Fred Norris Reflects On Elvis Costello’s Genius

The Howard Stern Show's own legendary writer and sound effects extraordinaire offers his opinion on why Elvis Costello is one of the greatest ever

October 16, 2015
Photo: Daniel Locke / PR Photos

By Fred Norris

Someone asked me to pick my Top 5 Elvis Costello songs. I tried. I can’t. I narrowed this list to the following (in no particular order):

“Man Out of Time””Radio Radio””Pump It Up””Accidents will Happen””(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding””Watching the Detectives””Alison””Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes””I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down””Everyday I Write The Book””Almost Blue”

That’s enough.

I think Elvis Costello is Lennon and McCartney wrapped into one package. Just a more aggressive Lennon and McCartney. He’s Bob Dylan with more vocal range and styles. He’s Brian Wilson with the same sense of musical adventure but without the sandbox. As far as the best songwriters go, Elvis Costello could more than hold his own.

He looks like Buddy Holly (if Buddy had done crystal meth). He was brazen. If you looked at the cover of his first album, you saw “Elvis is King” in the tiny black and white boxes. Not Elvis Presley. Elvis Costello. That’s balls.

Who was this punk rocker who looked like a mix of computer programmer and Medicated Pete to say he was the king?

The critics said he was “punk rock.” But he was more than punk. The critics said he was New Wave — Blondie, Duran Duran, Devo, Talking Heads. But he was more than that as well.

He was pissed off and smart and knew how. I suspect his father being a big band singer planted seeds in his son that led to developing a higher level of sophistication. He was smarter than he originally let on.

I will always remember watching TV one night in 1977 when he was the musical act on “Saturday Night Live.” I don’t remember the host. I don’t remember the rest of the show. I don’t remember the first song that he played. But I remember the second song.

Photo: Youtube

Apparently Elvis was supposed to play his latest single “Less Than Zero.” An OK song. A song about an English politician named Oswald Mosley. Maybe that means something in England but it don’t mean shit to me. Elvis wanted to do “Radio Radio” instead. His label Columbia said no. The producer Lorne Michaels said no. And I’m sure that is the song they played in dress rehearsal.

But when it was done live that evening, Elvis stopped playing “Less Than Zero” about 20 seconds in. He waved his hands and said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here.” Then he immediately slammed into “Radio Radio.” I remember watching that performance thinking how amazing that was. “I’ve changed my mind…fuck that… do something else.”

Little was I aware that some people were pissed. Lorne Michaels allegedly gave Elvis the middle finger for the entire performance. He then banned Costello from “SNL” for decades. But that performance was eventually included on the “Saturday Night Live – 25 Years of Music” DVD. Money changes everything. All was forgiven.

Photo: Facebook

Costello’s first three albums are GENIUS.

“My Aim Is True” was recorded in a series of late night sessions that approximated a total of 24 hours total. The backing band was made up of members of a band that eventually became part of Huey Lewis and the News. Some critics say it was the most impressive debut album ever. “Watching The Detectives” alone is so full of ingenious word play it can still make your head hurt. Add “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” and “Alison” to that list and it gets ridiculous.

The Second Album.

“This Years Model.” More great songs. Look how pissed off Elvis looks on the cover. That’s because he had the photographer play “Hotel California” during the sessions. He loathed Hotel California used that feeling to look pissed off on the cover photo of his own album.

The Third Album.

“Armed Forces.” “Accidents Will Happen,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.” Such a great album. It’s alleged that ABBA actually had an influence on a couple of the tracks but I find that impossible to believe.

Elvis made a lot more albums. But these three alone made him a legend to me.

As his career went along he would always challenge himself. He’d change his style. He’d change producers. He’d change bands.

He’d collaborate .

He worked with Burt Bacharach, Nick Lowe, Squeeze, Paul McCartney. He’s collaborated with The Brodsky Quartet (they perform classical music). He’s had a long respected career. He’s married to an acclaimed jazz singer. He’s started a family. He also seems a lot less angry. Which is good.

He deserves to have a little happiness. He earned it.

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