Real Life Becomes a Rumour

by Tom George Hammond

There is a scene in Years and Years (a show I’ve written about before) where the parents of a middle-class family, in 2025, learn that their entire savings have been lost, overnight, due to a banking crisis.  A new reality leads them into the streets, where a crowd is swarming in front of the locked doors of a finance building.  One lone policeman stands, keeping the mob at bay.  Across the street, another bank quietly locks its doors.  The policeman, so braised in professional duty, suddenly breaks and rushes to this new building, banging on the door, becoming another anonymous body in the grip of financial ruin.  The tide has washed back, and everyone has lost everything. 

It is blackly funny now to map our current tide, and each moment of personal complacency with it.  I felt the pangs of culpability just over a three weeks ago, on March 13th, when I was in the queue at a urinal.  Elvis Costello was playing at the Eventim Apollo and had just left the stage after a resounding encore of “[What’s so Funny ‘Bout] Peace, Love & Understanding”, and I was standing in a tight formation with some older bald men.  They had not enjoyed the evening as much as I had and were now laughing about the time everyone was taking to wash their hands.  “It’s very important”, one of them heckled, as another strode towards a urinal and started mock coughing into the damp air.  Fucking idiots, I thought to myself, and tried to position my features into a forbidding scowl.  They left, barking and bantering, all of them avoiding the washbasin to keep the spirit of punk alive.  Fucking idiots.  I felt like a complete moron afterwards; going home, stood on a semi-crowded Piccadilly Line service, my hands caked in germs and atmosphere.  The impossible takes a day to become the inevitable, and vice versa. 

The concert itself was golden.  Elvis Costello is one of rock’s least likely frontmen; angry and unpalatable in his youth, and now velvety and sardonic in middle-age, with the puckered energy of a left-wing University lecturer.  Young Elvis – the alternative Elvis – was dangerous and spiky, punk in tweed, but sang like Gene Pitney.  His voice, remarkably, has kept, even if the spittle cruelty of his early incarnation has somewhat dissipated.  He can hit the same octaves but sounds gentler; when he sang “Alison”, his love-song penned from the gallows of loneliness, it almost sounded romantic.  There are few musicians with such a heavy back catalogue.  He played not a single track from Imperial Bedroom, his masterwork from 1982, and an album that begins with a terrific rhyme;

History repeats the old conceits

The glib replies, the same defeats

…and journeys from there into a sequence of orchestrated pop, Chet Baker-like jazz, and a smooth piano number about murder and corruption.  The latter – “Man Out of Time” – is perhaps my favourite song ever written, even though I haven’t the first idea what half the lyrics mean.  I used to think the couplet;

He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge,

He stands to be insulted, and he pays for the privilege.

…was about Rupert Murdoch, or some other media baron who controls everything and is loved by no one.  Random online forums have told me this is not the case.  Apparently, it’s about a scheming Italian banker, or something like that.  But well-written songs hit the ear quite oddly, and the brain makes up lyrics to fill in gaps in our interpretations.  A nice phrase in a good song is like something glimpsed from a distance, like a rare creature spotted from ashore, at sunset, through binoculars, where the imagination magnifies and then completes the picture.  You make your own copy of a good song.  Anyway, he didn’t sing that particular song. 

He sang a lot of things that people could dance to, but there was to be no dancing.  Everyone remained sat – I was right at the back, row W, similar view found in the Artic – like parents at a Nativity Play.  When the chords began for “High Fidelity”, the man sat next to me shuffled his legs a bit, appreciatively.  People sometimes sung along, in a half-murmured sort of way.  It was not subdued, just calm.  Everyone was letting the music wash over them.  I felt pinched by happiness.  I might as well have been in a Cathedral, watching sunlight brush against the glass. 

(I had something loftier planned for this… something about tracing Costello’s music through the four decades of Britain’s neo-liberal music… because I think, since 1979, an amoral system of numbers has triggered a kind of reverse Marxism, and now authoritarians, borne from the aristocracy, are expecting thousands to die for the sake of money.  And I think that millennials will come, after this period, to be appreciated as a lost generation, given no foothold but the lottery of family advantage, everything that they earned keeping them in precarity, ready to be knocked back home at any moment of collapse.  This entire paragraph is in parenthesis because it is irrelevant.)

Costello left the stage with “Pump It Up”, which finally brought the audience to its feet.  We all twisted around with our knees, like he does in the video, then stayed standing until the encore.  Whispered speculation began about what he would play when he returned; he hasn’t done “Lipstick Vogue” … no “Veronica”? … he’ll definitely do “Oliver’s Army”!

He most certainly did perform “Oliver’s Army”, his most commercially successful record – no.2 in the British charts in 1979 – and his most superficially mainstream offering.  It’s one of his many Trojan pop songs, where the record’s upbeat composition conceals Costello’s vicious tongue.  In “Oliver’s Army”, it’s “Dancing Queen” refigured as a critique of British imperialism.  I still find it as staggering as I did when I was 16; there was some dumb notion in my head that great lyricists wrote dull songs, a naïve thought quickly vanquished when I heard Costello’s blend of hatred and bubble-gum.  He found consistently interesting ways to be political, without ever being a bore.  “Shipbuilding” – another favourite sadly omitted from the setlist – for example, contends with the hypocrisy of Thatcher’s government during the Falkland’s;

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town,

A telegram or a picture postcard,

Within weeks they’ll be reopening the shipyard,

And notifying the next of kin.

…but he does it in the confines of a gentle ballad.  The song is deeply moving, an affecting, emotional thing even without the specific context of the Falkland’s War, because it’s beautifully sung and sumptuously produced.  How hard it is, to produce something creative and political, rather than something that eschews emotion for political punch. 

(The great difficulty now, in an ostensibly interesting time, is not being dull or repetitive about our situation This paragraph is even more irrelevant and should be disregarded but there is a deep intellectual failure to this crisis, which Britain has – at least for now – kept more at bay than elsewhere in the world.  It stems from the trading of things that are sometimes “not even wrong”, as the saying goes, but just manipulations of the vagueness of scientific modelling; generous comparisons with flu outbreaks, bizarre speculation about how the virus originally spread, campaigns to rename the virus so that one nation is entirely culpable for it; the contrarian Right have nothing real they can levy against the scientific community, but they can always poison the waters of genuine speculation with disgraceful alternatives.  With the bushfires of Australia, they claimed it was the work of arsonists.  With this pandemic they will claim it was one country’s action, that we are gripped with hysteria, and – if social distancing works – that we crashed the economy at the cost of a few thousand lives.  Spain does not call the 1918 pandemic; “our flu”.  We must always be wary of the lies that will come after this, or else they might become the official record.)

Sandwiched between “Oliver’s Army”, at the encore, were two pointed songs about our current time.  He returned to the stage with “Hurry Down Doomsday”, an obscure track from one of his weaker albums.  We the audience were still standing and applauding and cheering, and then he played a little-known number that lasted for about 9 minutes.  It’s an apocalyptic song, the chorus goes;

You want to scream and shout my little Saxon lout,

Hurry down doomsday, the bugs are taking over.

…bleak and fitting, but hardly a toe-tapper.  Costello has a rung of songs in that vein, like “Night Rally”, a terse, thrilling polemic about a populist revival that ends with the melody creepily morphing into the dull noise of a police siren.  There’s also “Tramp the Dirt Down”, a gorgeous folk number where Elvis sings about wanting to dance on Thatcher’s grave.  In a career of acidity, it is possibly his most base work.  There is no joke behind the bile, in other words.  He is an artist who has spent his career singing about the failures of politics and love and might well have finished his final gig before our new apocalypse on a note of pure bile.  Instead, he closed with the only song he hadn’t written.  Armed Forces, his third studio album and his most consistent, most riveting creation, ends with a cover of Nick Love’s: “[What’s So Funny ‘Bout] Peace Love & Understanding”.  I always thought it was an ironic choice – not that the song is actually that lyrically upbeat – but the sentiment of it, the innocent question of the title, felt like one more well-composed sneer.  Written without the wordplay and caustic poetry of a typical Costello number, I thought it was a bit of faux-hippiage; mocking the person who mocks the Empire, after an album of mocking the Empire. 

(Ignore this, likewise… but we struggle with naivety.  The idea of someone asking, genuinely; “why can’t things be better?” feels a bit ghastly.  It’s a question we’re taught to feel is childish.  It’s why “Imagine”, a song which Costello kicks at in “The Other Side of Summer”, is ultimately vacuous.  It is also why the young Left, both in Britain and in the U.S., feel like they have to dress their ideology with irony.  Being Utopian has to be compromised with being salty.  I understand this completely.  I feel nauseous when people talk about the world like it’s a child’s drawing.  The new challenge, to be drawn in the sand, is how to negotiate being hopeful without being soft or careless; we cannot say that things will be fine out of the hope that everyone is innately good, or that everyone can be cured with love and compassion, nor can we say that everything will be fine because some restaurants will reopen, and when the sun comes out, some people will sunbathe again.)

That night I found his rendition of “Peace Love & Understanding” oddly moving.  It no longer felt ironic, but neither did it feel naïve.  It felt like a curdle of hopefulness from an artist who is often tarred for being insincere.  I liked the sentiment of it.  Everyone sang and danced along, and that atmosphere was oddly feel-good for the artist who never traded in feel-good.  Then Elvis thanked the band, naming them each in turn, and thanked us for coming out in spite of everything.  He said he hoped his tour would continue, and then he walked off to the sound of Andy Stewart’s: “Donald Where’s Your Troosers?”