Almanac Music: Extraordinary Musical Moments – Elvis Costello Singing Penny Lane to Paul McCartney


Elvis Costello performing in Canada, 1978. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Almanac Music: Extraordinary Musical Moments


Recently, I’ve been enjoying an ongoing online discussion with a friend of mine about Elvis Costello, particularly the earlier (late seventies/early eighties) part of his career and his songwriting during that time. My friend and I have discussed songs like ‘Girls Talk’, which Costello wrote and performed himself but became a big hit with Dave Edmunds, ‘Oliver’s Army’ and even his great cover of Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?’ Of course, most would know his other self-penned hits from that period, including ‘Watching The Detectives’, ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Every Day I Write The Book’.


The discussion just referred to has resulted in me visiting – and in many instances revisiting – Elvis Costello material in general, and in the process I came across a wonderfully unexpected YouTube clip, dating from 2010, of him singing ‘Penny Lane’ for a small White House audience including Barack Obama and Paul McCartney. I knew Costello was a fan of McCartney’s songwriting and had co-written songs with the great man, but never thought I’d find something like this – a one-time post-punk angry young man performing a beautifully impressionistic pop classic, preceded by a heartfelt anecdote about when he first heard the song on the radio, accompanied by his ‘Dad, Mum and cat’, to use his own words. The performance is a joy! ‘Penny Lane’ is by no means an easy song to sing, either, and Costello’s vocal chops are up to the challenge. There’s some superb piccolo trumpet playing in this rendition, too, note-for-note reproducing the famous solo in the original recording by The Beatles.


Almanackers, if you have some equivalent extraordinary musical moments, by all means share them!





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Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, has just been published (late 2020) by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Recent other writing includes screenplays for films with a tertiary education purpose.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says
  2. Kevin Densley says

    Classic stuff, Swish – I love your clip! Jeez, Declan (Elvis C ) and has father looked alike – their voices and movements were similar, too. (I knew about Costello’s father being a singer and musician, but hadn’t seen the father in action.)

  3. KD, that is a great performance.

    I’ve had a love/dislike relationship with Little Elvis over the last 25 years. Seen him live maybe a half a dozen times. Never let me down. However, I think his songwriting petered out by Spike, around the same time he wrote with McCartney but more so, when his self-consciousness became his muse. There has been good stuff since but plenty of filler. And his autobiography was as turgid as he gets. Having said that, his TV show, Spectacle, from around the same time as that WH performance is jaw-droppingly brilliant.


  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for those interesting comments, Rick. You’ve certainly given me some food for thought.

    I mainly like Costello for the earlier part of his career when he made his name – most well-known artists with long careers, when you examine these careers closely, do the majority of their best work earlier on, relatively speaking, I believe. There are a few notable exceptions to this, but not many at all, when it comes down to it.

    And I will have to check out Spectacle – I haven’t seen it. Just reading a little about it, it seems a bit like that long-running classic BBC series ‘Later … with Jools Holland’, which is a beauty.

  5. Later is a ripper of a program. Spectacle is its own weird little thing. These days it’d probably be a podcast! But the artists, and he brings in an impressive and varied group over two seasons that it ran, really open up in a way they don’t usually. You feel like a fly on the wall listening in to artists just shooting the breeze about their work.


  6. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for putting me in the picture about Spectacle, Rick – I just watched some bits ‘n’ pieces of it on YouTube, and liked it a lot. Yes, shows like this one and Jools Holland’s ‘Later …’ give one insights into an artist’s music than one doesn’t get through the typical mainstream interviews and film clips one sees and listens to.

  7. Were the question “Are you an Elvis Costello Fan?” posed to me, it would present a conundrum.
    For I am a massive fan of his early stuff. My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model (one of the punk/post-punk era’s greatest albums and still a go-to for me), and Armed Forces is a superlative commencement to a career – and they were rapid-fire released in 77, 78, 79. Bang Bang Bang.
    I recall purchasing Mighty Like A Rose in 1991 and being utterly disappointed. Since then, I have not take much joy in any of his new releases. Although I bought my mum the Bacharach collaboration and she loved it.
    What would Declan McManus circa 1978 think of performing in front of the president?

  8. Kevin Densley says

    Interesting, Smoke. Thanks for the comments.

    As I’ve indicated a few times already, I’m a fan of Elvis/Declan primarily because of his early stuff – that body of work alone is enough to satisfy me.

    The 1978 Declan would probably not have performed in front of the president, I suppose, but even he might have appreciated Obama enough to do so.

    The main reason for this post, though, was to simply put forward a particular performance of a particular song in a particular context and note how interesting and out of the ordinary this was. Also, I do like that the older Elvis/Declan felt OK about acknowledging McCartney, a musical hero of his, in this way.

  9. Yes, sorry KD, I went off on a bit of a tangent.
    There is something heartwarming about seeing an artist perform a song in front of the person who wrote it, and the songwriter being genuinely appreciative.

    Not quite the same, but similar, is the Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit, performing their song “Emmylou” in front of Emmylou Harris.

  10. Kevin Densley says

    No worries, Smokie.

    The clip you posted is of a lovely song, and a fine reminder of how popular music can reach across the world. The first thing one thinks of in relation to Emmylou Harris is certainly not her influence upon a very talented pair of young Swedish singers!

  11. I enjoy the footage of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, along with Jason Bonham on drums, with various other musicians and a supporting choir performing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in front of the remaining members of Led Zepplin (and the Obama’s) at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.

    Ann Wilson nails the vocals and Shane Fontayne was the guitarist given the task of performing THAT solo in front of Jimmy Page.

  12. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Greg.

    I had a look and listen to the clip you put forward – fabulous stuff all round!

    The Led Zepplin guys were obviously rapt with what they witnessed. At a few points, it seemed the supporting choir were going to lift the roof off the building!

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