Here’s Elvis Costello’s Album By Album feature from Take 260 [January 2019], which the man himself wrote for us…
“With stupefying arrogance, we set about showing our contemporaries what could be done with their winning formulas,” Elvis Costello tells Uncut, discussing his 1981 LP Trust. The new-wave upstart turned renaissance man could almost be describing any of his albums, though; from the audacious mix of fury and classicism on 1977 debut My Aim Is True, and the extravagant, Beatles-esque Imperial Bedroom (1982), to the sombre torch songs of 2003’s North and his eclectic, impressive latest, Look Now, Costello has aimed high and invariably succeeded.
When Uncut invited the songwriter to discuss nine of his finest albums, Costello suggested that he instead write his own reflections on some of his personal favourites with the Attractions, the Imposters, The Roots and solo – plus a fond look back at the demos he recorded with Paul McCartney, only released in 2017. Here, then, is Costello’s own personal history.On completing his ‘classic’, he says he left the NYC studio at 1am “thinking this was a movie that will probably never get made again”….
MY AIM IS TRUE
Costello’s first recordings were so striking, Stiff signed their songwriter as an artist in his own right
ELVIS COSTELLO: Rehearsed in a rat-infested country house and recorded in a cardboard box in Islington [Pathway Studios] in a total of 24 hours’ studio time, on sick days and holidays from my office job as a computer operator. Having only heard my voice, mumbling under a bare bulb, club stage or on a borrowed reel-to-reel in my bedroom, I never imagined I would be in that studio with a band as good as Clover, a Marin County outfit whose Fantasy albums I’d had to hunt down in secondhand shops. They spoke in code about the songs – “Red Shoes” was “The One That Sounds Like The Byrds”. I didn’t mention that “Waiting For The End Of The World” was supposed to sound like “I’m Waiting For The Man”. I don’t think they had ever heard The Velvet Underground, and perhaps that was for the best. You can listen to a new take on “Mr Moon” from Clover’s recent Homestead Redemption (on which they revisit their ’70s songs and I deputise for vocalist Alex Call on an alternate take) and hear John McFee quote his own guitar part from “Alison”. Time is going backwards. I liked the sound of Pathway so much that I went back there with just me and Pete Thomas to cut “Kinder Murder” for Brutal Youth, and The Gwendolyn Letters, demos of the 12 songs that I wrote for Wendy James over one weekend in the ’90s.
THIS YEAR’S MODEL
His second album, featuring “Pump It Up” and “Night Rally”, remains one of Costello’s best
Before we left Pathway, Nick Lowe had showed me that we could paint pictures with sound on “Watching The Detectives”. Steve Nieve had arrived by then to play the keyboards. I told him I wanted the piano to sound like “Hitchcock”, when I think I meant “Bernard Herrmann”. However, I needed all of the Attractions to work at speed of life for “Lipstick Vogue”. “Pump It Up” was scrawled on a hotel fire-escape in Newcastle, in the last days of the Stiff Tour, and cut at Eden Studios in Acton just before I left for our first American misadventure. You could say “we never looked back”, but having crossed the United States for the first time and been thrown off SNL and had a mince pie, when we returned home, we finished the album in the rest of the 11 days that we could afford. And then we went back to America, again and again… Look Now co-producer Sebastian Krys pushed up the faders on “This Year’s Girl” recently, adding the voice of Natalie Berman (from Wilde Belle) for a remix for the opening titles of the second season of The Deuce. These are very big shoes to fill after Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s A Hell Below” had opened Season One, but Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve’s playing sounded as mighty as ever and we even uncovered an unused background vocal idea, lifted from our inspiration – The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath.
& THE ATTRACTIONS
Recorded at a troubled time, Costello’s fifth took aim at his pop contemporaries
Every one of the 45rpm records that we issued between late 1977 and mid-1980 made some kind of showing on the UK hit parade. My face was suddenly on the cover of teen magazines, as unlikely as that may sound now. It’s a sad and predictable story that too much attention can turn a young man’s head. I thought myself above all temptations but wrote a lot of songs about the debris that surrounds them and anything else that flew by my window. That’s what filled Armed Forces and Get Happy!!. After some hits, some inexplicable catastrophes and producing The Specials under a laundromat in the Fulham Palace Road, I felt like driving the car into a ditch or at least to Sunderland, so, with stupefying arrogance, we set about showing our contemporaries what could be done with their winning formulas. “Clubland” was supposed to be “Message In A Bottle” with a middle eight, “You’ll Never Be A Man” was “Brass In Pocket” with more chords and some ideas hijacked from The “Detroit” Spinners, while “White Knuckles” was like hearing several XTC songs through a haze of scrumpy, gin and sherbet dabs. I doubt any of them were better songs than their models, but it was a lark. I wish I could say it kept us out of trouble. Somewhere along the way the Attractions managed to cut what I think of as their most original ensemble performance, “New Lace Sleeves”. Around this time, my publisher told me the song I’d just written on a newly purchased piano reminded him of something by Erik Satie, so I went to a music shop to find out what he was talking about and discovered that I could actually play the opening bars of a few of his deceptively simple piano pieces. However, I absolutely needed Steve Nieve’s fingers to make sense and music out of my sketch for “Shot With His Own Gun” and then I straightened up long enough to co-produce Squeeze’s East Side Story.
& THE ATTRACTIONS
Eager to embrace a variety of styles, Costello enlisted Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick
It was very sad to read of the recent passing of that incredibly talented, gentle man, Geoff Emerick. He patiently watched us burn off the “nervous energy” that had fuelled all our previous records until we found our way to this album. He’d seen better bands than us come into the studio with crazed notions and fuzzy fragments of song and put them into sonic order. We had set up at the crossroads of Oxford Street and Regent Street, in AIR Studios. If we thought we were being like The Beatles by hiring a harpsichord, then an actual Beatle was down the hallway making Tug Of War with George Martin, just past a mixing suite that hosted both The Jam and Alice Cooper, although, sadly, not at the same time. We gave ourselves an extravagant amount of weeks to make our best mistakes. Geoff Emerick’s recording experience and mixing made absolute sense of the band’s unpredictable but brilliant playing – Pete Thomas’s insane drumming on “Beyond Belief”, to Nieve’s demented piano on “Man Out Of Time” and “The Loved Ones” and Bruce Thomas’s mighty bass coda for “Shabby Doll”. Geoff sat through my endless vocal-group overdubs that were the first thing to get lost when we took the songs on the road as not one of the band could do much more than shout “Hey” on the chorus, so it took until last summer’s Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers Tour for Davey Faragher, Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee to make some sense of my, sometimes, nonsensical notions. The record is occasionally called “baroque” – another of those overused French words, like “genre”, that make “critical thinking” seem like thinking – but this could really only be applied to Steve Nieve’s insanely funny and extravagant orchestration for “…And In Every Home” or that damn harpsichord on “You Little Fool”. I don’t think it has anything to do with “Almost Blue”, a song later heartbreakingly performed by Chet Baker, who had inspired me to write it, two years before he brought his beautiful trumpet playing to our rendition of “Shipbuilding”.
THE COSTELLO SHOW FEATURING THE ATTRACTIONS AND
KING OF AMERICA
& THE ATTRACTIONS
BLOOD & CHOCOLATE
Two very different albums – one produced by T-Bone Burnett, the other by old compadre Nick Lowe
Producer T-Bone Burnett and I originally plotted this to be a half-acoustic and half-electric album. The first Hollywood sessions with players from Elvis Presley’s TCB band, jazz bassist Ray Brown and Earl Palmer – the drummer on both “Tutti Frutti” and “The Theme From The Flintstones” – gave us more than we bargained for, including “Indoor Fireworks”, “Poisoned Rose” and “I’ll Wear It Proudly”. Suspicion and ill-feeling replaced any literal or figurative electricity on the Attractions recording dates, apart from their superb contribution to “Suit Of Lights”. A matter of months later I booked Olympic Studios to finish the amplified half of the job in Barnes, and called Nick Lowe to produce, referee and play the acoustic rhythm guitar that holds together a record on which I frankly only make a noise with a Fender Telecaster. We set up with stage monitors, so everything was a roaring, muddy blur whether we were hammering through “Tokyo Storming Warning” or creeping through “I Want You”. If something was too loud in the mix, we simply turned off that channel and balanced to the bleed – appropriate, given the final title of the album. As to the chocolate, I think we ate it all.
FLOWERS IN THE DIRT DELUXE EDITION
An extra disc with this reissue features the lost demos recorded by the Beatle and Costello
Between 1987 and 1991, I wrote 15 songs with Paul McCartney, nine of which were released over five of our solo albums. We had started out to co-produce our co-written songs for Paul’s album Flowers In The Dirt but disagreed about the scope of the recording. I wanted Paul to have everything stripped to the boards, while I was secretly plotting my own album, Spike, on the scale of a Cecil B DeMille epic. Last year, a lavish reissue saw the official release of our two-man demos, recorded in the joyful moments after each composition was completed, in a room above Paul’s Hog Hill Studios. We got to harmonise and compete over the best lines in “You Want Her Too”, “So Like Candy” and the unreleased “Tommy’s Coming Home Again”. For me the highlight was the demo of “The Lovers That Never Were”, one of the greatest vocal performances of Paul’s solo career.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON, 2003
A stark album of jazzy ballads that contemplated a new relationship – chosen by Costello as his ‘classic’
I know this one divided listeners, who were led to believe that it was something to do with an empty martini glass or a dissolute man in an undone bow-tie, while, at the time, I believed that I had written a cracking folio of lieder, only not in German. Actually, I wrote these songs in the dead of night and cut some of them three times over, screwing up and throwing away the drafts, as befits an intense and mortifying farewell note that turns into a love letter. I began by recording all the songs in one long, flawed demo take, including numbers I would never sing again and some which were almost improvised, at jazz virtuoso Errol Garner’s old Steinway, a beast I could barely wrestle into submission. It’s a thin line between being truthful and burdening your friends with a private sorrow, but then my model for confession had always been a wooden box in church. Even an unassailable record like Joni Mitchell’s Blue admits the brightness of “California” and Bob Dylan’s originally released draft of Blood On The Tracks had all that reverb on the voice to chase away the pain. So I listened to my elders and betters, buried raw songs like “In Another Room” until a daytrip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, five years later and chose to travel from the darkness to the light. The Imposters rhythm section proved to be the wrong hammer for the job and quickly departed, but not before we recorded a gem called “Impatience” with Marc Ribot on a Cuban tres, a flourish of pizzicato strings and a horn section drawn from my pals in The Jazz Passengers. Steve Nieve was eventually joined by acoustic bassist Mike Formanek and drummer Peter Erskine, who played with the hushed and steady flow that the songs demanded. I wrote for a low group of woodwinds and brass around my baritone range and brought in a body of strings here and there, so the room was not entirely in black and white. In the very late ’40s and early ’50s, my mother used to smuggle jazz records into Liverpool via seafaring pals for fanatical customers who had read about the music of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz but couldn’t afford to hear it due to import duty on American records. Lee added his alto saxophone to the end of “Someone Took The Words Away”, so after the session I had him sign the sheet music to my Mam. Obliging, in his terse style, he wrote, “Lillian, Thanks. Lee”. Returning to Errol’s big machine at Nola Studios, I cut “I’m In The Mood Again”, which I finished at 1am. Then I walked outside onto 57th Street, thinking this was a movie that will probably never get made again.
& THE ROOTS
WISE UP GHOST
BLUE NOTE, 2013
A strong set of new songs made in collaboration with Jimmy Fallon- soundtracking hip-hop troupe
Having told myself (and anyone else who’d listen) that I was happy to take my songs directly to the stage, I was taken willing hostage to a scheme by Questlove and engineer Steven Mandel to keep me in a Tardis-like cupboard at NBC until we made a record together. At the turn of the century, in what seemed like the last game of musical chairs, I was briefly signed to Deutsche Grammophon and Def Jam-Island at the same time, then to the Nashville quasi-independent Lost Highway, then to Verve Records for our trip to New Orleans to complete The River In Reverse with Allen Toussaint. Now we were working without a label or a budget, building tracks up from Questlove’s beats, Mandel’s samples of “Can You Be True?” from North or “Radio Silence” from When I Was Cruel, and slices from our own rehearsal jams on songs as widely spaced in time as “High Fidelity” and “Stations Of the Cross”. Those broadcast references were fitting, as the words were initially cut-ups of my own lyrics, written in reaction to events on a news-ticker, 25 years long, from “Pills And Soap” and “Invasion Hit Parade” to “Bedlam” and “The River In Reverse”. “Say something once, why say it again?” as David Byrne once proposed, to which I would reply, “Say something twice, maybe you’ll hear it this time.” So “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” viewed the same events as “Shipbuilding”, only from another hemisphere, and among these outward-bound views – in the last days before we delivered the record to Blue Note – Quest went back into that little cupboard with Ray Angry and Pino Palladino to cut the music for “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings”, a deeply upsetting series of images about my father’s last breath, which I could only let myself utter in the company of new friends.
& THE IMPOSTERS
One of Elvis’s finest of this century, a chamber-pop treat featuring Burt Bacharach and Carole King
So here we are, who we are and there you go… This is our latest waxing. All the Imposters parts and the vocal group arrangements for “Mr & Mrs Hush”, “Unwanted Wanted Number”, “Suspect My Tears” and the Carole King co-write, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter”, were recorded in the Los Angeles studios where I’d cut King Of America, Spike, Mighty Like A Rose and Painted From Memory. I already had all of the string and horn arrangements in my head when we began the sessions, but put these ideas on the page so they could be added at Electric Lady in New York City. Then we returned to Vancouver to record my vocals. The opening song is “Under Lime”, which tells of the immoral dilemma facing ‘Jimmie’ – a late-’30s musical turn who I left “Standing In The Rain” on National Ransom: “It’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on when you stumble and then you’re thrown…” Burt Bacharach came in to lead the Imposters from the piano on “Don’t Look Now” and “Photographs Can Lie”, just two of the 20 or more songs that we’ve written in the last decade. Another tune for which Burt solved the musical puzzle is “He’s Given Me Things”, which closes with the lines: “He’s given me things you never dreamed of/Where dreams are dashed and trash is praised/He has an awful lot of money/The past can be bought and then erased…”
The October 2019 issue of Uncut is on sale from August 15, and available to order online now – with Patti Smith on the cover. Inside, you’ll find Bon Iver, Robbie Robertson, Jeff Buckley, Miles Davis, Brittany Howard, The Hollies, Devendra Banhart, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and more. Our 15-track CD also showcases the best of the month’s new music, including Wilco, Oh Sees, Hiss Golden Messenger and Tinariwen.