Written for Circus magazine (issue #210), from Feb. 13, 1979. One of Fricke’s early pieces, right before he went to Rolling Stone…
At first glance, the 1979 model Elvis Costello does not look appreciably different from the ’78 version. He still wears the same black horn-rimmed glasses setting off the defiant glare in his eyes, sports the same awkwardly moddish dress, and sings in the same snarling declamatory tone.
But the Elvis who’s just released his third album, Armed Forces (Columbia), is not quite the same bitter but determined person who sang his songs of lost innocence and pained experience for unsympathetic ears in London pubs for five years. The former computer operator who lived a middle class life with a wife and son during the day and played his songs at night in semi-pro bands is a changed man. The social outcast is now a star.
Dave Robinson, a Costello confidante and head of Stiff Records (Elvis’s first label), claims the main difference is that now the artist is no longer actively creating his music in the environment that “made him and his songs good. He’s on tour now; his little hovel on Downer Street, London W2, is not where he lives anymore. His influences and everything around him have changed. And you hope that now if you put him in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that he’d write about that and it will be just as relevant. That’s the situation with Elvis Costello.”
More to the point: how will Elvis deal with the stardom both in and out of music? So far he’s taken it by the throat and choked it as hard as he can.
For example, Australian wire services were humming over the news of a riot he started at a concert there by refusing to encore for 1200 fans who paid $11 a head. His reason? “They were too mechanical.” More recently, at a London concert, Costello staged what one fan called “an absolute rip-off” when he played another short no-encore set for a full but demonstratively angry audience. A sound engineer at the show surmised that Costello rushed through his set and stalked offstage “probably because the audience wasn’t dancing.”
Now the press reports sighting Elvis in the close company of blonde, scene-making bombshell Bebe Buell (ex-Playmate girlfriend of Todd Rundgren, Peter Frampton, and Rod Stewart). Where Elvis walks, wagging tounges are sure to follow, but those tongues are asking if Costello – hailed as rock’s Angry Young Conscience by the same press he despises – is now succumbing to the pressures and temptations of fame he once called “the arse end of rock.”
Fame has not as yet dulled his lyrical sword. On Armed Forces (originally dubbed Emotional Fascism), he flourishes metaphors, non sequiturs, and verbal barbs with the same meticulously choreographed finesse displayed on My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model. But where Model’s “Lipstick Vogue” and Aim’s “I’m Not Angry” were forcefully staged attacks, Armed Forces‘s action imagery in the song titles (“Oliver’s Army,” “Goon Squad,” “Accidents Will Happen”) and the high-tension performance of Elvis’s band, the Attractions, is tempered by Nick Lowe’s sympathetic production and the veiled (as opposed to outright) threats in the lyrics.
The Live at Hollywood High EP included with early pressings of the LP is a touch disappointing only in comparison. The three songs (“Accidents Will Happen,” “Alison,” and “Watching The Detectives”) don’t capture the Attractions – Steve Nieve, keys; Bruce Thomas, bass; Pete Thomas, drums – at their tightest, but the vocal fire Elvis breathes into his performance particularly sends “Detectives” up in a blaze of heated irony.
The former Declan MacManus – English son of a professional big band singer – has been stoking those flames since childhood when he followed his father to concerts and recording sessions when schooling allowed. “Being a musician never seemed like a good job to do,” he once said. But upon quitting school at 16 and eventually landing his computer operator gig in Liverpool, he took to writing songs and, for a period, gigging with a band called Flip City.
The popular story of Elvis’s discovery by Dave Robinson and now-manager Jake Riviera – the fearless original leaders of the fledgling Stiff label – goes that Elvis (who occasionally gigged under the moniker of Declan Costello, the latter a stage name used by his father) answered a Stiff newspaper ad for new and unusual talent. Robinson adds, however, that Elvis first came to him with some songs in 1971 when the former was managing Brinsley Schwarz (with bassist Nick Lowe) and booking bands into London’s Pub-Rock Central, the notorious Hope and Anchor.
“He was really good at the time, too,” Robinson says of Elvis in a clipped Irish accent. “He was writing marvellous songs, sensational stuff (including a prototype of his recent U.K. hit “Radio, Radio”), but there was no market he could do it in and I just wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.”
And the ones who were in the position couldn’t be bothered. Costello personally banged on record company and publishing doors, giving live auditions in the offices, to no avail. That succession of record company rejections and dismissals up until the Stiff deal has coloured Elvis’s current dealings – and the flamboyant managerial style of Riviera – with the music business and its hangers-on. Consider Riviera’s celebrated tossing of an English journalist down a flight of stairs last year because the reporter supposedly hassled Elvis about an interview.
Elvis is certainly not the intimidating prima donna Riviera’s outburst implies, as the members of Canadian rock band, the Battered Wives, will attest. The Wives were the opening act on a late ’78 Costello tour of the North Country and, much to the chagrin of Elvis’s retinue, garnered most of the headlines. Militant feminists, outraged at the band’s name, staged several protests along the tour route, some of which made the local front pages.
“They could have got really uptight,” explains Wives drummer Toby Swann of Costello and crew. “We were just opening the show but were getting most of the headlines. They could’ve kicked us off the tour, but Elvis seemed to think it actually was rather funny.” That was particularly true in Montreal when the Wives were pelted by protesters with raw edibles during a rousing version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Snickers Swann, “they really got us.”
Maybe it’s Elvis’s love of the incongruous that makes him such an intriguing – even puzzling – figure in pop, not unlike Dylan in top evasive form. There is, however, no doubting Costello’s unbeatable chops as a songwriter who can burn experience on the brain with third-hand clarity as well as first-hand urgency. His own unshakeable belief in himself is all this year’s model needs to bypass rock’s sophomore jinx.
“Years from now,” predicts Dave Robinson, “when people compile their lists of artists who wrote songs now that you can still play in 1985, Elvis will certainly be on it.”
As he once said in a song, Elvis Costello is not angry – or anything else. He’s just Elvis.