Sounds, April 30, 1977

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Mystery Man

Chas de Whalley

Fighting talk.

"If certain notable people can't hear that 'Less Than Zero' is a great record, then they ought to see a mortician."

No, this brash young fellow shooting his mouth off ain't Nick Lowe dressed up as Buddy Holly. Neither is it the Clash's Joe Strummer posing in baggy pants and horn-rimmed specs. It's Elvis Costello, Stiff's latest recording protege, the man responsible for the remarkable "Less Than Zero." And a more stubbornly secretive character you are unlikely to meet this side of Steve Harley's front door.

"No pictures. I want to keep my own face. I don't want people to know what I look like."

Mid-twenties, about five foot ten, clean featured, poor-sighted and unfashionably dressed. Do you live in Richmond? Well then he might just be the guy sitting opposite you on the bus to work. A man proud and protective of his privacy.

"I don't want to talk about the past. It's dead and gone. I didn't appear in a puff of smoke. I've been around a long time. If people weren't interested in what I was doing then, why would they want to know all about it now?"

Fair enough, I suppose. But perhaps a couple of Sounds readers saw the old pub band Flip City a year or two back and might care to know that the lead singer has resurfaced. Perhaps somebody might know the man as D. P. Costello, from the last year spent playing his guitar and singing his songs in the folk clubs. Perhaps he's done other things and got other fans I don't know anything about. Shouldn't a little more info be forthcoming?

No go, Joe. As far as Elvis is concerned his slate is wiped clean. He starts from scratch or he doesn't start at all.

And he starts with "Less Than Zero," the self-penned heavy calypso which introduced Elvis' knife-edged voice to the world of vinyl. Unfortunately certain sections of the music press were not kindly disposed to this latest Stiff masterpiece.

"That shocked me you know. I knew that record companies were unimaginative. That's why I signed with Stiff because they're the only one in the country who know what's going on. But I didn't think the press would be as bad.

1977-04-30 Sounds photo 1 id.jpg

"Some reviews said I sounded like Graham Parker. It's like all they can do is relate you to the thing you most sound like. I reckon I'm just as influenced by Charlie Parker or Hank Williams.

"I listen to all sorts of things and naturally some come out in my songs. But I've never rewritten anybody else's song and I'll argue the toss with anybody that I sound like me. My album My Aim Is True will prove that when it comes out next month.

"The trouble is, people listen too much to what a song sounds like and not enough to what it sounds of. 'Less Than Zero' is all there in the lyrics. Use your imagination. Work it out yourself."

Readers without a copy of the single ought to get off at the next stop and score themselves one. Don't ignore the ace B-side "Radio Sweetheart" but spin "Less Than Zero" a couple of times and if you're still stuck for an answer Elvis might just give you a clue or two.

Like, for instance, the verse is about a TV show, and the chorus is about someone trying to stop someone else watching it. The shadowy Mr Oswald is very famous and too real, and for that reason the two thousand people who voted for the National Front in Strechford recently will probably heave a brick through Elvis' window.

And that's all you're getting, 'cos Elvis Costello won't say a word more.

"I'm not going to explain my songs. If you can't hear what's going on from the song itself then God help you. I'm not going to write a manifesto. I'm not going to write a leaflet to explain 'Less Than Zero.' I'm a better songwriter than that, surely."

Why yes. But a slippery customer all the same.

Tags: Less Than ZeroRadio SweetheartStiff RecordsNick LoweBuddy HollyJoe StrummerThe ClashRichmondFlip CityGraham ParkerCharlie ParkerHank WilliamsMy Aim Is TrueOswald Mosley

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Sounds, April 30, 1977

Chas de Whalley interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photos by Ian Dickson.
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1977-04-30 Sounds cover.jpg


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