New Musical Express, August 27, 1977

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D. P. Costello of Whitton, Middlesex,
it is your turn to be The Future of Rock & Roll

Nick Kent

It's been a rough old week for Elvis Costello. Last weekend he was right up there in the play lists with his "Red Shoes" single — a tentative third-time-lucky — a cosey Top 20 cloister for the album and even the national press getting hot-to-trot with the Costello form for 1977.

The Daily Express's showbusiness correspondent, a fellow with the unlikely name of Garth Pierce, did an interview with E.C. for a full page "this-is-my tip-to-click" item dated for last Thursday as did an influential scribe from the Daily Mail, again for last week.

And what happens? Some other geezer sharing Costello's maiden name sloughs off the mortal coil and all the "tastemakers" consider it irreverent to even make mention of this young-blood's very existence.

Result: the man who would be king's career is in a right two-and-eight for the whole week of August 13-20. A grevious impasse after such a mercurial lift-off...

El's already had his share of controversy, y'know. Yessir, even the National Front have apparently been trying to dog his tracks ever since the release of the first-ever Costello vinyl artifact "Less Than Zero" (Stiff 45) which bears a heavy anti-N.F. bias, the song itself being a tacitly fanciful depiction of the landed gentry's fave black sheep boy of the Isherwood era, Oswald Mosley.

"Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tatoo"... croons our El before pointing out in a ream of impressive if often fairly obtuse couplets, the innate British hypocrisy afoot on the double-moral-standard twists that forbid your favourite new wave band, say, from polluting the main media outlets while some gnarled pathetic self-confessed anti-Semite like the senile Mosley can blithely saunter into the BBC studios and run off at the mouth for 45 rivetting minutes over his sordid reminiscences.

The marchings, the beatings, the black shirts, the foul sub-Nietzchen rhetoric — the Nation "tut-tutted" at the time, hut now it's OK 'cos the old fool's past it and virtually everything in this scum-pit that is England gets a benevolent white-washed canonization as time goes by.

Just a few obligatory barbed questions behind and ol' Mose can bleat on about his mistakes, his regrets, his thoughts on the current state of unrest, and everything remains hunky-dory.

It's OK with everyone except for one Mr. Costello, computer operator of Whitton near Twickenham, married with one child, whose brain somehow has been left unaffected by TV-land brain-cell bleach-out, who is offended by having this slimey old fascist drooling away in his living room and who, instead of penning a barbed missive to his local MP, sets down and writes a classic work of sly simmering anger.

"Let's talk about the future now we've put the past away".

We're in a pub just round the corner from Island Records' St Peters Square building, Elvis and me, talking about the subject matter of "Less Than Zero" when Jake Riviera suddenly pipes up with the information that all the Yanks who've heard it think it's about Lee Harvey Oswald.

"Yeah right," Costello's terse gruff voice breaks in.

"In fact (he's quite animated now) just for the States, I'm going to write a song about ... a guy, yeah, this guy's watching the box when he suddenly sees his girlfriend right behind Lee Harvey Oswald just at the moment when Jack Ruby shoots him. And the screen ... the shot freezes, y'know..."

He sits back with a self-satisfied smirk, savouring this perverse little morsel while Jake, whose job it is partly to deal with all the little weirdnesses spurting from the Costello "cerebus" gives his protege a part-"pained", part-"aw come on", and part ... well, impressed squint.

Costello is temporarily fulfilled though. He looks pleased with himself, pleased enough that maybe, just maybe he'll go ahead and conceive just that plot-line for a song tonight when he gets back to Whitton.

After all, his song-vignettes — a lot of them anyway — are pretty damn weird — starting from simple everyday occurences the composer finds himself observing on the tube, or maybe on his way down to the off-licence, and then blossoming into raging chunks of perfectly matched melody and savage eloquence.

Like even I'm in an Elvis Costello song. El reckons he saw me one night on a tube bound for Osterley and.... "you were obviously pretty 'out of it' 'cos you didn't even notice all the other people in the compartment staring at you. I was just amazed that one person could draw that much reaction from others. After I saw you there, I came up with 'Waiting For The World to End.' You're the guy in the opening verse."

I touch my forelock at the imparting of this factoid. After all, being in a Costello song is a deal more prestigious than being a name in this little black book he carries around, and which possibly might soon be making quite a name for itself.

Elvis's black book? Oh, it's just full of these names of folk who have crossed our El, who have hindered the unravelling of his true destiny these past years. Maybe they were responsible for not signing him to their label (prior to the Stiff inking this is) or maybe they referred to him as another Van Morrison sound-alike just like all those other squat, nervy types with short hair and glasses with whom such parallels appear obligatory in today's music press.

Whatever the cause, they're all marked men, cows before the slaughter, names and livelihoods about to come under the thunder of Costello.

Elvis is very into revenge, see. "The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs," opines Costello with a perverse leer, "are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about, that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs.

"Like" — he's into this discourse now — "when I played earlier in front of all those reps or whatever they're called — all those guys working for Island — did you hear me introducing Lipservice'?

"'This song is called 'Lipservice' and that's all you're gonna get from me'. That was straight from the heart, that, 'cos last year I actually went to Island with my demo tape and none of them wanted to know. Back then they wouldn't give me the time of day. But now..."

Now, Elvis is gloating because suddenly he's one of the new breed golden boys, already a name to be bandied about, with two excellent singles under his belt and a much-raved-over album finally in the shops after a couple of months of collecting dust in the warehouse while Stiff and Island re-jigged terms of distribution.

And of course, all the pop pen-pushers are latching on fast, getting nosey about the past and generally pushing for an intimate gander at the man behind the horn-rims and insect ungainliness.

Results thus far have been pretty uneventful, however, what with the press boys generally getting scattergunned by Elvis' tight-lipped "Fuck-you" fiestiness and backing off under the deluge to pen pieces loaded with said-one-dimensional verbal acidity.

This policy in fact seems lately to have reached such tight lipped proportions that when Costello was finally awarded the prestigious cover-space of two rival music rags during the same week, the one which purported to carry an actual interview caught Costello at his moodiest, refusing to give any details about his life whatsoever, coming on rude and terse to the point where the piece itself insight-wise was little more than a bad joke.

My single encounter with Costello, however, was a good deal more revelatory, basically because we both ended up drunk and talked for some four hours. Still he refused to discuss his past musical endeavours in any detail and it was only afterwards, by chance, that I learnt about his former identity as one D.P. Costello, lead singer of a bluegrass group called Flip City whose collective high-point was the totally unexciting fact of them having a residency as house support-band at the Marquee maybe two years back.

" 'Course nobody wanted to know back then. None of yer Chas de Whalleys were around then. And — Costello turns quite venomous at this point — "neither were you! I remember the time you came down to the Marquee when we were supporting Dr. Feelgood and you spent all your time in the dressing-room talking to Wilko Johnson. You didn't even bother to check us out. Oh no! And I really resented you for that, y'know. For a time, anyway. You were almost down there on my list."

Costello always seems to double back to this unhealthy infatuation of his with reeking vengeance on his self-proclaimed wrong-doers. He now almost relishes the fact that literally every record company in Britain he personally approached with his demo-tape turned him down, and admits that the years of bottling up the vast frustrations of being a nonentity out in the cold looking for a foot in the door have conversly granted him the basic ego-drive with which he intends to bring the whole music scene to its feet right now.

His taste for vengeance is the first, most tangible human emotion he intends to whip out here. His penchant for further anti-social emotions he will blithely display as our talk proceeds.

But let us return for a moment to the budding mystique building up around the Costello past. Facts he cares to own up to are these: born in the London area, spent most of his formative years in Liverpool, possibly the only town in the world he still looks upon with any kind of affection, raised as a Catholic — "I had to either be Catholic or Jewish, now didn't I" — and married when he was young.

He refuses however to talk about his wife and one child or the nature of this relationship with them at all, slyly noting — "I'm very, very 'country music' in my attitude to talking about my marriage."

Musically speaking, Elvis Costello's career commenced last year when he noticed an advert in the music press calling for demo tapes to be sent to a brand new small label, Stiff records. He took down the address and was over the same afternoon with his previously universally-rejected demo tape.

Jake Riviera takes up the story from here. "Elvis's tape was actually the very first tape we received at Stiff. It was so weird because I immediately put it on and thought, 'God, this is fuckin' good' — but at the same time I was hesitating because after all it was he first tape and I wanted to get a better perspective.

"So I phoned up Elvis and said, 'Listen, I've listened to your tape, it sounds really good and I'm interested, but could you give me a week in which to check out a bunch of other tapes and I'll get back to you?' Elvis said 'Fine' and so I waited a week, received a load of real dross in the mail and immediately got back in touch."

On a more ironic note, Riviera's partner Dave Robinson had in fact granted Costello an hour's worth of free studio time a couple of years earlier, at exactly the same time as another scuffling unknown named Graham Parker was being granted the same privilege.

"That's what pisses me off so much whenever writers compare me to Graham Parker, saying he influenced me and stuff, 'cos I was in the same studio across from 'im two years ago recording my stuff when he was doing his first demos".

As a matter of some slight interest also, Robinson recorded an American solo blues singer named William Borsay at roughly the same time as Costello and Parker — before Borsay returned to the States and changed his name to Willy De Ville.

Concerning the tape itself, Elvis reckons it's not worth much retrospective scrutiny. "I just grabbed at the chance and did 15 songs in that hour, often just making stuff up in my head as I went along..'

Anyway, the interview is going along quite amicably, if a little on the stilted and impersonal side, in the garden of this pub, when all of a sudden a delegation from Island Record corps descends upon the scene.

Costello eyes them all suspiciously as they file past, before resuming the thread of our chat. Then one of the delegation chooses to seat herself at our table.

The lady, who seems to have a thoroughly predetermined belief in her chosen state of grace as a truly wonderful human being, definitely wants "in" on this conversation. At first she just sits there, causing Costello and I to look at each other uneasily. Then she opens her mouth.

I cower back, but Elvis seems in the mood for a bit of retaliation. This, after all, is just the sort of person he loves to hate: a trendy female who looks like she walked straight off King's Road. Her approximate stereotype has been set up to be ripped apart in numerous Costello songs.

She's the classic "Natasha who looks like Elsie" out of El's brutal "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," a prime exponent of "Lipstick Vogue" chic.

Anyway, she makes her point. She says she's very interested in Elvis. She wants to know just what makes him tick, or words to that effect.

"Oh I'm thoroughly despicable," retorts Costello quite pleasantly.

"But don't you have any friends?" she enquires.

"Absolutely none", comes the reply.

Elvis goes on to inform her that success means nothing to him, going to America means nothing to him ("I'd rather go back to Liverpool"), that everything, in a nutshell, all conventional desires, means less than zero to her sudden object of fascination.

"Oh all you people are the same," she retaliates, her initial disappointment now souring into rabid aggression, "'You're all so boring."

"Oh yes that's it. I'm absolutely despicably boring. You're quite right."

Satiated by her enquiries, the girl finally gets up from her seat, feigning extreme boredom with a low farting noise ushered from her divinely facile lips to register full disgust. As she retreats back to a bunch of real "macho" lugs all rabbiting on boisterously well away from our table, Costello looks quite triumphant.

He's now close to being fairly drunk — after one amiable Islandeer innocently asks him what he was drinking and consequently had to foot the bill for a triple Pernod. He leans over to me in a confidential gesture.

"I was just waiting for her to bring her 'macho' boyfriend of hers over. That would have really been fuckin' confrontation. I'd have either smashed my glass and gone for him that way or..."

The words trail off into a deft silence, the eyes glare triumphantly and our El quietly digs his hand into one of his four jacket pockets to produce an enormous bent steel nail, the kind of oppressive-looking affair that would be ideal for pinning whole limbs to crosses at a human crucifixion. This, Costello is stating wordlessly, is his chosen weapon of defense: it glistens menacingly against the glasses strewn over our table, far more menacingly than any cold gleaming switchblade wedge.

Satisfied by this display of sinister deliberation — yes we get the picture, Elvis — he pockets the nail once more and the tete a-tete continues. Somehow, mind you, this incident with Miss Vamp has granted us a neutral terrain, common ground on which to consummate an easier intimacy outside of the usual rigidly forced mode of communication common to all first-time-around circumstances. Costello's already well lubricated by now from his booze intake and I've adamantly followed suit so that all of a sudden it's almost like we're old mates, awkward familiarities receding to make way for a shades-off and all — cards — on — the — table confrontation.

Costello's slightly nervy abruptness of manner has vanished completely to be replaced by the style of a man totally coldly calculatingly confident. The real Elvis Costello finally is now ready to open up.

The first volley goes something like this, tying in with Costello's surprising infatuation with country music, particularly the work and lives of two heroes of his, George Jones and Gram Parsons. Parsons' blighted life and times he is particularly enamored of.

"Yeah, Gram Parsons had it all sussed. He didn't stick around — he made his best work and then he died. That's the way I want to do it. I'm never going to stick around long enough to churn out a load of mediocre crap like all those guys from the '60s. I'd rather kill myself. I mean, Parsons' exit was perfect."

So you want to snuff it about four years from now, O.D.'d on morphine on the floor of some cheesy motel in the desert with ice-cubes up your arse and some moron groupie giving you a hand-job, do you Elvis?

El considers this for a moment, then replies — "Well, not exactly like that I suppose. I see my exit as being something more like being run over by a bus. But ... you think I'm joking, right — but I'm deadly serious about this. I'm not going to be around to witness my artistic decline."

'Ere but El, you told me a while ago that you've got at least 400 songs under wraps...

"Well by 400, I mean songs that aren't finished. A lot of them are just ideas — songs I won't use — but lines and couplets that I'll take and add to new things. So saying I've got 400 ... I mean, that number means absolutely nothing, O.K. But what you're asking, no I'm not into stock-piling material for 'if' and 'when' I dry up.

"I'm not into doing a Robbie Robertson."

O.K., but this Gram Parsons fetish (G.P. is El's very favourite album, by the way) I mean, he was a champion drug abuser and you don't look the type who'd be into that at all.

"Yeah, right. I don't take drugs. I mean, I can't even be in the same room as other people doing cocaine because just being in contact with them. I get three times as wired as them just being there. (Pause) But ... but I do know what it's like being out of control. I know all about alcohol, for example, because well, let's say I went through my phase of drinking heavily. Really heavily."

I counter this revelation by going for the obvious and wondering out loud whether Costello was drinking during his tenure those years he worked in the computer factory.

"Ah you're not going to ... I mean, that's a bit too obvious isn't it, making a good quote out of me being miserable and unhappy working with these fuckin' computers and being a secret aftershows drinker (laughs). No, I'm not going to fall for that one."

Costello's not over-anxious to go into details concerning those years of clouded anonymity cloistered amongst the computers, just as he adamantly fends off queries concerning his wife and child. It's only some weeks later that I'm informed by another source that the exact nature of his job was as computer operator for the firm run by 'beauty consultant' Elizabeth Arden (thus the autobiographical snippet about working for the 'Vanity factory' on, I think, "I'm Not Angry" for the Aim album).

However, he claims that he was viewed upon as a factory 'freak' — an object of mild affection and ridicule even though he looked as pastily anonymous as he does now (El's worn the same hairstyle, clothes and bi-focals for years now, or so he claims).

Also his job, he reckons, could have been performed by any unskilled peon off the block and he's basically overjoyed at having seen the last of the miserable building since he left that place of employment maybe three months ago. (Interestingly enough, Jake Riviera recently attempted to get BBC 2 interested in filming a documentary on Costello's progress from the computer factory out into the big, bad grief-ridden world of show-biz using the gent's `interesting' circumstances and the fact of his first album being released simultaneous to the change of employment as sufficient bait for some bright young director to pick up on the concept. Predictably, the TV boys nixed the idea in its proverbial bud.)

Immediately prior to his joining "the professionals," Costello's forays into music business-land were kept down to hyper-anonymous trips to Highbury's Pathway Studios where the Aim album was recorded with Nick Lowe, arguably El's greatest fan, producing (Lowe and Costello had actually first met some years prior to this creature, mating backstage at Eric's in Liverpool after a Brinsley Schwarz gig). Or there was the occasional trip to the Stiff offices where Costello would sit almost hiding behind a newspaper, just waiting, biding his time until his secret weapon was unveiled and all the biz would swoop down eagerly to chew on his toe-nail clippings.

Costello, see, claims he knew all along about the massive shake-up his show cases talents would cause the biz, that all the droll-soaked rave reviews and budding cult acceptance would surge in and wash off his ego Like water off a duck's arse.

Cults, thinks El — who needs em? He'd far rather he zeroing out of 10 million TV screens on Thursday night with Jimmy Saville's basooka cigar and the usual posse of silly little girls milling around. The album itself — well, El read all the reviews of course. Including our Roy Carr who betwixt dropping adjectural "brilliants" like so much pidgeon shit, zeroed in on Costello's emotional masochism as a lynch-pin for his critique.

"Well at least he picked up on something as opposed to all the others who obviously didn't bother to understand any of the songs but just churned out the superlatives. I mean, that ... uh "masochist" thing is only relevant for two or three tracks — on "I'm Not Angry" it's there plus "Miracle Man" — but it's an interesting point because as far as I can see, those are the only songs in the rock idiom where a guy is admitting absolute defeat — taking all this sexual abuse say — without either doing the old "James Taylor" self-pity bit or coming on all "macho" with the whole revenge bit.

Hold on there a tic, El. I mean, what about ... well take Lennon's "Jealous Guy."

"Ah, but with that one, Lennon's saying 'I'm sorry that I made you cry' ... That's the key line because he's already got her back. He's triumphed, so all that self-confessed 'I'm so weak' stuff is stated from a position of strength. No, I'm talking about being a complete loser. That's something totally new to the rock idiom which by its very nature is immature and totally 'macho'-orientated in its basic attitude. Only in country music can you find a guy singing about that kind of deprivation honestly."

So we start to talk about other songwriters — First, the obvious ones like Springsteen who El reckons to be a lousy lyricist — "His stuff about being on the streets is trite and unbelievable — the only song I like of his is "E Street Shuffle". I heard it in the bath once and thought it had a good riff".

And Van Morrison — El just sneers and claims he's never even heard Astral Weeks. So much for influences. Lou Reed and Patti Smith El's hardly heard a note of — "though I never miss reading one of their interviews."

Only the name of Pete Townshend produces anything like an interesting retort.

"Yeah well his early stuff of course — I mean, 'Substitute' is a perfect song but he blew it by being too bright for his own good, too analytical. Actually, that's one thing — I'm wary of falling into the same trap that Townshend did. There's parallels there — they've already been noted. It's the same thing as being called 'the balladeer of the new wave' by one paper because of 'Alison'.

"See, I'm 22 (Yeah, and I'm Raquel Welch — Ed) — that's only one year older that Johnny Rotten, isn't it. I just don't want to become the 'elder statesman of punk' or whatever, which is just what Townsend got locked into back in the 60's. It's a dangerous position."

A few more things about Elvis. He hates trendies, King's Road and particularly Dingwalls. "I don't like playing while people are fuckin' feeding their faces," he opines.

He won't allow any other guitar players onstage with him in this band.

He really has no friends.

He's just written another song about the National Front called "Night Rally."

Contrary to the venomous attack on Stiff and Costello over the ill-fated Dingwalls' debacle in Gasbag two weeks back, Elvis to fact took the 8-page-long guest list for the night and mercilessly scythed off half the names including such as Richard Williams who, as A & R man for Island Records, personally turned down El's demo tape last year.

Also, Elvis personally vets all guest lists making sure that anyone whose name was down but who didn't turn up the last time his name was included is struck off the list forevermore.

Jake Riviera and Nick Lowe both think he's loopy but a genius to boot.

Finally — if they ever do another Rock Dreams book, Elvis Costello will surely he in there along with the rest. He'll be the mousey figure, all insect anonymity, seated in a tube train carriage in his insurance clerk-suit and misty bifocals mostly hidden by a copy of the Evening Standard with Elvis Presley's death announced in grandstand type alongside the latest tales of National Front marches and King's Road Punks-Teds confrontations.

Only his heads will be prominent — all shot through with cold-blue veins bulging as they form clenched fists, the knuckles of which scream forth with two blood red tattoos. On the left fist reads "Revenge." On the right reads "Guilt."

The main headline will read "A Walking Time-Bomb — The Man Who Would Be King."

"Watch Him Closely."

<< >>

New Musical Express, August 27, 1977

Nick Kent profiles Elvis Costello. (reprinted in Creem and RAM.)

My Aim Is True is No. 28 on the album chart (page 2).

Also includes an ad for September 10, Garden Party X, Crystal Palace Bowl, London.


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Page scans.

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Page scans.

Photo by Pennie Smith.
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Photo by Pennie Smith.
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Cover, chart clipping and page scans.
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