Elvis Costello (1)

Oh, I used to be disgusted
And now I try to be amused
But since their wings have got rusted
You know, the angels want to wear my red shoes

Elvis’ first three albums (all produced by rocker Nick Lowe) are so outstanding (and in your face) that they are all on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums. His debut, My Aim is True is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. He is so well-respected as a songwriter that he was asked to collaborate with both Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. I can’t think of too many others who possess his sense of literate wordplay and melodic invention. John Lennon maybe. Steely Dan guys.

I just finished reading his recently released autobiography (Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink) and also went to a local theater to see a taped broadcast of him performing solo in Liverpool. (Which he considers home along with some other band whose name escapes me). So this seemed as good a time as any to blog about him while he’s fresh in my mind.

His father, Ross MacManus was a very good, well-regarded big band singer and trumpeter. And so Elvis (born Declan MacManus) was exposed very early to a variety of music and styles. In fact, his father brought home early acetates of Beatles songs. (If you’re curious, you can see Elvis and his father singing “Georgia On My Mind” together here starting at about 2:04.)

In late 1977, when Elvis put out his seminal album My Aim is True, it hit with the force of a thunderbolt. Sure it was, I guess, punk or New Wave. But it was immediately clear that whoever this guy was – a guy cheeky enough to call himself Elvis as Elton John said – he had something more musically going on than your average three-chord rocker.

Interestingly, while his band The Attractions was a key element of his sound, this album came out before they existed. He recorded it with an American band called Clover which included Huey Lewis. Stories vary on how they got involved in this. Either Costello’s drummer met them on an extended visit to the States or they met Nick Lowe there. (There was no role for Huey on the album as Elvis sang and they didn’t need harmonica). Eventually Lewis and some others went on to form the News and had some success of their own.

The first song The Attractions were credited with recording was the great “Watching the Detectives.” (Which I like to tell people I’m doing when they call me and I’m watching an episode of Law and Order). I love how the song comes across all angular, moody and dangerous. A great arrangement whose bass/drum/organ sound create a palpable sense of lurking menace:

A challenge in doing only a couple of Elvis posts was narrowing it down to a relatively few songs. (See this post for A Song I Love from This Year’s Model). But I wanted to get another one in from the first album, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Elvis states that he was riding the train in England and this song “came into my mind, almost fully formed.” He says it’s a “pretty standard tale of romantic disappointment.” Yeah I’ll say:

I said, “I’m so happy I could die”
She said, “Drop dead, ” then left with another guy

His second album, This Year’s Model, continued the Angry Young Man theme. (He told an early interviewer that his songs were motivated by “revenge and guilt.” To this day he gets asked about that and patiently tries to explain it was an offhand comment not a mission statement).

I had no problem whatsoever choosing the great “Pump it Up” for this post. Here are The Attractions performing it live in Germany in 1978. (Costello’s autobiography is the best iteration of the world-weary nature of the traveling musician that I’ve read. An endless slog of indignities, harrowing travel, bullshit and lip-synced songs from one place to another):

Down in the pleasure center, hell-bent or heaven-sent
Listen to the propaganda, listen to the latest slander
There’s nothing underhand that she wouldn’t understand
Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it

I initially wanted to do “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” but I’m instead going with “Lip Service” because it shows his ability not only to write a great song but also to pen a catchy chorus. And the intro is decidely Beatle-esque. What always interests me about the so-called New Wave is their supposed disdain for what came before them. But as often as it was real, it was a pose.

This is truer of no one more than EC who has done everything from rock and roll to ballads to country to standards to string quartets (“The Juliet Letters,” apparently based on real letters sent to Shakespeare’s Juliet).

Next post – Elvis goes way beyond his rock n’ roll roots