I saw Elvis Costello play a show at the Rod Laver Arena in about 1992 and he resembled Alfred Hitchcock in specs. Hugely distended, and hairy too with a roaming beard. Was something wrong? The venue was far too big and undersold for the man at that time of his career, and in spite of his indefatigable spirit it was an awkward night. There was no indication that he’d forfeited any of his musical powers but there was a sense he was on his own trip, and the regulars might not have the wherewithal to join him.
The shift afterwards to collaborative efforts, first with Richard Harvey, then the Brodsky Quartet (that one, I thought was a bad sign) and a bit further on Burt Bacharach (somehow they seemed to cancel each other out) didn’t pull me in, and after that the albums tended to waft past. Did you hear that version he did of Jesse Winchester’s ‘Payday’ on Kojak Variety? No? Me neither. That’s my point. He had a go at “classical crossover” with John Harle and wrote The Delivery Man with Johnny Cash in mind before making it himself.
Now and then it seemed he’d never escape the pull of the American South. The album with Allen Touissant was inevitable. Were these records for us or for him? At my most moronic I simply wanted some loud electric guitars and killer choruses, not bold artistry or the hungry restless genius of a musical polymath. Also I wanted to let him know that if he ever got Russell Crowe to sing with him again I would burn his records, along with a dog turd and post him the ashes. The TV series Spectacle was awkward, and as much as many of the guests may have been his heroes, the sight of Costello kissing their arses was unbecoming.
Yes, I am the whining critic who likes the old stuff, so there is some irony in Costello activating this great mind-fuck of an evening with a rip-snorting ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, in cahoots with legendary Imposters pair (but always Attractions to me) Dracula-esque keyboardist Steve Nïeve, and silvery, lantern-jawed drummer Pete Thomas both punching it like the old days, and super-glued to the new bass guy, a ringer for Dwight from The Office, who drives his old Fender like a smooth racing car. Yeah, happy so far! Sorry for the harsh words.
It’s loud, borderline hostile, super-vintage Elvis speeding onward with Nick Lowe’s ‘Heart of the City’, arguably the first ever punk song and ‘Radio Radio’ arguably the greatest new wave song of all, and then, good god, ‘Mystery Dance’ (Are you serious!) from the first EC LP My Aim Is True. This is how it might have been in a small venue in 1980 when Elvis had an attitude and wanted to intimidate as much as entertain.
But all this is just pre-match entertainment before the giant chocolate wheel, the “spinning songbook”, is put into action. The deal is, while Costello plays carnival spruiker and resident jester, a girl dressed like a day model for Myer’s make up counter, comes dancing down the aisle in tow with lucky, and in most cases irritating, members of the audience, who, yes, spin the wheel, after which Elvis, yes, plays the tune the wheel has landed on. Meanwhile the aforementioned audience members either sip nasty-looking drinks, or dance with the Myer woman or Elvis’s own relentlessly cheerful go-go dancer, in her cage stage left.
I feel almost guilty to be blessed with so many of my own favourites. The great ‘Accidents Will Happen’ – to see that video for the first time in a pre-MTV age was unforgettable – and the possibly greater ‘Oliver’s Army’ from Armed Forces with Nieve banging out that ABBA-inspired piano riffs. As well as the opener there are two more songs from Blood and Chocolate which was my last true-love in the EC catalogue; the coruscating ‘I Want You’, and ‘Blue Chair’, the latter part of a colours trilogy a la Polish cinema also featuring ‘Angels (Wanna Wear My Red Shoes)’ and the taut, explosive ‘Green Shirt’, another pre-‘80s gem. I’m not alone, of course, in reacting like Pavlov’s Dog to hits like ‘(I Don’t Want to go to) Chelsea’ and a (thankfully abbreviated) ‘Watching the Detectives’. In fact, there are about 2890 attendees who feel the same way. What a sad bunch we are. What a fine night we are having.
People find meaning in music in very different ways and we all of us have records that speak to us profoundly at a particular time so much so that later we can’t help but repeatedly revisit this past, aching to experience a simulacrum of those magical moments The results vary but sometimes we do it too often and the emotional piquancy of the music is to some extent rubbed smooth by repetition. But the potency of Costello’s love songs, the depth of feeling, the wisdom and understanding, the breathtaking wordplay and the perfectly modulated instrumental arrangements create something which for most fans retains its vibrancy and never fades. New discoveries often lie in wait on Elvis records and how you or I interpret a particular song will probably be quite different.
You can employ words like “timeless” to music without really believing it, but even the outré genres Costello explores, the ones I don’t care about, have had to move a bit and let him be the guiding hand rather than vice versa. He sounds like no-one and no-one sounds like him.
So Elvis Costello is beloved, literally, and it’s evident in the motley crew of wheel-whirlers who, as soon as they make landfall on stage, rush to jump Elvis, only relaxing their grip when convinced it’s time they spun the wheel. When our hero somewhat foolishly ventures into the crowd to seek out his own contestant he is attacked like Bieber in a shopping centre. There are plenty of 20-somethings too, as emotionally overwhelmed as anyone. Not much music genuinely spans generations like this.
And so some going home gifts; ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘What’s So Funny ’bout Peace Love and Understanding’ and a cover of ‘Out of Time’. There are so many treats in this ‘all you can eat’ banquet of Elvis (and plenty left on the wheel) that I’d have liked for the first time in my life to holler, “Play something we don’t know!”