Punch the Clock was far more of a commercial success than the immediately preceding albums. Did you anticipate that?
I think I would have been surprised if it hadn't have been, because it was definitely ... structured in such a way as to be more accessible, if nothing else. Even if the individual songs weren't any better than the ones on the last album — and I don't believe they were, in retrospect — the way the album was actually put together and the production technique employed was such as to be immediately arresting, whereas I think the Imperial Bedroom album requires a bit of listening. There was no one track on it that was representative, no obvious single. That's not to demean a record just because it's a single. Some people get a bit snobbish about that sort of thing but I'm really proud of "Everyday I Write the Book" — it served a purpose. Ironically enough, "Let Them All Talk" was the first choice for a single all way through the recording and it wasn't until a few weeks before the release date that we switched. Which was probably a good thing, because it turned out that "Everyday I Write the Book" had a much more lasting and general appeal, which drew people to listen to the record.
What was the reason for deliberately making Punch the Clock more accessible?
Well ... it does become a little pointless to be wilfully obscure. I don't think I was being wilfully obscure with Imperial Bedroom but if we'd made another record which was even more oblique and dense then we could have been accused of being indulgent. Some people accused us of being indulgent with that record anyway, so if we'd made another one which was even less accessible at first hearing then I think we'd have been just making records for ourselves. I think it was important to really try and consciously make one for public consumption. Hopefully that leaves the door open for us now to do something which is a good mixture of both. I think the new album, Goodbye Cruel World, demands your attention but at the same time is more demanding than Punch the Clock.
There was an irony, though, with Punch the Clock in that it put a bright-sounding backdrop behind lyrics like those of "Pills and Soap."
That again was the point of the way it was put together. The real cynics said it was insubstantial compared with some of the other records — I think they had just got used to the fact that every song had to be a major drama. On that album there are songs that are quite light-hearted, set against those which are very, very solemn. It was a good balance but it was a different one from the one we'd employed in the past and therefore it confused the critics who were used to a certain emotional formula. Even if the musical makeup of the group changed from record to record they were used to a particular kind of emotional formula that we didn't employ on the last record.
Have you kept the backing singers and the brass section on the new record?
No. We've got Gary Barnacle from Leisure Process playing saxophone but there's no brass section.
So it's a more basic sound?
It's a lot sparser at times but we've got some quite full-sounding tracks. We've also used one singer to sing with me in the backing group so that we don't just have the sound of me tracked with myself on every song, because the Attractions don't do backing vocals. You get a wholly different sound blending two voices. So we've got Green from Scritti Politti singing on one track and Daryl Hall sings on another one. So it's quite an unusual combination.
How did working with singers of the calibre of the Afrodiziaks on the last record affect your own approach to singing?
When it comes to backing vocals it doesn't really affect your performance on the track. But live, singing with the Afrodiziaks, it started to affect me quite-profoundly after a while because I started to imitate their phrasing. I'd teach them a line and they'd sing it back completely different, because they sing a different way. Their timing is different to mine. I don't know how good a mimic I am but I find I'm quite a conscious mimic. I find myself mimicking people, at least in my head — I don't know if it comes out of my mouth. That's the way I always sing. I think "I'll do Garnett Mimms in this song" and whatever comes out of my mouth might be something completely different.
You've just released your second single as the Imposter, "Peace in Our Time." Does that mean the Imposter releases will be a regular thing?
No, it means I'm going to release one when I feel like it.
What's the function of the Imposter?
Well, firstly, having established the Elvis Costello name, it's just a jar for it to be obvious that it's me under another name. It serves the same purpose as calling myself Elvis in the first place, to some extent — it does the same thing in reverse, if you like. I used it once so I thought I'd use it again, because people wouldn't expect that.
Do you think the use of the alternative name had much to do with the success of the original "Pills and Soap" single?
No, the success was more to do with the mystery that built up around it — because it was deleted, it was out for a specific length of time, which is unusual. The whole point of these records having that identity is to separate them from the big business machinery. I try to keep them on a much more personal level — where time allows — actually take the records to the radio stations and reviewers myself, so they can be quite clear in their heads that it's a personal statement rather than a corporate design.
You've often been characterised as a "clever" lyricist. Do you see yourself as clever?
I don't think I'm over-clever. Sometimes I seem to get some resentment for the way I use words but I refuse to take responsibility for the reviewer not having as much imagination as me, if he feels intimidated by me. I try not to use words in order to baffle — it's important to use words to express things in a clearer way. And the more words you use, the more interesting and exciting the language in the songs can become. It's very easy to take all too seriously, though. I don't set myself up as some kind of great lyricist.
You seem to get more flak about lyrics from American writers.
Yeah, well they tend to be idiots, I suppose ... there's a few almost intellectual rock 'n' roll writers, some of whom I quite respect, despite their rather academic attitude to the music, because they have a grasp on how important the music can be to people. There's a subtle difference between how important music can be to people and how important the artists think they are. Unfortunately, when artists start reading these people's books and magazines and start believing them and acting out what is said about them, that's when they start to lose their function. The other end of American rock 'n' roll writing is the stuff that just glorifies the simplistic, moronic element, the Johnny Cougar type rock 'n' roll. You know — it's a sin to be smart.
But isn't it somewhat understandable that American writers will get the wrong end of the stick? After all, so much of your imagery and the words you use seem to be specifically English.
Well that's pretty inevitable, seeing as I am English. It's always been a bit of a dilemma really, the mixture. It's American music, essentially, and an English point of view. Not many people have achieved it. There's only a few really great exponents of capturing something that's uniquely English but still what you might identify as rock 'n' roll, or even modern. I think the Kinks were probably the best example — and Madness now, but neither of those are really rock 'n' roll. I wouldn't say we were a rock 'n' roll band as such — we can be, but it's one of a number of styles and inflections in the music that add up to make whatever you call the music. I don't choose to call it anything myself.
Would you agree that the American music industry has lost touch with the best of its country's music?
I'd agree that the industry has lost touch with its best music but I still think the best music is in America. I don't think its in England anyway. The groups that currently excite me most are American, which is something I didn't think I'd ever hear myself say again.
What groups are they?
Los Lobos, Jason and the Scorchers, X, the Leroy Brothers, T Bone Burnett.
What was your reaction when Rolling Stone magazine described you as "halfway to hackdom?"
Well I'm not as far along the way to hackdom as they are, let's put it that way. That's just the kind of glib phrase they like to come up with — it saves them having to think. Seeing as they haven't got any good writers any more it's a bit hard for them to be interesting. They're just Playboy magazine for the cocaine generation, without the added advantage of having any beautiful women in their magazine. They haven't even got any beautiful men.
They seem to be a lot keener on the identifiably "rock" acts, like U2 and Big Country.
They don't know who they're keen on. They don't know anything. They run so scared of being out of step — one moment they're claiming the Eurythmics are the greatest thing since Aretha Franklin and the next they're denying that any of these electropop groups can be worth anything because now we've got Big Country and they play guitars so that's real. Neither thing is all that's happening — it's just an ignorant and at the same time arrogant way of acting. They're an enormously powerful magazine because they're the only national music magazine of any real substance.
They could have a lot of sway but they've decided now to be a multi-media magazine. There was always political stuff in there, which at one point used to be quite good, but now there's an awful lot of stuff about movie stars and so on and it's just like People magazine for another age group — older, actually. There's nothing worse than grown-up hippies with money. They're the worst people on the planet.
Is there any musical publication you respect?
Not really. I respect individual writers rather than any particular paper.
Do you consider yourself more craftsman or artist in your songwriting?
You have to be a craftsman to serve the purposes of being an artist, if you like, but I don't really to think of myself as either. I don't consciously divide it. It's like saying which is more important, the lyrics or the music — if I didn't have the lyrics I'd be an instrumentalist, if I didn't have the music I'd be a poet — a bad one.
Phrases like "Tin Pan Alley" tend to get tossed around ...
That's only because I wrote a couple of songs on Imperial Bedroom that sounded superficially like 40s songs. If I'd never recorded that album nobody would have suggested it.
Has your writing process changed since the first album?
I certainly hope so. I don't think you can really keep it the same because you're changing within yourself, you respond to things differently. That's like saying I haven't changed my attitude at all. Certain things in my attitude haven't changed but I haven't closed my mind for seven years. I don't know in what way, but the process has definitely changed. The way in which it's changed is the difference you see in each record because that's the product of each change. I don't see any record as the definitive record, like "this really is it." Criticisms are often really unfounded on the basis of "Oh, he's changed," or "He's gone soft," or "He's lost his mind now." They don't realise it's point B on the way from A to C. Or maybe C sharp.
When you began recording there was a genuine energy and direction in music but now it's flagging and rather directionless. How has that affected what you do?
It doesn't affect me in the slightest. You'll notice that we're the only group of that time still in its original lineup. It hasn't affected us any, perhaps because we didn't paint ourselves into a corner like a lot of the other groups and say, "Music is gonna be dead after we've made this record — better wake up world!" like a lot of the punk groups did. It was enormously arrogant and really ignorant again. It didn't leave them any scope, they couldn't develop. But maybe they didn't want to ... in some ways it was quite admirable. But the lesser groups who came out and tried to imitate the people that did have some kind of real originality — like the Pistols, I think, was a very original group. Whether they were the creation of the members of the band or of Malcolm McLaren, it was still an original idea. But all the groups who sort of modelled themselves on the way the Pistols conducted themselves and completely left themselves with no options had to do this embarrassing backing down when they saw that rock 'n' roll wasn't going to drop dead because they said so. Actually, I think it has dropped dead in spite of them, not because of them.
But you must have found yourself in a similar corner after Armed Forces.
I didn't find myself in a corner for very long. I was in a corner for about half an hour. Then I decided I didn't like any of the arrangements we'd been working on for the previous two or three months on tour, whipped down the pub and got drunk and decided to play all the numbers like we were Booker T & The MGs and that was Get Happy. And we just got more and more drunk and played it less and less like Booker T & The MGs. It wasn't a very difficult corner to paint yourself out of.
Do you agree that without punk's shift of emphasis from playing to song you probably wouldn't have made it?
I don't know that punk really shifted the emphasis on to song. I think it shifted the emphasis on to short records again, away from the bombast of the supergroups. And it certainly did something to deflate the arrogance of the record companies. Their criterion was that you had to immediately come from nowhere and be Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin, when you think about it, were quite a remarkable group, not there one minute and the next they were like this monolithic kind of creation. Groups didn't appear like that in 1977, they appeared on a much more realistic level. And I suppose that opened the way for shorter, more concise and more direct songs. The shift on to song, I think, was a gradual thing over the next couple of years. I don't think anybody was specifically responsible for it and I wouldn't give any movement credit for doing anything, really. I think individual groups achieved the things they achieved. I wasn't a participant in punk, even if in other people's eyes we were. I never agreed to that.
You're very much a writer of songs. Would you like to experiment with something away from the song format? Something longer?
I don't know, it might be interesting. I haven't really considered it that much. I've written some pretty long songs occasionally, some of them a lot longer than the stuff on my first album. I have a clause in my contract with CBS America which says I can't have any more than two songs of under a minute and half on any album. I had about three on the first album. And we actually broke it with Get Happy, which had five, but because there were 20 tracks they let me off. There are songs like "King of Thieves," which is a really long song, lyrically. It was seven minutes long when I wrote it. I ended up speeding it up in the final arrangement to get the story across — to the detriment of the story in the long run, but we just couldn't face having a seven minute song on our album. It just wasn't that important — it's got to be pretty important to demand someone's attention for seven minutes. It's got to be pretty important to demand my attention to sing it. I've yet to write anything I want to spread over that length of time. I think if I'm any kind of songwriter I can get my ideas over a lot quicker than that. If you're asking am I going to write a rock opera, the answer is no. I think musicals might be quite interesting — I've written one song for a film musical which is going into production later this year.
Is it vital for you to retain a political context in your work?
No. I don't make a conscious effort to have a political reference in every song. It just sort of happens, I don't write from an intellectual point of view. I don't write from thinking about it, I always write emotionally. So if you recognise it as being political then it's something that has had an effect on me emotionally and therefore I wrote the song. I can't write theoretically. Well, I can, but I write really badly.
The social comment present also tends to be more implicit than explicit.
Yeah — I think that's perhaps a more powerful way of writing. A lot has been written in music papers and even music columns in newspapers about "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap" being very political songs but when they first appeared people were quite confused about them. Because they're not that explicit, they're both fairly ironic. I think with "Pills and Soap" there's a suggestion that it's about something because it sounds fairly ominous. But I know Americans who think "Shipbuilding" is a beautiful love song ... people going off on a lake in a boat. They just completely miss the point, they just think it's a load of romantic images. The events that inspired the song didn't affect them so they don't recognise the references. It's quite possible.
When Robert Wyatt's original version of "Shipbuilding" came out did you tell people what it was about?
No ... we did interviews together because Robert's very nervous and he doesn't deal with the business that much so Clive (Langer, who wrote the music for Costello's lyric) and I came along. But we tended to fend off questions and let the song speak for itself because with a performance as good as his it really would have been insulting to start explaining the song because I think just the sound of his voice expresses what the song's about.
Did you find it daunting to record your own version after his?
Extremely so. It's one of the toughest things I've ever had to do — it's like doing a cover of your own song. I didn't find anything like the same difficulty doing "Girls Talk." The trouble was that the first release of Robert's version failed to release the general public, even though it had a very encouraging cult response. It was a bit depressing that it hadn't broken through though because, obviously, a song like that, you feel it does have the potential to reach a lot of people. Therefore we planned to do our version because I knew his would never come out in America. I didn't think that song was that uniquely English, it had international implications. And if it's something that much to write in the first place you should put it on the album anyway, regardless of whether people can understand exactly what it's about. You don't have to pander totally to the sense of the international. It's the opposite of jingoism, I suppose. "This is our place, come and look inside." But yeah, it was difficult, I had to get away from Robert's phrasing — and you can't really alter the tempo of that song. That's why we brought in another instrumentalist to play the piano part. Steve (Nieve) plays on Robert's version. We could have had Steve play it on another piano or something but we decided to bring someone else in to give the song a different texture.
Could you describe your own politics?
It's pretty hard to sum them up. I don't see them like a thing in a box that you can take out and parade around like a hat or play with like Silly Putty. It's like religion or something — there are people who claim to be Christians and then go out and kick someone's head in. It's an attitude, not anything that's written in a book or manifesto. Life is full of great dilemmas for any kind of moral code and in a sense politics can become like a moral code. I don't think there's enough time to explain it, if it isn't obvious in what I do.
How did you come to take part in the new Scully TV series?
I knew Alan Bleasdale, the writer. Someone wanted to do a TV show with both of us in it, neither of us wanted to do it and we became friendly. So I see him when I'm in Liverpool and he pops in when he's in London. We go to the football together because we both support Liverpool. He came and saw us the last time we played in Liverpool and we had a drink afterwards and he said, "I think you can do this role." It came as a bit of a shock because I've never considered acting at all. But there's not really much acting involved — well, I suppose there is but it's not what you think acting's going to be like, sort of wandering around in a cape with a skull. I just lurk around as this eccentric sort of character and say one line in the whole seven episodes. The series is very well written — it's funny and it's sad. It's very fortunate for me to have been in something that's going to be as good as it is.
We haven't seen Bleasdale's earlier series, Boys From the Blackstuff yet. That was quite a phenomenon in England wasn't it?
It was, yes. It really captured the imagination of the public. It was so timely. People identified with what was happening to the characters and the neighbourhood they lived in. But politics wasn't actually the motivation for Alan writing it — he wasn't making a political statement. The politics were inherent in the relationships between the characters and the society in which they weren't being allowed to live. It really dealt with the crime of unemployment and the effect it has on these people's families. It's all over the country and the series became almost symbolic. Football crowds started shouting "gizza job, gizza job," which is the catchphrase of one of the characters. There is now a tremendous expectation for this Scully series because it's the first thing that has appeared by Alan since then and I think some people are going to be disappointed if they're expecting it to be another major political statement. It's the same sort of situation I was in after "Shipbuilding." It was "right, you've got to write another one that's better than that now, that's more important." All I can say is I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be important. I've had criticism for "Peace In Our Time" in England, people saying it's self-important. All because I've written two of what people recognise as political songs — as far as I'm concerned I've been writing political songs ever since I started. The sound of the songs might not have made people consider them political. My first single, "Less Than Zero," was politically motivated — it was a response to something political. I think the brasher sound of the records then tended to obscure the lyrics, whereas now that I'm doing songs that are slower and more sombre the lyrics are thrown into greater relief. Therefore people kind of build them up. Now it's as if I've got my hands tied — I'm not allowed to write any more political songs. It's like "You've written two, that's enough isn't it?" I've been told it's not good enough. Can do better.
In terms of the lyrics being accessible, I found Imperial Bedroom quite bloody minded. The music itself was so dense and then the lyric sheet was that impenetrable block of words.
That was supposed to reflect the way the record was. Up until Imperial Bedroom all our artwork was done by the same man, Barney Bubbles, who has now passed away. It was very well thought through. I didn't always agree with what he did but he was very conscious to always reflect more than what any record company would want. Any major company just wants a pretty picture of you on the front. They do a market research report and decide what your image is in the public's view and they want a picture that reflects that, is as handsome as possible, in good colours, with the title up the top in easy to read letters ... there's an awful lot of limitations on artistic design that we've always tried to get round. If we can get both things — follow their requirements and still have something that reflects the record — it's a happy compromise. So I feel that lyric sheet was completely justified.
And the Punch the Clock lyric sheet reflected that album in its clarity and accessibility.
It was easy to read, yeah. We just emphasised certain lines, sometimes bogus lines. That was the trick of that lyric sheet. Some of the words were ones I really wanted to emphasise, some weren't. I wanted people to read it and say, "What did he emphasise that line for? What's the meaning of that word?" That was sort of playing with people's expectations. People always get suspicious with us, they always think we're up to something.
That album's artwork is also particularly attractive in appearance.
That was the first one that wasn't done by Barney Bubbles and I think it reflected the record very well. It was very open-looking. There's something about that photograph I like. It's very honest looking. There isn't much side to it — it isn't like a lot of photographs where there's something being expressed or there's some sort of trickery.
There's something a little sad about it.
Yeah, it looks really sad to me. There's something about it that's just a photograph of somebody. It's not like I'm trying to say anything. You can use images and use your face in many different ways. Probably the worst curse you could have would be to be really handsome so that people don't ever get past that fact. Because I've got a funny shaped face I can do odd things with it. I've become aware of it and it's just another tool. It's like the name, it stops the casual browser. Like the Trust cover — there's something sinister about that picture. The picture doesn't go with the title — the person on the cover looks completely untrustworthy and that's the joke. Little subtle things like that, we're quite conscious of them. Which, in some ways, is more artistic than Duran Duran going to Sri Lanka and making a video. It's much more subtle. It's important to pay attention to that kind of detail.
Is your picture on the cover of the new album?
It's an unusual photograph — it's not just of me, it's of the whole band in a location, but the location overpowers the band. It's taken by Bernie Griffin, who did the inner bag photograph for Armed Forces. He takes only about a dozen photographs each session and each one is usable. He's a very artistic photographer but he can be exasperating to work with because he forgets you're there. We did a video with him which was extremely exasperating. He just gets immersed in it, which I really respect because I'm completely hell to be with when I'm working on a record. Even on the day of a big live performance my nerves get on edge, I start worrying, I'm just a horrible person ...
You've just finished a solo tour of the USA. What was the motivation for going out alone?
It was just something I'd really wanted to do. I didn't know when I was going to get round to it but I had this idea in my mind to salvage some of the songs that got overlooked. One of the problems of having such a lot of material is getting round to playing all the songs. And sometimes I feel that we didn't even do them justice in the studio. On Get Happy, because there were so many songs, the attention would slip away — we'd do a version that was good enough to go on record but not as good as the song could have been. For my own satisfaction I wanted to prove to myself that the song was as good as I thought it was when I'd written it, because it was obviously written for some good reason, because it had some feeling. And perhaps we didn't really get that feeling over in the recorded version and had never played it live.
And I also had all the new material and it was quite good to be able to play the songs for the first time in front of an audience and get a clear idea of what they were about. Really hear the tune properly and not have the problems of trying to listen to the lyrics and the new tune as well as getting the rhythm and excitement of the band playing it — sometimes there's a bit of a dilemma. I also played covers that I wouldn't normally do and played with T Bone Burnett who supported me on tour — we got up and did a bit of a set, four or five numbers. We did some country ballads and a few up-tempo things and a few joke things — when we were in San Francisco we did a medley of songs like "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" and "If You're Going to San Francisco." Just completely fooling about — which is great, because people don't usually expect that sort of stuff from me. The atmosphere was relaxed, more generous. The audience allowed me the indulgence to play the piano, which I don't do very well. And also they accepted that I didn't have a band going bang, bang, bang — they'd almost come to expect that, which is a bad thing.
Do you think it surprised people that you displayed that kind of humour?
I think it probably did surprise some people because they don't know it, because they read really unimaginative articles about me. Few articles that have been written have been written at great enough length to suggest that you're a human being. Most of them suggest an image that is reinforced by everything you say. And I'm not a press release, I'm not a cardboard cutout and I can be funny — I can be horrible, I can be a lot of other things. I can be any number of things, just like any other person. But in fairness to even the best of journalists, it's very hard to get those things over and still make the point about the artist, because it focuses on their artistic image. Which is quite frequently at odds with what they're like as people. Quite frequently.