Costello’s Irish paternal grandfather “was an orphan who ended up in the British Army in the second battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, wounded in France in 1917”, while his maternal grandfather spent five years on a farm in Poland, after being captured in 1915.
“So you can f— off if you give me a hard time about whether I turn up for [the Royal Variety Performance], something that represents that continuity. I’m two generations away from making my living with a shovel, and I’m deeply grateful for my grandfather’s story. He learned to play the trumpet in the army, and because my grandpa played, my father wanted to play trumpet too, and because my father played, I… realised I couldn’t play the trumpet!”
Costello’s mother died in January last year, aged 93. “She was at my show in Liverpool on the last tour. She insisted on coming, which was beautiful.” Again, Costello wells up as he speaks.
He had his own health scare in 2018, “a cancerous malignancy, which required me to have an operation. If I hadn’t been so proud and tried to do a tour that spring, it would have remained between me and my surgeon. I’m strong as an ox, now, I think.” In the years since, Costello has lost close friends to both cancer and Covid. “It’s been tough at times,” he says. “But you have to go on. And we do.”
He intends to be back on tour with the Imposters in June. One number fans are unlikely to hear him play, however, is his biggest British hit, Oliver’s Army, which reached number 2 in the UK charts in 1979. A song about the army and imperialism, it has recently fallen foul of cancel culture owing to his barbed inclusion of the “n” word to describe a British private (“Only takes one itchy trigger/ One more widow, one less white n—–”).
“If I wrote that song today, maybe I’d think twice about it,” he says. “That’s what my grandfather was called in the British army – it’s historically a fact – but people hear that word go off like a bell and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend.
“On the last tour, I wrote a new verse about censorship, but what’s the point of that? So I’ve decided I’m not going to play it.” When the song is broadcast on the radio the offending word is often bleeped out which, says Costello, “is a mistake. They’re making it worse by bleeping it for sure. Because they’re highlighting it then. Just don’t play the record!
“You know what,” he continues, “it would do me a favour. Because when I fall under a bus, they’ll play She, Good Year for the Roses and Oliver’s Army.” Which means, Costello points out, that if you take that last one out of the equation, “I’ll die, and they will celebrate my death with two songs I didn’t write. What does that tell you?”
The Boy Named If will be released by EMI on Friday. Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ tour starts on June 5 at Brighton Dome (elviscostello.com)