Elvis Costello’s Teenage Obsessions: “I had a crush on Judi Dench in 1966” | Elvis Costello


Talking to a stranger

My worldview was colored by the fact that my parents were breaking up, and I would go to the movies – the pictures as we called them – with my mother. I saw a lot of class A [adult] movies, like Alfie. Nothing too outrageous, but I felt like a teenager when I was 11. Back then, television was just Z-Cars, Randall and Hopkirk and The Dustbinmen. Really bad TV, but every once in a while you get something as well written and super intense as the movies.

Talk to a stranger.

Talking to a Stranger was a four-part television series written by John Hopkins for the BBC, about a late teenage student who committed suicide and how the family did not talk to each other. I found it dark and overwhelming, and it went really deep, but somewhere during that I fell in love with Judi Dench, who played it. She was not a pin-up type beauty. She looked unusual, with this little haircut. Something about her made me feel funny in a way that I couldn’t understand. Years later, I met her and told her that I had a crush on her in 1966. It was the fulfillment of a dream.

Man of the world

Man of the world.

1969 was the year Fleetwood Mac’s Man of the World was released, and I chose an instrument for the first time. I had a guitar that had been bought as a souvenir from a vacation in Spain, but it just dusted in a corner of my room. I was 14, and for whatever reason Man of the World became my signature tune in my head. I felt like the doomed romantic of the song. I became so obsessed that I got the deal from someone at school and worked on it for three months. I’m so grateful to Peter Green because this song is like going to college on chords. Usually for your first song you learn She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain or Kumbaya, My Lord or whatever, but it had a lot of minor chords and a really weird harmonic pattern. I still love the song and it always makes me very emotional. It opened the door. Once I could play that I realized that with four chords I was able to play any song I liked and started writing songs too.

Motown Chartbusters Vol 3 et Tighten Up Vol 2

I will make you love me.

Until I was 12 it was all about The Beatles and Small Faces, but once I was a teenager and romance came along it was Peter Green and Motown. There was a difference between the music I played in public and the music I played in secret for myself and didn’t tell anyone in case they thought I was stupid. I had two albums that I would take for parties home to Hounslow, where if we were flushed we might have had a Watneys Party Seven and a bottle of avocado and lemonade. It was not a bacchanal orgy. It was a group of children dancing to the music. Anyone who’s seen my videos will know I can’t dance, so I was sort of watching from the edge. Motown Chartbusters Vol 3 mixed new and old. So [Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations’] I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, which was pretty much my favorite song at the time, would be next to [Marvin Gaye’s] I heard it through the Grapevine or [Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’] The traces of my tears. Right there you have all kinds of romantic torture for a 14 year old.

The other disc, [Trojan records collection] Tighten Up Vol 2, had stuff like [the Pioneers’] Long Shot Kick from Bucket and Django’s comeback by the Upsetters. The title of the album was written in lipstick on the stomach of a woman in a bikini. It was quite exciting. When I was 16 I moved to Liverpool, where no one listened to this music. They were in all this terrible progressive rock and thought I was beside myself.

The Clangers

The Clangers.

There was a Labor government when I was a teenager, so modern high school kids were given a reading list of Labor Literature: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, alongside a occasional Emily Brontë and a Shakespeare. I wrote my essays from the film versions of these books. They were revolutionary because it wasn’t polite social stuff, it was raw and hard. That’s when you let go of childhood, but the only thing I really liked was the Clangers. It was a children’s TV series but, like The Magic Roundabout, older people watched it because it was a little psychedelic. The figures lived on the moon and used a sliding whistle to speak. Vernon Elliott’s music was fantastic. I wasn’t listening to classical music, but it sounded like Benjamin Britten or something: really wild brass and chamber music. There was so much imagination in it, and it was like a dream, and stayed with me.

David Ackles

Go down the David Ackles river.

By the end of the 1960s everyone started to get a little bit groovy. My father [Ross McManus] grew her hair long, separated from my mom, had a girlfriend, and hung out with young people. He did his working men’s club act and was always looking for unusual songs to sing, and gave me records he had listened to. One was David Ackles’ eponymous debut album in 1968. I listened to it for hours on my own in the dark: I couldn’t share it with anyone. Ackles looked like a man. He didn’t sound like Gary Puckett singing “girl, get out of my mind” or anything on the charts. He had the voice of experience. It was very melancholy. Down River was about this guy coming home from prison to find out his wife had remarried. Ackles sang as if he had been in prison.

Catholic Mass

Dad also gave me books and magazines, and I was quoting Frantz Fanon or Herbert Marcuse in essays, so I was taken to the director who said, “How come you read these Marxists ?! Dad also gave me what turned out to be the underground press – International Times or Oz. So I was aware that there was another world beyond Richard Dimbleby reading the news. In 1969 people would say things like, “Dude, you gotta read the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” but I used to go to church with my dad. We were going to Latin Mass on purpose even though most churches had it in English by then. All my childhood, I sang litanies in a language that I did not understand. Like a mantra.

Elvis Costello – No flag.

That same year, in the folk club in the basement of this same church, I played music for the first time in public. Headlining, Ewan MacColl, slept in the front row. So I looked up and there’s MacColl not listening to me, and I immediately forgot the next chord and the whole thing was a mess. Welcome to showbiz! I got my revenge years later by producing Pogues’ Dirty Old Town, which of course became much better known than MacColl’s version of his own song. Ha.

• Elvis Costello’s album Hey Clockface will be released on October 30 on Concord records


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