Uncut, September 2005

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Stiff Records

London: July 1977

Allan Jones

The roof's there, so Jake Riviera hits it — the Stiff supremo, who marches into rock legend as the highly combustible manager of Elvis Costello, now giving a typically fearfull ear-bashing to some unfortunate underling.

"No," Jake is shouting, which is a noise like a chainsaw howling through teak, "it won't be too late, not if you do it now. It will be too late if you don't get off the phone and on the fucking case. Good. Let's start shaking. Speak to you later. Groovy."

It's 10.30, on an overcast Tuesday morning, and it's turning into another typical day in the life of 32 Alexander Street, the legendary HQ of what used to be Stiff Records. I've been nagging Jake for weeks about spending a day here, for a story I want to write for Melody Maker. For just as long, Jake's been stalling. Last night, however, he'd called me, told me if I still wanted to write the story to be at Stiff this morning, early.

"If you're not here by nine," he yells at me, "we'll start without you."

What's become clear as the morning goes on is that whatever Jake's been plotting is going to involve CBS, whose annual international sales conference is being held this week in London, at the Hilton Hotel, and Elvis Costello, who's just arrived at Alexander Street with his guitar, a Vox practice amp and the recently formed Attractions, who will later tonight be making their London debut at Dingwalls in Camden, The Attractions soon heading for the pub next door.

"Get some cabs, somebody,” Jake's now screaming. "We need wheels, and we need them now."

The cabs arrive, Jake bundles Costello into the street, storms the line of taxis, yanking open doors, pushing people inside. He races into the pub, re-emerging with The Attractions and a bottle of cider. The Attractions take off in a transit, followed by a cab with Elvis in the back, clutching his guitar and amp, the cab's boot door flapping open. Jake tears after it, screaming, slams the boot shut as the cab takes the corner of Alexander Street, accelerating into Sunderland Terrace and onto Porchester Road. This is what the final minutes of life on earth will be like, I remember thinking. There will be this same sense of sheer panic and inarticulate frenzy, and Jake Riviera swigging cider from a bottle and shouting at everyone at the top of his voice.

Anyway, the rest of us now pile into a taxi with Jake and speed off in the direction of the Hilton.

Costello had famously been turned down by every major record company before signing to Stiff, where Jake had quickly recognised that if Elvis was going to make the kind of commercial impact he was capable of, he was going to have to sign to a major label, like CBS. The most immediate way Jake can think of to bring Elvis to the attention of the label's powerbrokers is to have him busk outside their convention, so when they break for lunch, they'll be confronted by Costello armed with a guitar, a horn-rimmed angry musical ambush. The bastards had ignored him before. Jake would dare them to ignore them now.

Elvis straps the practice amp over his shoulder, plugs in his Fender Jazzmaster, assumes the stance of a man you wouldn't want to fuck with. The Stiff crowd have formed a loose circle around him. There's a moment's hesitation, then he's thrashing "Welcome To The Working Week," sounding astonishingly loud.

"Go to it," Jake yells by way of unnecessary encouragement, adrenalin pumping, eyes shining like flares. "That's my boy."

Elvis is now hollering "Waiting For The End Of The World" with as much attention to the tune as he can afford in the circumstances. A gaggle of Japanese tourists stops to watch, weighed down with cameras and souvenirs, puzzled beyond description. They applaud as Costello finishes the song and launches straight into "Less Than Zero." A group of CBS conventioneers wanders out of the Hilton, clutching little paper tuck bags that bear the legend: "A BIG FAT THANK YOU FROM TED NUGENT". They stand there, gaping at Costello. Jake's swigging cider and cackling gleefully. The crowd begins to swell as more tourists and convention guests pile onto the pavement.

"All right. Who's in charge here?"

This is a security officer from the Hilton, unpleasantly aggressive.

"Who's in charge?" Jake screams in his face. "Who's in CHARGE? NO ONE'S IN CHARGE! It's a free fucking country and we can do what we like. Who are YOU anyway? From the hotel? You must be American. Did you know that some parts of America go back to 1934? Well? Did you? You're an American, aren't you? Uh?"

The fellow reels back, stunned.

"I — I'm not American," he splutters. "I'm from Hampshire."

By the time Elvis roars into "Mystery Dance," it looks like most of the CBS convention is on the street outside the Hilton. Here, for instance, is Matthew King Kaufman, head of San Francisco's Beserkley label, home of The Modern Lovers, and over there Herb Cohen, Frank Zappa's manager. Even Walter Yetnikoff, president of the entire CBS empire, has been drawn into the action. Everyone's clapping along quite merrily. Then the law arrives.

A spotty young copper clears his throat nervously and tells Jake that Elvis will have to move along.

"WHY?" Jake snarls, in his element.

"Because he's... er... busking," the PC says, floundering.

"He's not BUSKING, man," Jake retaliates, terrifying in his excitement. "He's just SINGING IN THE STREET! You can't stop people SINGING IN THE STREET!!!"

"Get down Elvis!" Matthew King Kaufman calls to Costello.

The copper's now on his field radio, calling for reinforcements. A crowd of punk-rockers, he's telling someone, is rioting outside the Hilton. Within minutes, three squad cars and a police van are screeching to a halt on Park Lane, and a full inspector is marching up to Jake, demanding the dispersal of this unruly mob.

Jake's having none of it. "These people are ENJOYING themselves, man," he shouts. "Look at them! They're clapping. They're singing..."

The inspector's unmoved, advances on Costello.

"Move along, son," he says.

Costello takes a step to his left, continues singing, lost somewhere in the murky depths of "Miracle Man."

"RIGHT!" the inspector snaps, unamused by Costello's flippancy. "You're nicked."

With a splendidly melodramatic flourish, the inspector grabs Elvis by the collar and frog-marches him to the waiting police van, Costello's feet barely touching the ground as he's hauled along. The crowd, disappointed, begins to boo the police.

"COLSON!" Jake roars, calling out to another maverick member of the Stiff team, PR Glen Colson, who's quickly off in pursuit of the police van, which by now is turning into Hyde Park Corner, Elvis in the back.

"They'll probably take him to Vine Street nick;" Jake calls after Colson. "Whatever you do, spring him," Jake adds. "He's got a soundcheck at four."

What happens next? Find out next month, as this sorry saga continues...

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Uncut, No. 100, September 2005


Allan Jones revisits his 1977 profile on Stiff Records in Melody Maker.


EC writes about the videos for "I Wanna Be Loved," "Oliver's Army," "Veronica" and "The Other Side Of Summer."


Robert Downey Jr. writes about Imperial Bedroom.

Images

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Page scan and clippings.



Imperial Bedroom

Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Robert Downey, Jr.

Less-than-holy thespian marvels at immaculate conception of EC's transitional stunner

In my circle, there were two schools of opinion around 1982-83. You were either with The Police's Synchronicity or you were with Imperial Bedroom. I was an Imperial Bedroom man and I still am. I think Costello has done great stuff before and since. Right up to the present, with albums like North, he still has the capacity to astonish. He takes all these forays outside pop music, and they've been interesting too. But, for me, Imperial Bedroom is the one. When it first came out, I was buying nickel bags and doing off-Broadway theatre. My first impression of it was that I could imagine someone spending their entire life thinking an album like this out, having enough life experience, getting the musicianship right. There was just so much on it. So many words, so many ideas. And every song is a triumph. It took me about 10 years to even begin to understand it.

I never understand people who don't rate Costello as a singer. He'd sound good off-roading at 70mph with those guys from Jackass trying to tattoo his ass. You could pull him out of a dead sleep and he'd sing like a bird. On songs like "Beyond Belief" and "Man Out Of Time," his singing is so beautifully effortless. I can see why someone would make a case for Get Happy! or Armed Forces as his finest work. He's made so many great albums, but Imperial Bedroom is the one that says: "This is where the bar has been — now how about this, you fuckers?" It's my favourite album of all time, and I suspect it always will be.



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Cover and contents page.

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