Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello

Jim Sullivan recounts his years in conversation with the man born Declan MacManus 66 years ago today

Elvis Costello in concert (Photography: Roza Yarchun)

Elvis Costello turned 66 on August 25 and, man, did that bring me back in time … to my first Elvis encounter – a 1978 Boston concert at the Orpheum Theater and then a later random meet-up at the Rat club.  

Now, Elvis Costello has become, over time, one of the nicest guys in rock ‘n’ roll. He’s loquacious as a music/talk show host, expansive and witty when interviewed. He plays long, generous concerts. As a songwriter, he remains a master of melody, wordplay and multiple meanings. And he collaborates with musicians of every genre – country, R&B, roots-rockers, A master of all trades. 

 He was not always this way. 

 In fact, when Costello came out with My Aim Is True in 1977 – followed quickly by This Year’s Model the following year – he was every bit the terse tight-lipped artist. Not a punk rocker exactly – more refined in his rage – but came from that milieu and mindset. 

In December 1977, Costello and his new backing trio, the Attractions, subbed for the Sex Pistols on Saturday Night Live when the Pistols weren’t allowed to leave England because of visa issues. (Attractions drummer Pete Thomas wore a t-shirt that night that read, “Thanks Malc,” archly tipping his hat to Pistols’ manager/impresario Malcolm McLaren who might have been the one to bollix the paperwork.) 


VIDEO: Elvis Costello and the Attractions perform “Radio, Radio” on Saturday Night Live 

Costello and the Attractions played “Watching the Detectives” as their first song and were supposed to play “Less Than Zero” as their second song. They started for a few bars, 10 seconds maybe, and then Costello jerked it to a halt, spitting out, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here.” They launched into “Radio Radio,” and as-of-then unreleased song that indicted rock radio for its lameness. (It was out in England on his second album, This Year’s Model, and available as an import in the States, but the U.S. version wouldn’t come for two months.) Costello sang, “I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly/I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.” 

It was a bold maneuver and one of the most exciting musical moments ever on live television. For three minutes, all the preplanning and camera blocking went awry; live television was really live – and electric.

Costello and the Attractions went on an American tour the following spring, their second time around the US. They sold out the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, playing for, maybe, 55 minutes – one of the most intense, visceral concerts I’d seen. An onslaught, no let up, full-on, with material drawn from his My Aim is True and the more attacking, vitriolic Model (Number 1 in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll that year.) After the set, there was no encore. In fact, Costello in fact had the soundman turn up the feedback to near-painful levels, driving the fans out of the theatre. Amazing and audacious. These were people who paid to see them? He’s giving them a short show, no encore and then … this! It was if the message was: “You’ve spent your money, enjoy your catharsis, now go home.”  At the time, in a rare interview, he’d said his music was inspired by “revenge and guilt.”

The night was young, so I headed to the Kenmore Square punk rock club the Rat to see a gig by The Cramps. And, as it turned out, so was Costello. He was in that sweaty, packed basement room. But he was in his I-don’t-talk-to-rock-journalists mode so, when I sidled over to engage him, I didn’t identify myself as such. And we had a good little chat. I asked him about the abrupt “SNL” song switch. He told it really was spontaneous – no pre-planned fake maneuver, they’d rehearsed “Less Than Zero” – and that producer Lorne Michaels was furious. Because they hadn’t blocked out the song, the director kept the camera work simple. One focused right on Costello and beside that cameraman was Michaels, shooting him a middle finger throughout the song, and later vowing to ban Costello from ever playing the show again. (That did not hold.)

By the time Costello and I talked, “Radio Radio” was out and all the “cool” stations were playing it in heavy rotation.  There was some irony, there, right? 

Happy Birthday Elvis Costello (Art: Ron Hart)

“Well,” he said with a sly smirk, “I figured either they wouldn’t play it at all or a lot of them would play it figuring it didn’t mean them.” But it did, right? Of course, he said, it most definitely did mean them.

I’ll interject here. Radio airplay was by far, the main avenue to success and if you weren’t aiming for AM pop hits, FM rock radio – once called progressive and later (when it tightened up) album-oriented rock – was crucial. For a low or mid-level musician – one aspiring to some degree of mainstream success – to attack the wide spectrum of FM then, would be like someone of that ilk attacking Spotify now or keeping their music off the service. (Yes, I know Taylor Swift has done it but she’s a whole ‘nother level.) 

Eleven years later, Costello had morphed into the witty, but generally genial, entertainer we now know. I was at the Boston area branch of Warner / Elektra / Atlantic – he was a Warner’s act then – and we had a sit-down interview, him drinking coffee with a side of bottled water. And, of course, I had to ask him about those nasty old days.

 “What I did when I first started out,” Costello said, “was do a few interviews and, with a couple of exceptions, they were mostly unsatisfactory.” So, right away, he stopped talking. “It made better copy than anything I might have said. Then, I said, ‘I’ll show you — you want punk, this is fucking punk.’ “Costello sweeps the air with his right hand, an air punch. 

 “You start playing up to it; it’s good fun,” he said, adding, with a laugh, “I think Sean Penn learned everything he did from me.” 

However, he added that, “you overlook the fact that writers sit at home and go, ‘What did he mean by all that stuff? ‘ and we’re going, ‘Ha! They bought that one again! Let’s kick down another door!’ After about five years, you start to realize it’s a bit childish. And there were some unworthy targets, people who get it in the neck if they just happen to be in your way, people who might be good people but you don’t give them the chance to explain themselves.” 

During one 1999 show, the Beastie Boys were the “SNL” musical guest. They started their song, “Sabotage.” Who should rush the stage, guitar in hand, and take over the mic? Elvis Costello replicating what he’d said in 1977. The Beastie Boys kicked into “Radio Radio.” It was another great moment – ironic and funny – and it was just as bracing and pertinent a dozen years down the road.


AUDIO: Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet “Jacksons, Monk & Rowe”

So, that year – 20 years after our first encounter – I had another interview with Elvis. The early Elvis – despite the mesh with his brilliant backup band, the Attractions – was very much considered a solo artist. But by this point, he had become a master collaborator. With Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach … there would be many more to come. Elvis was no lone wolf at all. Here’s how some of that chat went down about collaboration and songwriting.


One of the joys I’m assuming that you have, more so now than ever I think, is the joy of collaboration. Is that one of the best parts of your job?

Elvis: I feel very fortunate, I suppose. It’s very good fortune that a chance encounter turns into a friendship turns into a working relationship, obviously with some very celebrated people, and one that life holds onto. I think I’ve had a lot of time to do my own poetry work as well and times when I wouldn’t have the opportunity or ability to do the collaborative work if I hadn’t known something about myself from having worked alone, being able to come up with stuff.


For you, what’s the difference between collaboration and solitary work? Do you enjoy one more than the other?

Elvis: Not really no. They’re very different, only you’re banging around whims and fascinations and hopefully compassions. You have to accommodate. Sometimes, you have to give up some of the control and hope that a song lands when it’s being edited by somebody. I might come up with a musical idea, stretch and mold in in some way and it takes a little bit to just let go for a second because you’re so used to governing it all. Even more so if you’ve never collaborated with this particular musician.


I think also one thing that’s interesting is the position of the songwriter in that there’s a certain amount of ego involved and you have to surrender some of that, I suppose.

Elvis: Yeah.


But it’s a neat thing to think of two people who are very strong in what they do coming to terms with each other, finding each other’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Elvis: That’s the whole point. Otherwise, you could just write the record yourself. What I hear now is that there’s so much music being made by people just coming together and I think that’s more and more possible. People are not a skeptical about it and they’re much more accepting. 


Collaboration with artist perceived to be outside your comfort zone also can lead to crossover.

Elvis: I’ve never liked that word. I always thought that it sounded like a marketing term and it usually is. I don’t know any musicians who say “I’m gonna make my crossover.” They talk about making music. We all use these terms to describe things, but most lovers of music described as classical is, strictly speaking, not classical at all. Everybody misuses that word.  


I want to ask you about songs and meanings of songs. I did an interview with Brian Eno a few years ago and he said the idea that the emphasis of song may be on the wordplay and the brief images that float through your head at the moment, the song not necessarily requiring a narrative.

Elvis: There’s no law that say it has to. I think people are looking for logic and that’s when you get reviews that are rather like school examinations, reports. I almost get to the point now where I could more or less predict what certain artists who I like, including myself, what [critics] will write. The reviewing standard is so poor and so bum-headed that it’s like they’ve got a filed review on certain artists. Like when Tom Waits’ new record comes out, they will get it out of the file and just scrub out the names of the songs of the previous record and put in the news ones and say, “The rusty tin can sound of the bar room poet … “ and you go, “listen to the real poetry in those lyrics and variations, listen to the tenderness of the singing beyond the obvious that Tom doesn’t sing in a pure flute-y manner. Look how beautifully he’s singing and listen to the refinement.


VIDEO: Elvis Costello “We Are All Cowards Now”


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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