LOS ANGELES — Looking back on his 24-year recording career, Elvis Costello says, "I didn't really much subscribe to the idea that you should just be trying to accumulate more and more wealth by making the same record over and over again."
The rich diversity of Costello's work — originally released in the U.S. by Columbia (1977-86) and Warner Bros. (1989-96) — will be reconsidered in depth beginning this summer, when Rhino Records begins reissuing the singer/songwriter's back catalog in a comprehensive series of two-CD sets. Priced at $17.98, each album will feature a full disc loaded with alternate, rare, and unreleased material.
Due Aug. 7, the first trio of Costello albums will consist of the artist's debut, My Aim Is True (1977); his Warner Bros. bow, Spike ('89); and his final Warner studio set, All This Useless Beauty ('96). Rhino is organizing its quarterly groupings of releases along thematic lines, rather than simply issuing the albums chronologically — as Rykodisc did in 1993-95, when it brought out augmented versions of Costello's 11 Columbia sets. Those earlier reissues replicated the packages originated by Demon Records in the U.K.
Costello explains, "That was a record label that my former manager [Jake Riviera] and myself were really involved in, and therefore we had the ability to package things exactly as we wanted. Ryko's undoubted ability to do things was really never called upon, because they simply replicated everything that we did in England."
The musician points out that the simple chronological organization of the earlier campaign may have worked against some of the less well-known collections in his catalog. "A Pekingese in a tuxedo could sell you My Aim Is True, you know," Costello says. "When you've got a record that maybe didn't reach its audience in its time, you have to use a bit of imagination in the way that you present it, to make it seem as if it might be worth investigating now.
"If you're really going to entice people, then you've got to try to tell a tale," Costello continues. "I think telling it chronologically just invites the historical judgment, which you can read about in the 9,000 list anthologies that you can buy in any bookstore — The Boy's Book of Pop Records or whatever it is. Placing them in groupings as we have done, I think, is only going to invite a less chronological, a less historical view."
The arrival of Costello's catalog at Rhino was a long time coming, according to the label's senior VP of A&R Gary Stewart.
"We had wanted to pursue the catalog when it was up for grabs in '93 and just didn't get it," Stewart says. "That was that, but we stayed in touch. It kind of coalesced when [in 1998] we worked on an album of songs he had mostly written for other people called Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous, and we developed a working relationship, with him co-producing that package, and the catalog coming up for grabs. He then asked us at that point if we were interested, and we were — extremely."
Costello may have his ultimate corporate advocate in Stewart. "He is the Beatles to me," the Rhino executive confesses. "There's nobody that I am as fanatical about." With Costello's arrival at Rhino — which is part of the Warner Music Group — the musician mates his early catalog with the material he cut during his seven-year Warner Bros. sojourn — a period he looks back on with undisguised bitterness.
"I left Warner Bros. with incredibly bad blood," Costello says. "I think those that were there when I left have now got what they deserve, and they're in the shit, and I look forward to [incoming president] Tom Whalley kind of getting [the company] back out of the shit. Some really talented people there were undervalued and either left disgruntled or stayed there disgruntled, and some of the less talented people got paid a whole bunch of money to fuck the company up."
He adds, "It's a great delight to me that I've got some sort of influence on the direction of that Warner catalog now, by working it in conjunction with those at Rhino — who, obviously while taking the major funding from the AOL Time Warner dollar, are independent in spirit."
A study in songcraft
Costello says that the first three albums due in the Rhino reissue are "sort of all solo records, really — odd to say, because [All This Useless Beauty] is credited to the Attractions, but the group was essentially breaking up while we were making it."
Of the bonus material, Costello says, "[For] My Aim Is True, there isn't an awful lot of additional material, apart from what came out on the original reissue. A couple of tracks that were missing then have come to light, gladly — [including] a killer version of 'No Action' that was cut at the same session as 'Watching the Detectives.' It's almost totally distorted, because the mikes were set for a much quieter song, and we went blasting into this.
"All This Useless Beauty was conceived originally as a double-album," Costello adds. "A whole lot of other stuff came to light, including some alternate versions of some songs that have totally different arrangements, ranging from acoustic-guitar demos done in proper studios to very funky-sounding 4-track demos done at home on a cheap 4-track recorder.
"The same is true of the Spike additional tracks," he adds. "You get two views of the song: You hear how it was written, and you get to hear how I was particularly interested in trying to realize it at the time, which was to go and play with all these amazing players. We were so lucky on that record, with Roger McGuinn, Paul McCartney, the Dirty Dozen, and Allen Toussaint. Everything was [cut] instrument by instrument, so it really was like filling in an illustration that we had a sketch of."
The second group of reissues, due Oct. 16, comprises three albums featuring Costello's longtime band the Attractions (bassist Bruce Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and drummer Pete Thomas): This Year's Model (1978), Blood and Chocolate ('86), and Brutal Youth ('94).
"They're the beginning, middle, and end of the Attractions as a rock 'n' roll band," Costello explains. "They all sort of relate to the band blueprint. It's a sound we checked in with about every eight or nine years."
The third flight of releases, scheduled for January 2002, comprises Costello's most elegant pop records: Armed Forces (1979), Imperial Bedroom ('82), and Mighty Like a Rose ('91). He notes, "[Those albums are] [about] using the studio in a slightly more expansive way, as an ornamenting workshop."
According to Stewart, the April 2002 grouping of Get Happy! (1980), That ('81), and Punch the Clock ('83) will explore the Attractions' evolution, while the July 2002 set of Almost Blue ('81), King of America ('86), and Kojak Variety ('95) will survey Costello's American roots influences.
Details have not been finalized, but Stewart says that Goodbye Cruel World (1984) could be paired with an expanded edition of the odds-and-sods compilation Taking Liberties ('80), while Costello's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters ('93), might be issued with "something that collects a lot of his artier things, records he did with the Jazz Passengers, things that reflect a jazz and classical flavor."
Stewart says of Rhino's decision to make each album a two-CD set, "The reason we're doing them as two CDs is two-fold. One is to be able to add more material. You're pretty much maxed out on a lot of the [Columbia] releases if you stick to a single CD. A lot of the Warner Bros. records were particularly long, so you can't add more than a handful [of tracks] on top of that. Second, it's to maintain the purity of the original record and allow people to hear that by itself. And, since we think the extra material is so superior, I don't like making it track Nos. 14 through 29."
Unlike the relatively spare Rykodisc sets, each Rhino package will include a 28-page book with lyrics of each original Costello song. "I think he's the best songwriter of modern times," Stewart says, "and [because he's] an extremely literate verbal artist and an incredible lyricist — a la Cole Porter or Sammy Cahn — his [lyrics] should be available."
Costello will again pen liner notes, though plans did not call for his participation at first. Instead, Rhino commissioned several well-known writers to author the notes.
While Costello says the writers "did a very thorough and obviously sincere job," he adds that there "are enough half-assed books on the shelf with my face on the cover that I had nothing to do with that we don't have to contribute, no matter how erudite those writers happen to be. There's already too few trees in the world; if we are going to waste any more paper, I might as well get the blame."
Rhino product manager Jimmy Edwards says the label's initial marketing thrust will target Web users. "There'll be a major focus on Internet marketing with online accounts. We've had tremendous success with past singer/songwriter projects. This marketing will include promotional pre-street downloads of the bonus material. There will also be some exclusive content and various contest-type things. We feel that [the Web] is a good way to reach the true fan."
At retail, "there'll be aggressive price and positioning, and we'll have the whole catalog," Edwards says. "This is long-term for us. We're trying to become the home of Elvis Costello. This won't just be an initial push. It's a strong commitment from Rhino for the next year-and-a-half [or] two years and on."
Vince Szydlowski, director of product at Virgin Entertainment in Los Angeles, looks forward to the Costello campaign. "We're already experiencing great sales on the double [Rhino compilation The Very Best of Elvis Costello] that came out [April 21]," he says. "I can't say enough about Rhino handling it. These packages are in expert hands."