Elvis Costello Repents

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Who are you talking about?
The Exploited – and the whole Oi! business.

Bands like the Anti-Nowhere League?
Now, the Anti-Nowhere League, I quite like them, because they're just animals: they drive around in a van that says, WE'RE THE ANTI-NOWHERE LEAGUE AND YOU'RE NOT! – I mean, that's great.

The Damned were the best punk group, because there was no art behind them; they were just enjoying themselves. There was no art behind them that I could see. They were just – nasty. I loved them from the start. I liked the Pistols as well – but you could see the concern behind it. It's dishonest to say, "Oh, yes, we were just wild"; they weren't just wild. It was considered and calculated. Very art. The Clash as well.

While all that was going on, I had a little group in London. I'd moved from one computer job to another; it was a total bluff, really, I knew nothing about it, but I knew enough of the jargon. It was ideal: waiting for the machine to do the work, there's a lot of free time for writing and reading. In the evenings we'd try to play rock 'n' roll, R&B numbers, some country songs – a real pub-rock mixture. There was no focus to it; it was aimless. We could get through the usual bar-band repertoire – but I remember Pete Thomas, now the Attractions drummer and then a drummer in a quite successful pub-rock band, Chilli Willy, coming to see us – he was a celebrity to us – and he walked out after about thirty seconds. I think he came to see our worst-ever gig – but with no offense to the guys, we weren't very good.

It was the usual thing – trapped in mediocrity. So I went out on my own again, solo. That's very hard, because there's no real platform for solo singing unless you sing traditional music or recognized blues, doing re-creations – you know how reverent Europeans are.

It was difficult to develop an original style. I have no idea who it was I might have been imitating, whether consciously or unconsciously. I was playing on my own, trying to put my songs across. I suppose I should have had a band behind them – but playing alone did build up an edge. I did the odd show just to keep up, to keep trying to improve the ability to play. You'd soon know if a song was bad if you were dying in a club; you'd have to put more edge on it. Playing on your own, you'd have the tension – you could increase the tension at will, not relying on anybody to pick up the beat.

McManus made a guitar-and-vocal demo and hawked his songs to various record companies. The one that responded was Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson's new Stiff label, emerging in 1976 out of the pub-rock scene and bridging the gap to punk.
On the first demo tape that I sent to Stiff, that brought me the gig, as it were, there were only two or three songs that ended up on My Aim Is True. There were a lot of raw songs – and looking at them now, rather precious songs, with a lot of chords. Showing-off songs. I was very impressed by Randy Newman, and wrote a lot of songs with that ragtime feel. I was very impressed with those funny chord changes that he used to play and I was emulating that on guitar. They came out convoluted; they weren't poppy at all, they had pretensions to a sophistication they didn't have.

Elvis Costello's Best (And Most Curiously Underrated) Album Turns 30

That exactly coincided with punk. But I was working – I didn't have the money to go down to the Roxy and see what the bands were doing: the Clash, the Pistols. I just read about them in Melody Maker and NME the same as anyone else. Joe Public. I was living in the suburbs of London, I couldn't afford to go to clubs uptown. They were open until two o'clock in the morning, I couldn't afford taxis – the tubes are closed just after midnight. All these bands were playing in the middle of the night. I don't know who went to the bloody gigs – I can only guess they were rich people with cars and lots of drugs.

I got up at seven in the morning and so I couldn't go. I was married with a son; I couldn't take the day off. I took enough time playing sick, taking sick time off of my job, just to make My Aim Is True.

Then I started listening to the records that were coming out, because I'd got this snobbish attitude: so little of any worth had come out for a few years. When the first few punk records came out, I suddenly started thinking: "Hang on – this is something a little bit different."

I mean, I spoke with someone the other day who said that when the first Clash album came out, he was outraged. I remember being outraged, and thinking, "If this is what music's going to be like" – I remember Joe Strummer describing their sound as a sea lion barking over a load of pneumatic drills, which is what their first album sounds like when you first hear it – I remember hearing it and saying, "If that's what it's going to be like, that's it. I'll quit before I've done anything."

Then I listened to that album on headphones – we lived in a block of flats and we couldn't really play music at night – and I listened right through the night. I thought, "Well, I want to see what this is about. And I'll listen to it until I decide it's rubbish, and I'll probably quit, if that's the way music's going to be, or else I'll see something in it." I listened to it for thirty-six hours straight – and I wrote "Watching the Detectives."

We were all living in this block of flats, and nobody had an awful lot of money – I don't want to sound like my-deprived-background, but nobody did. And there were all these people in 1977, when the Jubilee was on, wasting their money on a bloody street party for the Queen. Perhaps it sounds small-minded now, but I used to really enjoy playing "God Save the Queen," loud, because all the little old ladies would be so outraged.

"God, did you see the Sex Pistols on the TV last night?" On the way to work, I'd be on the platform in the morning and all the commuters would be reading the papers when the Pistols made headline – and said "fuck." It was as if it was the most awful thing that ever happened. It's a mistake to confuse that with a major event in history, but it was a great morning – just to hear people's blood pressure going up and down over it.

I wrote a lot of songs in the summer of 1977: "Welcome to the Working Week," "Red Shoes," "Miracle Man," "Alison," "Sneaky Feelings," "Waiting for the End of the World," "I'm Not Angry," all more or less in one go, in about two or three weeks.

Your first single was "Less than Zero." When did you write that?
Earlier in the year. I saw a program with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement of the Thirties. And there he was on TV, saying, "No, I'm not anti-Semitic, of course I'm not – doesn't matter even if I was!" His attitude was that time could make it all right! It was a very English way of accepting things that used to really irritate me, really annoy me. The complacency, the moral complacency there – that they would just accept this vicious old man: not string him up on the spot!

This was the time when the National Front and the British Movement were recruiting with great success – and they of course derived directly from Mosley's old British Union of Fascists.
They were the same old bastards, the same old weirdos like Colin Jordan that kept reappearing, and denying they had any fascist overtones, and then there would be pictures taken of them dressing up in pervy Hitler Youth uniforms. They're really sick people. If there wasn't a danger that some people of limited intelligence would take them seriously, they'd be sad and you'd feel sorry for them. But you can't. There are people gullible enough and there are enough problems – the same way as you've got here. You can point fingers and say, "These are the people who are the source of all your problems: it's the black people." It's the same as saying, "It's the Jews . . . . " I'm English, but my ancestry is Irish, and they used to say the same about the Irish as well. My wife's Irish. Sooner or later, we'll probably have to leave England – because I'm sure the people of England will try and send the Irish back.

We cut the first singles without any impact. My immediate reaction was, "Well, maybe I haven't got it." If I'd been somebody like Johnny Cougar, signed to a major label – someone with a five-album deal for a million dollars – I suppose I would have felt, "Well, I'm secure now, I can write some songs," but I wasn't sure. Stiff was running from week to week – we were totally independent, we weren't licensed, we had no national distribution: it was mail-order. We finished the album in six-hour sessions; there were no days in the studio. Jake said, "Well, we're going to put it out" – but one moment it was going to be Wreckless Eric on one side, me on the other, as a way of presenting two new writers. There were a million ideas a day floating around; it was all improvised and all governed by a very limited budget.

You had picked your name well before that?
I hadn't picked it at all, Jake picked it. It was just a marketing scheme "How are we going to separate you from Johnny This and Johnny That?" He said, "We'll call you Elvis." I thought he was completely out of his mind.

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