An interview done for the release of Costello’s Spike album. It appeared in Q Magazine’s March 1989 issue. Among the subjects we discussed, sitting on a draughty bench near Kensington Palace, were his premature obituary of Margaret Thatcher, and the experience of working with Paul McCartney.
Beware lesser mortals — Elvis Costello is back to make a fresh stand against sub-standard songwriting and the banality of daytime radio. His 14th and most adventurous album has taken two and a half years to compile, involves an astonishing cast of extras and is now available for the usual intense scrutiny. “I was going to call it More Important Work.” he warns Paul Du Noyer
“It’s not a long lay-off by most people’s standards,” says Elvis, referring to the two-and-a-half year interval that separates his previous album, Blood And Chocolate, from the new one, entitled Spike which is about to come out. “Actually it’s a fairly conventional lay-off. But I’d done 10 years. My parole came up.”
Stubbly but fit-looking, lean and somewhat dashing in his black designer overcoat and fancy-clasped tie, the 1989 version of Elvis Costello is striding — at a very brisk clip — across the windy expanse of London’s Hyde Park, over the way from the office of his record company. An honest old wooden bench presents itself, and our man suggests (he has a pretty pleasant, quaintly courteous manner about him) that if it’s not too cold for me, then perhaps we might sit and do the interview right here?
And why not? Costello’s return to album-style activity marks a welcome addition to what must count in most people’s estimation as one of the most enjoyable catalogues of British music. (Enjoyable but not, according to Elvis, “important”: he even toyed with the notion of calling this LP More Important Work, to debunk precisely that idea.)
The actual title, Spike, is slightly by way of tribute to Spike Jones, the American singer whose band, The City Slickers, made a series of novelty records in the 1940s that earned him the name The King Of Corn. “On the very last night we were listening to the album, and I noticed there were some comical noises, some deliberately humorous music on the record. And out of the blue I said, This sounds like Spike Jones! So I thought, let’s call it Spike, one-word title, people will remember it.”
Probably the most varied set of songs, in terms of lyrical scope and musical style, that Costello’s ever come up with, Spike has him teamed once more with T-Bone Burnett (who produced King Of America) though Burnett’s role this time around appears to have been more as mentor and consultant; Costello’s chief co-producer was engineer Kevin Killen. The variety in the tracks is reflected in Spike’s far-flung selection of recording locations — Dublin, New Orleans, Hollywood and London — and in the enormous, shifting roster of musicians taking part, who include Roger McGuinn, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Chrissie Hynde, Jim Keltner and many more.
Still, two-and-a-half years is two-and-a-half years. So what has he been doing all this time?
“It’s not like I’ve been on holiday for two years. I’ve been doing other things. Gigs have been pretty thin on the ground, but I played at Glastonbury last summer, did the Shetlands Festival. I did a solo tour in America, of colleges, which was a good laugh. And then Cait (O’Riordan, his wife, the former bass player of The Pogues whose second LP, Rum, Sodomy And The Lash he produced in ’85) got a part in this film The Courier so we went to live in Dublin for three months while she was doing that. I did the incidental music for the film, and that’s where I started to write a lot of the new songs.
“We had a couple of rooms in this hotel and I just worked in there, maybe going out to wander round a bit. So out of that came half the songs on this record. Then I planned a tour in the southern states of America, Japan and Australia, with The Confederates, just put together with whoever was available. And we had a good run, but going on the road with people you don’t have a continuous relationship which is quite difficult, because by the time you’ve really got it happening, it’s over.
“So it was a year of doing things that I enjoyed, that weren’t really much to do with promotion. I thought, You don’t have to be promoting an album, you can just play for the hell of it. And then I got the enquiry about working with Paul McCartney so I had a few sessions of doing that. I had a writing thing I did with Ruben Blades (New York-based master of modern Latin music), all little things but they all take up time, stopping off here and there. I did a couple of ‘mail order’ songs as it were, where I got commissions, wrote some lyrics for Aimee Mann of ‘Til Tuesday (their second album is due for imminent UK release), wrote a song for Roy Orbison’s album.
“You get the offers and they’re interesting things to do. I don’t do anything with tremendous commercial ambition, sometimes it’s just a challenge or really fun to do. Also, to be mercenary about it, I was biding my time for my Columbia deal to run out so that I could get a better deal worked out for the world. (Columbia has up until now been his label in the US, but around the world his work has been scattered between numerous labels. He’s had several different deals in the UK alone, though his back catalogue has now reverted to Demon, the company run by his manager Jake Riviera. From this year onwards he’s signed worldwide to Warners.)
“Then the album itself, of course, took a lot of organisation; it’s not exactly a weekend’s work either in planning or recording. I spent the earlier part of the year on the phone asking people if they’d be on it, when they could schedule the time.
“So I’ve done a lot of things, but they haven’t all been big career moves. But I’ve never seen it like that. Since I came off the road as a routine thing — album/tour, album/tour — it frees you to do a lot of things which you want to do because they’re interesting. And if they don’t shoot to the top of the charts that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inferior; often the best stuff you do is those little side things.
“It’s what I do. In that time I had a couple of holidays, which is probably two more than I had in the previous l0 years. I went to Greenland last summer. I went to Italy at Easter. I don’t really like holidays much, I find them boring. I like places, but I don’t like being a tourist, because I fucking hate tourists here. So I don’t like feeling that way myself.
“I’m not a workaholic, driven by this crazy urge to do anything that comes my way. I’m fairly selective, I turn down a lot of things, high profile shows, big tours that I didn’t think were right, and ’cause’ things where I’m not sure about people’s motives.”
Ever since his second album, 1978’s This Year’s Model, Costello has of course worked with The Attractions: Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and Bruce Thomas on bass. In 1986 he broke the pattern by making King Of America with T-Bone Burnett and a wide cast of musicians, reuniting with the old line-up later that year for Blood And Chocolate. But apart from an appearance by Pete Thomas on the extensive list of player credits, the newest album doesn’t feature The Attractions at all, whether singly or together. How do things stand between Costello and the old gang?
“Well, after the amount of records we did, our average was pretty good as a band. We did one pretty duff album and that’s just down to whether you like country music (the Almost Blue set, recorded in Nashville in 1981). That wasn’t really an Attractions record. I’m not sure that everyone was 100 per cent into it, but everyone did it. It’s just where it lies really; we’ll have to have a good reason to get back together, I don’t see us getting back together to do a nostalgia tour.
“History gets eaten up so quickly nowadays, people can get nostalgic about 1977, you get seriously worried about being dug up yourself. It’s like archaeology, they find these little fragments of what was happening and they piece it back together, but it’s never quite the way it was when you were actually there.
“So there’s not much point us getting together just to do old stuff, and they’re not playing as a band on the new record, so for the time being until we get back and do something else together we won’t be going out on tour. Pete plays on the record, but with no disrespect to Steve he sees Elvis and the Attractions differently to me. And he didn’t see being what he regarded as a sideman on a record as what he wanted to do. I said I wanted to do some cuts with the four of us, and he was the one that really stopped it, because he said he either wanted to play on the whole record or … so the door’s open to him, if we come up with a good idea.
“But obviously that was a little disappointing because he does do sessions, he plays with that idiot Jonathan Ross every Friday. I don’t see the difference between playing on somebody else’s record and playing on mine really. But he has a different view of it, like it’s a ‘band’, like we’re The Rolling Stones or something. I don’t see it that way, I think we’re individuals.
“Therefore we disagree, but I don’t think there’s any animosity. You’d have to ask them, really; they might fucking hate me!”
“I’m really concerned with what the songs are about most of the time, and with getting that over, and some of the time I’m so into the lyric of the song and the way I’m singing it that I’m not always paying attention to what everybody else is playing. And therefore I sometimes end up being dissatisfied with the cumulative effect of the track. So on the record, although the lyrics are what I work on a lot, and there’s some quite serious songs, I really tried to make the music serve it in a different way to what I did in the past. Usually the music had just been a commentary that suited the mood, like Blood And Chocolate had a certain kind of attitude all the way through, King Of America had everything staying out of the way of the voice. Whereas this one has a lot more interaction between the lyric and the music.
“I’d say overall it was a simpler record to understand, lyrically. There are more story songs, more third-person songs, therefore it’s the opposite thing to that conflict of meaning when you’re writing about yourself, and other people have to get inside you.”
I suggest to him that if one were to look for a contrast between the style of Costello’s songs in the late ’80s, and those of the late ’70s, there’s a trend away from material saying “Look at me”, towards songs that simply say “Look at this”. He more or less agrees, but appears wary of applying theoretical overviews to his work.
“I did variations on the same thing for 10 years with a few exceptions, a lot of songs from a personal perspective. Now it’s just turned out this way, and I’ve no idea why. I’ve never done much self-psychoanalysis. It’s just a bunch of songs. Some of them have serious subjects, but I’m not doing ‘important work’ the way some people seem to think they are, I’m just writing fucking songs.”
Spike, though, does confirm another distinct development in his lyrical approach, away from the compulsive word-play (occasionally a touch too busy and contrived) towards a more controlled and sparser method, where words are put to work, rather than to play.
“Yeah, but I think I’ve been doing that for a long time but nobody seemed to notice! You see, new artists come up, and people are very interested in them, and if you’ve been around for a while, it’s like when people get very old and they’re still around. They had Bertrand Russell’s obituary on file for years — I think he wrote his first one himself — and when you get old like that, it’s like they go to the file for the opinion about you. In pop music 10 years is really old, so some journalists are maybe a little lazy and they go to the file, Oh what does this guy do? It’s another fucking record by him, Four-Eyes. And they write the same review.
“It’s quite disappointing because you feel that criticism is unfair. I don’t do that any more. I did it at first, it was just the way I wrote, and then I got a little bit cute with it and then I stopped doing it. Nobody seemed to notice! Fuck ’em. So I’d say that was true of the last couple of records, but more so of this one.”
Two songs on Spike are collaborations with Paul McCartney: there’s Veronica, a kind of Merseybeat romp (on which McCartney plays bass) whose verse parts could almost be The Fourmost under Beatle influence; and Pads, Paws And Claws, a fractured and scatty jazz-rockabilly hybrid. How did this partnership come about?
“I just got a phone call, would I come in and have a chat about writing some songs. So I went down to the studio and he had a track with some spaces in the lyrics and I filled in the blanks. And the two songs on this album aren’t the best 50/50 representation of how we write together, because I took in this couple of songs — here’s some I made earlier! — that I’d been working on and hadn’t finished yet, and said Can we work on these? And that way we got to know how we worked, and went on and wrote other songs, which are intended for his records, so there’s not much point talking about them yet because I don’t know which ones, if any, are going on the album.
“But these two are quite different and some people will go, Well, that doesn’t sound much like Paul McCartney. Well, that’s mainly because it was more like a craft job, finishing them off together, so that way I got to know a bit about the way he wrote. Apart from People’s Limousine with T-Bone — which we literally just wrote in the back of a car driving through Italy, like a song you’d make up if you were all drunk and sitting on a bus — I’ve never really sat down with anybody to seriously write some songs.
“And inevitably there was a bit of, Fuckin’ hell it’s Paul McCartney, he’s written loads of famous songs. And you’re a little bit, not on your guard, but you need to know what he thinks about songs, not necessarily what he thinks about anything else. So you’re still to hear the ones that are proper McCartney/MacManus songs.
“He’s very practical about songwriting, very formal, funnily enough. People sometimes say he seems to dash them off, but that’s not really true. If you don’t like what he’s singing about, if you think the sentiments are not tough enough or something, then that’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t say this holds true for every song he’s ever written but when we sat down together he wouldn’t have any sloppy bits in there. That was interesting.”
It’s possibly an odd collaboration in the sense that McCartney is usually perceived as a “sweet” writer, while you’re thought of as edgier, more abrasive.
“Well I think that’s why it would be a good combination rather than a reason to discount it. I wouldn’t like to speak for what he’s capable of — what’s in his mind is his business — but I don’t think he’s sweetened up the songs, even the two on this record. He just has good discipline and a good ear for melody — plus his playing as a bass player, of course — he has good instincts about music. And people are too concerned about who he is and what he represents, and what he’s been and where he’s going, and I think that’s an unreasonable demand to make on anybody. Anyway, I don’t see it as unusual. I think the more contrast between the writers, the more likely it is that you’re going to get something unusual.”
Costello, perhaps, identifies rather readily with McCartney, in the way the former Fab one has had to labour under somewhat one-sided summaries of his music — his rock ‘n’ roll talents have often been underrated — just as Elvis is visibly impatient with the out-dated definitions of his own style as “angry”, “vengeful” and so forth.
Be that as it may, among the tender observations and mature reflections to be found on Spike, the old spite does occasionally surface. One song in particular, Tramp The Dirt Down, employs one of the album’s most soothing ballad settings to frame a lyric of withering bitterness. Directed at Margaret Thatcher, the song’s title refers to Costello’s hope that he’ll live long enough to “stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down”. Songs of such industrial-strength indignation seem much rarer now than they were a couple of years ago, as if a lot of artists have lost the heart for hard, specific social protest. Elvis, for his part, maintains he has no problem in keeping his resentment fuelled.
“It’s not some artificial neurosis — Oh, I’d better have an angry side. It’s the way I feel about it. That day I woke up and wrote the song pretty quickly, all in one day. And obviously some days it doesn’t weigh down as heavily on you; on others, it’s all you can do not to kick the television in, just seeing Nigel Lawson, he doesn’t even have to speak.
“You might feel powerless, because it does seem to be irreversible, because there is no opposition. But this is just a song, it’s not going to change anything, it’s just getting it out. And some people will find sympathy with it, it might comfort some people, who knows how people will hear a song like that? It’ll piss some people off, and that’s great. If it ruins anyone’s day then I’ll be a happy man.”
Another song, Any King’s Shilling, uses Irish instrumentation, and musicians including Christy Moore, Davy Spillane and The Chieftains’ Derek Bell, to tell an intriguing story about a British soldier being warned, for his own sake, not to go out on duty that evening. Given its Irish styling, listeners will connect it with that country’s conflicts quickly enough; Costello, though, contends that Any King’s Shilling is not an “issue” song, as such.
“That’s only if you see things divided up into politics and love life and so on. It’s just that when there’s overtones of the military, or things that are in the political ‘arena’, as John Cole calls it, then that seems separated from life, and I don’t feel that way. That’s why I think all these different songs can be on one album. You don’t have to think, Oh now I’ll do my political album, or my love songs album. I never see any contradiction.
“Any King’s Shilling is not trying to represent any standpoint; it’s a true story. It happened to my grandad, although it might be that he embellished the story a bit. He was wounded out of the First World War; he was a trumpet player in the Army, and once he was out of combat he got stationed to Dublin. Well, he was born in Birkenhead, but his parents had come over a few years before, so it was like being sent back home for him. But now he was on the wrong side. Although he wasn’t in combat he was still in uniform. And he had Irish friends who told him, keep your head down. Just some lads who he knew, telling him, Watch out, something’s gonna happen.
“And that’s obviously something that could happen in Belfast or Beirut or Palestine, or anywhere. Without getting into a whole What I Think thing — I mean, who needs another bloody opinion? — when it comes down to somebody being dead, somebody’s husband or son, at that level, when people are staring into each other’s eyes at the moment of conflict, there must be something weird that happens, when it’s really personal, it’s not 700 years of history or a theory on a page or an ideology. I think that must be the worst thing that can happen to you.”
“It didn’t bother me that some of the things I did in the last couple of years were hidden from public view. My life doesn’t cease to exist if I don’t get written about in the Gill Pringle column in the Daily Mirror. Not everything you do has to be splashed over some paper. It’s like the record company neurosis that everything is important, every record that comes out is the greatest record ever made. That can’t be true. There isn’t enough room for all these geniuses.
“As for this record, I’ve invested a lot of time in it and it would be stupid to say I don’t really care how it works out now, because obviously I want it to sell a lot of copies and reach a lot of people, otherwise I wouldn’t be making records. But I’d be making a different record if I was trying to get on the Gary Davies show or be chatting with Mike Smith in the morning on TV.
“I did all that. I was on TISWAS when I was 23. I don’t need to do it again. That wasn’t very satisfying, it was just a bit of a laugh. I don’t quite know where you go to tell people what your work is. There really isn’t anywhere apart from a few newspapers or magazines where you can say, This is what I do, check it out. It’s up to you after that; people pay their money and it’s theirs then, it’s not mine any more.”
At times in Costello’s career there’s been a gulf between the critical and committed fan admiration that he commands on the one hand, and commercial sales on the other. Was that ever a source of frustration for him, in the way that, say, Randy Newman seems to complain of?
“I sell a lot more records than a lot of people. You can start setting your standards very high and every record’s got to be top of the charts. And some of them just didn’t deserve to be. You do get frustrated if you put a lot of work into a record and it doesn’t seem to get a fair crack. I usually only object if I feel someone’s misrepresented , me, like if there’s a review that takes the lazy way out and doesn’t listen, but instead reviews their attitude about me personally.
“And if the radio doesn’t play it because it doesn’t fit in with the comfortable way they see things. I think there’s very little intelligence involved in programming radio — it’s got better in America, with college radio, as it’s got worse over here, though format radio over there is still terrible. When I first went to America we were suffering the hangover of Led Zeppelin — now they’re back, both in reality and in the various imitations doing the rounds. So now it’s even worse — there’s five Led Zeppelins to keep you off the air.”
Does he ever see himself inside a tradition, or school, of singer/songwriters?
“Well there’s a group of people to whom a similar fate has fallen commercially. But I’ve never been one for joining clubs, I never liked the idea of ‘new wave’ back then, so I’m not about to start putting myself in with, oh, all the worthy cult artists over here. I just do what I do and I don’t carry around a badge that says what I am on it.”
In the past few years we’ve seen Costello’s activities billed under a rich selection of alternative identities. Currently he’s back to recording as “Elvis Costello” while his writing credits go to “D.P.A. MacManus” (his original surname), but recent aliases have included The Imposter, The Costello Show and Napoleon Dynamite.
“It’s like the business of people reviewing a record by taking a review of the record that went before and using it again. It was to do with the impact I had when I first started, and I just thought it’s time to put this away now, Andy Pandy’s going back to bed. Changing the name, and playing characters on stage helped to confuse that; better to have nine personalities than just one.
“Maybe I did too good a PR job on myself when I started, that I spent all my time trying to debunk things that were taken as read, and I think that battle’s over now — it’s either won or irrelevant. Elvis Costello is just a brand name.”
The future gets short shrift. “I have very little to say about anything; I don’t have masses of hidden ambitions which I’m dying to share with the world. I do things when they come around. I’ve got a job, which a lot of people haven’t got at all, and I just do this.
“What’s on this record, and who’s on it, the combinations of players on it, that’s what I think would be interesting to read about; I think that’s what you’d want to know, not whether I feel slighted by selling less records than Kylie Minogue. I don’t think anyone cares about that. If I came in and said, Yeah it really hurts me that I don’t sell as many records as Rick Astley I would expect ridicule and I’d deserve it.
“I’m quite proud of the things I’ve done, though some are really embarrassing, inevitably. Show me someone who hasn’t done something embarrassing in the past 10 years.”
“Very few of the records — Party Party was crap (a bouncy 1982 single written for the soundtrack of the film of that name). Some of the records frustrate me because you know you just missed getting them right. It doesn’t keep me awake at night but it niggles. Then there’s downright embarrassing like doing a TV special with Count Basie and Tony Bennett and losing your voice two days before and still having to go on. Mercifully no-one’s ever seen it.”
Taking the long view, how much does he consider he’s improved over the years?
“You’re bound to get more ways of doing things. At first you’re very unsteady in the studio and you’ve got nothing to judge it against, but that un-self-consciouness doesn’t ever come back, which is why a lot of people’s early records are their best records. I don’t think that’s true of me. I think I’m better at writing now, but I don’t really sit around wondering how far up the rock’n’roll Mount Rushmore I am. It’s just a bunch of songs, you can buy them if you want and it’s up to people to sort out what they mean to them.
“I haven’t got a lot of time for looking back, it’s right back there, you can’t see it anymore. All this re-creation doesn’t work; there’s too many people interested in making it seem another way than it really was. And if that’s happening after 10 years, the process is speeding up. It’s like, Do you remember 1985? You hear that on Radio One: We’re going right back to 1987.”
How has your past been misrepresented?
“Only trivial things. I don’t think any of this is important, it’s just records. I was going to call this record More Important Work. Everything is put under such scrutiny. I’m more likely to be niggled by things, by people being wise after the event. But it’s hardly worth the effort to rebut it.”
What’s surely changed for you, since the first records, is that now you work in the knowledge that this is what you do, that it’s a lifetime career.
“It’s what I felt then, I just didn’t have financial confirmation of it at the time. It’s easy to say I would have done it anyway, battled on in the face of indifference, because I was pretty successful straight off. I didn’t have to struggle in terms of building myself up as a professional, although I’d served a pretty thorough apprenticeship as a semi-professional. The indie scene didn’t exist in 1976, and the fact that I wasn’t snapped up by some Alan McGee type guy [head of the small Creation label, original home of The Jesus & Mary Chain] when I was 17 and thrust into the spotlight and then have to take the fall when you couldn’t fulfil people’s expectations, I count myself as extremely lucky.”
We very rarely hear anything about your earliest days as a performer, playing solo around folk clubs in Liverpool before you moved to London.
“They weren’t very interesting, that’s why. It was quite funny, like anybody’s first steps at doing anything, but you wouldn’t want them put under the microscope 10 years later. I certainly didn’t want them under the microscope when it was only three years behind me. I started playing when I wasn’t quite 16. I was almost 23 when I signed, so I’d been playing for nearly eight years, that’s a long time, as long as many people’s careers. I’ve been playing professionally now for 11 years. I can’t even remember a lot of it, I can’t even remember a lot of what happened in the past 10 years, just too much went on.
“I do remember how when I was at school in Liverpool (at the start of the ’70s) it was very much two years behind London. Progressive music didn’t happen until it was history in London. Before we moved up there I’d gone to school in Hounslow, and you had to like Tamla and reggae otherwise you were dead. But then I went up there and you didn’t dare say you liked Tamla, it was poof’s music, you had to like Deep Purple or something. I got into The Grateful Dead ‘cos nobody else liked them and you had to have a group that you liked — somebody would like Caravan or something else. I used to sit at home going. Please make me like The Grateful Dead! It ended up I really did like them. But when I came back to London it was a relief: Oh, you can like Lee Dorsey, terrific!
“I used to play in those clubs, or the British Legion in Birkenhead, or in libraries, anywhere where they’d put something on for the night. One place we always used to get asked to do Slade songs, on acoustic guitars … The ironic thing about ending up producing The Pogues is that for a long time I hated traditional music because I had to suffer the narrow-minded attitudes in the folk clubs, the woolly-jumper folk.
“Any idiot can get up at the end of the night and sing The Wild Rover, and go down a storm. I used to hate the fucking Wild Rover. I got my own back on it, I got a version on the Pogues B-side; talk about a demolition job! And Ewan MacColl fell asleep in the front row the first time I ever played in public. I imagine he’s not the kind of guy who would be appreciative of The Pogues’ rendition of Dirty Old Town, from the way he carries himself. But I’m sure he’d like the money.
“So I’d be up there with my little sensitive teenage songs, which I don’t know now ‘cos I don’t remember any of them. But I wrote from the start, from 15 onwards, so for all I know I could have been a Tanita Tikaram in budding. There just wasn’t the calling for it…”