I was marketed by other people, not by me. And “punk”- what nonsense that was. Or “new wave”-even bigger nonsense. I’m just a songwriter. I knew older stuff and I knew newer stuff….I didn’t feel like a rock’n’roll star. I was just some guy working in an office who’d written some songs. (Elvis Costello, Spin Magazine, December 2008)
On the face of it, Declan Patrick McManus seems the unlikeliest of pop stars: his gangly gait, huge glasses and bad teeth are not exactly the teenage girl’s dream. Yet he proved time and again that a Catholic-educated Irish boy whose first appearance was in an R White’s lemonade commercial could come up with the goods, and delivered a welter of classic and unforgettable songs. More an album artist than a singles one, he has nevertheless managed to rack up a series of hits that culminated in his cover of Sam And Dave’s ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ nearly topping the charts in the UK. Going under a variety of aliases, you more than likely know him best as Elvis Costello.
However, his relationship with the Peel show, and the Festive Fifty in particular, seems somewhat ambiguous. Few of the songs for which he is best-known made the chart: the grinding, floor-stomping anti-DJ vitriol of ‘Radio Radio’, the deceptively jolly criticism of British foreign policy in ‘Oliver’s Army’, a damning indictment of fashion models ((‘I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’), and a supremely bittersweet cover of Dusty Springfield’s ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ (check out the session version) are all absent from the Fifty. Despite recording a slew of sessions for Peel, I felt that his music was wildly eclectic and hardly in the spirit of the show: never truly punk (his roots were in pub rock), a dabbler in anything he took a passing fancy to (classical? jazz?) and disconcertingly addicted to country music (I have still never listened to ‘Almost Blue’ for this very reason: an early example of this is contained within the third session, and a cover of George Jones’ ‘Stranger In The House’), Costello was nevertheless a staple of John’s programmes, and his entry to the Fifty, ‘Watching The Detectives’ (FF 1978 #25) is as compelling and even sinister a track as any I’ve ever heard. The ska backbeat underpins a menacing tale of love denied in favour of TV cop shows.
In the same year, the debut album, on which he was backed not by the yet to be formed Attractions but by country rock band Clover (aka Shamrock), made its way into the UK shops but not America’s, which is where he really wanted to be, hence his arrest for busking outside a London meeting of CBS executives. I bought the Stiff debut ‘My Aim Is True’ as a way into his music, and was initially put off by the lack of punk tracks: but further listening proved that the energy was in the lyrics, which wormed their way into the subconscious uninvited and refused to leave. That a melting but acidic ballad such as ‘Alison’ (FF 1978 #37), released on the same day as ‘God Save The Queen’, could even consider entry in a chart peppered by the New Wave is a testament to the power of Costello’s writing: Mark Whitby wrote of ‘the woman as a disruptive and destructive force’, ‘the terrifying weakness of the male-his emotions struggling to reveal themselves in anything other than anger or anguish’, and ‘the frail opitmism of the repeated final line’, all of which seems right on the money here.
The rest of the album revelaed anger aplenty, and a canny usage of apparently outplayed musical forms: straight ahead rock’n’roll (‘Mystery Dance’), pop (‘Welcome To The Working Week’), and Television-like medium paced rock (‘Less Than Zero’), all allied to his fascinating wordplay that would lead to him describing himslef as ‘rock’n’rol’s Scrabble champion’, provided food for thought to temper the passion.
This initial recognition of Costello’s effect on punk’s consciousness would soon fade, however, and despite powerful albums like ‘Armed Forces’, ‘This Year’s Model’ and ‘Get Happy’, he would not reappear in the chart until 1983, with a low entry for his version of ‘Shipbuilding’ (which I’ve already featured), and even more supremely as the Imposter, with just about as crushing a critique of Thatcher’s Britain as you’ll ever hear, ‘Pills And Soap’ (FF 1983 #25). This to me is a high point of his writing career, as every word counts, and bundles the faults and phallacies of the era into the bitterest pill we’ve ever had to swallow.
He had broken up the Attractions in the interim, but reformed them (and once more recruited Nick Lowe for production, who had been at the helm on his first five LPs) for the rough and ready, back-to-basics approach of ‘Blood And Chocolate’ in 1986. The standout for me, apart from ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’ (which should have been a much bigger hit than it was), was ‘I Want You’ (FF 1986 #40). Peel regretted not having played this before, and so he should: a long and difficult song but one that rewards repeated listening, as it takes the acidity of ‘Alison’ to a different level altogether. It starts as an acoustic love song, but then reveals its real purpose, with a plunge into the minor key and an agonised narrative of obsession on the outside of passion. Once heard, never forgotten.
His new-found domesticity with his third wife Diana Krall seems to have quelled that early anger, but I will never hesitate to revisit his bittereness and energy, mordant lyrics, and all those splendid tunes.
Elvis Costello, Watching The Detectives
Elvis Costello, Alison
Imposter, Pills And Soap
Elvis Costello, I Want You
Elvis Costello, Peel Sessions
#1. Recorded 1977-07-25.
Less Than Zero/Mystery Dance/Blame It On Cain/Red Shoes
#2. Recorded 1978-03-13.
(I Don’t Wanna Go To) Chelsea/The Beat/Pump It Up/You Belong To Me
#3. Recorded 1978-10-23.
Really Mystified/Radio Radio/I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself/Stranger In The House
#4. Recorded 1980-02-25.
High Fidelity/Possession/Beaten To The Punch/B Movie