Elvis Costello: Artist's Choice liner notes

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Liner notes


Artist's Choice

Elvis Costello

I've picked songs that illustrate how I've learned almost everything I know about music just from listening to records. I've tried to tell the story behind every choice. I've also selected a few recent favourites with the suspicion that they will be songs that will stick around. I loved the rest of them long to enough know that they are not going anywhere."

1. Louis Armstrong — "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)"

My mother tells me that one of the first words uttered was "skin." Apparently, I was demanding that she play Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" again.

I grew up in a house full of these sounds; singers like Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine, the recordings of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, the Nat Cole Trio, Lennie Tristano with Lee Konitz and the Stan Kenton Orchestra, as well as albums of Mozart and Bach that my mother was then selling alongside her jazz favourites.

I realize now that I was very lucky. The BBC Radio was mostly playing light music in those days, "The Laughing Policeman" and Danny Kaye singing "The Ugly Duckling." Rock 'n' roll was happening but it was very far off. I don't remember hearing it at all as a small child.

Eventually, as an adult, I got back to a few of the records that had been on that shelf in the family home. It was only then that I understood the great debt that all singers and players owe to people like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, who first addressed the microphone with intimacy and rhythmic invention, rather than belting out a tune to the back row of the balcony.

Even though this record was made in the 1950s, you are still hearing the musical revolutionary of the Hot Fives & Sevens. It is all about time. This is a joke with an eight-minute punch line. "Lithuanians and Letts do it". Indeed.

2. Muddy Waters — "I Love The Life I Live (I Live The Life I Love)"

I first heard the Beatles in 1962. They changed everything. It is completely impossible for me to pick just one song of theirs, so I won't choose any of them.

There were so many great things to be heard at that time; the songs of Burt Bacharach and the first Tamla Motown records were coming in from America and there were numerous new British beat groups who would produce incredible songwriters like Ray Davies and great singers like Steve Marriott.

Among all the new, young singers, my favourite was Georgie Fame. It seems strange to me now that while the Beatles acknowledged Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and "old guys" like Elvis Presley, Georgie was introducing kids of my age, 9 or 10 by then, to the songs of Mose Allison and Jon Hendricks. He was the first person that I ever heard cover a James Brown AND a Count Basie tune.

I realize now that Georgie Fame's performance of this tune was a direct copy of the recording by Mose Allison but I love both records. The song is by the great Willie Dixon and a little later on I sought out this "original" version.

These days, I lust love the way this record sounds, how the band parts all interlock and the fashion in which Muddy just starts singing whenever he feels like it.

3. Clifford Brown — "Yesterdays"

I am the third in four generations of musicians in my family, both my father and grandfather being trumpet players. Sometimes I feel that I let the side down by not taking up the instrument.

My grandfather was trained at Kneller Hall, Military School of Music and after being wounded in the infantry during the First World War, he travelled the world as a ship's musician, visiting New York several times in the 1920s. His journal contains the autographs of Paderewski and Duke Ellington. When he came home from sea and married my grandmother, he played in theatre and cinema bands until the talkies took over most of the theatres. My grandmother always hated Al Jolson. She said, "He put poor Pat out of work."

My dad started out playing be-bop in Birkenhead, the town across the Mersey from Liverpool. Anyone will tell you that jazz just doesn't pay, so after moving to London and playing on the modern jazz scene there, he used his talent for singing to become a vocalist in a successful radio dance band just after I was born.

Like most trumpet players of his background, my dad really loves the records of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but I know his favourite player of all is Clifford Brown. In time, I really started to appreciate his playing too. It is hard to choose between this instrumental version of Jerome Kern's wonderful song and the two great recordings by Billie Holiday, but thanks to my dad, I will pick this one.

4. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell — "You Ain't Livin' Till You're Lovin'"

Growing up in suburbia, west of London, I didn't get to hear many bands playing live. I was far too young to go to the pub in Richmond when the Rolling Stones were playing there in the early '60s, though we only lived half a mile away. The same was true when The Who played at a club on nearby Eel Pie Island in the Thames.

Most music only existed on record and the little bit of radio needle time given over to pop music before 1967. I was more fortunate than my friends in that my dad's career with the Joe Loss Orchestra meant that he had to learn many of the hits of the day. Once he had rehearsed a new tune, he would pass the records on to me. The many advance copies of hit 45s in my record collection are a testimony to the bizarre variety of material that this dance band tackled.

When I was a teenager it seemed that only three albums were ever needed to have a party: This Is Soul (an Atlantic Records compilation), Tighten Up, Vol. 2 (a Trojan collection of rock steady) and Motown Chartbusters, Vol. 3. From the very first bass notes, this unbelievably joyous record still puts me in mind of that time more than any other disc.

5. Fleetwood Mac — "Oh Well, Part 1"

I learned to play the guitar when I was 13 years old. Strangely, I didn't start with some simple three-chord folk song but a relatively complex tune, Peter Green's "Man Of The World." Lads at school handed around charts to these mysterious chord symbols as if they were girlie pictures and we would try and work out what we heard on record.

It was only much later that I realized that my ability to retain and sing back all the saxophone solos on Georgie Fame records at 10 years old or the fact that I had always been able to harmonize along with the Beatles, singing either part, meant that I was blessed with a pretty good ear for music.

Soon, I was picking my way through songbooks by all my favourite songwriters and began realizing that some printed changes were incorrect. The older musicians who had done the transcriptions probably had little understanding or interest in the records that I loved.

This song is by the "real" Fleetwood Mac. It is just one of the frighteningly intense and original tracks that they cut around this time. They were then led by the great blues guitar of Peter Green, who was another resident of the Richmond area. I'd see him in the local record shop, a very cool hippie dude with his Jesus hair and rugby shirt... well, that was a hip style back then.

In the late '70s and early '80s, he went through a very rough time of poor emotional and mental health and I would sometimes see him lurking in doorways around town, looking pretty haunted. I was delighted to hear that he has latterly been restored to better health and is playing again. I will always be grateful that he wrote a song that made me so curious that I wanted to learn it.

6. Aretha Franklin — "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man"

When my Dad struck out as a solo singer in the late '60s, his musical taste changed somewhat. He would arrive with his latest records and passed on to me the following albums: Surrealistic Pillow by the Jefferson Airplane, Oh Yeah by Charles Mingus, United by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the first Joni Mitchell record, Song To A Seagull, and the great Aretha Franklin album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You.

Every track on that album could be in this slot. It is probably my favourite soul album. The title track is ferociously passionate, and I believe that Aretha's take on "Drown In My Own Tears" even rivals the Ray Charles version.

I also think that it instilled in me a love for writing songs in the 3/4 and 6/8 time signatures. I know that I've written many more songs in those meters than many people who started recording around 1977. I put it all down to spending hours listening to that Aretha album.

However, it is this Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham song that has gone in deepest. For one thing I believe Dan Penn to be one of the great and underappreciated songwriters. He is to American songwriting what Elvis Presley was to American singing. He put it all together in a special way. His melodies have an indelible stamp of the country like the songs of Hank Cochran or Hoagy Carmichael.

The way the vocal backing group, Aretha's sisters, support her on this record is so wonderful that you would think that this version couldn't be touched. I was therefore amazed, a couple of years later, to hear the same song brilliantly interpreted by Gram Parsons on the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin album. Now, here was a song that could change shape; be an R&B tune one minute and a country song the next. If would make me curious enough to try and write in the same way.

7. Joni Mitchell — "The Last Time I Saw Richard"

I recently had the wonderful experience of interviewing Joni Mitchell for a Vanity Fair article. We talked about everything under the sun for about six and a half hours. In the introduction to our conversation, I wrote about skipping off school in Liverpool, where I lived between 1970 and 1973, to go and buy a ticket for a Joni concert.

I sent a message to my friend Tony Tremaco to let him know that I'd mentioned him in the article and he replied with a memory that I had not recalled. He said, "Did you tell Joni that you came round to my house the day Blue came out because my parents were away and a group of us stayed up all night until we had memorized every word and note on the record?"

I hadn't specifically remembered this but I know that I spent a remarkable amount of time listening to Joni Mitchell records, often alone in the dark. At that age I hadn't lived any of the experiences described in such remarkably candid songs but I had the idea that I might one day want to really understand what it meant to say, "all good dreamers pass this way someday / hiding behind bottles in dark cafes." I'd live to regret this desire.

8. The Band — "Tears Of Rage"

The choice of this song stands for so much that I love of Bob Dylan's writing. The music was composed by one of The Band's three remarkable vocalists, the late Richard Manuel. The song was initially featured on the group's debut album, Music from Big Pink.

The first Dylan song that I loved was "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance," which was the B-side of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" single that my Dad brought home. During the '60s, I thought of Bob Dylan as someone who made these incredible singles like "Maggie's Farm," "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street." They sounded like nothing else around. I also loved the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," which I knew he had written and also "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," which I first heard in the movie Easy Rider.

Little by little, I heard more of his songs and bought Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde and really dug the spontaneous sound of these albums. A door opened and I realised that his songs had changed all of the possibilities.

The first two Band records really caught my imagination. There was something about them, a mystery and a connection to another time in the music. The songs were almost impenetrable; they were singing about "Chest Fever" and "The Unfaithful Servant," for Heaven's sake.

To my adult ear this wonderful Dylan lyric seems to speak of the ungrateful child. This must have been a brave and novel proposition in the days when it was written, as people were supposedly embracing untrammelled freedom with little sense of the consequences.

It points the way to many more grave and reflective songs with a similarly different agenda: "Time Passes Slowly," "Forever Young," "Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)," "I Believe In You," "Every Grain Of Sand," "Ring Them Bells" and the beautiful "Not Dark Yet." However, it is Richard Manuel's anguished reading of his own melody that draws me back to this song.

9. Nick Lowe — "I'm A Mess"

Nick Lowe is my oldest friend in this business that we call "show." I met him in the Grapes public house opposite The Cavern, in Liverpool in 1972. I was just getting started playing in public, and my singing partner and I featured several of Nick's songs in our set. He could not have been more approachable and encouraging.

While many of my friends were trying to find hidden meanings in what I thought was rather dreary music like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Pink Floyd, Nick's songs for Brinsley Schwarz reminded me that it was okay to like Lee Dorsey. These things matter to you when you are 17.

When I moved back to London to try and find my way in music, I saw Nick play a lot. One day in 1976, I read that a new label was starting up called Stiff Records and that Nick was to be the first artist released.

A couple of days later I went sick from my day job and dropped off a copy of a demo tape that I had recorded in my bedroom and, as romantic as it sounds, I actually ran into Nick on my way home at the Underground station. He asked when I was going to be "treading the boards" again. He always talked in that old-fashioned way.

It turned out that we would make six albums together over the next 10 years. Nick's style of production was perfect for the Attractions, the group that was put together after the release of my first album, My Aim Is True, in 1977.

Nick's most famous song is probably "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," whether in the version that I cut with the Attractions, or as heard on one of the biggest-selling soundtrack albums of all time, The Bodyguard, or performed by Bill Murray in the karaoke scene in Lost In Translation.

In recent years, Nick has shunned a noisy style (and the production of such classics as "Shake That Rat" and "Marie Provost") for a line in soulful balladry, epitomised by "The Beast In Me," the song he wrote for his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash.

In the summer of '04, I saw Nick perform a superb solo show at the Bowery Ballroom, New York City. The best compliment that I could pay him afterwards was that he was now the equal of the singers and writers he greatly admires such as Charlie Rich, Jim Ford and, of course, Dan Penn.

This track from his wonderful album The Convincer contains everything that is great about the man: an elegant, melancholic turn of phrase, an effortless, relaxed groove and beautifully judged singing.

10. George Jones — "Mr. Fool"

When I was twenty-two I wrote a song called "Stranger In The House," imagining the voice of George Jones singing it. Most of the country and western records I heard growing up in England were novelty tunes until the Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and Gram Parsons' subsequent albums educated my ears to the soul of country music. George Jones' records were a major revelation.

I soon realized that he was a song stylist as unique and special as Billie Holiday or James Carr. Any song that he sings becomes a George Jones' song first and country music by virtue of the accompaniment. During his time at Starday and Mercury Records, he cut track after track with extraordinary ways to move you. Jones' sorrowful melisma on the title line of "Mr. Fool" has little equal among the heartbreak balladeers.

In 1978, when my name was just getting known, I got an invitation to record "Stranger In The House" with George for a record of duet performances. I can't pretend that we were equally matched vocally, but singing in the same studio as the man is something that I will never forget.

11. Lucinda Williams — "Overtime"

It is my belief that Lucinda is the closest living counterpart to Hank Williams, when it comes to writing from the heart with absolute economy. It is a bonus that her rock 'n' roll vocal style will shake up any band in a fashion that I can only compare to Keith Richards' guitar playing.

I could have included any one of a dozen wonderful songs, including "Blue," "Drunken Angel" or "Changed The Locks" but I have found myself haunted by this song since its release on the album World Without Tears.

12. Rilo Kiley — "Does He Love You?"

I wanted to include at least one recent record and I cannot think of anything more impressive than this cut from the More Adventurous album.

The storytelling is remarkable, the melody unfolds beautifully and the band keeps adding surprises to the arrangement that match Jenny Lewis's confidential delivery.

The song tells the tale of two friends who have taken different paths in life. The twist in the final verse will make you feel like you are falling through a trapdoor.

13. Dusty Springfield — "I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore"

I think that very few people sing or write popular music without starting out imitating or stealing from someone else. These days they call this "an influence," just as the grander phrase "expressing myself" has replaced saying what you mean.

I started out trying to sing rock 'n' roll like John Lennon, Rick Danko and Van Morrison. I took the edge and careful enunciation of certain words from Lennon, tried to catch Danko's nervy and punky phrasing and have spent more than 25 years trying to get anywhere near Van's explosive power.

Ballad singers are harder to copy. Every memorable quirk of the voice is so exposed. If anything, certain ballad singers led me to attempt to write songs that I could imagine them singing. Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix are two singers who influenced the shape and sound of a few of my songs, although I doubt that you would guess it upon hearing them unless I told you.

On a few occasions my idealised compositions have actually reached the voices for which they were written. These include two songs featured elsewhere in this collection ("Stranger In The House" and "Almost Blue") and "The Comedians," which I wrote imagining it being sung by Roy Orbison, and "Hidden Shame," which was styled for Johnny Cash.

Among the singers that I heard first in the 1960s, I was most attracted to the voice of Dusty Springfield. She helped introduce me to the songs of Burt Bacharach. In fact, the very first 'cover' that l ever had issued on record was a live rendition of 'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself,' which I learned from her recording. Far years, my ideal piano sound was that heard on Dusty's 'I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten.'

I wrote "Just A Memory" in 1978 with the sound of Dusty Springfield in my mind. She wasn't recording at the time but a couple of years later, the song found its way to her and she requested that I write an additional verse for what was a very short composition.

One of my favorite, if most mortifying, memories is of singing the new stanza to Dusty down a transatlantic telephone while suffering from laryngitis. She was very good-humoured about it and although her version was not very well produced, it was a terrific thrill simply to hear her sing the sparsely accompanied opening lines.

To hear Dusty Springfield at the pinnacle in her vocal artistry, with that knockout combination of intimacy and soaring ease, I would always turn to the Dusty In Memphis album. It contains incredible arrangements of songs by Bacharach and David, Goffin and King and this uncharacteristic drama about a betrayed woman by Randy Newman.

It also includes one of those moments that make magic out of pop music. Dusty sings: "Ain't it sad, said a woman down the hall, That when a nice girl falls in love, ain't it just too bad she had to fall for a boy who doesn't care for her at all." And the backing singers deadpan: "It's so sad."

14. Randy Newman — "Real Emotional Girl"

Particularly after hearing the previous track, it is hard to believe that Randy Newman should now be best known for his songs for Toy Story or a tune like "Short People," when he has written the greatest songs of the darkest wit for nearly forty years.

It is very hard to choose one song that represents everything that I admire about him. It is impossible to place a provocative song like "Rednecks" above an effortless piece of humour like "Tickle Me." In the end, I had to go from this beautifully harmonized ballad and an intimate, oddly tender performance that hints at a little damage.

15. Diana Krall — "Almost Blue"

I wrote this song with Chet Baker in mind in 1981. The following year we were fortunate enough to have Chet play a trumpet solo on the song "Shipbuilding." At the end of the session, I gave him a copy of my recording of this tune. Although I saw Chet several times in later years, the song was never mentioned again.

Shortly after Chet's death in 1988, I discovered that he had in fact recorded the song on two occasions, once for Bruce Weber's movie about his life, Let's Get Lost, and a superior live rendition on Live In Tokyo. It was thrilling to hear Chet sing and play the song, but in truth his whole being was rather fragile by that point in time.

Now years later, I had the remarkable experience of hearing the woman who I may now call my wife, unexpectedly perform the song at a concert date. From that very first impromptu rendition, Diana completely owned the song.

This version, from her recent album, The Girl In The Other Room, has unsurprisingly become my favourite among the many covers this title has been fortunate enough to receive.

The piano prelude casts such a wonderful spell and that little quote from "My Funny Valentine" in the last verse just about makes the record perfect. Diana's beautiful vocal performance has finally realized the song the way I first imagined it to be.

16. Paul Simon — "Peace Like A River"

If one were asked to dare suggest alternative anthems from the United States of America, it would be tempting to propose Randy Newman's "Sail Away," Curtis Mayfield's "Keep On Pushing" or Paul Simon's "American Tune." These are songs that ask sincere and difficult questions with powerful, enduring music rather than simply offering bland adoration to a damaged and still perfectible ideal.

Propelled by Paul Simon's incredible acoustic guitar playing, this song summons up a sense of dread and watchfulness that is all too timely: "Four in the morning, I woke up from out of my dream / Nowhere to go but back to sleep but I'm reconciled / Oh, oh, oh, oh / I'm gonna be up for a while."

17. Joe Tex — "The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)"

My friend Bill Bentley turned me on to this one in the 1980s. I knew Joe Tex more for his dance and novelty records. I couldn't believe the tenderness in the vocal performance of this stoic and dignified ballad.

18. Freda Payne — "Bring The Boys Home"

This is a 1970 Invictus production by Holland/Dozier/Holland after they departed from Tamla Motown, having written so many wonderful hits. It is sad to reflect that a Vietnam-inspired tune could be the product of today's newspaper headlines. Thankfully, the record still sounds as sane and passionate as ever, and the lyrical sentiment seems a fine way to end this collection.


Elvis Costello: Artist's Choice liner notes (2005)

Elvis Costello's liner notes for his Artist's Choice various artists compilation.


Elvis Costello Artist's Choice album cover.jpg


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