The Milanese audience did not respond to my enthusiastic introduction quite as expected. They caught sight of our "Special Guest" and collectively uttered a sigh of "Oh no, not her again"... only in Italian. Our promoter had sold us the idea that she was the "Princess of Italian Pop." She looked vaguely familiar. It was only later I remembered where I had seen her before. She had been one of the transparently attired models, obviously hired at short notice, to dance vacantly while inaccurately mouthing backing vocals for the immense Greek love-God, Demis Roussos. That was during one of our early '80s excursions into the wasteland of European pop television. Now here she was, blowing kisses to the crowd Zsa-Zsa Gabor-style at just another fabulous showbiz event. So, this is how it ends.
We were in the final weeks of the "Spinning Songbook" tour. What had started as a flip suggestion for solving the problem of deciding which songs to perform was now a towering, illuminated piece of carnival apparatus. The game-show wheel could be arranged with a rotating choice of song titles. Victims (or "members of the audience," as we preferred to think of them) were led to the stage by the looming presence of "Mr. Xavier Valentine" — "your guide from your place in the stalls to your place in the stars." Once in the spotlight they would be met by an unpleasant M.C., "Napoleon Dynamite," in whose guise I was able to leer at young women and insult their dates. Once they had spun the big wheel and chosen the next song, contestants could retire to a part of the stage called "The Society Lounge," where they might enjoy a refreshing alcohol-free cocktail. Alternatively, those who were not already on drugs and attempting to take off their clothes had the opportunity to enter a go-go cage for the duration of the chosen song. Our experience suggests that the world is full of frustrated go-go dancers.
Occasionally, "the house" had to fix the selection, if the hour was getting late and an audience favourite still hadn't come up. But on the whole it made for an interestingly random evening. It also gave us the opportunity to occasionally delight audiences with such unexpected selections as "Ferry across the Mersey," Prince's "Pop Life," Tom Petty's "American Girl," and the great ABBA tune, "Knowing me, knowing you."
We were assisted in this endeavour by a series of guest M.C.s, the finest of which by far was Tom Waits. He had both the animal magnetism and the lion-tamer's charm to entice and corral our most outstanding contestants. Others, including Buster Poindexter, Penn and Teller, and members of the Chicago Bears football team tried gamely to match the opening night mayhem, but it was not until the final night of the tour in Rome that the proceedings approached that same surreal edge. Our guest M.C. that evening was the actor Roberto Benigni, who deliberately translated my announcements into utter nonsense. In a few other European countries the idea of the show lost a little in translation, but on no other occasion did it gain quite so much.
The Spinning Songbook had been just one element of the "Costello Sings Again" tour of America. Having released two albums in quick succession and touring with two bands, I had also invited guest artists such as Tom Petty, The Bangles, and Aimee Mann to join us onstage. I was either going to make a success of this or go bankrupt, whichever came first.
The tour culminated in a five-night stand on Broadway. On successive evenings, we presented: an Attractions concert based on our back catalogue, a solo concert, a set featuring The Confederates playing the songs from King of America, the Spinning Songbook, and another show with The Attractions presenting the songs from the new album, Blood and Chocolate.
This is a record of people beating and twanging things with a fair amount of yelling. It was recorded just over six months after the Hollywood sessions for King of America. The Attractions sole contribution to that album, "Suit of Lights," had been made during our least successful and most bad-tempered days in the studio. The air of suspicion and resentment still lingered as King of America was released and we entered Olympic Studios, London, to make what proved to be our last record together for eight years.
Nick Lowe was producing us for the first time in five years and together with engineer Colin Fairley, agreed to an approach that would get the music recorded before the band and I fell out completely. Olympic's control room still contained some of the Bakelite switches and other arcane features left over from the days when it had hosted sessions by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. The live room was big enough for a full orchestra, so we filled it with our live monitor system and played at something approaching stage volume. Although it commonly thought that high volume in the studio creates an uncontrollable sonic picture this, approach seemed to suit the material entirely.
I had written most of the songs very quickly using a 1930s' Gibson Century acoustic guitar that had an attractively clanky sound but provided little invitation to intricate harmony or melody. You can hear what it sounds like in the introduction of "Crimes of Paris." When "Honey, are you straight or are you blind?" came to me in a dream, I had to capture it on a cassette player with just the accompaniment of my slapping on the kitchen counter, as there was no guitar to hand. These were not songs that you had to worry about.
Nick Lowe took hold of my willfully "stupid" rhythmic ideas and drove them to extremes on "Uncomplicated." He even joined us in the studio to keep a steady acoustic rhythm guitar running through several tracks. Consequently, we rarely cut more than three takes of any tune. The longest performances, "Tokyo Storm Warning" and "I want you," were both captured on "Take One." All vocal fixes and most of the overdubs were added immediately after we had decided on a master take.
The events of "Tokyo Storm Warning" travel from Narita to Heysel via Pompeii, Port Stanley, Paris, and London. Tokyo is just the place where these things begin and end. It is a city for which I am never prepared. Each arrival is shocking and slightly alienating — particularly if you land there in a late-summer storm when the cloud cover is below the top of the skyscrapers. It is only when you are about to leave that the rhythm of the place starts to make sense and you wish you had more time. It's then that crazy little purchases like the "God-Jesus Robot" seem strangely comforting. What should one take home from this extraordinary place? What else but a fortune-telling sci-fi droid that is supposed to "answer" the romantic questions of Japanese teenagers with a wave of a plastic cross? Two thousand years of theology reduced to a battery-operated toy. The song continues in this vein for six minutes or more, alighting on the absurd details that can accumulate during ten years of world travel and how little we know. It arrives at the conclusion that there is precious little that one can do about it.
"They say gold paint on the palace gates comes from the teeth of pensioners
They're so tired of shooting protest singers that they hardly mention us".
"Home is anywhere you hang your head" was the tale of a man driven insane by love. It originally had a bright pop melody, but for this version I pitched in an almost impossibly low key, so I sounded as if I was either seething or gasping for breath. I suppose you might call it "Method Singing." "Poor Napoleon" is about a very raw affair. At one point, this track was rather perversely obscured by sheets of white noise and guitar feedback, but I later stripped them away to reveal the vocal performance and an acting cameo by Cait O'Riordan as "The Voice of Pity."
I played a Fender Telecaster on most of the cuts. This lent a harsher edge to the guitar parts as the intro figure of "Uncomplicated" demonstrates. When the spill from bass channel bled onto the drum microphones, we simply turned down the direct signal in order to rebalance. This accounted for both the murky, booming sound of some tracks and our inability to play at a very low dynamic throughout this record. In fact it often made us sound as if we were playing wearing boxing gloves. But somehow this also became a virtue. The intimate final bars of "I want you" were achieved by switching off each of the instrumental tracks until all that can be heard is the sound of the band's performance bleeding into my vocal mike.
A few of the songs required a little more finesse or ingenuity. "Blue Chair" had failed to make the grade at the King of America sessions but was now successfully arranged around Steve Nieve's keyboard part. The more sarcastic tone of "Next Time Round" had also not found a place on the previous record, but it now provided a rave-up finale for an album that stays mostly in the dark.
"Battered Old Bird" was a song about the tenants of the house in which my family had a small basement flat until I was five years old. I only altered a few of the details. Our landlady actually taught me to swear in Welsh rather than French, but "Welsh" didn't rhyme. However, the "old maids" on the first floor, the suicide who danced in the bonfire, the scriptwriter who drank burgundy for breakfast, and the eccentric man who kept a Christmas tree in a cupboard by the stairs "in case of emergencies" were all real people.
We attempted three different arrangements of this song until Nick Lowe arrived at the idea of joining two contrasting performances together with a combination of vari- speeding and bold editing using a smear of harmonium in the way a scene might dissolve in the movies. An earlier attempt to play the song in the style of Johnny Allen can be heard on CD 2.
"I hope you're happy now" was another song being cut for the third time. Having recorded it as a possible single with The Attractions in 1984, I attempted to rework it without much success at the final King of America sessions. Time had lent the song a little humour to lighten its originally murderous intent. Now it almost sounded like pop music.
When it comes to the other tracks on CD 2, I am glad to report that our take on Little Willie John's "Leave my Kitten Alone" has finally been located. It probably should have made the album.
I have no memory at all of recording "New Rhythm Method." I do recall writing a song of this title in 1977, so this may be a reworking, but what I am actually singing remains something of a mystery.
There are three different recordings of "Forgive Her Anything" in existence. It seems I was never totally satisfied with the way this song worked out. This newly discovered version replaces the one issued on the last edition of Blood and Chocolate, as I believe that it is the best of the three.
"Seven Day Weekend" was written and recorded with Jimmy Cliff and The Attractions (!) for a film called Club Paradise, starring Peter O'Toole, Robin Williams, and Twiggy. Oh, the horror. I don't suppose either the film or the song will go down in history, but Jimmy is a great man, and I did get to play a lot of very loud guitar.
"Blue Chair" was a complete reworking of a King of America outtake which was released as a single in the U.K. after the two Blood and Chocolate singles ("Tokyo Storm Warning" and "I want you") unsurprisingly failed to trouble the charts. "Baby's got a brand new hairdo" was the only other Attractions cut from those unhappy Hollywood sessions. It later escaped on a B-side.
"American without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)" is a sequel to the song recorded on King of America.
The final sequence of cover songs may well be one long take. I know I performed most of these tunes on solo tours after 1984, and this was probably a vocal warm-up session where the tape just happened to be rolling. I first heard "All these things" by the Louisiana group The Uniques, while "Tell me right now" was originally cut by Joe Tex. "Lonely Blue Boy" was an early Conway Twitty side. I learned "Running Out Of Fools" from Aretha Franklin's Columbia recording, and James Carr's version of "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man" was one of my favourite songs at the time. I would return to these last two songs at the Kojak Variety sessions in 1990.
The album title and Eamonn Singer's crude cover painting reflected some intense and uncertain sensations. The record might as well have been a blurred polaroid: a smashed-up room, a squashed box of chocolates, some broken glass, and a little blood smeared on the wall. These were just a few of the images I had in mind.
The intimate, if not almost pornographic, tone of "Crimes of Paris," "Poor Napoleon," and "I Want You" were typical of my mood at this time. The album was a pissed-off 32- year-old divorcé's version of the musical blueprint with which I had begun my recording career with The Attractions.
My relationship with the band had now soured almost beyond repair. We would soon be playing our last concert together for a great number of years. The final song we performed was an improvised take on "Instant Karma." I'm sure it was supposed to mean something at the time.
Having said all of this, the year I made this record was also the year of my marriage to Cait O'Riordan. There were a lot of things that I wouldn't have to do again. Like messing up my life just so I could write stupid little songs about it.
— Elvis Costello