I know you came on the scene in the seventies as a songwriter, in that same crowd with Elvis Costello, but how did you start? What kind of cultural product did your parents have in the house?
My mother came from a vaudeville family—music-hall stuff—and she had pretty good taste. A lot of Sinatra, Nat King Cole, show music. And, rather curiously, she had some Tennessee Ernie Ford records. That was how I first heard that fifties country-and-western sound, which I thought was pretty fine. My old man was in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot. He had a lot of modern-jazz bebop records—Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bud Powell. He had a very good ear, though I didn’t know it when I was a kid. And when there was an RAF camp, there were Americans not too far away, and where there were Americans there was AFA radio. And that was where I first heard this unbelievable music made by people with these fantastic names, like Ferlin Husky and Lefty Frizzell and Howlin’ Wolf.
So you were getting a lot of American culture growing up?
Well, we all wanted more of it, you know. I knew that Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were much groovier than Michael Holliday. It was absolutely undeniable. And also, my mother’s reaction to them: When they came on the radio, she used to leap like a startled fawn. Which she denies—or did, because she’s not with us anymore. She could tell that it was dangerous and heady stuff. And then I went through quite an epiphany in my teens. I fancied myself an intellectual, and forced myself to read John Fowles and Lord of the Flies.
How about movies?
When the Brits got booted out of the Middle East—the Suez crisis, the end of the empire!—I spent a lot of time with my mother, and we used to go to the movies a lot. War films, and a lot of things she liked. I’m still a great moviegoer. I love foreign films most, because they don’t seem to worry about, for example, having a fat guy as the love interest.
Like Gérard Depardieu.
Exactly. No oil painting he. Same with the women: They have that expression, jolie laide.
Did you study art in school?
I did a bit, and when I see a fantastic painting—Mondrian, for instance—I say, Oh, pass me that brush! I can knock one of those out! And then I have a total inability to translate what I’m thinking onto the canvas. I have a couple of friends who are painters, but they are rather poorer than I would like to be.
How did you meet Elvis? Was it when he recorded your song “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”?
I was in a band called Brinsley Schwarz, and he used to come and see us—he was very distinctive-looking back then, and always on his own. We were playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and we were waiting to go on at the pub across the road. I saw him come in and I said, “Hey, there’s that guy. I think I’m gonna buy him a drink, and see why he keeps on coming to see us.” Then I didn’t see him until the day that my first record on Stiff came out, and I ran into him in the tube station in London. He had just been up to buy a copy of the record and leave a tape of his songs with my manager. We made a pretty good record of that song, but he gave it that anthemic thing that everyone reacted positively to.
John Lennon liked it. He said so just before he died.
Really? I think someone told me that, and I never quite believed it.
What new stuff do you listen to?
Of course, there are people who are really good around. But when I come to a hotel in the States and they’ve got MTV and VH1, the music is so utterly dreary. I hate to sound like my father, who used to think that the Who, the Kinks, the Stones, and indeed Otis Redding all sounded exactly the same. But honestly! They all seem to be banging on about the same stuff. People talk sometimes as though I and my contemporaries designed punk rock to usher in this glorious new dawn. In fact, we were all dancing around the corpse, giving it a kick now and then. It’s kind of heresy, because there’s been fabulous music made since then: Prince; the Pretenders; Madness, in the U.K. But there was so much incredible music made between the late forties, after the war, until about 1975, and then it almost stopped—it’s as if it was beamed in from Venus. There’s no evidence that it ever happened.
At My Age
(Yep Roc/RedEye Records). Performing at 7 World Trade Center on September 19.