Rather than the unwieldy ‘Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink’, I’d take bets that Elvis Costello’s publishers would have preferred his (kitten-clobbering, 675 page) memoir to be a more browser-friendly ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ (from the LP ‘Punch The Clock’, 1983). Unleashed from the discipline of constructing perfectly-formed lyrical couplets (Nice girls, not one with a defect/Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct…’ from ‘Watching the Detectives’—what else?), Costello lays out his stall from the get-go—and, surprisingly, the result is more Prog-Rock than Punk-Pop. While even the most brilliant lyricist is entitled to flounder when confronted by the demands of long-form prose, despite being one of the great musical collaborators Costello clearly felt equipped to go it alone.
There are three very different books here; the straightforwardly commercial and (given that Class-As and A-listers are what we expect from a rock star biog) invariably successful and-then-I-looked-up-and-realised I was playing alongside-my-hero-Paul McCartney/Burt Bacharach/Bob Dylan/Joni Mitchell/Many More Besides. Less successfully, however, there’s a great deal of ‘My Grandpa Played Trumpet on the White Star Liners’—a delving-deep-into-my-genes genre that will be strictly for McManus family obsessives. And finally, somewhere between these two extremes of readability, is a book about music and musicianship, song-writing and indeed singing. Often this is very engaging (and even funny) yet, just as often, it is unfathomably and alienatingly ‘muso’ for we mere simple-minded fans. >>>>>
And I write as a lifelong fan, a girl who hit her teens in 1977 (not to mention the daughter of a songwriter whose lyrics were sung by that other Elvis), spiked her hair and sneered, yet was also unapologetically in thrall to verses and choruses you could actually sing. Costello was in the ‘New Wave’ minority: by the time he was first seen on Top of The Pops, Declan MacManus-turned–Elvis Costello wasn’t exactly a post-punk angry teen but a twentysomething married father-of-one—the only child of Ross MacManus, the vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra, who was nonetheless (absurdly) best known as the singer of the R.Whites’ lemonade ‘Secret Lemonade Drinker’. Music was deep in his DNA.
I still have my 7” single of ‘Pump It Up’ bought from Woolworth’s in South Harrow and my pristine vinyl copies of ‘This Year’s Model’, ‘Armed Forces’, ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Blood and Chocolate’, and many more. Seeing Costello and The Attractions’ 1986 ‘Spinning Songbook’ gig at London’s Royalty Theatre remains one of my peak live-music lifetime experiences; the man’s extraordinary ‘I Want You’ (1986, from ‘Blood and Chocolate’) is very much in my personal Top Ten Greatest Vocals Performances, Ever (just don’t ask me to list the other nine), while Costello’s 1998 collaborative masterpiece with Burt Bacharach, ‘Painted From Memory’, remains in strong contention as my Desert Island CD.
So, I think I pass the fan-girl-test, however until ‘Painted from Memory’ hauled me back to the Costello back-catalogue, my own catholic tastes had veered elsewhere in the 1990s and there were still huge gaps in my Costello knowledge… which, here, Costello plugs and plugs ad infinitum. >>>>>
This article was commissioned — and Spike*d — by A National Newspaper, October 2015
[*PS Did you see what I did there?]
Yet, though given equal weight, I doubt there are fans for whom the Brodsky Quartet or Allen Toussaint collaborations resonate quite as strongly as, say, those with McCartney or Bacharach, or Johnny Cash or Chet Baker. (Indeed, the story of how Costello acquired Baker’s astoundingly poignant trumpet solo on the extraordinary ‘Shipbuilding’ is, alone, probably worth the price of admission). With a career as long and diverse and entirely unpredictable as Costello’s there is probably something in his back-catalogue for nearly everybody—but everything for everybody? Hardly.
Therefore the book in its entirety is mostly one for the fan-boys. Or indeed fan-girls whose musical-trainspottery includes alphabeticising their collections. Infused with inevitable brilliance (that Costello can construct a clever sentence comes as no surprise) ultimately ‘Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink’ is a more-is-less object lesson in the necessity for an editor brave enough to curb Costello’s numerous enthusiasms. On the subject of writing the anti-Thatcher foot-stomper ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’, Costello observes that his friend ‘Alan [Bleasdale] was the only person I ever sought an opinion from about a first or even final draft of a lyric. The art of songwriting and record making is not a democracy in which everyone gets to vote, but I trusted Alan’s counsel on such matters then as I do now.’ But, sadly, perhaps not when it comes to prose?
Given all these words, Declan MacManus the man—happy hiding behind an alias (or two, or more)—remains frustratingly opaque; I don’t feel I know him any better than I did when I shook his hand and muttered something inane and fan-girl-ish when briefly introduced at the Ivor Novello Awards in the mid-1990s. Yet, if nothing else, ‘Unfaithful Music’ succeeded in sending me back to Costello’s extraordinary music—to which it remains an exhaustive (and exhausting) footnote. [ENDS]