Sounds, March 4, 1989

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Who the El does Costello think he is?

Francesco Adinolfi

Elvis Costello is back with an acclaimed new album — and the latest in a long line of alter-egos. So just who is 'Spike'? And why has he been recording with Paul McCartney and Roger McGuinn?

Just who is Elvis Costello trying to hide from? It's not just the mystical gaze from behind foggy lenses that begs the question. Pseudonyms, AKAs and all manner of convoluted nicknames adorn his vinyl output, matching his songs red herring for red herring.

When he eschewed his given name of Declan MacManus (cumbersome and unhip in the terse, anti-social days of 1976) for the sarcastic handle Elvis Costello, he was accused of grand theft.

"I know it's not very original," he admitted. "but neither's John."

Besides, the name suited his sneeringly direct line. Since 1976, his career has turned into a veritable odyssey of vinyl, taking in landmarks such as 1980's Stax-marshalled Get Happy!!, 1981's country cousin, Almost Blue, and the lavishly-arranged hubris of Imperial Bedroom (1982).

Elvis began to opt for the jokey alter-ego when he became The Imposter for "Pills And Soap" (1983) and Howard Coward for "The People's Limousine," in conjunction with T Bone Burnett.

For the ground-breaking King Of America (1986) he reverted to his real name but, later the same year, Blood & Chocolate heralded a new persona — Napoleon Dynamite.

True, these were all astonishingly diverse records, worthy of the highest individual attention. But the man's identity crises appeared to be reaching fever pitch — must all his records demand a new name, a new image?

Now he's back again — this time at the apex of the WEA roster — with a new LP, Spike, which includes collaborations with artists such as Paul McCartney, T Bone Burnett and Roger McGuinn.

It's brilliantly unpredictable and predictably, it's brilliant. A finely-honed promotion campaign has promoted him from the position of Court Jester To The Disgusted to that of Poet Laureate For The Free-Thinking.

And, once again, he has a new alias Spike. A frivolous throwaway gesture? An inspired metaphor? A noun? A verb? Who, or what, is Spike?

"It's not a person, it's the picture on the cover of the record, it's The Beloved Entertainer (the subtitle for his new alter-ego), who was like a clown. He was found in the forest, shot and hung in the country club.

"Spike comes from the verb to spike. Obviously, it's a metaphor. It's showbusiness, and showbusiness is the artist hung on the wall of the record company like a trophy."

How do you cope with that?

"Actually, I've never really had any pressure put on me, I've just started out with a certain attitude and I've changed it, but never in order to agree with people. If I look back on the period when I was with Stiff Records, I can say that it was very imaginative early on. There were a lot of funny things happening, with a very contrary attitude to the regular way of working.

"But you can always find enthusiastic and imaginative people working at big companies and, at the moment, I have the advantage that a lot of people like that are working with me at WEA.

"It really comes down to the individuals — if they're doing their job properly and you keep your sense of humour through some of the most ludicrous things that happen, then your work can be a lot easier."

Would you agree that Spike is a difficult record to categorise?

"I can't deny that it shows a variety of musical styles but the choice of the instruments and the arrangements was pre-planned.

"Myself, T Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen (Elvis' co-producers) got together and decided which instruments we would use for each song, because we thought that would bring songs to life — in the same way as an arranger for an orchestra chooses any instrument he thinks is correct for the music.

"We tried to create the right mood for the songs, so the song dictated the instruments and sometimes things happened casually like, for instance, the involvement of Roger McGuinn."

Do you think it's similar to any of your previous albums?

"There isn't a record that resembles 'Spike'. Maybe a song in 'Spike' might sound like something I've done before but, hopefully, we've worked in a more vivid way."

You keep changing name and compel your record labels to put stickers on your records to confirm that it is actually you. Is that your personal revenge against the industry?

"Sort of. Basically, Elvis Costello is a brand name, like Ferrari, and the name changing is just like, an act of taking some different roles to portray different characters.

"The idea of The Imposter was to make that song separate from Elvis Costello's songs. But people take it too seriously — they think it's my neurosis. I think it's theirs."

In the UK, a few people have been very neurotic about you.

"You know, there is a critical movement in the UK which really despises me. Any reference to me is always negative, because I represent a certain time which, to them, is not hip. It's a very narrow view of music which I can't agree with. I'm very open minded — I like all kinds of music and I'm always looking for new music to listen to, something I don't know anything about but is going to be inspiring.

"Last week, I went to three concerts of string quartets and I've never been to anything like that since I was a child. I looked in the paper and there were no rock 'n' roll concerts I wanted to see; I knew what anybody who was playing sounded like, so l wasn't gonna learn anything more.

It was really enjoyable and inspiring. And they were playing Shostakovich, which is difficult to listen to — complicated, strange and almost frightening."

Does your son Matthew listen to your music?

"He likes some songs very much. He really likes Public Enemy and Guns N' Roses. But he doesn't take them seriously — he appreciates them in the same way that he would go and see Donald Duck when he was younger.

"Somebody who grew up in the '50s really believed in The Beatles or Otis Redding, but I don't really believe Axl Rose. He's fine, he's good cartoon but he is a cartoon, like David Lee Roth, who's entertaining but is like Daffy Duck."

Do you think people were shocked that you worked with Paul McCartney?

"The Beatles have always been one of my main influences, and I really believed in their music. It was Paul who asked me to write with him. l tell you I was so afraid that we might look at each other and just not have any inspiration that, as an insurance, l took two songs in my pocket when I went to his studio. He helped me finish 'em... and by that time we were relaxed enough to write new songs."

Paul was quoted as saying that working with you was similar to working with Lennon.

"Well, that was a high compliment. But I think it was because of the friction we sometimes had — their collaboration had a lot of that friction, and that's why it created sparks. Hopefully, there is something similar in the way we worked.

"But I'm not confusing myself with Lennon. I'm not trying to replace John Lennon in Paul McCartney's life, he's a different person now compared to when he wrote the songs with Lennon and I'm a different person now compared to when I started in 1976.

"When you get two people together they shouldn't just agree with each other, there should be some tension and a little bit of disagreement, and out of that good ideas come.

"'Veronica' (the current single) is very concise, there's a lot of information and it's about the workings of somebody's mind, but it has a cheerful, pop sound. The two things contrast and it would only work if the words were that way. '...This Town...' is a simple song, but it seems a little crazy to analyse it, but again he helped to explain what it means. "

Who are you referring to when you sing, "you're nobody till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard"?

"People who think that way are everywhere. Basically I'm referring to the business people, in the rock business, the movie business and so on. And the town could be London, Los Angeles, Sydney, anywhere."

You seem to be obsessed with distorted human relationships, but you first gave the world the public image of Elvis Costello, which made people think you were a difficult person.

"Yes, but that was only because I tried to explain myself to people — and when they wouldn't listen, I stopped talking. And that makes a bigger story than talking.

"And I was also too busy. After I realised that trying to explain what I was doing wasn't gonna work, I decided to wait till the time was right to speak. I was too busy thinking whether people could be offended by my work.

"My publicity was superfluous, but people took it personally and it wasn't intended that way — they just didn't seem to understand what I was saying, so l didn't say anything.

"The record business people said we were wrong because the conventional way is to do as much promotion as you can. But in time we've come to an understanding that people don't ask me stupid questions any more, and I don't break anybody's camera..."

Does country music still influence you?

"Yes, definitely. I think it's a very honest and emotional music. It's very simple music. Some of the best records I've ever made are in the country style. I didn't grow up with country music but there were things from country in The Beatles' music, because they copied the Everlys.

"And then I like The Byrds, and they copied Merle Haggard and so on. If somebody buys my record, 'Almost Blue' and then goes and buys a George Jones record as well, you can see that I've done a good job."

How do you feel when people who have influenced you cover your songs?

"Most of the time, l feel honoured. My audience in the USA was made much larger by Linda Ronstadt, who did my songs — even though I didn't much care for her interpretations. In fact, I've been really rude about them! But it did open other people's ears.

"Most of the covers I've heard have been very good. I've heard a few bad ones but some of my favourite singers have recorded my songs — Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, Robert Wyatt. If, at the beginning of my career, someone had asked me who I'd like to record my songs, there's a fairly good chance that three or four of those people would have been on the list."

You said that your collaboration with Roger McGuinn was almost casual.

"Not in the intention, but in the way it came about it was very casual. T Bone Burnett produced King Of America and, for the new album, we went together to New Orleans to meet the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Allen Toussaint, who both appear on Spike, and one night we went to see Roger McGuinn play in New Orleans.

"I went to the show and, unfortunately, someone put alcohol in my drink and I met him when I was very drunk- I was embarrassed the next day because I had waited nearly 20 years to meet him and now I was saying, C'mon Roger, gimme a guitar!

"l asked T Bone, who had met McGuinn in the past, whether he would like to come and play and very kindly he came. McGuinn is still ahead of his time. There's a quote, that's attributed to Charlie Mingus, about Charlie Parker, If Charlie Parker was a gangster, there would be a lot of dead saxophone players.

"Well, if Roger McGuinn was a gangster, there would be a lot of dead REMs and groups like that. Not that they're not good groups but, without McGuinn, they wouldn't exist. And he's not really given a proper credit for his influence on modern music."

Ireland, too, seems to have become very central to your music, on tracks such as "Any King's Shilling" and "Miss Macbeth."

"Those are particular songs. The sounds are not imitation folk music — I translate traditional music into my songs, but they take on a different quality.

"Inevitably, musicians like Steve Wickham (The Waterboys), Christy Moore or Davy Spillane are using a different approach, they're playing arranged format music, they're not playing free form, traditional music because they're telling a story and have to stay inside the structure of the song.

"I like Ireland because it's anarchy and also because Ireland is repressed, and the two things create ferment."

Irony is probably one of your most powerful weapons. Have you become an entertainer rather than a rock star?

"If you think a rock star looks like Jon Bon Jovi, then I guess I don't like to be considered a rock star. But if rock stars are not defined by their leather trousers, then...

"I don't like to be limited by the music. If the story I have in mind needs a different music, then I'm open to any kind of music and I only manage to put in a little part of the music that I like."

I think you achieved all that in the song "Stalin Malone."

"To a certain extent, yes. It started off as words and music, whereas on the record it's only music. In the end I preferred it instrumental.

"It was recited and I really liked the recitation, but I couldn't make it exist with the music. And I couldn't make the music exist with the recitation, so I decided it was best if people read it for themselves on the sleeve."

Do you have any literary model?

"No, not at all. And I'm not following any particular technique. Some songs are asking questions, other ones are just telling stories — like 'God's Comic', which is very ironical. The comic is a Vaudeville music hall entertainer — he plays the character of the drunken priest who's got lipstick on his collar, and he's always leering at all the women in the audience.

"Then he dies and goes to heaven, and is afraid that God's going to be angry with him. And when he gets to heaven, God is lying on a water bed full of tropical fish, reading a Jackie Collins novel with one eye and a Bret Easton Ellis novel with the other, and he has five TVs on — one with Sky Channel, one with the colourised version of It's A Wonderful Life, another one with 9½ Weeks, and a couple of others.

"He's listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber on his Sony compact disc and he's horrified with humanity. He thinks he should have given the world to the monkeys. Then he takes out his guitar and plays 'Last Train To Clarksville'. Does that make any sense?"

T-Bone Burnett has said that people take months to write songs that you compose in 12 minutes.

"Ha, ha, ha. I can only say that I can write a song in 12 minutes if the inspiration is there, it's really just a question of nothing stopping you. My grandfather used to say, You can't fail if there's nothing stopping you. And that's my philosophy."

Do you agree that your songs often have a cinematic quality?

"Possibly. I can only tell you that I'd love to do more film music. The music for The Courier film in 1987 which my wife Cait (O'Riordan) was in, was very instructive to the way I arranged Spike because, when you do film music, you have pictures and you just make noises that suit the mood. And some of the music on Spike is just a noise, it isn't always the music of the song.

Do videos play an important part in your career?

"Videos are like buses — if you miss one, there will be another one along in a minute."

So how was it working on the live TV film, Roy Orbison And Friends?

"That was an exception. It was great. Everyone was there for the right reason — there was no false sentiment or false emotion, everybody had his own little reason for being there, cos they admired the man. And I think they really did a good job. They filmed it well, Roy sang brilliantly, the band played well and we enjoyed ourselves. It's probably the best video of its kind.

"Bruce Springsteen was very cool, he just kept in the background. We had to push him up there and get him in the spotlight. He was really nervous — he admired Roy. I think Bruce handled his appearance on that show with great sensitivity and dignity.

"I've always admired a lot of things Bruce has done, but I feel like his life has been taken over by his fame — it's very hard for him.

"I'm lucky, I've had enough success to keep my career going, but never enough to change my life that much."

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Sounds, March 4, 1989

Francesco Adinolfi interviews Elvis Costello.


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Pages 26-27.

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1989-03-04 Sounds cover.jpg


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