The "Works Outing" had not turned out as planned. After many weeks in the studio under a pall of Hollywood smog, I had arranged for us all to go on a sailing trip off Long Beach. My co-producers, Mitchell Froom and Kevin Killen, must have thought the voyage doomed; after all, I wasn't exactly the ocean-going type. They cried off at the last moment, leaving just my wife, Cait, and I to take to the high seas.
The Santa Ana winds were blowing, driving everyone crazy on land. I was told that they wouldn't make for ideal sailing weather, not that I knew anything about it. Far from the crew that I imagined would be the minimum requirement for the adventure, we had a sole yachtsman at the helm of a 70-foot vessel. I was suspicious that this was not strictly how these things were done. This feeling was confirmed when the wind direction changed, the sea kicked up, and "the Captain" told me to grab the wheel while he edged precariously along the narrow deck towards the bow in order to trim a sail or two. One freak wave at that moment, and I might not be writing; I'd still be sailing to Fiji.
Now we had the wind behind us, and we ran down the coast at an exhilarating speed until we turned for home and were becalmed once more. The gentle rocking of the vessel and the sea air soon lulled us to sleep. When we awoke we were under motor power and entering the harbour. I turned on the radio as soon as we got back into the car. War had broken out.
By the time we arrived back at out hotel, CNN was trailing every bulletin with their new "Desert Storm" logo and musical fanfare. It promised to be an all-star production. The business of bringing another ruthless dictator to account was well under way. Curiously, there was little mention of the years in which he had been a "strategic ally" or at least a "necessary evil." The "New World Order" seemed to have a way of provoking bouts of mass amnesia.
Needless to say, I did not imagine that I would be recording any of this record during wartime when I wrote it, although I was looking at the world without much affection. Many of my early records have been described as being "angry," a quality that I think is exaggerated by a quirk in my vocal delivery. However, if you really want to hear an angry record then this disc is for you.
Three songs at the center of this album summon up what can only be described as "Cold War Nostalgia." The first is "Invasion Hit Parade" — a fantasy about a decent man who has been working in the resistance of a recently "liberated" country, only to find that his new role is to be patronized and force-fed consumer goods and pop anthems. He must assume a posture of supplication and gratitude while triumphal forces of the Free World hijack his revolution in the pursuit of better TV ratings. These images of the post-Stasi world of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Panamanian invasion might have been assembled while surfing the news channels any day at the turn of the decade.
The music uses a deliberately unsettling piano theme that threatens to turn into something grand, a sequence of guitar chords that don't seem to want to follow each other, and my father, Ross McManus, playing a sort of Iberian trumpet fanfare before taking off into some free blowing over the tag. The effect was somewhat like having interference between two adjacent radio stations on the dial.
The next song, "Harpies Bizarre," is about a naïve Eastern European girl being picked up by a man of the world. Perhaps she is working as a hostess at an embassy ball. She might stand for the "courtship" of her country. That I never told anyone what was in my mind when writing it means that the song has to work regardless of where you understand the scene to be located.
The instrumentation includes a woodwind group, arranged by Fiachra Trench from my originally material. I'd become interested in the "Windband" arrangements of famous melodies and arias from the 1790s. I'd read that it was the only way ordinary people could hear the music of court entertainments in those days. Popular music isn't always so ubiquitous. This sparked the idea of the central interlude. It seemed to suit the scene I was hoping to set.
The same character is transformed in the third of these songs, "After The Fall." Now she is the dominant lover, running new, decadent games. It was intended to be a comic song. Marc Ribot plays some very elegant Spanish guitar on this track.
This theme might have continued if I had included the song "Just Another Mystery" in the final sequence. Having completely forgotten about the studio recording until it was retrieved from the archive for this edition, I can only imagine that I found it lacking some of the feeling of the demo version (both tracks can be heard on CD 2).
The song sprang from a tiny newspaper article stating that the body of the composer Bela Bartok was to be returned to Hungary from the United States for burial. The odd footnote stated that the coffin would tour through Europe by train and that commemorative concerts would be staged along the way.
I seized on this last detail to write the story of the last journey of an unnamed exiled hero, one who had not exactly been feted and respected in his adopted country and one who was forgotten in his homeland. Clearly, it was not the true story of Bartok but it had more to do with the shifting sense of worth in years beyond 1989.
These may seem like very serious and earnest subjects for popular songs, but you have to remember that I was coming off my biggest hit record to date. The unlikely success of "Veronica" — a song that took as its subject the disintegration of an older mind — made Spike a big commercial success. That album was a collection of songs about drunken comedians, junk-bond saleswomen, satellite pornographers, a 1950s murder case, a pair of terrified soldiers, a woman who scares children, the alcoholically deluded, and various other potentially violent malcontents. Nothing seemed beyond the realm of the pop song.
This album opens with "The Other Side Of Summer." The arrangement is a pastiche of The Beach Boys after the fashion of The Beatles' "Back In The U.S.S.R." In our case, the music and vocal parts take their cue from some of their early ‘70s album tracks like "The Trader" and "Funky Pretty." The words are a catalogue of pop conceits, deceits, hypocrisies, and delusions. I include myself in this parade of liars and dupes.
The track was cut in the vast Studio One at Ocean Way, Hollywood, where most of this record was recorded. It features our own version of the "Wall of Sound": drums, two basses, two guitars, and four keyboard players (including my own efforts on electric and toy pianos). When this proved insufficiently powerful, we simply double-tracked the entire rhythm section before adding the glockenspiel, castanets, sleigh bells, and the vocal parts.
It is not easy to isolate one instrumentalist in such a large ensemble, but I must salute Larry Knechtel's towering piano part. Larry's piano, organ, and bass credits include "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Good Vibrations," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," although you could barely get a word out of him about having played on these legendary cuts. His modest demeanour and utterly musical sense lent a lot to these sessions.
"Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" was written for the days when the mortal sins of the advertising world and the venal sins of the trash culture become unbearable. When the news fixates morbidly on the sentimental appeals of the parents of a missing child, only for it to be revealed that they are the ones who committed the crime. Small wonder that this song invites the end of the world.
It was composed over a series of drum and tuned percussion loops assembled in advance by Jim Keltner, a method to which I would not return until the album When I Was Cruel. This cut also features two of my favourite instrumental cameo appearances: Nick Lowe's thumping bass entrance in the third verse and a dazzling James Burton guitar solo that is right on the edge of impossible.
"How To Be Dumb" is an instruction pamphlet for the innocent, the indiscreet, the snide, and the deluded who confuse freedom of speech with necessity and license, while "All Grown Up" recalls a practitioner of a jaded posture that I believed I had left behind when I departed from London in the late ‘80s. I might have thought to sing the tune as if I believed it were beautiful. It is hard to deny that I was in a contrary frame of mind at this time, subjecting even the tenderest melodies to an extremely violent and guttural attack.
Strangely, my original vocal idea for "All Grown Up" was Carl Wilson; at least it was listening to his voice that inspired the melodic shape of the song. I was fascinated by the way he appeared to be trying to inhale the words back into the mouth as they were uttered, a style that I can only describe as "backwards singing." It was a very sensual effect, and you can hear my vain attempts to imitate this in the last verse of "Georgie And Her Rival," although obviously without the supernatural purity of tone. You can also hear a very different vocal approach on the "All Grown Up" home demo on CD 2.
The musicians on this record consisted primarily of the American players with whom I'd been working since 1986, many of them members of successive touring outfits: The Confederates, The Rude Five, and The Filthy Four. After making King Of America and Spike together, it certainly didn't feel like the sterile, clichéd idea of "working with studio musicians."
Unlike Spike, where hardly two instruments were recorded simultaneously, there were full band sessions with live vocals for this album. I had sketched out most of the arrangements on a home-recording set-up that allowed me to illustrate the parts in more detail. I worked without a drum machine, preferring the ebb and flow of an ensemble but did play a number of odd percussion accents, most of which were faithfully incorporated within the percussion parts.
The album was originally supposed to feature The Attractions. The plan advanced to the extent that I recorded a series of "farewell" sessions with the American crew at Blue Wave Studios, Barbados — cutting a selection of my favourite songs that would finally appear on Kojak Variety Vol. 1. When The Attractions' participation was scuppered by an unseemly legal squabble, I simply returned to Hollywood and kept on working.
There is an abrupt shift of mood at the top of Side Two (this was probably the last record that I imagined as a two-sided vinyl disc). Most of the songs in the programme from this point can be summed up with the line from the chorus of "Georgie And Her Rival": "Well, heaven knows what fills the heart and makes you feel so alive."
That song tells the tale of long distance seduction, disguise, and deception and is followed by the portrait of a departed lover, "So Like Candy." This is the first of two songs written with Paul McCartney. By far the best versions of these songs were the vocal and guitar demos cut at Paul's studio immediately after completing each composition. They remain in the McCartney vault. Paul and I had co-produced his band versions of both "So Like Candy" and "Playboy To A Man" during the early session for the Flowers In The Dirt album, but the tunes had not been included in the final running order. Now, with Paul's approval, I laid claim to these titles.
"So Like Candy" is probably the best ensemble performance on the album; the Jerry Scheff/Jim Keltner rhythm section held down the slowest credible tempo beneath Larry Knetchel's upright piano and Mitchell Froom's Mellotron lines while Marc Ribot and I play the guitars. T-Bone Wolk even makes a cameo appearance with some fine Rickenbacker bass fills on the fade.
The Hollywood smog was playing havoc with my throat by the time it came to tackle the second McCartney/MacManus composition and several other songs, so much so that we had to return to London to complete the vocal sessions. I remember being possessed of the notion that the track should not sound like a rock and roll cliché. Perhaps I was guilty of over-thinking the material, as it is clearly quite a slight song.
Late on London evening, I attacked the tune with a piece of wrought iron. Singing at times down a length of rusty metal pipe, I arrived at a series of distorted character voices. At best this track is in the tradition of the ‘50s novelty vocal records. I think that the sequence of ballads from "So Like Candy" onwards would have dragged a little without it. If you are not in the mood for "Playboy To A Man," then I'm sure you know how to work the pause or skip buttons on your CD player.
This track is preceded by a brief horn interlude, one of several fragments entitled "Couldn't Call It Unexpected." This one is "No. 2." Following their appearance on Spike, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band traveled from New Orleans to join these sessions. They added the beautifully played brass lines to "Sweet Pear," a song that also includes one of my rare guitar solos, part of the original composition rather than a spontaneous improvisation. The song itself, a tender tale of abject love, receives one of the more tender vocal performances.
Cait O'Riordan's song, "Broken," is the next in a sequence of three contrasting ballads. Kevin Killen knew that I was anxious that it should not sound like an imitation of traditional music and ensured that an uneasy atmosphere was sustained throughout via the placement of distant tones in heavy reverb. Cait never talks about her songs, so I am not about to add any of my own speculation.
Two cuts that do depart from Irish musical sources are to be found on CD 2. One is an antidote to mawkish Christmas song called "St. Stephen's Day Murders." The text, written for Paddy Maloney's air, imagines lacing the festive bird with something to dispatch unwanted and unwelcome relations. It was originally released on The Chieftains' seasonal album The Bells Of Dublin.
The second song, "Mischievous Ghost," was commissioned by the filmmaker Philip King for his television series about the journey of Irish music called Bringing It All Back Home. The two-part arrangement begins with a strident, winding melody over guitar, bodhran, and Uileann pipe accompaniment before dropping into a more confidential and critical tone. The second part of the vocal line is shared by Mary Coughlan. She has just the right sardonic tone for a song that offers little sympathy for the half-dead, self-pitying drunken artist and his tales of romantic defeat. The small string group arrangement was sketched out on the keyboard by myself and transcribed by Fiachra Trench.
The album closes with a melody that is among my favourites of those I have composed at the piano, "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No.4." The lyric contains what might be called an "agnostic prayer," if such a thing can exist.
"Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."
Given the fact that I am a former altar boy, perhaps it was inevitable that I would come around to this way of thinking eventually, and the title of the song reflects this.
The musical arrangement was recorded in a single take with six keyboards being employed simultaneously. Only the brass parts were added as an overdub. I can't say that I am entirely happy with my recorded vocal performance. It has a lot of feeling but does not flatter the melody that much. I had similar reservations during my 1999 tour with Steve Nieve. I found that the best solution was to sing the song unamplified at the close of each concert.
The melody also found its way into the main title sequence of soundtrack music that I co-composed with Richard Harvey for Alan Bleasdale's television drama series, GBH. I was sketching out musical themes for the 11-hour drama during the mixing of this album, making demos on my own recording set-up in the studio while Kevin and Mitchell were working in the control room. I was unable to write musical notation at the time, so all of the orchestrations and a good deal more of the atmospheric and textural material was Richard's work.
The score won a BAFTA (British Academy Award) the following year. I did not attend the ceremony, but Richard received a kiss on the cheek from a young Catherine Zeta-Jones along with the statuette. He also turned to the camera and mimed opening a bottle, something that I might have been doing at that exact moment.
There is no doubt that my physical appearance gave people reason to assume that I had gone mad. Drinking did have something to do with the extremities of my moods and less than elegant profile, but the wild hair and beard emerged during the first cold winter at our new Irish hillside home and became a fixture once I realized how it infuriated people. There was always a strong streak of perversity in my fashion choices. I had no idea that people would be so sentimental about the disappearance of my face.
It seems that much that was written about this record at the time of the original release fixated on these superficial aspects. I was as detached from the world of pop as I wanted to be. You only have to listen to the highlights of our MTV Unplugged appearance for evidence. Despite the hostility and predictions of doom that attended the release of this record, it actually out-sold the first three, supposedly irreproachable, albums at the time of original release.
This record says that the world we are making is grim, and I believe that it is. We are cruel to each other, we lie and manipulate until the unworthy encounter a love to which we must surrender. It may come in the shape of a man or a woman or it may not. It's just some songs that I wrote.
So it was that I found myself up on the precipitous Corniche between Nice and Monte Carlo in a large, black vintage Buick full of French models, pretending to sing "The Other Side Of Summer" for the benefit of the video crew up ahead. I had learned to drive at the age of 35. The brakes on the car were said to be unreliable. If I had plunged off the edge, then this might not be a bad place to conclude.
— Elvis Costello