It may have been hard to shock people 21 years ago in England's safety-pinned summer of punk. But Elvis Costello managed to do so by performing a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Singing "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" all those years ago, even before his debut My Aim Is True album created an indelible rock 'n' roll image in the United States, the young Liverpudlian songwriter never thought he'd be spending a year writing and recording an entire album with Bacharach, the peerless '60s pop tunesmith.
It happens on Painted From Memory, the just-released album of Costello-Bacharach material sung by Costello accompanied on piano by Bacharach, who also conducts a 24-piece string section.
"Obviously we've had different — wildly different — experiences in music," says the 44-year-old Costello.
But their collaboration was made easier by Costello's determination to enter the realm of the 70-year-old pop sophisticate, who wrote "Walk On By," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "24 Hours to Tulsa."
"I abandoned thoughts of trying to make a Frankenstein's monster," says Costello. "Some ungodly hybrid of 'Pump It Up' and 'What's New Pussycat.'
"I didn't feel I needed to bring the harshest sounds of my style to bear on this particular group of songs."
Besides, he adds, "I've always thought of myself as a ballad singer who was accidentally a pretty good rock 'n' roll singer when I wanted to be. You can look at the evidence throughout my career, where the strengths have lain always with the ballads."
So it obviously wasn't too much of a stretch to pair with Bacharach on "God Give Me the Strength" for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. (The collaboration was so rushed, they didn't meet until they got into the studio to record it.)
"That was such an extraordinary experience in making a good working relationship," Costello says, "that we didn't have time for doubts.
"By the time we found ourselves in the studio recording that song, it was just apparent to both of us, that whatever preconceptions we or anybody else might have had about it, it did work."
When they got together to write the songs on Painted From Memory, the two leading writers of their generations found a way to work together despite their different backgrounds.
"If we had a different view of a passage of music," Costello says, "we usually work until there was a third version of it that we could both put our names on with pride."
If he was intimidated by writing songs with Bacharach — the man whose songs he knew since childhood — Costello didn't show it.
Costello says Bacharach was taking just as big a chance working with a man he was quoted as calling "king of the punks" in Rolling Stone.
"Not only in working with somebody from a different style of music, but also the fact that he was giving up some of the responsibility writing the music," Costello says. "So I have to pay tribute to him in wanting to do that."
His work with Bacharach songs is bringing out a more pronounced Costello vocal style that he admits is "extremely demanding."
"Burt encouraged me to use a warmer, richer tone in the lower register, and as the drama of the song develops, I am obliged to reach out for feeling and also for some pretty high notes.
"I don't do those things with ease. But for some people, that's a very attractive element of the tension between our two musical personalities: I have a more abrasive voice than some of the singers who have sung Burt's songs.
"But," he adds, "we're not singing the Bacharach-David catalog, we're singing the Bacharach-Costello catalog, so that's why it sounds like it does."
Costello welcomes traditional pop singers to record these new songs. "If a more secure or smoother voice wants to come along and interpret these songs later, I'll be delighted to hear it," he says. "But I'm not absolutely certain that they will get more out of a song emotionally than I can."
It was that emotional basis that carried those Bacharach songs even when he sang them in punk clubs back in 1977. "People couldn't make up their mind whether we were being ironic or something," he says. "When I hear it now, it sounds naive, but it's an impassioned performance."
While the move to pop suits his musical taste — and middle age — it doesn't mean that he's abandoned rock for good.
"I've already done all that," he says. "If I ever get the inkling to have anything that resembles a rock band — and I'm not saying I never will — I hope I just wouldn't do it in a way that was disgraceful. — There's something kind of lazy about grinding on with a rock band when you know it's not the only thing you can do."