Elvis Costello was born Declan MacManus in West London in 1955. The son of a respected singer with Joe Loss’s Orchestra, he seemed to arrive fully-formed in 1977 with his epochal Nick Lowe-produced debut My Aim Is True. His "revenge and guilt" hit single songwriting period ended with a series of characteristically catholic records: Get Happy!! (1980), a soul/Stax/R&B tribute; Almost Blue (1981), recorded in Nashville by legendary country producer Billy Sherill; and Imperial Bedroom (1982), a pop record embellished by orchestral arrangements. Of his more recent output two CDs stand tallest: Spike (1989), a sophisticated rock album featuring contributions from Chrissie Hynde, Marc Ribot and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others, and last year’s contribution with The Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, a song sequence for voice and string quartet. Costello has also served time as a producer (The Specials, The Pogues), composed music for film and television, and worked with George Jones, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker, and Hal Willner on the latter’s Mingus tribute Weird Nightmare. This month he releases Brutal Youth, an album of 15 new originals featuring, for the first time since 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, his three piece 70s band The Attractions. Costello has an enthusiastic, eclectic and authoritative passion for music; the Invisible Jukebox, despite running for over two hours, only touched the surface of his knowledge.
“Allegretto” from String Quartet No 3 In F Major Op 73 played by The Brodsky Quartet (Teldec)
It’s the Brodskys. I haven’t listened to the record we made for a while, but it’s funny how different the timbre of the quartet sounds on that recording to when we recorded But still, it’s just like a singer – it is a voice that is instantly recognisable.
I went into a shop a couple of months ago and they were playing an old Beethoven string quartet recording by the Busch Quartet, and it was like somebody walking up to you and slapping you round the face. It wasn’t like a modern digital recording; it had such a mood, it was very individual. So I immediately bought it, and I wondered how much of the way it sounded was the same as what I like about old blues records. It had an atmosphere. I actually prefer analogue recordings, even with classical music. I can stand the hiss because I grew up with vinyl.
Do you know what they were playing?
No. I recognise certain parts of it. That was Shostakovich? Oh, I’ll get it in the neck from the Brodskys for not recognising that. But it didn’t sound like him, it sounded Spanish. But I like the way he incorporated Spanish music, that might have been considered light or banal, and made it into something. Sometimes he did it ironically, and sometimes he did it just because he liked it. I’m fascinated by the Brodsky cycle because they play it from memory, and that’s a daunting thing, to remember that amount of music.
The string quartets were probably less liable to interference than say the symphonies because the symphonies were the big philosophical and political statements in praise of the collective farms or something, the ones that got big articles written about in Pravda the next day, with the unseen hand of Stalin condemning him. Whereas, with that piece, it’s as if it couldn’t be more capricious and more personal.
The last time I read a decent interview with you, you were reading Testimony, Shostakovich’s memoirs.
Yes, and I believed it then at face value. I didn’t realise there was a controversy about it. And I’ve read other books about him since, and I think you have to pick intuitively what feels like the truth for the music, because even the things that he himself put his hand to are dubious. But there’s still some very chilling and some very funny things in the book. But also nobody wants to believe that someone like Shostakovich, who could write music that good, could be so rubbery of will, that he was just a stooge of the state.
“I’ll Be A Bachelor ‘Til I Die” from The Wonderful World of Hank Williams 1947-1950 (SPA)
[After the first bar] That’s Hank Williams. I don’t know that song, but I don’t really care so much for that kind of Hank Williams tune. That track’s much more like pop music really, isn’t it? And he was a pop star in a big way. It was instantly Hank Williams because of that scrappy fiddle sound. It’s very distinctive. And again the atmosphere of the tune is better because it’s analogue, and when it comes on there’s this sort of air just before the voice all the time.
He’s great with funny lyrics, but I prefer to hear him sing something really sad, really heart-rending, because then he really digs in. His voice is so great, it’s wasted on a song like that. It’s like, I’d rather here Billie Holiday sing “I Cover The Waterfront” or “Ghost Of Yesterday” than I would some blues thing where she’s having fun, at that moment. It’s just my personal disposition towards melancholia.
Is it the damage in the voice that attracts?
Well, it’s partly that. I like that. Hank Williams had next to no voice, like Billie Holiday in a technical exercise. He had very little range and a very one-dimensional tone. But even on that track you can’t take your ear away from his voice. It’s like a laser beam. Most of the country records made in Nashville today sound like the theme tunes to bad daytime soap operas, and the actual exponents look like the actors in bad daytime soap operas. They have these stupid trimmed beards and creased jeans and a lot of them won’t even wear Western clothes. It’s the ‘I’m wind-surfing in a cowboy hat’ look.
Do you think there is a Hank Williams legacy?
If there is, it’s a cold place in the centre of the darker of today’s songs. Inside his apparently limited technique as a singer and guitar player is real to-the-bone music. It would be daunting for anybody to try to get to the heart of the matter in quite the same way as he did. Hank Williams is the benchmark: he took from the tradition and made it his own. He’s an artist. He’s a true artist.