In 1999 I was making a small cameo appearance in a movie called 200 Cigarettes. The story was set in 1980, and with the help of some clever lighting and a hat I was playing "myself". The film was a comedy that did a pretty good job of catching the mood of those days between punk and the real onset of the dreadful ‘80s.
The cast contained many young actors, including Paul Rudd, Martha Plimpton, Chistina Ricci, Kate Hudson, Courtney Love, and even Casey Affleck and his brother, Ben. As some of the these people were only children during the period of the film, I was quite surprised that any of them had ever heard of me. In fact, one of the actors asked if I would sign an album that she had first bought when in college. She produced a dog-eared and much-played copy of this album, and I felt a little guilty that I had begun the liner note of a previous CD edition with the words: "Congratulations! You've just bought our worst record!"
It seems I wasn't exactly in a cheerful and optimistic mood when I made this album and that hadn't really changed by the time the disc was first reissued. Now, with the benefit of a little more distance, I am able to say that it is probably the worst record that I could have made of a decent bunch of songs. I hope, for the sake of those who cared for it in the first place, that this edition will go some way to making them feel a little better about their purchase. That's if any of them ever read this little note…
Although the title was meant with black humour, I used to quit about once a week in those days (I still do). My first marriage finally collapsed between the recording and the release of this album, so it is not hard to imagine where some of the desperation in the lyrics originated.
I've previously made much of the fact that I almost completely thwarted the efforts of my producers, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, and it is true to say that they were probably ill-equipped for dealing with someone of my temperament at that time. A nurse with a large sedative syringe might have been more appropriate.
"Langer and Winstanley" are widely associated with a huge run of successful pop recordings throughout the 1980s, beginning with Madness and taking in Dexy's Midnight Runners and our own Punch The Clock. They did develop certain techniques that defined their "sound", but this is to ignore that London-born Clive is also a witty and talented composer (the music of "Shipbuilding" is entirely his), who had begun his career in the vibrant post-punk, art-school band scene in Liverpool and that Alan had engineered the early records of the might Buzzcocks, among many others.
Perhaps if I had confided in them more we might have shaped a sound that better suited my dark mood and the songs that it created. Instead the record became a battle to sustain some pace against my desire to make everything slow and mournful. It was also not exactly undesirable that we continue to address the larger audience that we had enjoyed with the success of Punch The Clock. So in the end we agreed to a truce. Clive and Alan would produce two selected songs to the height of style and I could make the rest of the record as miserable as possible. That might be a slight simplification of the proceedings, but I was trying to make the best of the pop music scene of the time.
Goodbye Cruel World was recorded in Trevor Horn's SARM West Studios at the same time that Frankie Goes to Hollywood were recording "Two Tribes". We managed to record an entire album in less time than they took to record their single (I think I even had time to go on tour, realize that I hated the album, and come back to England only to find they were still recording "Two Tribes").
In fact Goodbye Cruel World was released right in the middle of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's nine-week run at No.1 in the U.K. charts with "Two Tribes". One of those weeks we were scheduled to appear on Tops Of The Pops to perform our new single, "I Wanna Be Loved". As the song ended, "a representative of the Elvis Costello Group" was testily summoned over a public address system.
Being the only barely responsible person on hand, I presented myself at the foot of the iron stairs to the production gantry above the studio floor. When the producer finally emerged, he attempted to give me a dressing down because Pete Thomas had ruined the illusion of live performance on an entirely mimed programme by playing the final drum fill of our song on his head, while in tight close-up. The fact that the drummer from the group Tight Fit had got up from his drums in the middle of "The Lion Sleep Tonight" and bent over so his bandmate could mime beat out a marimba solo on a keyboard design printed on the arse of his loincloth was completely lost on the apoplectic BBC stooge. If I had continued to argue that Frankie were miming to six months of accumulated recording, I believe he might have needed medical attention.
You might say that during this time The Attractions and I had a troubled and peculiar relationship with pop music. At Pathway and Eden Studios and in Holland for Get Happy and in Nashville for Almost Blue, we always worked behind closed doors. However from Imperial Bedroom onward we found ourselves working in multi-studio facilities, and there always seemed to be someone next door making a big pop hit.
While recording Imperial Bedroom, Paul McCartney was down the corridor making Tug Of War. When we returned to AIR to begin Punch The Clock, Paul was back making Pipes Of Peace (with Michael Jackson popping in for his guest vocals), with the Jam in the middle studio cutting "Precious", and Alice Cooper mixing an album in another suite. You didn't always become friends with the other artists, but you might nod to each other on the way to the coffee machine and start up a conversation. When Duran Duran had been at AIR, I remember Simon LeBon telling me, over a game of pool, that they were off to Sri Lanka the following morning to make a "video on a boat" and that he envisaged a time when they would make the films first and fit the music to them later. It is an idea that has surely found its time.
While mixing at Genetic Studios, outside London, we were adjacent to the Human League making Hysteria, the follow-up to Dare, and the previous year the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley making his solo album XL1. Boffins cluttered up the hallway, developing a primitive computer programme that was pressed onto the last track of the album. With my usual flawless powers of clairvoyance, I thought, That'll never catch on.
You would think that this would have made me a little more competitive, but by the time we got to Goodbye Cruel World, I was way beyond worrying about such things. Unsurprisingly, my favourite album was Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights. I even toyed with the idea of asking Richard to play on the album, but the notion never got as far as making the call. I had thought we might open up "Joe Porterhouse" into something upon which Richard might fly into space in the manner of "The Calvary Cross". The tight and sterile final version could not be further from that imagining.
The heart of the record that might have been lies in the songs "Home Truth," "Love Field," and "Inch By Inch" and in the idea of covering a lyric of such self-pity and despair as "I Wanna Be Loved." These are the songs to which I have returned over the years. They contain a strange combination of guilt-stricken regret and erotic intrigue and were as true to my feelings as I could bring myself to be. All these songs can be found in raw demo (or live) form on CD2.
Having made much of the influence and presence of guilt in my songs during an early, drunken interview, I had now lived long and selfishly enough to really know what lay beyond those brash words. "Home Truth" is as stark, unguarded, and unpolished a lyric as I had written to this point. I could not find any disguise for the simple recitation of falling out of love with someone that I'd adored for many years. The closest thing to distraction is the lyrical allusion to Dan Penn's "It Tears Me Up" in the bridge. Within the year I would add both Penn's "Dark End Of The Street" and Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" to my repertoire.
The obverse of this song could be found in the illicit and shamelessly erotic content of both "Love Field" and "Inch By Inch". The former is one of the few songs that did not suffer fatally from the instrumental sound of the record, although I believe that the song can be performed more lyrically. "Inch By Inch" was a revision of an outtake from Imperial Bedroom. Given the content of the song, I wish I could claim that there was some conscious humour in borrowing the bass figure from "I'm Only Sleeping".
With a lighter touch of execution, the narrative and contemporary songs, "Worthless Thing", "The Deportees Club", "Joe Porterhouse", "The Comedians" and my second songwriting collaboration with Clive Langer, "The Great Unknown", might have been a fine compliment to the first group.
Although often written in disguise, these songs contain hints of the unhappiness and self-disgust I was feeling. "Joe Porterhouse" seems to be about the funeral for a local strongman, but refers to marital strife and children sitting on the stairs "high above a valley of tears" and "broken branches of the family tree". Even though "Worthless Thing" talks of infamy and Elvis Presley and the arrival of 24 hours of everything that you don't need, the title alone tells another tale. An earlier draft of the song appears on CD2 under the title "Blue Murder On Union Avenue".
Disillusionment runs through several of these songs. "The Great Unknown" is a fantasy about burying the title characters of various songs that have been repeated to the point of cliché. "The Deportees Club" took some scenes from a real Roman nightclub and transplanted then into the tale of a lost soul…
- I pray to the saints and all the martyrs
- For the secret life of Frank Sinatra
- But none of these things have come to pass
- In America the law is a piece of ass
The song then goes on to list a series of drinks for deadening the pain. Unfortunately, the music of this recording was crude and uninspired, but I thought enough of the words to revise the song with a new ballad melody and simplified title ("Deportee"), which was later wonderfully recorded by Christy Moore.
"The Comedians" takes its title from a Graham Greene book but other than that has no connection with his work. The lyric has something to do with temptation without being too specific. The music was originally patterned after a Roy Orbison ballad, but in the mad pursuit of faster tempi, we stumbled into a rather bizarre arrangement, which drained any drama out of the song.
Three years later I had the opportunity to reclaim the original music and completely rewrite a lyric for inclusion in Roy Orbison's Mystery Girl album, it also turned out to be the only new composition performed by Roy in the famous Roy Orbison And Friends: Black & White Night television special. My demo of the original version can be heard on CD2.
Despite my emotional disarray, I had written many of the songs for this album by going to a recently vacated office of Demon Records and keeping regular working hours in what I imagined to was the Brill Building style. I also set up an easel, so that when I ran out of song ideas, I might fling a little paint around. The result of this daubing was a rather crude visual joke named after the Hepburn and Tracy movie Pat And Mike. Not all of the songs that I composed turned out to be much more coherent.
"Sour Milk-Cow Blues" may have been written as some distant relation of a New Orleans song like "Holy Cow" or "Get Out My Life Woman", but the recording lack much wit, grit, or charm. However the notion of no longer recognizing the person you once loved is played out in a few telltale lines:
Somebody's putting ideas in your head
They took the girl of my dreams and left you here instead
All alone with just your own device
They give you something and it isn't advice
To break the hearts of a million listeners
Start out as lovers and you end up as prisoners
Several of the first drafts of songs can be heard in demo form on CD2, and it is pretty clear that I cannibalized most of this material to complete the lyrics that appear on the main record.
The song that underwent the most radical revision was "Mystery Voice". The demo on CD2, recorded on a cassette player during one of my writing sessions, reveals a light ska tune with a surreal lyric. A few lines from the first verse eventually appeared in "Worthless Thing". Later, I adapted the music to tell the nightmarish tale of a pair of illicit lovers who are walled-up in a hotel room, a scenario from a television play that had terrified me as a child. The new song was called "Room With No Number". The idea of identity being difficult to sustain returns in these regretful lines in the bridge:
And I wish he could be
The man he was before he was me
The opening song on this album, "The Only Flame In Town", was originally written in the style heard on the live version in the final section of CD2. It was composed with Aaron Neville in mind. Our laboured attempt to record a band rendition with just such arcane arrangement (which opens CD2) goes a long way in justifying the modern R&B treatment to which it was finally subjugated.
This was one of two track that were given the concentrated production approach and, like many cuts on the record, makes excessive use of the new DX7 synthesizer, the tone of which might as well date-stamp the album to an exact week in 1984. It is not a sound that has improved with age.
This was also the first of my album with The Attractions to feature guests. Gary Barnacle was a very able a ubiquitous session sax player who had appeared on other Langer and Winstanley productions. Unfortunately, when I now hear the sax entrance on "The Only Flame", I can't help but think of the theme from Moonlighting. Ah well, it all seemed like a good idea at the time.
More people seemed startled by the appearance of Daryl Hall, who sings the high harmony on "Only Flame". I would later use the Hall & Oates rhythm section of T-Bone Wolk and Mickey Curry on the King Of America sessions. It was Daryl's good looks that helped set up one of the better video clips that we made after our early 16mm adventures in France.
Shot by Rock ‘N' Roll High School director Allan Arkush, "The Only Flame" clip featured a "Win a date with The Attractions contest", in which the band are actually credited with individual personalities, funny little thumbnail sketches of the real guys. Naturally, my romantic rival was Daryl, but my only real humiliation was in having a Columbia promotion woman hector the makeup girl: "Make him look handsome", while a very hungover Daryl sat in the next chair looking like a movie star. His hair was perfect.
I found the original Teacher's Edition version of "I Wanna Be Loved" on a Hi Records compilation in a cutout bin in Newcastle, while on tour. The halting piano run-through on CD2 was as close to the original mood as I could get. Although less heavily produced than "The Only Flame", it still contains the saxophone interjections that fix it in the times. Green of Scriti Politti provided the high vocal harmonies on this occasion.
The video clip made for this song is the only one that I feel really adds anything much to the performance. It was shot by Evan English while we were on tour in Melbourne. Having insisted that I stay up all night so that I was feeling quite overwrought, and this being a period of particularly difficult personal circumstances, Evan then placed me in a photo-booth set. As I performed the song, sometimes singing live over the track as well as lip-synching, a great variety of people entered the frame, whispering, blowing in my ear, or kissing me on the cheek. The effect was very unsettling, and the range of reactions seen were entirely genuine and somehow added gravity to a rather plastic-sounding record.
Guitars don't really feature that much in the songs recorded for this album. The exception is the outtake "Turning The Town Red". The basic track was cut at SARM, but I completed the more intricate guitar and vocal arrangement at AIR Studios with Jon Jacobs, who had worked on Imperial Bedroom.
The song was written for the opening titles of Alan Bleasdale's comic serial Scully, in which the title character dreams of leading out the Liverpool football team in front of their most dedicated fans on the Kop terrace. I also made a supporting appearance in the story as a nearly mute member of the central family who is obsessed with railway timetables.
A demo of the first draft (CD2, track 11) appears to have a lyric that is being free-associated, but the final version (CD2, track 3) sounds like another of my many attempts to write a Chrissie Hynde song ("Men Called Uncle", "Kid About It", "Mouth Almighty").
Several of the track on CD2 feature warm up songs from various sessions. "Young Boy Blues" was a Ben E. King song (written by Doc Pomus) that I had recently fallen for on Joe Camilleri's Black Sorrows Sonola album. "Get Yourself Another Fool" is a Charlie Brown cut that I had learned from Sam Cooke's Night Beat album.
"Baby It's You" was cut for a joint-promo single, publicizing a U.S. tour on which Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit were opening up for us. Ludicrously, Columbia refused to release it because, according to them, it was "too good" and they feared it would distract from both artists' current single releases.
Another oddity is my guest vocal appearance on Madness' "Tomorrow's (Just Another Day)". I had known the group since they had first recorded for Two-Tone. They were now well into their phenomenal run of success on Stiff Records. This version of a hit tune was cut for a B-side, illustrating a streak of melancholy that runs through their later work. My decision to perform the vocal in the style of Anthony Newley may have been ill-advised. Variations on a new vocal identity also appear on the demo of "Joe Porterhouse" and yet another version of the allusive "The Town Where Time Stood Still" that was in contention for a third time.
The rest of the acoustic performances on CD2 are songs featured in the repertoire of my first solo tour. "Withered And Died" is one of two Richard Thompson songs that I performed, the other being "The End Of The Rainbow". Along with John Hiatt's "She Loves The Jerk", these titles underline the mood of many of my performances.
By the end of a U.S. tour of concert halls and colleges, in the company of T-Bone Burnett, I realized that the record that I had just made was terribly flawed. Unfortunately, my financial circumstances at the time were such that to shelve the record would have invited bankruptcy.
My only consolation was that I got to reclaim a number of songs in concert that had lost their way in the studio, including several of the recent recordings and marry them to other people's songs that mirrored my state of mind. The last six tracks on CD2 give a glimpse of these concerts.
Although between solo and band tours throughout the year, as my private life went into considerable turmoil, I recorded only one more new song in 1984, when I took The Attraction into the studio during our Y.K. dates. The result didn't really match the emotional intent of "I Hope You're Happy Now", which had to wait for a more sarcastic reading on Blood & Chocolate before being officially issued.
The final piece on this album is the song "Peace In Our Time". For years, I've regarded this composition as being rather too self-conscious in its attempt to follow on the commentary begun with the songs "Shipbuilding" and "Pills And Soap". Indeed the track was unsuccessfully released as another "Imposter" single and performed in the U.S. on the NBC Tonight Show, making little or no impression on the audience.
It certainly didn't take a shy or modest view of the subject matter, opening with a reference to the Munich Agreement and post-war European alliances and continuing into a second verse that talks about Cold War blacklists and has an atomic scientist doubting his handiwork.
The songs does have a pretty melody that inspired by Paul Simon's "Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War" and the record concludes with a beautifully played trombone solo by Big Jim Paterson on a theme of mine entitled "World Without End".
Although I once referred to the song as being a "relic from the days of nuclear dread", some of the lines seem sadly to be coming into their time once again. Though the last verse refers to then-current events: the invasion of Grenada, the conflict in the Falkland Islands, one of the Rocky films, and the Presidential candidacy of astronaut John Glenn, their counterparts can easily be found in today's headlines.
If I were to sing this song today, final lines of the last verse would address someone with the appearance of a moral and intellectual vacuum, a mere pitchman for the company store that has ruled America on and off for the last 60 years. An illegitimate authority that is aloof and apparently contemptuous of the general decency of the very people it purports to represent.
Politicians and their apologists in the media often patronize musicians and other artists. We are supposedly naïve and don't understand the cruel and cold realities of the world. Then again we are not the ones who have provoked or underwritten countless military confrontations and hypocritically promoted global instability through fear, in the guise of defending freedom, justice, and corporate profit. The only difference in those they oppose being a willingness to glory in a relationship with evil that goes undisguised.
Writing in the late spring of '04, the title of this piece seems a more distant prospect than ever. I have to hope that this flawed song doesn't sound like a sick joke by November.
They're lighting a bonfire upon every hilltop in the land
Just another tiny island invaded when he's got the whole world in his hands
And the Heavyweight Champion fights in the International Propaganda Star Wars
There's already one spaceman in the White House what do you want another one for?
And the bells take their toll once again in victory chime
And we can thank God that we've finally got peace in our time
— Elvis Costello