A Boston critic looks back and the fire and the fury of early Costello… and talks to the man about those days
Happy 64th Elvis Costello! (Yes, he’s battling cancer and scrapped a tour earlier this year but is still on for Boston Nov. 6). This is me, on Elvis: Elvis 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 jack 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 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.) 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 US 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. “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.
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.