While the prolific musician may be better known for his rancorous songs like the contentious “Tramp The Dirt Down,” which famously stated he would dance on the grave of then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he’s long included clever twists on classic songs in his repertoire, from “My Funny Valentine” to Brinsley Schwarz’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
The comedic highlights of Costello’s four decades in the public eye have been glossed over in favor of the more salacious happenings, but it’s his grasp of both the silly and serious that has made his music resonate. Here are some of the moments in a prolific career that make Costello such a card.
It can be argued that Costello’s work has always been filled with irony and wit, but his endless literary metaphors in “Everyday I Write The Book” can be exhausting.
It’s on Costello’s 12th studio album, Spike, where his lyrical skills take a turn for the jovial. Hidden amongst the protest songs and Paul McCartney collaborations is “God’s Comic,” a slinky standard that imagines a meeting with a dead vaudeville comedian and the man upstairs. In five and a half minutes that would make Mark Twain envious, the humorous track is a commentary on the fallacy of religion.
"The Other Side of Summer"
Costello’s next album, Mighty Like A Rose, starts out with a twisted homage to The Beach Boys titled “The Other Side Of Summer.” Costello has said the song is supposed to resemble something Brian Wilson would have produced in the 1960s, but written from a cynical point of view. It’s the musical equivalent of National Lampoon’s Vacation.
The song explores the contradictions and confusion that come with vacation season. Costello even writes a few jabs in the direction of John Lennon and Pink Floyd: “Was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions?’ / A poor little schoolboy who said ‘we don’t need no lessons’?”
It’s enough to make you laugh through the pain of your sunburn.
Declan McManus: International Art Thief
In 2009, the hit NBC television show 30 Rock put together an all-star lineup for its third season finale, titled “Kidney Now!” Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy calls upon, among others, Costello, Clay Aiken, Moby, and Wyclef Jean to participate in a telethon to raise funds for his dad’s kidney transplant. How does he twist Costello’s arm for such a ludicrous benefit? He blackmails him with knowledge of Costello’s supposed criminal record stealing the world’s finest artistic masterpieces. The result is a “We Are The World”-type anthem. While the single wasn’t written by Costello, he and the other artists sang it for free with all proceeds going to the National Kidney Foundation.
Saturday Night Live
After feuding all day with his record label about which songs to play on Saturday Night Live, Costello told his band 10 seconds into “Less Than Zero” to play “Radio Radio,” a protest anthem about the commercialization of radio. Costello has stated in his memoir he was channeling something similar Jimi Hendrix had done in 1969 on the BBC’s The Lulu Show. The Jimi Hendrix Experience stopped playing “Hey Joe” mid-song and launched into a cover of “Sunshine Of Your Love” instead. The BBC pulled them off the air.
Similarly, Costello’s brazen attitude upset SNL’s producer, Lorne Michaels. He famously banned Costello from the show for more than a decade.
Many now accuse Costello of setting a precedent for future unruly musical performers on Saturday Night Live, but he had the last laugh.
During the 25th anniversary special of the show, Costello came onstage during the Beastie Boys’ performance of “Sabotage” and said, “I’m sorry ladies and gentleman, but there’s really no reason to do this song here tonight.”
The rap trio became Costello’s backing band for another “impromptu” performance of “Radio, Radio.”