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Music

45 years since Elvis Costello's eerily relevant 'Less Than Zero'

@SamWKemp

Like many of Elvis Costello’s greatest tracks, ‘Less Than Zero’ encapsulates the British nation at a moment of reckoning. Released by Stiff Records in 1977, the single arrived at a time when the figureheads of Britain’s pre-war fascist groups were just about alive and kicking, their xenophobic and racist tendencies utterly at odds with the newly-coined mythology of Britain as a bastion of liberality in the face of Naziism. Costello’s songwriting thrived on moments of political and social paradox.

For Elvis Costello, the idea of fascist leader Oswald Mosely being interviewed on BBC television was utterly bewildering and an indicator of the dangers that lay ahead. ‘Less Than Zero’, saw Costello attack Mosley and his ilk with full force. And 45 years later, it sounds just as topical.

Costello’s debut single carries the same trademark wit and artful derision that would come to define his output throughout the 1970s – records concerned with the reality of totalitarianism, militarism and consumer culture. My Aim Is True, This Years Model, and Armed Forces all see Costello combine emotional and political issues to create something at once introspective and socially conscious. ‘Less Than Zero’ is the perfect rendering of this duality. The single was written in response to witnessing Oswald Moseley, the one-time leader of the British Union of Fascists, and his sister being interviewed on live television. In the track, Costello paints a portrait of a teenage couple making out on one of their parent’s couches as Moseley attempts to deny his anti-Semitism in the background.

While ‘Less Than Zero’ failed to chart on release, it marked the arrival of a new kind of anti-rock star, an angry nerd for left-leaning teenagers of a more intellectual bent. The track was written and released while Costello was working a job as a computer operative at Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. The contemplative tone of ‘Less Than Zero’ can be seen as a reaction to the sheer mundanity of his position in the company.

“I read the papers all day long because… No one realized that the computer did all the thinking,” he told Q Magazine in a 1996 interview. “I wore a white coat and everyone thought I was a rocket scientist because I was the only one who knew how to work the machine. Everyone thought I was a genius. It was brilliant. I just skived all the time… I took my guitar in. I’d stay late, sometimes work 36 hours just on coffee and write two or three songs and read the music press.”

In America, the anger and frustration that underpins ‘Less Than Zero’ went over many listeners’ heads. When Costello toured the US for the first time, he realised that, because none of his American fans knew who Oswald Moseley was, they thought the single was just a run-of-the-mill rock song with a catchy title.

In response, Costello rewrote the lyrics and made the “Mr Oswald” line a reference to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Marine veteran who assassinated John F. Kennedy. The ‘Dallas Version’ of ‘Less Than Zero’ was later released as a bonus track on ‘My Aim Is True’. These days, most young British listeners won’t know the name Oswald Mosely either. But, while the song’s references have aged, the vitriolic lyrics for ‘Less Than Zero’ carry the same clout they did in ’77.

With conversations surrounding the UK’s historical misdeeds more ubiquitous than ever, Costello’s criticism of Mosley’s desire to”talk about the future now we’ve put the past away,” could easily be a reference to the British establishment’s continual inability to reckon with its dark past and acknowledge how the disturbing legacy of groups like The National Front and The Union Of British Fascists lives on to this very day.