till Tuesday, plus offerings custom-built for the likes of David Crosby. Trouble is, he turned it down. "Yeah, it's a shame he didn't do it," Elvis says phlegmatically. But playing it myself, I've discovered what's wrong with it as far as he's concerned. Too many words."
It's an accusation that Elvis has heard from the press, too, along with the line that he should quit trying to be an all round musical genius, and concentrate on cranking out two minute gems of cynicism and brutal youth with the Attractions.
Costello has no truck with such a shortsighted view of his role. Throughout our interview, he claims disinterest in the workings of the rock press, and contempt for those who want to fix him in stone as the sneering icon of This Year's Model. After his cross cultural excursions of recent years — film soundtracks, semi classical song suites, and genre crushing festivals at London's South Bank Centre — Elvis has the taste of artistic freedom in his nostrils.
Other men — Scott Walker, for instance — might have used their new found highbrow profile as an excuse to junk their juvenile back catalogue. But not Costello. He's not only proud of his past, but — as you'll see this month and next — damn near impossible to shut up once he gets the titbit of nostalgia in his teeth. Exuberantly enthusiastic about his entire professional career, he still retains a commendably clear perspective on where he's been, and how he changed along the way.
To mark the revamped CD release of 1986's Blood & Chocolate — the climax of a two-year reissue campaign with Demon Records — Elvis agreed to talk his way through two decades of musical adventures. This month, he steams through the decade from his "Honky Tonk" demos to Blood & Chocolate; next month, his progress from Spike to today comes under his fiercely self-analytical stare. Never short of words, or passion, Elvis Costello talks as good a story as he sings.
RECORD COLLECTOR: When did you first realise that making music was going to become a career
ELVIS COSTELLO: I knew I had a career when I was 14. It just took the rest of the world a long time to figure it out, and for me to work out how to do it. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
RC: The early albums sound so frenetic, though, that a long term career seems like the last thing on your mind.
EC: Well, I'd had an eight year wait! I'd been writing songs since I was 14, though if I went back and looked at them, I'd find them pretty embarrassing now. Some of the tapes that have surfaced are pretty embarrassing.
But when you're convinced that this is your vocation, you think it's inevitable that you will eventually have the chance to do it, even if you do other jobs to pay the rent.
By the time I got to 22, I'd had several false starts at getting bands together, some of them documented, some of them so fleeting that no one knows about them. And I'd had several attempts at doing demos on my own, some of which later led to my getting signed — plus others which never surfaced, and remain a mystery to me. There were various people on the fringes of publishing and producing, but who weren't actually attached to labels, who obviously saw something in what I did, and they got me in to make a demo hoping that they could sell a piece of it. Fortunately, they didn't come to anything because there are a lot of artists who have these really half-assed tapes that surface later.
RC: One of which was the so called "Honky Tonk Demos" tape, which you used for the CD of My Aim Is True...
EC: Well, that was my official demo tape, the one that really got things started for me. It was made in my bedroom, on a friend's Revox. Before that, I'd sent out tapes I'd made on an old Grundig, which sounded pretty funky. I was sending out 20 songs at a time. I didn't know enough to realise that no publisher has the patience to listen to 20 songs, in the hope that the 18th one is the one that's good. They listen to the first song, and if it doesn't show great promise, they throw it away.
So by the time I made that tape,I had a pretty good idea from bitter experience that you had to make a presentation, just like putting on a show. I'd also been playing solo a lot, so I was much better at presenting my songs to hostile audiences, and winning them over.
So I made a little show reel, as it were, at home, of six songs, five of which still exist, and sent it off to various people. One of them was (Honky Tonk DJ) Charlie Gillett, who played it on the radio. That really got things going. I had several different people after my signature then, none of them aware of the others' existence. Charlie had a rather halting plan to sign me to his label, Oval Records while Virgin offered me a really pitiful deal — even then I knew enough to laugh at it. It was Stiff who had the initiative to say, "Let's do it now." It seemed almost magical after two or three years of getting really indifferent, or completely bewildered, responses to all the tapes I'd created.
RC: How did you feel about the gimmicky side of Stiff, with all those snappy slogans and T shirts
EC: I actually made up some of the slogans. I used to go there on the train after work, which made me feel as if I was involved in the music business full time. I hadn't actually turned professional yet, and I was making My Aim Is True in stages, using sick days and holidays off work. It only took about 24 hours of studio time, but I had to keep working, because I had a wife and child to support.
Originally, I was the first artist signed to Stiff. Nick Lowe was the first artist on the label, but he wasn't actually signed. Despite that, I ended up with the 11th release on the label. All these records came through from people like the Damned and Richard Hell, which were very much tied to the moment, so their timing was crucial. It was frustrating for me, because I wanted to get on with it.
Not that it changed my life when "Less Than Zero" did come out. In fact, the first three singles did nothing. But I'd amassed enough material over these sessions to make up an album, which was when (Stiff bosses) Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson asked me to turn pro. I said, "Only if I can earn as much money doing this as I do in my job, because I have my responsibilities." If I'd been on my own, I'd have taken the risk, but I couldn't for my family. So they promised they'd pay me the same as my job — which wasn't a fortune so it wasn't too difficult. We put some ads in the papers for musicians, formed the Attractions, and that was it. I turned professional the week the album came out.
RC: I was intrigued to discover that some of your most unusual early songs like "Hoover Factory," "Dr Luther's Assistant" and "Ghost Train" were all written by the time you cut My Aim Is True.
EC: Yes, I did have these slightly baroque songs. I know I performed "Hoover Factory" when I first appeared in London, before my record came out. I did a guest appearance with the Rumour, at the Nashville Rooms. I wrote it simply because I used to go by the Hoover Factory every day on the bus to work.
I wasn't stupid. When I wrote the first album, I saw that the most direct and most aggressive songs seemed to hit home. The rhythm of the times was like that. I seemed to get across to people with those ones, both when I played in clubs and when I was sending the demos in.
I was writing songs very fast, and one day I went to Pathway Studios where Nick Lowe was producing a Wreckless Eric record. Wreckless was very nervous, so Nick took him for a drink to loosen him up a little bit, and I recorded eight songs while they were gone just guitar and voice. That was the bulk of the demos for My Aim Is True. Up until that point, Stiff had actually considered launching Wreckless and myself on the same record, like Chuck Meets Bo, with a side each. They didn't really think either of us could sustain a whole album, in terms of the audience's tolerance for two such unusual singers.
Then it became apparent that I had five times more songs than him, and that they needed to do a full album with me. A lot of those other songs didn't get recorded until later, when we needed B-sides. By then, I had an audience, so I could record other kinds of songs, without running the risk I would have done earlier of giving the game away and showing that I knew more than three chords.
RC: Because if My Aim Is True had started with "Ghost Train," the reaction would have been quite different.
EC: Or if it had started with "Stranger In The House," which was the first thing recorded at the sessions. We left that off because the country element of that song would have put me back on the other side of those style wars that were going on. At that stage of my career, I could have been killed by that sort of thing.
RC: Why did you start to write country songs?
EC: I started listening to country music seriously about 1970, which was when I started to become interested in what should be called Americana music — groups like the Band, the Grateful Dead's records of the time, and particularly the Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. And I got curious to find out who these country singers were that these band were covering.
It's pretty much the same process people went through in the 60s, discovering Howlin' Wolf through the Rolling Stones, or Little Willie John through Fleetwood Mac. I went through that to some extent. For some curious reason, though, I didn't like the Rolling Stones when they were doing blues. I thought they sounded ridiculous, because we had some real R&B records in our house, so I knew how that was supposed to sound.
But country had never really got into our household. Jazz, R&B and soul were there, but not country, so I discovered it for myself. It was quite hard to find, because unless you were really a specialist country fan, you wouldn't know George Jones' stuff, or Merle Haggard. Then it was a natural step to try and write something in that style. I liked the plainness of the chords, the churchy harmony.
RC: You've said elsewhere that you were incredibly influenced early on by people like the Band, Little Feat and Lowell George. How hard was it to escape the American influences on your songwriting?
EC: I didn't even worry about them. Obviously, John Lydon and Ian Dury sang with a very pronounced English delivery, and Pete Shelley with a Mancunian accent, but most singers had that transatlantic pop voice — even the Beatles did, though sometimes they sounded more American, and sometimes they accentuated the Liverpool accent. It's all acting. I talk in a voice that's much lower than I sing. And I never found any problem with it.
Some people thought that singing with a proletarian delivery, and a certain kind of regional accent, whether that was London or Manchester or Bristol, was some sort of badge of authenticity. That's bollocks. It's what's in your heart that matters. I no longer hear any geography in good singing.
RC: How calculating was your involvement in punk? Did you deliberately allow yourself to be marketed as part of that movement?
EC: I didn't really care if I was part of it or not. It just gave my career a degree of propulsion. In retrospect, it's been seen as calculated and there are always these style wars that go on all the time, but they only exist in the music business, not in the real world.
The truth is that most of the people writing about punk in London had come up from the suburbs, and they were very defensive and protective about the things that facilitated their escape from their horrible, empty lives. They took it out on the people who lived in the towns they came from. When you went down to Plymouth and there were just three kids with safety pins stuck in their lapels rather than wearing bin liners, they were having a hard job living up to what they had been taught to think was groovy. I hated that sort of tyranny. It's so insignificant — it goes by in the bat of an eyelid.
Actually, I never saw any of the punk bands until later. I liked the Clash's first record: it was quite influential in its spirit rather than its music, because I didn't think any of them could play to save their lives. Not that it mattered. But I wasn't at all interested in the Malcolm McLaren scene, I thought it was completely fake. I liked the Pistols' records, because I thought (producer) Chris Thomas made a tremendous sound, but I don't think they had a lot to do with it. The Pistols and Clash records stand up, and the Buzzcocks, who were a pop group who played fast, but a lot of the other groups were pretty awful.
RC: Did you feel any more at home with the great "new wave" explosion?
EC: I know nothing at all about new wave. As far as I remember, Polygram Records invented new wave as a slogan to sell a bunch of crap American records like the Runaways, and stuck 'em all on a compilation with a Boomtown Rats track and something by the Dead Boys. They called it "New Wave" because it wasn't fast enough to sound like punk. And the name stuck. I just thought all slogans were stupid — except for the ones we made up to make fun of the music being pigeonholed. I was the one that coined the "surfing on the new wave" phrase, because it was asking to be said — like, there is a new wave, and I'm right on top of it.
RC: On This Years Model, you incorporated lots of influences from the British bands of the 60s.
EC: Yeah, we never made any bones about the fact that we ripped stuff off from other things. Sometimes it was done very consciously, and sometimes it was simply me thinking about it and not telling the rest of the band.
RC: How easy is it to do that and still be original?
EC: I usually ripped off things I didn't like very much. I was quite a long way into my career before I did anything too overtly. They were usually quite subtle, like there's a 6th chord at the end of "Lip Service" like there is at the end of "She Loves You". That's a fairly off the wall one. There's maybe a suggestion of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" at the end of "Party Girl". The Beatles were my main influence, but there weren't really Beatles references until we got to the stage where we were pretty confident that we could do it with wit.
Some of my singing early on sounded more like Van Morrison, because he was one of the people I listened to constantly — him and Rick Danko from the Band. And Georgie Fame, only I don't sound anything like him! The only time I maybe do is on "Kojak Variety", when I did a Mose Allison song, and it's hard to escape from Fame's kind of delivery with Allison's songs.
It was never a problem, because a lot of the things we borrowed from were things I'd been passionate about some time earlier, so I was past the stage of being overwhelmed with them. I could look back at them affectionately. I knew all the Small Faces records backwards when I was 13, but I didn't have the ability or the platform to use what I'd learned from them until I was 23. So when we did "You Belong To Me", and it sounded like "Watcha Gonna Do About It" (Small Faces) crossed with "The Last Time" (Rolling Stones) I didn't really think about it, because the references were so fleeting. It was more that the whole spirit of "This Year's Model" was related to the Stones "Aftermath", because it was about the same kind of moment in somebody's life, updated for the late 70s.
RC: This Year's Model has several songs that seem to be attacking the fashion industry in all its guises, but it's packaged in a very self consciously "modern" way — and Armed Forces even more so.
EC: Barney Bubbles, who died a few years ago, did all our artwork untilImperial Bedroom, and he had a mind like an art encyclopaedia. He would borrow from different periods quite shamelessly, in a very witty way — he did a poster for "Watching The Detectives" that was a blatant take on Warhol, and there were the obvious Picasso references on the "Imperial Bedroom" painting.
If a thing amused me when I saw it, I didn't ponder the significance of it. When you buy a box of cornflakes, you eat the cornflakes, you don't eat the packet. You might look at the packet when you're eating the cornflakes — and it's the same thing as a record. We wanted to catch people's eyes. If they looked at "This Year's Model" and said, "Why is it printed off register as the initial pressing was, it was because we wanted people to ask exactly that. It meant they'd pause just that little bit longer in front of our sleeve.
Although it wasn't my idea, exactly the same thinking was behind me changing my name, because it stopped people dead in their tracks and made them say, He can't be called that! He is called that!" By that time, they'd noticed me more than the bloke called Joe Smith.
A lot of the things are simple like that, and it's a mistake to read more into them. If you'd interviewed Barney, he might have had another agenda. Obviously, there is a certain irony to the fact that the record's called This Year's Model — and I'm behind the camera looking at her! And I've no idea what's happening on the back of the record, where I'm flying through the window, or what the washing machines and the dummies are about. Or the Sinclair TV, which didn't exist at the time. There weren't any colour TVs of that size. Even the things that appeared to be fashionable were actually fantasy. As to me having a fashionable image, well, my suit cost me two dollars from a thrift store. It was hardly the height of fashion.
The Armed Forces" sleeve was very involved. I loved it, it was very funny. We wanted to make it as impractical and ghastly as possible. There were kitsch elements of pop art in it, of trash art that you buy from Woolworth's, of postcards that are disposable and you lose them. It was never supposed to live forever, so it's ironic that we've ended up reissuing the thing.
That's why we put the first reissue package out in a cardboard box that falls apart after six months, and it's in horrible colours. We weren't trying to make it leather bound and gold embossed just because we were reissuing it. We wanted to make it as cheap and horrible as it was when it was issued originally.
RC: "Emotional Fascism" was your original title for Armed Forces and it could almost have been the subtitle for the whole of your early career.
EC: Yeah, it could have been. Obviously, it would have frightened the hell out of American record companies if we'd used it. By that point, we were in a bubble, travelling very fast — we did three American tours in quick succession. The period of your life where you're going to work and writing the songs on the train goes away, and instead you're sitting on a bus, looking out the window at a country you've never been to but have only read about, listened to and absorbed through your imagination, and suddenly it's out there, and it's somewhat different to what you thought. You've got strange people offering you this, that and the other. It all gets mixed up.
Armed Forces is a very modern record of its time self consciously modernist, I should say. We borrowed sounds from some records that we listened to constantly, almost obsessively, at the time. We were into
strange behaviour! If you're sitting in a station wagon driving from Atlanta to Madison, Wisconsin and listening to Bowie's "Low" and "Heroes", and Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" and "ABBA's Greatest Hits" over and over again, that's the kind of record you'll make! We'd be driving through the Appalachians and say, no, I can't stand to listen to Blue Bayou" for the fourteenth time today, or some song by Fleetwood Mac, lets go back to Berlin. So we'd stick on the tape and be driving through the mist in Appalachia listening to some ghastly synthesiser music made in Berlin. It was bound to make you messed up. The reference points were bound to get unglued. In the end, we got terribly arrogant and confident, and that's why the record sounds like that.
RC: Was there ever time to take stock of what you were doing in that period, or were you just reacting to events
EC: Everything was a complete reaction. Taking stock wasn't what it was about, even if we had time.We made as good and as bad a job as anybody could have done, in terms of fucking it up.
RC: Get Happy seems to have come out of a period of emotional turmoil as well as musical indecision. You've written in the CD booklet that you started out making another record that would sound like Armed Forces, and then scrapped it.
EC: It wasn't really an angst ridden period actually. Musically, we were still quite smitten with Bowie's music. For instance, we tried to play "High Fidelity" like Station To Station throughout one U.S. tour — quite successfully, in fact — in this ponderous, heavy metal style. But we never had loud guitars at that point, so it was hard to deliver the clout that Bowie had, with all his multi-tracked guitars. It always sounded punier and more poppy when we did it.
There were other songs written on the road, in edgy times, and the arrangements weren't bedded down in any sort of rhythm. They sort of rattled away, and the words flew by, and you couldn't understand them. Some of the songs needed to be slowed down and got into a groove. It just happened that I was listening to a lot of the music I'd loved when I was 15 — a lot of Motown and Stax and Atlantic. I was digging out singles and trying to find odd tracks that had funny sounds on, for inspiration, really. We literally made the decision to start again over a couple of pints of beer.
We'd had a couple of days in the studio where we tried to play those arrangements, but they'd sounded wretched, so we went to the pub and said, what are we gonna do? Why don't we ALL try playing some of these songs slower, and use more rhythmic accompaniment, rather than these tricky, nervy kind of backing that we'd been using? And it just fell into place.
One of the first ones we did was Temptation", and it was like sampling. We just took the riff from Booker T's Time Is Tight', and put the song over it stretched it over this frame, like making a boat or something. Quite a lot of the songs were like that. "Opportunity" was an Al Green song in our minds, though it doesn't sound anything like Al Green. "Clowntime Is Over" was Curtis Mayfield. They all had an association, but we didn't go out of our way to model them any more than that. "High Fidelity" has a quote from the Supremes, but that was there in the original song. The influence of the soul stuff had been lurking there all along. We always listened to a lot of different stuff, but from time to time we'd fix on a particular thing, which would become dominant on the in house sound system when we were travelling.
RC: Were "Temptation," "Opportunity" and "Possession" planned as a trilogy?
EC: No. It would be great if I could say they were. But maybe once I'd written the first two, it was inevitable I'd write "Possession".
We were recording in Holland, and went for a cup of coffee in Hilversum, because the hotel where we were staying was ghastly. We were very bored, and we went into a cafe there, and I fell in love with the waitress and wrote the song in 10 minutes. It was a total lust song, it had nothing to do with any art concept. I wrote it, then insisted on learning it on the way back to the studio. We were quite drunk, as it happens! It wasn't very serious.
RC: The album ends with Riot Act", which is obviously a very personal song. Have you ever regretted revealing so much with those lyrics?
EC: No. It says exactly what I meant it to say It was very truthful. I had to write it.
It's the one song on the record, maybe along side "Man Called Uncle", which doesn't use any R&B disguise. Actually, I prefer the demo version which is on the CD, because by the time we came to record it, we were pretty wasted, we were all out. The vocal performance is much better on the demo, vocally, and the guitar sounds more evil.
RC: On your next album, Trust, there were all these very complex metaphorical songs — and then "Different Finger", which was written in a much simpler style.
EC: I wrote that when I was 19, and trying to write a Tammy Wynette song. Many of the lyrics for "Watch Your Step" and "New Lace Sleeves" are also from when I was 19. It wasn't that I was out of material: I had always hankered after using these verses.
Even the tune of "New Lace Sleeves" was old. I just hid it away for years. It was one of the flukey, more sophisticated songs I wrote, when I was messing around with trickier chord sequences than most of the early stuff. It's still one of my favourites of our tracks.
On Trust, we were trying to capture the rhythmic aspect of Get Happy without referring so obviously to any outside influence. For instance, "Strict Time" is related to the Meters, but only by the most tenuous thing, like the scratchy guitar sound. The songs have tunes like those on Armed Forces, but not what was seen at the time as the rather shiny production — though it's funny to think of that now, because they all sound as if they were recorded down a well compared to modern records.
I remember sitting in Jersey, talking to Nick Lowe about producing the record, and saying that I wanted to cross the two approaches of Armed Forces' and Get Happy — have more overt pop melodies and still keep the rhythmic element. And some of it works, like "You'll Never Be A Man", which has a big chorus, but is still basically a soul groove.
RC: I've never quite managed to figure out what that song's about.
EC: Me too, it's an odd one. I've no idea. I was taking a lot of drugs when I wrote some of those songs. Some of them are pretty affected by that. That's not to say that I don't remember what they're about, but the logic is quite deliberately fractured. It's like short bursts of attention span, gathered together into songs.
"You'll Never Be A Man" is another lust song, but it's about a woman who wants to play the sexual power game the way that men usually do. It just doesn't all make sense logically like a Sunday school parable.
RC: Wordplay seems to be a really important element on Trust". Almost every song is a parade of puns and metaphors.
EC: I don't even notice it. I got tired of reading about that in articles about what I do, because I don't see it as a dominant thing at all. Maybe it was more obvious on "Armed Forces", where there were some really terrible puns. But all good pop lyrics try to work on that basis, unless they're really trying to be Esperanto and not use any words they won't understand in Taiwan — like "I Will Always Love You," any idiot can understand that. You could play that to a Martian, if you pointed enough. I took my cue from Smokey Robinson, and songs like "I Second That Emotion," which are based on wordplay.
RC: And Cole Porter?
EC: Not until later, maybe, though that stuff was always in the back of my mind, through my dad being a jazz musician and my mum selling records. I had very sophisticated taste in music until I was about 11, when I discovered the Beatles. They became everything to me, and beat music dominated my thinking until it was overtaken by Motown, soul and even reggae.
I didn't get into psychedelic records until I went to live in Liverpool in 1970, so I missed all of 1967. The only time I heard psychedelia was when my dad listened to it, when he became a sort of hippie. He was listening to the Incredible String Band, the Butterfield Blues Band, and the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. I played them, but didn't find a lot in them for me, because I was really into Marvin Gaye and those "Return Of Django" records — the stuff we danced to at teenage parties. From the time I was 11 to 16 — only five years, but five pretty important years in your life — I concentrated on pop music, and the changing trends.
But before then, I listened constantly to jazz and Ella and Sinatra and Mel Torme and Tony Bennett, so I knew all these songs. I mean, I can sing you hundreds of them.
RC: So it was quite natural for you to record "Love For Sale" or "My Funny Valentine" pretty early in your careers?
EC: Yeah, because they were all stuck in my head from when I was a kid. My mother says I could work the record player before I could walk properly. And before I could talk properly, I would request certain records. I've Got You Under My Skin" was one of them. So it was ingrained, almost brainwashed.
RC: One of the constant underlying themes of Trust seemed to be distaste for the press — not just in the song "Fish & Chip Papers," but also in the lyrical imagery of the whole record.
EC: I don't think I was attacking the press in relation to my career, just generally. It was starting to go bad even then. It's got much worse since.
The whole album was about sour and rotten doings in different areas — like in "Clubland", with all that stuff about corruption, which reappeared later in songs like "Man Out Of Time". We used to spend a lot of time in quite seedy hotels, so I got quite a good look at the bastards that were carving up England, with their guard down. We were trying to seduce their daughters while they were putting up the next multi-storey car park. There were always these bastards at these ghastly local functions. There would usually be some sort of altercation.
RC: Had you actually played in Nashville before you recorded your country album, Almost Blue?
EC: Yeah. It's quite funny, because we opened with three Hank Williams songs, and that didn't go down very well. The kids who came to see us in Nashville didn't want us to be country; they wanted us to be even more punk than we were perceived to be in the rest of America. We were accepted wholesale as the real thing in America — because the real thing didn't get to them. The Pistols did one short U.S. tour, the Damned did a tour before that and the Clash came afterwards, so we were the first group that many people in America saw that was anything like a punk band.
So there we were, walking round Nashville, and these kids started giving us a hard time because we had short hair — which was strange, because a few years earlier we'd have been beaten up for having long hair. But we did have to be a bit careful when we first went down South. Some towns were hipper than others. Dallas was more so than Houston, and Austin was hipper again. But we never went to Memphis early on for obvious reasons!.
The first time I set foot in Nashville, I went there specially to record with George Jones, after "This Year's Model" came out. Somebody at the record company in New York had heard the out take version of "Stranger In The House", which came with the "This Year's Model" album, and they'd got the idea that I should record with George. He was doing this duets album and they figured they ought to cover all the markets. These days, they'd have got a consultant in to work out all the demographics — like the Sinatra albums, which felt as if they had been worked out in a laboratory. Truthfully, I'd rather hear George Jones sing the song all the way through than me singing on it, but it was still a thrill to go there.
The record company paid for me to go down there, took me out to see Bruce Springsteen, who happened to be in town, and then George Jones didn't show, which was a bit disappointing. So I had a look round, bought a stupid jacket and a couple of guitars, and got to play guitar on the track. The producer, Billy Sherrill, said I might as well play a solo on it. Well, I'd never played a guitar solo in my life, so the first one I put on record was this acoustic one. When we came back at the start of 1979, on the "Armed Forces" tour, we had a day off and I went and made that record with Jones. Lots of people thought we didn't record that together, but we did.
Around that time, we recorded a couple of tracks, like "He's Got You", as a try out, with Pete Drake on steel-working in the old Columbia Studio B, which was where "Stand By Your Man" and "Blonde On Blonde" had been recorded. When we returned to make the album, we were somewhat dismayed to find they'd just started renovating it, so we ended up in Studio A, which could have been anywhere. But it wasn't so much what went on in the studio that coloured "Almost Blue", it was more what didn't go on in the studio. Or what I got up to the rest of the time.
RC: The South Bank Show TV special about the sessions suggested that Billy Sherrill's contribution to that album was nothing more than sitting in the studio and looking sceptical.
EC: It was a very well constructed film, but it made Sherrill the villain, and it exaggerated it a little bit. He showed more interest some days. Overall, though, Sherrill was more bemused, than anything, about us wanting to cut these songs that to him seemed "wornout". But they weren't worn out to our audience, and those people that didn't freak out at the mere thought of us doing a country record bought it. It was a much bigger hit in England than "Trust". But it sold nothing in America because they didn't know how to market it.
RC: Imperial Bedroom was the first album where you printed the lyrics — and then you effectively buried them in this illegible mass of words.
EC: I've never been terribly comfortable with the thing of having these little poems on the sleeve. I think it makes too great a claim for the words. Later on, I got less worried, but at one point I was very uneasy, and didn't think the words stood up to being read in that way. I intended them to be heard. So I thought I'd make them like a telegram where somebody forgot the punctuation. It makes for quite interesting reading. You can make up your own lines, starting in the middle of one song and into the next one.
RC: You made a fascinating interview album for Imperial Bedroom, where you went into the story behind the recording of each song in enormous detail, explaining how you'd altered the arrangements during the process of making the record with Geoff Emerick.
EC: Christ, I can't remember what I said. I remember I did one for "Almost Blue" where I tried to ask myself the questions, and I found it so embarrassing that I drank about three bottles of wine, and by the end of it I sounded like Dean Martin!
I could give a detailed account of every track I remember about, but some are obviously more interesting. The early songs were so simple that there's not much story. There wasn't a lot of exploration to get to them. We weren't on the road with other influences. We just came at it completely cold, compared with "Imperial Bedroom", where we already had five albums of history with our audience, and the ability to say, "we will take 12 weeks to make this record" — not because we didn't know what we were doing, but because we wanted to try a few different options in the studio.
We started working on all the songs that we were planning to record, and the tape of the rehearsal sounds just like "Trust". But once we started to push them out a little bit, and I started to mess around with the arrangements, they started to change in character. Geoff Emerick obviously had a lot to do with that, because he could create a much bigger picture than anybody we'd ever worked with before. He was used to being thrown an incomprehensible garble of sounds and musical directions, and making some sense of it. After working with the Beatles at the height of their psychedelic era, he was used to innovation, and to the direction being a bit berserk.
"Imperial Bedroom" got some of the greatest reviews imaginable, which just goes to show how much they're worth, as it didn't sell more than any other record. The record company couldn't find any obvious hit singles on it, though I think it had several — they just released the wrong tracks.
The trouble all along has been that we make records and they sell them. And if you're making them, you're always looking for something new that excites you. But when I did what I thought was a really original record in "Imperial Bedroom", the record company still thought of us in terms of "Armed Forces". They hankered after that.
So instead of releasing a bold piece of music like "Beyond Belief" as a single, that would have marked this album out as a departure or maybe "Almost Blue", a ballad that was very heartfelt, they released "You Little Fool" — which is a good pop construction but was the track most reminiscent of what we'd done before. It was idiotic. It was so cowardly on their part. Then, when the excitement for the album had been defused by that mistake, they released "Man Out Of Time", which again could have been a bold first single. Then when it flopped they said, Well, we told you it wasn't a good record".
I'm talking mainly about America, but to some extent Europe as well. We had more control here. In America, we were put under more pressure, particularly after we moved into the era when videos appeared. Back in the 70s, we'd made videos for about two bob and they look appealingly like Charlie Chaplin films. The later ones started to get quite sophisticated.
RC: On that interview record, you said that one of the reasons you chose to work with Emerick was that he shared your cynicism about modern recording techniques. Then on the next album Punch The Clock, you did precisely the opposite and went for all the techniques you'd been trying to get away from.
EC: Well, that's what life's like. I decided to ask Clive Langer to produce me. I liked his records, and he was the hottest guy around on the English music scene. I realised that we had a floating audience in America that only bought our records occasionally. We'd made two albums in succession that to some degree had lost ground — "Almost Blue" was a hit in Britain but not anywhere else, and Imperial Bedroom was sneered at in England, quite well liked in Europe and well written up in America, but didn't sell very well. In fact, counting Trust, we'd gone three records without any substantial hit apart from "Good Year For The Roses". You have to consider that if you allow that contact with the mainstream audience to be severed for too long, you may lose the freedom to do what you want.
So we decided to see what happened with Clive Langer. In the past, we'd never conformed to any great production design — Nick Lowe's idea had always been to capture what we did, Billy Sherrill's was to put up with what we did, and Geoff Emerick's was to let us go along until we exhausted the possibilities and permutations, and then try and make sense of it. This was the first time we'd taken a formal approach, and to some extent it really worked.
I don't like many of the tracks on those two albums we made with Clive and Alan Winstanley ( "Punch The Clock" and "Goodbye Cruel World" ) certainly not the singles anyway, but there's some great pieces of music. "Shipbuilding" is a beautiful piece, and "King Of Thieves" was one of those long, unwieldy, allegorical songs which were made listenable by Clive's production style.
To balance them, we had a thing like "Every Day I Write The Book", that anybody could whistle, and that was written in 10 minutes, as a spoof. Originally I tried to do it as a lovers' rock song, and then we grafted on this kind of modern rhythmic treatment. It always begged to be done in some kind of pop style.
RC: It's strange that as you were heading towards the musical mainstream you were writing political songs that couldn't have been further from the spirit of 1983, when Mrs Thatcher won the election.
EC: I think I'm smart enough to know that if you're distancing yourself from the mainstream, less and less people are hearing the things you're saying. The worst thing about being subversive is saying, Now I am being subversive", because people will run away. But there is something subversive about having "Every Day I Write The Book" on the same album as Shipbuilding" and Pills And Soap".
Pills And Soap" had already been a hit, of course, albeit with a bit of a con trick on the retailers and the BBC, when we threatened to delete it in a week, which helped catapult it into the charts. But in effect it was a broadside, a protest song.
RC: The follow up to that song was "Peace In Our Time" on Goodbye Cruel World. Wasn't there supposed to have been enormous controversy when you performed it on The Johnny Carson Show in the States? What happened?
EC: Nothing. It's been written up by Greil Marcus as if it was a great collision between two cultures, which is very flattering, but I was there and he wasn't, and what actually happened is that they couldn't physically hear what I was singing. It just didn't go in.
It was an unsuccessful song in that sense, as it didn't have the musical equipment to get the message over in the way that Shipbuilding" and Pills And Soap" had. It had a pretty melody — not mine, in fact, as I lifted it, but I'm not gonna tell you where from in case I get sued!
RC: After Goodbye Cruel World came out you started playing shows as the Coward Brothers with T Bone Burnette. One minute you were Howard Coward, the next you were issuing albums like King Of America and Blood & Chocolate, where you were masquerading under ridiculous names. Was it all an attempt to get away from people's preconceptions of what Elvis Costello was going to do?
EC: I think my whole career had been that ever since Trust". The name changing and all that stuff — such psychological meanings have been read into it. On the one hand, it's obviously a blessing to have such a powerful image from your first few records, but in the other way, it's limiting, as people only see you in those terms. And when your own record company defines you in those terms, then it becomes difficult, because they're not even helping to promote the new image.
The country record was one attempt to escape, Imperial Bedroom" was another — and not just attempts, either, I was actually doing it. It just goes to show you how powerful the original image was. Until you come up with a suitably contrasting one, you won't really get it over to people. It took until 1991 to really do it. But by then, I'd stopped worrying about it, because it wasn't holding me back any more.
I made Goodbye Cruel World, and I was having a miserable time — I was getting divorced — and I basically ran away to sea and went off on a solo tour. I hated the record by the time I got back, I knew we'd got most of it wrong. But we were locked into releasing it or else I would have gone bankrupt, at the exact moment when I couldn't afford to go bankrupt, because I was getting divorced. I couldn't scrap the record, so I let it come out, warts and all.
Now when I hear it, there are some passionate performances in there, but they're muted by the arrangements. But it was no fault of Clive and Alan. I feel apologetic to anyone whose favourite record it is, but I can't lie and say that I think it's a good record — particularly the pop songs, that were put on there with an even more calculating ear for the nuances of the charts.
I had a ball on the solo tour. It was my first time as a professional, but I'd done it a lot in my apprenticeship, as it were. I always enjoyed it. I could pick any song any night. I did lots of covers I'd never done before, like "I Threw It All Away", that I didn't get to record until "Kojak Variety". I did songs one night and then never again. The American leg was particularly great, and I think I sang the best I've ever sung.
I also met T Bone on that tour and we became great pals. We started having fun with the Coward Brothers thing, which became one of my devices to stop the tour being the sensitive singer songwriter thing, which I'd been dead against. I was a fan of all that.
It was the first album I'd done without the Attractions. Originally it was supposed to be half with them and half without, but it just didn't work out. Every session before they came seemed to be more productive than I had anticipated, and the record was at least three quarters done by the time they arrived.
Because of the tension of suddenly shifting from working with them to working with other people, I think it put them on edge and made them defensive and hostile, which made me hostile, and the sessions were a
disaster. We just managed one good track, and then they left, and I finished the record with various combinations of people.
RC: A lot of that tension and angst seems to have gone into Blood & Chocolate, which reunited you with the Attractions.
EC: I suppose it might have done, though I tried to push it out of my mind when I got back. I'd agreed to do another record, but it was like, "Let's do this one and see how far we can go on". We're pretty much the same now, we haven't really made any great plans to go on forever and ever.
The experience of doing King Of America" without the Attractions showed me one of the problems on the records we'd done with Clive and Alan — the band was simply falling apart. We'd seen too much of one another — familiarity breeding contempt and all those cliches. Time had gone by so quickly, I hadn't realised we'd been working together for eight or nine years. But once we. were in the studio for Blood & Chocolate, it all worked very well.
On "King Of America", I managed to get much more directness than on the previous records, and I thought that if I could do it in Hollywood with these guys I'd never met before, surely I could do it with these people I've worked with for all this time. So we set up and played as loud as we did on stage. It didn't really sound like This Year's Model", but the component parts were just the four of us, and we did very few overdubs. We played as much a combo sound as possible — which is the sound we used on Brutal Youth.
RC: Who were you thinking about when you wrote those lines about "You think it's over now" on "Uncomplicated"?
EC: I don't know, it just popped into my head. I wrote it in the kitchen. I don't know whether to some extent I was writing the band's own story. I think there's a little bit of that, but I've never been one for writing self consciously about "Here's me in my hotel room with my guitar feeling sad about being on the road". I've tried to avoid those. But there were quite a few accounts — not scores — being settled on that record. Then there were some quite personal things on some songs — "Battered Old Bird" is like a little bit of my childhood.
Some tracks used the studio in a more sophisticated way, but we were still using raw material. On "I Want You", for instance, everything you hear on the last minute of that record is all from my vocal mike. That's the only thing in the mix. You can hear the band, but only when they're bleeding through onto my voice. So it was a really primitive recording — just one mike in the middle of the studio. That's the only way we could achieve that low dynamic.
RC: What was going on on "Tokyo Storm Warning," besides the end of the world?
EC: It was little snapshots put together. It's a protest song too. I love that, it's one of my favourite tracks. It started in Tokyo one time I went there and it was like a sci fi nightmare, which it is sometimes. You can feel as if you've been taken to another planet. Then I just added in these other things, some of which are real — like the Heysel Stadium, "the dead Italian tourists", and continuations of the theme of "Pills And Soap." It's mixed up, like a camera swirling round. I was always surprised it wasn't a hit. But maybe releasing that and "I Want You" — six minute singles, back to back — wasn't the way to do it!