Extraordinarily bitter person? No, not me, I’m only a little bitter myself, the headline quote comes from a man who released a single in 1983 titled Everyday I Write the Book.
Now he has, an autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which I am currently reading and enjoying more than any of recent Elvis Costello albums I’ve heard (he says, comparing apples with oranges).
It’s a huge book brimming with fascinating details that in typical Costello fashion makes absolutely no concession to the idea of the supposed fast dwindling attention spans of readers.
He’s also chosen to go down the non-linear path of writing. ‘I was born in the same hospital in which Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin,’ he writes. ‘I apologise in advance that I have not been the same boon to mankind.’ This is from page 81.
The big surprise, though, is the sheer depth of personal detail he has decided to go into. Back in 1977, the angry young man who until recently had been known as Declan Partick McManus wasn’t so keen to volunteer this kind of information.
‘I don’t really think that the past – my past – is all that interesting,’ he told Allan Jones in Melody Maker that summer. ‘I don’t see any point in talking about the past, I don’t want to get into that. I mean, I haven’t just learned the guitar in the last 10 minutes, but I’m not going to get talking about what I’ve done in the past.’
’77 was the breakout year for Costello when he progressed from being a virtual unknown to signing with Stiff, gaining that new ATTENTION PLEASE! name and then a new backing band too in the shape of The Attractions. According to some music hacks anyway, he went from potentially becoming the new Graham Parker to potentially becoming the new Bruce Springsteen in a matter of months.
For once the hype was deserved. There was a highly impressive flurry of singles starting in the spring with Less Than Zero, and continuing through Alison, Red Shoes and then that autumn, a taste of things to come with Watching The Detectives, the first single issued on Stiff to chart. Debut long player, My Aim is True didn’t disappoint either, and was an album of ‘often intense brilliance’ according to NME. That December he made an appearance on Saturday Night Live and America began taking serious notice too.
The bulk of My Aim is True was written at his work, the famous computer operator job at Elizabeth Arden, or on the tube home to Hounslow and here is what the man himself says about the second single and album highlight, Alison:
’I’ve always told people that I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honor.
’Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.’
This is a live version of the track recorded some time after its original release:
Costello talks in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink about the one time plan of DJ and author Charlie Gillett to sign him to Oval, his independent label that specialised in putting out some great reggae such as Dennis Brown and Horace Andy and some even better Cajun flavoured tracks that he licensed from the States, the best of which was his coupling of Shelton Dunaway’s swamp-pop take on Betty and Dupree and Johnnie Allan’s joyous Promised Land, a single that is one of my favourite ever cover versions and which almost broke into the British Top Thirty in 1974.
It’s also a song that Costello’s old pub rock band Flip City once played live to the inmates of London’s Wandsworth Prison, probably around the time when another guy called Elvis released his version of the song on 45. Despite having a captive audience, apparently Flip City failed to make the jailhouse rock although Promised Land was the first song in the set that managed to elicit any applause from the assorted crims.
Here is the Allan version, which even outshines the Chuck Berry original:
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