The main Attraction

Rock: After years apart, Steve Nieve and Elvis Costello are performing together again. Nicholas Barber talks to new wave's most prolific keyboard player
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HE DIDN'T fit into the Royal College of Music, where he was studying in 1976, so he answered a music-paper ad posted by some people calling themselves a "rocking pop combo". An audition later, he was asked to join Elvis Costello and the Attractions - and asked to leave the Royal College. Soon he was on the Stiff Records package- tour of England. "The Stiff tour was the first time I'd been out of school, and I was on this coach full of lunatics." One of these lunatics (a Blockhead, to be precise) was Ian Dury, who rechristened the callow keyboard player. Stephen John Nason became Steve Nieve.

Imagining "Oliver's Army" without Nieve's prickly playing is impossible. But calling him "the keyboard player of the Attractions" is like calling the ubiquitous Jools Holland "the keyboard player of Squeeze" (a role which Nieve has also filled). After leading the band on Jonathan Ross's Last Resort, Nieve went on to provide music for Ross's other programmes, including the Viva Elvis documentary (Presley, not Costello). He has written for the likes of the Comic Strip and Lenny Henry, and can be heard on The World of Lee Evans. One of his solo albums, Keyboard Jungle (Demon) has just been re-released, and he is co-writing two theatrical works. You never know where he'll pop up next.

I met him in Paris, in a gym which has, for some reason, a corridor of piano-practice rooms. He was rehearsing for Wednesday's solo concert at Costello's Meltdown festival. "I'm just trying to discover the way I play the piano," he explained. He is also at the South Bank tonight, playing songs with Costello that the two have written together. It's a reunion whose seeds were sown only by accident.

1994's Brutal Youth was Costello's most acclaimed album for years, not because it was a great step forward, but because it revisited rosily remembered Attractions territory. Nieve and Costello happened to be working in the same rehearsal studios, so Costello invited his former colleague to play on the demo he was making. "Even then I didn't imagine it would be an Elvis and the Attractions album. We weren't sure that Bruce [Thomas, the bassist] would come back. But it was great when he did. As soon as he plugged in and played, it sounded like something you'd heard before. So they immediately took the song off the album."

What did Nieve think of The Big Wheel, the unflattering book that Thomas wrote in 1990 about life on the road with the Attractions? "I was just glad that someone had made a record of those years. The first few tours we did, I was just 18, out of school and looking for a wild time. I can't really recall much about them."

Costello himself, Nieve says with amused affection, was "exactly as he was before. He wanted to record without giving anyone a chance to know what they were doing. He was really animated, always moving the microphones or behind the mixing desk pushing all the faders. Normally people do their singing and that's it. It's not like that with Elvis."

Nieve's fate, from "Pump it Up" on, has always been to ride in the proverbial coach full of lunatics, whether playing on Morrissey's Kill Uncle - "Most of the time he was wandering round the studio with a towel round his head" - or on the Live Aid single "Dancing in the Streets", with David Bowie and Mick Jagger - "They were both outperforming each other in the studio. At one point Bowie leapt over the producer's head. It was intimidating."

Onstage, Nieve is something of a lunatic himself, a phantom of the rock opera, pouncing on his keyboards. But when we met in Le Gymnase, there was no trace of this character, apart from the odd mad cackle. Nieve is a sheepish conversationalist. He is keen to promote his projects, but would rather talk about music than talk about himself, and would rather play music than do either.

But bubbling under this surface is the restlessness which pervades his bristling keyboard technique. It drove him to move to France when he got fed up with south London; to exchange the RCM for pop; and to stretch from pop to film, television and stage composition. It also made him tire of and retire from Jonathan Ross's show. "To begin with we took the trouble to find people who would perform something they hadn't done before, rather than just their latest single. But as the show went on it became more and more difficult to do that. There weren't that many people who could perform live on TV with musicians and material they weren't used to." On a Christmas show, Nieve secretly invited a friend of his along to sing a reggae-fied "Silver Bells" instead of the theme tune the producers were expecting. "It caused complete pandemonium, but it was supposed to be a live show. "

Spontaneity is a key part of Wednesday's concert. Audience members will be invited to choose six notes around which Nieve can improvise. "As soon as I've written something, using my education, it becomes . . . a piece of piano music. The six-notes thing makes me invent something new, which I prefer." Music, you might say, which is naive.

! 'Old Flowers in New Dirt': QEH, SE1, 0171 928 8800, tonight. 'Steve Nieve Solo': Purcell Room, as above, Wed.