Sydney Morning Herald, December 2, 1987

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Costello's 'whorehouse' home


Lynden Barber

Elvis Costello is older and wiser and more philosophical, but he's no less acidic. Lynden Barber reports.

"I've enjoyed acting irresponsibly, roaring around the world and being rude to people for a few years, doing drugs and drinking and just running around being a spoilt kid — it was great fun. And everybody put into that situation would enjoy it."

Today, however, things are different for Elvis Costello. He's a married man with more than 10 albums beneath his belt and suspicious of the self-deception of stars. He casts himself somewhat disingenuously, some might say in the role of "the town fool," the simple singer and writer of songs (avoiding the phrase "singer-songwriter" with its unfortunate connotations).

While he's older and wiser and more philosophical, he's no less acidic.

"It's just f---ing records," he said, dressed head-to-toe in black, stylish bootlace tie hanging beneath tousled hair and thick spectacles, like the badge of some dissolute and defrocked southern fundamentalist.

"The self-obsession of popular music is a really unhealthy thing, and I'm prey to it like everybody else. I'm vain, I'm fallible, and of course in your weaker moments you might think you're doing something really bold and brave. But all I'm doing is making records — that's a capitalist endeavour, so I'm not changing very much by doing that," said Costello.

"I go around and make a monkey out of myself; run around and scream and shout, and that's what I do for a living. And that's a lot luckier than someone who works in a really demoralising, depressing job that he doesn't get very well paid for and then one day goes and blows his brains out because he can't take any more. I could have been that guy easily."

In print the Anglo-Irish singer sounds like a formidable, almost fearful, character who lashes out at anything that moves. Meeting him it's obvious his words are thoughtfully delivered and lacking in malice. If there's a bitterness, it's because he's living under the seemingly invincible Margaret Thatcher and hating every second of it — a bitterness reflected in the rawness and attack of his last LP, Blood and Chocolate, justifiably hailed by many critics as one of his best records.

"I don't live in England, I just happen to reside there at the moment, and I won't be living there very much longer if God's kind to me," he said.

"I have absolutely no interest in things culturally English — I'm not a sociologist.

"It's turning into a very tatty Third-World country. It's a whorehouse.

"I've never felt particularly English; half of my family is from an English background, half from an Irish background. I feel a lot more at home in Ireland. I don't know whether I can live there. I've no idea where I want to live at the moment, I'm in the process of looking."

Though he apparently can't help but offer his salty opinions on any producer, artist or musical sub-genres that drift into the conversation, Costello is also fed up with being cast into the role of rock's arbiter of taste.

Gone, it seems, are the days when a nod of approval from Elvis (real name, Declan MacManus) would have record company talent scouts waving chequebooks like lotto winners down at the pub. He's been embarrassed too many times by bands he has recommended failing to make the grade like the Northern English group Prefab Sprout, whose debut LP severely disappointed him.

"I don't listen to very much music any more. I couldn't give a s--t what most of these people are doing. Unless a record comes out and finds me, I don't go looking for it. I got bored of looking for something that was going to be exciting. There's plenty of great records in the racks there that I'm happy to go and play."

Despite having arisen with Stiff Records, one of the first independent labels of the English new wave, and being a co-owner of reissue label Demon (and the associated Edsel and Imp), Costello is dismissive of "the indies" these days.

The punk slogan Anybody Can Do It has, he thinks, become a millstone around the independent market's neck, "because letting anybody bawl down microphones just isn't interesting.

"That independent thing, instead of being a vital alternative to the more contrived pop music, has ended up being even more contrived than the thing it was supposed to be alternative to. Most of the music that's called 'alternative' is just alternative to good. It's just a lot of people down in the cell it's just beatniks."

Music from outside the corridors of rock meets more favour. Having issued an LP of country music, Almost Blue, a few years ago, and produced pub-folk headbangers The Pogues, he's recently co-written songs with Panama's salsa star Ruben Blades — reportedly massive in the United States Hispanic community and now planning a serious asault on the English-speaking market. He also produced some songs for the increasingly successful British-based Zimbabwean group The Bhundu Boys recently, though the tapes were rejected by the record company, WEA, which called in Sade producer Robin Miller for a glossier sound.

While Blood and Chocolate was recorded with his veteran English band, The Attractions, Costello's tour sees the Australian debut of The Confederates, an all-star American band first aired on his previous LP, King of America. It includes drummer Jim Keltner and bass and guitar team Jerry Scheff and James Burton (famed for their work with the other Elvis).

While The Attractions, he said, are brilliant at creating a claustrophobic sound, The Confederates, being American, are good at creating space. "English musicians tend to ask, 'Where does it begin?' when they approach a piece of music, and American musicians tend to ask, 'How does it end?'

"English musicians are 'OK, go!' and they're off. And that's why English people play the best heavy metal apart from AC/DC because it's heads down and gone. English punk was great. American punk bands are real boring because they're all too self-conscious. There's never been an English musician who's had a feel like James Brown's band."

Elvis Costello appears at the Sydney Entertainment Centre tomorrow night.

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Sydney Morning Herald, December 2, 1987


Lynden Barber interviews Elvis Costello ahead his concert with The Confederates, Thursday, Dec. 3, 1987, Entertainment Centre, Sydney.

Images

1987-12-02 Sydney Morning Herald page 16.jpg
Page scan.

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