Elvis Costello is a singer in search of
a song, says Andrew Calcutt
No particular place to go
At school in Birkenhead, recalled a 40-year old Elvis Costello, the battle
lines were drawn between 'boys who liked soul who were the thugs, and the
ones who wanted to go to university who liked the Soft Machine'. Elvis was
reminiscing during the course of a recent celebrity interview at the National
Film Theatre (NFT) at London's South Bank, where he was musical director
and main attraction of the 1995 Meltdown festival.
The festival was as diverse as its director's record collection, including
performances of Costello's Overture by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
alongside guest appearances from exBlondie Debbie Harry, guitarist Bill
Frisell and retro-jazzers ReBirth Brass Band. Presiding over such a prestigious
event completed Costello's transformation from punk rocker and King of the
Nerds into an influential arbiter of good taste. More than 20 years after
leaving school, it is as if Costello has been appointed the nation's music
prefect, whose job is to liaise between the soul boys, the indie kids, and
all the other factions which comprise today's musical playground.
Elvis seems to relish his new role. At the NFT he revelled in the combination
of self-effacing jocularity and commanding intelligence, knowing as he does
the pitfalls of appearing too po-faced. He said he changed his name from
Declan McManus because 'on the telephone, McManus sounds like someone twanging
an elastic band'. I thought I heard a note of genuine regret when he admitted
that 'many people in pop are very photogenic - I'm not, obviously'. He explained
how his lyrics have been affected by a liking for films: 'If you haven't
got any resources you miniaturise things in songs. When I wrote 'Watching
the Detectives' I didn't have the money for a video so I made the video
inside the song'. And he sounded almost nostalgic when describing the New
York avant garde pop scene in the seventies, where 'the Talking Heads and
the Ramones used to drink together in CBGBs, and they weren't afraid to
mention that they had been to college'.
Elvis was suggesting that this sort of atmosphere was unknown in Britain.
But the New York scene of the seventies was partly inspired by the image
of Swinging London in the sixties. In Revolt into Style, singer and
critic George Melly described how Swinging London was both popular and avant
garde at the same time. Declan McManus, who was approaching his early teens
when Pete Townshend went Dada and started smashing up guitars, must have
missed out on it by a matter of months.
Although I'm a year younger than Elvis, I was lucky enough to have caught
a glimpse of sixties pop at its most avant garde. In 1968, Jimi Hendrix
topped the bill of the first concert I ever went to. It was probably the
last moment at which teenyboppers and art school students could enjoy the
same music without one or the other of them having to be heavily ironic.
I distinctly remember that the sweet little sixteen sitting next to me had
the kind of hard Mod haircut which would soon develop into the Skinhead
Girl crop (short on top with long, straggly bits at the back). A couple
of years on and she would never have been in the same time-zone as the hippies
at a Hendrix concert - unless she had come mob-handed to beat them up. But
on the night I heard him play, you could not hear the join between pop,
jazz and blues; and for that moment, the audience was almost as seamless.
By the time Hendrix died, choking on his own vomit 25 years ago this month,
various elements were already separating out into the opposing factions
mentioned by Costello. This segregation process has continued ever since,
and no single individual can overcome it, even if he is as gifted as Elvis.
Today's attempts to mix'n'match musical styles are much more deliberate,
but the result is less of a melting pot and more like a cold salad in which
the ingredients retain their separate identities. When I asked Elvis whether,
as Meltdown director, he was taking on more than anyone in today's circumstances
could be expected to chew, he sounded a little miffed: 'I don't feel the
need to make a ragout, to continue your metaphor. Some people will enjoy
the proximity [of the different musical ingredients], others won't.' He
pointed out that the title of the festival was a hangover from previous
years, before he became involved, adding, 'I think the idea that there is
one absolute way to view anything is dangerous, particularly in music'.
Elvis is as good as his word. A few minutes later, I overheard someone asking
whether his song 'After the Fall' was inspired by Arthur Miller's play of
the same name. Costello said he had not even heard of the play, but 'I think
that's wonderful if you dreamt that'.
Was this plain daft, or a model of courtesy to a devoted fan? Or does Elvis
really believe that anybody's interpretation of his music is as good as
his own? I tend to think that Elvis Costello meant what he said. The unwillingness
to view anything with absolute certainty - even his own output - is entirely
in character for a consummate artist of our times. We are living through
a period in which the available forms of expression seem to have shrunk,
leaving someone like Elvis Costello with a full tank of creativity and no
particular place to go.
Since the release of Almost Blue in 1981, Elvis has wandered through
a succession of genres and a wardrobe of matching identities: country and
western, r'n'b, jazz (King of America, 1985), cabaret (appearing
with Tony Bennett) and 'classical' (collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet
and the Composers' Ensemble). Performing with Debbie Harry and the Jazz
Passengers on the opening night of Meltdown, he could almost have been mistaken
for his ballad-singing father Ross McManus, who performed with the Joe Loss
dance band in the radio days of the BBC Light Programme.
As an eclectic compilation of various musical genres, the Meltdown festival
reprised Costello's career since the early eighties. For me, the effect
was akin to Costello's own description of Straight to Hell, the Alex
Cox film which he referred to as 'a pastiche of a parody'. Debbie Harry
seemed to confirm this with the opening line from her first song: 'this
is an imitation kiss'.
So where does this leave us? Meltdown was highly enjoyable and sometimes
exciting. But it should not be mistaken for the expression of a dynamic,
inclusive musical culture. The audience for this hybrid was extremely exclusive.
At the events I attended, it resembled the readership of Q magazine:
thirtysomething, fairly well-off, largely white, mostly male, with a few
of their own kids in tow. Nothing like the mixed bag of pop-pickers who
spilled out of the Coventry Theatre on a frosty February night in 1968,
and could never be put back together again - at least, not by music alone.
Opponents of Lottery funding for opera are snobs and philistines,
says Louis Ryan
What grander stage for a lottery winner?
The furore was predictable. Even before the official announcement of a £55m
grant from the National Lottery to the Royal Opera House, a chorus of indignation,
ranging from Tory backwoodsman Terry Dicks to trendy Blairite Tony Banks,
from the Sun and the Mirror to the Times and the Spectator,
was assailing the decision. Opera apparently is only for the toffs who
can afford to pay for their own entertainment. Lottery money should go to
genuine good causes from community arts to the local hospital.
Opponents of the Opera House's windfall fall into two groups. On the one
hand there are the vulgar populists who deride high art while flattering
philistine tastes - like the Sun which, after a night at the opera,
decided it was nothing more than an 'expensive earache'. On the other, there
are the snobs who flatter great artistic achievement while deriding the
unappreciative plebs. What they share is the elitist belief that opera and
ordinary people do not mix.
But even a cursory knowledge of operatic history shows its populist roots.
In Italy, its birthplace, opera developed into the popular art par excellence
of the nineteenth century. It became a vital medium through which the Italian
people expressed their yearning for political unity and for freedom from
clerical and foreign domination. The great arias of Verdi's operas became
popular tunes within hours of their first performances. More recently, in
the 1970s, students and workers occupied the famous La Scala opera house
in Milan, protesting against rises in ticket prices which threatened to
make their beloved music a preserve of the rich.
Throughout Latin America, opera has been a focus of popular enthusiasm for
over a century. Visits from the great European tenors and sopranos have
always been events of national importance. Nor has this kind of enthusiasm
been limited to Latin countries. You only have to read James Joyce to appreciate
how opera was woven into the lives and sensibilities of ordinary Dubliners
at the turn of the century. These were the people who continued for decades
afterwards to throng to the shabby Gaiety Theatre, where a young Italian
tenor named Luciano Pavarotti enjoyed his first stage triumph in 1964.
Opera, it is true, is an unavoidably expensive art form. Even the most modest
productions require an orchestra, a choir, several soloists, costumes and
sets. Compared to the vast sums required for a stadium rock extravaganza,
of course, the outlay is modest, but it can never be recouped by ticket
sales alone. Opera is too intimately wedded to a human relationship with
its audience to allow for the economies of scale which keep the likes of
Mick Jagger and their accountants on such good terms with each other.
Seat prices at Covent Garden range from £7 in the gods to £121
for the dress circle, rising to £267 for certain prestigious performances.
Royal Opera House policy is to subsidise the lower priced tickets with revenue
from the more expensive seating. Even so, the rapture (or the disappointment)
does not come cheap. Yet a performance at Covent Garden need be no more
expensive than a ticket to a Premiership match. I suspect that anyone who
stood outside Old Trafford on a Saturday afternoon taunting the fans for
their extravagance would be given as short a shrift as Eric Cantona gave
What do the critics want Lottery money to be spent on? The Labour Party
favours 'community arts' - a catch-all term for second-rate productions with
little merit apart from the fact that they take place at the local community
centre and are therefore deemed to be worthy. People are no longer credited
with either the desire or the capacity to rise above their immediate circumstances.
Instead they are encouraged to grub around in their own backyards and to
celebrate what they find there.
Others want the money to be given to medical charities or the NHS. Not only
is this demeaning the value of art in our lives, but it absolves the government
of its responsibility for funding health and welfare services. And that
really is a scandal.
Those who disapprove of Lottery funding for opera have much in common with
the killjoys who want to limit the top prize money. One set think we can't
appreciate sublime art, the other that we can't cope with vulgar riches.
The real problem is that we don't have enough of either. Personally, if
I won the Lottery, I would begin by block booking the front row at Covent
Garden. Then I'd get the champagne in.
Michael Fitzpatrick on the message of postmodern medical dramas
TV medical dramas used to be all bedpans and soap. From
Emergency Ward Ten to Casualty, the low budgets, tacky productions,
poor acting and hackneyed scripts had more in common with the Queen Vic
than with Quentin Tarantino. But no more. Suddenly medical dramas have become
seriously sexy. The credits for the top-rated American show ER boast
not only Michael 'Jurassic Park' Crighton and other veterans from
classic TV shows such as Hill Street Blues and LA Law but,
in a much-hyped recent episode, Tarantino himself as guest director. Like
the new breed of cop shows, such as NYPD Blue, Homicide and Law
and Order, the new medical dramas feature all the clichs of postmodern
television drama - the restless, handheld camera, jump cuts, multiple story
lines, ironic wit and a cast of characters more at home in Hollywood than
Yet for all the technical innovations and Hollywood glamour, ER and
its ilk continue to follow the traditional conventions of medical drama.
The hospital itself is the central character - a fortress of humanity and
reason in an irrational world filled with weak, irresponsible characters.
Indeed much hospital drama is filmed at night to highlight the contrast
between the light within and the darkness without. The doctors remain handsome
and heroic, but occasionally flawed. And, above all, there remains the blood-and-guts
medical jargon - which viewer cannot now recite the litany 'CBC, Chem 7 and
EKG' which seems to accompany every stretcher case sweeping through the
floppy doors in ER? Even in the Tarantino episode, apart from a few
self-conscious references to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction,
and even more gore than usual, it was difficult to see much difference
from earlier episodes.
The novelty of the new medical dramas lies less in the programmes themselves
than in the changed relationship between medicine and society over the past
20 years. In her fascinating account Doctoring the Media: The Reporting
of Health and Medicine, Anne Karpf comments on the popularity of Doctor
Kildare, Marcus Welby MD and Doctor Finlay in the 1960s
and 1970s, at a time when traditional values were being widely questioned:
'The medical drama provided a wise man to mediate family relationships and
restore harmony. And while dominant values were being contested, and chasms
of difference opening up between black and white, between men and women,
the doctor shows reasserted social hope and stability.'
'The tele-doctor', Karpf writes, 'made good the damage, healed the hurt'
at a time of social upheaval.
In the 1990s the prevailing perception is of a world in which traditional
values have disintegrated as the established sources of authority in society
have lost popular legitimacy and respect. In this unstable and insecure
world, medicine is increasingly called upon to provide the basis of a secular
morality. Doctors no longer merely offer to cure bodily ills (indeed they
seem to have less and less interest in such mundane activities), but seek
to extend medical regulation over problems of everyday life. While doctors
define rules of behaviour governing diet, exercise, sex, smoking, drinking,
parenting and much else besides, debates about medical ethics take the place
of the theological disputes of the past.
Today's medical dramas provide a public forum for ventilating anxieties
about health and for popularising the new medical morality. The line between
doctor and patient, as much as that between detective and villain in cop
shows, creates the tension between right and wrong, the moral and the immoral.
The bedside ethical debates, dramatised in the heat of the crisis encounter
between doctor and patient, help to clarify the new moral code.
This moralising discourse is more explicit in the less dramatically successful
shows - Chicago Hope, Casualty - where the dead hand of expert
health promotion advisers is apparent in pompous and predictable story lines
about child protection or Aids awareness. In ER, which concentrates
more on high-tension hi-tech medical intervention and on the fraught personal
relationships of its team, the moral message is more subtly communicated
in asides and subsidiary themes. Yet, like the wonderful pauses that provide
such a relief from its relentless pace, this makes for both more successful
drama and more effective propaganda.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 82, September 1995