London Daily Express, June 2, 2013

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London Daily Express

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Brilliance of Burt, by Elvis Costello


Terry Staunton

It has been 50 years since Elvis Costello first heard a song written by Burt Bacharach but at the time he assumed it was the work of other, soon to be heralded, songwriters. "Baby It's You" featured on The Beatles' debut album Please Please Me, and there was little reason for an eight-year-old Declan MacManus, as Elvis was known then, to think it wasn't by Lennon and McCartney.

"I just thought John and Paul were responsible for all the songs they sang," he says, "but soon after, I got a crash course in Burt courtesy of my father."

Ross MacManus was a respected club singer in the Fifties and Sixties, most notably with the Joe Loss Orchestra, a job that required him to be up to speed with the hits of the day in preparation for radio broadcasts and dancehall shows.

"Throughout my childhood I would hear him rehearsing in the next room, continually learning new batches of songs. That's how I became aware of who Burt Bacharach was, because there would be demonstration records all over the house, in the same way that another kid's salesman dad might have carpet samples lying around.

"Those songs played a big part in shaping my tastes in music. Dad would be learning them for his own gigs and you'd hear Cilla or Dusty singing them on the radio, so they were drilled in to me. The ambition of what Burt was doing always stood out." Fast forward to 2013 and Elvis is collaborating with his boyhood hero on a Broadway musical based on the 1998 Costello-Bacharach album Painted From Memory. The show is the brainchild of Chuck Lorre, the TV writer who created the hit comedies Two And A Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, and will feature additional songs to flesh out the story.

"Several of the songs on the original record fit into a narrative, although at the time we weren't consciously thinking about some meditative, melancholy contemplation on lost love. It was never meant to be as grandiose as that and hopefully we'll be able to keep the stage show from becoming too overblown," he says.

Costello's more direct musical links to Bacharach stretch back to 1977, when he performed "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," the first time he chose to release a song by a writer other than himself. It was a provocative move at the height of punk when new acts were dismissive of the old guard.

"Burt was very much out of fashion back then but he still meant a lot to me and even The Stranglers were bold enough to record a version of 'Walk On By,' although it was far removed from the Dionne Warwick hit. Their take on it was very arch, you got the impression they felt they had to beat it up a bit to get away with doing it at that time.

"It's interesting to see how Burt goes in and out of style. Noel Gallagher was going on about how great he was a few years ago, giving him a voguish seal of approval, but with all due respect Noel could live to 150 and never write a song as good as any of Burt's."

Costello's first meeting with Bacharach was a nervy affair: "When I was recording my album Spike in the late Eighties, Burt was in the studio next door and he popped by to say hello, just as I was working on a song called 'Satellite' which, in my very limited grasp of it, had these figurations and musical suspensions that owed a lot to Burt. I think he took my awkward steals as a compliment, he was very gracious. I didn't meet him properly, I suppose, until we started co-writing.


They were brought together to write a song for the 1996 film Grace Of My Heart. Today, the resulting "God Give Me Strength" is considered a high watermark in both artists' canons.

"We wrote it either end of a telephone line, me faxing him outlines of what I had in mind and him coming back with changes to the harmonies and stretching certain phrases to make them more effective. For me, it was as much an education as it was collaboration."

That initial joint project spawned the Painted From Memory album two years later, Costello learning more from the master with each song: "He'd give me a melody to work on and I'd give him the beginnings of a tune which he would then pull apart in the best possible way. He gets deep within the music and performs these genius twists to improve it. He's a real composer, in the traditional sense; you can hear the musical language, the grammar of what he does."

The Broadway show is still in its early stages, with new songs yet to be written but neither man is fooling themselves that they are working towards a surefire hit. "Broadway is a brutal world," says Costello. "Some shows are in development for years and never open, and others can close after a few days. There are no guarantees. Burt is wise to that and it's to his eternal credit that, well into his 80s, he still has the hunger, is still prepared to take chances. I think I'm right in saying that both 'Walk On By' and 'Don't Make Me Over' started as throwaway B-sides, so Burt knows from experience that if you put your all into a song it can have a life long after its original birth."

Does Costello have a favourite Bacharach song? "That's an almost impossible question to answer, there are so many. I do love 'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself' because it was the first of his I attempted to sing, but ultimately I'd probably go for 'Anyone Who Had A Heart,' which is enduringly wonderful. It still thrills me every time I hear it."

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The Sunday Express, June 2, 2013


Terry Staunton interviews Elvis Costello about Burt Bacharach.

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