Do you remember, about a couple of years ago, a thinly-proportioned young man in black spectacles and with short dark hair propelled into the air by what seemed like an electric shock, dancing around in manic fashion to the strains of the R. Whites "Secret Lemonade" drinker ad on TV?
Odd as it may seem, that appearance was the launching pad to a career in music that has pretty well stunned into awed rapture the cynical and guitar-chord weary legions of the record biz over the past few months.
The fellow in the ad was one Declan MacManus, better known these days as Elvis Costello, late '77 and early '78 cult figure rapidly evolving into superstar, a status in El's case not based on the normal characteristic traits. No brooding good looks (though the brooding is usually there): no super-cool stylish clothes (though the trousers are fashionably drain-pipe): and no image of girl-catching hulk hero (too lean and nervous for that!).
What Elvis C. has going for him is straight-to-the-heart honesty and some of the best music to be heard on the rock and pop circuit for years.
For instance his powerfully original hit "(I Don't Wanna Go To) Chelsea" slides into top gear from the word "go" and doesn't let up until the brakes are sharply applied three minutes later with the listener left jet-lagged and gasping for breath in the passenger seat.
Another for instance — Costello's new album, This Year's Model, hasn't had a bad review anywhere, and various assessments of its quality range from "brilliant" to "ridiculously good" to "too dazzling to be ignored."
A final for instance — one reviewer says of Elvis: "Costello is currently the best. There's simply no-one within spitting distance of him."
Where exactly, then, are the roots of the Costello phenomenon? Well, the answer to that isn't really too easy to define. Just a year back from the date you read this piece, Elvis was a clerical worker at a computer office in Hounslow, Middlesex: bored with his day-to-day lack of life-style, and brimming over with songs and confidence, he put on a Buddy Holly identikit appearance and set off on the road to stardom.
The well-worn story of a frustrated talent being shunned by big record companies followed until an enterprising young executive named Jake Riviera at Stiff Records picked up on Elvis. A solo gig without a band at London's Nashville, a couple of un-noticed singles, "Welcome To The Working Week" and "Alison" — and Mr. Costello knew he was halfway there.
On going professional last summer, he traveled from his Hounslow home to Cornwall, where he rehearsed for a few days with a hand-picked band, The Attractions. Word spread round of a strange new talent on the scene, but Elvis was kept under wraps for a while — he only gave one interview with one music paper, and no-one was allowed to see him rehearse.
When Costello and his band did break loose. The press went mad with features and interviews, and on the strength of these his debut album shot into the Top Ten. Called My Aim Is True, it contained some of the punchiest lyrics and tunes heard in a long while, two of which were chart hits in the singles market — "The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes" and "Watching The Detectives."
On both his albums to date, the spotlight has fallen on the short, sharp three-minute type of song that was so popular in the sixties. Elvis always intended to write and record those kind of tunes. He says: "People started to think critic-wise about songs instead of 'can you dance to it?'" With the result that My Aim Is True was packed with classics that grabbed you the first time around; the production work of Nick "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass" Lowe added the icing onto the cake.
Like all the best pop music. Costello's tunes have a timeless quality — mixed in with a wide variety of styles. The very first record that he owned was the Beatles' "Please Please Me," and since then he's listened to just about everything, all of which may have helped inspire him to become an avid composer. At the moment, E.C. has written something in the region of five hundred songs, though he's quick to point out that "not all of them are classics." An example of his writing ability? "Red Shoes," the first hit, was written in ten minutes on the train between Liverpool's Lime Street and Runcorn!
But it's not just Elvis's songs and style that have caught the imagination. Back to the shrewd man who "discovered" him, Jake Riviera. His clever idea for the first Costello album was a cutout maxi-poster of Elvis, spread out in six sections printed separately in the three major music papers. Remembering Costello was practically unknown at the time this was a major event — and Elvis made the most of it.
Now at Radar Records, a sort of off-shoot of Stiff, Elvis Costello is still able to bask in the glories of a small, independent company where he knows his talents can be fully developed and managed.
And knowing the talent that the modern Elvis has stored up inside him, who knows where he'll be in a year's time from now? Something tells us that he won't be back sifting through paper work in Hounslow...