Elvis Costello: “I knew my band was way better than our contemporaries”

In this week's Letter To My Younger Self, Elvis Costello talks awkwardness, Paul McCartney, and being so uncool it's actually cool

At 16 I had just moved to Liverpool with my mother, after my parents separated. I had to go to an all-boys school which I didn’t like at all. But I lived 10 minutes from Anfield stadium – you only had to open the window to hear if we’d won. So that was good. And I had some good friends. We were all just mad about football and music. We had a common room with a record player, we listened to Radio Luxembourg, we were able to go the odd concert. Did I appreciate all that at the time? I think I did. Especially those occasional early concerts. I still remember every minute of them. Seeing Joni [Mitchell] at the Free Trade Hall just before Blue was released – that was really something.

A lot of people read my book and said it was all about my dad. I think that’s probably because you don’t tend to write about the person who just takes care of you every day. My mum worked really hard, like most single mums. She had a couple of jobs at one point, in an office and a dodgy gig as a chemist’s assistant in the middle of Liverpool, which could be dangerous late at night. But she could handle herself. She’s not afraid of many things and she’s pretty quick with her tongue. I can still count on her counsel now, and she’s in her 90s, which is pretty amazing.

I wasn’t tremendously confident as a teenager. I’m an only child. I hadn’t worked out what I wanted to be. The look around me went from being moddy – short hair, sharp suits – to having your hair over your ears in the early Seventies. I didn’t suit that. I was listening to Tamla, as we called Motown, and Joni, but no one else admitted to liking those. They were listening to prog rock, Emerson, Lake & Palmer – are you kidding me?! I told them I liked the Grateful Dead to get them off my case.

From the start I knew my band was way better than all of our contemporaries. We could play them off the stage. So if we were on a bill with someone else, we’d say, “OK, you can close the show, we’ll go on before you. Let’s see what happens.” That was childish. But we took a delight in doing that. And that was the closest we ever were as a band, as a four-man gang. But in the end, it was always me writing the songs and me saying where it was going to go next. By the mid-Eighties, it was clear the group wouldn’t stay together much longer.

I didn’t hear Elvis Presley until about 1962 when a neighbour brought over It’s Now or Never. I thought it was fucking terrible. Can you imagine how square that sounds to a nine-year-old? I can’t stand country music anymore. Are you kidding me? Mainstream country music is the worst music I’ve ever heard in my life. These people are ludicrous. And I really hate rock music now, it’s so boring. The difference between rock and rock’n’roll is the absence of swing in the former. It just doesn’t swing at all. Not like Jerry Lee and Little Richard. I’m not making rock music, regardless of what iTunes tell you. I’m making pop music with swing.

I’d love to go back and tell my 16-year-old self that one day he’d collaborate with Paul McCartney. Can you imagine? I’ve also written for Georgie Fame which would really excite the 11 or 12-year-old me. Georgie was as least as influential on me growing up as The Beatles. Georgie Fame was a 21-year-old kid from Lancashire, an organ player – only 10 years older than me – and he was making the hippest music you ever heard, with elements of jazz, calypso and ska. Before I even knew the name of these types of music, I was learning about them through Georgie Fame.

Elvis Costello by James O'Mara
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Elvis Costello by James O'Mara

My only regret is that I’m not better at expressing  joy. As time has gone on I’ve become more sure that making something beautiful is nothing to be ashamed of. Things don’t have to be weak to be beautiful, they can be strong and beautiful. There is strength in looking into the darker things in life and pulling something beautiful and useful out of them. When I was younger I was very focused on being different to everyone else. I have a wider perspective now. But also, there are songs on my very first record that are angry, about exposing bigotry, which I think are still worth doing today.

If I could go back to any moment in my life… it sounds sentimental but I’d probably be in the back of a small car with my parents driving north to visit my grandmother. This was before my parents separated. I suppose it’s about security. The three of us safely contained inside that little box, going somewhere we wanted to go. Me with people I completely trusted and no one else. Drinking warm tomato soup out of a flask. I remember the feeling of having everything I could ever possibly want. And no other soup in my life has ever tasted as good to me as that soup.

Elvis Costello and The Imposters play shows in Nottingham (June 15), Cardiff for Festival of Voice (June 17) and Edinburgh (June 24) as part of a summer European tour. For full details visit elviscostello.com