Sounds, March 22, 1980

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The Elvis enigma

Peter Silverton

Mr Costello investigated by Pete Silverton

When I heard the first Elvis Costello single, "Less Than Zero," I figured it was Stiff's mainstay of the time, Nick Lowe, having a bit of fun on the side, creating the most unlikely rock star he could imagine. Jonh Ingham who reviewed the singles for Sounds that week was less kind.

"It's spot the rip-off time, as a cross between Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz (the group) takes a wander through the pop history book in search of suitable riffs. The B-side is a little more palatable, but why bother when there's B. Schwarz albums that do it far better? With records like this Stiff isn't reversing into tomorrow so much as going forward into the past."

In retrospect such venom seems wholly misplaced. Hardly an indication of what was to come but a pleasant little record (a technical term I haven't got time to explain), the most surprising thing about it was that Stiff seemed to regard it with such confidence. A bitterish singer-songwriter when everyone else around was jumping to the ramalamatwofreefour beat and Bernie Rhodes was organizing the last event before we all went to jail? As much chance as an icecube's hopes in hell you would have thought.

But, partly because it was on Stiff, partly because it was produced by Nick Lowe, partly because of the cover shot which had Costello looking like the dink of all time – hunched shoulders, baggy trousers and knock knees – partly because of the teasing hints in the lyrics ("Calling Mister Oswald with the swastika tattoo... we've got a vacancy waiting for you"), partly because of all that, people became interested straight away in who this Costello geezer was.

Sounds sent Chas De Whalley to find out. Elvis didn't want to help him very much in his appointed task. He refused to be photographed.

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

Chas and his encyclopaedic knowledge of everyone who'd ever played the Hope And Anchor, had dredged up the fact that Elvis Costello occupied the same body as the D.P. Costello who used to phone up Charlie Gillett's Honky Tonk radio show every week to get a mention for his gigs at the Half Moon Putney. And, before that, Chas remembered he used to front the "old pub band Flip City a year or two back". Elvis just didn't want to know.

"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 do they want to know all about it now?"

Disingenuous but intriguing. More revealing was his reaction to suggestions that he sounded like Graham Parker.

"It's like all they can do is relate you to the thing you most sound like. (Well, you've got to admit it's as good a start as any, Elvis.) I reckon I'm just as influenced by Charlie Parker or Hank Williams."

(Keep that name Hank Williams in mind; I'll get to it later.)

"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.

"I'm not going to explain my songs. If you can't hear what's going on from the song itself, the 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."

When "Alison" arrived, it was described as "too tasteful to be a hit." If "Less Than Zero" ran against the grain of the times, "Alison" was different to the point of contrariness. In the Summer of '77, it was about as welcome as a revival of Rollermania. A languorous, reflective ballad about infidelity, it didn't sit at all comfortably with the anti-Jubilee mood of "God Save the Queen, she ain't no human being". In one way, it was too narrow. In another, too adult. It dealt with home life and marriage at a time when that was the last place most people were looking for inspiration.

The debut album, My Aim Is True, followed shortly. Speckled all over the check patterned cover (two years ahead of his time?) was the legend "Elvis Is King." An irony of ironies – the original Elvis died soon after – and a rare piece of bragadoccio. This, this four-eyed little squirt whingeing about his failed loves, this is KING?

12 short songs, mostly about love, all of them expressing emotions just this side of self-pity, at first listening it didn't seem the form for a potential world-beater. The original demos (which are, I think, the 14 tracks on the Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong bootleg, wrongly credited as Radar demos) had been done with Nick Lowe and the Rumour but, on the album itself, Elvis was backed by the American country rock band Clover, a favourite of both Nick Lowe and his manager Jake Riviera from the early pub rock days. Lowe and Riviera, after a trip to the States the previous year, had been instrumental in getting Clover a recording deal with Phonogram and relocating them in England.

Opinions are still divided about the effect that Clover had on the sound of the album. It all depends whether you're a fan of soft country pub rock. I'm not. They embellished rather than helped build Costello's songs. They were quite adequate for something as slight as "Sneaky Feelings" and the "Midnight At The Oasis" soundalike guitar part of "Alison" was gorgeous but they just couldn't bring the necessary punch to "Mystery Dance" or "No Dancing." When they should have sounded like they were threatening to kick down doors they had all the attack of an overexcited flannel.

So, for anyone who did like "God Save The Queen" or "White Riot" (and the vast majority of Elvis fans did and probably still do hate both) it took a while for the power of the songs to filter through. What at first seemed merely wimpy came to be a very mixed-up psyche. Not so much bitterness and revenge as confusion and a search for some kind of explanation of how he'd got himself in such a Godawful mess. Alison letting someone else slip off her party dress seemed genuinely bewildering and there was no mistaking the forlorn hope of "There's no such thing as original sin" on "I'm Not Angry" – that pegged him as a lapsed Catholic straight away.

With the album in the shops, Elvis did a clutch of interviews, setting the scene for his persona for the next couple of years. He came out as Mr. Bitter And Twisted, seething with a desire for REVENGE. Revenge on everybody who'd ignored him up till now. Revenge on all the record companies that had turned down his demo tape. Revenge on anyone who was obstructing him now from becoming a famous POP STAR. He wrote all the names down in his little black book. (Oh, the sweet irony of "They're putting all your names in the ???? book / I know what they're doing / But I don't want to look" on "Night Rally.")

And he still wouldn't talk about his past.

"I haven't got anything to hide. I'm not going to bore people with things that I don't consider significant. As far as the public are concerned, the first thing I ever did was 'Less Than Zero.'

"I'm not particularly proud of what happened before, it's not worth the trouble of going back to look at it. People who want to know that should be doing something more interesting. I couldn't care less.

"There are certain things I don't want to discuss. Nobody likes to worry about the mundane things, you wouldn't get anything done. I don't worry whether I'm going to be a success..."

So let's do something less interesting.

Elvis Costello was born Declan McManus into a Liverpool Irish Catholic family in 1955. His father was one Ross McManus, a featured singer with dance bands in the Fifties – he once recorded an album entitled Big Boss Ross Sings The Hits Of Elvis (the original Hillbilly Cat, that is). Married young, Elvis supported himself, his wife Mary and their small child by working as a computer operator right up till just before the release of the first album.

Ignoring a rumour that young Declan was once in a glitter rock band (Elvis in stack-heeled spangled boots? The spirit shudders), the first exhibit I've been able to track down is the original demo tape he hawked round in '76, being turned down by every record company in London.

Knowing how the songs ended up, it's difficult to imagine quite how they might've sounded at the time. But imagine this if you can. An aggressive looking little guy with big glasses brings a tape into your A&R office, telling you he's the future of rock 'n' roll. You put it on. Acoustic guitar, little in the way of obvious tunes, virtually no hooks. The voice, while mellow and country-influenced, has difficulty carrying the tune with force or accuracy. The guitar playing is inept – some of the little twists are fluffed altogether. Hmmmm, you think, no thanks, we really don't need the next Steve Forbert. Maybe you'd have come back to it, noticed the spike of the lyrics and offered one of the songs to your new signing who hadn't got quite enough numbers for her first album. More likely, you'd never have thought of it again.

On the version of the tape I've got there's four tracks. "Radio Sweetheart," the future B-side of "Less Than Zero." "Mystery Dance" which appeared on the first album. "Living In Paradise" which was substantially altered before being included on This Year's Model. And "Radio Soul" which finally became "Radio Radio" with the entire sentiment of the song switched round. What was once almost a tribute to late night radio became a vicious attack on that feeding hand. With his sometimes slapdash journalistic approach to writing, Elvis never bothered to alter the first verse for the second version which puts it dangerously close to unfinished nonsense.

The next piece of evidence is what I'll refer to as his Jake Thackeray period, the acoustic demos he did for Charlie Gillett's Honky Tonk in spring 1977. "Cheap Reward" he later cannibalized into "Lip Service," changing the impact of "That's all you ever get from me" and adding a whole new set of lyrics. But the real killer is the otherwise unrecorded "Wave A White Flag":

When I hit the bottle
There's no telling what I'll do
There's something deep inside me
That wants to turn you black and blue
...To twist your loving arms till you capitulate
...There's nothing I love better
Than a free-for-all
To take your pretty neck and see which way it bends
...But if there's nothing I can do to make amends, baby
Hope you don't murder me

The tune is jerky, the vocal affected – just like a Jake Thackeray cast off, indeed. And it shows the potential for verbal violence only hinted at on the first album which splattered all over This Year's Model, making it sound like a musical Straw Dogs.

No wonder Costello had difficulty getting a deal. He'd only ever have attracted someone who could see behind his superficial lack of appeal, behind the bully boy whimsy to the inner tensions and realize that, pushed and prodded into the right setting, those songs would gain depth, resonance and poise.

Which is where the Attractions come in. At a couple of early gigs, Elvis had played alone, just him and an electric guitar. (This is when he did the unissued "Hoover Factory" for Capital Radio and Mavis Nicholson's afternoon TV show – that was the best interview he'd ever done. Mavis treated him like he was a talented, slightly scruffy schoolboy and she was the warm, forgiving mother. Good Catholic boy that he is, Elvis responded in kind.)

Where thrashing guitars reigned, he, Jake and Nick Lowe put together a unit that all but eschewed six-string batterings. Steve Naive, who plays keyboards as much like they were rhythm instruments as to add tones and colour, was recruited direct from the Royal College Of Music where he studied piano under the name Steve Mason.

Jake and Nick had known Pete Thomas from his pony-tail days drumming with Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers who Jake had managed. When they'd folded in '75, Thomas had got a gig with Californian songwriter John Stewart. Somebody (it wasn't Stiff or Jake) paid for Thomas to fly back.

The bassist they auditioned for. Peter Giles, once of King Crimson, was one of those rejected. The successful applicant, Bruce Thomas, had been playing for years. From Middlesbrough, he came to London as part of Wild Flowers with Mick Moody, later of Snafu and currently of Whitesnake, played stand-up bass with folkie Mike Absolom for a while, worked with Peter Bardens in Village in 1969, joined Quiver which later dissolved into the Sutherland Brothers And Quiver. Leaving them before their second American tour in '73 and he joined up first with acoustic duo Curtis Muldoon and then Moonrider with Keith West and John Weider of Family. Or maybe it was the other way round.

The Attractions were first seen when they played London in August 1977. A night at Dingwalls and a night at the Hope And Anchor. At Dingwalls, it seemed everyone in the entire music business wanted to get in. Jake was punched out by marketing man Knocker (now enjoying a holiday at Her Majesty's expense). Matthew Kaufman of Beserkely fame stood on the bar and pissed on the audience below. Just call it one of those fun nights.

At the Hope the band cut to the bone. They were sharp, nimble and as spirited as the songs. My Aim Is True sounded different right away.

When people think of Elvis Costello, the surly little bugger with an ego you could use as foundations for the World Trade Centre, they're reacting to the Elvis that was from his last Stiff record, "Watching The Detectives" through the second album This Year's Model to Armed Forces. Only the Clash traded more on the mythology of violence.

Everything Elvis and his cronies did was shot thorough with a sense of self-righteous morality. What we think is right, therefore everything is permitted. Which leads to violent proclamations of intent, cameras being smashed at gigs, etc.

The Costello rock 'n' roll conspiracy became more like a plan for world domination. Understandable, admirable even, but a trifle excessive. As the man himself wrote, "It's not a matter of life. What is? What is?"

And it's not as though Costello was that original. Great maybe, but he's never been the kind of living myth he's always wanted to see himself as. There probably wouldn't have been an Elvis Costello without a Johnny Rotten but there could have been a Johnny Rotten without an Elvis. And maybe that rankles, maybe that's what drives him ever onwards, ever reaching out to become a legend.

And yet all that reported aggression is contradicted by the man himself, who's been an affable enough bloke every time I've met him. Those who know him better tell me that his biggest fault is that it's almost impossible to shut him up. He'll talk all night and day about his plans, his theories about life, the nature of the American brain and records he's heard lately. Which could run from some old country song to a Jethro Tull album. And they all appear finally in his music, boiled down till they're virtually unrecognisable.

It's not just the Stax and Motown riffs on Get Happy. It's Booker T And The MG's "Time Is Tight" being used as a base of "Hand In Hand." It's "Interstellar Overdrive" via "Neat Neat Neat" providing a skeleton for "Pump It Up." And it's Abba songs all over "Armed Forces."

As much as being Mister Bitter and Twisted, Elvis is the singing Charlie Gillett of the rock 'n' roll world – everything he hears is used somewhere. Elvis just listens to more, has the fine focused intelligence to use them in a novel way and tops them off with some of the finest, most concise lyrics being written.

His turns of phrase have entered the language, giving music paper subs an easy route to witty headings and giving the unimaginative ways to spice up their conversation.

"It's nobody's fault but they need somebody to burn" — "Blame It On Cain"

"They never go further than far too far" — "Living In Paradise"

"I will return, I will not burn" — "Two Little Hitlers"

Like Dylan and his "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" before him, he's come up with tokens for people to measure their lives by, in the manner of Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock and his coffee cups.

But becoming some kind of spokesman for a generation took time. Shortly before the release of the first album, Elvis could have been seen thrashing away on his guitar outside the CBS convention at London's Hilton Hotel. He was arrested and fined five pounds. Later that year, CBS signed him for America.

Model was an album of extremes, resulting as much from the sheer exuberance of finding a band that kicked like a bad-tempered mule as the frustrations Elvis always purported to feel. It was a mix of old songs – like "Living In Paradise" and "You Belong To Me" – and material that was either previewed on the first Stiff tour of the previous Autumn or came out of that experience, like "Pump It Up."

My copy sticks right at the point when he spits out the line "Pump it up, pump it up, till you can't feel it, till you can't feel it" which is, I suppose, appropriate. It's a record that's so terminally wired that it sounds like they've stuffed enough drugs up their noses to keep Sly Stone happy for a couple of months.

It must be the hardest sounding record ever made. All drums like pistol shots and guitar chords fragmenting across the mix. They sound like they were desperate to make the album, like it was a matter of life and death. It's an incomplete album – the running order of the British LP doesn't do the songs justice; the American version, despite the exclusion of the grandiosely paranoid "Night Rally," flows much better. But it's also a masterpiece, the first true flowering of a talent. If they hadn't got it out of their systems with such force, Elvis and his Attractions could never have broadened out to take in something with as much scope as the next album, Armed Forces.

I wouldn't like to push the allusion too far but Armed Forces bears much the same relation to This Year's Model as Give 'Em Enough Rope does to The Clash. The same concerns are there, only pushed out to a global scale. The sleeve itself would tell you that. Totally excessive, it fields the question "Why?" with the answer "Why not?"

The music is maybe even more excessive. A lot might have been borrowed from the instrumental layering of Abba records but it makes the Three Fiord Wonders sound like they never had the guts to go the whole way with overdubs. Not that they'd ever come up with lines like "Don't look now, under the bed / An arm, a leg, a severed head" on "Sunday's Best."

Such richness unfortunately means that the kitchen sink approach can sometimes all but obliterate the songs – "Accidents Will Happen" is much better served by the simple acoustic piano version of the free live EP than the overblown histrionics on the album.

If Armed Forces were chocolate cake, one slice a month should be quite sufficient, thank you very much.

It emerged in a period when Elvis was running so fast you could hardly see him. The two albums, This Year's Model and Armed Forces, are only the tip of the bespectacled iceberg's activities. As well as the touring, there were songs that were written and performed but never issued – "Clean Money," "Dr. Luther's Assistant," what's called "I Wrote This Song" on Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, and the American, Lee Harvey Oswald, version of "Less Than Zero" which was planned for release as a B-side but never appeared.

There's the freebies – the Hank Williams style "Stranger In The House" and This Year's Model and the live EP and studio out-takes of "Talking In The Dark" and "Wednesday Week" with Armed Forces B-sides, "What's So Funny," "Tiny Steps," "Big Tears" and "My Funny Valentine." Alternate versions – the slow, soulful, Spector drumming "Stranger In The House," the studio "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (only available live on Stiff Live Stiffs). "Crawling To The USA," a This Year's Model discard on Americathon. The duet with George Jones on "Stranger In The House" where Elvis really tries to sing. And oddballs like a live version of "Honky Tonk Blues."

As I said, a rather energetic work schedule.

At the beginning of '79, Jake Riviera was quoted as saying, "if Armed Forces doesn't break in America, Columbia (the American record company) will consider us a spent force." It didn't – at least, in the mega-platinum sense Riviera and Columbia were thinking of.

Get Happy is partly, the result. Much less intense than his previous work, but none the worse for it. Maybe it's influenced by Costello's production of the Specials (which I think is seriously under-rated; the emptiness gave the songs the space they needed), maybe Elvis thought he'd find the new beat too. It's also the first time that Elvis has put cover versions on an album – he's now relaxed to the point where he can let other people say it for him, leaving himself free to interpret. But it's no lame-brained softy mess. The perception is as acute as ever and the scope is as global as ever – just a little more reserved, a little less obsessed.

As the advertising says, "A great record to dance to but you wouldn't want to live there".

The final brick in almost three year's work and I realize he's finally made it to the status of a legend when I open last week's New Statesman, page 393, "Information Wanted."

"Elvis Costello: Anecdotes, reminiscences and other biographical material. Paul Williams, 94 Quantock Rd. Weston-super-mare, Avon."

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Sounds, March 22, 1980

Peter Silverton profiles Elvis Costello.


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