When Elvis Costello put out the raucous “No Flag” back in June of this benighted year of 2020, its rip-snorting yowl of alienation, disillusionment, and defiance was perhaps understandably pegged as an anti-Trump anthem. Appearing virtually (complete with shifting Zoom background) on Wednesday’s Late Show, the indefatigable rock and roll legend told unabashed number one fan Stephen Colbert that, while “No Flag” lyrics like “No God for the damn that I don’t give” were, indeed, partly a product of singer-songwriter rage and malaise at a burning planet where the American president is Donald fucking Trump, the song wasn’t necessarily Trump-targeted.
“I had written the song last year for that day when you get up and the ways of the world make you feel no allegiance, no philosophy, no theology will console me, and you make a furious sound,” explained Costello. And, while holing himself up in the global rock and roll capital of Helsinki, Finland (as he did to record his 31st studio album Hey Clockface), Costello wasn’t inured to the specific atrocities being enacted by the Trump administration at the time, he told Colbert that the fuck-it-all, throwback anger of “No Flag” was more akin to him screaming into the snowy void about bigger things.
Not that Trump hasn’t been on the historically political Costello’s mind of late, as, prompted by a question about the unauthorized (and frequently tone-deaf) use of fellow rockers’ music at Trump’s super-spreader, fan-freezing hate rallies, the singer asked permission to read out something he’s been working on. Promising that the full experience would come to theaters once people can safely gather together again to hear his newest genre-busting artistic effort, Costello read to a smiling and grateful Colbert his lyrics for the musical version of the Andy Griffith-starring, eerily prescient film, A Face In The Crowd. (Based on the short story by Budd Schulberg.) For those not in the know, Elvis explained the film’s (and forthcoming musical’s) plot, about the rise of “Lonesome Rhodes, a lying, cheating, swindling hillbilly singer who rises through the realms of entertainment to be a man of influence.” “Be careful what you wish for,” added Costello impishly, after reciting lyrics about Rhodes carefully calculated populist schtick that promises followers “to say what I feel but cannot express,” and makes allusion to Rhodes’ entertainment-to-demagogue journey, “I was climbing up the ratings cause they said I was a satan.”
Costello also favored Colbert with some in-house (well, over-the-internet) musical performances as well, with bandleader Jon Batiste joining Elvis for duets on both the title track from Hey Clockface and a bonus, killer rendition of Armed Forces’ classic “Party Girl.” (Armed Forces is being re-released in a ludicrously elaborate boxed set, complete with all comic book liner notes, featuring a young, improbably ripped cartoon Costello being beaten senseless by righteously angry women. “Sad to say, that was my life then,” explained Elvis.)