The Street, May 1989

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The Street
  • 1989 May

US music magazines


Elvis Costello

Mike Hammer

Look. You're all grown up now. There's a few things you've got to deal with.

Lassie isn't coming home, Peter Pan can't really fly and there's absolutely no way to predict what Elvis Costello is going to do next.

Here's the guy who started out pushing punk beyond its limits, shook the Grand Ole Opry by crooning country, jazzed up his music whenever he needed to and developed a case of the blues that could cheer up the most maniacal music fan. Hell, he's even changed his name a couple of times.

However, Elvis Costello's shotgun approach to creativity eventually caught up with him. Nearly everything he did was solid, but because he scattered himself in so many directions, much of his audience was lost trying to keep up.

"I don't make records to satisfy people's expectations," Elvis flatly tells The Street, offering no apologies. "People only need a willingness to listen to them."

Costello has just released his twelfth studio album, Spike, on Warner Brothers Records. True to form, Spike is completely different from anything Elvis has ever done.

Elvis approached making the album as if he were making a roast turkey one piece at a time.

"On this record I found that the obvious ways to present the songs might end up selling them short," he explains. "So I started to look a little harder into them to see where they could go. I think the result was quite different and a great deal more interesting."

Down right fascinating if you go by the reviews. Working without the Attractions for the first time since My Aim Is True hit the mark twelve years ago, Costello has gathered musicians from disciplines as spread out as the wide-open spaces in Montana to put Spike together.

Along with the expected presence of producers T-Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen, Elvis' list of hired guns includes Chrissie Hynde, Roger McGuinn, Benmont Tench, Marc Ribot and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

So with all this high-powered collaboration going on, what happens to the home team? Will the Attractions return? "I don't know," Elvis answers. "You'll have to ask Steve Nieve (keyboard player for the Attractions). I wanted him to play on some of the tracks on this album, but he wanted to play on all of them. So I said, 'No, that's not what this record is about. There are sounds I'm looking for that you can't do.' He didn't take that too well, so we agreed to disagree. Time will tell where it goes."

But before it does, Elvis will have to settle for working with the world's most prestigious walk-on talent. One day, out of the blue, he got a call from a guy from his hometown who had burned out two bands and was looking for a little songwriting inspiration.

"Yeah, Paul did call me," Elvis says. "Both of us brought unfinished stuff to the first session and worked on it as sort of an exercise. We were trying to learn each other's methods. It's a happy accident that the finished songs wound up on the record." So happy that one of the tunes co-written by the two Liverpool lads, "Veronica," was released as the album's first single. Of course, the second Liverpool lad was Paul McCartney!

Costello lights up right away when talking about the collaboration and bristles just as quickly when criticisms of McCartney's recent work are raised.

"It's a load of crap, really," he says. "McCartney represents a lot of dreams and mythology which don't really belong to him. Being in the Beatles was rather like being shot to the moon and back and being completely normal afterwards. But everyone says, 'You've been to the moon. What was it like?' They want him to be some person who doesn't exist. They can't accept that he's been a songwriter and done very well for himself for more than twice as long as the Beatles existed, and so whatever the Beatles represented, God knows it was a lot to me, he's a different person. We're all different people. We're not part of someone else's dream."

With the arrival of Elvis' first album, My Aim Is True, on the charts in 1977, he established himself as a high-powered gun of power pop. Live performances that first year were laced with powerful artillery as a young, brash and angry Costello managed to whip unsuspecting American audiences into a similar state of unrest. This Year's Model was released only a few months after the first record, foreshadowing Costello's prolific years to come. If possible, the music was more frantic and furious than ever. Another volley in the barrage was fired just a few months later when Armed Forces took the record stores by storm.

By now, it was clear Costello wasn't looking to become the Pat Boone of punk. Shows were short, powerful and to the point. If there was any interaction with the audience, well, it usually wasn't anything that couldn't be cleared up in court later.

Elvis was the artist America loved to hate. He was the Don Rickles of rock. Nobody wanted to take him home to dinner, but everyone knew what he could deliver and was more than willing to pay to get it. But Elvis got tired of it.

"The emotion of the music got to be a mania," he explains. "We had enormous fun winding people up. We'd start fights in the audiences. People expected it, and after a while, I started to play up to it. But then it got out of control."

So once the vicious vaudeville routine went the way of roller discos and other laudable accomplishments of the '70's, Costello was free to tackle the more ambitious pursuits of the '80's. When everybody was waiting for the follow-up assault to Armed Forces, Elvis gave them 1980's Get Happy, a 20-song record library of upbeat party cuts.

Next came the collection of country standards that made up the critically acclaimed Almost Blue, the tortured tunes of Trust and the lush pop brilliance of Imperial Bedroom. His creativity sagged a little with Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World but rebounded strongly with King Of America and Blood And Chocolate. He scored one movie, The Courier, and starred in another, Straight To Hell, and, oh yeah, got married to the Pogues' beguiling Cait O'Riordan. Unfortunately, while most of his work received great reviews, none paid big dividends. However, all that should change with Spike.

It will be difficult to ignore what the album has to offer. There are the musicians and the unique combinations of their gifts. There are the trademark Costello passion plays like "Tramp The Dirt Down," an angry indictment of the British government and its daily abuse of its people. There is the story of torn allegiance of a British soldier of Irish descent in Dublin during the uprisings of 1916 in "Any King's Shilling."

And there is always Elvis — always delivering, no matter what the route.


The Street, May 1989

Mike Hammer profiles Elvis Costello.


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Page scans.


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