Elvis Costello may not share the same acclaim as some of the notable acts that were born out of the mid-seventies creative surge that came out of Britain but it’s undeniable that the singer and songwriter is rightly a national institution.
Costello came face to face with another such established touchpoint of intrinsic British culture in 1992 when he went on the iconic radio show, Desert Island Discs. During the meeting, Costello shared eight songs that he simply couldn’t live without.
It’s impossible for us to over-sell the importance BBC’s Desert Island Discs has in the dense tapestry of British pop culture. It’s a time-honoured tradition that has seen Prime Ministers and rock stars alike walk through its studio doors. Created by Roy Plomley way back in 1942, the format is always the same, each week a guest is invited by the host to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island.
As well as their eight discs, a complimentary collection of the complete works of Shakespeare and bible, the star in question also gets to choose one luxury item and one book.
It was a premise that the always industrious Costello took advantage of. As his book the singer picked a collection of works by Thurber. He was equally stuffing the ballot box when he chose as his luxury item, an upright piano complete with a painting Saint Barnabas Altarpiece by Sandro Botticelli. Crafty.
It’s an indication of the music that Costello would choose to pack in his suitcase. Not stuck to the mammoth list of 500 records Costello once deemed as essential that the singer compiled once upon a time, he instead opens up the spectrum of music to something a touch more classical.
Costello instead of picking tracks steeped in the history of rock, excluding perhaps Frank Sinatra and definitely The Beatles, the singer/songwriter showed his musical chops were far beyond the pop sensibilities some of his music had shown. It’s born out of his musical family, something he discusses with present Sue Lawley.
First up for discussion for Declan McManus, AKA Elvis Costello, was that name change. “As you just illustrated,” the ‘Oliver’s Army’ singer replied to a question he’s likely heard thousand times over, “it’s a rather difficult name to say, particularly over the telephone, all the way through school I was tortured by teachers imitating the sound of an elastic band when saying my name.”
It would also prove unhelpful when contacting record companies about his early work, so he decided to adopt his grandmother’s name, Costello, and when his manager of the time, Jake Riviera, introduced him one day as Elvis, the name stuck. When pressed on whether he felt silly changing his name at 23, the singer, embodying his work, replied: “there was a sort of dare element to it.”
When faced with the possibility of being cast on to a desert island on his own, Lawley asks whether he would suffer from loneliness, “you wouldn’t sink into the depths of despair?” she asks. “Well I don’t think that’s unhealthy, I do that anyway, even now.” It’s a matter that Lawley questions may have had an influence on his choices of song.
Costello responds, “Yeah. It influenced the choice particularly in the records I didn’t choose. If I had chosen say what would be my favourite eight songs, if such a list could even exist as it changes minute to minute, it would be such a depressing experience that perhaps I wouldn’t be so resilient.”
It is the perfect way to not only introduce a series of records that are curated for his particular experience but to speak to Costello as an artist. He has chosen dense pieces of music, layered enough to be lost in, and embued with the kind of intellectualism that he put into all his own work.
Below you can find the full list as well as a playlist of the track selected by Elvis Costello as essential. Make sure you visit BBC to get all the information on all of the artists interviewed for the show and listen to Elvis Costello’s full Desert Island Discs appearance below.
- ‘String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135’ – Ludwig van Beethoven
- ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ – Frank Sinatra
- ‘At Last’ – Joe Loss Orchestra
- ‘Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), opera, K. 492 Act 1, Scene 5, No 6’ – Mozart
- ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ – The Beatles
- ‘Sonata In B Flat, D. 960: I. Molto moderato’ – Franz Schubert
- ‘Dido’s Lament’ – Henry Purcell
- ‘Blood Count’ – Duke Ellington