50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong

I wandered across Prince Consort Road from my office in the Blackett Laboratory a few weeks ago — to the Royal Albert Hall and Elvis Costello’s Spectacular Singing Songbook tour.

Elvis has settled into a comfortable phase of his career; he hasn’t quite managed a late-period resurgence — his last true masterpiece was probably Blood & Chocolate from 1988, although he’s had great songs on most of his records throughout the 90s and 2000s. Instead, he’s something of an elder (middle-aged?) statesman, showman and even teacher.

And his show seems to acknowledge this, leaning heavily on songs from the 70s and 80s. The stage is organised around a great carnival wheel, with song titles and themes around the rim; a series of audience members is brought on stage to take a spin. We heard songs on “girls” (“This Year’s Girl”, “Spooky Girlfriend”, “Party Girl”), “time” (“Strict Time”, “Man Out Of Time”, “Out Of Time”) as well as a medley from “Get Happy” and plenty of songs from a more traditional setlist. It occasionally seemed something of a greatest-hits show — I might have liked to hear a few more songs from King of America and Imperial Bedroom, two of his great 80s records which didn’t spawn many radio hits, but the pairing of the latter’s “Beyond Belief” with a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” was an inspired reminder of Elvis’ great taste (and musical chops).

Elvis even let his angry not-so-young man persona out for a brief foray into politics, including a not at all apologetic rebranding of his anti-Thatcher rant “Tramp the Dirt Down” (now aimed at all the subsequent PMs as well) along with “Shipbuilding” and “Pills and Soap”. But for the most part his persona was a mix of carnival barker, crooner and storyteller.

That night we were also privileged to hear special guest and west London resident Nick Lowe, producer of many of Elvis’ great early records, and writer of his early hit, “Peace, Love and Understanding”, with which the pair magnificently closed the show.

Over the last year or so I’ve also seen shows from a couple of other ageing singer/songwriters: Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Simon’s career has had a similar trajectory to Elvis’: not much to match the 80s heights of Graceland and its excellent if less lauded followup, Rhythm of the Saints (although Elvis Costello himself praises Simon’s latest, So Beautiful or So What). And Dylan is, well, Dylan, dragging his neverending tour to London last winter. The set was made up about equally of songs from the 60s and more recent stuff, with several from the 2006 Modern Times. And while Paul Simon and Elvis Costello were mostly faithful to the original conceptions of their own songs, Dylan continues to take pride (which some of his more staid fans might find perverse) in tearing up and turning inside out his whole back catalog, changing the rhythm, the melody, sometimes even the lyrics, until sometimes the shock of recognition doesn’t occur until the song is over (and sometimes not until you go read the setlist).

But each of these shows was an education, in rock ‘n’ roll and in doing your best to not age too gracefully while still singing, or just listening to, it.