Audiences attending Elvis Costello recent shows with pianist Steve Nieve could be heard murmuring with surprise when Elvis introduced a new song called "God Give Me Strength" by explaining that he'd written it with Burt Bacharach. Surprise mutated into awe as the song unfolded — a gorgeous waltzing ballad that seemed to effortlessly meld the signature talents of these two legendary pop songwriters. So it was even more startling to discover that the song, commissioned for a movie musical titled Grace of Me Heart, and set in the '50s Brill Building era where Bacharach's own career first took flight, was put together without the two composers ever meeting face to face. Due to geographical constraints and a tight production schedule, Burt and Elvis knocked out their first collaboration together by voice mail and fax machine.
More recently, they did meet in New York to record the version of the song that will appear on the move soundtrack, with Elvis singing and Burt arranging for a live in the studio orchestra. The result ranks with the vest work of both careers — quite an accomplishment. One suspects it's the beginning of a beautiful long-distance relationship.
At Musician's urging, Burt and Elvis agreed to talk about this historic, eccentric collaboration — by phone, of course.
So, what are the pros and cons of composing together by fax?
BB: It kept the adrenaline pumping for me pretty good because we had a time limitation. You never knew what was coming in on the fax machine.
EC: That's true. They had a very tight deadline and this was the only way to solve the problem. The most nerve wrecking thing I've ever done was to send this opening statement of the song to Burt. Thankfully, I got encouragement and amendments to the ideas right away. Then Burt wrote the next bit and I put the words to that. So it was written in stages.
What makes a collaboration work, or not work?
BB: To go the long distance for me there would have to be a personal compatibility — liking the person. No one has to go to the movies or eat dinner with me, but I do want to tolerate the time I'm in the room with them It's sort of like a marriage, if it goes beyond a one-night stand to a longer basis. I think we can all write. Don't you think so, Elvis? We can all get by with someone...
EC: I'd never written before using the somewhat eccentric methods we did. But I've written what you'd call mail order songs, where I've given a tune to a friend to add word to, or more commonly written words for other people's tunes. This is the first dialogue type of collaboration that hasn't been in a room. The only other occasions have been with Paul McCartney, Ruben Blades, and my wife. Working with your wife is a completely different thing. It's more spontaneous, because you spend all your time together...
BB: Tell me about it!
EC: ...and therefore it'll spring out of a casual conversation. Sitting down to a writing sessions with Paul, there was a time frame — more like the collaborative work you must have done at the Brill Building. You worked there in an office, didn't you?
BB: That is true. Where the situation I had with Carol [Bayer Sager] was basically, we live together, we're married, we write a song, have dinner, go to sleep, get up, go to the studio...
If you write quick, that's a salvation too. You can get out of the room fast.
EC: I haven't had that experience of getting out of the room fast.
BB: Me neither. I don't write very quickly.
With many of the classic songwriting teams of the '30s and '40s there was a clear division of labor--George wrote the music, Ira wrote the words. Since both of you write music, I'd imagine a different sort of dynamic.
BB: I like that the person you're working with has that awareness. I remember going into the director George Roy Hill's office before I got the job on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and you know that directors can be impossible. They have blind spots, or no spots at all, when it comes to perceiving where the music might go or what they want it to be. I walked into his office and he's sitting at the piano playing Bach. So you know you're going to get a perspective right there.
EC: Somebody has to institute the dialogue. On this one I played Burt a demo, sent the changes. He said, "Let's change this harmony, let's hold here, let's do this." Then he wrote the B statement, and that needed no amendment on my part — I don't know whether I would have presumed to even attempt it. My job then was to match the intensity of that next statement with a suitable increase in the temperature of the lyrics. I wrote my share of the music, but when it really takes off, particularly in the main bridge, he moves into another gear than I know how to achieve. I'm not talking about the first bridge, but the central section of the song. In the earlier part of the songs we were collaborating more on the musical text, as well as trying to set the scene. But the payoff is that sense of darkness which is in his music and is quite compatible with my own feeling. There's that romantic doubt in some of his sunniest songs which makes his music so enduring.
The melody of "God Give Me Strength," the floating 6/8 rhythm, the use of horns in the arrangement, and the sense of emotional desperation in the lyrics all hark back to those great collaborations between Burt and Hal David in the 60s. Was that a conscious approach?
EC: Well, obviously I wasn't writing in the '60s. I was listening. I was absorbing those songs, and I've tried on a couple of occasions to write and imitation of Burt. The very first time we met I was at Ocean Way [studios] working on "Satellite" [from 1989's Spike] and shamelessly stealing lots of arrangement devices and quite artificially bending a song which had been written in 4/4 into 6/8 and attempting to dress it up with figures played on marimbas to make it float more. Once you did the arrangement of this record I learned more about why several of my attempts to imitate your style had not quite come of as I had imagined them. I was always too busy in the bass end, but you left much more space than I imagined I heard. I think it's because I think in a very linear way and you think as a proper composer does, linear and also vertically. I'm not as good at thinking vertically. Does that make any sense at all?
BB: It does to me.
EC: Meaning the relationships of rhythm and harmony — some of which I leave to chance, to be perfectly honest. There was one beat on the timpani in the bridge which I now think is the best moment on the record. I could not hear it at the time. I couldn't' seen to place my vocal against it, but now I love it because it just throws the rhythm forward.
BB: Part of the appeal of this recording with Elvis was that 90 percent of the vocal was done to track which the band was playing. They react to him, he reacts to them, instead of some guy coming in and doing the percussion overdub alone with earphones. Sometimes there's an excitement that happens when people participate at the same time.
EC: We met for the first time on this song when we rehearsed it at the Record Plant, which happened by sheer chance to be vacant that day, and then we recorded it over the next three days. Burt had come with the arrangement: he'd composed that flugelhorn introduction, We discussed the merits of me singing it, bearing in mine that it's a woman's song, really, but there wasn't an obvious vocalist. You had the dilemma of going with a great unknown or trying to pitch it to a known diva who might butcher it. It was decided that I would at least sing it passionately, even though not as technically as well as some singers.
It is a live vocal. There's only one line where my voice cracks in a way that I would have fixed, that Burt insisted on keeping because he said it sounded real. I was really heartened by that. And I noticed that he got great respect from the string players and horn players because although he was very exacting and demanding that they played it in a certain way, they respected that it wasn't' what some producers do, which is to put you through the paces just because they can. There was always a reason, an objective.
You've both had success in the pop field over the years while bending or breaking a lot of unofficial pop rules, despite the ever-increasing tyranny of the 4/4 beat.
BB: I never did a 7/8 bar to consciously break the rules. It certainly came as a surprise to me when I went to write it down. I'd say, "That can't be right, it comes out seven beats to the bar." But it felt right.
On some level I've tried to make these mini-movies--they have some big moments, they have quiet moments. That's built into the song. If it's not, you're not going to do it orchestrally. Very often when I'm writing, I'm hearing when things all come in and go out. They kind of go hand in hand. It's the advantage of being able to orchestrate as a composer, see.
But it used to be that I'd know who I was writing for. An artist that you might have some control over, like Dionne [Warwick], you could maybe write the orchestration, have some control over the way the song is done. That doesn't work anymore. A lot has changed. There's a lot more self-contained acts. It's real hard to sing a writer now who isn't an artist or a top producer. And there's so many formats. As far as my writing , there's always a place, but I think there's a smaller window for good solid songs.
EC: Growing up as a listener, I wasn't musically literate. But there was an unsettling mystery about certain kinds of music. The most profound example for me was [Bacharach's] "Anyone Who Had A Heart" — to this day it has a strangely erotic effect. I think it's somewhat because of the unsettling nature of the rhythm but of course you don't analyze when you're 12 years old, you just feel it. It definitely came from a world I didn't now about much yet.
The next record that made me feel that was Revolver, where the Beatles clearly weren't the Mop Tops anymore; they'd gone into darker areas. It's that mysterious period between childhood and adolescence where sophisticated music frightens you a little bit, but in an intriguing way, like movies with "adult" themes without in any way being lurid.
BB: If I get an idea, I get away from the piano and start working in my head. I can hear it longer that way, hear the length of the songs to get a balance of what those eight bars are. If you use an instrument, you can get trapped in the bar-by-bar or chord-by-chord.
I think it's important to be able to write music down. I try to encourage young people getting in this business — learn solfège, learn the rules. Then you can break the rules down the line. But learn to write it down.
Machines are very seductive. I can lead my little boy to a keyboard with three or four "brains" hooked up and have him play two notes, and it sounds magnificent. That still doesn't make a song.