FEATURE ELVIS COSTELLO
Like a boy with a finger in the dyke that holds back an ocean of pap, ELVIS COSTELLO is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of British rock. Now he’s lightened up a bit, thinks Alastair Mabbott, he may get used to being called ‘the new George Gershwin’.
[most Blue was the first sign that Elvis Costello, or Declan MacManus as we now all know and love him, had no qualms about slipping the shackles of a style and public image that had served him well — and that by doing so, he could alienate surprising numbers of people who had up till then been devoted followers. An album of country and western covers, dripping with sentiment, was just what an audience attracted by the taut, rapid-fire bursts of This Year’s Model and Armed Forces. and the manic Stax of Get Happy.’.’ would hate the most. The ‘Vengeful Nerd’ was breaking out ofthe closet and spreading his wings, and not everyone liked it.
It happened again with King ()fAmeriea.
for which Costello decamped to the USA
and hooked up with his ‘musical conscience‘ j
T-Bone Burnett. who has been a constant presence on Costello records ever since. This was the beginning of a new phase for several reasons. not least ofwhich was the non-appearance ofThe Attractions for the
first time since Costello‘s long-playing
debut. A lot of people. whether they admit it
E or not, gave up on the singer there and then.
And who can blame them? A relentless rock’n’roll unit fuelled with raw verve and (most significantly around the time of Get
3 Happy.’.’) formidable quantities of booze
and drugs. in full ﬂight The Attractions whipped up a storm oftension and claustrophobia that complemented their leader’s songs perfectly. Only Ian Dury’s crack squad The Blockheads could
The Attractions had one more album left in them after the now-disowned Goodbye Cruel World. Blood And Chocolate. recorded in the sympathetic surroundings of the studio where The Rolling Stones recorded ‘The Last Time‘. showed them on
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peak form. but for King OfAmeriea Costello had come round to the idea of casting musicians to serve the songs rather than keeping the band fixed. While travelling together, he and Burnett drew up a list which included greats like former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton. drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Jerry Scheffand. naturally, Burnett himself. Other augmentations to the Costello sound since then have included uillean pipes player Davey Spillane. Marc Ribot, the stinging guitarist enticed from Tom Waits’ band and the marvellous Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans.
Attractions drummer Pete Thomas still plays with his bespectacled partner, when he‘s not thumping the skins for fellow Attraction Steve Nieve on The Jonathan Ross Show. Pete Thomas. though. was less committed to the idea ofThe Attractions as a band. and thus found it easier to slip into Costello‘s new crew of American session men. Nieve reportedly harboured a grudge against T-Bone Burnett‘s command of Costello‘s time and the manner in which he found out the lessening role of The Attractions. ‘We’re all old poofs. basically.‘ Costello offered to Allan Jones oflllelody Maker by way ofexplanation. Bruce Thomas (no relation). meanwhile. went off to write a novel. The Big Wheel. about life on the road. featuring thinly-disguised versions of various dramaris personae in his career. These included a singer named Pod, and Costellologists didn‘t have to peer too closely to work out who that was.
He even dropped his name for a while. releasing King ()f/lmeriea under the name The Costello Show and restoring his given name Declan Patrick MacManus (with Aloysius thrown in as a ﬂourish) to remind people that ‘there‘s a human being behind the glasses‘. Little Hands OfConcrete.