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Article about the Rhino re-releases
Rhino, 2001-08-20
- John Srebalus


I Was So Impressed, I Bought The Catalog

Gary Stewart’s been buying Elvis Costello records for 25 years. Now he’s 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 Rhino’s 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. He’s a music lover who gets other people to love music. Throw in the fact that he’s a nice guy and an active member of the LA community (see Rhino’s social mission), and it’s no surprise that Gary has a bit of a following.

And it’s no secret that one of the reasons Rhino puts out such great stuff is that Gary is a fan - he ain’t 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. He’s spent the last 25 years scooping up everything the artist has put out. And then, as if he needed further confirmation that he’d chosen the right profession, Gary recently brought Costello’s 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 Rhino’s doing with all those great records, let’s 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 didn’t happen. We had made a bid for the catalog eight years before, when it went to Rykodisc, and that was a bit crushing. I didn’t 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. There’s 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 period.

What kind of response have you already gotten from the Elvis Costello fan community?
Mostly unbridled excitement. In some cases, a bit of skepticism, because they’re 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 anybody’s ever heard, I think any skepticism will go away.

What was your first experience of Elvis Costello?
It’s 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 I’m 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 I’m 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 show’s 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 he’s constantly been doing. He’s 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) musical mind.

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. They’re in marked contrast to the next three - This Year’s 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 won’t be part of a group, because they each stand on their own.

We wouldn’t 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 he’d 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.

There’s 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 Bacharach’s arranging style. Bacharach comes over and seems only mildly impressed; and it’s not until years later, when the two collaborate, that Elvis realizes how far the song was from Bacharach’s style.
It’s 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 it’s an incredibly gorgeous, intricate, complicated, fully realized attempt to take another leap in terms of songwriting and production.

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 perception?
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. It’s 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 isn’t in essence a sung-song. It’s 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 it too.

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. I’m currently in love with ‘The Days Take Care Of Everything’ and the Spike version of ‘Satellite.’

What lyric do you wish you’d written?
A line in ‘Little Atoms’: ‘But I cannot promise you I’ve said “goodbye” to childish things/There’s still some pretty insults left and such sport in threatening.’ On an earlier album like This Year’s 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 you’re 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 that’s why it’s 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 I’m 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?
I’ve learned that he’s 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 doesn’t 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.


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