Teen Generation, October 1982

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Elvis Costello — tracking a mystery man


Jeff Bateman

In 1982, the music industry is so conservative that he can't get as magnificent an lp as Imperial Bedroom onto radio playlists.

Girls talk, according to one of Elvis Costello's many bons mots, but at least one boy doesn't. That's Costello himself. Since he clawed his way to new wave notoriety in 1977 he has granted only a handful of interviews to a voracious rock media. A frosty silence greets all requests for an audience.

Fortunately, the most significant rock artist since Bob Dylan and the Beatles has also been one of the most prolific.

This summer's brilliant Imperial Bedroom runs the count to eight lps in a lightning quick five years. Over the same stretch, Pink Floyd, The Who and The Eagles have, discounting live albums, managed a meagre two each.

Verbal constipation and vinyl extravagance make Costello as fascinating a figure as Dylan was in the late 1960s.

Born in 1955, Declan Patrick McManus is the son of Ross McManus, a jazz trumpeter and vocalist with big bands of the 1940s and 1950s Declan was raised in the London, England, suburb of Twickenham and often accompanied dad to the studio. Ironically, McManus senior made an lp in 1956 called Ross sings Elvis, a tribute to the first king of rock 'n' roll.

As a teenager, McManus' life centered on songwriting and his battered guitar. School was a necessary evil; he quit in 1971. "I could probably have gone to university if I'd put my mind to it, the same as anybody could. But I was just lazy."

Moving to Liverpool, he took a job with the Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics company, "the vanity factory" of his songs, as a computer operator. When he returned to London with wife Mary and son Mark he was convinced he could forge a career in pop music.

Those were lean years for non-conformists like McManus. When not working with bar band Flip City or performing solo dates as D.P. Costello, he relentlessly visited every record company in London. Not one was interested in the crude tape of songs that were to appear on his debut lp.

"It was always the same response," he told Melody Maker magazine. "'We can't hear the words. It's not commercial enough. There aren't any singles.' Idiots. Those tapes were just voice and guitar demos. I didn't have enough money to do anything with a band. It was just a lack of imagination on the part of those people."

The anger that fuelled Elvis Costello's first records sprang from the cold shoulder young Declan McManus received. Said close friend and producer Nick Lowe: "He's a very bitter guy. He's had to go around playing his songs to people who don't know anything about music at all, who took one look at him and said 'I can't sell this bloke!'

Finally, Jake Riviera, founder of the independent Stiff label, decided McManus would make the perfect warty addition to a roster that included Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Ian Drury. Before long a stage name was whipped up by combining a desire to poke fun at a still-twitching Elvis Presley with the maiden name of Declan's mother.

With the cheeky slogan "Elvis is King" and a wall size poster that appeared piece by piece in England's three music papers, Stiff unleashed Costello in August 1976. A year later the debut My Aim is True lp had become the best-selling new wave lp of its day in both England and North America.

Lumped casually with The Clash and Sex Pistols, Costello was only a part of the new wave by coincidence The first albums showcased solid melodies packaged tightly in three-minute formats like all classic rock 'n' roll. Musically, the songs drew on r&b, British Invasion pop, country, folk and practically everything except punk.

Then there was Costello's Woody Allen meets Buddy Holly image, complete with white socks, over-sized glasses and shapeless, thrift shop, suit. Not exactly the stuff of pin-up idols but still a far cry from the ripped shirts and safety pins of the punks.

All in all, Costello represented the acceptable face of the new wave. Sure, he harboured a hostile swarm of pet peeves, yet he was an exciting alternative for North Americans and easily the most impressive rock performer since Springsteen.

In the 18 months that followed My Aim is True Costello and his firey band The Attractions toured constantly, building anticipation by playing small, intimate clubs packed tightly by the curious and faithful. By the time the third lp Armed Forces hit the street in 1979, he was poised at the brink of superstardom.

Suddenly, however, the aura faded. His concerts, always brief and energetic, became a battle ground between audience and performer. While fans yelled out requests, Costello delivered unrecorded new songs and rushed through the favourites. This desire to progress was greeted as arrogance Then he got into a much publicized barroom brawl after making racial slurs against black musicians. Followers jumped off the Costello bandwagon in droves.

Since then, the uproar has died down and Costello has quietly established himself as the greatest songwriter of the 1980s He has evolved into a latter day Cole Porter, a master of the modern pop song. His punning, double entendres and biting couplets roll by with embarrassing ease. Most rock writers could build careers out of the songs he discards.

Sadly, Costello isn't recognized by nearly as many people as he should.

And if earthlings don't appreciate this valuable resource, then maybe the rest of the universe will. Eagle-eyed viewers of Spielberg's E.T. may have spied a prominent poster of Costello in Elliot's bedroom. Everybody's favourite spaceman also overheard Elliot's brother humming a few lines from the Costello classic "Accidents Will Happen."

Hopefully little E.T. went home with a rosy opinion of planet earth's musical tastes.

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Teen Generation, October 1982


Jeff Bateman profiles Elvis Costello.

Images

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Page scans.

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