King Of America (1995) liner notes

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Liner notes

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King Of America


Elvis Costello

From the spring of 1984 to the spring of 1985 I completed three separate "solo" tours with only a couple of guitars and some clumsy fingers and thumbs at the piano. On each occasion I was joined by T-Bone Burnett. Our travels through America, Europe, Japan, and Australia gave me plenty of time for writing and performing new tunes. Most of these new songs were written on the acoustic guitar, but unlike many in the past they were intended to be accompanied in the same way.

Somewhere in the middle of all this I became involved with The Pogues, who were also know to do things to acoustic instruments. I saw my task of producing their second album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, as that which I had attempted with The Specials. That was to capture them in their dilapidated glory before some more professional producer fucked them up. The fact that some earworrying folk music frauds were blind to the excellence of Shane MacGowan's songs was their loss.

After that, I pretty much gave up producing other people's records. You can only marry the bass player once.

Then there were The Coward Brothers..... Declaring this to be their "Second Comeback Tour", these embittered characters made several unscheduled appearances in my shows with T-Bone. Despite claiming authorship of most of the very famous songs they performed, the profits of their "First Comeback Tour" had been squandered when they were persuaded to fake their own deaths in advance of the "Ultimate Comeback Tour." These and other shabby admissions were exclusively revealedin The Cowards' impromptu television interview with C.N.N. - whose news crew happened to be killing time while waiting for President Reagan to emerge from his holiday hideaway - when the Brothers - Howard resplendent in a white brocade jacket, Henry in that sober little Nudie nuber with the rhinestone lapels plus sunglasses - stumbled into their poolside barbecue for a drink.

This masquerade was really an excuse for performing songs ranging from their theme tune, the George Jones classic "Ragged But Right", through Bobby Charles' "Tennessee Blues" to a medly of "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" and "If You're Going to San F..." You probably get the picture...... As their ghost writers T-Bone and I composed "The People's Limousine" during a long and occasionally surreal journey through Italy.

In early '85 The Coward Brothers' first and only single was recorded in Los Angeles with David Miner on bass and Ron Tutt on drums. The b-side was a Leon Payne song made famous by Hank Williams "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me" on which the Cowards were joined by D. Miner and Stephen Bruton on mandolin.

During the same visit I went into the Sunset sound studios to record versions of all of the then completed songs for my next record. T-Bone and engineer Larry Hirsch were extremely patient as a collision with a bottle of whiskey gradually undid the session. However this was not before I had recorded several incresingly incoherent takes of "Poisoned Rose", "American Without Tears" and "Indoor Fireworks".

(A very ponderous reading of "I Hope You're Happy Now" was briefly released from this session but for this issue I have chosen another almost entirely unpublished recording: "Suffering Face". I say "almost" because parts of the lyric found their way into a song featured on the album Blood And Chocolate called "Crimes of Paris").

Despite the ragged nature of the demos, T-Bone and I were able to plan the album sessions en route for The Coward Brothers' final comeback tour of Australia and Japan, on which we were the "special guests". By the time we entered Hollywood's Ocean Way Studios we had booked several line-ups to tackle the songs.

The first consisted of Ron Tutt on Drums, Jerry Scheff on bass and James Burton on guitar. This trio had been a major part of Elvis Presley's "T.C.B." band, although I was actually more familiar with Ron and James' recordings with Gram Parsons. It turned out that Jerry, whos musical background included the navy and modern jazz, has also featured on records ranging from The Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away" to The Doors' "L.A. Woman".

James Burton is one of the few guitar players who is almost always called "legendary. " This is because he IS amazing AND his credits stretch from Dale Hawkins' "Suzie Q" through his years with Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley to a fantastic range of session and stage appearances, Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris, and Randy Newman being only three of my favourites from the hundreds of artists he has played with.

These sessions were cut as "live" as possible. T-bone and engineer Larry Hirsch had miked me so that my vocal and guitar performances were central to the sound picture. With the exception of some trickery on "Jack Of All Parades", there were few effects employed other than reverb. The distortion of the piano on "Sleep Of The Just" was achieved in the studio (by running the mikes through a Leslie cabinet) so that we could play to the altered sound.

After balances were achieved the musicians gathered around to learn the changes. My task was made much easier as the players were referring to charts transcribed from my demos by T-Bone's associate producer David Miner. It only remained to determine where I intended to straighten out the wayward meter of the solo renditions.

The first song recorded was "Our Little Angel". It took about four attempts to get the finished take. The original intention was to concentrate this ensemble's efforts on any country-styled ballads, but instead I called "The Big Light", a fast, grim comedy that was written in the awful wake of the drunken "Suffering Face" session earlier that year. I had imagined that the accompaniment should be something like The Tennessee Two (and Johnny Cash later cut it in that very style). However James kicked off a series of guitar figures reminiscent of the "T.C.B." threatment of "Mystery Train" and Jerry and Ron fell in behind and we were away. Take one! Elated by this, we went on to cut "American Without Tears".

This song was based on a chance meeting with a couple of former G.I. brides during a tour of Florida. They had volunteered their stories while I was drinking at an adjacent table. Of course the names and locations were changed and I added in a little of my own family history but it stayed pretty true to their tale of exile and escape. It is as close as this record comes to having a theme.

With the exception of the adding Jo-El Sonnier's French accordion part to "American Without Tears", three of our most valuable tracks were totally finished in the first few hours of recording.

The next day was not quite so successful, but we had a lot of fun racing through "Glitter Gulch", the tale of a game-show swindle, which features James on guitar and dobro, and cut the ballad "Shoes Without Heels", a song dashed off in solidarity with footsore waitresses everywhere. With time in hand we even attempted versions of "Lovable" and "Indoor Fireworks" but concluded that these were really for another day.

(Jerry and James both toured in the "Confederate" bands after the album's release. In fact Jerry Scheff was also the bass player in both "Rude Five" line-ups which toured after the albums Spike and Mighty Like A Rose. James and Jerry also feature on my much delayed covers album Kojak Variety.

The only other time I played with Ron Tutt was when, along with James, Jerry and pianist Glen D. Hardin, the "T.C.B. Band" (plus guest acoustic rhythm guitarist!) accompanied Roy Orbison and "Special guests": Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, k.d. lang and Tom Waits - to mention a few - for the Black and White Night T.V. special in 1987).

Recording with members of Elvis Presley's band might have seemed daunting or even provocative, However none of this could quite prepare me for the intimidating prospect of our next session.

When T-bone had pencilled these names next to studio dates somewhere over the pacific it had seemed like a brilliant idea. After all the intention had never been to hire off-the-peg "legends" for the hell of it. In fact the first two players through the door were unknown to me; pianist Tom Canning and keyboard player and producer Mitchell Froom who was to play Hammond B-3 on the session. It was the rhythm section that was alarming! On drums: Earl Palmer who, among many other things, had starred on most of the great Little Richard sides. On Bass: Ray Brown who's jazz recording credits could and probably do, fill a book... Gillespie... Parker... Powell... Peterson... Ellington.... You name them. He's played with them. While the introductions were underway T-Bone was musing as to why nobody seemed to be able to achieve the spontaneity that we had heard on a Louis Armstrong/ Ella Fitzgerald side playing on the inflight music around the time we were planning this very session. Being the diplomat Earl informed us... "Of course, you know, Ray was Ella's first husband..." and after a beat Ray added "I think I might have played on that session".

"Oh yeah" I was thinking, "and now where going to play this stupid little song I've written".

Actually I think they both might have thought I was out of my mind when I said I didn't give a damn if this record was a hit, so long as it sounded right. This was clearly not the sort of talk they were accustomed to. Still, with Tom and Mitchell quietly taking care of their parts we eventually got the take of "Poisoned Rose". I just had to get my nervous voice under control and catch a first verse where my performance sat right with the Ray's solitary bass accompaniment. Cue the celebration and crack open the Glenlivet!

It was then that T-Bone called "Eisenhower Blues", an obscure J.B. Lenoir side that I had just learned. There was no real reason to cut it except that it gave everyone a chance to relax and play a bit (I think T-Bone just wanted to hear Ray Brown let loose on a tune like this). We did one long double take and cross-faded the highlights together. It certainly gives the album a kick in between all these ballads.

The session ended with suitably blurred photos being snapped. They seem to have got lost. Even if Ray and Earl thought I was some kind of crazy, limey millionaire who went around hiring my jazz and r'n'b heroes on a whim, I wish I could find that damn photograph.

Unfortunately the "Poisoned Rose" celebrations went on far too long and I arrived for the next day's session in pretty poor shape. Now if this is probably starting to sound like one man's slide to alcoholic oblivion then I think that the results contradict the evidence. Arranged around me in a semi-circle were James Burton on acoustic guitar, Jerry Scheff on string bass, Mitchell Froom on organ. Shaking only slightly, I took up my position and after one complete take we had "Indoor Fireworks".

Of course we always went on to record several further attempts just in case there was any temptation to take the easy way out. However, it was best that we cut it quickly as this kind of romantic obituary is not something you would want to labour over.

Over the next few days a new band emerged with Mitchell Froom on keyboards, Jerry Scheff on bass and Jim Keltner on drums.

(Truthfully, I had originally vetoed T-Bone's suggestion of Keltner as I naievely associated him with some of California's most cliched and formula recordings. Not only did this show an unusual ignorance of my own record collection - Jim had played with Ry Cooder, John Lennon and Bob Dylan not to mention starting out with Gary Lewis and the Playboys! - but I soon discovered that he was one of the most creatively eccentric, inventive and bohemian drummers alive).

This line-up cut three of the album's most personal songs: "Lovable", which features a one-take harmony vocal from Los Lobos' David Hidalgo (and my only electric guitar playing on the record - credited to the "Little Hands of Concrete" as I had once been dubbed by Nick Lowe after trashing yet another set of strings.), "I'll Wear It Proudly" and "Sleep Of The Just".

We also recorded a song called "King Of Confidence" which I had always imagined I would re-cut, until a recent hearing made me wonder why it had not made the album. Obviously the fact that I was playing acoustic guitar and singing "live" guided the arrangements but the players made wonderful use of all of this extra space. Just a few of the highlights are Mitchell's mysterious introduction to "Sleep Of The Just", Scheff's swinging bass line on "Lovable", and Keltner's kick-drum fills on the bridge of that cut and the fade of "I'll Wear It Proudly". This was just the kind of detail that was impossible to isolate on my recordings with The Attractions (although that does not mean that you cannot hear such fine playing). It is just that you would have to listen a little harder due to the claustrophobic nature of our sound. Anyway, where were The Attractions during all of this?

I had originally intended to feature The Attractions on half of this record so that the contrast of accompaniments would be heard to best effect. The news of this plan was not exactly received with wild celebrations and I suppose I became pretty high-handed about my recording plans. On all sides the old cliche about "familiarity" probably had some substance.

Anyway, by the time The Attractions arrived in Hollywood there was more than half an album's worth of material in the can. This meant that our sessions had a doomed air of suspicion and resentment. After spending so much time together on the road T-Bone and I had a rapport based on a humour that unwittingly drove a wedge between the band and myself. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that The Attractions delivered some of their worst ever performances.

I had little patience for our failure to get to grips with the one song which I had been certain would suit the band's sound and was fast becoming the session's theme song: "Brilliant Mistake". Apart from the lyric providing the album's title I had always seen this song as the record's opening track. Despite any other departures, I wanted to lead off with an Attractions recording. This was not to be.

I can't quite recall the exact sequence of events but I know we cut a throwaway number that we could have played in our sleep and about which the title was probably the best thing: "Baby's Got A Brand New Hairdo". This steadied our nerves but we weren't exactly having fun. We also cut a song about work and respect called "Suit of Lights". This was inspired by watching my father, Ross, sing of experience and tenderness to an uncomprehending rabble of karaoke-trained dullards. The lessons I might have learned from my own words seemed only to have dawned on me after the event.

Nevertheless I believe that something of those pent up frustrations went into making this one of the most passionate recordings with The Attractions.

(Perhaps this is a very subjective and personal observation but I know we regained some of the looseness that was second-nature to us while we were recording such songs as "Possession" and "Clowntime is Over" during the Get Happy sessions in Holland).

Sadly nothing else seemed to fall into place. The recording schedule had to move on and it left my sullen and estranged band hanging around our hotel harbouring a grudge or honing an embittered anecdote. I say this with more than a little unflattering hindsight as by the time I had developed serious tunnel vision and was equally resentful at the disappointing outcome of our sessions.

Into this ugly atmosphere came the rhythm section that was intended to be T-Bone's production trump card. Certainly Mickey Curry and T-Bone Wolk (this brace of "T-Bones" starts to get confusing) did not follow on from the relaxed approach of the earlier sessions.

One of the features of this record is the way in which the instrumentalists arranged themselves in support of the singer, rarely offering an unbidden challenge for the spotlight. This was what I was responding to, and was the complete opposite to my relationship with The Attractions.

The essential difference between English and American musicians could be very crudely defined in these terms: American musicians will always ask "How do we end?", English Musicians only ask "How do we begin?". There are, of course, virtues in both approaches. T-Bone and Mickey probably lay somewhere between these extremes. I knew them as the fine R'n'B rhythm section with Hall And Oates but they were also fans of the English approach and were frankly by my decision to use them ahead of The Attractions until they witnessed how strained that relationship had become.

We got to work on the song that was intended to give the record company a point of entry into the new/old world of this record. I was still resisting the process of isolating one song from the body of the record by applying the kind of varnish that usually betrays a "hit single attempt".

The original recording of "Blue Chair" stayed in the running order for some time after the session. We maintained the space that the acoustic rhythm-guitar gave us but also had the driving motor that T-Bone and Mickey provided. However as the final sequencing drew nearer I started to doubt the track, feeling that it seemed brash and too eager to please without really doing so. So, the track was shelved until I re-worked it with the addition of an intricate vocal arrangement for a "stand-alone" Demon Records single following the release of "Blood and Chocolate".

(The finished version, along with the above mentioned "Baby's Got A Brand New Hairdo" can be found on the "Extended Play" section of Blood and Chocolate. CD time capacity does not allow their inclusion here.)

This line-up, which also included Mitchell Froom on Hammond organ, also cut "Jack Of All Parades", an unapologetic companion to "I'll Wear It Proudly". Without the pressure to deliver a "hit-sound" the band worked very well, with fine touches such as T-Bone's volume-control bass interlude before the coda. Steve Nieve added piano to this track, as we searched for the right combination of musicians to capture the last few elusive titles.

Premier among these was "Brilliant Mistake". When we finally hit it the rhythm section was Mickey Curry playing with brushes (something he was hardly ever asked to do) and Jerry Scheff on string bass. Mitchell Froom took care of the organ and harpsichord while our other bass-player, T-Bone Wolk, was playing Telecaster and later added the accordion part.

The King Of America sessions were spread over a period of just under three months due to my reluctance to spend any extended periods in California. The actual "record dates" were quite few in number and were determined by the titles, players and the spontaneous style of the recording. Very few of the attempts of remixing and embellishing the sounds met with success. Most of the tracks were mixed at the end of the session. These became the definitive balances as surely as if they had been cut to wax.

There were two further record dates for this album. The first was a solo session at which I attempted Eric Bogle's "My Youngest Son" and Richard Thompson's "End Of The Rainbow". However the track which I included was my own "Little Palaces", which was as close to a folksong form as I had ever used. I dubbed on a scratchy mandolin part which was set off to better effect after Jerry Scheff suggested adding his string bass to the instrumental sections.

My final trip to Hollywood was made with the intention of adding "I Hope You're Happy Now" to the album. having previously failed in an attempt to cut it as a single with The Attractions and stumbled through it on my drunken demo session, I was determined to capture it with the Keltner/Scheff/Froom line-up that had provided much of the heart of the record.

Almost before we had the instrumental balances my voice started to vanish. We struggled through a few tentative takes but it was useless. Rather than scrap the session we cut a slow, violent version of The Animals/Nina Simone song: "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The next day we borrowed Michael Blair from Tom Waits band to add a marimba part and the record was complete. This may seem ironic as I attacked the song with a vocal capacity that Tom might have rejected as being too hoarse.

(In fact I had just seen Waits and his band perform two mind-bending concerts in Paris. I was very impressed by Blair and guitarist Marc Ribot. Both featured on the album "Spike" and the subsequent tour. Marc went on to play on both Mighty Like A Rose and Kojak Variety and be part of the "Rude Five" touring bands).

FOOTNOTE: Needless to say Columbia, my U.S. record company, showed their customary imagination in releasing the safe "cover" song as a single ahead of any of the more unusual and heartfelt balladry that I had composed. I suppose in recording such a different sounding track I presented them a way of ducking the problem of presenting the gentler songs to suspicious radio stations. By now my mounting debt to the company seemed to make them unwilling to risk any further effort on my behalf.

However I very nearly pulled off a plan to play entirely new arrangements of these songs live on a cable music channel with a different band, in a different U.S. city, every day for one week. Although the musicians' response (Los Lobos, Z.Z. Top, The Heartbreakers and John Mellencamp's band among them) was very positive, the money to pull this off was never found and the idea went unrealised.

Similarly nothing was ever done with "We Don't Even Try Anymore", a song written at this time with "X's" John Doe (who was then performing as part of The Knitters). My collaboration with David Weiss, "Shadow and Jimmy", was also composed during these sessions. It was featured on the Was Not Was album What Up, Dog, but for me the most enduring part of our meeting was a conversation in which I accidentally stumbled on the expression "Brilliant Mistake" while describing my ever changing impressions of America.

The U.K. release of the record coincided with a terminal conflict with our distributor RCA. This was resolved by the dissolution of our business relationship at the cost of any sustained promotion. In some ways this marks the first serious release of King Of America.

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King Of America liner notes (1995)


Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 1995 Rykodisc/Demon reissue of King Of America.




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