A month after my thirteenth birthday I took a bus into Chatham town centre and bought my first 45rpm single with my own money. We’ll ignore the fact that I had begged my mum to buy me “Sweet Music” by Showaddywaddy three years earlier, in May 1978 my first purchase was “(I Don’t Wanna Go To) Chelsea” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Far from being embarrassed by my teenage choice this is still a magnificent track. From its explosive drum intro – which the superb Pete Thomas admits was copied from Mitch Mitchell’s stickwork on Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” – through to its tinnie Vox Continental and guitar fade out three minutes later. It remains a fantastic piece of work and truly one of the finest tracks from the early punk and new wave era.
Elvis Costello had sprung into my consciousness in 1977 via an eye-catching advert for his debut album in the NME at about the time that the real Elvis died. Who was this geeky, bespectacled nerd with legs akimbo and a guitar strung around his neck? By the end of the year he was on Top of the Pops with his breakthrough single, the sparse minor-key reggae-rhythm classic “Watching the Detectives”.
I could have quite easily and happily compiled this hour’s introduction to Costello solely from his first four albums – My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!! – one a year from 1977 to 1980 and each produced by the great Nick Lowe, plus two cracking B-sides (“Big Tears” and “Tiny Steps”).
Having limited myself to a mere ten tracks from this dynamic early period, I have taken a solitary track from each of the eleven subsequent albums. I’ve omitted his biggest hits “Oliver’s Army” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”, both great tracks but what can a poor boy do? It means we’ve delved into less than half of his albums, but I think this playlist showcases Elvis’ versatility, his anger, rage, tenderness, compassion, love, heartbreak, humour, and politics in a wide range of styles. It also highlights how he has kept his finger pressed on the quality-control button across four decades and a colossal 34 albums as a solo artist, with The Attractions, The Imposters, or collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint.
It’s been quite a career. He has an OBE, won a Grammy, he and The Attractions are inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest songwriters of any era. This reputation is well-earned. As a wordsmith he takes some beating. He revels in the way he juggles and juxtaposes words, mixing idioms and maxims, running one phrase seamlessly into another, telling stories, giving clarity or sometimes pulling clouds over their meaning. I could use almost any of his songs to illustrate, but here are a couple of favourites.
From “Accidents Will Happen”:
There's so many fish in the sea
That only rise up in the sweat and smoke like mercury
But they keep you hanging on
They say you're so young
Your mind is made up but your mouth is undone
And from “New Amsterdam”:
You're sending me tulips mistaken for lilies
You give me your lip after punching me silly
You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain
If I had any sense now I wouldn't want it back again.
New Amsterdam it's become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess
In 2018 it was announced that he was battling cancer but is back on the road in the States this year so let’s hope that he is back to full health.
To finish, I only saw Elvis once, with The Attractions at Westcliff-on-Sea on 20th October 1983. I drove there with a guy from work, whose name I can’t remember. Punch the Clock, Costello’s eighth album, had just been released and the boys played a great set of new and classic numbers for over an hour. As we left the venue, we passed a table festooned with discard tickets. I grabbed a handful and we made our way round to the back of the theatre where about 20 fans were waiting for the band at the stage door. It was a cold night but the four musicians eventually emerged and kindly signed autographs. I was delighted to get four – one on the back of each ticket. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised I had the signatures of Elvis Costello, Pete Thomas, and two by bass wizard Bruce Thomas! So if anyone out there wants to swap a Bruce Thomas for a Steve Nieve please let me know!