Hear a Playlist of 300 Songs That Influenced Elvis Costello, Drawn From His New Memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink


Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Every­one in the spot­light has at least one damn­ing inci­dent to live down, and some­times a whole damn­ing peri­od. There’s David Bowie’s brief fas­cism con­tro­ver­sy, for exam­ple, or Eric Clapton’s more sub­stan­tive, and much more dis­turb­ing, far-right polit­i­cal views, which he broad­cast from the stage in 1976, then repeat­ed to the mag­a­zines short­ly after. Clapton’s racist invec­tive and sup­port for Enoch Pow­ell and the Nation­al Front was par­tic­u­lar­ly appalling giv­en that he rode in on the shoul­ders of blues artists and scored a huge hit just two years ear­li­er with his ver­sion of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sher­iff.” As pho­tog­ra­ph­er Red Saun­ders would write in a pub­lished let­ter to Clap­ton after the gui­tar god’s bizarre onstage rant: “Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.” At least for a time, Clap­ton fell decid­ed­ly on the wrong side of a dichoto­my Eric Lott called “Love and Theft.” 

One might make sim­i­lar accu­sa­tions against punk trou­ba­dour Elvis Costel­lo, who took his look from Bud­dy Hol­ly, his name from The King, and has also drawn heav­i­ly from black music for the bet­ter part of thir­ty years. And Costel­lo once had his own brief racist out­burst in 1979 dur­ing a tour stop in Colum­bus, Ohio, drop­ping a cou­ple n‑bombs in ref­er­ence to James Brown and Ray Charles, and get­ting a beat­ing from one of Stephen Stills’ back­ing singers. Costel­lo main­tained the out­rage was a delib­er­ate­ly nasty way to troll the hat­ed old guard Stills rep­re­sent­ed, but he there­after received death threats and con­tin­ued his tour under armed guard. Iron­i­cal­ly, the pre­vi­ous year he had appeared with The Clash and reg­gae bands Misty in Roots and Aswad at a fes­ti­val con­cert in Lon­don spon­sored by Rock Against Racism, who formed in response to Enoch Pow­ell, the Nation­al Front, and Clapton—and whose Amer­i­can chap­ter pick­et­ed Costel­lo after the Ohio brawl.

Costel­lo address­es the inci­dent in his new mem­oir Unfaith­ful Music & Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink, writ­ing “what­ev­er I did, I did it to pro­voke a bar fight. Sure­ly this was all under­stood. Didn’t they know the love I had for James Brown and Ray Charles, whose record of ‘The Dan­ger Zone’ I pre­ferred to watch­ing men walk on the moon?” (He’s made sev­er­al oth­er com­ments over the years, and even Ray Charles weighed in after­wards with some­thing of a for­giv­ing state­ment.) Stephen Deusner at Vul­ture writes, “you some­how nev­er doubt the sin­cer­i­ty of that love, just as you don’t doubt that Costel­lo could be a rav­ing bas­tard when he’s drunk.” Unlike so many oth­er exam­ples of the genre, Unfaith­ful Music doesn’t ped­dle con­tri­tion or con­tro­ver­sy for their own sake. On the con­trary, The Qui­etus calls the book “with­out doubt, one of the great­est self-penned appraisals of a pop­u­lar entertainer’s life and work.”

That great­ness, Deusner argues, comes in large part from Costello’s “nerdish­ly prodi­gious” knowl­edge of, and love for—mostly American—music: “There are near­ly 400 songs Costel­lo name-checks as influ­ences with­in the pages of Unfaith­ful Music, and hun­dreds more he refers to in pass­ing.” These include songs from James Brown and Ray Charles, and also Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Doc Wat­son, The Drifters, his name­sake Elvis Pres­ley, Fleet­wood Mac, huge help­ings of The Bea­t­les, Burt Bacharach… even CSNY’s “Ohio.” Based on Costello’s ency­clo­pe­dic devo­tion to coun­try, pop, R&B, punk, reg­gae, and near­ly every oth­er genre under the sun, Vul­ture com­piled the 300-song Spo­ti­fy playlist above, “by no means com­plete,” writes Deusner, “due in large part to Spotify’s scarci­ty of Bea­t­les, Bacharach, and Neil Young albums.” (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s soft­ware, down­load it for free here.)

The playlist serves as an audio accom­pa­ni­ment to Costello’s almost 700-page rem­i­nis­cence; tak­en togeth­er, both explain how “the angry young man of the late 70s,” with a “rep­u­ta­tion as one of the smartest and bristli­est fig­ures in the Lon­don punk scene” became “a revered trou­ba­dour crafts­man play­ing the White House, jam­ming with var­i­ous Bea­t­les, and com­pos­ing bal­let scores.” Just above, you can hear Costel­lo him­self read a brief excerpt from the book, a sto­ry about hang­ing out with David Bowie. The Qui­etus has anoth­er exclu­sive extract from Unfaith­ful Music. (Note that you can down­load the entire book, nar­rat­ed by Costel­lo him­self, for free if you join Audible.com’s Free Tri­al pro­gram.) And if you need to hear more about what he now calls that “f***** stu­pid” fra­cas in ’79, see him talk about his angry young man per­sona and tell oth­er “war sto­ries” of his life in music in an inter­view with ?uest­love. Of his fierce devo­tion to so much of the music above, Costel­lo tells The Roots’ drum­mer, “Eng­lish musi­cians have such this weird out­side love for Amer­i­can music, par­tic­u­lar­ly rhythm and blues as we grew up to know it, that we sort of felt we had pos­ses­sion of it in some weird way.”

via Vul­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Elvis Costel­lo Sings “Pen­ny Lane” for Sir Paul

Radio David Byrne: Stream Free Music Playlists Cre­at­ed Every Month by the Front­man of Talk­ing Heads

A 56-Song Playlist of Music in Haru­ki Murakami’s Nov­els: Ray Charles, Glenn Gould, the Beach Boys & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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