Out of nowhere comes a musician with no apparent past who looks like a good bet to become the biggest new sensation on the rock scene this year — Elvis Costello.
Although his first album is only available in this country as an import, the LP is already a heavy favorite on local progressive radio and sold out of area record stores almost as soon as it could be stocked.
Costello is a product of England's Stiff Records, a small, artist-oriented label inspired by the East Bay's Beserkley Records. The company, which has yet to make a U.S. distribution deal, has released a couple handfuls of singles, all instant collector's items, and three LPs — a Stiff sampler (A Bunch of Stiffs), an album by the punk rock band, the Damned, and the album by Elvis Costello.
Costello submitted the first tape received by Stiff Records and Stiff founder (and co-manager of (Graham Parker) Jake Rivera immediately contacted the singer-songwriter. Stiff will release no details of his past — there is no official biography — and Elvis isn't talking either. He is reputed to be a former computer operator from Twickenham and is also rumored to have played in a bluegrass band, but none of this can be confirmed.
Similarly, the back-up band on his outstanding debut album is a well-kept secret, but it can be revealed here that the instrumental tracks were performed by Clover, the Marin county band that immigrated to England last year (under the aegis of Rivera and Costello's producer, Nick Lowe).
Costello, who is currently making his first tour of England with a package of stiff artists (including Lowe), will make his U.S. debut November 15-16 at the Old Waldorf, accompanied by the Attractions (Pete Thomas, drums; Bruce Thomas, bass; Steven Young, keyboards).
His album, My Aim Is True (Stiff SEEZ 3), contains 12 songs, all riding on a sound reminiscent of that created by Graham Parker (a personal favorite of Costello). In Nick Lowe, Costello and Parker share a record producer, which may help account for the similarity in instrumental sounds. Comparisons with Parker are further underlined by superficial similarities in vocal styles.
But Costello is entirely his own man. His songs ring with an angry, defiant tone that recalls an early Bob Dylan. His nihilistic fantasies include "Less Than Zero" (Costello's estimation of "what it all means") and "Waiting For The End of The World."
"The only two reference points in my songs," he told a British interviewer, "are revenge and guilt. Those are the only two emotions I know about and that I can feel. Love... I don't know what it's about and it doesn't appear in my songs."
Indeed, Costello is already known for carrying around a black book with a list of names of people who hindered his career in the past (mostly record company executives with limited vision). He checks the guest list at every gig he plays against this book and strikes the appropriate names from the guest list.
Although almost any new rocker from England these days is automatically associated with the new wave or punk rock school of music, Costello demurs. "I don't want to be the elder statesman of punk," the 22-year-old singer-songwriter said.
Rivera and Lowe formed Stiff Records more than a year ago, at first releasing only a few singles in England. Import copies of Lowe's "So It Goes" found their way to U.S. radio stations and became something of a cult hit.
The first batch of Stiff singles included records by Lowe, the Damned, the Tyla Gang, Lew Lewis, the Pink Fairies, Richard Hell, and others. The compilation, A Bunch of Stiffs, featured none of the original singles, although it did include tracks by Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Dave Edmunds, Lowe and others. One cut by Graham Parker and the Rumour was included, although neither liner notes nor label copy makes any mention of the inclusion for contractual reasons.
Stiff has since released another batch of singles, including Nick Lowe's Bowi, named after David Bowie (Lowe was just returning the compliment, as Bowie named his latest LP Low.).
To coincide with his British tour, Stiff released a new three-track single by Costello, "Watching the Detectives." Lowe's first album, Wireless World, is also due shortly, although completion was held up while Lowe went back into the studio to finish the new album by Graham Parker and the Rumour. Another Stiff sampler, tentatively titled Lost Cadavers, is also near release:
Meanwhile, Stiff continues its outrageous publicity build-up for the budding star. "There are only two Elvises," read one company flyer (withdrawn after the recent death of the other Elvis). "One is fat and famous and the other is small and languishes in obscurity." Not for long.