In February 2020, Elvis Costello kicked off his latest UK tour at the Liverpool Olympia in front of a sold-out crowd that included his 93-year-old mother, Lillian. “It was in the same dance hall she used to go to as a young woman, when it was known as the Locarno Ballroom,” the singer, songwriter and distinguished musical man of letters tells Weekend over Zoom from New York. “It’s an old circus building, which actually used to be on my way home from school, except it had closed down by then. Anyway, they brought it back to life, and it was the opening night of the tour, and there’s my 93-year-old mother singing along to Alison. I couldn’t have imagined anything better.”
After the show, Lillian, who’d recently left hospital after a stroke, asked for her wheelchair to be pushed onto the floor where, seven decades earlier, she’d danced the evenings away to the big band music of the 1940s. It was, by all accounts, a good night.
Costello and his band The Imposters then continued the tour, making it as far as the Hammersmith Apollo in London before the encroaching Covid-19 pandemic caught up with them. With the remaining dates cancelled, their leader flew to spend the early months of lockdown in a cabin on Vancouver Island with his wife, Canadian jazz musician Diana Krall, and their teenage twins, Dexter and Frank. “Given how confined many people were, that was very fortuitous,” says the 67-year-old. “We went for walks in the woods and, as both mine and my wife’s job often involves travelling to play music, it was no bad thing to have a good period of time together.”
But even in splendid isolation, there was no escaping the anxiety and uncertainty of life during Covid. “I lost a few friends, you probably did, too,” says Costello. “I couldn’t go to England, the border was closed. My eldest son [Matt, 45, from his first marriage to Mary Burgoyne], I didn’t see for 18 months. My mother had had a series of crises in the last few years, and the last few I couldn’t respond to by travelling there to cheer her up.
“And in the end she passed, with little anticipation, and… you know, you have to have a virtual funeral. Can you think of anything more peculiar? Of course, I’m not alone – many people have said goodbye to their loved ones in those circumstances, or have gone through a door in a hospital and never seen them again. Very strange.”
Music, perhaps inevitably, provided a therapeutic outlet: “You want to scream and shout and get something out,” he says. “Diana was up on the second floor, mixing a record, and I’m out in the back garden, screaming my head off, so we’re a good pair.”
Indeed, while the world slowed down, Costello only seemed to become more prolific: since the start of the pandemic, he’s released a brand new album, 2020’s Hey Clockface, re-recorded six of its tracks for a French-language EP, remade his entire 1978 album This Year’s Model in Spanish, written and recorded an original audiobook, and curated a lavish box-set reissue of his 1979 album Armed Forces. And for an encore, he’s now created a second new album of original material, The Boy Named If, for which he’s also written an accompanying book of children’s stories. Because of course he has.
The record, he says, is a series of snapshots, loosely themed around the end of innocence – “the moment when you’re leaving the certainty and the magical imagination of childhood, and entering into the terror of desire and lust, and all the lies you tell yourself and other people”. The ‘If’ of the title track, he explains, is a nickname for your imaginary friend – the “secret self” you can conveniently blame for all your bad or hurtful decisions.
Not that the young Declan Patrick McManus, who was born in Paddington and spent his early years in West London before moving to his mother’s native Merseyside at 16, ever had an actual imaginary friend. “I didn’t need one, because I’m a Catholic, so I was told I had a guardian angel,” he says. “I’m also the person who confessed to adultery in my very first confession, because I thought I’d better have something on my rap sheet. I was quite an honest, fresh-faced boy, so I picked a sin where I didn’t know what the word meant.
“The priest, of course, just sniggered. Though I think confessing in advance to adultery put me in good stead for the number of times I did actually commit that sin later in life,” he notes drily, “and maybe I’ll have less time in purgatory when I go there.”
Though he talks in the accompanying press notes about “guilt and shame and all those other useless possessions that you must throw overboard”, it’s hard to tell if the songs on The Boy Named If are confessionals, as such. As smart, playful and densely literate as you’d expect from this master storyteller and self-described “rock and roll Scrabble champion”, the album’s 13 tracks offer few Adele-style clues into the state of their creator’s life, or his relationship with his wife, children or pets. “Well, I don’t have any pets,” he smiles. “And I honestly can’t comment on Adele. But you don’t have to have lived through every single thing you imagine – otherwise crime writers would all be in jail, because they’re constantly killing people.”
Musically, there are plenty of moments when the album definitely feels like the product of a man who’s spent a lot of time in the back garden, screaming his head off. Whereas Clock Face mixed styles and moods, from rock to spoken word to jazzy piano ballads, The Boy Named If conjures something of the raw, spiky urgency of his early new wave period – the first blush of success on which he harnessed the energy of punk to a songwriter’s craftsmanship on instant classics like Oliver’s Army, Accidents Will Happen and the reggae-infused Watching the Detectives. If that is the case, says Costello – and it certainly wasn’t intentional – it probably just arose from the way he wrote and recorded it with longtime Imposters sidemen Pete Thomas (drums), Steve Nieve (keyboards) – both graduates of his original band, the Attractions – and Davey Faragher (bass).
“When we gather as a quartet, it’s always going to draw comparisons with the other times we’ve done that,” he says. “But I don’t think we’ve ever gone in with the intention of making the same record again. It’s just what we do. The only reaction I would say is not to go back to the previous record – there were a lot of ballads on Clock Face, some of them in minor keys. So after that I was like, okay – major key guitar songs come next. That’s what I’m feeling like.”
How many of the things you said for effect when you were 22 and half drunk do you believe?Elvis Costello
If he’s pleased to be told he still sounds young and hungry (and he sees no reason why musicians of his vintage shouldn’t), he’s less comfortable with his reputation as a former “angry young man” of rock. “I don’t know if anger is particularly something I aspire to,” he considers. “I don’t want self-satisfied contentment, but I don’t want to deny love or tenderness, and I never did. It’s people’s choice to believe the reductive legend of my first records. Some of them are critical, some of them are doubtful or sceptical about certain concepts of beauty and romance, but there’s no hate in them.
“Just the other day, someone from an… can I say august organ? Someone from an august organ quoted me the famous revenge and guilt quote [in 1977, Costello told the NME his only two creative motivations were “revenge and guilt… love doesn’t exist in my songs”] and asked me if I still felt that way. I said, ‘How many things that you said for effect when you were 22 and half drunk do **you** believe?’”
The young Declan McManus probably inherited at least some of his musical gifts from his Irish-descended father Ross, a jazz trumpeter and singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, who played the 1963 Royal Variety Performance bill alongside The Beatles and Marlene Dietrich, and later scored a solo hit in Australia with a cover of The Long and Winding Road. (He also wrote and performed R. White’s Lemonade’s legendary ‘Secret Lemonade Drinker’ ad jingle, with the young Declan on backing vocals.)
With his rockabilly suits and trademark specs, Elvis Costello (the name was his manager’s suggestion) emerged in the late 70s looking every inch the punk poet, with an attitude to match: he was famously banned from America’s Saturday Night Live for more than 20 years after stopping a performance of Less Than Zero mid-song to play the anti-commercialisation anthem Radio Radio, in defiance of an order from the producers. But as early as 1981 he was diversifying into country, with a hit cover of George Jones’ A Good Year for the Roses, and in the decades since his eclectic and prolific output has taken in folk, jazz, chamber music, opera, ballet and all points in between.
Alongside his Grammies (most recently for 2018’s Look Now album), BAFTA, OBE and Oscar nomination, he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was ranked number 80 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time (“Why don’t you shower me with faint praise?” he laughs).
Along the way, he’s performed at Live Aid, played himself on everything from The Simpsons to Austin Powers and confirmed his showbiz credentials by marrying Krall – his third wife, who he met backstage after watching her perform at the Sydney Opera House in 2003 – in a ceremony at Elton John’s house.
In 2019, a year after receiving successful treatment for prostate cancer, the one-time rock and roll rebel accepted the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours – largely, he says, to please his mum. “I was turning it down and my mum said, ‘no you’re not!’’ But do you know what else it was? I have a really beautiful printed programme of the staff Christmas ball at Buckingham Palace in 1962, where the Joe Loss Orchestra was hired to play the samba and the waltz and The Gay Gordons. And you can bet your life my dad went in the tradesmen’s entrance, because they were the help. Well, you know what? I went in the front. Eventually, they’ve got to look you in the eye.”
More than 40 years into his career, Costello remains one of only two properly iconic Elvises in the world. “That depends on who you ask,” he demurs. “I think there’s a skater and an ice hockey player as well…” For his 1986 album King of America, he even recruited members of the other Elvis’s old backing band, including James Burton and Jerry Scheff. “That was a real, ‘woah, how did this happen?’ moment,” he admits.
Other favoured collaborators over the years have included Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Paul McCartney – who’s on record as saying it’s Costello’s voice he hears in his head when he’s making records. “I said to him, ‘what are you talking about?’ Why are you saying that?’” he recalls, shaking his head. For a kid who partly grew up in Liverpool, does it ever feel normal, being mates with Macca? “Never,” he says. “I saw him just the week before last, and I never quite get over it.”
The occasion for this hook-up was the premiere of Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary, Get Back, in Leicester Square. “It was absolutely overwhelming to be in that giant theatre, seeing these images for the first time,” he says. “Particularly because, the only previous time I’d been in that cinema was to see – and I’m not making this up, it’s true – Let it Be [Lindsay-Hogg’s downbeat 1970 documentary about the demise of The Beatles, unused footage from which makes up Get Back]. It was the only time I’d been to the cinema with my father, because he was a night worker.
“My parents split up in 1964, so my dad would take me out somewhere – as separated parents do – and in 1970 we went to see Let It Be, and we both came out of the cinema really depressed. This time, I was out of my mind with jetlag, but came out completely elated that my favourite band were actually seen as humans, not constantly fighting. There were moments of tension, but also moments of joy and creation.”
He also felt the Fab Four’s presence on that truncated 2020 UK tour, the one where where he got to play for his mother one last time. “It was very joyful, that tour,” he recalls. “We went to places like the Sunderland Empire, which is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of Sid James. They gave me his dressing room. The band were in The Beatles’ dressing room – they’d played third on the bill to Helen Shapiro, or someone like that. Laurel and Hardy played there. A place haunted by Houdini. That’s the place for me.”
Walking among such legends, does he ever stop to consider his own legacy?
“Never,” he says, firmly. “The thing about legacy is, you only need it if you’re not here. And I’m not planning on dying any time soon. I’m actually not planning on dying at all.”
The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories) is out January 14 (EMI)
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, January 13, 2022
(c) Waitrose Weekend