First up in our series, “Were They Punk?“, we examine the punk rock bona fides of Elvis Costello.
Elvis Costello was a well-established musician in London’s pub rock scene by time punk rock reached mainstream attention in 1976. Already seasoned from his stint in folk-duo Rusty and later fronting the country/R&B act Flip City, Costello was no stranger to the London music scene. In the same year that The Sex Pistols made the infamous, profanity-laden appearance on The Grundy Show that shocked the British public, Costello inked a solo recording deal with Stiff Records on the basis of a D.I.Y. demo tape he’d made.
Through Stiff Records, Costello had some connection to the emerging punk rock scene. Stiff had also signed the chaotically rambunctious punk act, The Damned, in 1976 and released their single “New Rose” in October of that year. The first punk single to be recorded and released by a U.K. group, it preceded the Sex Pistols album release by a mere 5 weeks. The single was produced by Nick Lowe, who also produced the first handful of Elvis Costello’s albums.
Costello was also known to cover “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned live, and one of his live cover versions of the song made its way onto the deluxe, remastered version of 1978’s This Year’s Model.
While Elvis Costello’s public persona was abrasive, snotty, and confrontational like a lot of punk rock acts, his lyrics were high-brow, wordy, and intellectual compared to the simplicity and rawness of late 1970’s punk rock. Punk was out to destroy the status quo, not bore people to death with long-winded wordplay about awkward romantic encounters and unrequited desire.
Even Costello’s early music was a bit too polished and rooted in the early 1970’s pub rock sound for most punks to mistake him for one of them. 1976’s My Aim is True doesn’t sound much like a punk rock album – with the American band Clover as his backing band, the album is classic pub rock tinged with country and the odd foray into reggae. Clover would later go on to change their name to The News and become the band behind Huey Lewis and the News.
His next two releases in the late 1970’s, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces were way too saturated with keyboards and synthesizers to be punk, and placed Costello squarely in the recently coined “New Wave” category.
Still, some in the British music press lumped the sarcastic and sharply-dressed Costello in with the punk rock scene, and that association has managed to stick with him to this day.
So, Was Elvis Costello a Fake Punk or a Real Punk?
Reasons to think Elvis Costello was punk:
- He was signed to Stiff Records, which released music from first wave U.K. punk bands like The Damned
- He’s known to have covered The Damned live
- Got signed to an independent record label on the strength of a D.I.Y. demo tape (when D.I.Y. music was still pretty rare)
- Had a snotty, rebellious public persona that could pretty easily be mistaken for punk
- Later in his career, Costello was banned from SNL for playing his anti-establishment song, Radio, Radio even though he was forbidden to by the show’s producers (he later revisited that performance with Beastie Boys in his return from SNL purgatory in 1999)
- The music press kept insisting he was a punk (despite loads of evidence to the contrary)
Reasons why Elvis Costello wasn’t punk:
- He was too musically polished, even early on in his career
- He didn’t often share a stage with the up and coming punk bands at the time (Can you imagine Costello opening for the Sex Pistols in 1977? That hipster thrift-store suit would be soaked in spit before he finished his first song)
- Of the 200+ concerts he played from 1976-1979, the punk bands Costello shared bills with include Sham 69 and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, but he only played with them a handful of times
- You stand a better chance of seeing a flying saucer than a mosh pit at an Elvis Costello concert
- None of his music sounds remotely like the punk acts of the day: The Sex Pistols, The Damned, Adverts, etc.
Elvis Costello’s musical output is clearly not punk rock, at least stylistically, but that doesn’t mean that Elvis Costello the person isn’t punk in his own way. He was clearly an anti-establishment figure (and still is). He’s never compromised creatively to fit into popular music trends, and he’s still rather snotty and defiant. It’s fairer to say that Elvis Costello is a punk at heart, just not so much musically.
The Most “Punk Rock” Elvis Costello Songs
If any of Elvis Costello’s early output comes close to being true punk rock, in our opinion there are a few clear choices:
- Lipstick Vogue – a pretty fast tempo and some biting lyrics about love, but it’s tough to get over the sounds of classical piano in the mix
- Crawling to the U.S.A. – lots of energy and chaotic changes of direction make for a fun, almost punk listen
- Radio, Radio – while it lacks the distorted guitar gut-punch of punk contemporaries like The Sex Pistols or The Ramones, this track brilliantly trashes the same corporate music industry pablum that the punks hated so passionately – it just does it with a scalpel instead of a hammer