The Welsh get everywhere – even in the blood of one of England’s greatest living singer songwriters. To call it a home coming when he returns to Wales next month would be a stretch, but Elvis Costello is no stranger to the welcome in the hillsides.
The critically acclaimed, multi-award winning artist is the biggest name yet to tread the fresh boards at Swansea Arena, when he arrives on June 20. But it’s not his first visit to the city, or by any stretch to the country from where his great grandmother hails.
“My ma’s granny was Welsh,” he tells Wales Online. “Georgina Wllliams. I guess that’s why people tend to confuse me with Andy Williams or even Kenneth Williams.”
“I have family from Birkenhead, and going to North Wales was like going to the French Riviera, when we could just get the train to New Brighton or Moreton Shore, which is actually a concrete embankment.
“I do have a vivid memory of cutting my foot open on broken glass in a pool in Rhyl. Happy days”.
Even growing up in London, the Welsh presence was felt.
“When I was very young, we lived in a basement flat in Olympia, or ‘West Kensington’, depending on how posh you were pretending to be. I suppose big families had originally lived in those houses, but by the mid-50s they were broken up into bedsits and flats. We had what would have been the kitchen, a big Belfast sink for a bath for a boy and an outside toilet in the yard.
“Our landlady lived in the ground floor rooms and ran the place on her own. Her husband was a lay preacher who lived in the valleys and only came up to town a couple times a year. I imagine we’d call them ‘separated’, but she used to create mischief when he came to visit by teaching me to blaspheme in Welsh and having me innocently repeat it to him. I’ve been eternally damned ever since.
“And when I was a boy, my ma always used to say ‘nos da’ to me at bedtime. I suppose she learnt that from Mrs Richards or at least I think that’s what she was saying. It depends on how I was behaving”.
Elvis’ visit to Swansea is part of his latest UK tour with band The Imposters, which kicks off in Brighton on June 5. His previous itinerary was, like that of the rest of the world, interrupted by the Covid pandemic.
“You could tell something was coming; empty seats appearing in sold-out houses. We played ‘Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)’ to scare away shadows in the encore of what turned out to be our last show of 2020. It didn’t seem so funny a couple weeks later”.
Unlike Prime Minister Boris Johnson and those at the heart of the Conservative government, Elvis and millions of others abided lockdown rules. Living in America, that meant he missed being by his mother’s side when she died.
“My mam passed in January 2021 and it was very hard to not be able to reach her in time when the final crisis came, he said.
“That said, she had shown enormous will to come back from a major stroke in 2018 and even made it to our show in Liverpool in the Olympia, the former Locarno Ballroom, where she had danced as a young woman. That was the end of February 2020. Every time I tried to plan a visit after that something would change or the border would close, but I know I am not alone in this or in having to witness a virtual funeral.
“My only trips back to the UK were really to visit her house and close it up for sale after packing up papers, photos and a few important items and was grateful for all the help I had doing that. Dwellings are for living in.
“I was back again in January, when the record [ The Boy Named If ] came out. I don’t remember anything about it except I had a great time at Defend Vinyl running my own ‘pirate radio station’ out of the basement of a record shop in my ma’s old neighbourhood in Liverpool”.
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Days after Elvis visits Swansea next month, Paul McCartney is due to headline Glastonbury Festival. Like Elvis, he was forced to postpone dates, including a scheduled slot at Worthy Farm, due to coronavirus.
Elvis too has performed at Glastonbury – and performed one of the Beatles’ greats to his biggest ever audience. At Live Aid, which incredibly is just three years away from its fortieth anniversary, he took to the stage at Wembley by himself with just a guitar. But not before a Swansea Jack frightened the bejesus out of him.
“I remember two things about that day at Wembley. The first was Rockpile and then Dire Straits drummer – Swansea’s finest – Terry Williams putting his head around the dressing room door and saying, ‘Hey El, don’t worry about the 2 billion people watching on telly’.
“I had this little naval beard going on at the time and as I was heading to stage I ran into Paul Weller and he said, ‘That makes you look a thousand year old’. Always a little ray of sunshine, Paul.
“I didn’t have a song of my own to sing, so I chose ‘All You Need Is Love’ and fortunately people felt like singing along.
“Glastonbury was very different in the mid-80s. For one thing I was headlining with just an acoustic guitar. You’d win a bet that never could have happened when you compare it to the extravaganzas now.
“The last time we played down the bill from The Rolling Stones. “I remember me and [drummer] Pete Thomas going back to see Keith and Charlie and him saying, ‘Oi, Woody; Elvis is married to that Diana Krall. What’s that all about?’. He was a jazz fan, so I suppose he couldn’t imagine it, but I was standing right there when he said it, bless him”.
The last time Elvis performed in Swansea’s was at the city’s Brangwyn Hall, back in 2014, on a blisteringly hot summer’s day. But he’s no stranger to many other Welsh towns and cities.
“I like to play in great old halls like Brangwyn, even though we had a few technical problems that night as I recall,” he said.
“It’s good to change it up. We had several blistering nights in the old Cardiff Top Rank, but on one tour we decided to play Merthyr instead of either Swansea or Cardiff. Same tour as we played the ‘Frenchman’s Motel’, Fishguard, at which the door from the stage opened directly into the car-park and a quick sprint in the driving rain to a chalet. It’s not all glamour”.
Elvis’ latest is The Boy Named If, a work about leaving childhood behind, which begs the question, what was the first record he ever bought?
“It was an EP, ‘Fame At Last’, by Georgie Fame. He was 21, I was 9 or 10, so that was an education in the songs and style of Jon Hendricks and Mose Allison, who I later found out were Georgie’s vocal heroes. He covered a Ray Charles song and a Louis Jordan version of a Goffin and King tune. Couldn’t have been a better purchase”.
So what can fans expect when when The Boy Named If & Other Favourites comes to Swansea?
“We first played ‘The Boy Named If’ songs in the set last October on a US tour and I knew right away that they were going to shake the show up and make us play the older song even better,” he says.
“Not only that but we have Charlie Sexton joining us on guitar and Davey took up the double bass, while he had the time to learn it, so we’ve taken another look at song from records going back to the start. Some of the best songs in the show were The Imposters versions of songs I recorded alone in Helsinki for ‘Hey Clockface’. We’ll have a lot of songs and you’ll hear as many as we can play”.
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