Elvis Costello is a musician of remarkable pedigree. Over 40 years since he released his iconic debut My Aim Is True in 1977, he has done it all. The bespectacled hero is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and has won two Grammy Awards, to point out just two highlights of his extensive career. Oh, and he has featured on numerous soundtracks, on films ranging from The Big Lebowski to Notting Hill. It’s fair to say, Costello is a legend of music.
Costello is of such stature; he has collaborated with a countless list of sonic legends. These include Brian Eno, Johnny Cash, Madness, Burt Bacharach and Tony Bennett. No need to mention Kid Rock.
Summing up his influence, the ‘Less Than Zero’ mastermind was included in a redux of Sir Peter Blake’s most famous artwork — the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This rework of Blake’s iconic work was intended to celebrate Blake’s 80th birthday, designed as a celebration of the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires. Costello was in an esteemed company. The new cover featured Twiggy, Amy Winehouse, Noel Gallagher and Tom Stoppard, to name but a few. On being included, Costello remarked: “I always dreamed that I might one day stand in the boots of Albert Stubbins (the Liverpool footballer who appeared in the original artwork).”
Outwardly, Costello has clearly had a significant impact on culture over the last four decades. However, it makes us wonder what influenced him. What song, artist or group made our dapper, Jarvis Cocker progenitor tick? What music started him off on his path to greatness?
Costello came from a line of musicians, so it is no surprise that he followed in his forefather’s footsteps. He has mentioned Mel Tormé and The Hollies as early influences to his unique sound. However, he remembers 15 as being the most significant age. It comes as no surprise then that he singles out Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 single ‘Man of the World’ as the song that made him pick up the guitar. This revelation adds Costello to a long list of guitar heroes influenced by Peter Green‘s emotive, technical playing.
Costello recalls, “There was something about the moody, romantic idea of this song that I absolutely identified with, as ludicrous as that notion is when you read the lyrics: ‘I need a good woman’ sounds like very wishful thinking for a teenager. I was the youngest in my class at school, and I didn’t have a girlfriend at that age. ‘Man of the World’ is a dream that I had of what I might be if I ever plucked up the courage to talk to a girl.”
In addition to being a lovelorn, typical 15-year-old, Green’s guitar playing captivated Costello’s young and impressionable character. “This is the song that specifically made me pick up a guitar. It was a weird song to learn because it’s very complicated, but it fascinated me.”
Just like the British guitar hero and cultural icon of the future, Noel Gallagher, a disciple of Green, Costello would also be magnetised by the family’s unused guitar. “I had a guitar that just sat in the corner of my room. It was a Spanish guitar bought in Spain on a holiday that my folks and I had taken, and I must have had it for five years by that point,” he said, before adding: “It was just gathering dust with old toys, and then I picked it up and learned how to tune it. Somebody gave me pictures of what the chords looked like in diagrams, and I very painstakingly taught myself to play just that one song. That’s all I could play. I had a one-song repertoire, but it was a hell of a good song.”
There we have it. Fleetwood Mac, or specifically Peter Green, add another iconic string to their bow. Elvis Costello is a dynamic guitar hero in his own right, so, retrospectively, it isn’t shocking that early Fleetwood Mac transfixed him and made him pick up the dusty old six-string. Without this moment, British culture would not be the same.