Elvis Costello: ‘I knew full well that I didn’t have the gift of a voice’
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 28/01/2021
On the latest episode of Essentials Radio on Apple Music 1, Zane Lowe is joined by Elvis Costello.
He tells Apple Music about collaborating with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, his hits “Allison” and “Watching The Detectives”, his infamous SNL performance, and more. Every other weekend on Essentials Radio, a rotating cast of hosts explores the legendary hits that turned some of their favourite artists into superstars and household names.
Elvis Costello Tells Apple Music About Collaborating With Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach…
You can’t invite yourself into a collaboration with any of these people… I had an invitation to write with Paul McCartney, which led to us composing 15 songs together… Veronica and My Brave Face were both big hit records, hit singles… we get on a couple of years more, and I got this opportunity to write a song with Burt Bacharach for a movie. Having already written these songs with Paul McCartney, to get a second invitation to write with another songwriter whose songs I knew upside down and back to front since I was literally a child, both of them really. They won’t want me to remind you of that, but obviously I’m a little younger than both Paul and Burt… You can imagine when I get the call to write with Burt, the whole universe starts to spin around. But it’s not only all the songs, but it’s how they have been in my life.”
Elvis Costello Tells Apple Music About His Hit “Allison”…
It’s more the perspective of the observer than the writer. I mean, I just knew that I probably couldn’t carry off being Marvin Gaye. I could neither sing like him, nor could I possibly be that kind of romantic figure. I knew full well that I didn’t have the gift of a voice of that nature. I was no matinee idol to look at .. it wouldn’t necessarily ring true. And I thought, well, who writes the songs for the people that are just at the edge of the picture? The people maybe who watch the girl walk away with another guy and the feeling that you have inside.
And I didn’t contrive it, but I realized that if somebody, if Smokey Robinson can sing Tears of a Clown from that perspective, then maybe I can write Alison from that perspective, that I could never, ever hope to sing with the purity of tone and the emotion that some of the people I most admired could sing with. The music of Alison was truthfully derived from lots of R&B ballads, but specifically the chorus… that little movement is totally derived from what you call the Spinners, what I call the Detroit Spinners, because that’s how they were known in England to distinguish them from a folk group.
You have to approach the song as if for the first time, unless it’s going to become very dead to you, and just be reciting something that you used to feel. If you can put yourself in the position to discover even the oldest song in your repertoire, it can stay alive. I believe it’s okay for the audience to be nostalgic about records that I’ve made. And other people have made that come from a while ago. But if I have that attitude, that is going to kill it, I have to think of it in the present time. To answer your question, can I see the face that inspired it? Absolutely. But I also can imagine other situations that have been since, some I’ve moved through myself, some I’ve observed, some that have inspired other songs, and that’s how it stays alive in the minute. I can’t say that every single time I achieved that, but there will be times when I come to sing that song where it will take me by surprise, and that I will suddenly open up to a feeling of something that’s in it.
Elvis Costello Tells Apple Music About His Infamous SNL Performance…
We did end up on Saturday Night Live. And I just wanted them to remember us. I didn’t really have anything against the show. I was more ——off at being told what to play, by the record company than I was NBC, truthfully…. I can’t remember whether I said what I was going to do, but I think I just said, ‘Watch me.’
Elvis Costello Tells Apple Music About “Watching The Detectives”…
To be really honest, it was listening to the first Clash record when I first got it for a whole night. That was the first long player by a group that really made me set up. I had been into the studio and I’d recorded. I may have even had a single out by then. I don’t really recall it. Bear in mind, my records with came out singles first. Alison was my second single and was a bomb. Nobody played it at all. And it’s odd to say that it’s a song that people… So I had less than zero out, a couple of people notice. Alison, a few more people notice. Then Watching the Detectives was written in the summer of ’77. So there was a lot going on, but there was a big gap between rock & roll and reggae for a lot of people. And then the Clash put those things into something that was immediate. And I always loved those rhythms. So if you play Watching the Detectives on a little acoustic guitar and cut the strings down, mute them, it could sound like Down By the River by Neil Young. It could have been that kind of beat. But the drummer who played on that was the drummer in Grant Parker’s, The Rumor. So Pete Thomas, my drummer for 44 years, has been driven crazy by people saying to him, “Oh, I love those drums so much.” Because he’s played it with me for years and he’s got his own way of playing it.
But truthfully, that was Steve Golding, later in The Mekons, I think still in The Mekons. And Bertie Bodner on bass and me on guitar. And the later on Steve Naive, who we then recruited, came in and played the piano. And we’re also in a room, a tiny room where you couldn’t hide. You couldn’t get away from the drums if you wanted to. The sound of the opening drum fill, which I always found so thrilling and still makes me set up when I hear it, is the sound of the drums ricocheting around every microphone in the room. So people would spend 100 years trying to get a killer drum sound like that. It’s a complete accident.
And you have remembered that most of the great old rock & roll records were made in a shoe box, with whatever they had to hand. And that’s good to remember, but Watching the Detectives was the first record I made. My first album was a group of really great songs. And I was super lucky to have the players that I had. But when I made Watching the Detectives, that’s when I discovered making records. So when we had collected together the songs that were on My Aim is True, the next thing that the record label said is now you’ve got to quit your day job, and you’ve got to become professional at this. We’re going to put this album out.