Elvis Costello is in the mood to talk history and influences with his subjects on “Spectacle,” an international foray into a musical talkshow that will be seen on Channel 4 in the U.K. and CTV in Canada. In an hour with Elton John, the conversation and the music starts with what John listened to as a kid and only occasionally extends beyond his first couple of albums. The second episode with Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel is similarly shaped.
Focusing the program on the shaping of a young artist limits the mainstream potential of the interview show but ramped up the opportunity for two musicians to explore the importance of music and musicians rarely name-checked. John waxes on about Leon Russell, Laura Nyro, the Band’s “Music From Big Pink,” David Ackles and Ron Sexsmith. He tells of his love for R&B and his adventures performing in British venues with Martha & the Vandellas, Billy Stewart, Major Lance and Patti LaBelle. Naturally, he believes the 1960s and ’70s offered far greater quality pop and R&B music. (Reed shares stories about songwriter Doc Pomus and singer Jimmy Scott; Costello and band play his Velvet Underground tune “Femme Fatale”).
Perfs in the opening seg are particularly enlightening. Costello and his band, with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint on keyboards, burn through John’s gospel-drenched “Border Song” from 1970; John demonstrates the effect Russell and Nyro had on “Burn Down the Mission”; and the two duet on Ackles’ 1968 obscurity “Down River.” All are placed smartly to break up the Q&A.
Some repetition settles in as the two cover a rather small time period. One of the more intriguing questions, seeing as how this show is Declan McManus (Costello) interviewing Reginald Dwight (John), concerns the adaptation of a new name as either “a suit of armor or Superman outfit.” John suggests it is neither — that he was going after something he felt was distinctly American and unique.