What's Happening, January 13, 1979

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What's Happening

UK & Ireland magazines


Elvis's Armed Forces

Charles Shaar Murray

Elvis Costello is Superman's fantasy of what Clark Kent should have been. He is Buddy Holly reincarnated as an axe-murderer. He is a nasty Woody Allen with a Fender guitar. He is a bitter, twisted little wimp with an entire fish shop's worth of chips on his scrawny shoulder. He is the One Horseman Of The Domestic Apocalypse. He is just another Bruce Lynott/Graham Morrison clone. He is an upright little troublemaker. He is the finest songwriter in rock. He is a total asshole. He is a lovely guy. He used to be in a bluegrass band. He is blind as a bat without his glasses. His glasses are just a prop. He wears terrible hats. He is really Nick Lowe. It's him singing on the B-side of Nick Lowe's new single. It is really Nick Lowe impersonating Elvis Costello on the B-side of Nick Lowe's new single. He used to be disgusted; now he tries to be amused. He is someone who everybody thinks that they have totally sussed, and yet they all disagree.

Got that? Fine. Let's begin again. Elvis Costello is 23 years old. He used to be called Declan MacManus, and then D.P. Costello and finally Elvis Costello. He used to work in an Elizabeth Arden plant as a computer programmer and occasionally get spotted on the tube not wearing glasses. He owned a Fender Jazzmaster (an excellent though unfashionable instrument) and wrote songs as a hobby (albeit with a sense of vocation) while living in suburbia with his wife and child.

When Jake Riviera, Dave Robinson and Nick Lowe were getting Stiff Records together, Costello showed up with a demo tape. Jake thought it was excellent, but asked for a week to think about it (meanwhile, Elvis and Lowe were meeting by accident down at the tube station around half past four, ohh-oo whoa). After comparing the quality of Costello's submission (recorded, incidentally, at the same time and studio as Graham Parker's but rejected all across the board by a bunch of dodo A&R men at a bunch of dodo companies) with the rest of the gunk submitted to him, Jake pressed the button and signed Elvis to Stiff. Straight into the studio with Nick Lowe producing and an uncredited Clover backing him up, a bunch of singles and the My Aim Is True album out, a few selected gigs as a soloist (including the one outside the CBS convention), the slow formation of a band, "Watching The Detectives" (featuring Attractions keyboardist Steve Naive plus the Rumour rhythm section), the Stiff tour, the Radar signing, the American gigs, the near-hits, the pandemonium, the This Year's Model album, more American gigs, more British gigs, lotsa fights, the backlash, the frontlash, the eyelash ....

Just your average British success story, in fact.

He's got half a dozen Jazzmasters now — not to mention a few Fender Jaguars — and they're starting to get fashionable again. He's got a new album finished, produced yet again by Nick Lowe in between dates on the last Rockpile tour. He has all sorts of people who hardly know him pretending to be his friends, and even more who hardly know him announcing themselves as his enemies. His band are almost frighteningly good, his songs are developing all the time and the gouging vindictiveness of his singing has intensified rather than mellowed as success brings him face to glowering face with all sorts of new things to hate.

Lots of people who dug him and patronised him when he started fear, despise and flat out loathe him now. Me, I think he's an outpost of true excellence in rock and roll, he's about as bland as a flamethrower, and when I see him work I feel as if I'm actually in the presence of a person rather than a marketing concept. I wish I knew him a bit better, and wonder if I'd like him as much if I did.

(Did he get into so many fights before he was famous?)

Elvis Costello is not comfortable. Listening to Elvis Costello does not make you feel comfortable. If it does, you're listening wrong. Start again.

Elvis Costello is not going to like this article one little bit. I couldn't give a shit. I may not like his new album. He couldn't give a shit. But the album's coming out and I'm looking forward to it and the tour's probably going to be happening by the time you read this, and you can bet your last snap-crackle-and-pop fuzzy-bottom-tinny-top picture disc that I'm going to be there.

If you're not, well... maybe you're just overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed. Pleasant dreams.

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WEA What's Happening, January 13, 1979

Charles Shaar Murray profiles Elvis Costello.

What's Happening profiles Radar Records.


1979-01-13 What's Happening cover.jpg

Photo by Keith Morris.
1979-01-13 What's Happening photo 01 km.jpg

Radar scanning in '79

What's Happening

It's now only a year since the first releases appeared on Radar Records, yet in the space just twelve months, Radar has become one of the most vital and influential of the new independent labels that flourished in 1978.

Radar was formed by Martin Davis and Andrew Lauder both leaning United Artists in November 1977, when Davis had been

Remaining text and scanner-error corrections to come...


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