ICE, August 2003

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ICE magazine

US music magazines


Costello reissues keep rolling

David Okamoto

From Bruce Springsteen to R.E.M. to Prince, it's always been easy to recognize the great artists by the impressive quality of the songs that didn't make it onto their albums. But Elvis Costello continues to raise the bonus-track bar with the startling caliber of his demos, B-sides, alternate takes and—with Rhino Records' next batch of catalog upgrades—even alternate takes of his B-sides.

On September 9, Rhino rolls out two-CD reissues of 1980's Get Happy!!, 1981's Trust and 1983's Punch the Clock. Like Rhino's other Costello packages, these sets present the newly remastered original LP on Disc One, while the expanded bonus material—which includes most of the extras that were appended to the previous Rykodisc editions—populate the second disc. The 28-page booklets include lyrics and insightful liner notes written by Costello.

This time, the depth of the previously unreleased material extends to alternate versions of songs that didn't make it onto official albums but have long been considered by fans to be as good, if not better, than what did—namely, "Girls Talk," "Heathen Town," "the Flirting Kind," "Black Sails in the Sunset," "Hoover Factory" and "Big Sister," all of which also appeared in their familiar B-side versions.

"These albums represents The Attractions at their most versatile," reissue co-producer Gary Stewart tells ICE. "You hear them successfully playing ‘60s soul-R&B, ‘80s rock and ‘80s British pop, all within a three-year span – in between which, by the way, they also made Imperial Bedroom and Almost Blue."

Get Happy!!, the hard-nosed Stax/Volt homage that already boasted 20 tracks in its LP incarnation, sports a remarkable 20 additional bonus tracks on top of the 10 that originally graced the Rykodisc set.

Among the unreleased gems are brisk, hard-rocking alternate takes of "Human Touch" (bearing a more-pronounced ska rhythm), "Temptation," "Motel Matches," "B Movie" and "Girls Talk" committed to tape before the Memphis soul influences kicked in. Equally engaging are Costello's multi-track demos for "5ive Gears in Reverse" (delivered as a blistering blues), "Love for Tender" (the complete version of the hidden 31st track on Rykodisc's edition that inexplicably cut off in mid-romp), "Men Called Uncle" and an acoustic "King Horse" taken from the same sessions that produced the Taking Liberties variation on "Black and White World."

Most surprising to Costellophiles will be stripped-down stabs at three tunes that eventually became the backbone of Trust, recorded at producer Nick Lowe's home studio shortly after the Get Happy!! Sessions; a British Invasion-style gallop through "Watch Your Step"; a bouncy, Motown-flavored arrangement of "From a Whisper to a Scream," and a loping, reggae rendition of "New Lace Sleeves."

Rounding out the new bonuses are alternates of "I Stand Accused" and "New Amsterdam;" live renditions of a menacing "High Fidelity" (Pinkpop Festival, Holland, 1979), "Opportunity" (Palomino Club, Hollywood, 1979) "The Imposter" (originally issued on Concerts for the People of Kampuchea) and his simmering cover of The Temptations' "Don't Look Back" (Canvey Island, England, 1980); a re-recording of "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" from the Imperial Bedroom sessions that mirrors the slower, gospel feel of Sam and Dave's original; and an oddball demo of "Seven O'Clock," a rowdy rocker intended for Dr. Feelgood.

"That song eventually evolved into two different songs," Stewart says. "It has fragments from ‘Secondary Modern' and ‘Luxembourg,' which would end up on Trust. In terms of feel, it sounds like [Spike's] ‘Pads, Paws and Claws.' So it actually has three future Elvis songs in it."

The demos and alternates provide a fascinating perspective on Get Happy!! But they are bolstered by Costello's eloquent, brutally frank liner notes: He vividly chronicles the connection between the ‘60s soul vibe of the album and his infamous drunken brawl with singer Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills' band in a Columbus, OH bar in 1979, during which he taunted his aggressors by slurring racial epithets against Ray Charles and James Brown. Costello held a press conference to apologize and has spent his career collaborating with, and paying tribute to, many of music's most influential African-American artists. But in his moving notes, he relates shying away from a recent opportunity to meet longtime idol Charles and admits that he has never forgiven himself ("Guilt is a burden without any statute of limitations").

By the time Trust hit the streets in January 1981, Costello's relentless touring and recording pace had caught up with him. At age 26 , with his marriage on the rocks and his hangovers lasting weeks, he was tired of playing the angry young man but he also was far from mellowing.

"This was the last pure rock ‘n' roll album that he made for quite a while, until Blood and Chocolate," Stewart notes. "In many ways, this record feels more like the follow-up to Armed Forces than Get Happy!! does. It mixes the edge and rock aesthetic of Armed Forces with more complicated and sophisticated song structures. It's an incredibly scathing record, made at a really intense personal time."

The Rhino upgrade contains nine unreleased tracks, in addition to eight of the nine bonuses from the Rykodisc reissue (in the spirit of chronological correctness, Rhino has transferred the 1981 demo of "Seconds of Pleasure" to Imperial Bedroom, where it replaced the 1982 version that has been placed on Punch the Clock). Among them are ragged first-session alternates of "Clubland," "You'll Never Be a Man," "From a Whisper to a Scream" (sans Glenn Tilbrook's duet vocal) and an even more-frenetic "Watch Your Step," plus a rousing cover of Larry Williams' "Slow Down" and a piano instrumental that would become the foundation for Imperial Bedroom's "The Long Honeymoon."

The sneering "Big Sister," which Costello rewrote into the more delicate "Big Sister's Clothes," is accompanied by a slower, darker alternate, while the gorgeous "Black Sails in the Sunset" is contrasted by a stark solo piano version similar to "Shot with His Own Gun." Disc Two's new bonuses are capped by a breezy 1981 revisitation of the Get Happy!! –era "Hoover Factory," recorded with Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve.

Punch the Clock remains an object of debate among critics and fans as it marked Costello's foray into more accessible pop by teaming him with Madness producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. But Stewart points out that it also contained a Stax-style horn section, the bitter "Pills and Soap" and jazz trumpeter Chet Baker's solo on "Shipbuilding" – so Costello certainly wasn't following commercial radio protocol.

Coming on the heels of the elegant Imperial Bedroom and the Nashville-recorded Almost Blue, "you had already learned you could expect the unexpected from him," Stewart says. "I know the record is not critically acclaimed, but for me, it's a complete success at trying to make an ‘80s pop record."

The Rykodisc reissue tracked on seven bonus tracks, but Rhino has uncovered 18 more, as well as two improvements on its predecessor: To replace the rough-sounding live versions, "we found really good studio versions of the Merseybeat [arrangement] of ‘Everyday I Write the Book' and the solo acoustic ‘The World and His Wife," Stewart says. "I don't know why they weren't used before. We also found this great song called ‘Baby Pictures' – it's a completely unknown song in the vein of Madness."

Like the revelatory solo demos on Spike, the four-track blueprints for "Let Them All Talk," "King of Thieves," "The Invisible Man," "The Element Within Her," "Love Went Mad," "The Greatest Thing," "Mouth Almighty" and "Charm School" – as well as for "Heathen Town" and "The Flirting Kind" – feature slightly revised lyrics and emphasize the songwriting intricacies that were overshadowed by the slicker production.

On the subsequent tour, Costello re-arranged several of his classics for the four-man TKO Horns. Rhino has plucked five numbers – "Possession," "Secondary Modern," "Watch Your Step," "King Horse" (in a medley with The O'Jays "Backstabbers") and his delicious cover of The Originals' "The Bells" – from a spirited September 1983 satellite radio broadcast from the University of Texas in Austin. "You get to hear how he used those horns really effectively on other parts of his catalog by taking some of Steve [Nieve]'s most notable keyboard riffs and turning them into horn patterns," Stewart says.

Disc Two's remaining unreleased treats are the first official appearances of Costello's heavily bootlegged 1983 BBC Radio One Performances of Percy Mayfield's "Danger Zone" and his inspired medley of "Big Sister" with The English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret." Breaking from format, Rhino is reprinting the same thorough liner notes that Costello wrote for Rykodisc's edition of Punch the Clock, but the artist has added a humorous preface in which he details his failed first collaboration with Tony Bennett in the awe-inspiring presence of Count Basie, plus a postscript addressing the new bonus material.


ICE, No. 197, August 2003

David Okamoto reviews the Rhino reissues of Get Happy!!, Trust and Punch The Clock.


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