In 1977, Elvis Costello emerged in London as one of the unquestioned originals of modern pop music. Just twenty-two when he released his first album, ‘My Aim Is True,’ he seemed master of every rock & roll move – on record and off. He combined the brains of Randy Newman and the implacability of Bob Dylan, the everyman pathos of Buddy Holly and the uniqueness of John Lennon. Everything was up for grabs in his music: love, money, status, hope, fear and, perhaps most of all, the very notion of control. No punk in terms of craft, he rode the punk wave because he communicated a more authentic bitterness than any punk; his demands on the world were more powerful and thus his rejection of the world when it failed to deliver was more convincing.
In 1982, Elvis Costello remains known almost solely through his music – and the scandalous “Ray Charles” incident, which made the papers across the country and across the water. Aside from a 1981 appearance on Tom Snyder’s ‘Tomorrow’ show, Costello had not sat down for a comprehensive interview with an American journalist until this summer – and no interview has appeared in a U.K. publication since 1977.
With the release of his eighth album, ‘Imperial Bedroom,’ Costello and his band, the Attractions – Bruce Thomas, bass; Steve Nieve, keyboards; and Pete Thomas, drums – opened an American tour this July 14th at Santa Cruz, California, to a jabbering crowd of surfers and college students. There, he performed his songs, two hours’ worth – plus Elvis Presley’s ‘Little Sister,’ his first cover of his namesake. Three nights later, to a bigger, far more various and receptive crowd in Berkeley, Costello performed his view of the world – a show that ripped through the night.
The next day we met for a five-hour conversation. Wearing an unmistakable pair of bright red shoes, Costello was serious about the situation – his first real interview with a national publication – but also very much at ease. We talked about his aversion to journalists; Brecht and Weill; the presence of Hank Williams in ‘The Last Picture Show’; the theological dispute between Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis that preceded the recording of “Great Balls of Fire”; Costello’s course of study in high school English (“Second-half-of-the-twentieth-century working-class British literature – ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,’ ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,’ ‘Billy Liar'”); Frank Sinatra‘s incandescent version of “I Can’t Get Started (with You),” from the album ‘No One Cares,’ especially the unique spoken introduction (“‘Each time I chanced to see Franklin D.,'” Costello reminded me,”‘he always said, “Hi, buddy” to me'”); Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Little Village”; Billie Holiday; Mel Tormé; Charlie Rich; Peter Guralnick’s ‘Lost Highway’; Kay Kendall; Isabelle Adjani; and –
And, we will need another interview, another time. As for what I have taken from that conversation – what seems, given how little Costello has spoken for print, most fundamental and necessary – I’ve compressed some passages, left myself out of the dialogue when I did no more than say, “And then . . .,” and stitched the result together with narrative. Five years after, one must begin at the beginning.
Declan McManus was born in London in 1955 and grew up there, attending Catholic schools. For his last two years of secondary or high school he moved to Liverpool to live with his mother, by that time divorced from his father, Ross McManus, a big-band singer and solo cabaret performer.
I graduated from secondary school in 1973. It was the first year of 1 million unemployed in England in recent times – in Liverpool, anywhere up north,it was worse. I was very lucky to get a job. I had no ambition to go into further education; I just went out and got the first job I could get. I went along to be a chart corrector, tea boy, clerk – because I wasn’t really qualified for anything. I got a job as a computer operator, which happened to be comparatively well paid: about twenty pounds a week. I’d just put tapes on the machines and feed cards in, line up printing machines – all the manual work the computer itself doesn’t have arms to do.
I had something of an ambition to be a professional musician. I was already playing guitar in high school – playing in folk clubs on my own. I was writing my own songs – dreadful songs, performing them more or less religiously. I didn’t think the songs were worth recording – but the only way you get better is to play what you write. Then you have the humiliation of being crushed – if they’re obviously insubstantial. If you don’t put them over you quickly learn from experience.
I stuck out the first computer job for about six months; at the same time, I got into a group in Liverpool, a sort of folk group – we’d do a few rock ‘n’ roll tunes, and songs of our own, but we weren’t getting anywhere. The Cavern was still there – and that’s where I met Nick Lowe, just before I came to London, in ’74. He was still with Brinsley Schwarz; it was the autumn of their career. We’d do a few of their numbers in our set; we had a show at a little club, they were playing at the Cavern, and we went along and met in the bar and started chatting. He was in a real proper group that recorded records! That was the first time I’d ever spoken to anybody that was in a group – and his attitude even then has been reflected in the way he’s been since. When we’ve worked together, it’s been, “I can’t see what’s so difficult about it, it’s just four chords” – and he’d bang them out. He always had that attitude – it was quite a revelation to me.
What was the beginning of your life as a fan?
My father was with Joe Loss – the English Glenn Miller, I suppose. He was with him from about 1953 to 1968, and then he went solo; his instrument is trumpet but he’s a singer. After the years with Joe Loss he went out as a cabaret artist; he does social clubs and nightclubs and cabaret, drives around himself.
The first records I ever owned were “Please Please Me” – and “The Folksinger” by John Leyton. I was at a little bit of an advantage because my father was still with Joe Loss then – he used to get quite a lot of records because they would cover the hits of the day. He’d often have demonstration copies, even acetates; as late as 1966, Northern Songs would still send Beatles acetates out to the orchestras to garner covers for [live] radio play. I’ve got them at home. As my father was the most versatile of the three Joe Loss band singers, I was fortunate – he got the records and just passed them on to me.
I was just into singles, whatever was on the radio – the Kinks, the Who, Motown. It was exciting . . . I was in the Beatles fan club when I was eleven; I used to buy the magazines. The one kind of music that I didn’t like was rock ‘n’ roll – as a distinct [classic] form. The girl next door loved the Shadows and Cliff Richard – I thought that was really old hat. Someone who lived across the road from my grandmother liked Buddy Holly – I thought that was terribly old-fashioned, I couldn’t understand why anybody liked it. It never occurred to me that someone as archaic as Chuck Berry could have written “Roll Over Beethoven” – because I was quite convinced that George Harrison had written it.
The only time it changed, the only time it went a bit peculiar, where it maybe went a bit clandestine, was when I went to live in Liverpool. I was never very taken with pyschedelic music – but my dad went a bit psychedelic around the edges,about 1968. He grew his hair quite long; he used to give me Grateful Dead records, and Surrealistic Pillow. I’d keep them for a couple of weeks, and then sell them at the record exchange and buy Marvin Gaye records. When I went to live in Liverpool I discovered everyone was still into acid rock – and I used to hide my Otis Redding records when friends came around. I didn’t want to be out of step. To the age of sixteen it’s really crucial that you’re in – and I tried hard to like the Grateful Dead or Spirit. I tried to find somebody of that sort that I could like that nobody else did – because everyone would adopt his group, and his group woud be it: someone weird like Captain Beefheart. It’s no different now – people trying to outdo each other in extremes. There are people who like X, and there are people who say X are wimps; they like Black Flag.
I actually “saw the light” when I was already playing – coming back to London, seeing a lot of groups, Nick Lowe and the Brinsleys, pub-rock groups. I think you get very earnest when you’re about sixteen to eighteen, and everyone at school was listening either to the psychedelic groups or singer/songwriters: it was all very earnest, pouring out your inner soul. In London I discovered that all the music I liked secretly, that I’d been hiding from my friends – that was what was great fun in a bar: Lee Dorsey songs! Suddenly it was all right to like it; that was when I saw the light. There was nothing wrong with it.
In England, now, there’s a prejudice against that era, the prepunk era; the bands tend to get ridden down: “Oh, that’s just pub rock.” I’d much rather any day go and see NRBQ playing in a bar than I would the most illustrious of our punk groups in England, because I don’t think they have anything to do with anything. They’re horrible – and phony, and dishonest as well.
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.
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.
Riviera was right, perhaps because he knew Declan McManus could live up to his new name. With ‘My Aim Is True,’ recorded with the American country-rock band Clover and produced by Nick Lowe, Costello stepped out as a major figure in British new music; the American release of the LP on CBS later in the year, a brilliant appearance on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and his first tour with the newly recruited Attractions, brought, if anything, an even more fierce response in the U.S. Along with Lowe and Riviera, Costello left Stiff for the now-defunct Radar label (Costello now records for F-Beat in the U.K.), and he and the Attractions followed a remarkable first year with ‘This Year’s Model’ (“A ghost version of ‘Aftermath,’ ” Costello told me, noting that, having never been much of a Rolling Stones fan, he’d never heard the record until a few months before making ‘Model.’ He responded to my comments about the strength of the LP with the information that Nick Lowe’s contribution was to “sweeten it” – that furious album was sweetened?) and a tour far more confident and hard-edged than the one that had preceded it.
In 1979 Costello offered perhaps his most ambitious record, ‘Armed Forces’ – originally and more appropriately titled ‘Emotional Fascism.’ It was a tricky, allusive set of words, voices and shifting instrumental textures, primarily influenced, Costello says, by the music he and the Attractions had been able to agree on as listening material while touring the U.S. in a station wagon; David Bowie‘s ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes,’ Iggy Pop‘s ‘Lust for Life’ and ‘The Idiot,’ Kraftwerk‘s ‘Autobahn,’ and most of all, Abba‘s ‘Arrival.’ (“‘Oliver’s Army’ was most successful,” Costello says of the LP’s U.K. hit, a bright, poppy cut that would have been released as a single in the U.S. had Costello been willing to take out the line characterizing army recruits as “white niggers” – the whole point of the tune. “That was the aim,” he says. “A grim heart in the middle of an Abba record.”) As Jim Miller has written, on ‘Armed Forces’ “personal relations are perceived as a metaphor for relations in society at large . . . [Costello’s] stance may begin with private refusals, but it ends with public references.”
In a bizarre manner, that truth was acted out, on its head, during Costello’s 1979 tour of the U.S., when one night in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, at odds with Bonnie Bramlett and other members of the Stephen Stills Band, Costello suddenly denounced Ray Charles as “a blind, ignorant nigger,” said much the same about James Brown, and attacked the stupidity of American black music in particular and America in general. Bramlett decked him; the incident quickly made the papers, then ‘People’ magazine, and the resulting scandal forced a New York press conference – Costello’s first real face-to-face encounter with journalists since the fall of 1977 – where be tried to explain himself, and, according to both Costello and those who questioned him, failed. This, from a man who had produced the first album by the Specials, the U.K.’s pioneers of interracial music? Who at some risk had taken on the National Front with “Night Rally,” and appeared at Rock Against Racism concerts – and who, again to quote Jim Miller, was plainly “obsessed with the reality of domination wherever it occurs”? A man who had ended ‘Armed Forces’ with a blazing cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” – a song that, as Costello performed it, was, yes, ironic, especially given such nightmares as “Goon Squad,” which preceded it, but was nevertheless not a joke? What happened?
It’s become a terrible thing, hanging over my head – it’s horrible to work hard for a long time and find that what you’re best known for is something as idiotic as . . . this.
Do you really think that this incident is what you’re best known for?
Yes. The first thing that a lot of people heard about me was that incident. I think it outweighs my entire career – which is a pretty depressing prospect. I’m absolutely convinced.
Fred Schruers wrote a piece about it – a sort of “tenor of the tour.” About the fact that we went around with Camp Lejeune on the front of our bus – Camp Lejeune, where they train the marines. He said it was like an exercise in paranoia. To an extent, it was. The antijournalist thing we were doing, the antiphotographer thing, had reached an almost excessive level by that point. Schruers said that the press were looking for something to crucify me with, and I fed myself to the lions. There were words to that effect. I remember them distinctly. And I couldn’t help but agree, to a certain extent, looking – aside from the incident itself – dispassionately at the effect of what happened.
What actually happened was this: we were in the bar – Bruce Thomas and I were in the bar after the show in Columbus, Ohio. And we were very drunk. Well, we weren’t drunk to begin with – we were reasonably drunk. And we started into what you’d probably call joshing. Gentle gibes between the two camps of the Stills Band and us. It developed as it got drunker and drunker into a nastier and nastier argument. And I suppose that in the drunkenness, my contempt for them was probably exaggerated beyond my real contempt for them. I don’t think I had a real opinion. But they just seemed in some way to typify a lot of things that I thought were wrong with American music. And that’s probably quite unfair. But at the exact moment – they did.
Things such as what?
Insincerity, dishonesty – musical dishonesty.
I just think they’re . . . This is difficult, because this is getting right off the point. Because now I’m getting into mudslinging.
But now we’re trying to talk about what it was really about.
What it was about was that I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them – that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else.That’s why I don’t want to get into why I felt so affronted by them, because that’s not important. It’s not important because … they don’t mean anything to me. They don’t even mean anything now – I don’t feel any malice in the way I feel that they probably exploited the incident to get some free publicity.
My initial reaction – I can tell you now – to seeing Bonnie Bramlett get free publicity out of my name was that, “Well, she rode to fame on the back of one E.C., she’s not gonna do it on the back of another.” But that was before the consquences of what had happened had sunk in – that was a flip way of dismissing it.
Did you have any idea of how dangerous, or how exploitable, or how plainly offensive, what you said would be in a public context?
No, because it was never intended – if I hadn’t been drunk I would never have said those things. If it had been a considered argument, I probably would have either not pursued the argument to such extreme length, or I would have thought of something a little bit more coherent, another form of attack, rather than just outrage. Outrage is fairly easy. Not in terms of dealing with the consequences, but in terms of employing it as a tactic in an argument.
With the press conference in New York a few days later, the situation reminded me of nothing so much as the “We’re more popular than Jesus” blowup with the Beatles.
It had approximately the same effect on our career. The minute the story was published nationally, records were taken off playlists. About 120 death threats – or threats of violence of some kind. I had armed bodyguards for the last part of that tour.
And not since?
For one tour since. Not armed, but . . . .
But not now?
We take more care with security than we did before.
Were records taken out of stores?
I don’t know – there may have been. Just like people won’t sell South African goods. I mean – quite rightly so! Until there was an explanation.
The press conference was unsuccessful because I was fried on that tour. This is aside from the incident; now I’m talking from a personal point of view.
It was at that point that everything – whether it be my self-perpetrated venom – was about to engulf me. I was, I think, rapidly becoming not a very nice person. I was losing track of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and my own control.
In your first interview, in 1977 with Nick Kent of ‘NME,’ you made a famous statement: words to the effect that all you knew of human emotions were revenge and guilt. Those words have been endlessly quoted – I’ve quoted them, they’re irresistible. Now you’re describing that as venom – as if your artistic venom, what you put into your music, had engulfed your own life.
I think it did. I think it started to take over. You see, I think that after a while – apart from anything else, looking from a purely artistic point of view – it started to become a problem for me to incorporate the wider, more compassionate point of view that I felt; I was trying to put that forward in some of the songs, and it was so much at odds with the preconception of the image.
When we were playing, the frustration of that just ate me up. And with my lack of personal control of my life, and my supposed emotions, and drinking too much, and being on the road too much –
I’m not saying I wasn’t responsible for my actions; that sounds like I’m trying to excuse myself. But I was not very responsible. There’s a distinct difference. I was completely irresponsible, in fact. And far from carefree – careless with everything. With everything that I really care about. And I think that, inasmuch as it was said that we fed ourselves to the lions, you could say that whatever the incident was, it was symptomatic of the condition I was in, and that I deserved what happened regardless of the intentions of the remarks.
But it was only quite recently that I realized that it’s not only the man on the street, as it were, who’s never heard of me otherwise, who’s only read People – that it’s not only people like that who know only this about me. When we were recording Imperial Bedroom, Bruce Thomas was in the next studio while I was doing a vocal. Paul McCartney was there, and Michael Jackson came in to do a vocal – everything was very nice Everyone was getting along fine until somebody introduced Bruce as my bass player. And suddenly – there was a freeze-out. Michael Jackson was – “Oh, God, I don’t dig that guy . . . I don’t dig that guy.”
He had heard about it third hand, from Quincy Jones. Two guys I have a tremendous amount of admiration for. It depressed me that I wouldn’t be able to go up to him – I wouldn’t be able to go up and shake his hand, because he wouldn’t want to shake my hand. Or James Brown, for that matter. But what could I say? What could I say? How could you explain such a thing? But there is nothing I’d like more.
Costello and the Attractions returned to England, wondering if they could ever return to America, and made ‘Get Happy!!’: “Our version of a Motown album,” Costello says. “I had the feeling people were reading my mind – but what could I do, hold up a sign that read, I REALLY LIKE BLACK PEOPLE? Like Tom Robinson or Joan Baez? Turn myself into Steve Marriott: ‘My skin is white but my soul is black’?”
The band almost broke up; Steve Nieve quit, Costello finished up a European tour with Martin Belmont of the Rumour, and then Costello quit – briefly.
The band put itself back together, and produced ‘Trust,’ a singers showcase, and ‘Almost Blue,’ a less-than-convincing country music tribute recorded in Nashville and produced by Billy Sherrill. One sweltering night in 1981 in Los Angeles, Costello – with two of the Attractions and Nick Lowe – took part in the taping of a George Jones Home Box Office special; puffed up with the mumps and swaddled in heavy clothes, he proved himself more of a professional and more of an artist than the country superstars who clowned and fussed their way through their numbers. On record, he has again found all of his voice: ‘Imperial Bedroom’ is his most adventurous and successful recording since ‘Armed Forces’ – or ‘This Year’s Model.’ Costello’s thoughts on quitting the game, his state of mind after ‘Get Happy!!,’ remain worth considering.
I didn’t want to do anymore. I didn’t see any point. It was a question of deciding whether we were going to be a cult act.
We were operating on such a low level. I was aware of the fact that there was no way that Get Happy!! was going to be a Number One record – or in a different sense, any record at all. That record was called another “Angry Young Man” record! We were a little, pigeoned cult – “Oh, yeah, they’re the Angry Young Man act. We’ve got them numbered.”
We weren’t actually achieving any change if we weren’t selling more records than REO Speed-wagon. So long as we were only as commercially effective as Randy Newman –
Randy Newman doesn’t really play for the people who should hear his songs. He plays to polite, amused – I sat sickened through the best concert I think he’s done in London, at Drury Lane just after Good Old Boys came out; people were guffawing through “Davy, the Fat Boy.” I couldn’t watch him for the audience.
That was the way I felt: that we were comfortably contained within the business, instead of having some dramatic effect on the structure of the business. You’d just be another pawn. The people that formed United Artists – they had control over their own artistic destiny by forming the company. Barring being able to do that, you can actually change the structure of the scene that you’re working within by being the biggest thing in it.
There’s also the possibility of affecting the way people actually respond to the world.
Well, that’s the initial intention of writing the songs to begin with, isn’t it.
That’s the view that you put into that one song – whether it be about something extremely large, or not at all. I wrote a song called “Hoover Factory” – about a lovely deco building that was going to be torn down. I said, “It’s not a matter of life or death – but what is?”
There is a song on Imperial Bedroom, “The Loved Ones,” that is the hardest song to get over. Considering it’s got such a light pop tune, it’s like saying, “Fuck posterity; it’s better to live.” It’s the opposite of Rust Never Sleeps. It’s about, Fuck being a junkie and dying in some phony romantic way like Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas. Somebody in your family’s got to bury you, you know?
That’s a complicated idea to put in a pop song. I didn’t want to write a story around it – I wanted to just throw all of those ideas into a song. Around a good pop hook.
And that, in a nice, simple statement, is a philosophy of pop: from a man whose work and career have shown that the pursuit of such a philosophy is anything but simple – and also worth the candle.
This story is from the September 2nd, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.