Imperial Bedroom (2002) liner notes

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Liner notes

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Imperial Bedroom


Elvis Costello

A familiar scene must have greeted Ringo when he walked into the studio. His former producer was stooped over the grand piano, talking through detail of an orchestral score. Our producer, Geoff Emerick, had asked George Martin to cast an eye over a madly ambitious Steve Nieve chart for the song "...And In Every Home". Forty musicians were due at AIR Studios, and George agreed to look the music over to see if there were going to be any tricky passages that might require special attention. He would have encountered several musical allusions to his own arrangements. Ringo and I retired to the control room to discuss a record that was never made, and George and Steve went back to the score…

To some extent Imperial Bedroom was the record on which The Attractions and I granted ourselves the sort of scope that we imagined The Beatles had enjoyed in the mid-‘60s. We had engaged the engineering skills of the sonic, and somewhat unsung, genius behind many of those productions. The studio was booked for an unprecedented 12 weeks. If we needed a harpsichord or Mellotron, we hired one; if we required a 12-string acoustic guitar, marimba, or accordion, we went out and bought one; if we heard strings and trumpet and horns, we booked the musicians and Steve began writing out the parts.

It had not begun in this fashion. After our excursion to Nashville, during which we recorded nearly 30 tracks in nine days for the album, Almost Blue, we reconvened at a country cottage to rehearse my new songs. This followed our working method for the album Trust. Once again, we recorded the rehearsals on an 8-track machine (one of which appears on CD 2). Even when we entered the vastly more sophisticated AIR Studios, we still intended to record the album "live" with few overdubs.

The first two weeks did not go well. The only thing that really survives on the final record from those chaotic and undisciplined sessions is the screaming introduction and tag of "Man Out Of Time" — a fair indication of the tone of those days. We were trying to beat the songs into submission. A few of these drunken and berserk items can be found on CD 2, if you care to attend the autopsy.

Somewhere around the end of the second week, a moment of sober reflection set us on a new course.

The major change of the previous 18 months had been a gradual switch to piano as my main composing instrument. This not only invited a more arranged approach to the songs, but also reflected the music to which I was listening. This consisted of a lot of hours with a handful of mid-‘30s Billie Holiday recordings — "Ghost Of Yesterday" and "Gloomy Sunday" being my favourites — the "Glad To Be Unhappy" side of Rodgers & Hart, as found on the late Billie Holiday album Lady In Satin and Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours collection, the Round About Midnight album by Miles Davis, a The Left Banke compilation, the piano music of Erik Satie, and a cassette of La Mer by Debussy. Hardly any of these choices had a detectable influence on the songs on this record, but I also returned to the albums of David Ackles with which I had spent an awful lot of time as a teenager. Now as an adult, there was certainly something attractive about the way these records felt out of step with fashion and had a connection to so many musical threads.

It was being an "adult" that was most of the problem, that and the fact there seemed to be little time for "sober reflection". The public and private upheavals of the previous four or five years had heightened my already melancholy disposition. I intend that most "private" matters should remain that way, but when the opening track is called "Beyond Belief", and the key song of a record is entitled "Man Out Of Time", you don't have to be a psychiatrist to work out what was going on.

Disgusted, disenchanted, and occasionally in love, "Man Out Of Time" was the product of a troubling dialogue with myself that continued through my more regretful moments. I recall looking at my reflection in the frozen window of a Scandinavian tour bus without any idea who the hell I was supposed to be. I was trying to think or feel my way out of a defeated and exhausted frame of mind to something more glorious.

This was resolved in song, one shivering, hungover morning in the manicured gardens of a remote Scottish hotel. The house in which we were staying had played a very minor part in one of Britain's most notorious political scandals, apparently serving briefly as a bolt-hole fort one of the disgraced protagonists. I actually delighted at the thought of this sordid history; it suited my mood. I can't say that the words and ideas that emerged from these experiences were exactly welcome news to some of the band members. Like I could give a damn.

Strangely, I do recall telling the artist Barney Bubbles that we had made our brightest and most positive record around the time that he commenced work on the cover painting. I had asked him to illustrate what he heard, in what I hoped would be the first of a series of such covers. I was delighted with the wit and humour of the Picasso references in the painting, which contains the inscription "Pablo Si". However, I was startled by the darker, carnal aspects of the canvas that Barney had correctly identified in the songs and placed at the center of his composition. Sometimes you can bee too close to the frame to see the picture. Even the album title, which I had intended as reference to the comparative opulence of the recording, started to take on another meaning. This was shortly after I had abandoned the working title: P.S. I Love You.

Occasionally I used a little craft to put some distance on the emotional contents. Before we even entered the studio, I was toying with the notion of abandoning some of the responsibility for the words, asking Chris Difford to make sense of the title "Boy With A Problem". I had also made an attempt to connect with a lyricist from the pre-rock and roll era. Sammy Cahn had written "All The Way" for Sinatra, along with many other lighter pieces that dare listeners to mock ("You go to a spot that just a spot on the MAP" is rhymed with "WHAP!" in "The Tender Trap"). He was also a brilliant radio raconteur and writer of the spoof "special lyrics" sung at conventions for Presidential nominees. He may not have has the tortured soul of Lorenz Hart, but he was a link with another less self-obsessed era of lyricism, when personal confessions were couched in elegant romantic language and sung with restraint and discretion.

Mr. Cahn was frankly bewildered by the music that I had sent him on tape. At an after-show session in a Huddersfield recording studio during the Trust tour of England, I had recorded a rather ham-fisted piano sketch of what later turned out to be "The Long Honeymoon". We had an entertaining telephone conversation, but Sammy diplomatically removed himself from the enterprise, seemingly surprised that I would simply be writing a song to record and not for a show or event of some kind. Oddly enough, this seemed to clear my mind as to what needed to be written, and the song was soon finished.

"The Long Honeymoon" tells the story of a young wife waiting by the phone for her husband to call or come home. She half suspects that he is with her best friend but can't bring herself to pick up the phone to find out. It is a story that I might have found in Nashville, but the music here belongs more to the cabaret.

The arrangement is a pretty good example of the approach to this record. The rhythm section plays a sort of vague Latin pulse while Steve leads the way on both the piano and accordion. In fact it took three of us to execute this part. Laying the instrument on the table, Steve played the keyboard, while one of us worked the bellow, and a third party held the beast in place. I play a composed melody on the tremolo guitar in the middle of the track, and the song concludes with a trio of French horns arranged by Steve Nieve.

In those days the relationship between "legit" players and pop musicians was not always an easy one. Steve had intended the part to be plaintive and noble like a Wagnerian hunting motif, but after on of the players adjourned to the pub during the mid-session break, the execution began to resemble something from an after-hours club in New Orleans. By complete accident, I actually preferred this effect.

It was not as if outside players were ever likely to steal the attention from The Attractions' playing on this album. The demos of these songs reveal and approach similar to Trust, which itself had a number of very fine ensemble performances. However, once we were in AIR Studios with Geoff Emerick, it was possible for each player to be featured while never distracting from the songs. There is some particularly fine playing from Bruce Thomas on the tag of "Shabby Doll" and in the final verse of "Human Hands", where his bass counterpoint sits elegantly below my overdubbed vocal group. My favourite among Steve Nieve's many musical highlights must be the dazzling bridge passage of "The Loved Ones".

One afternoon, Pete Thomas arrived at the studio straight from a night of carousing, he confounded all of us by turning in the single inventive take of "Beyond Belief" that transformed the song into the opening track of the record. It was originally entitled "The Land Of Give And Take" with an almost improvised sounding text. The strength of Pete's performance meant that I was able to consider a more ambitious and confidential vocal approach. I re-wrote the song over the existing backing track, achieving a more coherent structure. There was less explosive playing required on many of the other tracks.

The melancholic domestic mood is carried through the songs "The Long Honeymoon" and "Boy With A Problem" — the backing track for which was recorded by The Attractions and posted through my letter box when I had to leave the studio early one evening. "Tears Before Bedtime" — which was the sole original composition attempted during our Almost Blue sessions — is one of a number of tracks that employ an overdubbed vocal group or disguised voice in order to distort the perspective or the identity of the narrator.

After the band sessions were concluded, I worked alone for several weeks, experimenting with odd overdubs and vocal approaches. It is possible that I lost as much as I gained. The raw and borrowed style of the "Tears Before Bedtime" take on CD 2 might well be a little closer to the truth.

The most disguised of these songs is "Little Savage"; one of several cuts rehearsed and even recorded in different tempo and time signatures. The slower pace of the album demanded the up-tempo arrangement to be included, but the meaning of the song would have been better served by the approach of the unfinished version found on CD 2, even though the vocalist seems to be trying to escape the confines of the harmony.

Most concentrated of these songs is the ballad "Almost Blue." It was written in imitation of the Brown/Henderson song "The Thrill Is Gone". I had become obsessed with the Chet Baker recording of that tune, firstly the trumpet instrumental and, later, the vocal take. It is probably the most faithful likeness to the model of any of my songs of this time. It has become my most covered composition.

Two years later, when Chet Baker came into the studio to play the trumpet solo on our recording of "Shipbuilding", I gave him a copy of this album and suggested that he might listen to one track in particular. Although we met up again at his subsequent London engagements and even worked together on one occasion, he never mentioned the record again. It wasn't until several months after his death that I found out that he had been including "Almost Blue" in his later sets and that it would feature in photographer Bruce Weber's documentary on Baker, Let's Get Lost. Chet's performance of the song, before an indifferent film festival crowd, makes for very uncomfortable viewing, but there is a wonderful version, featuring an extended trumpet solo, on a late "live" album from Japan. He finally seemed to get what I hoped he would recognize in the composition.

Many of the remaining songs on the record take their cue from the opening track, "Beyond Belief". They exhibit a malaise of the spirit and a sinking feeling about happy endings. The souring and spoiling of England was just under way. Passing from town to town on the tours of the early ‘80s, I came to know some people who seemed just as disenchanted and discouraged. Their stories found their way into these songs.

It was about two in the morning when I visited the coffee bar. It was doing a brisk trade in salt fish, dumplings, and hot, sweet drinks. It was about the only place to go after the bars had shut. The girls, who looked like over-the-hill boxers in pink stretch nylon, were coming in from the cold to negotiate with their pimps. I'd gone there with a girl I knew and a couple of her friends because my parents had lived in the area shortly before I was born. My folks had just got out in time. I'd nearly been a Yorkshireman. My visit was during the Trust tour of England, and the area had long since tipped into decline. Shortly afterwards it was revealed that this had been the beat of the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe.

My Chapeltown tour guide was probably the model for the character in "…And In Every Home", even though we were barely acquainted. It is a snapshot of a disappointed young women, with the boyfriend in prison and a strong feeling that life should be offering something more. The least that I could offer her was that this story should be decorated with an ornate orchestral arrangement. As the chorus remarks:

"Oh heaven preserve us
Because they don't deserve us"

My one regret is that none of us thought to capture the remarkable sight of Maestro Nieve at the conductor's podium before the 40-piece ensemble.

These nighttime excursions got mixed up with images of the cigar-stained function rooms of our "grand" touring hotels, where rotten businessmen and craven local government figures could be found selling the ground under everyone's feet. The personal doubts and fears expressed in "Man Out Of Time" and "Beyond Belief" were presented before this backdrop.

Another song in this group was "Shabby Doll". The title came from a music hall poster hung in a hotel dining room. I'd heard the tale of John Lennon writing "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" from a similar source, the difference being that the one that I came across was a blurred facsimile decorating a fake Victorian facade. Perhaps this was entirely appropriate for such an unflattering self-portrait.

Although I am fond of the "Shabby Doll" demo on CD 2, with its prominent dissonant bass figure, the finished ensemble version is both more powerful and mischievous. It is a rare example of the words becoming harsher in the final draft, with the line: "being what you might call a whore, always worked for HIM before", being amended to the more truthful first person.

Despite the talk of "drinking to distraction" and the entreaty to "drink yourself insensitive", not all of the songs exist in the realm of guilt and despair. "The Loved Ones" joyfully trashes the myth of the romantically self-destructive artist and "You Little Fool" is a cautionary word to a young girl who is about to throw herself away on an unworthy fellow. A version with an entirely different vocal line appears on CD 2.

"Human Hands" was a song of reconciliation, but the original lyric seemed to raw and easily read, closing it off to the experience of others. The original vocal take can be heard on CD 2. Among the colloquialisms and lyrical puzzles of "Pidgin English", there is a longing for the simple words to express love.

The odd song out on the second half of the record is "Kid About It". Originally, styled as a slow r'n'b ballad, I made the decision to pitch the recorded vocal in my lowest octave for greater intimacy. An early run-through take of the first draft appears on CD 2.

The song is a rejection of tarnished and jaded games of adulthood. There is even a small, improbable sense of hope at the end of the second verse. It was composed on the morning after John Lennon's murder. I went out walking to clear my head of the dreadful news reports, and this song came to me. I wouldn't have done anything as presumptuous as write a song "about" the event and even edited out a passing reference to it in the original second verse. However, the line "Singing the ‘Leaving Of Liverpool' and turning into Americans" seems to be about a place where dreams begin and end.

A short time after completing the record, we were sent into a tiny basement studio to cut a series of self-produced "covers", mostly sings originally cut by Merseybeat groups. I was then a co-owner of Demon Records and our "Edsel" re-issue imprint was making some of these records available. I had the berserk notion that we might be able to scare up some extra interest in the re-releases by cutting the same songs. Quite apart from anything else, there was an innocence about the tunes that had been absent from the Imperial Bedroom sessions. These tracks and the trio recording of an early song of mine, "I Turn Around" — Steve Nieve was out of town, so I played organ — were cut without the burden of meaning and dark emotion. One of them, the Smokey Robinson song "From Head To Toe", was actually a bigger U.K. hit than any of the Imperial Bedroom singles.

Even during the album session there were some moments of levity. The record closes with "Town Cryer", a truthful if rather self-pitying lament. The song is taken at a grand slow tempo with the decoration of Steve Nieve's Philly-style string chart. However, late one evening — and concerned about the gathering gloom — armed only with a wah-wah pedal and a beat group's attempt to imitate Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, we recorded an up-tempo arrangement, briefly issued (in mock-French) as the "Version Discotheque" and presented here once more for your amusement.

I continued the album theme for a little while, writing the "title song", a sick waltz about the seduction of a bride by the best man. It was not a natural choice for the former ABBA singer Frida, but it was nevertheless originally submitted for inclusion on her latest solo album. It was not thought suitable by her producer, a Mr. Collins. He was probably right for once.

The album was not a big commercial success, despite Columbia Records absurd "Masterpiece?" ad campaign — which was really asking for it. The choice of singles did little to indicate the change of scene from the previous albums, although many of the songs established a place in the live repertoire.

Several years later, while working on the album King Of America, I was in a Hollywood hotel bar and a man introduced himself and started talking about this album. He turned out to be the renowned pianist, singer, and connoisseur of arcane and obscure lyrics of the Broadway era, Michael Fienstein. He had once worked as an assistant to Ira Gershwin, and he told me that when a New York Times review compared some of the writing on Imperial Bedroom to his brother, George, Mr. Gershwin had requested that his assistant purchase a copy of the record.

It conjures a horrifying image of a despairing Ira Gershwin being assailed by the howling introduction of "Man Out Of Time", believing that this is what the people made of his brother's legacy. He had no way of knowing that I would have been delighted by this small contact with the musical world that existed before rock and roll. Having read the cutting remarks in Mr. Gershwin's volume of annotated lyrics, I probably don't want to know his true reaction to the record.

Listening again to the raw and ragged early takes, demos, and rejected songs, I am not sorry to have employed just a little restraint and reserve in the final draft. I suppose that just came naturally to writers like Ira Gershwin. The record is not exactly easy listening as it is, but I trust that it isn't just the experience of one person. Thanks to the playing of The Attractions and the sonic expertise of Geoff Emerick (and his assistant, Jon Jacobs), it sounds like music rather than a confession.

— Elvis Costello

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Imperial Bedroom liner notes (2002)


Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 2002 Rhino/Edsel reissue of Imperial Bedroom.




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