Grammy Winner Elvis Costello Says ‘It Was More Punk’ to Give Best New Artist to A Taste of Honey in 1979

Chris Willman

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Elvis Costello picked up his second contemporary Grammy on Sunday for his 2018 album “Look Now,” making his first trip to the podium since he and Burt Bacharach won for their joint project “Painted from Memory” 21 years ago. But, of course, it’s his first miss, all the way back in 1979, that continues to tickle the public imagination.

That was the year that Costello was nominated for best new artist, and lost… to the all-female disco group A Taste of Honey, famous for — and only famous for — “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Costello wasn’t alone among future heavyweights missing the brass ring that year, as the Cars were also nominated and lost in ’79, making it one of the most ignominious and still oft-mocked moments in Grammy upset history.

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“I don’t know that it was such a terribly big surprise, or really necessarily a bad thing, that A Taste of Honey won,” Costello told Variety this weekend. “That was a really good record! In fact, that was in some ways more punk to give it to them than it would have been to give it to us.”

The Grammys did make up for it, as best they could: The debut album that was most responsible for his best new artist nom, 1977’s “My Aim Is True,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.

“You know my history with the Grammys. You know the first time was so absurd that everybody still quotes it,” he says now. There are no hard feelings. “I had a reputation by then. In ‘79, they knew all about us by then. I wasn’t a new thing. I wasn’t like we had just appeared. If it had been January ’78, I think we could have been aggrieved not to win. But we were already established in America by the time the Grammys got round to nominating us in ‘79. So the fact that a big hit record that was a joyful record like that won — I think it was totally appropriate.”

The upset was the subject of an in-joke in the movie “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” for which Costello wrote an end-titles song, the year before last. Unbeknown to him, “they use ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ in the film immediately before they use ‘Pump It Up,’ as a kind of a signpost for it being 1979, which I thought was really funny on the part of the music supervisor. It wasn’t my doing.”

As for his win Sunday night for “Look Now,” Costello gives much of the credit to the album’s producer, Sebastian Krys, one of the major names in the Latin music world.

“I think he deserves it. He should have had a Grammy nomination for producer anyway,” says Costello, who’s now working on another project with Krys (pictured above at the ceremony, second from left, along with drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher). “If you look at it Sebastian’s credits and achievements and awards and accolades, that’s a big shelf of Grammys and, specifically Latin Grammy producer of the year. That’s a pretty big deal.”

(Krys has won 10 Latin Grammys in all, which makes him the sixth most rewarded person in the history of that show. He’s also won seven American Grammys. The producer’s list of credits includes Shakira, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Luis Fonsi and Alejandro Sanz, with Costello as one of only a handful of English-speaking rock acts he’s taken on to date.)

Because a Costello Grammy nomination would not be complete without at least a bit of eyebrow-raising, brows were lifted this year when “Look Now” was nominated in the traditional pop album, alongside Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble and a John Legend Christmas album. “Look Now” definitely leaned on ’60s pop traditions as well as the sound of intimate musical theater… but traditional?

“Traditional pop used to refer to records that were based on standards from the Great American Songbook. They changed that this year, and that’s why we’re nominated alongside Barbra Streisand.” He’s open to the idea that, as his fellow artists in the category mostly have covered standards, he’s created his own. “If you’re performing your songs yourself after 40 years and people still want to hear them, maybe those are standards. That doesn’t make them equal to ‘Night and Day,’ but that speaks to the endurance of a lot of different types of songs at this point.”

“Look Now” included a handful of co-writes with Bacharach — which may be his lucky charm when i comes to winning Grammys — although, unlike “Painted from Memory,” it’s a band album, recording with his longtime ensemble the Imposters, playing a bit more gently than they’re known for.

“Our record is traditional in a sense is that we are committed to that aesthetic of that record and we don’t deviate from it,” he said. “There’s a variety of rhythms and harmonic development of the songs, but we are committed to the idea. We didn’t suddenly decide we were going to have a freakout kind of psychedelic number in the middle of the album. The aesthetic is based in the idea of having things really in their place. It’s not layered, layered, layered, layered. I think that is a traditional form of arranging, if there’s any word that describes it other than good. It’s some kind of tradition to work like that, which obviously isn’t common now, because things are heavily layered and processed to create what those producers want, which isn’t necessarily what I want to hear, but it’s obviously what a lot of other people want.”

 

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