THERE are admirers who would attach the label ‘national treasure’ to Elvis Costello without hesitation.
The British singer-songwriter earned his place in the history of popular culture over three decades ago with the anthemic Oliver’s Army, and although the hits have been few and far between in recent years, he remains one of the bigger names in British rock and pop. A new Elvis Costello offering is still an occasion, although more so for the committed fan these days. The 1980s were awash with hit album after hit album – Get Happy!, Trust, Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom, Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World, King of America, Blood & Chocolate, and Spike – whereas in recent years the titles of Costello’s latest works have not quite tripped off the tongue. Another is due at the end of this year.
He embarks on a 22-date UK tour tonight with his backing band, The Imposters, starting in Birmingham, taking in three nights at the Albert Hall, a stop-off in Edinburgh, then moving on to Hyde Park and Glastonbury. But perhaps the most intriguing Costello moment of the year came two months ago, when a song he released 24 years ago was thrust back into the public consciousness and attracted sudden negative publicity.
Tramp The Dirt Down featured on 1989 album Spike, and finds Costello hoping he lives long enough to see the death of Margaret Thatcher. When they finally put you in the ground, I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.
The title of the song was Tweeted by George Galloway in the immediate aftermath of the dementia-stricken Thatcher’s death, and the Respect Party MP found himself attacked for showing a lack of respect. It also brought Costello into the spotlight, and his ‘national treasure’ status looked questionable. As emotions ran high, some would have cast him as public enemy. The songwriter now acknowledges that time, and personal experience, changes our outlook.
“I have difficulty with this one,” he says. “Two of my family had dementia-related demises, so I would never wish that on my worst enemies. I have difficulty wishing ill on people, despite having written that song. I can’t celebrate. I could if it meant the death of her ideas, but they’re alive and well. That’s the difference here. There are few people in history you would wish death on, but there would be something pathetic, and beneath us, in celebrating the death of anyone.”
He adds that it’s easy for songwriters to get very self-important about their work but, with time, he’s come to accept that whatever he writes will only affect certain people – normally the people who are listening anyway. “Tramp The Dirt Down was never going to affect Norman Tebbit,” he says of the former Employment Secretary who told the unemployed to get on their bikes, as his father had done, and look for work. “It was never going to affect him because he was never going to listen to it. It wasn’t going to sway him and make him change his mind, and he’s still out there today, pontificating. There’s always this argument that these rich musicians don’t have the right to express what they feel. But yes, yes we do, we’re allowed to express ourselves. We’re not asking anything of anybody, and there are contradictions in songs that are about complicated issues. I wanted them to be there, because it wasn’t black and white. Nothing ever is.”
While the storm blew up around how to mark the former Prime Minister’s death, Costello was elsewhere. The 58-year-old, who was born in London and spent the 1970s in Liverpool, now splits his time between the United States and Canada. New York City has been a sort of home to him for the past nine years. He stays there when he’s working, while the rest of his time is spent at home in Vancouver with his wife, Canadian singer Diana Krall, and their twin sons, Henry and Frank.
Now the boys, born at the end of 2006, are of primary-school age, Costello and Krall have had to become a little more settled. “They start first grade in September, so we can’t be pulling them out of school to go wherever,” he says. “Having both your parents as working musicians will mean a lot of travelling, but we have to be considerate. They’ll still get to come on the tour bus with me when I’m out and about. That’s got to be better than taking geography, right?”
It’s a busy time for Costello, who’s currently writing and recording songs for a new album that will be released before the end of the year, while he’s again working with master songwriter Burt Bacharach on a stage adaptation of Painted From Memory, their 1998 album. He hopes it will develop over the 12 months and end up on stage in “the next few years”.
“We’re writing new songs, so it would nice to write songs for that. I’m also working long term on a book of my own,” says Costello. “It’s not fiction, but it’s not non-fiction either. I’m not writing an autobiography. Everyone knows that story, everyone’s an expert, so I can only tell people what they don’t know.”
Much more imminently, he and his band, The Imposters – essentially the backing band of his 1980s heyday, The Attractions, with one or two different members – are bringing the Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour to the UK again. It’s a gimmick that dates back to Costello gigs in the 1980s, and its inclusion on last year’s tour and the reception the shows received surprised everyone – most of all Costello himself – so they’re back for a bigger trip this time.
“We thought we’d just be able to go to the places we missed last spring,” says Costello. “We’re doing that, but the cities we played want to see us again, too. The shows were brilliant last time around, the atmosphere at each really special, so we can’t wait to do it again.”
There is a special feature to the Spinning Songbook gigs – a giant wheel loaded with the names of 50 of Costello’s songs. A member of the audience is invited up to spin the wheel, and the band have to play whichever song it lands on. There are showgirls on stage, and the lucky audience member can either stay up there in a cage to dance alongside the band – many do – or sit in a more relaxed area at the back and drink cocktails.
It has more in common with old-fashioned vaudeville than a standard rock’nroll concert, while the wheel serves up interesting combinations of songs, eschewing the normal pacing of a planned set list. “We have to be well-rehearsed. We have to have 50 songs in the pocket to even play the game,” says Costello. “We’ve delved into the back catalogue a bit so I think we have about 150 we can choose from.
“The wheel’s fair, too, until we lean on it a bit when someone tells us it’s their wedding anniversary or something. Mostly, we let it be true and the wheel decides. Some songs have come up twice or even three times in a night.”
Naturally, there are gasps when the wheel approaches any of Costello’s biggest hits – Oliver’s Army, Alison, Watching The Detectives, Everyday I Write The Book or Pump It Up. Often what would normally be a ‘finale’ song or form part of an encore will be chosen right at the top of a show.
“The wheel has made us play the older songs better, and we never know what to expect,” says Costello. “You have to drop into the darkest, most emotional songs without any preparation, and one of your favourites might not get chosen for five shows.”
And despite his reservations, if the arrow lands on Tramp The Dirt Down, he’ll still play it.
• Elvis Costello and The Imposters play the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, on 16 June