Record Mirror, September 21, 1985

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Record Mirror



Paul Sexton

Elvis Costello — reluctant star, savage lyricist, smartass songwriter, man of true aim — this is your vinyl career.

"Warning! This... may produce radical reaction in narrow-minded people." The label applied to Elvis Costello And The Attractions' Nashville album Almost Blue — but the warning could as easily apply to everything Costello has ever done, 11 albums on from his 1977 emergence as the vitriolic young pop icon. In those eight years he's travelled from the forefront of the new wave movement via Stax, Nashville and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to a Telstar greatest hits album.

But even if The Best Of Elvis Costello — The Man and the creative marketing of a multi-format "Green Shirt" release are out of line, bear in mind that they weren't his ideas and realise that he's stayed remarkably true to his standards. Anyone who can bite the hand that feeds by scoring an airplay smash with probably the most savage attack on pop music radio ever recorded ("Radio Radio") and can point an accusing finger at other society institutions without them even knowing ("Shipbuilding," "Pills And Soap") and still be an albeit reluctant star in that society is more than smart.

Even if in the illogical and treacherous world of pop, a man who's acknowledged as one of the most outstanding writers of his time should achieve two of his three top 10 hits with... cover versions.

When Elvis Costello began the vinyl career that, before it was a year old, had fans frantically trading imports and bootlegs at vastly exaggerated prices, Stiff Records was in the ascendancy, safety pins were still in demand, and a 22-year-old smartass songwriter with big bins and a bigger sneer could get plenty of attention but no hits.

"Less Than Zero" was much acclaimed, "Alison" likewise, but for the latter, attention was stolen by two far more stark punk standards released that very same day, "Remote Control" and "God Save The Queen." "Red Shoes" even made it to the Capital Radio playlist in London, but the charts didn't respond until they had the more obvious Attractions of "Watching The Detectives." When Costello's first three singles were released, he was still working at the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory.

But by the time "Detectives" was in the Top 20, Elvis was already an album artist, thanks to the strident My Aim Is True — even if on its US release, Billboard seemed more concerned with his unsettling looks: "A much-hyped British new wave cult figure who bears a strong physical resemblance to Woody Allen."

Another Top 20 hit with "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" brought big sales for This Year's Model, which he certainly was, although the title showed that Costello knew that was unlikely to last and he wasn't about to jump back on the merry-go-round anyway.

The hits would have to be on his terms, so "Oliver's Army" happened to have a catchy tune even if most of the people who bought it didn't have a clue what they were singing along to.

For every spiky, obstreperous hookline there was another side of the writer to compensate, never more so than on his most melodically and lyrically attractive single ever, "New Amsterdam" in 1980. So attractive, in fact, that it missed the Top 30.

He once referred to the (at the time) nascent F-Beat as "the Stax to 2-Tone's Motown" and by 1980 the Stax factor was easy to hear in his music. "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," a Homer Banks/Alan Jones composition, had last been seen malingering in the bargain bins in its version by Sam and Dave; "Getting Mighty Crowded" was a 1964 side by Betty Everett; and "High Fidelity" and "Clubland" were perfect reconstructions of the some mood.

But the Glenn Tilbrook duet from the same Trust album, "From A Whisper To A Scream," missed the chart completely, the first time that had happened to EC since "Red Shoes," and he went to Nashville to spring his biggest surprise yet.

Elvis's affection for country music had long been apparent, as witnessed by his particular predilection for the George Jones song "Stranger In The House," a song he recorded with country legend Jones for his album My Very Special Guests (although the story goes that the two men never actually met in the studio).

Almost Blue was too great a shock for music snobs and country haters, two categories never lacking in members, but to everyone else it was a commercial and critical success, the mood of such love songs as "I'm Your Toy" suiting Costello well and giving him a means of conveying tenderness that might have embarrassed him in his more usual style.

Even now a mainstream Elvis love ballad is almost unheard of, the nearest to it on single in recent years being his tasteful cover of Ricky Nelson's minor 1960 hit, "I Wanna Be Loved."

But blinding honesty remains his highest card, most of all in his guise as the Imposter, seemingly a vehicle for venting his political spleen.

He can be quite intentionally throwaway, as on singles like "From Head To Toe" or "Party Party," then at a stroke become deadly earnest again and it's really a joy that two songs so utterly disparate as, for example, "You Little Fool" and "Man Out Of Time" can come from the same artist. Even if the latter is just too cerebral, too clever to ever become a hit.

Another new avenue is almost constructed, an album produced by T-Bone Burnett, and what's sure is that whether it hits any chart targets or not, Elvis's aim will be as true as ever.

There are many other appearances on singles by Costello that fall outside the main body of his work. Apart from his recent collaboration with T-Bone Burnett as the Coward Brothers on Imp ("The People's Limousine"/"They'll Never Take Her Love From Me") these also include John Hiatt's 1984 Geffen single "Living A Little, Laughing A Little"; his duet with George Jones, released in 1981 but recorded in 1979, "Stranger In The House"; and Elvis And The Attractions' 1978 B-side of "American Squirm," credited to Nick Lowe and his Sound, "Peace Love And Understanding." There were also two free singles given to Costello concert-goers: "Talking In The Dark"/"Wednesday Week" (Dec 78), and in 1980, the original 2-Tone pressing of "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"/"Girls Talk," which was released on F-Beat because of contractual difficulties.

Initial pressings of This Year's Model included a free single featuring "Stranger In The House"/"Neat Neat Neat"; initial pressings of Armed Forces included a free EP recorded live at Hollywood High featuring "Accidents Will Happen"/"Alison"/"Watching The Detectives."

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Record Mirror, September 21, 1985

Paul Sexton details Elvis Costello's discography.


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Page scans.

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Cover and contents page.


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