Elvis Costello

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Pete Silverton

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Right now, commenting on Costello or the Clash, you're not talking about just another artist, you're confronting rock'n'roll as a whole form as it stands now. They're both state-of-the-art, the living embodiments of more than a score of years and the linchpins of most probable futures. Who else is there?….

[The] Clash are real easy to write about. All that dynamite copy but genuine (if sometimes slightly forced) rude boy chic. Piece of cake.

But Costello, he's so, so tricky….

[Like] most others, I can't help but be drawn like a voyeuristic moth to the panache of the Costello Blut und Eisen [That's "blood and iron," folks—Ed.] assault on the consciousness of the Western world. And the problem is that it's often difficult to pinpoint the precise reason for the success of that campaign—leaving aside, that is, the sheer hard work that's gone into it.

For starters, while everyone else around was heeding the rallying call of [the Sex Pistols's] "Anarchy in the UK," here was this four-eyed squirty gimp winging on about some lost love named Alison….

[He] rarely struck me as anything more than a diffident performer. It's as though some innate traces of crippling shyness surface every time he straps on his Jazzmaster and faces a braying crowd with only the microphone there to shelter his sense of inadequacy. So, operating on the reaction-action principle, he tries too hard to project an image of mean moodiness laced with the odd piece of blather which is sometimes fatuous…. (p. 25)

[He] seems to fall too easily into what's wanted rather than what's needed (there's a nice rehash of a Dylan/Costello paradox for you). Play the hits, keep the record company satisfied. And he plainly hates doing it. Sometimes, maybe, his brusque treatment of audiences has its roots in disgust at himself.

And while he started out with that whole bagful of exquisitely crafted songs, My Aim Is True still sounds like everything was made to suffer grievously at the hands of [backup band] Clover. (pp. 25-6)

And finally, the most telling chink in his armor is his habit of sometimes reaching for the first facile phrase, metaphor or paradox that comes his way. Balancing the terse precision of "Pump It Up" (the perfect phrase describing doing it all to death) there's the likes of the glib and inane "Your mouth is made up / But your mind is undone." And sometimes he ladles on the menace so deep and so thick, as on "Hand in Hand," that it ends up sounding almost laughable….

Really Elvis. You sound like a little boy threatening to bring in his dad 'cos he's bigger than the other kid's dad.

And yet, even taking all those Achilles tendons into account, Elvis is still one of those destined to carve out his name large in the history of rock'n'roll. He's a sly, sometimes deceptively casual, songwriter. He's got passion, guts, aggression, compassion, insight, all those things which on the printed page can look so much bullshit, but are in fact the lifeblood of any worthwhile artist, no matter whether it's paint he's daubing or strings he's plucking.

So far so good; but the same things could be said of quite a handful of rock'n'roll performers. What makes Elvis more compelling than the rest is the scope of his vision and the breadth of his ambition. Like the Clash, he's gonna use every last drop of his wit to ensure that his work is never treated as mere music.

And, at the moment, he's on a winning streak of almost awesome momentum. Like Dylan around...

(This entire section contains 1348 words.)

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the time of [Highway 61 Revisited], he's running before he's learned to walk and rubbing that uncomfortable fact in the face of anyone who dares to doubt. (p. 26)

Once upon an innocent time, I used to think that EC was satisfied with merely wishing he'd metamorphose one night—a rock'n'roll version of Kafka's creepy crawly—and wake up as [the Clash's] Joe Strummer. That way he'd have real credibility. Now I realize this kid Costello don't stop at no petty aims like that. He wants to go the whole way. Consumed by the romanticism of the Prometheus myth, he wants to plunge deep into the realms of the untalked-about and capture the fire singlehandedly for the rest of us less determined souls … before lunch, preferably. And all that in full knowledge that, on his return, he stands a good chance of having a load of messy birds passing the time of day by gobbling lumps out of his kidneys. Of course, like Dylan, who had similar visions, he'll probably be satisfied by a couple of years playing Faust, after which he'll settle down and write a book.

Still, world domination. Now there's a worthy concept. Personally, these days I don't trust anyone who isn't bent on their own trail of world domination. Since the Great American Novel dream started going down the pan the day [Jack] Kerouac got treated as a serious novelist, and finally gave up the ghost when it caught the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, since the idea of making the perfect rock'n'roll album got lost soon after the twentieth tab of acid, what else is there for a poor boy to do?

In this Indian summer of a society, what hope of survival is there other than making sure you're the one that's calling the shots?

So Elvis has opted for bare-faced hubris, screaming at the gods to just dare to come and waste him. Which means, when all that's squeezed into song form, he's just as quotable as Dylan used to be when he was still patron saint to literate speedfreaks. What else is "bite the hand that feeds me" but the one true epigram for a generation that doesn't have the confidence or the misguided imagination to push "it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" to its ultimate conclusion?

And I'm sure that aura of overweening ambition is just what makes Costello so appealing to the wide wide world. Above all else, rock'n'roll is melodrama. The chants, the lights, the violent jerky moves, a good part of the whole rock'n'roll live experience is a late 20th century variant of the "died and never called my mother" school of art. (pp. 26-7)

With Costello, that melodrama shows itself in many ways. The surly but aggressive wit of his ad campaigns; the spindly fountains of white light that he used as a backdrop for his Dominion Theatre gigs in London; his hunched, tense postures at the mike; the Garbo-esque approach to interviews …; the occasional step into pure hamminess like "Hand in Hand"; the global sweep of Armed Forces (from "Goon Squad" to "Oliver's Army" via the authoritative sounding "Moods for Moderns"—you can get a fair idea of where those songs are coming from without even listening to the music) and beyond all reasonable expectations, he's produced unsullied masterpieces like "Watching the Detectives."

The sheer eerie impotence of the lines "I don't know how much more of this I can take / She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" is positively suffocating in its harrowing evocation of domestic disharmony: wife watches Starsky and Hutch, husband squirms in his chair wishing he could be up there with the big boys, telling it all to the world from behind his guitar instead of being stuck here in his safe West London home in front of the box with wifey….

[These] days even his private rage takes on an epic form….

[The] suppleness of his melodies are invariably a decoy for the sharpness of the lyrics. "Oliver's Army" has been both his biggest British hit … and one of his most directly targeted lambasts of a power structure which recruits its killers in uniform from this year's tired poor wretched rabble. True subversion from a master of his past who's still fresh enough to be forcing himself to his own limits. (p. 27)

Pete Silverton, "Accidents Won't Happen," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1979 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 6, No. 5, June, 1979, pp. 24-7.


Ira Robbins


Ira Robbins