LONDON — We all know boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses and vice versa, so bespectacled rockers should theoretically have an even harder time in the adulation stakes. Not so; Elvis Costello, the latest sensation to explode on these shores, proves you don't have to squint at an audience in order to get your message across.
Elvis (his real name is "Dec," Dave Edmunds informs us) Costello looks like a cross between Hank Marvin and an extra from Rock Around the Clock; what at school we used to call a "weed." He wears glasses, a jacket three sizes too big that fits awkwardly and dwarfs his slight frame, and has a steel stare that can fix you to the wall without the aid of sunshades. Not too long ago he was a computer operator and spare time songwriter; now he has an album in the Top 20. Literally an overnight success.
The reasons for this are both odd and intriguing. Obviously the man has a special charisma. His records and appearance hint at it, and onstage it becomes totally manifest. But it's not the kind of charisma that rock stars are usually made of, nor is it a charisma the punters would take to with any predictability (which accounts for him being shown the door by every major record company). I'm not able to neatly pinpoint the reasons for Costello's meteoric rise to fame (if I could I 'wouldn't be sitting here, I'd be out making money from it), but there are a few broad conclusions to be drawn.
Costello's first appearance on vinyl was early this year with the single "Less than Zero." As abstract a record as could be, he gave few clues to his territory apart from looking plain daft on the sleeve. The lyrics were shrouded in a strange, twisted sarcasm and seemed to express contempt for the way everybody goes about living a lifestyle rather than simply living. I later discovered that the song has something to do with Oswald Mosley, a British fascist leader of the '30s, but it's still hard to make sense out of it. Musically it was intriguing — Springsteen meets "Hang On Sloopy" on a surreal basis — and catchy to boot. Curiosity was aroused and soon forgotten, since no details or live appearances were forthcoming.
Some months later "Alison," Costello's second single, was released. In retrospect, "Alison" should have been the perfect summer hit, it has many qualities similar to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love." A beautiful, tender and melancholy ballad that does for me what Rundgren's Something/Anything used to do. But perhaps it was a little too close; the pain and hurt show too clearly. "Sometimes I wish I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say" and, less subtle but equally painful, "I don't know if you are lovin' somebody, I only know it isn't mine." Anyone whose heart doesn't tighten a little when they hear "Alison" must have been brought up in a steel cage. Curiosity was once again aroused; Costello looked even dafter on the sleeve this time, but there were still few clues to the man. However, an album was reviewed in Sounds and scheduled for imminent release.
At this point Stiff (who had taken on Costello after he sent them a tape) started wrangling over their distribution. All product was shelved and for a while it looked as though Costello would sink without trace. The general public was still ignorant at this point of what the man might do to them.
Some two or three months later, though, distribution problems were sorted out and My Aim Is True was ready to go into the shops. Costello's first gigs were timed to coincide with the album release and everybody crossed their fingers.
Costello debuted with a remarkably well coordinated blaze of publicity (including getting arrested for busking outside the CBS convention at a London hotel). His name was everywhere. Sounds and Melody Maker had him on their covers simultaneously — the proverbial buzz. Now, I won't deny that the public can be told what to buy, but they are only going to buy so much of what they are told. My Aim Is True went into the charts at number 50; the following week it was in the Top 30, a week later in the Top 20. It's still there now (over a month since the initial din died down), indicative that Elvis Costello must be doing something right.
But what? On the face of it My Aim Is True is nothing special. Costello sings like Graham Parker (same phrasing, a bit more venom) and his tunes sound like Parker tunes. He even has a similar knack with catchy little couplets. The music is simple post-pub-rock R&B: melodic and pretty, but no real departure. So if we already have Parker, what, apart from the snappy image, do we need Costello for?
The trick is that Costello is real. Roy Carr wrote that his songs are
sexual psychoanalysis set to a dozen superb juke joint anthems."
Costello looks like a timid romantic but, as is supposed to be the fate of all romantics, he's really a cynical sod with shrewd perception. Since cynicism is the mood of the times Costello's success might seem unsurprising, but the truth is more complicated than that.
Costello's songs are about the pain and confusion of modern love and, to a lesser extent, modern life. He's honest, sometimes uncomfortably so, and cynicism is often the only recourse against emotional knocks. Few songwriters have tread so close the the pulse. Biff Rose did it and ended up lost, probably a little crazy too. Bowie, who derived much from Biff Rose, hid behind masks so you could never be quite sure.
Anyone who's been bitten can relate to Costello, who's more gratifying than the empty truisms peddled elsewhere.
Everybody's only going through the motions,
Are you really only going through the motions?