How can a tone-deaf man going mad in a junkyard be superior to the early Tom Waits?
I went to see Elvis Costello at the Albert Hall with an old friend whom I first met at university. The first time we went to see Costello together was in 1979. Has any pop performer ever been more resistant to routine? More eager to develop musically? In a career of 22 years, he has done almost everything you could imagine a pop musician doing. He has recorded under various names, collaborated with performers from orchestras to classical string quartets, with composers from Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach. He has learnt how to read music and received voice training. He has recorded slick country music in Nashville and unbearable bangs and howls in an attempt to outflank Tom Waits.
Costello's career has the development, the ceaseless self-exploration that you associate with the careers of classical composers. Except for one thing. And it's rather a big thing.
Costello doesn't lack self-belief and he has a loyal fan-base. But when he performs his set, drawing on all parts of his career, does he notice the difference of audience response to the songs recorded before about 1983 and everything else? Do any fans really, hand on heart, like anything he's done since?
Almost all major figures and groups have similar cut-off points. The Rolling Stones and Lou Reed in 1972, the Who in 1973, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton in 1974, and so on. One of the triumphs of Ian MacDonald's brilliant study of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, is his demonstration that they broke up at the perfect moment, when their inspiration was exhausted. Of course, the ability to perform is a different matter and improves in some respects with experience and technology. But the gift for writing "We Can Work It Out" or "Watching the Detectives" or "Brown Eyed Girl" or "My Generation" departs as mysteriously as it arrives.
But the press and the music industry seem united in a conspiracy to delude us into buying ridiculous new albums in which some ageing millionaire has supposedly got back to basics and recovered the inspiration he had as a teenager. I'm tired of people trying to persuade me that the young Tom Waits (Hoagy Carmichael meets Raymond Carver) is inferior to the ageing Tom Waits (tone-deaf person trying to perform The Threepenny Opera from memory goes mad in a junkyard).
Look, I'm a serious person and there are times when I like deliberately ugly and difficult music. But I think I might form a society of people who believe that pop music reached a certain degree of perfection in the Beatles' albums between Revolver and Abbey Road and in the work of Brian Wilson before he heard Sgt Pepper and went mad (we also secretly believe that McCartney was more talented than Lennon).
There is a minor tradition of musicians who seem to share this view as well. What they have in common is that they are deeply uncool and not very successful. They include early Elvis Costello who, however much he's changed his image, has always looked like the quiet one from the accounts department on karaoke night; early Squeeze, who look like the people at the next table in the pub; and Any Trouble, who look like the English department at the local comprehensive.
In fact, one of the reasons I have a rule about never meeting anybody I deeply admire is that once, after a sparsely attended gig by Any Trouble at the Hope and Anchor, I went backstage and babbled drunkenly to Clive Gregson - songwriter, lead singer and balding bespectacled man - about the group's genius. I vividly remember Gregson's glazed look as he realised that his untrendy band who made untrendy albums even had an untrendy stalker.
Is anybody going to admit to an admiration of the Rembrandts, the group who must have sabotaged any hope of respect by being known only for their infuriatingly perky theme tune to Friends? These pop bands always have terrible names. They give their albums terrible names as well (Squeeze's Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, Jellyfish's Bellybutton). The Rembrandts' first album is "wittily" titled Untitled and its cover is a truly horrible oil painting of the group, but inside are the pop songs that Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello can no longer write.
And my current absolutely favourite new album is by Jason Falkner, who was once in the legendary Jellyfish. It's called Can You Still Feel? and you can probably only get it in big record shops. It's like lying in a warm bath while drunk, if that's your idea of a good time. If you hear them, let me know what you think on firstname.lastname@example.org. Better still, recommend some other candidates for the "If Only the Beatles Hadn't Broken Up Society" award.