Last Year's Model
By ROB WALKER Elvis Costello, the Rhino CD's
As Elvis Costello kicked into ''Chemistry Class,'' at a live performance in Washington, on Feb. 28, 1978, a voice could be heard cutting through the boisterous crowd noise, shouting, ''You're brilliant!'' Enthusiastic, uninhibited, barely articulate and kind of embarrassing -- that's a real fan. This performance can be heard on Costello's ''Armed Forces.'' Not on the original album, from 1979, or the expanded CD version reissued by Rykodisc in 1993, but on a superexpanded version put out by Rhino Records in 2002. Since 2001, Rhino has released lavish, double-disc reissues of most of the Costello catalog, basically finishing up last month with a rerelease of the 1987 record ''King of America.''
In many cases these are the third or fourth iterations of a given album, and it turns out that at least some consumers will buy them a third or fourth time. ''We sort of count on that,'' says Jeff White, a spokesman for Rhino, a division of the Warner Music Group that specializes in reissues, including ''deluxe'' editions of previously released records by everyone from the Cure to Randy Newman to Cher. The most successful rerelease in the Costello series has been ''My Aim Is True,'' which has sold more than 100,000 copies, despite having been released in at least three earlier versions.
Gary Stewart, who oversaw Rhino's Costello project (and has since left the label to serve as the chief music officer for Apple's iTunes), says he believes that plenty of buyers of the new discs are getting them for the first time. Nevertheless, it's fairly clear as he describes the strategy for the discs that the superfan was definitely part of the calculus. ''The Ryko versions are quite good,'' he says, so the Rhino round included maximum-length 28-page booklets stuffed with lyrics and new notes from Costello himself, and a pile-on of previously unreleased tracks. ''Get Happy,'' for instance, was a 20-song album; the Ryko version had 30 songs; Rhino's has 50. The idea was to give the buyer so much material, Stewart says, that ''the stuff you already had is just a bonus.''
Stewart says Rhino also made a particular effort at ''rehabilitating'' the less-celebrated Costello records, like ''Goodbye, Cruel World'' (which even Costello was once quoted dismissing as ''a waste'') in selecting bonus material and alternate versions that practically add up to a whole new, and arguably better, version of the original album. ''King of America'' was a critical favorite the first time around but a commercial dud. So perhaps its 21-song bonus CD with nine demo tracks as well as live recordings and outtakes is a bit more than a reasonable person needs. But being beyond reason is the whole point of fanhood. The solo demo version of ''Poisoned Rose'' might not mean much to most people, but to the blinkered fan (like, O.K., me), it's definitely worth owning.
''The human propensity to adore celebrated strangers infuses life with a hundred different flavors of stupidity and sadness, hope and joy,'' the editors of the Benetton-financed magazine Colors observed in a special issue on fans last year. Consider that fans of the canceled ''Star Trek: Enterprise'' TV series claim to have raised nearly $145,000 in an effort to keep it going for another season.
Or on the Costello front, consider the Web site devoted to deconstructing the Rhino releases and speculating about what material might yet resurface. (The site points out that the 1978 ''Chemistry Class'' live recording officially released on Rhino also appeared on ''one of the earliest Elvis Costello bootlegs.'' Duly noted.) Whether these things seem like evidence of stupidity or joy depends on whether you're a fan of ''Star Trek'' or of Costello or of something else. It's only other people's fandom that seems embarrassing or irrational.
Stewart, meanwhile, who will admit to having seen Costello perform live ''more than 50'' times, seems to have just one regret about the Rhino versions of the Costello catalog: There is so much bonus material that the greatness of some individual extra tracks has been overlooked. He speculates about an additional disc that would simply highlight the very best of the Costello bonus material. ''This is a possibly prejudicial statement,'' Stewart says, ''but I think his biggest curse is making too much good music.'' Spoken like a real fan.