Elvis Costello debuted in 1977 as rock & roll’s greatest amalgam. He sported the King’s name, looked and dressed like Buddy Holly, and his music combined the Beatles’ Mersey Beat with punk rock’s indignation and Dylan’s eloquence.
Over his ensuing twenty-five-year recording career, with and without his backing band the Attractions, he has dabbled in country, reggae, big band, lounge, opera and chamber music, and collaborated with everyone from pop maestros Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney to soul king Solomon Burke and Swedish diva Anne Sofie von Otter.
At forty-seven, Costello is chummy and soft spoken — hardly the angry young man who pissed off his label by defiantly singing his career-suicidal protest song “Radio Radio” on his U.S. TV debut. But he still reserves his right to alienate — just ask him about former Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas (who wrote a thinly veiled tell-all book about Costello); Sting (whom he’s enjoyed mocking in the press for years); or, of course, radio.
How does it feel to be a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer?
Well, friends have been absolutely so thrilled for me, and that has changed my mind from my natural disposition to the Groucho Marx view of clubs towards one where I think if people are good enough to invite us to a party it would be churlish and rude of us to decline. The other side of it is it’s just some people saying so — it doesn’t make you better than everybody else. There are a lot of people missing, and people will no doubt debate that endlessly and rather boringly. I don’t know that Burt Bacharach is in the Hall of Fame, though I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be, because “Walk On By” is a great R&B record. Is Solomon Burke in?
OK, if Solomon Burke’s in there, that’s good enough for me.
Are you looking forward to the ceremony?
I don’t know because I know nothing about it. Are there capes and hoods involved? Any blindfolds?
No, just some tuxedos.
Oh I hope that’s not obligatory. I don’t know that it really goes with the guitar.
For last year’s ceremony, the Talking Heads put aside their differences and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers welcomed back their original drummer Stan Lynch to play last year’s ceremony. Will Bruce Thomas rejoin the Attractions for a night?
I only work with professional musicians. As far as I know he isn’t a professional musician, so I don’t imagine so.
Who’ll play bass?
Sting can have the gig if he wants it — a little bit of belated credibility for him. I bet we could get Tina [Weymouth of the Talking Heads]. She’s a great bass player. I’m teasing — I have no idea. It’s enough that the names of the original band members are on the roll of honor, or whatever you call it, because that really does celebrate the time when we were all on the same page about music and we were making great records together. I’m trying to be fair to our departed member — I don’t mean departed, I mean estranged — because I have absolute respect for his playing on the records when he cared. He was certainly one of the best bass players around.
What recordings do you think best sum up Elvis Costello and the Attractions?
I think “Pump It Up” is a pretty good rock & roll record, of that simple sort of thing, and it’s good fun to play. I think “New Lace Sleeves” from Trust is a pretty good performance. As for the ballads, “Ship Building” was a good performance, and “Poor Fractured Atlas” from the very last record we made together [1996’s All This Useless Beauty]. Also “Beyond Belief” and most of Imperial Bedroom.
Where were you when you wrote “Watching the Detectives”?
I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I’d been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to another inductee’s record, the Clash’s first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote “Watching the Detectives.”
What was the very first album you connected with like that?
I know the very first record I had was With the Beatles. I read the sleeve notes, but I never read the publishing credits. I sort of knew they didn’t write “Roll Over Beethoven,” but I didn’t know that they didn’t write “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” because it sounded so much John Lennon’s song. That’s still in my top five favorite John Lennon tracks. “All My Lovin'” I love. And you know what song I really love? “Don’t Bother Me” by George Harrison. I think it’s a beautiful song. And “Hold Me Tight.” The singing and the whole sound of [the album] is so right. I still have my vinyl copy.
Even though you’ve never had a blockbuster hit album, you’ve managed to sustain a prolific, twenty-five-year recording career on major labels. Can that continue?
I think that we’re getting rapidly to the point now — when the music business is in its death throes — that we have to accept that artists of my age and profile won’t be able to make one record every two years. We’ll either not record at all, so you have to come see us play to hear the new songs — and then you can steal them, if you want that on your conscience — or we’ll record two albums a year, the way the Who did in the Sixties, for a much more reasonable amount of money, but only expect to sell as much as jazz artists. That’s where rock & roll is now, and the record companies are not set up to deal with it. They have a chart that equates to selling half a million copies on every release at the very least. And they have to get over themselves . . . Just because you’re able to put a record out does not make you creative.
With all the recent consolidation, “Radio Radio” seems even more applicable today than in 1977.
Oh, you might as well just admit now that radio has nothing to do with music anymore — it’s in the advertising business. There’s a real skill to programming in an intelligent way, but nobody does that anymore. It’s all done by computer, by committee. Radio is absolutely the enemy of music. They are my sworn and mortal enemy, and I will have nothing to do with them.