Discoveries, August 1992

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Elvis is everywhere

A look at "The Other Elvis"

Mark Smotroff

It has been said that for every death, a new baby is born. In 1977, Elvis Presley died and another Elvis arrived on the music scene — Elvis Costello. Riding the new wave of punk rock merchandising and sensibility, Costello both encouraged outrage and won admiration from the front lines of music — kids and critics alike. Despite inevitable gripes from some Presley loyalists dismayed at the comic use of the King's name (particularly so soon after his death), the support for Costello was undeniable — musicians and pop music fans around the world knew something was afoot.

Costello was an oddball among the aggressive new bands on the music scene between 1975 and 1977. Punk rock music spit openly in the face of what had become commercial rock, long stalled creatively and generally overproduced. These new young artists clearly aimed to shake up and invigorate all who dared to listen.

Elvis, however, did all that and more. He admittedly embraced the arrogant punk attitude for marketing purposes, but he protected his artistic integrity by contradicting the entire concept — simplistic themes, inadequate musicianship, loudness for the sake of loudness — with a knack for melody, harmony, and lyricism.

Elvis wasn't really a punk, he was the rebirth of the creative spirit begun 30 years earlier with Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Comparisons of the new Elvis with these artists were justified. He was compared with the Beatles for his distinctive knack for clever melodies and with Bob Dylan for his uncanny ability to write lyrics that jumped out of your speakers and into your brain, inviting repeated plays to figure out if he really said that. Comparisons with Buddy Holly were more basic — he had the look, complete with horn-rimmed glasses, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed stance, and otherworldly, geekier-than-thou, fly-on-steroids image.

Some time ago, J. Geils Band vocalist Peter Wolf summed him up in one statement, made to critic Robert Palmer, "You'd really like Elvis Costello. He'll listen to an old rock and roll record and then turn around and want to hear some bebop, then maybe some African music, then Billie Holiday."

Indeed, looking back on his 15 years as an internationally recognized pop star, Elvis has explored virtually all genres of popular music, recording and writing with stars such as Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia, Elvis Presley's band, including Jerry Scheff and James Burton, T. Bone Burnett, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, and Roy Orbison. He's recorded an entire album of country and western music, performed with late jazz trumpet legend Chet Baker, and once played a disastrous big band gig with Tony Bennett (to his credit he has admitted that he was nervous and ill, but didn't want to miss the opportunity).

Costello was a singles man. Even more, he was a believer in the craft of songwriting. He once said, "When people ask me what a great song is, I name something like 'Love For Sale,' or 'Someone to Watch Over Me.' In the last 20 years or so, very few people have been up to writing great songs, they've been making great records."

Taking it from the top

Like many stars before him, Elvis Costello chose a stage name. He was born in London, August 25th, 1955, as Declan Patrick MacManus. The son of English big band singer/trumpeter Ross MacManus, Declan had music in his blood from the start, writing lyrics and playing guitar at age 12.

His father followed the new music of the '60s, exposing Elvis to widely varying talents from Dusty Springfield to Marvin Gaye, from the Grateful Dead to the Beatles. Ross MacManus would often get records from the record company and publishing representatives who were courting his big band to cover the hits of the day. Elvis remembers his dad bringing home acetates from Northern Songs (the Beatles' publishing house) as late as 1966. These were sent out to orchestras so they could cover the would-be next big hit. "I've still got them at home," Costello told Rolling Stone in 1982.

Even though American music was his favorite — particularly soul and R&B — Beatles connections keep coming back throughout his career (or so it seems). One of the first records he owned was "Please Please Me." He moved to Liverpool (birthplace of the Beatles) in 1968 after a period in West Kensington and East Twickenham. It was here that he first saw future label mate and producer Nick Lowe play at the famed Cavern Club (the legendary club where the Beatles were discovered).

In 1973, Declan returned to London to work as a computer programmer in the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory. He married his girlfriend Mary and formed his first band, Flip City. They played bluegrass and country-style music at popular venues, but achieved only limited success. Declan was 20 years old.

Flip City disbanded in 1976, and Declan joined the folk music circuit, performing under the pseudonym D.P Costello; a surname borrowed from his grandmother. He recorded some rough demos at home and through persistent badgering got six of his songs played over BBC's Capitol Radio, on Charlie Gillett's popular Honky Tonk show. Ultimately, several of these songs, including an early version of "Lip Service"/"Mystery Dance" and "Blame it On Caine" would resurface on future LPs in wildly reworked and pop-like versions.

These recordings were firmly rooted in country and western, certainly not punk or even pop. From the start, it was apparent that Elvis was much more than your standard amateur — this guy had scope. Nonetheless, years later when he recorded an album of country and western robbers, many fans were surprised and some were alarmed.

The rebirth of the single

In the late '70s, the punk/new wave movement opened many new doors for artists and labels. One of the great benefits was the reappearance of records made specifically for single release, a once common practice that all but disappeared with the mid-'60s and long format albums.

The proud rebirth of the 45 rpm single was highlighted by the birth of the short-lived but great Stiff Records, a small English independent label interested in the new pop/punk scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Its first release, "So It Goes"/"Heart of the City" was by former Brinsley Schwarz bassist, vocalist Nick Lowe.

Stiff was a company on the edge and taking chances. True, it had to produce, but it distanced itself from the major labels (and to some extent influenced them) with a combination of brash humor-filled ads, flippant promo deals and gut-instinct-directed good taste.

Declan landed a contract with Stiff in 1976 based on his acoustic demos. Although Stiff had pegged Declan's demo of "Mystery Dance" as a favorite, particularly for Dave Edmunds, it was not until about a year later that Stiff actually figured out what to do with him. In 1976, Elvis and his wife had a son, and even though he was signed to the label, he was still working at the cosmetics factory.

In late 1976 and early 1977 sessions were organized at Pathway Studios in London with U.S. pop up-and-comer, Clover, serving as backup band. Historically this band is notable for its members Huey Lewis and slide guitar great John McFee. Also contributing to the album were Sean Hooper, Mickey Shine, John Ciambotti, Alex Call, Dave Edmunds, and Nicke Lowe. These sessions produced the LP My Aim Is True. Declan was officially dubbed Elvis Costello on release of the album's first single, ("Less Than Zero"/"Radio Sweetheart"). The record was released to solid reviews although it was just an okay seller. The hits were yet to come.

From B-side to B-side

Stiff's mystique grew rapidly, and with it, its roster of bands with wonderfully demented names, many of them important movers and shakers in the punk movement, including the Damned, Motorhead, Richard Hell (from NYC), Sean Tyla (later with the Motors), Pink Fairies, Roogolator, and Devo. Fans on both sides of the Atlantic snapped up the singles as they were released.

Stiff slogans rang true with the fans, from the on-target "We're not the same, you're not the same," to the perverse "Undertakers to the industry — If they're dead, we'll sign 'em." Then there was the brutally honest "Surfing the new wave." (Elvis has taken credit for developing that one — "not being really involved in it, just riding on it.")

My Aim Is True was issued in England with a spate of singles. The first 1000 copies of the album in the U.K. came with a special sleeve liner entitling the buyer to have a copy of the album sent free to a friend. How could you not like this label? Elvis quit his day job on its release. The album cover brazenly declared "Elvis is King" alongside his haunting Buddy Holly look. Elvis Presley was dead from drugs. Long live the king.

Thus a new lean and mean Elvis was born and the press latched onto him immediately. In Britain, and ultimately in America, he was almost universally compared to Dylan, Van Morrison, and even Springsteen. The album remained on the U.K. charts for 12 weeks, peaking at No. 14. Despite critical acclaim, the single "Alison" wasn't a huge seller. In response, Elvis pumped up his touring schedule. Until this time, concerts were Spartan affairs; he played mostly the little clubs of the London club scene. It was time for Elvis to get out and play more aggressive live shows to support the records. The star making machinery was beginning to churn.

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A band is born

Although the first LP's sound and music packed a solid pop wallop, Elvis needed a hot live band if he was going to make it to the top. A crack band of trained and talented musicians was formed. Included were the thundering bass of ex-Sutherland Brothers and former Quiver bassist Bruce Thomas; Steve Naive from the Royal College of Music, with no experience in rock music; and Pete Thomas (no relation) from Chili Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. Although they were assembled solely to back Elvis, the Attractions turned out to be a very hot rhythm section.

Elvis spent the remainder of the year on tour in England, including a special Live Stiffs allstar package that included Nick Lowe, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric. Elvis' fourth single, "Watching the Detectives" (a new song) reached No. 15 on the charts.

The singles, the concerts, and the critical acclaim grew. Legend grew of this angry geek singer who played songs to which you could hum and dance. In a review of Elvis' second concert with the Attractions, A Plymouth, England reviewer wrote of Elvis' second concert, "Elvis looks like a slightly stroppy creep of a school prefect — the type that gets beaten up after school hours. But once on stage, he takes over the minds and the eardrums of the audience without ever resorting to clever tricks or smooth talking between numbers ... He kept flashing up images of what used to be known as rhythm and blues in the days of the Cavern."

The chemical attraction

The intensity of their concerts fostered the Attraction's reputation as the hottest new band in the new wave. In America, word was getting out about this guy called Elvis that looked like Buddy Holly on acid and who sang fast angry pop songs. His sound couldn't help but make your head spin, the mix of pure guitar, bass, drums, piercing Farfisa organ, and the lyric of his new writing was riveting. The sound was clearly a throwback to an early pre-psychedelic '60s sound, but the playing was tighter and more aggressive. Progressive crashed into regressive.

U.S, import sales of My Aim Is True were strong. Ultimately, the first U.S. single, "Alison" (with synthesized strings added), paved the way for Elvis' first American tour in late November. The tour opened at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco, and like much of the tour, it was broadcast on the radio.

In America, Columbia Records did an admirable job of promoting Elvis in the carefree independent Stiff Records spirit. Concert and album promo posters boasted lines like "Elvis Costello: Until he picks up his guitar he's just another Joe," or "If he didn't exist, someone would have invented him," or "Someone no one predicted." You had to laugh.

The tour wrapped up with a notorious appearance on Saturday Night Live that stands today among the great moments in rock and roll broadcast history. The Sex Pistols were supposed to have appeared, but couldn't keep the date. Elvis and company quickly seized the opportunity. Pete Thomas even wore a T-shirt bearing the words "Thanks Malc" (short for Pistols' producer, Malcolm McClaren).

Ever the rebel, Elvis, made the most of this live TV opportunity. The show's producer, Lorne Michaels, wanted them to play the hits. But Elvis had written a song dedicated to lackluster U.S. radio stations — as yet unreleased and unrecorded. Midway through "Less Than Zero," Elvis announced, "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song," and launched into a scathing version of "Radio Radio." The situation was outrageous; the camera was on but totally out of control! NBC was furious and promised Elvis would not work again! Elvis knew about taking chances and who was in control. Since that time, he appeared, in the late '80s, on all of NBC's talk shows (Tom Snyder, the Tonight Show, Late Night With David Letterman) and Saturday Night Live several more times.

By year end, My Aim Is True was on everybody's Top 10. Rolling Stone named it album of the year. Record World named it import album of the year, and Crawdaddy named Elvis new artist of the year. Time Magazine dedicated a full page feature to the new Elvis.

Elvis '78

Elvis was a hit. Sellout crowds and strong record sales fueled the next LP, This Year's Model. Originally slated to be called Girls Girls Girls, (in mock allegiance to Presley), this new album was a much bigger step forward than anyone expected. This Year's Model was a slam dunk of scathing pop angst that spelled out his message loud and clear for anyone who might have missed his point: "I want to bite the hand that feeds me." Elvis has claimed it was modeled after the Stone's Aftermath.

Like Dylan on speed, the album was a rush from the start, opening with "No Action" and kicking right into "This Year's Girl." It was a complete statement and a diverse musical experience, which even featured a country western tune, "Little Triggers," as well as the powerhouse "Lipstick Vogue" (still a concert favorite). The album entered the album charts at No. 4 in England and stayed in the Top 50 for 4 months. The first new single was "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," which reached No. 16 in England.

The months of touring had helped shape the Attractions into a confident, tightly knit unit. Elvis came back to North America in early 1978 for 3 months of intense touring, culminating in a two night sold out stand at Canada's El Mocambo Club (which became Elvis' first and only complete live album).

Collector's bounty

Surprisingly, This Year's Model also brought about a label change to Radar Records, a new company distributed by Warner Brothers everywhere but America.

The fun did not stop for Elvis collectors. In fact, it got better. Elvis carried on the Stiff tradition of issuing records only for single releases. It became an almost 24-hour avocation for many fans. There were nifty picture covers, deleted issues, non-LP tracks on the B-sides, alternate mixes, and freebies; it was unbelievable! If you wanted to know about all those other songs heard at his concerts, you had to collect everything.

The first 5000 copies of This Year's Model came with a free single, the country and western upbeat sobber "Stranger in the House," contrasted with the live burner "Neat Neat Neat" on the flip side, featuring Mick Jones of the Clash on guitar. Columbia Records, keenly aware of Elvis' collector's status, issued initial copies of This Year's Model with the name Costello replacing the gold-orange company logo on the red record label. The U.S. version also featured "Radio Radio," the new song Elvis debuted on Saturday Night Live months earlier. In England, the song came out as a single and the album featured "Night Rally" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" instead.

Elvis came back to tour America, sharing a multi-label promo tour with Mink DeVille (on Capitol) and Rockpile (then unrecorded). Rockpile featured Nick Lowe (on Columbia) and Dave Edmunds (who recorded on Swan Song).

1978 was a very busy year. Yet somehow, amidst all the promos, TV, and worldwide concert appearances, Elvis and the Attractions recorded their next album and released numerous singles. The year wrapped up with seven sold-out nights at London's Dominion Theater (where a now-rare single, "Talking in the Dark"/"Wednesday Week," was given away to concert goers.

January saw the release of Armed Forces, a brand new LP that reached No. 2 in England and stayed on the charts on the strength of its Top 30 single hit, Oliver's Army. Armed Forces was a charming, yet alarming, slice of pop bile, covering everything from the frightening reemergence of the British Nazi party and escalating militarism to broken love. Originally titled Emotional Fascism, the new LP refined the loose anger of the first two records into a new pop mix. The album delivers songs about love and murder, international politics, apathy, and militarism, all delivered in radio-ready pop formats — music that matters in 3 minutes or less!

Musically, the album is diverse, ranging from the Beatles-type "Oliver's Army" and "Party Girl" (with its blatant ripoff from Abbey Road), to the Euro-tech of "Green Shirt," and the funk light of "Moods for Moderns."

The original European pressing of Armed Forces was an astounding package, featuring an unusual four-panel fold-up sleeve, a set of postcards, and a custom picture label. The U.S. release was a more lackluster affair, simply reproducing the British version's inside liner art on the front cover and putting the British front cover on the back. Both included a live three-song EP taped at Hollywood High School in California. The U.K. version included Sundays Best, replaced in America by the single "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?"

Early February saw the issuance of a promo-only single, "My Funny Valentine," on red vinyl with little hearts on the label, backed with "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding." "Accidents Will Happen" was ultimately released as a single.

Armed and dangerous

The subsequent Armed Funk tour was enthusiastically received despite the album's extreme militaristic theme.

I was fortunate to have caught the show at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, an experience I will never forget and which I have heard was representative of the tour. Picture this Warhol-inspired scenario — outside the hall waiting on line, tall, buxom women garbed in tight leather outfits were pacing and scoping out the crowd. One bearing a whip took my then-appropriate punk glasses off my face (of course, without asking) proclaiming simply: "mine." I was not about to question!

At first I thought that these were just Passaic locals hanging out, but inside we found more of these vixens with "Armed Forces" stitched into their leathers. Everyone was given two full body searches and was made aware of signs prohibiting photographs. (I later saw a camera smashed to bits by a bouncer.)

The show was an assault on the senses: fast, furious and without hesitation. It ended in piercing feedback, with a huge spotlight blaring into the crowd. Some people were angry, anticipating material from the LP — like Dylan fans a year earlier when Bob radically restructured his arrangements. Others, like me, were exhilarated that finally someone was saying "stand up and do something" at a time when pacifism was the accepted norm. The concert was about an hour long but felt a lot longer.

About this time in New York mysterious posters appeared, announcing Elvis' shows, with April 1 listed as "nowhere." That night, Elvis and the Attractions achieved the near impossible, playing three sets at three clubs (Great Gildersleeves, the Lone Star Cafe and the Bottom Line) in one night! The shows were announced shortly before showtime and each sold out immediately. The tour ended two weeks later and Elvis would not tour the U.S. again for nearly 2 years.

Clowntime is over: Brilliant mistake

The end of 1979 saw Elvis splitting off from Radar Records due to a series of frustrating legal wrangles. He formed a new label to rectify the problem — F-Beat Records. He also made his debut as producer of the Specials' first LP, on Two Tone.

The 1979 tour, although critically acclaimed and generally appreciated by U.S. audiences had a nasty glitch, possibly the equivalent of John Lennon's much publicized "we're bigger than Jesus" statement. The topic has been widely covered so we won't belabor it here. Quite simply, Elvis got into a drunken brawl with a now Grammy winning female slide guitarist (she punched him out) and the band members of a certain seminal California folk-rocker. Drunk out of his mind, Elvis made some very stupid racial remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown. His statements were well documented by the media and Elvis made a public apology. He had been a headliner in the Rock Against Racism concerts and had produced the Specials' first album, pioneering a multi-racial English Ska band, and had acknowledged the role black music played in his upbringing. But this remark was all the media had to say about his racial attitudes.

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After the intensity of his Armed Funk tour, and the anti-journalistic attitude of the concerts, Elvis later admitted in Rolling Stone, "I fed myself to the lions."

Soul searching

After the subsequent media circus, Elvis retreated to the sanctuary of the studio to put the finishing wraps on Get Happy!! his soul album. Elvis admitted openly that Get Happy!! was a reaction to the events that clouded his career. In a 1982 interview with New York Rocker he said "You work so hard and then you become best known for a confused, idiotic incident. Everything I've done since has been colored by that incident. When we went to make the next album, Get Happy!!, I think that, subconsciously at least, we set out to make a soul record. Not just in terms of style, but a record that was warmer, more emotional. And I think all the records we've made since have those qualities."

While the album may have been thematically easier than This Year's Model, Elvis was not about to embrace James Taylor's style of songwriting. Get Happy!! continued Elvis' penchant for making his records an individual experience, from the moment you see the album cover to the last minutes of music in the grooves.

The U.K. version looked like a well-worn giant 45 RPM record sleeve, like a vintage '50s or early '60s soul record. The record's labels were mixed up, and the early pressings of the U.K. version included a poster. The U.K. version also sounded significantly better. (Until recently, most imported pressings of Costello's recordings were better, with more complete packaging and superior sound quality.)

A close look at the music on Get Happy!! shows just how much Elvis had studied and assimilated American black culture, from "Temptation," inspired by "Time Is Tight," to the Berry Gordy-meets-Phil Spector stomp of "High Fidelity." Lennonisms still come into play on "Riot Act." The folksy "New Amsterdam" is sandwiched between the country and western sobber "Motel Matches" (key line: "Giving you away like...") and the stately "King Horse."

Despite international sales, Get Happy!! remains one of Elvis' most misunderstood recordings — most new fans (and his record company for that matter) were expecting another Armed Forces.

Elvis canned the initial Get Happy!! sessions from 1979 specifically to rework the material so it would not retread old ground. "We arranged them following the fashion of the previous record, except slightly more uptempo, because things were getting more frantic. We were taking more drugs, drinking more, had a more manic attitude," Elvis reminisced in a 1986 interview with Musician Magazine. 'That inevitably led to a more frenetic sound. We went in to record it and it sounded hideous. Really hideous. It sounded crass, cute, everything I despised about a band with "a sound." I'd already seen a few people I admired fall into that trap and get stifled by it. So we went down to the pub, had a drink and said 'Lets do it like Booker T and the MGs.' Sometimes I'd exasperate the band by changing the arrangement every 10 minutes, he said.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: The price of fame

The 1979-1980 period was a turning point for Elvis. He was having his official 15 minutes of fame as a glamorous pop star. He was living the fast life. He was also on the verge of burning out, having put out three intense albums and two world tours in less than three years.

He did not tour in America to support Get Happy!! Even in Europe, Elvis chose the hard road, touring to out-of-the-way venues in a gesture of fairness to fans who had not yet had a chance to see him live. Maybe Elvis knew he needed a break.

Pulling back from the frantic pace that had characterized much of his work and life up to this time, the '80s saw Elvis evolving from the Buddy Holly on acid media caricature that had been built up in the press to the ultimately reemergence of Declan MacManus.

Given Elvis' tenuous position — at both a critical career peak and at an artistic crossroads — Columbia rush-released another LP to try to reclaim some of the sales lost after Get Happy!! Copying the feeling of Get Happy!! in concept, Taking Liberties compiled 20 rare B-sides, U.K. album tracks, and unreleased alternate takes onto one disc.

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Curiously, the album proved very popular because it contained many concert staples that most newer fans had not been able to get. The album racked up brisk sales as an export item overseas, prompting the release of a similar package (initially released only on cassette in the U.K.) titled 10 Bloody Marys and 10 How's Your Fathers.

Elvis' transition from bristling punk popster to critically acclaimed singer/songwriter began in 1981, when Elvis released Trust. The album was a mix of great work and obvious filler, featuring a guest cameo/duet with Glenn Tillbrook of Squeeze on "From a Whisper to a Scream" and a slightly expanded Attractions, with Martin Belmont (from Graham Parker's band, the Rumor). It was a good album that played well in concert. Costello and Squeeze teamed up for the 1981 English Mugs tour, well received despite less than staggering album sales. Costello coproduced Squeeze's hit LP Eastside Story and sang backup vocals on the single, "Tempted."

Elvis' next move was touted as "surprising and controversial" by many. But for anyone who knew his roots and had all his records, it wasn't. Nonetheless, in a move that, in retrospect, did nothing more than show the maturation of an artist, Elvis retreated to Nashville in late 1981 to record an entire album of country and western standards, produced by veteran producer, Billy Sherrill. Almost Blue is a beautiful, if sad, album, possibly reflecting his somber attitude at the time.

The LP proved conclusively that Elvis had more in mind than being known as a punk pop star. Almost Blue was Elvis as the Elephant Man, shouting "I am not a freak! I am a man," as he aimed to undo preconceived notions of what he was expected to be as a recording artist.

Elvis made limited appearances to launch the album, easily selling out the Los Angeles Sports Arena, a New Year's Eve show at New York's Palladium, and a landmark show at Nashville's legendary Grand Ol' Opry. Several nights later, Elvis and the Attractions were joined by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London's Royal Albert Hall, performing their repertoire backed by strings.

The album was not heavily promoted or well received in the U.S. Two singles were released in the U.K., including "Good Year for the Roses," which reached No. 6. Many now-rare singles and B-sides came out of this period, including "I'm Your Toy," from the Royal Albert Hall concert.

Striking a royal blow

Imperial Bedroom was technically Elvis' seventh official album of new music, and it is widely considered by many to be his masterwork — his Sgt. Pepper, or his Abbey Road. This was Elvis' exploration in vocals and lyricism, bearing some of his most intricate arrangements and wordplays to date. It was also a time to once again prove himself to the world, a chance to put aside his "angry young punk" image once and for all.

Elvis explored new areas as a songwriter in this album. He had a sizable backlog of material, and the result was staggering. The Sgt. Pepper comparisons were merited — the production was pulled together by veteran engineer Geoff Emerick, who had worked on the legendary Beatles classic, among many others.

From the opening strums of "Beyond Belief" to the stately close of "Town Crier," Imperial Bedroom is a complete experience. Elvis set a new benchmark for himself which would be hard to beat. In fact, he would not come close to it critically until about 5 years later. The album marks the first time Elvis included written lyrics, although they run together in an almost indecipherable manner. The supporting tour was magnificent, with the Attractions playing as a tightly oiled unit and Elvis singing his heart out. Critical comments such as "the best concert of the summer" were typical.

Elvis also ended his feud with the press, granting interviews regularly, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone ("Elvis repents," read the headline). Elvis in 1982 was a friendly new face and Imperial Bedroom confirmed that he would be around for many years to come. The next two LPs, Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World are mixed bags. Ironically, the former gave Elvis his first U.S. Top 20 hit with the brilliant "Everyday I Write the Book." The album had some great moments, but paled in comparison with the conceptual continuity of Imperial Bedroom. Both featured an expanded Attractions lineup, including backups for Darryl Hall and the TKO Horns and two female singers recording as Afrodiziak.

The tour was as ambitious as the LP was commercially successful. More unreleased B-sides were issued, plus something new for Elvis, the "dance remix," a concept popular at the time. There is even a dub remix of "Everyday," which features one of the last recorded performances by jazz legend Chet Baker, who turns in a poignant solo on the anti-war tribute, "Shipbuilding." The LP includes the underrated pop ditty, "Love Went Mad," featuring brilliantly idiotic couplets like "I wish you luck with a capital F." (Elvis says he hates that line!)

Goodbye Cruel World also had its high points, including the politically correct Peace in Our Time, an anti-Reagan anthem, and a popular, but difficult to understand, duet with Darryl Hall, "The Only Flame in Town." Elvis included his revised version of "The Comedians," a song originally intended for Roy Orbison, who was later to record the track with Elvis' original lyrics on his LP, Mystery Girl.

Goodbye Cruel World contained many great single tracks but the sum of the parts amounted to little — it was good, but not great. Like Dylan and the Beatles before him, even a bad Elvis record was better than most.

Elvis continued to tour with the band, and for the first time included solo sets — a treat for many who had strained to understand Elvis' often confusing couplets. While the live shows failed to achieve the critical peak of his 1982 performances, they were notable for the inclusion of many chestnuts like "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star."

Return of the king

In 1985, Elvis regrouped, toured little, recorded little, and wrote a lot. After a year-and-a-half hiatus, the new Elvis came out swinging, ready to make up for lost time and reconquer lost territory.

His first step was to break down the Costello persona, much as John Lennon did after the Beatles. Like Lennon, Elvis had just remarried an established artist, Cait O'Riordan, bassist from Celtic punk folksters, the Pogues. For the first time, Elvis recorded with back up musicians outside of the Attractions — in fact he recorded two albums in the same year.

King of America features his first official songwriting credits under his real name. On it, Elvis tears apart his image ("It was a fine idea at the time. Now its a Brilliant Mistake,") and confronts the ghosts of rock and roll's past that have haunted him from the start. The album features Elvis Presley's rhythm section, guitarist James Burton, drummer Ron Tutt, and bassist Jerry Scheff; Hall and Oats bassist T-Bone Wolk; Los Lobos' David Hidalgo; jazz bassist Ray Brown (of Oscar Peterson fame); and many others.

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Easily the best thing Elvis had issued since Imperial Bedroom, King of America was a bold step forward and at the same time a wistful glance backward. From the opening pluck of the acoustic bass to its solid strums of big acoustic guitars, it is Elvis' complete acknowledgement of his early American influence.

The record was a refreshing change, rooted in Sam Philips' Sun Records studios rather than in clever marketing campaigns, with Declan putting up for all to read clearly, "If they had a king of fools then I could wear that crown. And you can all die laughing 'cause I'll wear it proudly."

Elvis quickly followed this album with much needed one-two artistic punch.

Blood and Chocolate was issued in the same year and was a sterling return to his earlier form. If King of America was a wondrous departure, this was a reminder of the power and the glory that had made Elvis Costello worthy of his name. Easily his most angst-ridden record since Armed Forces, it is intimate and almost embarrassingly up front, lyrically and vocally. Scathing and unforgiving, the record found the Attractions waiting in the wings ready to deliver the goods as only they could.

Around the world, fans old and new proclaimed, "The king is dead; long live the king," as Declan Patrick MacManus embarked on the most ambitious concert tour of his career to date. Blood and Chocolate's emotions were heartfelt and was a fascinating counterpoint to King of America's acoustic splendor. It's a loud, unpolished production by Nick Lowe, recalling the wonder years of This Year's Model.

The album contains tales of love and lust, bitterness and tears, fears and lies. It covers an amazing amount of ground, from sexual ("You always look so disappointed when I take my stockings off,") to confusion ("Honey are you straight or are you blind?") to out-and-out rage ("I hope you're happy now, like you're supposed to be. And I know that this will hurt you more than it hurts me.") Musically, the album recalls the best of Elvis' first four albums, yet somehow moves ahead.

Elvis' most ambitious concert tour played only to major cities around the world; Elvis and all of his bands delivered multi-night performances in unusually intimate theater settings. Each concert night was a different experience.

One night featured the Confederates, the band that included many Presley alumni as well as studio legend Jim Keltner (most recently performing with supergroups the Traveling Wilburys and Little America).

Another night featured the Spinning Songbook, a hysterical concept executed brilliantly. A 30-foot Wheel of Fortune was created, with titles of the Elvis repertoire for the evening, and including tasty cover tunes ranging from Tom Petty's "American Girl" to Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Ferry Across the Mersey." Fans were invited onstage to spin the wheel and the band played the selection.

The Spinning Songbook concerts were made even more spectacular by the appearance of special guests in each city, from the Bangles and Jules Shear, to Amy Mann (Til Tuesday,) and even New York's magic comedy duo Penn and Teller, and lounge lizard Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen). The shows were pure magic, long, different, funny, and 100% entertainment.

Elvis was determined to destroy anyone's perception of what a rock and roll show was about. There was even a Go Go cage for audience members to dance in, should they choose. There was even a juice bar serving Gatorade, complete with black and white TV. There were no lasers. There were no smoke bombs.

The final night would feature a slightly expanded Attractions, with a much-welcomed Cait O'Riordan on backup vocals and guitars. The power of these shows was pure Attractions playing like the Plastic Ono Band. The only difference was that the crowd loved Cait, whereas unfortunately Yoko was chastised when she performed with John. In New York, they even segued into Lennon's "Instant Karma" from "Poor Napoleon" before exploding into unbelievable feedback.

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Elvis was clearly back and the next album would continue this progress, but not before another compilation of unreleased B-sides and masters. Out of Our Idiot was released in 1987 only in Europe and credited to Various Artists, making sincere fun of the multitude of aliases Costello had assumed on his many records over the years, from Napoleon Dynamite and the Impostor, to the Emotional Toothpaste.

Get back to the Beatles

As if his career wasn't going well enough, in 1987 Elvis received what must have been the biggest and most gratifying shock of his career, one that he has handled with diplomacy and aplomb — Paul McCartney called and asked him to consider collaboration.

Both artists were cautious. McCartney was concerned about possible "next John" comparisons. Both were concerned with making sure they turned out the best songwriting they could.

Also, both were concerned about the other's career. McCartney did not want the pairing to be viewed as simply a bail-me-out call in response to his withering recording career. Nor did he want Elvis to be seen as a replacement for John Lennon — even though the similarities are striking, down to Elvis' barbed wit.

Elvis would collaborate only on his own terms, namely that they were to be regarded as equals — Elvis reportedly was not afraid to tell McCartney if he didn't like something.

The collaboration started quietly. McCartney issued the wonderful "Back On My Feet" on the B-side of the 12-inch U.K.-only single, "Once Upon a Long Ago." Then ultimately came Costello's new Spike LP, featuring two songs credited to McCartney-MacManus, the glorious "Veronica" and the frisky "Pads, Paws and Claws."

In concert, Elvis performed other songs from the collaboration, such as the soon-to-be released "So Like Candy" and "That Day Is Done," which came out on McCartney's subsequent Flowers in the Dirt LP, which featured three additional collaborations with Costello, the hit single "My Brave Face," "You Want Her Too," and "Don't Be Careless Love." Costello, in turn, recently issued two additional tracks cowritten by McCartney, a studio version of "Candy" and the raucous "Playboy to a Man."

Both Spike and its followup Mighty Like a Rose are excellent albums, continuing Elvis' tradition of grand and stately albums. It is hard to characterize the Elvis of the '90s, other than that he is consistently innovative and interesting. He is following in the footsteps of other top artists like Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Randy Newman, and (to a certain extent) Bruce Springsteen.

Spike and Mighty Like a Rose both feature an astounding array of musicians, centering on his new band The Rude 5, which includes pianist Larry Knechtel (the piano on Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters"), rhythm guitarist Steve Soles (from Dylan's band), Bassist Jerry Scheff (also from Dylan, but even more notably form Elvis Presley's band), former Tom Waits lead guitarist (and '90s contender for wildest guitarist since Adrian Belew) Marc Ribot, and Attractions alumnus Pete Thomas on drums. Guest musicians included McCartney, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.

What's next?

Elvis recently recorded a soundtrack and is expected to release a new album next year. One new track, a cover of The Kink's "Days" was issued on the soundtrack of the film Until the End of the World. He has continued to dabble in film soundtracks and is reportedly working on new material for release soon.

Whatever it is, we know it will be interesting, challenging and most importantly great music.


Discoveries, August 1992

Mark Smotroff profiles Elvis Costello.


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Page scans.

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