If there is a key to Elvis Costello's public character it lies among a tangle of contradictions. He is a rock star who has yet to achieve stardom. He rode to fame on the back of the punk movement but was never punk. He is the most original and astringent songwriter Britain has produced in a decade yet his biggest hit to date, "Oliver's Army," is a blatant steal from Abba's "Dancing Queen," a soft-centred pop tune into which, typically, he injected a grim lyric about "white nigger" army recruits: Though he firmly denies he is a "political" writer, his song "Shipbuilding" is perhaps the most moving and pertinent commentary upon the Falklands affair yet made in any medium.
It goes on. He is a public figure about whom little is known and while not exactly a prima donna, he treats the rock press with contempt. It repays him by reviewing his records with tireless enthusiasm. A vigorous anti-NF campaigner and supporter of Rock Against Racism, he nonetheless found it within himself to call Ray Charles "a blind ignorant nigger." "I never think about rock," this stunning rock performer announces peevishly, "I never think about it at all."
Costello's face is familiar, yet somehow anonymous. Always an unlikely idol, his image has passed through several mutations since he arrived on the scene with his first album My Aim Is True. That was six years ago. Still only 28, he is famous (but not immoderately so), he is rich (but not uncontrollably), he has a family (wife, son) and he seems to think his career is only just beginning.
His face and body are much fleshier now, in startling contrast to the lean, knock-kneed figure who raged his myopic way through 1977 and 1978, in the fallout of the punk explosion. He looks much older than he is, but then he always did. When you remember the anger and bitterness which characterised his performances in the early days, the songs in which life and love happened like nightmares, it seems he was never young. Costello is someone who lost out on innocence.
It's an oppressive June afternoon, at the beginning of a rare English heatwave. A warm wind is blowing strongly. Meeting Costello, you're immediately struck by just how much he lacks the cosmetic sheen of the pop star. He is chatty and friendly, unassuming and, surprisingly, totally devoid of charisma. Whether his newfound willingness to talk to the press is humility or another vein of ambition is anybody's guess.
He wears a blue suit, a shirt in a much brighter blue, and he's carrying a raincoat. A grey pork pie hat nestles on his head, giving him the appearance of a music hall entertainer. Of course, his face is protected by a pair of glasses with Buddy Holly-size frames. But the lenses are clear, not dark, in keeping with the new image. The man who once said that all he knew of emotion was revenge and guilt has calmed down. Elvis Costello, still flirting with the idea of superstardom and seeking a new momentum for his career, has gone public at last.
He laughs when I mention the change in his appearance and gestures towards his head. "Well," he says, "at least one part of the image is the same. The silly glasses and the very silly hats."
We walk through Covent Garden, looking for somewhere to conduct the interview. Costello chats about Wim Wenders' movie Hammett ("Loved it. But my wife was abused by a tramp when we left the cinema. Had to stop myself hitting him"), Robert Hughes' TV show The Shock of the New, and Clive James who, curiously, once sought to collaborate with him. "Strange that," he recalls. "He wanted to write lyrics for me. Strange, "cos I'm best known as a lyricist myself, I suppose."
Heads turn occasionally but only a few people recognise him in the street. Once we're settled in a hot and dimly lit café, Costello is relaxed but serious, anxious that he should do himself justice. He has a mellifluous voice (surprise, surprise) which can seemingly change its accent at will: on stage it carries a noticeable Merseyside twang but for the media it adopts a measured and careful tone. He settles down to the business of the interview. "Because I don't like giving interviews and I don't give many, people think that I'm a reticent bastard. On the contrary, nothing could be further from the truth," he says.
An ominous message from Jake Riviera, Costello's long-time manager, has warned that he will talk about anything apart from his music. With many pop stars this would signal a brief conversation. Imagine: Rod Stewart on feminism, Sheena Easton on fine art, Sting on modesty — well, you get the idea. But Costello holds forth happily enough, proving himself a trenchant commentator.
Pop movements. "They can be dangerous, you know, if they get people thinking in a block way. You get some guy up there on stage screaming about individuality and suddenly the whole audience looks like him. I'm sure that's why Paul Weller left The Jam. He's obviously got a lot of things on his mind and I'm sure he'd rather be just a regular person and not have these mirrors of himself in the audience, just reflecting back what he is."
Does the rock industry manipulate youth? "Obviously, the business is just interested in selling as many records as possible and if the audience can be encouraged to subvert their personalities completely to that of an artist they admire, then they're going to spend more money. It's obvious and it's been going on for a long time. It's when the industry starts peddling the thoughts of Chairman Le Bon or whoever that you've got to look out. No one in the business is Bertrand Russell. It stems from the time when American singers were taken to have the word of God inside an acoustic guitar."
Can the industry itself be manipulated? "Well, every five years Malcolm McLaren turns over the English record industry for half a million quid. It's just one of those traditional things now. Malcolm rips off EMI for another load of money by selling them something else they don't want. I think it's marvellous, it's great. A lot of bands get shafted, of course, 'specially if they go to the companies who have executives in shiny suits and bank accounts in the Bahamas."
Any new artists he admires? "Lots. I listen to music the whole time. Eurythmics, Culture Club — a manufactured product, you know, but very good. There was something sincere in the songs which overrode the fabricated image. I loved Marshall Crenshaw's first album. But then he was held up as 'The Great Hope of Rock 'n' Roll,' poor bastard, and his second record was produced by Steve Lillywhite who made him sound just like U2. You'd think it was impossible, but he managed it."
The press. "Well, there's no critical press in this country. How can there be when 95 per cent of the press supports the ruling party? A lot of it is cheap and useless, badly written, badly thought out, an excuse for journalism. The Sun is heading for a time when people will only recognise symbols, like the little ones they have for the weather. For them the perfect way of describing a nuclear attack would be to have a little picture of St Paul's and then a mushroom cloud above it. You wouldn't even need to have the headline "LONDON NUKED". Just this much more dramatic thing."
The Falklands. "Thatcher whipped up an amazing fervour. I found it very sad that people could be manipulated into crying and weeping in the streets about a country that doesn't belong to them. It was a very cheap emotion."
What are his political allegiances? "Pretty obvious, I think. Labour. Neil Kinnock is one of the people I've got more time for. If anyone voted for the Tories, well, it serves them right to suffer. But I don't think that this thing of getting water-eyed about the revolution and the workers is going to make any difference either."
As he speaks he shreds a napkin between his fingers and it's obvious that he's restless. "You know," he says after a pause. "If you bought a mag with Neil Kinnock on the front then you'd wanna read about politics. But if you buy one with a musician on the cover, you'd expect to read about music. That's what I really know about. Everything about me comes through my music. So, forget whatever Riviera's told you. Let's talk about that. And my career."
The early part of Costello's life is so shrouded in mystery that it has achieved the status of rock legend. In the legend there is this kid called Declan McManus, born in London in 1955. He attends Catholic schools there before moving to Liverpool. He leaves secondary modern in 1973, the first year in recent times when unemployment topped one million, and gets a job as a computer operator. And all the while he dreams of music. His father, Ross McManus, is a singer and trumpeter with the famous Joe Loss Orchestra,
"I've always been a fan," he admits. "That s where it all stems from, from this terrific enthusiasm for music. I'm an amateur in terms of technique. If I was struck dumb tomorrow I couldn't go out and earn a living as an instrumentalist. It wasn't as if I turned to rock 'n' roll as a way of escaping my parents' taste in Gilbert & Sullivan. Pop music was always playing in our house, whether it was on the radio or part of my father's work. The orchestra did cover versions of all the English beat hits in the early 1960s."
The first record he ever owned was "Please Please Me" and he was a member of the Beatles fan club when he was 11. Appropriate enough then that his first touch with the big time should come at the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool, when he met Nick Lowe there in 1974. Lowe, later to be a decisive influence on Costello's embryonic career, was a member of Brinsley Schwarz, a pub rock band who played taut and fast, in strong contrast to the prevailing pop trend of the early 1970s, which was dominated by the arty self-consciousness of Yes, Genesis and Led Zeppelin.
When Costello moved back to London and was slogging without much success around the pub circuit, it was Lowe who encouraged him to send his first demo tape to Stiff Records, founded in 1976 by two hardnut operators called Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. They signed up Costello immediately.
Until then he had been walking into record company offices along with his guitar, hoping that a direct form of communication would swing a contract. It didn't and, as Lowe himself noted subsequently, "Elvis was very bitter about it." Now Costello has developed an attitude about the early humiliations which at least allows him to be philosophical about the period.
"It was lucky for me I didn't get discovered when I was 19," he says, "otherwise I would have been written off as derivative or something. A lot of the stuff I wrote then was awful, just awful. I tried to write along the lines of stuff I admired, like Randy Newman. Lots of people are discovered before they've really found their own style. That can be a disaster."
For him that moment of stylistic discovery coincided with the arrival of punk. He wrote the classic "Watching the Detectives" after listening to the first Clash album for 36 hours straight in the summer of 1977. He retains an affection for the era.
"Punk was a one-off. It's never going to happen like that again. You can't jump out on people like that twice, they'll always be ready for it the next time. Some of the early punk records, great records, sound dated now, because they had the intent of being the be all and end all, particularly the end all, of rock music. The Pistols said, 'Let's burn it down, let's do away with the whole thing'. It was inevitable that the business was going to sit back, let punk burn itself out, and then absorb it and repackage it. It doesn't mean it wasn't great while it happened."
My Aim Is True, recorded with the country rock band Clover, was released in 1977. It sold 300,000 copies, featured the song "Alison," a typical exploration of jealousy by Costello which became a rock standard when recorded by Linda Ronstadt, a version which Costello despised. The album hit the streets with the slogan "Elvis is King" repeated endlessly across its chequered cover. The promotional joke misfired when Elvis Presley died in August of that year. But by then Costello was established, occupying a position just to the side of punk, combining its ferocity with his own carefully honed songs of impotence and anger. The name had been thought up by Jake Riviera.
"Yeah, it was Jake's idea totally," Costello says. "I thought he was completely mad. I don't really give the name any thought any more. I take it for granted. But it worked really well. A fantastic PR exercise. Or rather P un-R. I always used to get asked in interviews, "Why the name?" And the answer was so blindingly obvious: "Because you ask me." And they couldn't see that, it always had to have some other significance, it could never be as simple as it was — just a device to get the interviewer to ask the question."
The rest of Costello's image was similarly calculated to confuse. Not only did he have Presley's name, he'd also adopted the appearance of Buddy Holly. The man was aiming high, and disobeying the fundamental rules of being a rock 'n' roll star. Rule one: don't wear glasses. He wore glasses. Rule two: wear flash clothes. He always felt more comfortable in baggy suits.
It could all have been a joke but for the fact that Riviera and Costello had nothing less than global domination in mind. In 1978, with a newly recruited backing group called The Attractions, Costello made a million-seller. One of the most savage rock records ever cut, This Year's Model was advertised by a poster carrying pictures of rock giants for each year of the 1970s: Bowie, Frampton, Springsteen and so on. A question mark was hung over the year 1978, a device which enabled the Riviera/Costello partnership to have their promotional cake and eat it. Even though it was, well... ironic, the suggestion was irrefutable: Costello was this year's model and would indeed be the superstar for 1978-9. And with his music beginning to evoke a fiercely enthusiastic response in America, the golden honeypot into which every ambitious pop star wishes to dip his Fender, it seemed nothing less than a certainty.
But then something happened which sent Costello's career spinning out of its carefully plotted orbit, an incident which, though not widely reported over here, still looms over everything else he's done in the US. Early in 1979 after a performance in Columbus, Ohio he became involved in a bar-room brawl with members of the Stephen Stills Band. Drunk and peevish, he launched an attack on America in general and, in particular, on the tendency for black music to ghettoise itself. He called Ray Charles "a blind, ignorant nigger" and described James Brown in similarly abusive fashion.
The story was leaked to a gleeful press at a time when Costello's anti-journalist and anti-photographer campaign was reaching its peak, with Riviera and his camp-following goons stomping journalists backstage and ripping film from cameras. Unsurprisingly, the press were only too pleased when Costello fed himself to the lions. Besides, the irony was irresistible: this radical had revealed himself as nothing more than a poseur, a good old-fashioned racist, right?
Without planning it Costello, hitherto regarded as a tame product of punk, had committed an act of genuine outrage. There was a torrent of publicity — all of it bad. His records were pulled off radio playlists and he received scores of death threats. The tour ended with a beleaguered and defensive Costello surrounded by armed bodyguards.
Four years later, he still tiptoes warily around the subject. For the first time in the interview he becomes nervous, edging towards inarticulacy.
"Well, I've only done two interviews since it happened... I did one with Rolling Stone last year and I feel that I've got to leave that whole time behind. I've let go of that time and I've explained it as best I could and I don't choose to discuss it any further, because I feel it outweighs... because it's a very emotive subject, it tends to outweigh everything else that I can say. It becomes the only important thing in anything I say. It can outweigh everything I do and that makes my whole career seem pointless."
Riviera's attempts at the time to dismiss the affair as "drunken bar-room idiocy" didn't retrieve the situation. It wasn't until last summer when Imperial Bedroom was released and when Greil Marcus wrote an interview for Rolling Stone with the cover-line "Elvis Costello Repents", that he regained the commercial ground which had been lost in the US.
He told Greil Marcus this: "What it was about was that I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them — that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them the most." A somewhat lame try at excusing himself, you may think, and the incident remains inexplicable except as an expression of Costello's impenetrable character. He didn't mean it; after all, Costello loves black music and his knowledge of it is all but encyclopaedic. Yet it was perhaps the inevitable result of a pose which was venomous, angry and always so self-righteous. "You can only scream for so long," he says now, "and then you either lose your voice or people turn you off."
That's exactly what people did — turn him off. His career lost momentum through 1980 when he recorded Get Happy! (title ironic, of course), a version of a Motown album which, he admits, was no sort of record at all. At the end of the year he split briefly with the Attractions, only to reform the outfit and make Trust, a singer's showcase album which seemed merely to be going through the motions. Costello's neurosis about his music retreating towards a ghetto, becoming just a cult interest, had been reaiised.
"I just got completely..." he remembers, his voice trailing away. "We'd been through a lot of disarray. I was in a mess, I wasn't feeling on top of it and I didn't really want to carry on. I'd become disillusioned with my writing over a couple of years. Although I regarded about half of Armed Forces, the third record, as complete nonsense in retrospect, I know we actually had a lot of attention at that point. I proceeded to make two records, Trust and Get Happy, which failed to re-estabiish that attention. I seemed to be writing just for people who bought our records and not for anybody else. And the true strength of any song lies with the general public, not with an audience built around a couple of magazines and half a dozen complimentary reviews."
Having boxed himself in, his solution to the dilemma was perhaps inevitable: a quantum leap in image. He donned a pair of pointed boots. Then he wrapped a string tie round his neck, acquired a guitar with "ELVIS COSTELLO" inlaid in mother of pearl on the fretboard and departed for Nashville, Tennessee, where he made a record in the unfashionable and traditionally lachrymose country & western genre.
"It was an exorcism of the unhappiness I felt at the time," he says. "I had no intention of carrying the style on further than one record. At the same time I didn't want to appear as a dilettante. Although it wasn't expressed in my own words I really meant Almost Blue. A very sad and depressed record. It's all in the sound of the voice. That's what a lot of people missed — they just saw the boots and tie."
The record flopped in the US ("They just missed the point," he says defensively) but did well over here. More important, Costello proved both to himself and top Nashville producer Billy Sherrill that he was a masterful singer who could command any style of song. Almost Blue split his career in two and revealed the quality which he considers the most important in pop music: emotion. "A good song must hit a strong vein of feeling. I think that's all it is, it's just whether it strikes some emotional thing that resonates on, that you can always pick up on. That's why the Beatles and the best of Otis Redding still sound fresh, while glitter rock records sound horribly dated, even the ones which are great technically. It's something in the song, in the sound of the voice. That's why you can identify with styles of music which would otherwise be considered opposites. Say Hank Williams and Billie Holiday. Both carry the same qualities of sadness and tragedy in their voices."
Pop music is also down to timing and could it be that Costello's time has passed? "Sure, there are people out there saying that about me. That I've had my six years now and I was only supposed to have so many minutes or whatever it is:
Costello is anything but the pampered star cruising comfortably towards mid-career. Still, he becomes angry when I suggest it's not enough for a performer to go on producing immaculate records year after year.
"Why not?" he asks.
"It just ceases to be relevant. Or interesting."
"I disagree. There's a tradition of singers -- like BB King and Bobby Bland — who have done essentially the same thing for 25 years and still do it really well. They may have less edge now, but they are not diminished as artists. What they do is just real. It's the real thing. if you start chasing fashions in the industry then you're going to end up pathetic."
Costello is seduced both by virtuosity and pop. It's a dilemma because the two rarely mix. Changing styles so often that his original style was left behind long ago, he has managed to keep both himself, and his public, interested. Sometimes you can't help feeling that this compendious knowledge of musical style, allied to a cunning tendency to lift whatever he fancies from the current trend, gets in the way of what he might achieve. Perhaps it's an enigma he doesn't wish to solve. After all, his achievement is considerable enough already.
His new record, Punch the Clock, contains his most overtly commercial songs in years, alongside the powerful "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap." Now he seems to have removed despair from his writing and his life — or at least he's got it down to manageable proportions. "I decided on a more positive approach from both a musical and a personal point of view, I suppose. It does seem to be the new set of clothes to wear this year — being positive — but that wasn't the reason. I wanted something which had a more direct, aggressive element to it than Imperial Bedroom. We use TKO section horns on five of the tracks, and that works well. Section horns haven't been used a lot since the old Stax and Atlantic days."
Interview concluded, we walk away from Covent Garden towards Cambridge Circus, heading for the late night Our Price on Shaftesbury Avenue. "I'm a record junkie," he explains. "I can't stop buying the bloody things. I want to get something, I know I do, but I can't remember what it is," Costello chats about people in the pop business, never in neutral terms, always with reverence (BB King), amused irony (Nick Lowe — "The last great rock 'n' roll producer"), or contempt (Police manager Miles Copeland). He tells a story about a notorious American record producer. "This bloke says to the record company, "For $100,000 I can make this band sound like Def Leppard. For $200,000 I can make them sound like anybody you want."
By the time we arrive at Our Price Costello has remembered what he wants. "Let me have the new Eurythmics single," he asks the assistant, an orange-haired punk leftover. "Great voice that woman's got." I notice that a pile of Costello's single "Pills and Soap" is lying on the counter. Costello sees the pile as well and smiles. The punk stares at Costello, hands over the record and quite clearly fails to recognise him.
So, there has to be one last question: what is it to be famous? He smiles. "There's such a lot of fuss being made about nothing, you know. Somebody who can rhyme a few words and come up with the odd pun. It doesn't seem like such a big deal to me. But it's my life."