Elvis Costello And Punk Rock

“Punk—what nonsense that was,” Elvis Costello recently said to Spin magazine. “I never really went along with the philosophical background…I’m just a songwriter. I knew older stuff and I knew newer stuff.”

It’s easy to understand why, given his obvious other interests from Day One and the wide range of musical styles he would soon begin exploring, Elvis is so resistant to being given the “punk” tag. But the reality is that he—like his guest on this week’s edition of SPECTACLE, Lou Reed—will forever be inextricably linked with punk rock.

Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground, characterized by raw, often dissonant sound and spare, unblinking lyrics which chronicled the underside of urban life, was part of the blueprint on which punk was modeled. And for Elvis, time, setting, and attack all connected him to punk’s golden moment, whether he likes it or not.

His first album, My Aim is True, was released in May of 1977, at the pinnacle of punk’s big takeover of music in the UK. He was signed to Stiff Records, a meeting point between punk and the more R&B/roots-based “pub rock” scene; his labelmates included the Damned, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Richard Hell.

The moment that forever secured Elvis in the punk pantheon (at least in the US), was his appearance on Saturday Night Live in December of 1977. Recruited as a last-minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, he was supposed to perform his single “Less Than Zero”—but abruptly cut off the song as soon as he started it, instead delivering a ferocious version of his new song “Radio Radio” (In 1999, he recreated the moment, backed by the Beastie Boys, for SNL’s 25th anniversary broadcast).

Elvis’s second album, and his first recorded with the Attractions, was 1978’s magnificent This Year’s Model, which is probably the closest he got sonically to pure, back-to-basics punk rock. Steve Nieve’s jittery, nagging organ fueled this rapid-fire set of songs, with Elvis spitting and sneering words non-stop. More sophisticated than punk’s primitivism, for sure, but no less assaultive than the Pistols or the Clash.

The albums that followed—Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Almost Blue—would see Elvis experimenting with pop, soul, and country, and begin the sense of musical adventurousness that would define the next three decades of his career. But every few years, especially on projects that reassembled the Attractions, that old, stripped-down fury would re-emerge.

From Blood and Chocolate (1986) to Brutal Youth (1993) to his most recent release, Momofuku, Elvis has always retained a connection to the approach he started with. And it doesn’t take his appearance at the Grammys paying tribute to Joe Strummer, or his work alongside such bands as Green Day and Fall Out Boy, to know that the best thing to call that sound is one word: punk. Sorry, Elvis.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.