Uncut, June 2011

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Elvis Costello

Belfast, March 1978

Allan Jones

What happens next follows a show Elvis Costello & The Attractions play at Belfast's Ulster Hall, a week after the release of This Year's Model. I'm part of a press junket that flies in to see them. The show that night is very lively. The Attractions are blistering. They play something like 18 songs in what seems as many minutes. It's like listening to machine-gun fire, frenzied stuff, barely a gap between numbers.

It's over too soon for the audience, who wants more but don't get it. They're a bit stunned when Elvis rips out his guitar lead and runs offstage, like he's got a bus to catch. The crowd takes awhile to disperse, their cheers turning to boos as the houselights go up. By the time they've cleared the hall, some us are already back at the band's hotel, where a function room's been put aside for a post-gig get-together. It's good to see The Attractions, especially drummer Pete Thomas, who I've known since he was in pub rock stalwarts Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers. There's no sign for the moment of Elvis or his legendarily pugnacious manager, Jake Riviera, so the mood in the room is pretty relaxed.

This changes when Costello arrives with Riviera, a couple of cocky wise-guys looking for balls to break. Elvis seems to be in an especially inclement strop over something you couldn't put a name to, shooting his cuffs like someone walking into a bar who won't be happy until he finds the trouble he's clearly looking for. Jake if it's possible is in an even uglier mood. Let me say here that Jake's got the worst temper of anyone I've ever met, Lou Reed included. If there's one thing I know about him it's that his bite is definitely worse than his bark, which itself is unnerving.

This is especially true of Jake when he's been drinking or doing too much speed, or more often these days now that there's money coming in and he can afford it, the cocaine that makes fools of a lot of us in those bygone days. He scans the room for a likely target or two, someone to lay into with one of his fabled tongue-lashings, verbal onslaughts you would not wish to be on the end of. Pete Thomas recognises the look immediately.

"Let's just step out of the line of fire," he says, steering me to a corner, our backs to the wall. "We should be OK here," he says, "unless we get hit by a ricochet when things go off."

It's not long before the games begin. There's an American journalist here, a decent enough fellow in my opinion, from a New York magazine I enjoy mostly because of his writing. He's a big fan of Elvis and Nick Lowe and his magazine has been very supportive of both. He was in London for other reasons when he was invited on the junket that's brought him fatefully here. Jake now gets hostile in a hurry, letting the room know what he thinks about America and Americans and their many and varied deficiencies, with particular and provocative regard to American music papers and the people who write for them, for whom it would appear he feels nothing but unhindered scorn, a searing contempt. These sentiments Jake now communicates to our American friend in colourfully uncompromising terms.

"Ouch," whispers Pete Thomas, a veteran witness of many such humiliations, adding that if he's not mistaken, and he's not, that Elvis will have a pop next. He does, too, and it's like watching him audition for the principal role in a remake of Don’t Look Back, Jake a bellicose Bobby Neuwirth to Costello's scowling Dylan, a toxic mix of cruelty and cool. I can't hear what he says now to the hapless American in our midst, but it provokes an indignant response on the American's part.

"Hey man," he says, on the point of spluttering. "I gave your record a good review."

"Big fucking deal," Jake says, sharply, biting down on the words like a shark on a leg. "What do you want, a Pulitzer-fucking-Prize?"

The journalist looks for a moment like he's going to make more of this than he actually does. He starts to say something, then seems to realise that whatever he says will just give Jake an excuse to push him further, to that point perhaps where people run out of words, shouting won't do and chairs start flying. Jake looks like that's exactly where he wants things to go and the opportunity that will come then to wade in and slap someone around.

"Just because someone gives me a good review doesn't mean that I'm going to fall at their feet," Elvis announces then, although no-one to my knowledge has suggested this particular course of action, even as a joke.

`I don't need you or you or you, or him, or anyone," he says, accounting with a single sweeping glare for the people in the room who aren't on his payroll, "to tell me that I'm good. I know how good I am, thanks. I didn't need anyone to tell me that This Year's Model is a great album. It's my fucking record, I made the fucking thing, wrote the fucking songs and you’re telling me how good it is? What's the matter with you people? I know exactly how good it is. Show some fucking imagination when you write about me or don't bother writing about me at all. Do you even understand what I'm saying?"

No-one answers, probably assuming that if they do they'll be throwing themselves in as bait, and quickly chewed up. An uneasy silence prevails. Then a fellow from the London Evening Standard, their pop writer, an affable toff with the languid air of the bass player in a band with connections to the Canterbury Scene, asks Costello if he's flattered when people compare him to Bob Dylan.

"I don't give a shit about Bob Dylan," Costello snaps. "I've already forgotten who he was." This isn't true, of course. It's just an example of the kind of contemptuous comment at which EC in the months ahead becomes well practiced, as if it's a contractual obligation. He gets away with it here, but 12 months hence when he offers an even more outrageous opinion about Ray Charles in an infamous row in America with Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills on the Armed Forces tour, his world comes crashing down around him.

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Uncut, No. 169, June 2011


Allan Jones revisits his 1978 report on Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Friday, March 17, 1978, Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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2011-06-00 Uncut cover.jpg
Cover.

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