Rage, September 1987

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Elvis Costello: A decade of aiming true

Andrew Watt

It's now slightly more than 10 years since Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus first graced the turntables of the world with his initial single "Less Than Zero."

Since that time, Elvis Costello, as he is better known, has proven to be one of the most articulate and prolific songwriters and performers in the rock idiom; his 12 albums and various singles marking him as brilliant tunesmith, and a lyricist of rare insight and verbal flair.

It was in 1976, in the midst of the halcyon days of the punk-revolution that Elvis Costello strode unannounced into the office of Jake Riviera, the head of the fledging independent label, Stiff Records.

Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a swag of angst-ridden but intelligently phrased songs, Costello's brash appeal impressed Riviera (who was no retiring violet himself) and it led to an immediate signing.

Along with "Less Than Zero," two other singles, the glorious mourning ballad "Alison" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" were released prior to his first album, My Aim Is True.

Costello shared the attitudes of the punks; he was shrewd, arrogant and angry but used language that put the punks anti-establishment posturing to shame, and showed many of them up to be the sham that they really were.

And where the punks used a musical blitzkrieg to make their point, Costello and his band, The Attractions, played sparse, biting but oh! so arousing music that owed far more to Buddy Holly than the New York Dolls.

The Attractions were, and remain, one of the tightest outfits of the New Wave. Drummer Pete Thomas had played with the Red Hot Peppers while bassist Bruce Thomas came from the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver.

The Attractions was the first band that keyboardist Steve Nieve had ever been in; his prior musical education had been in the Royal College of Music.

The band's next single, "Watching the Detectives," broke Costello worldwide and was followed by the second album, This Year's Model.

This powerful, vibrant release cemented Costello's place as the most passionate of the New Wave artists.

Two songs in particular, "Pump It Up" and "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," have become bona fide classics of the genre. Both are still regularly covered by other bands, but few are able to capture the biting, aching, sneering strength of the original models.

Costello's next album 1979's Armed Forces, saw an expansion of horizons taking place, both lyrically and musically.

The production was broader and instrumentally, Nieve added piano to his signature organ sound. The band played further "out" and Costello's mumbling vocal style took on great clarity.

Armed Forces took on the issue of militarism in a provocative way.

Together, songs such as "Oliver's Army," "Green Shirt," "Senior Service," "Goon Squad" and "Two Little Hitlers" painted a complete portrait of the subject matter and its implications.

Costello never aimed to be a spokesman for a generation, though. He was a spokesman for himself and if he felt the need to pay out on a person or institution it came from within.

He became notorious as a difficult interview subject.

He was impatient, stubborn and intolerant of what he perceived as fools.

His songs revealed a dry sense of humour, but his public persona was deadly serious and seemingly constantly irritated.

A change of label eventuated the release of the single, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," and the albums Get Happy and Trust.

The latter featuring songs like "Clubland" and "From a Whisper to a Scream," showed Costello expanding his style into jazz and smoky blues without changing his basic approach.

He was still very much a pop writer but despite this and the sheer ability of The Attractions and Costello's increasing wry social comments, one began to sense perhaps the formula was becoming a little too obvious, and it was time for a change.

Costello had always been interested in and fond of country music. George Jones especially had long been one of his favorites, and even back in 1979, he'd occasionally slip a country song into his repertoire.

In May 1981, Costello and his band descended on the Mecca of country music and, with the help of pedal steel guitar player, John McFee, made the Almost Blue album.

It was produced by Billy Sherrill, a character who, as much as anyone, had profoundly influenced the course of modern country, and it contained a collection of country music standards and personal favorites.

In 1982, Costello resumed to more familiar ground with the release of Imperial Bedroom and a heavy schedule of touring before recording one of his best albums, Punch the Clock, which, spawned the hit "Everyday I Write the Book" and two rather significant songs, Shipbuilding (which was also recorded by Robert Wyatt), and Pills and Soap which bore special relevance to the general election in England.

Like all of Costello's records, Punch the Clock, is an album of many moods, intricate subtleties and great authority.

It adopted a soul groove and, if anything, it is more immediately accessible than its predecessors, utilising the brash power of The TKO Horns.

A solo acoustic tour of America, followed by a tour with The Attractions through Australia, New Zealand and Europe preceded the release of the Goodbye Cruel World album which was assisted by a vocal contribution by Daryl Hall.

Famed producer, T Bone Burnett joined Costello for further legs of his acoustic tour that included the birth of the almost legendary Coward Brothers, Henry and Howard.

This tour eventually made it to Australia in 1985, a trek that was only interrupted by Costello producing the wonderful Pogues album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash.

The association with Burnett continued into the studio in the US where the next album King of America was recorded.

The Attractions were augmented by players including Mitchell Froom, James Burton, Mickey Curry and Jerry Scheff on a record that arguably saw Costello's songwriting at its most poignant and vital.

Like all of his albums, King Of America contained well above the average number of tracks, reflecting again what a prolific writer he really was.

The latest Elvis Costello album to be released is Blood & Chocolate, a disc recorded live with The Attractions and producer Nick Lowe, a long-time associate.

It's hard to believe, but 10 years later this album is being acclaimed by some critics as his best.

It certainly bears all the typically Costello traits in the songwriting department. Colorfully worded, outspoken and yet fully thought out attitudes and sentiments are displayed.

Even after 12 album releases, the only way you can't respond to Elvis Costello is to ignore him.

And that's just the way he'd want it to be.

Tags: Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManusLess Than ZeroJake RivieraStiff RecordsAlison(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesMy Aim Is TrueBuddy HollyNew York DollsThe AttractionsPete ThomasChilli Willi & the Red Hot PeppersBruce ThomasSutherland Brothers And QuiverSteve NieveWatching The DetectivesThis Year's ModelPump It Up(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaArmed ForcesOliver's ArmyGreen ShirtSenior ServiceGoon SquadTwo Little HitlersI Can't Stand Up For Falling DownGet Happy!!TrustClublandFrom A Whisper To A ScreamGeorge JonesJohn McFeeAlmost BlueBilly SherrillImperial BedroomPunch The ClockEveryday I Write The BookShipbuildingRobert WyattPills And SoapThe TKO Horns1984 US Solo TourGoodbye Cruel WorldDaryl HallT Bone BurnettThe Coward BrothersThe PoguesRum, Sodomy & The LashKing Of AmericaMitchell FroomJames BurtonMickey CurryJerry ScheffBlood & ChocolateNick Lowe


Rage Magazine, No. 2, September 1987

Andrew Watt profiles Elvis Costello ahead of the 1987 Australia Tour.


1987-09-00 Rage Magazine photo 01 cd.jpg
Photo by Chalkie Davies.

1987-09-00 Rage cover.jpg


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