Anger, is the obvious place to start.
Elvis Costello has been called an angry young man since he was a young man, which he no longer is. As an older man – we’ll refrain from saying he’s anything nowadays but far from young – he tells jokes about the other adjective in that well-worn appellation. Anyone who’s seen one of Costello’s recent solo dates has heard him serve up well-rehearsed comic spiels about his family, in which one of the better gags is a crack about his grandmother becoming embittered against Al Jolson, holding the popular 1920s actor personally responsible for putting her husband out of work when the advent of talkies ended the cornet player’s career as a silent-movie accompanist. Apparently Jolson was never forgiven: “People say I’m angry,” Costello jibes, “but that woman could really hold a grudge…” Stage personas in rock n’ roll have a way of clinging to you – ask Mick Jagger, forced in some sort of cosmic joke to remain a priapic lech well into his seventies – but how is it the man who went on to write “Almost Blue,” who put out King Of America and The Juliet Letters and North, whose biggest chart hit remains a lively little ditty co-written with Paul McCartney about a loveable but senile old woman, remains unshakably pegged as possessing this infinite reservoir of rage? And what does it mean to think of him so? How much was this reputation constructed, and how accurately does it reflect what we know of Costello himself through his music?
These seem like the questions to start with as we embark on a discussion of the older songs: we’ll be wrestling with them all the way through to today’s songs, and the ones Costello will write tomorrow. To tackle them, however, we can’t quite begin at the beginning – we almost have to start with the material from My Aim Is True. Though many of the earlier demos were famously raided for later lyrics or recast into hit songs with the Attractions, Costello’s finest material for Flip City – “Baseball Heroes,” “Radio Soul,” the dreamy “Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver),” all of which we’ll return to in time – are downright jaunty by comparison with the vitriolic tunes that would evolve from them: “Miracle Man,” “Radio Radio,” “Alison.” Declan MacManus, Elvis Costello’s predecessor, penned a few songs with spit in them – “Pay It Back” comes to mind – but the true nastiness only emerges once Costello has been christened Costello. We can, and will, speculate on whence it came – spoiler alert: I’m going to guess more than a little of it was coaxed out by Jake Riviera – but first and foremost we need to understand what it is. And for that purpose, true to the spirit of the contrarian songwriter we’re putting under the microscope, I suggest we start by looking at a song whose title peevishly declares that the youthful Elvis is not the thing we’ve just agreed he most certainly was.
“I’m Not Angry” is a fast-paced little number from late in My Aim Is True. It was never a single; it’s not particularly beloved; it’s probably most noteworthy for having afforded John McFee one of the few guitar solos you’ll find breaking up the headlong momentum of early Costello albums. (It might also be Elvis himself playing those little runs – I leave the matter to people more expert than me.) Just listening to the song, you know the title is a lie – few tunes in Costello’s early songbook sound as overtly full of fury as this one. All the rawness of Nick Lowe’s Pathway production comes out in full, with Mickey Shine’s drums and a slightly ramshackle bassline courtesy of Johnny Ciambotti just barely holding things together. The stars of the thing, really, are Sean Hopper’s antsy keyboard line and Lowe’s own whispered seethes, less backing vocal than menacing shadow: “ANG-ree…” he repeats, his voice resonating like an obscene telephone caller breathing heavy with the receiver close to his lips. Most crucial of all, though, to the song’s overwhelming feeling of anger is Costello’s vocal – never more nasal, never more contemptuous, never less loving. Anyone who took a glance at the album cover and mistook the knock-kneed and pigeon-toed singer for shy and sweet, or who assumed the Buddy Holly glasses were meant as the token of sensitivity they embodied on the face of that earlier icon, is disabused of any such impressions the instant Costello starts to sing here. This isn’t the sweet little wallflower nerd that Holly played so sweetly – this is the creepy version thereof, stooping down and peeking in the keyhole of the girls’ locker room.
“I’m Not Angry” opens with Costello eavesdropping, somewhat unpleasantly suggesting what he’s listening to is his ex-girlfriend having sex. What else, after all, are those whispers and that calling-out of her boyfriend’s name, and how else are we to read that she’s ultimately “pleased” despite a brief false start with “the stutter of ignition”?* Costello – since the name at this point refers to a still-developing persona, it seems convenient to overlay that construct with the song’s speaker – is unflinching in his criticism of the girl. Her taste is called into question – this new guy is just a “joker,” though insofar as he’s “some other joker” Costello reserves a little contempt for self-direction as well, he himself being the first joker in the lady’s life. Later in the song he strips away her humanity just as he’d probably like to strip off her clothes, reducing her to nothing but gestures – “I got you talking with your hands” – or to not-so-oblique suggestions either of the body language of sexual attraction or the actual, vulgar physical act of copulation – “I got you smiling with your legs.” He possesses her just as surely as that “other joker” has, only his possession is the arm’s-length capturing of the photographer: “I’ve got this camera click, click, clickin’ in my head…” In case the impotence of that form of possession, as opposed to a carnal one, wasn’t underlined enough, Costello makes clear that he’s not even really taking pictures, just snapping them with his mind. Where is Costello, while he’s reliving the girl’s liaisons through the instamatic in his brain? He’s “spending all his time in a vanity factory” – the Elizabeth Arden makeup factory where the real-life MacManus was employed just before being signed to Stiff Records – “wonderin’ when they’re gonna come and take it all back.” And what does this last line refer to? Who are “they,” and what is “it”? Your guess is as good as mine. The songwriter might have a specific meaning in mind, but as sung the words are a desperate expression of paranoia and persecution, referring to no one and nothing in particular, pronouns themselves so lacking in potency, just like their speaker, that their antecedents can’t be determined.
But the verses aren’t even what we’re really interested in, just as the key word in the song’s title isn’t actually there. The phrase “I’m Not Angry,” when sung in the chorus, is crucially followed up by the modifier “anymore”: “I’m not angry, I’m not angry anymore…” In short, Costello used to be angry – just as, in another song, he “used to be disgusted” – but something has changed. What, exactly, we have to ask, has led to his no longer being angry? Well, he’s pretty clear about it:
I know what you’re doin’
I know where you’ve been
I know where, but I don’t care
’Cause there’s no such thing as an original sin
Perhaps what made him angry in the first place was their breakup. Perhaps it was finding out “what you’re doin’” and “where you’ve been.” It’s not unlikely they were never together in the first place, except in the speaker’s creepy imagination – and then he found out she was allowing this other fellow into her bed. But now Costello “knows where” – he repeats the locative a second time, as if emphasizing the voyeuristic nature of his relationship with the girl now, since you can know what someone’s doing without actually spying on her, but have to actually lay eyes on her in order to know where whatever’s happening has been taking place – but, significantly, he doesn’t care. Time, he claims, has intervened: he used to be disgusted, but now he tries to be amused. What’s the nature of his amusement in this song, as opposed to that other one? Well, there’s a stab at a pun, for starters: “There’s no such thing as an original sin.” The play here, of course, is on “original” – he’s seen that the girl is sleeping around, and though it made him angry at one point, now he just shrugs. It’s not even interesting, what this girl is up to in her boudoir. He’s seen it a thousand times. It no longer strikes him as “original.” One can’t help thinking of the protest Costello makes in the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of This Year’s Model, with regard to that album’s reputation as being misogynist: “The lyrics,” he claimed there, butter-wouldn’t-melt, “clearly contained more sense of disappointment than disgust.” Anything in Costello’s early lyrics that might be construed as misogyny, in other words, isn’t directed at women in general – it’s directed at very specific women, who have all proved a letdown in comparison to his expectations. That’s what’s happened to this poor sod in “I’m Not Angry”: he’s been cuckolded, or betrayed, or just ignored, but it’s happened so many times it bores him. Sure, the music makes it sound like he’s still fuming about it, but he insists that’s not the case. Do we believe him? Probably not, but it’s worth pondering the argument he’s making – that anger should go away once you learn to expect disappointment.
I would suggest, preparatory to looking at the album as a whole, that the critical thing to understand about the material from My Aim Is True, as well as many of the songs Costello wrote for subsequent records, is that they’re obsessed with temporality. “I used to be disgusted…” he claims in perhaps the best of the early songs; “Once upon a time I had a little money…”; “One of these days I’m gonna pay it back…”; “Oh, it’s so funny to be seeing you after so long…”; “I’m not angry anymore…”; “I’m waiting for the end of the world…” The speaker in these songs is always contemplating a time in the past, or in the future, and how the present is different from the one or the other – and, it’s worth noting, he’s pretty deeply unhappy about it. If there’s a source for Costello’s signature anger, a wellspring from which it spews, it is not so much misogyny, or self-hate, or betrayal – though, certainly, all those things rear their heads too – but rather impatience. The shot-from-a-gun opening salvo of “Welcome To The Working Week” suggests as much – the song is a minute and twenty-two seconds long, and though it opens with a quick doo-wop pastiche, it rapidly turns into a barnburner when Costello starts howling “all you gotta tell me now is why-why-why-why…” It’s possible the breakneck pace of the record as a whole, “Alison” possibly excepted, stems from the way in which it was recorded, fast and cheap, or from some indiscipline on the part of the talented-but-not-seasoned backing band Clover, unfamiliar with their roles as session players. But impatience is a Costello hallmark, in the songs and out of them too, well beyond the formation of the Attractions – he notoriously played shows that critics deemed a shade short well into the “Armed Funk” outings of ’79, rushing through his material as if determined to mow down audiences with words and licks fired off machine-gun-style.** He had no time for the press, at least until he started to need them to fix some PR problems in the wake of the Columbus thing three albums into his career – and, though it may have been a managerial suggestion that he present himself as unwilling to suffer fools, this impatience almost certainly resulted from an unwillingness to submit himself to the standard processes of rock-starmaking, or more precisely to a sense of futility in having submitted himself to them, feeling humiliated all the while, and having gained nothing for the effort. The guy hated waiting to be noticed. Unable to wait any longer, he stuck his spectacled mug right in your face and insisted you pay attention: he famously stood outside the CBS record executives’ convention on July 26, 1977 and played, at top volume, until the constables came to haul him away. You failed to heed Elvis Costello at your peril: dark rumors swirled in the early days of the Attractions about a blacklist of critics who hadn’t shown up at shows they’d been invited to, or who’d slagged Costello records for reasons Elvis deemed muleheaded or blinkered. Allan Kent, in his second major interview with Costello in the New Musical Express, refers ominously to “Elvis’s black book,” which, he says, is
…full of these names of folk who have crossed our El, who have hindered the unraveling of his true destiny these past years. Maybe they were responsible for not signing him to their label (prior to the Stiff inking this is) or maybe they referred to him as another Van Morrison sound-alike just like all those other squat, nervy types with short hair and glasses with whom such parallels appear obligatory in today’s music press. Whatever the cause, they’re all marked men, cows before the slaughter, names and livelihoods about to come under the thunder of Costello.
And then, after Kent cheekily comments that “Elvis is very into revenge, see,” we get to one of the most famous quotes Costello ever gave the press:
“The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs,” opines Costello with a perverse leer, “are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about, that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn’t exist in my songs…”***
We’ll come back to guilt, and we’ll have tons to say about love and its absence in the Costello songbook, but for now our focus is on revenge – because revenge is, as they say, best served cold, which means that in order to mete it out effectively, it’s crucial that you not be angry anymore.
And that’s the crucial takeaway from “I’m Not Angry.” He’s still angry, almost incontestably so, but the crafting of the Elvis Costello persona depends on his taking a stance apart from the things that have roused him to such ire. He’s pushed everything into the past – his former band, his old songs, even his birth name – and now he’s returned, wearing goofy glasses and rolled-up trousers like they’re his superhero uniform, to dole out punishment for the wrongs he’s endured. He promises to do so with unemotional detachment, as befits the task at hand. He’s not angry anymore, he assures us. The fury he’s about to unleash is nothing more than you deserve – but at the same time, because he’s had time to reflect, and calm down, and resume cutting a vengeful swath through the world with ruthless but impassive efficiency, there’s no longer anything you can do to mollify him. God help you, he’s suggesting, because Elvis Costello won’t.
Recorded: Pathway Studios, London, late 1976-January 1977. EC: vocals, guitar; McFee: guitar; Hopper: piano; Ciambotti: bass; Shine: drums; Lowe: backing vocals. Producer: Lowe. Engineer: Bazza Farmer? Released: My Aim Is True, 1977. Played live more or less continuously throughout Costello’s career.
* It’s perhaps worth noting that one of the first people ever to hear the song aired in public, Julie Burchill reviewing EC & The Attractions’ 7/26/77 Dingwalls performance in NME, misheard this latter lyric as “the stutter of admission.” Not to put too fine a point upon it, but surely she was taking the phrase to mean a fitful process not of starting something up, but of allowing something to be put inside something else.
** Only two shows into the live career of the Attractions – and prior to their official live debut in Manchester on 7/21/77 – they were already rocketing through their sets with what reviewers were perceiving as an almost malicious rush. Chris Rushton, writing up the “try-out” 7/15/77 Woods Leisure Center show in Plymouth in Record Mirror, noted that “every song is rattled out efficiently and effectively with only the barest pause for loud applause. This machine-like performance is not without atmosphere as each song blends with those that came before and unnecessary chat would spoil the climax the group build for.” Assuming the Plymouth setlist, which is sadly unpreserved, was similar to that of the Manchester show a week later, which is, “I’m Not Angry” would have been played four songs from the end of the night – surely somewhere close to that “climax” Rushton says the band was building towards.
*** Kent himself, though by far the music writer Costello trusted the most in the early days, did not escape being in the sights of Elvis’s gun. Later in this same piece, an amazing six-page article in the August 27, 1977 issue of NME, Kent and Costello have gotten drunk and Kent has learned, to his surprise, the hitherto-kept-under-wraps history of his interviewee as the lead singer of Flip City. “’Course, nobody wanted to know back then,” Costello comments, “turning quite venomous at this point” when he notes that Kent was among those who ignored him. “I remember,” he slurs, “the time you came down to the Marquee when we were supporting Dr. Feelgood and you spent all your time in the dressing-room talking to Wilko Johnson. You didn’t even bother to check us out. Oh no! And I really resented you for that, y’know. For a time, anyway. You were almost down there on my list.” Kent comments perceptively that “Costello always seems to double back to this unhealthy infatuation of his with reeking (sic) vengeance on his self-proclaimed wrongdoers… and admits that the years of bottling up the vast frustrations of being a nonentity out in the cold looking for a foot in the door have conversely granted him the basic ego-drive with which he intends to bring the whole music scene to its feet right now.” For what it’s worth, that’s an interesting phrase: “bring the scene to its feet.” It’s tempting to say that Kent has mixed up his body parts in the idiom he’s chosen – but, at the same time, one wonders if perhaps, for the very early Costello, the line between stirring the audience to get up and dance, and bringing them to their knees in submission, had grown blurred.
Top to bottom: Lou Ferrigno ca. 1979, of whom it was often said that anger would make you not like him; Elvis Costello on television ca. 1977, in an even angrier pose than usual; the author of “Lucifer Rising,” included here largely for thematic purposes; David Bowie in 1979, angrily looking back.