Article about the Rhino re-releases
- John Srebalus
I Was So Impressed, I Bought The Catalog
Gary Stewarts been buying Elvis Costello records for 25
years. Now hes putting them out.
by John Srebalus
Somebody asked me the other day if I was a Gary Stewart fan. I
guess so, I replied, never having really thought about it that
way. But it makes sense. As Rhinos head of A&R and producer
of many a Rhino release, Gary gets to do what most of us music fans
would consider a dream job. Hes a music lover who gets other people
to love music. Throw in the fact that hes a nice guy and an active
member of the LA community (see Rhinos social mission),
and its no surprise that Gary has a bit of a following.
And its no secret that one of the reasons Rhino puts out such
great stuff is that Gary is a fan - he aint in this business for
the expense accounts. And of all the beloved records on his shelves,
none stir his soul more than the ones made by Elvis Costello. Hes
spent the last 25 years scooping up everything the artist has put out.
And then, as if he needed further confirmation that hed chosen
the right profession, Gary recently brought Costellos catalog
to Rhino for its most glorious treatment yet.
So who better to talk Elvis Costello than the guy who grew up on the
stuff and then got to release it on the label he helped build? I think
so too. For the ultimate fan perspective and a peek at what Rhinos
doing with all those great records, lets hear it from Gary Stewart...
How did the Elvis Costello catalog find its way to Rhino?
It originated with our work on Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours
& Rendezvous: Songs Of Elvis Costello, which was a collection
of songs that Elvis wrote for other artists - Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash,
Til Tuesday and others - alongside adventurous cover versions
by Elvis-friendly artists like Chet Baker, Robert Wyatt, and Nick Lowe.
We initially proposed the project to Elvis in 96. At first he
said no, because it coincided with the release of All
This Useless Beauty, which was (narrowly) perceived as the mirror
image of that concept.
Two years later he was more interested and available, and we started
actively working on the project. That gave us a chance to show him what
we were capable of - at least in terms of product quality. Around the
same time, his catalog came up for renewal, and they asked us to make
an offer. Bob Carlton (our head of sales) and myself flew to Dublin
to meet with Elvis and his business manager, Lew Difford, to make the
case for Rhino and discuss our product and marketing ideas.
What was your emotional reaction to that offer?
I was excited about wanting to get the catalog for the label, but tried
to remain a little detached. If I had gotten too attached to the outcome
of our getting Elvis Costello on Rhino, I would have been disappointed
if it didnt happen. We had made a bid for the catalog eight years
before, when it went to Rykodisc, and that was a bit crushing. I didnt
want to go through that again. The truth is that if we had lost it a
second time, it probably would have been equally disappointing.
For me, having Elvis Costello on Rhino is like having The Beatles.
Theres no artist at all who has produced such a large body of
work that has so deeply interested, moved and involved me over a 25-year
What kind of response have you already gotten from the Elvis Costello
Mostly unbridled excitement. In some cases, a bit of skepticism, because
theyre wondering what we can do to improve upon the Ryko/Demon
titles. When they see My Aim Is True, and they
see the printed lyrics, the 28-page booklet, and the bonus disc; and
they hear the mastering, which gets closer to what I call the sonic
truth of that record than anybodys ever heard, I think any skepticism
will go away.
What was your first experience of Elvis Costello?
Its a very strange story. I was one of those people who would
buy anything on Stiff Records, because I was so enamored of early singles
by The Damned, Nick Lowe, and Wreckless Eric. And then I heard, Well,
the new thing is Elvis Costello, and he sounds just like Dwight Twilley.
To this day Im still scratching my head and wondering how anybody
could think that Less Than Zero or Radio Sweetheart
sounds like Dwight Twilley. Although I was and will always be a fan
of the Sincerely album Im still grateful to this day for
that bit of misinformation.
My true-believer conversion came from seeing him on Saturday Night
Live, not because he scrapped a song in defiance of the shows
structure, but because he unveiled Radio Radio, and within
the span of about six months had taken a huge leap from one sound to
the next, which I think hes constantly been doing. Hes always
been expanding my musical taste in the process of producing such a varied
body of work. He kind of took a crowbar out and opened up my (too narrow)
These reissues are coming out in thematically related groups of
three. What are those themes?
The first three - My
Aim Is True, Spike,
All This Useless Beauty -
are what I like to call the beginning, middle, and latest chapter in
his career. They also reflect an eclectic and varied solo sound. Theyre
in marked contrast to the next three - This Years Model, Blood
& Chocolate and Brutal Youth ,- which feature the Attractions
more aggressive sound. The next three - Imperial Bedroom, Armed Forces,
and Mighty Like A Rose - show off the more elegant, detailed pop
textures. And then the next three - Get Happy!!, Trust,
and Punch The Clock - show you the evolution of The Attractions
from 60s soul to 80s pop and R&B. The fifth group -
King Of America, Kojak Variety, and Almost Blue -
shows off an American-roots side of Elvis. The Juliet Letters,
Goodbye Cruel World, and an expanded Taking Liberties
wont be part of a group, because they each stand on their own.
We wouldnt want to put them out in a chronological fashion and
have people treat them like annuals to an encyclopedia. It also gives
fans and newcomers a chance to see a pattern that might have previously
eluded them, and to re-discover great lost album tracks.
When selecting bonus material, what do you look for?
A great original song that has been unreleased - something like The
Days Take Care Of Everything, which on All
This Useless Beauty was a song hed written for Roy Orbison.
Or a great B-side/guest appearance like That Day Is Done
from the Fairfield Four record, which prominently features Elvis. Or
an early version of a song that offers up a completely different experience.
The bonus tracks on Spike, for example, show
you an album that was very heavily arranged and produced in its earliest
stages, and some songs like Satellite and This Town
take on completely different identities.
Theres an anecdote I love from the liner notes to Spike, where Elvis
talks about being in the studio next door to Burt Bacharach and inviting
him to come listen to Satellite, which he thought was a
direct lift from Bacharachs arranging style. Bacharach comes over
and seems only mildly impressed; and its not until years later,
when the two collaborate, that Elvis realizes how far the song was from
Its very lush and sophisticated, and, to my ears, maybe one of
the most successful productions on that record. When I was picking songs
for our sampler, I chose Satellite as representative of
that record, because I think it presages his collaboration with Bacharach.
I also think its an incredibly gorgeous, intricate, complicated,
fully realized attempt to take another leap in terms of songwriting
Using that anecdote in relation to your experience with Elvis, have
you had any such revelations where you thought you knew something, and
then, having worked so closely with him and his music, you changed your
I guess the revelation for me was how much other great work was sitting
around. Given how prolific he is, I was surprised at how much great
material still remained in the vaults and cupboards. The All This
Useless Beauty disc is a great example, and could easily stand on
its own as a great Elvis Costello album.
Could you relate an interesting story behind one of the bonus tracks?
We found a vocal version of Stalin Malone, which is a song
he did with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Spike. Its basically
an instrumental, and on the original album there were printed lyrics
for the song. When we started to dig in, I was wondering if he ever
did a completed vocal. In the last week of our excavating we found a
version, and it isnt in essence a sung-song. Its a spoken-word
piece recited over that background. We had no idea if it was even recorded
- just a hunch, one that paid off. Elvis was quite surprised to hear
Favorite songs and albums?
Favorite albums would be All
This Useless Beauty, Imperial Bedroom, Get Happy!!, and King
Of America. Favorite songs would be New Lace Sleeves
from Trust, the title cut from All
This Useless Beauty. Im currently in love with The
Days Take Care Of Everything and the Spike version of Satellite.
What lyric do you wish youd written?
A line in Little Atoms: But I cannot promise you Ive
said goodbye to childish things/Theres still some
pretty insults left and such sport in threatening. On an earlier
album like This Years Model or Blood & Chocolate it
might have seemed like a normal line - but here I see it as a source
of both humorous and knowing self-commentary. When youre trying
to turn somebody on to Elvis, which album do you reach for?
When All This
Useless Beauty came out, I bought probably 20-25 copies to give
people to reintroduce them to Elvis. I thought that All This Useless
Beauty was the record that would bring people back to Elvis Costello
in the same way that so many people have come back to the table recently
for Paul Simon, Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell. It should have been,
and thats why its coming out as part of the first group.
What are the pros and cons of being so close to this material?
The pros: I get to work with a body of art and music that, as much and
more so than anything, defines why Im doing this for a living.
The cons: I have a much greater emotional stake in wanting to get the
point across to a larger audience for this music, and also in wanting
to do right by the artist himself.
What have you learned about Elvis Costello since this project began?
Ive learned that hes as passionate, literate, and articulate
in his conversation and speech as he is in his music. The very literate,
densely verbal, intelligent quality of the lyrics, and the complexity
of the music is not an accident. It doesnt come out of nowhere.
Also, he has an incredibly sharp memory; a keen, articulate mind; and
good knowledge of his work and perspective on it.