- 25 Aug 20
Happy 66th Birthday, Elvis Costello! To celebrate, we're revisiting his classic 1989 interview with Hot Press's Neil McCormack.
Call it coincidence, call it synchronicity. Maybe we should settle for bad planning. I was in Heathrow Airport, waiting to board a delayed Aer Lingus flight from London to Dublin. It was a hastily arranged trip to interview Elvis Costello in the Gresham Hotel. I was skimming through some old Costello articles I had long had on file, not so much in-depth examinations as evasive skirmishes from a time when Elvis spoke to the press infrequently and, it seemed, reluctantly.
“The press were looking for something to crucify me with, and I fed myself to the lions," said the singer in a rare 1982 Rolling Stone interview, referring to the petty, drunken argument with Bonnie Bramlett, when Elvis shot his mouth off about black music and then was forced to duck as American journalists returned fire. 'ELVIS COSTELLO REPENTS' said the cover headline over a photo of a completely impenitent pop-star, gazing suspiciously out through large, black-rimmed spectacles, as if irritated at having to break his self-imposed silence to explain off the unfortunate and unwarranted stigma of racism that was then still damaging his American career. I looked up from the page... and straight into the same face gazing vacantly back at me from across the departure lounge.
The face was a little heavier maybe, slightly bearded, sporting small, rounded, dark glasses and with a black cap pulled low on the forehead as if making a half-hearted attempt at celebrity disguise, but it was him alright. Elvis Costello, in person, his wife Cait sitting to his right, a WEA International rep to his left. Carefully folding my clippings, I ambled over to introduce myself.
Elvis saw me coming. Or rather, he saw someone making a bee-line for him, clutching Costello cut-out pictures. His eyes darted to the left and right, as if seeking a convenient escape route, but he was against the wall and far from any crowd. Realising he was trapped, he slumped in his seat and attempted a weak smile as he accepted my outstretched hand. Cait buried her face in a book, keen to avoid the homily of an ardent fan.
“I’m from Hot Press," I said, "I thought you were supposed to be in Dublin!” "You're the one who's supposed to be in Dublin," countered Elvis, understandably mystified. "What's going on?" asked the bewildered WEA rep.
The flight was announced as we gave our conflicting explanations of the communications complication that led to two people who lived in the same city flying all the way to another country to meet one another. "Bizarre!" laughed Elvis. "Why doesn't anybody ever tell me what's going on?" complained the rep. "Don't worry," says Elvis, "I've got some other things I've got to do over there." "All it takes is a phone call!” muttered the rep, despairingly. "See you in Dublin," smiled Elvis as we boarded.
"Sorry about this," apologised the rep. "Don't worry," I replied, "you've just given me an intro for my article."
Not that Elvis Costello really needs an introduction. Since the days of rock's re-birth in the baptism of fire that was punk rock, he has been a leading figure in the world of contemporary music. Britain's most critically acclaimed songwriter, with a world status and influence that far exceeds his (respectable} sales figures.
From knock-kneed, angry young man snarling that the only human emotions he understood were guilt and revenge, to slightly portly, genial elder-statesman singing "All You Need Is Love" at Live Aid, his career has twisted and turned with more convolutions than his own punning lyrics, following an agenda clear to no one, probably not even himself. He has always seemed as much agent provocateur as pop star, never a pin-up even as a chart-topper, just too viciously anti-establishment to win the respect of the respectable. He is awesomely prolific and while there have been, inevitably, lows as well as highs in his output, the sheer intelligence, melodic invention emotional intensity of his writing and performing invests his least impressive work with redeeming features. Elvis Costello, as he told me himself during our conversation, is not God, but he's a class act, and I’ll settle for that.
After a turbulent flight across the Irish sea (when the stewardess kept reminding everyone to keep their seat-bells fastened and star and journalist both considered whether it might have been wiser to have stayed and done the interview in the departure lounge) Elvis offered me a lift into town. The record company limo, with its polished black body and plush, red velvet interior, resembled nothing so much as a mobile brothel. Elyis sprawled on the back seat like a visiting dignitary, holding court as the Irish rep, the International rep and the journalist listened to a round of musical anecdotes. Cait, with the indifferent air of one who has heard it all before, remained buried in her book.
Elvis recounted drinking in a club in Canada where the bar band played a version of his song "Mystery Dance". Much to the local musicians' surprise, Elvis and The Attractions got up on stage to join them but then found they couldn't keep in sync with a version copied direct from the record. "We were stopping and starting in all the wrong places," he laughed. "They were better at being us than we were!" He told how drummer Pete Thomas, formerly a notorious drinker (though now apparently reformed and "playing better than ever") got them a telling off from Top Of The Pops' producer Michael Hurt for miming drum solos on his head during a broadcast of "I Wanna Be Loved". "It's incredible," said Elvis. "They seem to really believe that people that watch Top Of The Pops think you're playing live. Someone should break it to them!" Although it was a dull, rainy day Elvis' dark glasses remained on throughout the journey, masking a hangover that had followed a night of carousing after a hard week promoting his new album. "I wanted to unwind a bit," he remarked. "I think I unwound a bit too much."
Elvis has long since made his peace with the press and indeed, it seems, with the world. He is affable and easy to talk to, waxing eloquently on a wide range of musical topics. But the sense of privacy that drove him to keep journalists at arms length for so long remains, and he is evasive if the interview strays too far from his work. "I don't really see what this has got to do with music," he said at one point, signalling an end to a conversation about his family background. To be guarded about his private life and persona is, of course, his prerogative; to choose to probe it is mine. When we settled down to talk in a suite at the top of the Gresham, next door to the rooms he occupied for three months in '87, I wanted to try and find out something about who Elvis Costello really is. I think I found out a little, though an hour and a half was too short a time to talk to the only recording artist in the world whose every record I possess.
Between 1977 and 1987 Elvis Costello released 11 albums, not including two compilations of obscurities and a Best Of. Throw in an impressive number of collaborations and production jobs and his itinerary for those ten years looks like the wet dream of a workaholic. The two year gap between "Blood And Chocolate" and his new album, "Spike", is the longest of his career, but, as he explains, "I haven't exactly been holidaying."
He toured sporadically with the loose collection of "King Of America" session men The Confederates, "a difficult band to get together in one place at one time." He did get them together in Europe, then later in the southern states of America, in Australia and Japan. "I wanted to play down south with those guys just to see what happened," he says. They played Honky Tonks in Tulsa, New Orleans and Nashville where, he confesses, "the audiences were completely bewildered because they have a force-fed diet of that kind of music, and R'n'B and country, and when I go down there they kind of want punk rock or something!"
In '87 he also did a solo college tour in America and then came to Ireland and lived in The Gresham for three months while Cart was acting in the film "The Courier". Elvis kept himself busy writing songs ("I must have written about half this album next door," he recalls) and got talked into doing the music for the film, which he found "quite therapeutic not having to worry about song structures." "The Courier" got released in '88 to quite an overwhelmingly negative reception -- Elvis thought that unfair: "It wasn't 'Citizen Kane' but I don't think its makers thought it was." He did some work with Latin American star Reuben Blades, co-writing songs on his first English language album, played with a veritable galaxy of stars backing Roy Orbison for a special concert and, out of the blue, was asked if he would like to do some writing with Paul McCartney.
They had met on a few occasions in studios and on benefit shows, but, as Elvis wryly observes, "He's not the sort of guy you go knocking on his door saying 'Can I write some songs with you?'" A huge Beatles fan, Elvis had never really disparaged McCartney’s solo work as many of his punk contemporaries had. "Even at his most nursery rhymish, there was always something musically redeeming in his songs. I learned a tremendous amount from The Beatles and it's in my songs, it's in me, and he's one half of the partnership that put it there in the first place."
Two of the songs from the McCartney/MacManus partnership appear on "Spike", another was a McCartney B-side and others will be on his next album. "On the face of it it doesn't look like a very likely collaboration but it worked out really good," he observes. "We were strangely compatible. You've got to remember that it's just a guy, you know? I'm at exactly the right age to be really intimidated by it and from time to time I’d look up and go 'God it's HIM!’, but I had to put all those thoughts aside, particularly any thoughts like 'these are pretty big shoes to be trying to fill' because it's not Lennon and McCartney. He's Paul McCartney, he's been a solo artist much longer than he's been a Beatle and I’m sure it gets on his nerves to be constantly referred to in the past tense. Whether people find his music less exciting now than it was then, well, it's a pretty tall order to be more exciting! It's like being the King of The World for a few years then having to settle for being the ambassador or something. I shouldn't think it's that easy a job and he's a decent person I must say, very sane."
Elvis made no effort to curb his penchant for Beatle-like licks just because he was working with a Beatle. "The ironic part is," he laughs, "if it sounds like he wrote it I probably did and vice versa. He wanted to do all the ones with lots of words and all on one note and I'm the one trying to work in the 'Please Please Me' harmony all over the place. It was really fun."
Most of the rest of Elvis' time has been taken up with preparing and recording his new album. "There's thirty-two musicians on it and there was a lot of phone calls to make. I must have spent a month on the phone ringing people up trying to find out when they were free and make a schedule to accommodate everyone." This is possibly his most expensive album ever. "I didn't have any more money than I'd had on previous albums," he admits, "but this time I spent it all!" There was a lot of travelling and relocating as Elvis and his two co-producers T-Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen moved between Hollywood, New Orleans, Dublin and London "to get the best possible group to play each song."
From the outset Elvis and T-Bone Burnett had wanted to do something different from previous albums, T-Bone encouraging him to approach the recording with a 'similar abandon' to his "Courier" soundtrack. They began to draw up a broad list of instruments, approaching each song as a separate entity. "There is almost different instrumentation on every song," says Elvis. The 32 musicians include such famous names as McCartney, Roger McGuinn and Chrissie Hynde, some of America's finest session players including drummers Jim Keltner and Jery Marotta, an 8-piece brass band he saw while on holiday in New York with his jazz-loving mother ("she really dug them") and an impressive ensemble of Irish folkies including Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Davy Spillane, Derek Bell, Frankie Gavin and Steve Wickham. "I think it was worth it if it has come out the way I heard it in my head," says Elvis.
"So all these things add up to the sum of the two years since 'Blood And Chocolate'. Which isn't a long time, it's only a long time for me," Elvis sums up, pointing out that, "The Pretenders have released five albums in the time I've released twelve."
"Spike" encompasses music with its roots in '60s pop, swing, jazz and folk. As he has done before with musical influences from Tamla-soul to country and western, Elvis dovetails these diverse sources into his own identifiable brand of lyric-orientated songwriting with an astonishing versatility, rarely, if ever, sounding like a tourist or an impersonator. His astonishing range and almost instinctive comprehension for the subtleties of different styles can be seen as a legacy from a childhood surrounded by music. Both his parents were involved in music, his father, famously, as Ross MacManus, the singer in the Joe Loss Orchestra, a Glenn Miller style 14-piece big band. But his mother too had her influence.
“My mother worked on record shops, she ran record departments,” says Elvis. "She's very knowledgeable about music, because in those days you didn't just flicker down a page torn out of Music Week to find someone a record, you had to know which was the best recording of ‘The Song Of TheEarth’ or something, you actually had to know something about music. So there were always records around the house. My mother says the first record I ever really liked was 'Songs For Swingin' Lovers'. Apparently when I couldn't even talk I liked that record, the sound must just have appealed to me. So from even before I can remember I've listened to music that swung!
"Of course, up to a certain age you're not influenced by snobbery, you’re just as likely to like a song that you heard Val Doonicansinging as Frank Sinatra. I absorbed a lot of different kinds of music. When you're very small you can't tell the difference, you just like songs. You don't hear the bass on records, you iust hear the whole record. If you listen to records you liked when you were 11, you suddenly hear what's happening on them now cause your ears are more attuned. In the same way, when I was a little boy I used to go with my dad to see the Joe Loss orchestra play, on Sundays and Saturdays, I s'pose to get someone in to clean out the house and not have me bloody running around! And although they were a dance band, I never really thought of them as a swing band, though that's where their sound was rooted. It was just like this big block of reed and brass sound."
There was no musical rebellion or generation gap antagonism in the MacManus household. "I never thought of rock'n'roll as being particularly rebellious," says Elvis. "The first pop music I really identified with was The Beatles when I was eight or nine and most everybody of all generations, could appreciate that the Beatles were good. Most of the time I was in agreement with my father, not about the songs he necessarily liked but about the songs that he sang. Back in 1963, you got like two hours a week when you heard pop music on the radio and the rest of the time it was light orchestra music, you know swing, dance band music. And the more hip dance bands started to play the modern music, doing modified arrangements. The publishers were putting out records as fast as they could, trying to get covers, cause that was the way people had hits -- it wasn't necessarily through the original artist, it was by people becoming familiar with the song. The song was still king. It was The Beatles that changed that, playing their own instruments.
"So I had a big stack of A-label records, acetates of all kinds of stuff that my dad was obliged to learn. He's a very versatile singer and quite a good mimc and they had a tremendously imaginative arranger who somehow managed to score these pop records for this 14-piece orchestra. Now whether my father liked it or not I don't know. I'm sure some of the songs he hated, but he got lumbered with this, doing things like 'Good Vibrations' and 'Like A Rolling Stone'.
Elvis can only remember rebelling against his father's tastes in the late '60s, when MacManus senior was becoming a little too radical for his son. "My father sort of became like a hippy, when he was about 40. He grew his hair and he started listening to The Jefferson Airplane and things, and that was the only time we disagreed about music. I didn't like all that stuff. He gave me a load of psychedelic records and I was into Tamla Motown by then."
It was a time when Elvis recalls his own tastes developing and changing. "As a teenager things change very quickly for you, sometimes yon feel brasher and I liked Tamla Motown and other times you get all angst-ridden and I liked Joni Mitchell or something. Then as you get older and you're writing yourself you become aware that this music isn't just something that is done to you, you can actually control it. Music stops being this magic thing that appears out of nowhere, you can dismantle it and find out how it works and use it as a language. Yet when it gels, it's still really magical. I wrote some quite sophisticated songs in my teens. 'New Lace Sleeves', which turned up on 'Trust', I'd written that when I was 19. So you obviously incorporate a lot of things you've learned as a listener. And I know a lot of music. I've memorised it, I know more songs than most people I know.
Ross MacManus still performs, and has been known to include an occasional Elvis Costello song in his set. "We've sung together," says Elvis, with obvious pride. "I was on a show, a celebration of the Joe Loss Orchestra and my dad was invited back to sing on the BBC. We did 'Georgia' together."
Digging deeper into the MacManus family background, Elvis reveals that his grandfather was 'a military trained classical player.' He also has four half-brothers from his father's second marriage "and they're mostly musical as well." He's not convinced it's a genetic thing, however. "I don't hold with those theories. The difference in musical experience between my father, my grandfather and myself is quite a lot. And my great grandfather was a coal merchant so I don't know what his input is!"
Elvis has a son by his first marriage, who is now 14 and into speed-metal and rap. Elvis doesn't think it too likely he will be the successor in a musical dynasty. "It's less dominant in his life than it was in mine," he comments. "He's tinkered around with something musical. He hasn't shown me. He's kind of interested more in art."
Elvis Costello was once a genuine Top 0f' The Pops-star, playing with a shiny modern sound that a multitude of bands imitated, to the extent that Elvis And The Attractions were driven away from their own creation for fear of "sounding like a parody of ourselves," as he told The Face in '83. These days, hit singles are rare and his opinion of chart music low. He dismissed the hulk of late '80s pop as 'songs about shopping and fucking' in a piece he wrote for Hot Press in 1987. However he insists that he is neither out of touch, nor running out of time.
"I've always been fearing that moment that everybody must reach when they go 'I just don't understand this. I literally don't understand this music. It’s incomprehensible to me.' The way,, say, one of the great musical innovators of the 20th Century was Louis Armstrong and when be-bop first started he was really critical of it. That must have been a horrible moment for people that really admired him, who couldn't understand how he could not hear that this was really brilliant. But then again we'll never know what it was like to stand at that point in time. And I've been fearing that moment turning up and it still hasn't turned up. When I see a tot of pop music I just think, 'how very conservative it is, and how very lacking in any kind of daring.' Mainly because it's not done by individuals. We're kind of back to a time when it's designed by a committee of marketing men and producers. There's a few groups whose records I like but it's not music to live and die by.
"The difference I perceive between now and then, really from watching my son, is I think most kids used to put the records on and then want the clothes to go with the record, whether it would be 'who's got a Beatle jacket' or 'who's got a Kaftan' even, not that I ever had one! The look was sort of dictated by the music; the music came first. Now, you get tile hat, you get the skateboard and you get like some speed metal or rap, and it's kind of in the background. I think most music's like a Swatch now, it's kind of an accessory. It's not the dominant thing anymore. Obviously there's different types of music. Some music probably still dominates people's lives. I think the kind of people that like The Smiths or Tanira Tikaram would probably like them more than... oxygen! But I think a lot of the other music that's kind of exciting on the surface is really accessory music. It’s not a matter of life or death: it's a peripheral thrill."
The fact that Elvis has a teenage son playing records that he as a father doesn't really like hasn't made him feel too old to rock'n'roll. "It's almost a joke. He likes Guns'n'Roses and Public Enemy and that stuff is like cartoons. It's like cartoons to me and it's sort of like cartoons to him. He doesn't really believe it. Maybe he's just smart. You know why it's so cartoonish? Because it's so self-conscious. Something like Guns'n'Roses, the guy's got the cigarette hanging from his lip at exactly the same angle as the guy that he's copying it off. It’s not even au original slant on somebody else's style, it's just slavishly copying it till it becomes a cartoon. It's like 'take a pinch of Led Zeppelin, take a pinch of Mott The Hoople', you know? At least it's funny.
"But the other stuff, the stuff in the charts that's so popular -- it's so desperate in its hand-grasping desire for money, its motives are so transparent. I don't think it's at all loveable. I could always love pop music. I always liked Abba, I thought they were fantastic, and that's the most calculated kind of pop music but it was done with some kind of flair. It had its own style. By comparison Bros are just so boring! There's nothing redeeming about them, they're just not interesting. And I think for young people to invest all their emotions into something so average is just disappointing. I want something thrilling. There's no humour, daring, adventure in pop music and I really don't think that's to do with me being old. Obviously I don't like Luke Goss's arse, but I can't find anything in the music, I can't even find a well-simulated emotion, the way you can in most good pop music. And it seems to be because it's fallen out of the hands of inspired amateurs into the hands of calculating professionals."
Despite his dismal view of pop charts with which he no longer finds anything in common, Elvis still considers himself a creator of pop music. "Having just said that I find the mannerisms and all the mechanisms of most music that's in the charts so lacking in daring, if I was choosing to make pop music I wouldn't be drawing on the influences of some stuff I already found boring, I'd be looking to synthesise things that I found exciting and that's what I've tried to do. It's all pop music... or folk music!"
Elvis laughs, recalling Louis Armstrong's famous quote: "Everything is folk music. You've never seen a horse playing music!"
Two tracks on "Spike", "Tramp The Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling”, where he is accompanied by leading Irish musicians, mark his first recorded foray into traditional style folk-orientated material. The musical area is not new to him, however. Of Irish descent on his father's side, his grandparents were Irish emigrees "from God knows where." His father grew up in Birkenhead, "an almost exclusively Irish town." The Irish roots were "close enough to have a strong influence on my father" and, as with other forms of music, Elvis grew up with traditional songs being sung and played around the house.
"I absorbed a lot of things that way but then, when I started playing, I grew to really dislike folk music because the attitude of a lot of the folkies was so prejudiced against anything original." Elyis comments, recalling his pre-recording days when he played the folk-circuit as a lone guitarman.
"Folk clubs were really, really conservative. There was a complete division -- there was contemporary and traditional, like trad and modern in jazz, and when you went looking for a singer spot you had to check in the paper whether it was a contemporary club, cause if you turned up at a traditional club and tried to play your own songs they'd show you the door. So when I was getting the odd gig and I was semi-professional (which meant I was sending my tapes around and getting them back by return of post!), I had a few of the songs from 'My Aim Is True' and 'Mystery Dance' was one of them. Even singing a mild rock'n'roll song like that was like singing 'Anarchy In The UK' to the folkies! They were defending a tradition that a lot of the time didn't seem worth defending.
"It always seemed to me that there was a lot of very average singers that would just save themselves by singing some sort of rabble-rousing song like 'The Wild Rover' or something, and they would get off to a riotous round of applause simply because people could bang on the table in that one. And I saw no refinement in it, I didn't see it as preserving a necessary tradition. I grew to really hate the smugness of it."
When Elvis began doing short solo tours he found himself re-evaluating his own songs and opening his ears once again to traditional music. "I started looking around and finding the real stuff, the real beautiful traditional music, both English and Irish." Then he saw The Pogues. "Some people think The Pogues were bad for folk," he notes, "but I think they really saved it in a way. They saved folk from folkies. The music is a tradition, it's gotta be alive, I'm not interested in anything that's dead."
Elvis produced The Pogues' second album and had to "drag back all these things that I had filed in the back of my head about this music." His sojourn in Ireland, and sessions played with the likes of Donal Lunny, helped rekindle the interest. "Mix all of those things up and folk music just about comes up heads for me," Elvis laughs. Still he admits that much of it still gets on his nerves, "the preciousness of it."
The song "Any King's Shilling" is a plaintive tale of sectarianism, with an Irish historical background. It concerns a republican rebel warning an Irish member of the British army not to put on his uniform for fear of his life. "It's a true story," recounts Elvis. "It's something that happened here in Dublin to my grandfather, or so he told. He was orphaned in Birkenhead and he ended up in an orphanage in the south of England, and after he left that he was put in the army, which is a fairly logical progression for an orphan. That's where he went into the military school of music. And then the first war came and he was sent to France and he was wounded, badly wounded. He didn't just convalesce and go back into the line, he was out from fighting and was stationed in Dublin.
"It was one of probably many ironies, sort of in the wrong uniform on the wrong side at the wrong time, and he told that story as actually happening to him while he was here. He was from a completely Irish community in Birkenhead and he probably saw nothing unusual in having lots of Irish friends and they said to him, 'Listen, you better watch out.' The warning was given to him that trouble was brewing."
Elvis insists that the context of the story is unimportant. To paraphrase Bono, 'this is not a rebel song.' "The story is one that keeps happening," says Elvis. "It's happening right now. People will say it's about the North but I spoke to someone from Tel Aviv the other day and they said it could be Palestine."
Although of Irish lineage and married to an Irish woman, Elvis lays no claim to an Irish identity. "I don't think I have an anything identity, I’m just me. I've spent a lot of time in Ireland, I like it here, but I don't think there can be anything more nauseating than a cod-anything. I do notice that I tend to be Irish in the eyes of the press when it suits them now. I was on Self-Aid, me and Chris Rea were the only non-Irish. Chris Rea got on it because he called his album 'Shamrock Diaries'!” Elvis laughs. "That's a tenuous connection isn't it?!" he says, indicating that he is only being mildly facile.
"Obviously there's some sort of connection there in the blood but the problem is it's kind of green beer territory," he continues. "That stuff really bugs me. There's things in my life where I find sympathy with here but there's problems with wholly identifying with a culture, where you just go blindly into accepting that all things Irish are great. You usually find the worst offenders of that are the ex-pats or the 4th generation people. Whether it be politics or culture or anything, they're the ones that are blindly, uncritically Irish, and it's kind of dumb really, isn't it? You have to look at the place for its best points and its worst points."
Elvis admits that he no longer feels very at home in England. "It seems like I feel more and more like a part of a minority that don't feel the way a lot of people seem to about the society, and those things aren't any better here, but there are other things about this country where I feel certain things are valued more. Just... people have a different attitude to life here. But it's down to individuals that you get it from. Your friends. It's dangerous to make sweeping generalisations like 'I love the Irish'. It's like these people you see in restaurants..." Elvis puts on a contrived whisper, accurately mimicking snobbish pretensions, and chuckles to himself at his own impersonation. "'Oh, well of course, I love the French.' Every one of them. Every fucking nasty, horrible murderer!" Elvis laughs gleefully. "'I love those French people.' You know that kind of person? It's stupid. Countries are just made up of people, you have to work out what the individuals are about. I've always thought the 'national characteristics' are such a lot of shit."
His personal feelings of statelessness essentially derive from belonging to a state that is being systematically dismantled. His song "Tramp The Dirt Down" is a bitter, peasant attack on Thatcher that would make Morrissey blush. Elvis doesn't even like to talk about Britain's leader, a woman who has elicited more rock'n'roll bile than any living politician. "She's a fairly repugnant person," he says, with obvious distaste. "The song is a very extreme version of the way I feel about her. I've felt more beyond words at times when some things happen and with her attitude to certain things. You end up with this sort of helpless catalogue of her doings, and I don't really want to go back through that, it's not very pleasant to contemplate."