Consummate Costello buffs will already know the 23 tracks here, spread most notably between sundry reproductions of his first four John Peel BBC radio sessions, and the legendary Our Aim Is True pseudo-promo, which in turn is not to be confused with Columbia's similarly titled promo compilation of the first two albums.
Available copies, however, have tended to be weak, both in sound quality and design, and while Stiffed Again does not actually rectify either of those points, even at its background hiss-laden worst, it is a marked improvement on past excursions into these back pages, particularly when one considers the importance of this material.
Recorded during the period immediately before Elvis linked up with producer Nick Lowe, the first 12 tracks here offer a fascinating reminder of just how developed Costello was at the time of his public debut, both as a performer and a songwriter. It also reveals precisely how little Costello himself dug out of the vaults during the upgrading of his catalog.
Just one cut on Stiffed Again, the 1975 Flip City version of "Imagination Is A Powerful Deceiver," will be familiar from the Rykodisc bonus tracks, appended to My Aim Is True. That version, however, is only one (the third) of three takes included on Stiffed Again, and there is little to choose, or distinguish, between any of them. It is also only one of several genuinely revelatory tracks included here.
"Third Rate Romance" contains the blueprint for several tracks on This Year's Model, which is presumably why it never got any further, but neither time nor experience really improved on the previous year's models for "Living In Paradise," "Pay It Back" and "Radio, Radio" (present here in its original incarnation as "Radio Soul"), while "I'm Packing Up" and the quirky "Don't Stop The Band" wouldn't have disgraced My Aim Is True either.
According to legend, several of these songs were recorded with Graham Parker's backing band, the Rumour. Costello played several shows around London with them during the summer of 1976, and the band's approach certainly lent itself to Costello's own style.
That said, the Elvis-less version of "Knocking On Heaven's Door" featured here sounds more like Clover, the American rockers who left their regular vocalist, Huey Lewis, at home while they accompanied Costello through My Aim Is True, so it's difficult to say. And of course, there's no liner notes to fill in the gaps.
We're on firmer ground for the remainder of Stiffed Again; we also lose the hiss which dogged the first half of this disc. Unfortunately, it is replaced by the equally annoying clipping of intros and outros — not all the time, but often enough. The BBC has already issued one song from this canon; the sooner they get round to the others, the better.
Things kick off with "Blame It On Cain" and "Red Shoes," both dating from the Attractions' first Peel session, in July 1977 ("Less Than Zero" and "Mystery Dance" were also broadcast). Punchier than their album counterparts, "Cain" is also highlighted by some great boogie-type keyboards from Steve Naive, and after a few listens, you scarcely even notice the way the source tapes cuts off and then twists into "The Beat," the first of three songs dating from Costello's next session, the following March. The missing track this time, incidentally, is "Chelsea."
Recorded at a considerably faster tempo than the album versions, this session arguably captures Costello at his angry young iconoclast peak. "You Belong To Me" has a punky edge which would not have been out of place on his first album, while "Pump It Up" is a studio recreation of the live show's duet for fiery guitar and organ.
Unfortunately, not only is this track presented out of chronological sequence, its error-scarred intro is rendered utterly inexcusable by the same performance's appearance on the BBC's One And Only compilation in 1992. One can accept this sort of quality when you're talking genuine rarities, but not when the same thing's available properly, down the road, for $20. (The same could also be said of "Imagination," earlier.)
October 1978 brought the most fondly remembered of Costello's BBC sessions. Highlighted by a positively demonic rendering of his then-latest single, the scathing "Radio, Radio," it also gave rare airings to a genuinely yearning "Stranger In The House," and "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," the latter otherwise officially available on the previous year's Live Stiffs in-concert album.
Disappointingly, both "Radio" and "I Don't Know What To Do" suffer from severely clipped intros, and there's some dropout in the fade of "Stranger." It's also galling to note the absence of "Really Mystified," a song which has never seen a regular release. But it's still a blistering showcase, and one of Costello's most typically atypical.
The set closes with Costello's final Peel session, in February 1980: "High Fidelity," "B-Movie" and "Beaten To The Punch" (no "Possession"), and once again the power of the performances goes some way toward compensating for the deficiencies in sound. That, indeed, is what recommends Stiffed Again, just as it once recommended a Costello/Attractions gig. It didn't matter how lousy the venue, and how crumby the PA, you still got off on the sheer energy and adrenaline. Stiffed Again simply applies that same concept to your hi-fi.