Strange as it may seem today, when Elvis Costello first burst onto the scene in the summer of 1977 with My Aim is True, he was categorized as a punk artist. Being lumped in with the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash, might have made a kind of sense back then.
Costello, who headlines Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Oct. 1, had a charmingly rough-hewn approach to songwriting. Indeed, spiky rockers like “Pump it Up,” “Radio Radio” and “Oliver’s Army” were certainly at odds with the highly polished tunes found on other albums released that same year: the all-killer, no-filler of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or the high-concept art rock of Pink Floyd’s Animals.
But with just a few years of hindsight, it became clear that the man born Declan MacManus would be better thought of as a member of that era’s new breed of thoughtful British songwriters, a group that would also include Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and perhaps even Bob Geldof.
Now, some 45 years after Costello’s debut, the two-time Grammy Award winner (and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) can be seen as part of an even more revered class of songwriters, alongside Lennon/McCartney, Difford/Tilbrook, Bruce Springsteen and Bacharach/David. And stylistic classification ill-serves Costello, who in the years since his start has collaborated with artists across the musical landscape—from Paul McCartney to The Roots to T Bone Burnett.
Costello even struck up an amicable relationship with The Grateful Dead—a band known for the decidedly non-punk practice of making room for extended, improvised guitar solos. In 1991, readers of Musician Magazine might have been surprised to find Costello sharing the cover with his pal Jerry Garcia.
But Costello has always found inspiration and fulfillment in quality musicianship—no matter the genre—and as he revealed in that issue’s cover story, the music of the Dead was a long-time passion for him: “The real esoteric people were into West Coast bands… And I made almost this willful decision,” he mused. “Nobody will follow me to this one: the Grateful Dead.’ You know, this music almost nobody can dig.”
What’s more punk than that?
Costello would go on to contribute a heartfelt medley of “Ship of Fools / It Must Have Been the Roses” to an all-star tribute, 2000’s Stolen Roses: Songs of the Grateful Dead. Furthermore, his passion for Garcia & Co. continues to this day: Costello has assembled an evening’s worth of music to be presented as “Elvis Costello Sings Hunter-Garcia.” The Sept. 30 show at the Great American Music Hall is a tribute to the songwriting of both Garcia and Robert Hunter, a longtime Dead contributor—and serves as a supplemental local appearance to his headlining set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 1.
Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St.
Sept. 30 | Sold Out
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Towers of Gold Stage, Golden Gate Park
Oct. 1, 4:45 p.m. | Free
Jay Blakesberg is a photographer based in San Francisco. His images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar Player, Relix and other prominent music publications. His book, "RetroBlakesberg – Volume One: The Film Archives" is available on his website, blakesberg.com.
Bill Kopp is a music writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His books include "Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave," about the influential San Francisco label 415 Records. His website is blog.musoscribe.com.
Bill Kopp can be reached at [email protected]