RockBill, September 1983

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Elvis Costello writes the book

Stuart Matranga

How do you read Elvis Costello? Since crawling out of that West London Vanity Factory, he's baited you, teased you, flirted with you like a cheap detective novel you'd rather not read, but find impossible to stop turning the mealy pages. Controversy rages from the text. Steamy sex scenes. Self strangulating plot lines. Enough word plays to tie a loose tongue or two. And yet, between the lines in a turn of a pirouetting phrase, in the lure of a multi-melodic reverb, something unseen, something yearning to be free of the prison bars of black type tugs at your sleeve and holds you transfixed.

Ah, the facts: born Declan McManus, 1954, London. Father Ross was a big band singer, mother worked in a record department. Studied English in school, eyes are astigmatic, first played in folk clubs at 16. Wife Mary, son Mathew. Signed to Stiff Records in 1976 by Jake Riviera. Produced by Nick Lowe until Almost Blue produced by country great Billy Sherrill. Imperial Bedroom produced by self and Geoff Emerick. Punch the Clock produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanely. Reads biographies. Swims, plays tennis. Released nine albums in six years. The greatest songwriter you can think of, off hand. If Imperial Bedroom is Elvis's masterpiece, Punch the Clock is the only and best possible follow-up. New tour bursting with the TKO horns the incredible, world renowned Attractions (Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, Steve Thomas) tight as... arrangements and ladies and gentlemen in the center ring, Mr. EL-vis cos-TELL-o!

There he is peering from out of those trademarked black-rimmed eyeglasses in the lobby of the Allentown, PA Hilton, only hours before the first Clocking In show of the USA tour. Elvis is omni-aware, slick, fast, neat, warm, humane, thoughtful, gracious, you think somewhat psychic, probably thinking of six things at once, like Caesar could. He indicates a perfectionist streak when he often mentions wanting the best in the production of his albums. His suit is black. His shoes are checkered.

He talks well with wit and a piercing sense of the ironic, almost as crafty as in his songs. Like Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, you like talking to a man who likes to talk but you feel he in control. He seems most comfortable when an argument gathers in the wind. What a great bar-mate he probably is,his words digging canals through which logic flows. He talks with such energy that you can't let your mind stray from the stories he's telling. The suspense rises and lowers like heavy breathing. He taps his fingernails on the formica table top as he describes his first "bang bang bang bang" shows. You don't know how much more of this you can take. You sit there stricken, eyes firmly on the page as Elvis Costello writes the book.

The theme of striving for an unviolated love or trust comes up a lot in your songs.

I'd say that's true. Unviolated, generally. It could be unviolated love or it could be an unviolated condition. It's not necessarily towards relationships as I understand that word is understood here. Not just totally to do with a man or a woman, just about human matters generally, whether they deal with the government or your next door neighbor or your wife or your boyfriend or whatever. Human matters. People interest me more than anything else.

Even in the semi-political songs —

Well, I don't look at them as semi-political. I just look at them as songs. Here is a song. It happens to be about something I care enough about to want to write the song. I have to be motivated to want to write it. It's somebody else that comes along and says it's political.

The motivation is political. "Shipbuilding" is more about the betrayal of trust between rulers and ruled.

That's political! Songs just about political theory would be bloody boring. I always hated the idea of political songs because they always conjured up sloganeering songs to me. They could never seem to get past the level of "We Shall Overcome," which has done its job. "People Get Ready" is my favorite political song.

Is rock music important?

I don't see rock music as being that important, really. I think it's very over-rated. It's a self-perpetuating myth. People like to invent the idea of rock culture because it reinforces their own beliefs. There isn't' any real rock culture. It's a very limited thing. I don't see that the condition or the nature of their work or these people arc that exalted. I don't see that they're that influential, either. Don't tell me that Bruce Springsteen is influential.

Is Bowie?

I don't think so. Not really. There's a lot of people that admire him. He's influential to other musicians. There's a lot of people, heaven help us, that try and sound just like him. But, it's just not that important. The whole business takes itself far too seriously. The more important thing is to take your work seriously, else you do it badly. But, to take yourself seriously, you become an absolute buffoon.

But there is a rock culture driving to these shows in vans with two six packs and —

They're not that big a part of the world, are they? Are they any bigger than people who go to discos and listen to disco music? My experience is that there's a big class difference between people. Rock music is middle class music, particularly in America. That excludes a large portion of the population, surely. It doesn't really touch many working class people.

What do working class people listen to?

Country music, disco music.


Yeah. But they're not the kind of people you'd hold up in the pantheon of rock. Angus Young isn't among those people.

But he sells more records than you. Is the future going to be based on people who listen to heavy metal?

I think that's an amusing thing to say, That's exactly what they said about people who grew up listening to the Grateful Dead.

And what happened to them?

They're still listening to the Grateful Dead. But, I think that's a very narrow observation. All of the people who were once held up as going to change the world are now the good old, beloved good old good ones, all of the hippie rebels. I dare say, that if they stay on the treadmill long enough, all of the people from 1978 are going to look just as tame. A Clash fan now looks at Crosby Stills and Nash and says well, that's really tame. In 1990, somebody is going to be looking at the Clash, if they still exist, and say exactly the same thing. It's inevitable. When rock 'n' roll replaced swing, they said this is the end of music. They burned records, broke records. Now, rock 'n' roll is a tame animal. There's no real dangerous rock 'n' roll.

What I think is a bit depressing is that rock music, as it's known now has no roots, it's not based on anything. Original rock 'n' roll was traditional in that it came directly from folk music. The folk music of today is goodness knows what, it's probably heavy metal. Or country music. Or disco. Because those records are bought unconsciously. They're just filler. They're air time. They're not the ones that the long boring essays are written about. These people arc not lionized. Or only occasionally.

I think that music was very important in 1955. That year, the original rock 'n' roll shook the attitude of young people. It was important in 1964. It was probably important in England in 1977. But other than that, no. And that's a limited thing as well. The '55 thing was very big and the '64 thing was extremely big. The 1977 thing was over in a couple of months. It was just a phenomenon. We have a lot of phenomenon in England, so we're pretty much used to it by now. It didn't exactly bring down the government.

People had expectations —

I don't. I think only the most pompous people write songs thinking they're going to change something with them. I write songs from a personal point of expression. That's what I know. The music I value most is stuff that is personal. It might say something and I really agree with it and you'd might call it political. Or, it might describe or conjure up a feeling or an emotion, which you know they've got it down so right that you can't ignore it. I mean what kind of music are we talking about here, the more pompous Pete Townshend songs or what? The idea of epic rock is a contradiction. I think the worst song he ever recorded, which was held up as great, was "Won't Get Fooled Again." "The Kids Are Alright" is a much greater song. It's also shorter, and better for it.

I write songs. I hate the idea of rock music because it conjures up all the American bands I can't stand like your Foreignors, Journeys and Totos.

Is there an obsession with people to categorize other people?

Absolutely. It stops you from accidentally buying records that you don't like. That's the only possible use labels have got, so you don't go in and accidentally buy a Ray Coniff album.

There are too many records made. That's the trouble. If the record companies weren't so wasteful and didn't take so many drugs, and didn't sign so many bands that were useless, then the record stores wouldn't be filled with records that you didn't want in your house. That's not to say that you couldn't have a record store filled with good records, it's just that record companies invariably aren't signing those people because they're too greedy and they want to sign somebody that's a bit like the last act that were successful. They would rather go with a safe formula than anybody who's got a little imagination or real new idea.

It's like all this nonsense about new music that you seem to be having over here now. This New Music Seminar. I could not believe it. I laughed myself sick. It's absolutely ludicrous because none of the music is related, so to be bracketed together is insulting to those individuals in there that have got any talent, which, god knows, are precious few. On top of which, most of it is so conservative and being held up as new. By English standards, most of it is the boring end of pop, not the new fresh, unusual. Some of it is good, but still very staid. The only group of any substance that I understand is being held up as new music is Culture Club. They're the only ones of any worth that I could have any interest in having their records or wanting to hear their records next week or in ten years time.

What do you listen to?

I buy a lot of records when I'm in England. I try to seek out new things that must be here, because I'm not writing off the possibility that, against all the odds there might be a group working against the grain here, in America. I'd like to find a great group here. The two best groups in America, as I understand it, are both very traditionally based, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Blasters. I think they do what they do excellently, though they don't have tremendous range. l liked one track of Rank and File. I quite like a track by REM, but I don't know much more about them. There's a lot of English groups that I think arc really interesting. I love Aztec Camera. Their record is my favorite album that's come out in the last year. I'm really glad they're on the tour.

I can see why you like them. Like you, they're song-oriented.

Too many other bands I see seem to spend their time concentrating on the trappings of it, not really paying enough attention to the mechanics of it. Getting the good songs there and then learning to play well enough. There's no good way. There can be no best singer. There can he no best guitarist. That's why polls are so ludicrous, because it's an attitude to playing, isn't it? It's the style....

When you hear a song that just doesn't happen, it doesn't do anything, it simply isn't well constructed enough to have any effect on you. There's no melody that you can hear. If the song has very little melody, but it has a mood, then it may get you.

Your songwriting has progressed since the beginning.

I've learnt as we've gone along. My knowledge of music has been broadened by experience and traveling and hearing other kinds of music and just having more money to buy more records.

Your shows have changed a lot over the years, too.

Well, if people don't know by now that they should come to expect something different than what they saw last time and different than the last group they saw, then really they've come to the wrong show. I like to change things and it's more interesting to the bulk of the people that like us....

It's very easy to get sentimental about the good old days when they played really fast, but a lot of the time what people took for being a real aggressive, edgy show was nerves and overanxiousness. Sometimes the bang bang bang bang tempos would destroy songs.... Last year we had a tremendous amount of ballads, which was my current favor. With the new line-up, all that has changed. We still do ballads, but I find my enthusiasm goes for the more up-tempo.

By no means have we calmed down. I still want the show to have as much intent in there. In fact, I think it's better if you can sit on the tempo and play at the tempo the song was written to be played at. That shows more belief in the song than rattling through it as if you're not confident about it.

I enjoy doing the shows because each night is different. There's always one song that you sing completely differently than you've ever sung it. There's always a chance with any song that you might hit upon a new inflection of a line that might change the whole meaning. It could be something quite obscure and be totally lost on anybody in the audience, but, of, course, you are paying that kind of close attention to the details When you're singing. I'm not just opening my mouth so words can come out. I find it very unsatisfactory to sing on automatic pilot. It's even quite comforting when you forget the words because it means you can't just recite them like a school poem.

Are there any plans to do another album like Almost Blue, songs you love?

I wouldn't exclude the possibility. I wouldn't say it would be the next record. I would want to do other songs, not this time in such a strict style change. Maybe a bit more general. There's enough songs that I really like. It's getting the courage up to do them, I suppose. You always have the original versions as a daunting prospect. I suppose people will say, yeah, well, ok, you still recorded Almost Blue and it didn't stop you that time, buddy. More's the pity.

There's an art to the interpretation of songs.

And it's a dying art, in a sense. It's a shame, because those singers known as interpretative singers these days, as is well known, I don't much care for. I don't think there are many good singers or good interpreters. Up until Chuck Berry, very few rock 'n' roll singers wrote their own songs. Chuck Berry was pretty much on his own.

You'll be performing with Count Basie and Tony Bennett for a TV special. Does that thrill you?

It's an unusual thing. Not the kind of offer you get everyday. It doesn't thrill me, it's not a life long ambition fulfilled. It wasn't a life long ambition to sing with George Jones. I didn't know about George Jones all my life. For the length of time I did know about him, it certainly was an ambition fulfilled. Having Dusty Springfield record my songs is another ambition fulfilled. I'd love to hear Curtis Mayfield or Aretha Franklin sing one of my songs. I don't suppose that's ever likely to happen. But you never know. Who would have said this could happen, though this is a little more unusual.

I never like to comment about what something might be before it's done. Whenever I produce other groups, I always discourage them about doing interviews on the record that we're making. I say, can't you see they're going to pre-empt anything you put on the record with their pre-conceptions of what you're up to. Let the record speak for itself. I let the performance speak for itself. If you would rather make a personal statement by talking about it, then you should talk and not sing. If you can say it that succinctly in speech, then you have no need of making records.

To explain it, you'd have to play the records.

That's why I never explain songs. It's in the song. If you don't see it, then listen to another song. It's not my fault. All I did was write it.

Is it possible to love someone with trust, with believing that you won't be betrayed?

Of course it is. It's one of the things that you might value most of all in people. It's the thing you would crave most, want to protect the most.

Is it in your nature to write songs about how love can be successful?

I wouldn't say I hadn't written songs like that. Far too much emphasis is placed on aggression and mistrust and bitterness and anger and all of the negative things. I always assumed that that was because it made better copy to project me as aggressive.

In a lot of your work, you seem more disappointed.

Maybe I just have high hopes. I am disappointed quite a lot, not least of all in myself. Probably most of all in myself. Most of the vitriolic songs were really aimed at myself anyway. I see myself as responsible for that particular condition. It might not be the whole scenario that you write about, but it might be some weakness that you see in yourself, that you strike out at, out of fear because you hate to see it there. It might not actually have come to the full conclusion that I've written about in a song. Not everything that's happened in the songs has happened to me. But you see something in there. You see it in somebody else, equally. You see some foolishness or weakness, something that you don't like.

Does unhappiness help art?

So they say, but I don't regard myself as an unhappy person.

But, if everything was as you'd expect it —

Everything is as I expect it.

It's really a too complicated question to go into. I don't think of things in terms of philosophy like you'd find in a book, but that is like a philosophy in a sense. It's something that I just carry with me. I don't really analyze my own feelings that much. I think I do enough exploring them in the songs and in the performance to last me a lifetime. I don't need to sit around asking what's happened to my life, head in hands. All I care about is doing my work well and staying alive.

You might notice more about your life in the songs.

In retrospect, yes. I think you're more likely to. Also, when I find old tapes that I made of songs I was listening to, I think, god, was I this depressed? The same way listening to Almost Blue now is a depressed attitude. The sympathy with those particular songs, regardless of what anybody things about how successful it was for me to do, the actual choice of songs, is quite telling.

Wasn't Imperial Bedroom originally called A Revolution of The Mind?

There's a James Brown album called that. I just discovered it the other day. I didn't know it at the time. He says it at the end of "King Heroin." He says, "Get away from drugs this is a revolution of the mind." What a great thing. Sounds like the title of a Moody Blues album. Let's call it something really pretentious. I thought it was quite funny. I wanted to call Imperial Bedroom Music to Stop Clocks at one point. The idea then carried on, got modified through train of thought to lead to the Punch the Clock idea. I think all our titles were good. Emotional Fascism was the best title for Armed Forces, but it would have been too good a title for that album. You'd be too disappointed in the songs. They were too bland for that title. It's the glibbest album we've ever made because I really thought I knew every thing. And now that I do, I realize,... only kidding.

Does cleverness sometimes draw attention to the cleverness and away from the song itself?

I try to avoid that whenever possible. I think well this is getting a bit stupid. You can end up being so clever, you become clever clever, stupid really, because you end up not saying anything, just messing about with words.


RockBill, September 1983

Stuart Matranga interviews Elvis Costello.
(Portions reprinted in Talking In The Dark, No. 10, Nov. 1984.)


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