There is not an awful lot that needs explaining about this record. It's a rock 'n' roll record with a couple of weird ballads and few pop songs thrown in. by the time we started recording it King Of America was just about to be released, having been completed less than six months previously. The terrible experience of The Attractions' Hollywood sessions was far from forgotten. There was a good chance that this was going to be our last work together. For the first time in five years our producer was Nick Lowe. The engineer was Colin Fairley. He had worked with both Nick and myself on a variety of productions. The venue was Olympic Studios, London.
Although it was a 24-track studio I liked the arcane look of the control room. In my memory I see Bakelite switches and knobs although I am sure I must be romancing this. Certainly, the recording room couldn't have looked much different when Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones were recording there in the sixties. The songs were extremely simple to learn. I wrote most of them very quickly on an old 1930's Gibson Century guitar. It had a suitably clanky sound (that's it at the beginning of "Crimes of Paris"). When a guitar was not on hand I found the rhythm I needed by slapping the kitchen counter as I pieced together "Honey Are You Straight (Or Are You Blind?)" from a very confusing dream. "Uncomplicated" was my latest failed attempt to write a song based on one chord. We set up in the studio as we would in rehearsals, using monitor speakers rather than headphones. We also played a lot closer to "stage" volume so that there was little or no separation. If there was too much bass "spill" on the drum mikes we simply turned down the direct bass channel. This made for a booming, murky sound that made subtly impossible. If we tried anything fancy it sounded like we were playing wearing boxing gloves. This suited most of the songs perfectly.
Nearly all of the songs were cut entirely "live." Any vocal repairs and harmonies were dubbed on as soon as we had called a "master take." Because of the volatile nature of both the method and the musicians many of the tracks were either first takes or took no more than three or four attempts. On several cuts Nick Lowe joined us in the studio to lay down a steady acoustic rhythm guitar track.
I played Telecaster for much of this album, giving my parts a very harsh edge. The intro of "Uncomplicated" will give you the idea. from then it all hangs on the "stupid" beat that Nick suggested until we finally get off the one chord and Steve brings in the chorus. Nick also borrowed the guitar figure and accent that drives "Honey Are You Straight?", although it is anybody's guess where from. We also finally got a take on "I Hope You're Happy Now" that had a little more humour to it than its originally murderous intent. It almost sounded like pop music.
"Tokyo Storm Warning" is a thug's nightmare travelogue from Narita to Heysel. From Pompeii to Port Stanley, Paris and London. It was cut on "take one." I then added the background vocals, distorted guitar figure and backwards solo. In case you were wondering, a "Japanese God-Jesus Robot" is a little electric fortune-telling toy that waves a cross to indicate whether your boyfriend or girlfriend loves you. The first verse of "I Want You" borrows a Japanese folk song tune and then goes somewhere very dark. As far as I can recall we only played this once. Our "sound" meant that no matter how quietly the band had played there still seemed to be too much accompaniment in the last verse during playback. We fixed this by switching off the band, track by track, until all you can hear at the end is what was bleeding onto my vocal mike.
The final song of our first burst of recording was the tale of a man driven mad by love, "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head." The music had started out as a bright pop melody but now I placed it in an almost impossibly low register which made me sound as if I was either seething or gasping for breath. "Method Singing," I suppose. This was backed by a droning accompaniment and features some fine bass playing from Bruce in the coda as accordions and spoons fly past his window. Next come three fairly straight pop tunes rescued from the King Of America sessions. "Blue Chair" was given a treatment borrowed from the Prince songs "Manic Monday" and "Raspberry Beret." "Crimes of Paris" quotes my own "Suffering Face," bits of the Kinks, Slade and slivers of "Wild Mountain Thyme." It features Cait O'Riordan on harmony vocals. Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" also gets name-checked and I'm pretty certain we recorded a version of it during these sessions but it seems to have gone missing.
The comical tone of "Next Time Round" was overlooked in Hollywood but provided a pretty good rave-up finale for an album that stays mostly in the dark. In fact, there is a hint of the California sound in the background voices and on the subsequent "Spinning Wheel" tour (see below) we took the song back where it belonged. Among our many concert guests were members of The Bangles who improvised a sort of Mamas (and Papas) vocal arrangement. The remaining two cuts were the product of some extreme studio experiments. We seemed unable to agree about anything to do with "Battered Old Bird." We tried it in faster tempi, different keys and vocal deliveries but nothing could be sustained for the entire song. It is a very long song based on the tenants of the house in which my family had the basement flat until he was five years old. Of course I changed some of the details. I was actually taught to swear in Welsh by our landlady but it doesn't rhyme. Some of the more nightmarish characters have been distorted by time but others, like the "old maids," the scriptwriter who drank burgundy for breakfast and the fellow who always kept an old plastic Christmas tree in the cupboard by the stairs in case of emergencies, were real enough. Because the song contained those childhood memories I found it hard to make any cuts. One night, during mixing Nick hit on the solution. By a combination of vari-speeding and bold editing, two separate versions were spliced into one (a lesson learned from "Strawberry Fields Forever"). A growling harmonium was dubbed onto the cracks and while the hybrid isn't perfect, I'm glad we didn't simply scrap the song entirely.
"Poor Napoleon" was originally completely covered up in the sheets of white noise and feedback that can be heard briefly before the band's entrance. Little by little I pulled it out in order to reveal the song in which a proud and vain character finds his love fatally compromised. Cait has a speaking role as the "voice of pity" and I dubbed on the instrumental duel between Hofner bass-guitar and tambourine. My only other unusual contribution was to add a very simple Vox Continental part to "Honey Are You Straight?" or I should say "Vox Kontinenta" as all of the album credits were written in Esperanto for reasons I can no longer remember.
(Our American record company had always seemed to want us to return to the sound that we had started out with, even though it had been more famous than successful. When we gave them something close to what they wanted: A pissed off thirty-two year old, divorcee's version of This Year's Model, they hated it and buried it under a stone somewhere in Utah. I proudly walked away from the end of my Columbia contract owing them a million dollars. They had their chance and they blew it.
In saying this it shouldn't be forgotten that my relationship with the Attractions was now such that we were about to take an eight year holiday from each other's company.)
The following tour, "Costello Sings Again," was a bold, if financially suicidal, affair in which we played between three and five nights in each small-city theatre presenting a different show every evening. In various combinations these included: an Attractions set that drew on our back catalogue, a solo concert, a show with "...his Confederates" (James Burton, Jerry Scheff, Jim Keltner, and Mitchell Froom) featuring material from King Of America, another Attractions set debuting the Blood and Chocolate songs and the "Spinning Songbook" concert.
I had often finished a long set only to be confronted with the obvious question "why didn't you play....?" Fill in the song of your choice. Now this seemed the perfect solution. Song titles would be printed on sections of a game-show wheel and a member of the audience would be invited to the stage by Mr. Xavier Valentine ("your guide from your place in the stalls to your place in the stars") in order to spin the wheel. The wheel would decide what we played next. We included what we thought were audience's favourites but also slipped in a few unexpected choices like Tom Petty's "American Girl," Prince's "Pop Life" and Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Ferry Across the Mersey".
(We even tried a "Request" spot but the first time I switched on the big red sign the entire front row was transformed into figure-skating judges holding up neatly printed signs demanding the most obscure songs in our catalogue).
If a song came up twice you were allowed to spin again. If it came up three times...well...the rules got a bit vague then and "the house" was known to lean on the wheel on a few occasions if the hour was getting late and the wrong songs kept coming up. Our contestants were questioned by an unpleasant M.C. called "Napoleon Dynamite" in whose guise I was able to leer at the young women and insult the men. We were also joined -- "for one night only" -- by various "guest" M.C.'s. The finest was, unquestionably, Tom Waits who had both the animal magnetism and a lion-tamer's command to entice and corral our most outlandish and outstanding contestants.
(Other nights were joined by members of the Chicago Bears, Penn and Teller, Buster Poindexter and "The Princess of Italian Pop" (or so we were told). In Rome, where the whole enterprise took on a surreal edge, our M.C. was Roberto Benigni. He translated my remarks with all the conviction and accuracy of the character that he plays in the film "Down By Law").
After spinning the wheel our victims, surprisingly few of whom were actually on drugs and attempting to take their clothes off, were offered a choice of beverages (soft drinks only for legal reasons) at the Society Lounge Bar or a turn in the Go-Go cage. Our experience suggests that the world is full of frustrated Go-Go Dancers.
"Seven Day Weekend": was co-written and recorded with Jimmy Cliff for a film in which he co-starred with Robin Williams and Peter O'Toole called Club Paradise. I don't suppose either the film or the song will go down in film history. It always seemed a little odd to me that the film's producers requested that I write a rock 'n' roll song with Jimmy Cliff. Anyway, Jimmy was a great man and I got to play a lot of loud guitar on the record. There are worse ways to spend a weekend.
"Forgive Her Anything": This is one of the very few outtakes from Blood And Chocolate. I re-worked it a couple of times for inclusion on later albums but it always seemed to get lost. This very rough version is all that remains and may well confim what I said about "wearing boxing gloves."
"Blue Chair": After the unsurprising commercial failures of both the six minute-plus Blood and Chocolate singles ("Tokyo Storm Warning" and "I Want You"), I decided to look again at the "Blue Chair" backing track scrapped during the King Of America sessions. Turning up Mitchell Froom's organ and T-Bone Wolk's overdubbed Telecaster part we filled out some of the space above T-Bone and Mickey Curry's bass and drums. I then re-cut the lead vocal and added a vocal arrangement that took a very distant cue from Sly's "Everyday People".
"Baby's Got A Brand New Hairdo": This Attractions outtake from King Of America snuck out on the B-side of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Groovy title. Shame about the song. The one redeeming moment is after the lines "She looks like Billy Boy Arnold saying "I wish you would" when Bruce quotes the riff.
"American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)": This track, which was the B-side of the "Blue Chair" single, fulfilled a small ambition. When 12" singles had been all the rage during the mid-80's I had thought it was a pity to simply repeat and extend the existing song. What if there were extra verses? A continuation of the story or even a sequel? I never actually got round to it until this cut. The new edition of the story is told from the perspective of the vanished husband of one of the women in the King Of America version of the song.
He tries to pluck up courage to return from his South American exile but in the end he becomes cynical and loses his nerve. Some of the locations have also slipped in a "Twilight Zone" way. This is alluded to in the sub-title and the electric guitar part. The rest of the instrumentation, all of which I played, is: acoustic six-string and bass guitars, piano, celesta, organ, harmonica, marimba and timbale.
"A Town Called Big Nothing": Is a piece that was written in America, Spain during the shooting of Alex Cox's movie Straight To Hell. This pastiche of a Spaghetti Western (which, I suppose, means it was a pastiche of a parody) starred The Pogues as a family of teetotal, non-smoking, coffee-addicted desperados. Ah! Typecast again. The flick also featured Joe Strummer, Ed Harris, Kathy Burke, Dick Rude, Xander Schloss, Courtney Love and rather briefly, John Cusack, Grace Jones and Dennis Hopper to list a few names one night recognize.
I only went along to visit Cait and found myself playing the family butler "Hives," and toting a pump-action shotgun. Another friend of mine came to take some on-set photographs and quickly found himself stripped to the waist and strapped to a wagon wheel in the noonday sun. So, I suppose two weeks of Andalusion desert heat without a change of costume was getting off lightly.
An instrumental version of the track "A Town Called Big Nothing" actually appears briefly in the film but as it is currently out of circulation, even on video, I include the full version here.
The narration is spoken by actor Sy Richardson, who played one of the rival desperados in the film. The story that he tells has nothing to do with the movie, in fact it probably has more plot than "Straight To Hell!" On the other hand I would not say that I wrote this with an entirely straight face. The musicians were as follows: I played the Spanish, electric and acoustic-bass guitars. Obviously, I did the "Big Nothing" whispers while Cait and I did the fairground voices. Pete Thomas turned on the drum machine and then added any tambourines and percussion. My father, Ross MacManus played the trumpet part and did the Flamenco clapping.