I was just about to enter the 57th Street building which housed our American offices, when a voice barked out: "Okay, Costello. Freeze." Two of New York's finest, who were moonlighting as my armed bodyguards, spun around, reaching for the revolvers concealed beneath their Windcheaters. My manager, who was holding his fingers in a mock pistol-aiming stance, visibly blanched at the speed of their reaction. We were soon doubled up with grim laughter, but had they been quicker on the draw, this might have been the suitably ludicrous conclusion to the tragic comedy through which I found myself stumbling.
The success of the Armed Forces album threatened to take us to a place where there was little understanding or tolerance for detail, only a mass reaction to a hit tune. The game that I was playing in my mind (or perhaps with my mind) was about to come to a very nasty conclusion. We continued to tour relentlessly through the end of 1978 and into an incredibly punishing schedule in the early part of 1979. The tone of our bizarrely named "Armed Funk Tour" could be illustrated by the fact that we were riding around America on a tour bus that claimed to be headed for Marine H.Q. at "Camp Lejeune." You might say we were spoiling for a fight.
This would all come to an end in April of 1979 at Columbus, Ohio, where a ridiculous drunken argument would culminate in me speaking the exact opposite of my true beliefs in an attempt to provoke a fight that inevitably arrived. That I was speaking in some absurd, exaggerated, supposedly ironic humour, in which everything is expressed in the reverse of that which one knows to be true, is no excuse. There was nothing sparkling or glorious in this wordplay, just the seed of madness. It was the product of crazed indulgence. The racial nature of these alleged remarks "I say "alleged" because I have about as much true memory of what actually transpired as any of the other drunken combatants — created a fairly major scandal.
Our record were pulled from the few radio playlists where they were featured, our shows picketed by the very anti-racist organisation for which we had appeared six months earlier, and there were over a hundred death threats to my person, necessitating the employment of armed bodyguards throughout the remaining dates. I left the U.S. having failed to explain myself to the satisfaction of the hysterical and, it must be said, delighted liberal press. The people I had supposedly slandered, Ray Charles and James Brown, had a much more generous view of these remarks, rightly putting them down to drunken idiocy. I didn't imagine that I would ever return, nor did I particularly think that I deserved to do so, despite the fact that I knew in my heart that the people who sought to make mischief of the incident had many hypocrites among their number. I could never properly explain how such words came out of my mouth. The humour of outrage never did sit that well with people and is particularly useless if the intent is garbled drunkenly.
Only one of the songs on this record refers to these events, "Riot Act," and particularly the lines: "I got your letter, now they say I don't care for the colour it paints me." With hindsight, it might be tempting to claim that I had some noble motive in basing this record on the music I had admired and learned from prior to my brush with infamy. But if I was trying to pay respects and make such amends, I doubt if pride would have allowed me to express that thought after I had made my rather contrived explanation to the jury of the seething and self-righteous. I simply went back to work and relied on instinct, curiosity, and enduring musical passions.
I hated just about everything in my world, reserving the greatest disdain for myself. The handful of songs that had been written and arranged during the touring madness had an appropriately brittle and shallow sound — now identified by radio programmers and A&R men as "new wave," one term that never passed these lips in earnest. Following a brief attempt to record one or two of these travesties, we retired to the saloon bar to take a few drinks and entirely re-think a record that we had just finished rehearsing. Students of music history might be amused by the live version of "High Fidelity" on CD2, which records our attempts to play the song after the fashion of David Bowie's Station To Station album.
Much of the music that had come out in the previous three years appeared not to have any obvious precedent. The best of it happened in the moment, the worst of it could make minutes seem endless. I had begun listening again to the R'n'B records, filling in the gaps between the compilations of my teenage years, Atlantic's This Is Soul and Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3, with stacks of Stax singles purchased in Camden Town. The first trips to America had yielded still more riches: whole albums by someone like Garnet Mimms, who had previously only been the name on a single track of a "various artists" collection. Drawing on all of these sources, we set about re-arranging the songs using an R'n'B motor.
Bearing in mind that this record was made many years before the trend towards "sampling," we made a pretty good job of lifting the main figure of Booker T. & the MGs' "Time Is Tight" for "Temptation," while the guitar part of "King Horse" alluded to The Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)."
Even the lyrics drew on these influences. The opening line of "High Fidelity" quotes a Supremes song, while "Love For Tender" (itself a re-working of the Armed Forces outtake "Clean Money") made use of the same "You Can't Hurry Love" riff that The Jam would take to the top of the UK charts three years later with the vastly superior song, "Town Called Malice."
Some of the references are much less obvious. There is little in the finished tracks of "Opportunity" or "Secondary Modern" to suggest that these were our attempts to play like Al Green's backing band or that "Clowntime Is Over" was written in imitation of Curtis Mayfield. In almost every case, my vocal performance would be enough to thoroughly disguise the origin of such thinking.
The record was predominantly recorded at Wisseloord Studio in Hilversum, Holland. The establishment was considerably more sedate than our previous recording venue, with seriously attuned monitoring that seemed shockingly quiet at first. The idea was that we would be thoroughly concentrated on recording without the distractions of family and friends in London or the temptations and charms of nearby Amsterdam.
Nevertheless, a tray of cold Heineken, vodka, and orange juice was delivered to the control room each afternoon, and the illusion of having this civilized cocktail hour (or in the words of our producer, Nick Lowe, never drinking "until the sun is over the yard-arm") disguised the fact that the whole band was pretty lit up the entire time we were away from home. Thankfully, the only nearby attraction was a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque, the patrons of which were rather unimpressed by our explanation that "we like girls too." Ah, such youthful wit.
The song "Possession" was actually written in a Dutch taxi during a five-minute journey back to the studio after I had become drunkenly besotted with the waitress in a local cafe. The song, which aptly departed from the grand marching style of Bob Dylan's "Is Your Love In Vain?" — our paths had first crossed during his "Street Legal" tour of 1978 — was cut the same evening with the singer propped up behind the Hammond organ.
Despite such detours we cut a large amount of material in Holland, adapting "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" from a slow Sam & Dave B-side into a frenetic up-tempo, making use of a glass strings room as a vocal booth to create the signature sound of much of the album. This track would become the advance UK single, reaching No.4 in the charts in 1980.
This followed a hilarious interlude in the High Courts in which we found ourselves being sued by our distribution company, Warner Bros. I had recently produced "The Specials" album for 2-Tone Records and group leader and label founder Jerry Dammers offered to put out our new single while we moved from Radar Records to our new F-Beat imprint. This required us to completely ignore the ongoing deal with WB, but the resulting legal action did not seem to harm the album release, as we sought to characterize the record as a second-hand compilation — hence the ready distressed sleeve artwork and our little-aired K-Tel-style television ad campaign. A couple of copies of the 2-Tone pressing of the single actually made it into the shops, which might have pleased a few vinyl collectors but probably confused many record buyers. The follow-up, "High Fidelity," would become the last in an unbroken run of eight UK Top 30 singles.
Obviously, not all the songs could be credibly re-arranged using rhythms and motifs from R'n'B records. "Human Touch" was clearly made under the spell of my recent work with The Specials while "Men Called Uncle" and "Beaten To The Punch" both took their cue from the 1960s Liverpool sound that had produced the records other "cover": The Merseybeats' "I Stand Accused." An earlier attempt to record this song (in a more ska-influenced arrangement) was part of the ill-fated session at which we just about managed to record "So Young." I can't really improve upon the paragraph from the previous edition of this record in which this tune and record date were described thus: "This song was borrowed from the great Joe Camilleri, then of Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, after our first trip to Australia. Unfortunately our only Abbey Road session fell on a Bank Holiday and was blighted by flying coffee cups, technical resistance and overwhelming blueness."
The final cover song under consideration, a version of Betty Everett's mighty "Getting Mighty Crowded," also didn't make the final sequence but was later issued as a B-side and featured frequently in live sets for a number of years.
In the case of "New Amsterdam," a song about a bewildered new arrival in the New World, it proved impossible to improve on the demo rendition captured at Archipelago Studios a ₤15 per hour recording facility in Pimlico, London, and on which I played all the instruments. I cut several blueprints for the Get Happy!! arrangements at this session, one of them, "Riot Act," probably rivaling the final version in intensity. Only "Black & White World" exists in a radically different interpretation, leaning towards the narrative style of a Ray Davies song, while the final recording was based on a Pete Thomas drum pattern which owed something to the style that Richie Hayward of Little Feat employed on "Cold, Cold, Cold."
This narrative style of songs can also be heard on several of the tracks on CD2. Most of these cuts were demos or recording experiments that took place at Nick Lowe's AAM-PRO Studios, which was located on the ground floor of his house. In most cases I played all the instruments (occasionally enlisting the help of Pete Thomas and studio engineer Paul "Bassman" Riley as a rhythm section — the latter having been my first choice for the bass role in my band in 1976, shortly before the recording of My Aim Is True and the recruitment of the other Attractions).
"Ghost Train" was a song that fictionalized some of the cabaret turns that I saw in Northern England clubs, when going to see my father perform in the early '70s. The first draft of the song, "Maureen And Stan," was co-written with my first singing partner, Allan Mayes, in around 1971. Allan apparently still performs this version of the material in the Dallas area where he has lived for many years. In the late 70s I completely re-wrote the song around the time that I was spending rather too much time with the Steely Dan album Katy Lied. My version features my own hands on Spanish guitar, marimba, and fretless bass.
"Dr. Luther's Assistant" had been written just as I completed work on My Aim Is True and owes some melodic debt to both The Byrds' "5D" and some of Roy Wood's psychedelic songs for The Move. The story is a fantasy that I invented about a local disused cinema. The track features Pete Thomas' laboriously overdubbed drum track to a "solo" performance that is less than perfectly in time.
"Hoover Factory" is an ode to a splendid building that I used to pass on my bus route to work in the mid-70s. The facade still stands today although the building now houses a supermarket. I had performed this song in my first appearances as "Elvis Costello" supporting The Rumour (minus Graham Parker) at the Nashville Rooms in early 1977, but the song could not find a place on the first three releases. This solo assembly of sounds seemed to lavish even more affection on the subject of the song.
"New Lace Sleeves" is an earlier draft of a song that would feature on the album Trust. This version, featuring the Thomas/Riley rhythm section, has a mellow "lover's rock" arrangement with a few dub touches and flourishes of heavily reverberant melodica. Although I am happy to be re-acquainted with this rather hazy rendition, the song clearly benefited from The Attractions edgier and more original treatment.
"Just A Memory" was recorded in T.W. Studios, Fulham (where I had produced "The Specials"). It featured on the E.P. release of "New Amsterdam" along with "Dr. Luther's Assistant" and "Ghost Train," but was written in imitation of Burt Bacharach with Dusty Springfield in mind. At the time I had no idea or little confidence about how I might contact her. However, several years later, Dusty's producers must have recognized the intention of the song, as it was recorded for her album White Heat, with the inclusion of a specially written second verse that brought it closer to a conventional length composition. Indeed, many of the songs on this record were under the two-minute mark.
The lyrical content of the main album still contained the manic spinning of phrases and words that sped into view while touring the world (an approach that had characterised the words of Armed Forces) or a running commentary on the seductions of fame. These included "B Movie" and "Motel Matches" — the latter being adapted from the original arrangement as a country ballad. "King Horse" adapted words that had appeared in a couple of pre-professional compositions and was now used to portray the kind of vain and foolish fellow I feared that I might have easily become. At the time I remember thinking that it might be the best choice for a single release, but this never came to pass.
However, there were also the occasional more revealing lines that spoke of the broken or damaged vows that came straight from my life back in London after three years of misadventure detailed in the trilogy: "Opportunity," "Temptation," and "Possession." These songs included "High Fidelity" and, most painfully, "Riot Act," which open with the lines, "Forever doesn't mean forever any more, I said "Forever," now it looks like I'm not going to be around much anymore."
These last two tracks were actually recorded back in London at Eden Studios. Certainly the vocals have an exhausted, desperate, and obviously sodden quality that tells its own tale. Without checking back over session logs, it is not possible for me to say with accuracy which other songs were cut back in London, but I do recall that they do include "King Horse," the slow version of "Clowntime Is Over," and the versions of "Girls Talk" included on CD2. This last song had been given away to Dave Edmunds in a moment of drunken bravado and went to reach No.2 in the U.K. charts for him. Neither of The Attractions' versions were really completed but illustrate the band at work, switching from the off-centre bass-driven version that would the would later be issued as the B-side of "I Can't Stand Up," to the weird thrash that has been sensibly buried in the vaults until this edition.
Some time in this "frenzy" of recording — not an idle boast in this case (the original album contained twenty tracks, while this edition includes fifty) — a very slight song, "The Imposter," was cut. It probably retained more of the frantic, Vox Continental-driven sound with which we had become identified. In among the manic and shallow word spinning, there was one alarming line in which I would recognize the potential for my moral demise: "When I said that I was lying, I might have been lying." It was little accident that the next album was entitled Trust.
I was standing backstage at a gala show in Los Angeles with a group of friends in the dingy, concrete loading bay when I saw a man in dark sunglasses being led in our direction. It was Ray Charles, and as he drew level, his assistant stopped to introduce him to the singer at my side. Realizing that to try and offer any apology after all these years would do little more than embarrass everyone present, all I could do was turn my head away with shame and frustration knowing that this was a hand that I will probably never shake.
One would hope that it is evident in many of my songs that I understand dignity to be the right of all humanity, whether one's ancestors walked in chains in Rome or were put up for sale in an American market place, or were driven from their homes by the duel oppressions of fanaticism and poverty. Nevertheless, in every encounter with an African-American musician, I have to wonder whether this distorted and obscure fragment of my biography will have filtered through unexplained. I have also found that guilt is a burden without any statue of limitations.
The most widely read account of my explanation of the events that utterly changed the course of my career and probably led to the recording of this album was published in a Rolling Stone interview and cover story. Greil Marcus' questioning was thoughtful enough and suitably uncompromising, but someone at the paper decided to over-dramatise the contents of the interview by accompanying the Annie Leibowitz cover shot with the byline "Elvis Costello Repents." As far as I am aware, none of the editors of Rolling Stone were at the time priests or those with a direct connection to the Holy Ghost or anyone else involved with the forgiveness of sins.
Like anyone with a long career, I have had my share of regrets about commercially motivated misjudgments. However, this rag has, over the years, undergone a remarkable transformation from an organ of the supposed counterculture to a shallow pop-culture shop window for starlets and acrobats while funding their efforts with generous amounts of Big Tobacco advertising revenue and offers of penis enlargement to easily deluded teenage boys. I can only hope that those responsible continue to sleep untroubled by the illusion of moral superiority that laid me so low in a dark Holiday Inn bar in 1979, the consequence of which I suppose I will carry all of my days. For now, I have done explaining.
— Elvis Costello