Elvis Costello's teenage obsessions: 'I had a massive crush on Judi Dench in 1966'

The musician remembers using Fleetwood Mac to learn the guitar, house parties with advocaat and Motown, and being wowed by The Clangers

Talking to a Stranger

My view of the world was coloured by the fact that my parents separated, and I used to go to the movies – the pictures as we called them – with my mother. I saw a lot of A-rated [adult-advisory] films, such as Alfie. Nothing too scandalous, but I felt like a teenager by the age of 11. TV at the time was all Z-Cars, Randall and Hopkirk and The Dustbinmen. Really bad television, but once in a while, you would get something that was as well-written and super-intense as the films.

Talking to a Stranger.

Talking to a Stranger was a four-part television series written by John Hopkins for the BBC, about a late-teenage college student who had killed herself, and how the family didn’t speak to each other. I found it dark and upsetting, and it went in very deep, but somewhere during it I fell in love with Judi Dench, who starred in it. She wasn’t a pinup-type beauty. She was unusual-looking, with this little haircut. Something about her made me feel funny in ways I didn’t understand. Years later, I met her and told her I’d had a massive crush on her in 1966. It was the fulfilment of a dream.

Man of the World

Man of the World.

1969 was the year Fleetwood Mac’s Man of the World came out, and the year I first picked up an instrument. I had a guitar that had been bought as a souvenir from a holiday in Spain that had been gathering dust in a corner. I was 14 and, for whatever reason, Man of the World became my signature tune in my head. I felt like the doomed romantic in the song. I became so obsessed that I got the chords from someone at school and worked on it for three months. I’m so grateful to Peter Green because that song is like going to university on chords. Usually for your first song you’d learn She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain or Kumbaya, My Lord or whatever, but this had lots of minor chords and a really strange harmonic pattern. I still love the song and it still makes me very emotional. It opened the door. Once I could play that, I realised that with four chords I was able to play any song I liked, and I started writing my own as well.

Motown Chartbusters Vol 3 & Tighten Up Vol 2

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.

Until I was 12, it was all about the Beatles and the Small Faces, but once I was a teenager and romance came in, it was Fleetwood Mac and Motown. There was a difference between music I played in public and music that I played in secret and didn’t tell anyone about in case they thought I was stupid. I had two albums I would take to house parties in Hounslow, where if we were flush we might have had a Watneys Party Seven and a bottle of advocaat and lemonade. It wasn’t a bacchanalian orgy. It was a bunch of kids dancing around to music. Anyone who has 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 just about my favourite song then, would be next to [Marvin Gaye’s] I Heard it Through the Grapevine or [Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’] The Tracks of My Tears. Right there, you’ve got every type of romantic torture for a 14-year-old.

The other record, [Trojan records collection] Tighten Up Vol 2, had stuff like [the Pioneers’] Long Shot Kick de Bucket and Return of Django by the Upsetters. The album title was written in lipstick on the stomach of a woman in a bikini. That was pretty thrilling. When I was 16, we moved to Liverpool, where nobody listened to that music. They were into all this awful prog rock and thought I was out of my mind.

The Clangers

The Clangers.

There was a Labour government when I was in my teens, so the secondary modern kids were given a reading list of working-class literature: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, alongside an occasional Emily Brontë and a Shakespeare. I wrote my essays off the film versions of those books. They were revolutionary because it wasn’t polite society stuff, it was raw and tough. This was that moment when you’re letting go of childhood, but the one thing I really loved was The Clangers. It was a kids’ TV series but, like The Magic Roundabout, older people watched it because it was a bit psychedelic. The characters lived on the moon and used a slide whistle to speak. Vernon Elliott’s music was fantastic. I didn’t listen to classical, but this sounded like Benjamin Britten or something: really wild brass and chamber music. It had so much imagination in it, and was like a dream, and stayed with me.

David Ackles

David Ackles’ Down River.

At the end of the 1960s, everybody started to go a bit groovy. My dad [the singer Ross McManus] grew his hair long, had separated from my mother, had a girlfriend and was hanging out with younger people. He was doing his working-men’s-club act and was always looking for unusual songs to sing, and would give me records that he had listened to. One was David Ackles’ self-titled 1968 debut. I used to listen to this for hours on my own in the dark: I couldn’t share it with anybody. Ackles sounded like a man. He didn’t sound like Gary Puckett singing “young girl get out of my mind” or anything in the hit parade. He had the voice of experience. It was very melancholy. Down River was about this guy who came home from prison to find out that his wife had remarried. Ackles sang like he had been in prison.

Catholic mass

Dad also gave me books and magazines, and I would quote Frantz Fanon or Herbert Marcuse in essays. I got taken to the headteacher, who asked: “How come you’re reading 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 out there beyond Richard Dimbleby reading the news. By 1969, people were saying things like: “Man, you need to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” but I was going to church with my dad. We would deliberately go to the Latin mass even though most churches had it in English by then. All my childhood I was singing litanies in a language I didn’t understand. Like a mantra.

Elvis Costello – No Flag.

That same year in the folk club in the basement of that same church I played music for the first time in public. The headliner, Ewan MacColl, was asleep in the front row. So I would look up and there is MacColl not listening to me, and I immediately forgot the next chord and the whole thing was a shambles. Welcome to showbiz! I got my revenge years later when I produced the 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 is released on 30 October on Concord records


Interview by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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