New Musical Express, October 30, 1982

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A man out of time

Neil Spencer

Elvis Costello is a man who has made a habit of teasing and tormenting the music press, but now after a four-year silence he has agreed to this exclusive British interview. He talks at length about his songs, his life, resolutions and confusion.

Some things you never get used to. It should be no surprise by now that our sundry "stars" — those individuals of proven talent, inspiration and success — are as prone to self-doubt and uncertainty as the rest of us mortals. Still, when the individual concerned is Elvis Costello admissions of fallibility are not the most expected of events. Nor, for that matter, is an Elvis Costello interview.

Ever since the prickly EC persona was unleashed onto the world of popular music some five years ago with the resonant strains of "Less Than Zero," the man's maintained an uneasy relationship with the gentlefolk of the press, at best maintaining a rigorous silence, and at worst launching some savage salvos against the critics. It's now four years since Costello spoke to the British press, his dialogues with NME's Nick Kent being virtually the man's only forays into print, outside of some soft-core expeditions in mainstream journals like the TV Times and The Observer Colour Supplement.

This year, however, Costello has already given Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus an extensive interview, which the increasingly ponderous periodical had front paged as "ELVIS COSTELLO REPENTS" — somewhat to the chagrin of Costello as it transpires.

"That interview was specially to clear up that incident in Ohio on the Armed Forces tour," he tells me referring to a bar room run-in with a camp of American musicians fronted by Steven Stills and Bonnie Raitt which had resulted in a racist slur being attached to Costello's name. "It coloured our career over there and I wanted to settle that once and for all," Costello says. No one in Britain ever entertained such notion about Costello or The Attractions - unthinkable given the man's songs like "Less Than Zero," "Night Rallies" or his appearance at a massive RAR concert — but few doubted that Costello was a prickly, unruly talent. No one wanted to be on the wrong end of his withering sarcasm or dismissive, offhand style of public relations. And for his part, Elvis seemed to revel in the role as wayward genius, at times showing something little short of naked contempt for his audience.

A lot has changed in the three years since what Costello now refers to as his "Armed Forces period." Onstage, on record, and on his occasional radio broadcasts, the Costello we've witnessed has been a more measured, more humble, more appealing type of fellow, while his meteoric ascendancy has been likewise arrested, his records noticeably less dominant in the charts and hearts of the nation. "We were left with a warehouse full of Get Happy," he says with disarming frankness about his follow-up to the phenomenal success of Armed Forces. The uneven Trust and Almost Blue, his country and western album, likewise, made little impression on a music scene that was rapidly fragmenting into a new and as yet undetermined pattern.

All of which made the arrival of Imperial Bedroom earlier this year particularly impressive, a superb collection of crafted, thoughtful and provocative songs that was both a return to the superlative form of My Aim Is True and This Year's Model (this critic always finding Armed Forces something of a conceit), and an advance into new areas of composition and production.

One of the album's stand-outs was "Man Out Of Time," a song which Elvis says is "about unemployment — and the person unemployed is me." He talks of "dislocation" and "being out of control" in reference to his unruly, awkward period, and exhibits a charm, honesty and humour for which none of his records had quite prepared me; his intelligence, wit and verbal dexterity have always shone through his songs.

We meet in the offices of Warner Brothers records, a location not without its ironies considering Costello's long-running distrust of, and battles with the music business. He's pert and fit, conspicuously trimmer than the overweight "baggy suit" period of 12 months back. He's wearing a black leather jacket, a silver and black silk scarf, a grey straw porkpie hat ("got it in New York, made the taxi stop when I saw it in a shop window"), black slacks, white socks and black Doc Marten shoes.

The three hour conversation traverses his whole career and a lot besides. He rarely shows any reticence, and never seems happier than when music is under discussion — the breadth and familiarity of the man's knowledge of contemporary music is quite startling, and will mention Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Kevin Rowland in the same sentence whether it's Dexy’s or Julie London that's under discussion. In short, he is a consummate fan of music as well as one of its most subtle and skilful exponents.

Apart from the success of Imperial Bedroom he currently has, with producer Clive Langer, half the writing credits on one of the year's outstanding records, Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," an oblique and telling response to 1982's militaristic tide, so aptly wrapped in one of Stanley Spencer's wartime paintings of the Glasgow shipyards.

He's also increasingly involved in production — having recently worked with Scottish popsters The Bluebells and seems proud of his other production work with the likes of Australia's Mental As Anything, and further back, on The Specials' debut LP. He's also at work on the title tune of a forthcoming film, though which film he's disinclined to reveal — "It's the most unlikely title though." What he'll do next seems particularly uncertain. Imperial Bedroom marks the end of the second phase of his recording career he informs me, and with even his stage name under reconsideration, Costello's next move remains open to even more speculation than usual.


A few years ago it seemed as though people were turning to Elvis Costello songs to cover — George Jones and Linda Ronstadt say; but that doesn't seem to have continued. Are you disappointed your songs haven't been covered more?

No, I don't think that's true. There never were many covers — I always thought I could have had more. I could never understand the A&R men's lack of imagination in not picking up on some of the songs — and those you mention are about the extent of it. But this year there's been a Kiki Dee, a Shaking Pyramids and a Dusty Springfield version of "Just A Memory" — and that's just one song this year, more than I ever got before.

Who would you like to see cover your songs?

The two I'd like to start with first in case they stopped recording is Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald; I'd like to hear either of them sing "Almost Blue"... er... Aretha Franklin, Randy Crawford... I dunno. I'll write for anybody. I don't sit round being precious about it.

I've got this hack mentality on the other side from the one I take very seriously. I wrote these three songs for Frieda's (of Abba) album, and they turned 'em all down. When I heard about the combination of Phil Collins and Frieda I assumed she was trying to make something less poppy, something meant to be taken more seriously. What you forget is that Phil Collins has moved in more to the centre; his records maybe appeal to people who like the more serious side of Abba, not the "Fernando" end of it. Actually I sent them two songs, the third was the "Imperial Bedroom" that appears on the 12" of "Man Out Of Time." I thought it would be funny if they put the title of my new album on their record; I was trying to slip one under the wire there but it didn't work out.

Do you consciously relate to the tradition of song writing represented by people like Bacharach/ David, Brecht/Weill, George Gershwin and the like?

I'd like to, yeah, Sometimes I throw off a thing that might put me more in mind of a record I heard last week. I don't sit round thinking. Oh God, I gotta be like George Gershwin all the time. That'd be a hell of a weight.

I don't suppose George Gershwin worried about being George Gershwin.

No, that's probably what made him great.

How do you write in fact? Is there a particular place or method you use to get a song out of yourself?

I only wish there was some way. Not that I wish I wrote more songs — I write loads — but sometimes it's frustrating cos it comes when you least expect or want it, when you're trying to sleep, or walking down the street. I'll hear the most arresting idea in my head and I think Oh no, here we go.

So there are lots of things scribbled on the back of envelopes?

Yeah, sometimes I sit down deliberately to write, but I've never written many good things like that. Sometimes I sit down and go through old notebooks and a great line will leap out and I'll try and use it, work it in. I used to write a lot on the road, but there’s only so many songs you can write in that situation without getting into actually write about being on the road, which I dread.

I wrote one very simple song on this last tour, which we learnt straight away and performed called "Every Day I Write A Book," and that went really well, so maybe that's sometimes the way to write a song — finish it in half an hour, learn it in half an hour and do it. We did a lot of songs like that at first, but I wasn't thinking enough about the quality. Now I've decided that half the repertoire of the next set is maybe gonna be stuff off the top of my head.

How many songs have you written?

Ever? I've no idea. There were lots before the first album, some of which turned up late like "New Lace Sleeves" and "Watch Your Step." I looked at them again and decided they were alright, whereas before they’d seemed a bit vague.

There's a current revival of interest in the "classic" song; the era of Billy Holiday and the like. Do you think that the art of song writing is looking up, or is it in decline?

That interest is healthy so long as it’s not insubstantial; so long as it's not a passing fad that's gonna cream off the superficial aspects. What disturbed me was when 2-Tone happened and there was the phoney mod revival thing, there were scores of soul reissues and I thought, great, this is going to re-establish that style as part of the vocabulary. Not so much so we could sit round and dig up Motown records, but there had been this indifferent wave that came out of punk that didn't show any emotion and the soul revival really augured well. It left the way open for us to make Get Happy which was a much more direct, feeling kind of record. Then I was disappointed it was never followed through, it never happened. The clothes survived, and a certain amount of good records were made, but a lot of it was just The Lambrettas doing "Poison Ivy." I feel the same thing might be happening again, when it's all just down to copping an attitude in The Face. It might be entertaining and pass the time, but it's not really gonna save the song which will still decline. There are still the people who put the work in. I think Martin Fry is a good songwriter; I like Green from Scritti Politti as well; I like a lot of recent records, but not all of them have got very substantial songs on. When I heard "Only You" by Yazoo I thought, what a great song, you can play it on acoustic guitar, you can play it with an orchestra. I was kind of disappointed when I got the album that there was nothing good on it, but maybe the next record;

One of the proclamations of the so-called New Wave was that singles wouldn't just be pulled from LPs. You've stuck to that attitude more than most, at least as regards B-sides.

Well, we do still lift singles from LPs, but I'm a big fan of B-sides... If I was pushed to put together a Best Of — not that anyone would want to buy it — I'd want "Big Tears" on it from the B-side of "Pump It Up"; I think it's one of the best things we've made. People say, what the hell is this going on the B-side for? — we've done it time and time again. In a company like this, there's a certain amount of stuff that's got to go along with them and you've got to do what you want as well. There's a few examples of things being released abroad and then filtered in: that whole Polydor business; I don't understand that at all, why it's done or anything. There's a lot of mysteries about the music business that I still don't understand. We just carry on ahead. I like to put out good B-sides, a couple of tracks on the 12-inchers, tracks that don't fit on albums and I want them out somehow. I just like to make life more interesting.

I figure if people buy our album and then buy a single already on the album, then they're buying it for the B-side, which I usually try and make as good as the A-side; it just doesn't fit in elsewhere.

That was part of the idea of the Ten Bloody Marys tape?

It was a companion to the American version, the Taking Liberties album, which was to kill the collector mentality. There were these shops in Greenwich Village selling import singles for $30 and people would buy them. Now, I'm a vinyl junkie but not to the point where I have to have it with that different colour sleeve, I don't care what the label looks like, it's what's in the wax. Also those tracks weren't available to people who didn't live in Greenwich Village, who lived in maybe Ohio and were interested in our records.

Do you still feel as disgusted by the music biz as you used to?

Yeah, I do. What I find really amusing at the moment is this "Home Taping Is Killing Music" campaign. Bad music is killing music, or lack of imagination is killing it. Whether you give the bloody records away in the street has nothing to do with it. People are always making excuses for the massive waste of money. The situation where companies have to hype — and if you don't, you get pushed right out the picture, — has got completely out of hand. You can't call a truce because nobody will agree to it — there's gonna be somebody else doing it. It's got like controlled corruption, the whole thing is sickening. (Shaking his head) I can't think about it, if I did I couldn't operate at all.

Don't you worry about people taping your albums and singles?

It's never occurred to me as being that serious. I wouldn't have one of those signs on my records. I think it's a blind alley, they kick up a fuss to distract people from other shortcomings and failings.

So do you think the business is failing to promote a lot of good music?

Yeah, including mine. (Laughs) I try to avoid reading Billboard and the like. I'll read it if it's on the desk there... (Points and picks up a trade paper) Look at this fucking thing here, what's that about? I mean, EMI, not only do they have that insulting campaign going round -— "Do you realise it's 20 years since Paul McCartney was in The Beatles?" — now we've got to put up with this bloody nonsense, The John Lennon Collection. It's just a complete accident that it's coming out in November, just before Christmas. It just makes you feel sick.

Would you say that the real artistry and value of music is being devalued by the behaviour of record companies?

I don't think that all that many people who are very interesting regard themselves all that artistically in this business. Most of the people I meet are generally just doing a job, and it's usually the people who haven't got much to say who are trying to make it look artistic. The record companies like to play up that artistic bit so they can pull that stuff about. You get on with the art and we'll get on with the business, and hold that over you. Most of the people I've met, apart from a few who are naive, are not stupid at all, they know what's going on, they get on with their job, they make records, they don't sit round in garrets and fret. I've never understood that. The press are a bit responsible too because they build up a mystique, a romantic image of these sensitive characters that are put upon by the record business.

You've always had a profound mistrust of journalists...

Yeah, I have, from bad experience. There are people for whom I have some respect — I think they know who they are — but that doesn't mean you have to do an interview about every single thing you do, because I really don't think it's all that interesting. There really isn't that much to talk about. Most people in groups are dullards anyway. The best thing they can do is make records. There are not that many hidden meanings in my songs that I have to sit down and do an interview to explain them, cos I'd feel the songs have failed if they don't speak for themselves. There may be oblique things in there that I put in and I still wouldn't choose to explain them; they're set in there to work on the imagination of the listener, or work on my imagination when I sing 'em again.

How do you feel about the early albums now?

I feel that that the first three albums are in a group, and then it goes into another gear as it were — not necessarily better than the first three, but a different person made those records. Then the next four records are a group, and then that period ends. Not that the first three are a trilogy, God forbid, but it got more serious in some ways, more emotional, more committed post Armed Forces. I was just a clever-dick up until then. I didn't know anything from anything when I made the first album. I didn't even know if the record I was making was going to come out — Stiff only existed from week to week. The second record we were in making before we knew where we were. By the third one I was that cocky at the time, but we totally thought we were kings of the castle. Whether or not we were, while making it I was completely convinced; I had no doubts.

The doubts didn't settle in until after that album. Because of appearing like an idiot, like a clown at that particular time, at the end of the Armed Forces tour of America, we came back to England and I decided, That's it! I've got to get a grip. There's something wrong. The mission's gone wrong somewhere. I didn't like the feeling; I felt completely out of touch with what we were supposed to be doing. By the end of the Armed Forces period I felt completely disillusioned with the whole idea of making records.

I remember as early as the British Forces tour — before America, which is where things really got hairy — I had a conversation with Bruce Thomas and saying, look, I don't think I really want to do this anymore. And he said, you've got to think about it more positively; you're just being defeatist about it. And he talked me into it. He said. You can't just leave it to The Boomtown Rats; you've got to put up a bit more of a fight than that." (Laughs) I was right about it in the long run, that I was disconnected from my original intention. Up until then I thought I was bullet proof. When I realised I wasn't, I made different records from then on. There was more... self-criticism, I suppose. That doesn't mean you become introspective because you still throw ideas out to other people. You couldn't be totally introspective and make records; you could, you could make very dull records (Laughs), but...

The songs became more vulnerable?

More vulnerable, more questioning. Instead of just saying I can rhyme any word with any word... Well, it's a bit glib to look at it like that now because obviously I had more heart in those songs at the time, and I think there were good things on Armed Forces, but somewhere along the way it got lost. And it didn't come back until we were actually in the studio making Get Happy. That was a very emotional record to make. Very edgy, lots of drinking.

Were you disappointed by the reception of Get Happy and Trust?

Erm... I figure that's when things started to go wrong for us in this country in a business sense. I don't think we ever recovered from the court case — when we tried to leave Warner Brothers; whether or not it's been a conscious decision, I wouldn't like to judge the present hierarchy of this company on the previous one, which I had no respect for whatsoever. But I think we've paid dearly for that dispute. You've got to account for a certain loss of your status and chart placings in changes in fashion. We were the new thing in 1978 and obviously by 1980 there were lots of other things came along. I'm thinking about the time we were a Top Of The Pops kind of group, like Blondie or something.

Also, the kind of records we made, we didn't follow up our big commercial success: Armed Forces sold 500,000 copies, we had a gold single with "Oliver's Army." If we were to just make another record like that, then we would have followed a formula and those people who liked only that about us, who didn't even know about the first two albums, would have followed on. So I couldn't be disappointed by the comparative commercial failure of Get Happy and Trust, because I wilfully made those records like they were. Trust maybe I was a bit more disappointed with in retrospect, because I think there's more bogus stuff on that than Get Happy.

We lost the idea of the production halfway through. We set out to make a really simple record with no overdubs without having an over-riding style like Get Happy. We were trying to do the same thing as we did on Imperial Bedroom by taking each song individually, but the production was so low key it was almost non-existent. Only the very best songs survived it. The weaker songs were just like a jolly-up. Even "Whisper To A Scream," although I had enjoyed it and Glenn sang great, it still rang hollow.

Was Almost Blue something you had long wanted to do, a bona fide country album in Nashville? Because you had that spell in a country and western group before you became Elvis Costello?

No, not really. That's one of the things that got added to the biography. The groups I played in were only country by virtue of using acoustic guitars and playing some country numbers in the usual mix of rock and roll, and what have you. I picked up on those writers like Merle Haggard and singers like George Jones the same way a lot of people did, filtering back through The Byrds and Burritos. Suddenly a whole world opened up, cos we didn't have country as a tradition like they do; which is maybe why they can suffer Barbara Mandrell! — Ernest Tubb and the rest of the original Honky Tonk singers and traditional stylists aren't held in such esteem as they are by the English country and western. It's mainstream MOR now, not what I call real country. My original plan was to do an album of ballads, of covers. I had this idea to do a sad album, cos one of my favourite albums is "Only The Lonely" by Frank Sinatra, all sad songs. I was even going to do a couple of Sinatra things if I could arrange them right. I had no idea if I had the voice to do it. I thought I did, no one believed I did cos I screeched over a load of guitar things. Then I changed my mind. I thought it would seem like a Bobby Darin album — where he'd do really weird albums, one week a folk singer, the next he'd appear in a tuxedo, each album with a different mood but no real point, they'd be aimless. So I thought we'd do a country album, then it would have a definite style and people would either love it or hate it. And a side effect might be that people who didn't like country music might hear these songs coming from us. When we went to do it, Billy Sherrill couldn't understand why we wanted to do these songs, they were all so old hat to him. I went there in a very depressed frame of mind anyway. I had this sad feeling, I dunno why, it wasn't anything specific in my life, I'd just wound myself up to it. I suppose the records from Get Happy to Imperial Bedroom are linked in a way that they're some form of exorcism, post-the disasters of '79. Looking back now, I can't imagine how I was so miserable sounding. It was a genuine feeling, so I never accepted the criticisms that the singing wasn't authentic.

Was it badly received in the States?

Critically it was 50/50. Some people thought we were incredibly brave and out of our minds, the rest thought it was complete rubbish. Hardly anyone thought it was a good idea:

And the country audience, how did they react?

In America, zero. Nashville didn't do a single thing to promote it. I've heard vague reports that it got played on a couple of obscure country stations, but I guess they thought it was too weird, that an English group at all would do that, let alone an English "new waver." Country and western stations, they probably think I'm a punk still; they're that far behind with the press releases — when you imagine that the American record company don't know what we do really.

What was the experience of Nashville like?

It was only eight days. It rushed by really. The fact that we were filming it meant it was all really on edge... probably assisted it really — when I saw the indifference of Billy Sherrill on film ... I wasn't aware of it at the time, I was too busy concentrating. They got a good sound, you can't argue with the sound they got; it's the same sound for George Jones or Tammy Wynette. Sherrill's not interested in 90% of the records he makes, he mixes half of them from his office, he's got an intercom.

There were some bizarre reports about him on his yacht producing from there...

Oh, he's an odd character. He doesn't seem to have a lot of love for anything really, least of all music. God knows why he's in it. It seems to be a habit, he can't get out of making million selling records.

From NME's "REVENGE AND GUILT" headlines of '78 to Rolling Stone's "ELVIS COSTELLO REPENTS" a few weeks back, how does it feel to live in block capitals?

I think both headlines are misplaced and irrelevant. I obviously did various things to assist that "revenge and guilt" image, but I found it frustrating early on. I never really revelled in it, though sometimes I added fuel to the fire by foolish things I said. And the "repents" thing — well, that's some sub-editor's idea. That's not even Greil Marcus' idea. I spoke to him afterwards and he was actually angry about that. The tone of the interview was nothing to do with repentance and the inner headline — "explains himself" — was much more what I intended that article to be, clearing up specifically that Ohio incident, which in America was much more crucial to our career; it coloured our career. I felt it important to clear that up once and for all.

In 1978 you told NME "This job is not designed to make you nicer or more mature." How do you feel about that now? Do you think you've become more mature?

Not really. I don't think of myself as mature. I don't sit round thinking about myself that much. I have no opinion about that. I don't know whether I'm more mature; I try to be, about things that are important to me, but I don't necessarily disagree with that quote.

But something snapped you out of that ranting, rub 'em up the wrong way phase you've described.

I just got tired of it, it's only fun for so long. Also you become a bit pathetic after a while if you're still ranting on. You can only hit people with rage when they're not expecting it, otherwise they just switch off. You've no divine right to their attention. To hold their attention you've got to be a bit more cunning. You've even got to get them to like you. Maybe later you decide to rub 'em up the wrong way again. I'm not saying that would never happen. If I wanted to make a very aggressive record I wouldn't feel inhibited about it as long as I felt it. It was then that the attitude started to dictate to the music and not the other way round; that's when I got disturbed. When I found what I was saying was making better copy than what I was singing I thought. Well, hang on, I gotta be a bit more... not deceitful, but careful and cunning about it.

Do you think it's taken a long time for you to get over that image of negativity?

I'd like to replace it with something that was as powerful but more positive. At the moment we're in an interim period where there are a degree of people who understand what we're about and pay attention, and they number around 50,000 in this country.

Do you have a strong sense of personal history?

(Thinks) Not like The Clash (laughs) I don't have a strong, sense of personal mythology, if that's what you mean. I suppose you qualify everything with hindsight: I go right off records and individual songs, but beyond my work, no, I don't. It's one of the vanities of the business, and bands who play up to that are usually the ones with least to say. When you get up close to people it's hard to dislike them, with a few exceptions... like Miles Copeland... (Whispers)... I hate him.

What's the most dangerous thing you've encountered in your profession?

Dangerous in what sense? Losing control of yourself, losing sight of your original objectives, allowing your bloody image to dictate to your personal life — that's dangerous.

Do you ever feel a little schizoid — like, who is this person called Elvis Costello I've created?

Yeah. I've seriously thought about dumping it. Recently I've come to thinking that for this country anyway. I think there's two different time-scales: there's America, where it takes you five years for them to wake up long enough so you can sing to them. Here it's kind of Oh God, it's old hat; that very snobbish attitude. We went down the Hacienda in Manchester and there were all these people sitting round looking like they should have been in Echo And The Bunnymen very obviously sneering, like. Oh, you're rockist. (Laughs) It was that attitude personified.

Would you ever stop performing?

If we stick around much longer we'll be the only group left from our particular vintage still going. I'd only stop if I felt there were no real point. There are no other people who do what we do. There are a lot of other groups that are popular. We're a one-off; not many groups are formed like that. I'm the odd man out.. I'm the least accomplished musician. I always feel that The Attractions get a rough deal, that they aren't given enough credit for being superb musicians.

There seems to have been a move away from songs written in the first person on "Imperial Bedroom" to songs written in the third person, with more distance, on things like "Long Honeymoon" and "And In Every Home."

In some cases it's story telling. Other songs it's using more song writing craft rather than just pouring out your own experience carelessly hacked into some sort of metre and set to a tune. You're using more songwriter's craft to make life more interesting for the listener. I had this horrible feeling, even though I didn't write all the songs on "Almost Blue," of this man tortured by his own soul, wailing away in an abyss... That's to be flip and play devil's advocate with your own work, which it's always good to do ... I could be more ruthless than all your cynical critics about all my records... it doesn't mean I'd write that way for the next record; it's just what I did with those particular subjects.

I couldn't imagine you writing a song as compassionate as "Little Fool" a few years ago.

There aren't many songs written from that point of view, slightly disparaging but also sympathetic. Maybe it only seems unusual because I was branded as a misogynist around the time of This Year's Model, which I thought was completely wrong. A completely mysterious thing to deduce from that album because the main song, the title track, was saying "Don't just be another face," and that applies to men and women, so I always thought there was compassion there. Maybe the overall tone of the album overpowered some of the intentions of the lyrics, or I was singing them as if I wanted to murder somebody. "You Little Fool" was deliberately meant to sound archaic, with a harpsichord and 12-string guitar, this phoney kind of... I wanted it to sound like Vanity Fair or Left Banke or someone.

The whole LP seems more compassionate, not feeling sorry for yourself but for people caught up in situations over which they have very little control, or which they don't understand.

Maybe. The real horrors were all on Get Happy or Almost Blue, that's when the real black moods were. There was some kind of light on Trust... I actually thought Bedroom was a light hearted record myself. "Man Out Of Time" is a pretty grim song, and the bridge of "And In Every Home," cos it's a song about being unemployed and the person who's unemployed is ME. The bridge at least, I felt "I don't have any purpose, I don't have a job, I'm disconnected"...


I still do feel that way a little bit.

You mean not clocking on?

No, the fact that we make the records and people buy them and appreciate them, and the work that's gone into them, but at the same time, the loss of greater interest in them... this is getting to the point of Graham Smith's live review in NME: What is going on? How can they be this good and not sell any records? Which seems to be a very fashionable thing to say in all the papers, it's become the fashionable thing to say. It's something I'd like to arrest. As I said before, I've thought of hanging up the name, or doing something drastic like recording under a pseudonym, cos I'm actually beginning to think that the name is a jinx. I'm actually starting to get superstitious about it because I think, well what more is there I can do? I don't want to put any more in because I don't want to be one of those people like Pete Hammill who's tearing his own head off in private.

Why do you have such a problem getting airplay?

You can't even pinpoint that — we had great airplay on both "Little Fool" and "Head To Toe." I think we have got a problem politically with this company, something that stems from a previous time, it's not the responsibility of the people now, I think they're trying to deal with it. But I do think that reflects our bad relationship between the end of Radar and the start of F-Beat.

F-Beat's never really developed consequently into what I wanted it to be, it's been a disappointment. I wanted it to be a much more important label. I thought it had the ability to be a 2-Tone, to change things. It's been just another sticker on the bloody record, even though it is nice to have control over sleeves and adverts and all the things that people signed to big companies have to put up with. I've got off the point, I was saying something about "Man Out Of Time"... it was about that feeling of not having a job, of making these records aimlessly, might as well be Kevin Coyne or something really.

It's very difficult to balance the two things, because on the one hand you make serious records, but on the other you've got to be in competition with Haircut 100. Doesn't mean I'm gonna start wearing leggings or silly yachting caps or act like I'm 18 because that would be embarrassing. But it's important that the next record — if there is a next record, and at the moment I'm weighing up what the next record should be or whether there should be a pause of some kind. Cos on the one hand I'm just a songwriter who sings and does my best and puts my heart into it, on the other hand I understand the business better than a lot of people I know, where I stand in it, that side of me says hang on, what is the point of bashing your head against a brick wall, to throw it away, because you're gonna put all this work in and people are not going to accept it because of who you are? They've decided they don't like you so you might as well not bother to make records and be off like John The Baptist. It's a question of presenting it, the production, the kind of song even...

Maybe you're expecting a lot from the pop song. Maybe you're too smart to be involved in an area as dumb as pop music.

No, I can write dumb lyrics like anybody else.

Were you shocked by the success of "Oliver's Army," considering its subject matter?

No, not really. It was what I always hoped I could do; it's what I hoped to do from the very first single. I didn't choose "Less Than Zero," but we would never have released it if we didn't think there was a chance of pulling that stunt of having a hit record where the musical content took it into the charts before anyone realised what the lyrics were about.

Nick Lowe's theory of "Subversive Pop"?...

Yeah. The minute you say it's subversive it defeats the object. We're gonna release a really subversive single folks, are you ready there at the radio? (Laughs). That's what happened with "Radio Radio." Radio One realised it was anti-radio and not pro-radio when they listened to the lyrics of the verse instead of just the chorus, radio play stopped overnight and the record dropped like a stone. It was steaming away up until then.

They'll play anything with "radio" in the title.

They even use it as a jingle sometimes, edited down. I don't hold any animosity, I don't really think there are any evil minds at work in British radio; I think there's a lot of under-achievements. But I do think there's a conscious, almost conspiracy in America. It's much more sinister. The American radio by comparison is really sinister. They've got to the point now where they won't play new records. They'll play old records because they know they hold the listener, and the sponsor wants that.

Although it was written two or three years ago, "Oliver's Army" is about the only record that seems to have any relevance to the Falklands conflict.

Hmmm. That's why when I was going round the radio stations on this last tour I tended to plug Robert Wyatt's record ("Shipbuilding") more than my own, because I had more concern really in the fate of that. I'm really proud of that record, both from writing it and being involved in it. It was great to work with Robert because he's such a great singer, and he's also one of the nicest people I've ever worked with. He was unbelievable to work with. I hate to sound mawkish, but I actually got choked up listening to him. I forgot I was supposed to be producing it. I did the final vocal mix because Clive was away. I just got completely overcome in one take, I couldn't listen to his voice, it's so plaintive, I'd written the lyrics and I was meant to be taking responsibility for it. Clive had done all the work getting the track right, and it was all complete.

How did you come to write it?

During our Australian tour we were getting the Australian version of the Falklands thing. The Australian coverage was really gruesome, going on about napalm and everything; they were really dramatising it. We weren't getting quite so much of the patriotic bollocks you were getting here, it wasn't quite so sickening as the Daily Star, "Sponsor Your Own Exocet Missile," and those really sickly things. They say that you see your own country more clearly when you're away from it.

Reading these two-day old reports the strangest things flashed in my mind... It was a pretty funny feeling singing that song in Glasgow and Newcastle on the tour; I wondered how many people had heard it or knew what it was about, whether it's clear enough to hear the lyrics? And this guy came round, and he actually worked in the shipyards and liked the song. He said. It's right, y'know? Why have we got our jobs back? I was trying to think from the point of view of a father, because the kid's quite young, or so he thinks until the kid's joined up, then the kid's gone away on a ship that he's built. He got his job back, he got his way of life back, only to send his own child to go and get killed. It's like that song "Two Brothers" about the American Civil War; just a simple war ballad in that tradition.

The original idea was like a Brill building songwriting idea, a technical exercise between me and Clive. The tune moved me a lot. Clive had written it with Robert in mind. He'd got in touch with Rough Trade but my involvement wasn't mentioned. I always had the feeling that if my name had been mentioned he might back off, because of what I said about people having this suspicion of me. All those people who treat everything I do with suspicion, they might say oh here he comes, clever dick. I don't think they could hear Robert's voice and think it doesn't sound sincere. He's the only person I can imagine singing the Red Flag and making it into a beautiful song.

How about Chet Baker's "Memories Of You" on the flip side?

I said to Robert in the studio that one of my favourite singers was Chet Baker. It turned out that he was his wife's favourite, and that she'd always tried to get him to do something in that vein, so ...

I was going to ask you about whether you'd backed away from political songs, but that about answers it.

(Laughs) I see "And In Every Home" as a political song. It was me writing a song which expressed my own disconnection with the direct communication that, say Paul Weller or Ali Campbell have with their audience. Those people can stand up and sing, "We do this, we do that," some anthemic things, like "When You're Young." For all they get knocked — like people say they're the reggae Joan Baez I think UB40 are fantastic: the guy's voice; they can sing "One In Ten" and it's not self-conscious. If I wrote that song I’d be rightly ridiculed for it. I’ve never established a relationship with the audience like that. I’m not a man of the people. I never tried to be. I just write songs. I never identified with any class thing.

I love The Beat's new record, but it seems they’re caught in a trap because everyone’s saying, why isn’t this about politics? But I think "I Confess" is one of the most beautiful bits of singing I’ve heard all year.

So, "And In Every Home" was trying to write a story about hard times, but also relating the song to my own feelings about being on the scrap heap. I identified that your personal pride can be more important than the job itself. I can only comment from the outside, but not from my mansion on the hill. I just live in an ordinary house. Oh, I’ve made money, but I’m not consciously extravagant. Whenever it’s got out of hand, I’ve always found disgust with myself. That song incorporates some of my dilemmas about political writing and perhaps the limitations I think Dave Wakeling is finding these days. Same with Paul Weller; because he wrote "Bitterest Pill" people are critical. What’s the matter with everyone? That’s a great song. So long as the songs are about people, I think that’s what is important.

I tell Elvis about a literary critic who fed all Shakespeare’s plays into a computer in order to analyse the imagery, and what specific images “meant” to the bard (every reference to dogs turned out to be disparaging for example), and how Weberman or some such Dylanologist did the same with the Zimmerman songbook ("boots" coming out with a crucial lead in repeated images). How would the EC songbook fare if it were given the same treatment, I wondered?

(Pause) "Fingers" feature quite a lot... I wouldn't know really, I hope there wouldn't be any image so predominant or cliched. Like, with Springsteen, take away "night" and "highway" and "car" and "road" and there probably wouldn't be any songs left. (Laughs) I've never really thought about repetitive imagery, or style even. An American magazine picked up on internal rhyming in my songs, I'd never even heard of it.

Shoes seem to figure quite a lot.

Shoes, yeah, shoes were big early on. I don't think shoes are so important later on. I had a bit of a thing about shoes before I got into the business because I only had one pair, so when I went through a period of extravagance with clothes — I had a bit of a silly period with checkerboard suits and deliberately horrible clothes. I heard a gasp of horror one night from the purists when I walked onstage in a turquoise lame jacket. But it was shoes mostly. I don't wear any of them now, I'm back to Martens.

There are lots of gangster images, lots of guns...

Yeah, I hate guns, maybe that's why I put them in there, because it's the most repellent image. I like frightening songs, not to get heavy with people, it's all to make a point.

There are lots of very British phrases, slang and backchat.

Yeah, I like using expressions I hear people use — "tuppenny ha'penny' millionaire," things I hear people say. I've got slang dictionaries at home but I don't use them, they're just good for checking up things you hear people say — like "bone orchard" (graveyard) which I heard and used. The only time I wrote a whole song out of those phrases was "Sunday's Best," where I got the whole song out the News Of The World. That's another thing that comes up a lot — newspapers, the press. Yeah, that's mainly because I write a lot of songs out of them. "Beyond Belief" was another one I wrote sitting down reading the paper.

You hate the News Of The World and the gutter press.

I think it cheapens the language. I used to get it until I realised that it had ceased to serve a purpose, that it was the same stories every week. I used to have a morbid fascination, as there is with trash like that. In Australia I saw a copy of the Daily Star and it was like another language. It certainly wasn't English, it wasn't Australian...

Going back to America, you seem to have a very severe opinion of the place. Do you think we're under attack, not just in an obvious way with the weapons and bases and Reagan's attitude...

I think that we are very definitely...

… but also from a gradual cultural takeover?

I still feel that America's fairly intimidated by England culturally. The one thing we've got that they haven't is history and a lot of old culture, and I think that gives more clout to what comes afterwards. I think they try to be very dismissive about it, but every so often they give in to one particular thing, whether it's The Beatles or more recently The Human League. It doesn't have to be a huge revolution for them, it just proves that their chauvinism isn't watertight. I think they get bored with what they've got over there. What's sad is that they pay so little attention to the good stuff under their noses. They've got great singers and writers in every field — the Mac Rebennack’s, Delbert McClinton’s, Otis Rush — a current favourite of mine. I read articles about him and he's still playing where he was 20 years ago. I mean, what's going on? Then they have the nerve to champion these awful groups, that's where I start to get annoyed. The British take it to extremes and champion the most obscure people who aren't worth championing, but the Americans are so disrespectful about the great things they've got.

What happened to that film you did with Meatloaf, Americathon, that never did get released, did it?

No, mercifully. It was awful, though I only had a cameo part in it anyway.

Have you thought about doing a film, it seems to be what people do? Have you any plans to do any more films?

I've been offered scripts but they were all so diabolical I thought I wouldn't get involved with it. I'd want not to be patronised, to do that as well as I do this, rather than do it as the next investment for the record company. I couldn't see myself acting anyway. The camera doesn't like me, I know that from watching myself on Top Of The Pops. Every time we've appeared on that program the record's gone down the following week. (Laughs)

So you'd want to write. Have you done any writing then?

Yes, a few sketch things, things that aren't song lyrics. I've never wanted to, y'know, do my poems or short stories. I'd do it under a pseudonym so as not to try and use my name as a musician. Even in this business I've got doubts about the name.

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New Musical Express, October 30, 1982

Neil Spencer interviews Elvis Costello.


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Page scans.
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Photos by Anton Corbijn

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