"Time Out want to do a concept interview," Elvis Costello tells a friendly guy at the cavernous Hammersmith Palais sometime during our motorised trek across London. We're celebrating the prodigal's return to his birthplace for a series of Friday night gigs at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, the release of an EP entitled "Londons Brilliant Parade" and the euphoria surrounding his last album, Brutal Youth, described by the NME as "the most singularly 'Elvis Costello' record Elvis Costello's ever made."
While that remark may sound every bit as paradoxical as one of EC's best lyrics, it was a mighty compliment for a mighty collection of songs which took him back to the arms of the Attractions, the mean trio with whom he performed on the classic albums from 1978's This Year's Model, to their last collaboration Blood & Chocolate in 1986. On Brutal Youth, bass-playing duties are shared between Attraction Bruce Thomas and Nick Lowe, the vinyl-dripping all-talent who produced the songs Costello is still best known for: "Watching The Detectives," "Oliver's Army," "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen" and "I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea." (Actually, one of the places mentioned in the title song, "London's Brilliant Parade," is Fulham Broadway, tube-stop for Stamford Bridge, home of the bubbling boys in blue. When I suggest a photo outside the main gates he splutters with amused rage, every bit the diehard Liverpool fan. Yes folks, he still don't wanna go to Chelsea...)
Lowe has, inevitably, been unavailable for the London dates and the subsequent national tour, but the Attractions, focused by Steve Nieve's swirling, spooky, dirty organ and piano hooks, Thomas's full-frontal bass and the surgical-boot insistency of Pete Thomas on drums, promise some great fat-sounding evenings. "I hope people let their hair down and leap around like they did in the old days."
Over 18 albums in 17 years, Elvis Costello has never stopped very long to survey the scene, which is why his relationship with the music media is never far from prickly. As likely to collaborate on an Alan Bleasdale or Roddy Doyle TV drama series, produce a Celtic folk band or whistle Monteverdi as to bash out the frenetic mocker "Pump It Up," Elvis is a mellower, more solid but still recognisable update of his old snarling self. Though he came in on the back-end of punk rock, this once self-styled cartoon nerd was never into safety-pins, tartan-kilts, razor-blades or volleys of spit. "Punk was never about music, it was about street-theatre and attitude," he says. What Costello and his boys did was reinstate the three minute pop song as the standard of excellence, bringing back simplicity, danceability and structural clarity to the music while simultaneously writing lyrics of enormous wit, intelligence and even pathos.
Costello's writing runs from the startling — "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" (the shortest film-pitch in history?) — to the open-endedly ambiguous. Rock music is too pacey to carry too many levels of ambiguity, but Costello is still Britain's best when it comes to constructing lyrics. "Oliver's Army," which he wrote in Belfast, is named for the man who founded the first "genuinely national armed forces," the hated Oliver Cromwell, who reminds him of his Hammersmith convent-school youth. "He was a devil incarnate to the Christian brothers. We used to sing very Catholic pieces, they'd be frowned on today as not being in the spirit of church unity, things like 'Oh Glorious Spirit of St Patrick's' and 'Faith of Our Fathers,' lots of take on the history of England from the old-religion martyr's perspective. And we'd sing the Latin mass without knowing what it meant but loving every line."
Costello writes music about music in the same way that Quentin Tarantino makes films about film, but as yet Tarantino has no body of work which includes the equivalent of an underrated collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet, or a song like "Shipbuilding" (included on the new EP) with its soaring trumpet voluntary from Chet Baker, or the penultimate song on Brutal Youth, "All The Rage," which is as fine a song as he's ever written, starting off like some mid-tempo Tamla Motown ditty, rising to a recriminatory Lennon-style vocal climax. "Though I'll never be / Unhappy like you want me to be / Still, it's all the rage." He's not quite all the rage again, but he's definitely back with a vengeance.
Don't look at me
I'm having the time of my life
Or something quiet like it
When I'm walking out and about
In London's Brilliant Parade...
There were horses in Olympia
And a trolley bus in Fulham Broadway.
46 Avonmore Road, W14
Elvis suggests that we start at the Earl's Court Road, not far from St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, where he was born in August 1954 to musician Ross MacManus — later a successful vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra — and Lillian Costello, whose jobs included bathing the baby Declan in the sink of their basement flat and working in the record department of Selfridge's "when it was a place of glittering, childhood wonder and not the tacky tourist trap it seems like now."
He remembers the quietness of the street in contrast to the "hostile boom of contemporary London," the horses and carts that delivered coal and milk, the delivery vans from Harrods that brought "loaves of bread to these little old ladies holed up in second-floor bedsits"; the mix of neighbours who were even then a contrary and cosmopolitan bunch. The ground floor flat now looks '80s-prosperous with blinds and a fresh lick of paint, though at present nobody's home. This is the setting for the sleeve photography on Brutal Youth, the infant Elvis pictured in cowboy outfit aiming truly at the camera, with a black infant chum who eventually moved back to Trinidad, and on the balustrade with sister Cath.
He remembers the live-in Welsh landlady, being conscious of his grandfather dying of cancer back in Liverpool, the frequent visits north by his parents, the frightening sound of the chugging steam engines from the adjoining Olympia branch-line. Later on, during our journey north he mentions his search to find the orphanage in Southall where his grandfather was sent "without any good reason at all" after the First World War, uprooting him from his native Birkenhead and making him "ready for life" as a wartime army bandsman at the Kneller Hall military academy in Twickenham. There was also a flight of steps leading three floors up to the roof, interesting given Costello's morbid fear of heights and vertigo, reflected in some of the titles from the last album, "13 Steps Lead Down," "You Tripped At Every Step" and a line about Hungerford Bridge, of which more later.
The most intriguing aspect of the flying visit is a blue plaque directly opposite his own former address but high up on the brick work commemorating the fact that Edward Elgar lived there briefly in the l890s, and doubly coincidental given that EC is currently reading a book about the composer, "starting at the end where all the interesting stuff is, but isn't it incredible? Still, he was nearly a century old when he died, if they put up a plaque for every address he lived in, every road must have one!"
At the Hammersmith Palais, in Kensington and Camden Town
There's a part that I used to play.
Le Palais, 242 Shepherd's Bush Road, W6.
A quick schlepp north-west across the flyover to the sumptuous Hammersmith Palais where Elvis played with the Attractions on Monday nights in the late '70s and early '80s and where his dad sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra for 14 years in the '50s and '60s. Renamed Le Palais, the exotically dimmed venue will always be the "Palais" to those who remember the dance-band era or the night of the Clash's famous concert which Elvis attended. "Hope you play here again," says a friendly employee, who reminds us that the venue was used for the dance-sequences in Dennis Potter's Lipstick on Your Collar.
"I can see how it sparked his imagination," says Elvis, recalling how as a small boy he accompanied his dad on Saturday afternoons "where the professional dancers practised because sometimes there'd only be five couples on the floor and this massive band all dolled up in dress-tails and bow-ties. There'd be a couple of token wallflowers in the corner, the odd pervert, foxtrots, quicksteps and that horrible old toilet and mothballs smell that Gordon Burn captured in Alma Cogan. Dad would turn up but dancers don't like to practise to singers because it interferes with their beat, too much rubato.
"For me, the big events were not to do with dad, because, well, that was his job, but sometimes I would catch a glimpse of the pop bands arriving in some beat-up van looking shagged out and very young. I remember the Hollies coming in from Huddersfield and thinking they were gods, and the bands always looked so young, barely out of their teens, rather like they do now which I think is great because in the '70's the big rock stars were all people who'd grown hair or beards or had breakdowns or gone to America and made pots. I prefer rock to be about youth. It doesn't do so much for me because I was there in 1972, I don't need Bobby Gillespie and Primal Scream — but if I was 14 and I thought Jagger was like Bing Crosby, then I'm sure I'd love it. My music has always been influenced by everything, layers upon layers. This Year's Model was about Dylan and the Beatles, but there's also been swing, Stax, Coltrane, Count Basie, Cole Porter, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Cash, the early Stones album Aftermath, even Iggy Pop. There's not much difference between 'homage' and plain old 'nicking,' only whether it sounds good or not."
In the car he's nervously looking through the music for the Glenn Miller song "At Last" which he is due to sing with his 65-year-old dad at a special Barbican gig the following Sunday. "I remember how great the musicians were in Joe Loss's band, how clever the arrangements were, so simple, with just the right amount of notes. I got lots of flak for the later albums, Mighty Like A Rose and Spike especially, the critics said they were too elaborate, too musically contrived, yet when we did our early stuff virtually the same people said it was too unfinished, too much like a demo tape. As if you don't know what you're doing.
"That's what I hate about London, the cynicism, the capacity for cruelty, the fact that there are too many magazines telling people what to think, so that when something different comes along they don't know how to listen and they just dump on it. When we toured with The Juliet Letters it was amazing how people accepted it as what it was, an interesting musical experiment which I'm proud of but which is only that, it's no big fucking deal. I'm not trying to change the world, I'm just working, so it doesn't get to me because I'm on a different planet from all that stuff." He pauses. "Don't like the look of these lyrics, though, you just pick any line and spot the next cliché."
I wouldn't want you to walk across Hungerford Bridge
Especially at twilight
Looking through the bolts and girders
In the water below
You'll never find your answer there
They sounded the all-clear in the occidental bazaar
They used to call Oxford Street
Now the bankrupt souls in the city
Are finally tasting defeat…
The lovely Diorama is really part of the drama, I'd say
The Diorama, Regent's Park, Hungerford Bridge and the South Bank, SE1.
Elvis insists we go to the Diorama, Regent's Park's pre-cinema moving-image theatre now in the midst of a building programme, half-demolished and crawling with hard-hatted, curious workers. It's where he met his wife, Cait O'Riordan, the former bass player with The Pogues. Cait and he now live on the outskirts of Dublin in a detached house next to a stables and an old quarry where he can write without interruption from neighbours. He doesn't socialise because he hates smoking: later when we stand shivering on Hungerford Bridge I get the impression that hell to Elvis would be being stuck on a land-locked suspension bridge with a music critic blowing smoke in his face. He admits that while Dublin is kinder, it's also more parochial and quicker to disapprove of the success of its own kind. "That's one of the reasons I've never made a big thing about the Irish thing, even though half of my family is Irish." Cait and he seem to have fun though; recently they took a month-long language course in Florence, rubbing shoulders with locals and students and visiting the art-palaces in the evening. "My Italian's no better now though!"
When I ask about his writing methods, he illustrates with a quote from the Tony Hancock film, The Rebel. Hancock, the bogus toast of Parisian art, is asked how he mixes his paints: "In a bucket with a big stick," Hancock shouts, and then can't understand why the critics are all laughing. "That's just like me. It varies, it's a mix-up, I might spread lines or verses I've written over a three-month period over a page and see how they connect, or I might just go berserk and write five songs in a night and feel shaken by the experience. There's no pattern."
From Hungerford Bridge we can see the South Bank, where he's masterminding two projects in the near future, a Purcell treatment for four viols and counter-tenor, and the musical directorship of Meltdown, the South Bank's annual festival of contemporary music. Costello is going to make Meltdown as eclectic as he can, opening the festival with a "fun evening of attack and counter-attack from the South Bank up here to Hungerford Bridge where I might have two music groups playing against each other, taxi horns, then a touch of honks from the boats on the Thames, like a musical fireworks display and if the culturati don't like it, then they can fuck off. There's too much of an invisible barrier between people and the South Bank, there's so much good stuff going on there. I went to a concert by Monteverdi recently and it sounded like it was written yesterday in the best possible sense. Don't like the name 'Meltdown' though, it sounds like one of those fucking burger-bars in LA."
His presence on the bridge is noted by passers-by, someone mutters "that's the first time I've seen you smile" as Elvis poses for the camera, a remark which prompts a friendly response but later a rather surly swipe about "lovable cockneys." "I can't stand being over land, I'm not so bad over water. I can swim, but I can't fly. In 'London's Brilliant Parade' I don't actually insult anyone's intelligence by talking about the homeless squats around here, but that's what happens when you look below, that's what I mean by 'the bolts and girders below.' The whole song was dreamt up as a kind of fantasy about good old swinging London, what Alan Parker calls 'Red Bus Movies' which always seem so gaudy and bright and wonderful but are never quite real and always have Oliver Reed or Hywel Bennett in them.
"But the way London's changed makes it all the more sinister, it's like being in a dream you don't want to awake from; Oxford Street is just full of roadworks and jangling loudspeaker voices selling crap; there's drugs and yuppies, and City crooks and canting scum like Lilley and Portillo, and there were bomb warnings going off at the time I wrote it. So even though it's a celebratory song about the place and about the good times I had playing at small venues like the Nashville and the Hope and Anchor, it's also got an edge to it. Actually, I'm genuinely surprised that there hasn't been a lone assassination attempt against some of the Tory die-hards. I'm not welcoming it, and I'm glad we've all stopped shooting each other for the time being, but I'm staggered that some dispossessed angry hasn't gone berserk and attacked someone. The level of politeness here sometimes beggars belief."
When Elvis was five, his family, now wealthier through Ross's work with Joe Loss, moved from Olympia to a maisonette in Richmond where he got his first inklings about the '60s rock revolution from a teenage girl neighbour who knew about The Stones and later The Who playing in local clubs. Costello says he learnt "harmony from the Beatles. 'Please Please Me' was magical when I heard it." He moved out to Twickenham in the early '60s where the family were neighbours to the Yardbirds for a spell, went to school in Hounslow and after a spell in Liverpool came back to London in the mid-'70s, married his childhood sweetheart and found himself working in the computer room of the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory in North Acton.
"The old IBM 360 computers were like something out of Billion Dollar Brain, about a mile long but always in need of servicing, so you'd be running up and down this football pitch servicing the thing with all these tapes spinning in concentric circles. They only let me put the paper and panel cards in but they gave us all white coats and we ponced around like rocket-scientists, even though I spent a lot of time skiving and reading papers and writing the odd song. I made £20 a week in the end but it was bugger all then as well, especially as I had a young family to support. Without the overtime I didn't really balance the books but the thought of giving it up to go on the road was a big gamble all the same.
He says that he's looking forward to the national tour that starts after the London dates and takes him back to places he hasn't visited for ten years, like Ipswich where his attitude problems led to the band being locked in the dressing room after the gig. "People have said we're not very affectionate on stage but we never were, we were never like Cream, you know, coming out with towels round their shoulders, linking arms and bowing to the adoring multitudes. I didn't like Bruce Thomas's book about the Attractions tours (The Big Wheel). He needed to get it off his chest but I don't think it was very good; but we get on much better socially than we did in the old days. I mean we don't see each other much offstage and out of the studio, but then we never did."