Musician, May 1990

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Elvis Costello on McCartney / MacManus

Bill Flanagan

Opposites attract — and repel — in a dream songwriting collaboration

Paul McCartney spent more than two years on the different recording sessions that eventually evolved into Flowers in the Dirt. He worked with different producers at different times, recording and stockpiling songs. The most publicized collaboration was with Elvis Costello. Over the course of a year the two Liverpudlians wrote an album's worth of songs and then went into the studio to let Costello try his hand at producing McCartney: "It was very interesting," says Hamish Stuart, who joined the sessions during that period. "Elvis and Paul started off producing together. Certain things happened that eventually benefited the project, but I don't think the co-production worked out as a whole. Elvis' thinking might have been just a little too radical. Once Elvis said, 'Let's double-track this background vocal, then we'll bounce it down a couple of times to lose some quality.' And he was serious! The whole studio fell apart when he said it. Everybody jumped on it. That became sort of a running joke. I don't think it stopped Elvis' ideas, though. But certain things Elvis said and certain things they did together remained there in the end product. And I think even Elvis' thinking changed when he did his own record [Spike], 'cause it's so much more sonically happening. He usually goes for a garage thing."

"In the studio," Costello says, "Paul has a clever way of sidestepping confrontation by making jokes like, 'Well, you can never trust anything he says 'cause he hates effects!' So rather than disagreeing with you, your argument's devalued before it's started. After a while that made the production kind of redundant"

The McCartney sessions done with Costello survived on Flowers in the Dirt to some degree, though in the months after Costello left the project the tapes were overdubbed and added to by McCartney and the next producer at bat, Mitchell Froom. Finally, when McCartney decided it was time to get the album finished, he brought in super producer Neil Dorfsman (Dire Straits, Sting) to get the whole thing organized. "Neil pulled everything together," Stuart says. "There had been so many producers, so many people working on the record, that they needed one person to mix it. Neil was the guy."

Costello's influence is still apparent, though, particularly in "That Day Is Done," the song from which the album draws its title. That tune takes the album's maturity to its logical conclusion — the grave. In the tradition of country songs like "Long Black Veil," "That Day Is Done" is sung by a ghost to the young woman crying over his resting place as "she sprinkles flowers in the dirt." "I must give Elvis a lot of credit for 'That Day Is Done,'" McCartney says. "His grandmother was dying in Ireland and a lot of this 'Long Black Coat'-ness came from that fact. We wrote it together, but I must give him a lot of credit for that. I'm well into it, I really enjoyed making the record. My elderly housekeeper Rose, who wouldn't like me to tell her age, heard it and she said to Linda, 'Is that him, Lin? No! Is that him?' She was totally into it. For hours she wouldn't believe it was me!"

We spoke to Costello in Ireland, where he was unpacking belongings in his new home. He had just found an autograph book from his childhood. Costello's father, Ross MacManus, a well-known British band singer, performed on a bill with the Beatles in 1963. Ross brought home the Beatles' autographs for his son that night. Twenty-six years later, Elvis had just found them again.

You suggested McCartney play the Beatles bass part on "My Brace Face"?

In the studio he had this five-string bass, which you can gel some great lines on — but I was trying all along to say that having a very recognizable, unique style of playing is not something to be sniffed at No other bass player would approach the parts quite the same way. I think sometimes when you're very close to things, you're aware of them as mannerisms. I know that I have it with my voice and even to some extent with the very limited guitar that I play; I'm sometimes reluctant to put the bit in because it sounds too much like me. Maybe Paul sometimes shies away from doing things that come naturally. I couldn't take credit for the figure [in "My Brave Face" I just said, "A cross figure in the 'Taxman'/'Paperback Writer' vein would be a good thing."

It's as much a signature as the sound of his voice. I think it's a hard thing to work out a signature part like that. He's obviously a very fluent musician, he could work out any number of parts in many different styles. The important thing was to get the one that sounded like him. It's very difficult. I remember after the pictures on my first record, people would say to me, "Go on, do the funny legs!" It's like going up to Woody Allen and saying, "Go on, be funny." Once you say it to somebody they can't do it. It can get a bit insulting if you keep cajoling people, 'cause it starts to suggest that everything they do is a cliché. That was certainly not my intention. It would be really worthwhile putting in the record. I started writing the bridge of "My Brave Face," that Beatle-y descending "Ever since you've been away..." We were doing a vocal rehearsal in the kitchen and he sang the line, "Take me to that place." I hit the low harmony on "place" and he went, "Oh no, no. This is getting to be too much. That's exactly like 'There's a Place' or 'I'll Get You.'" As my voice is harsher than his and in a lower register, it does do that same thing. Those comparisons can be a drag, but they're so sweet on the ear you can't help slipping into them. And I notice he kept it on the record!

Paul gave you a lot of credit for "That Day Is Done."

I remember one review said, "It's very hard to imagine any Paul McCartney song opening, 'I feel such sorrow, I feel such shame.'" Obviously the lyrical root of that song started with me. But it would have been a very plain, probably not very memorable gospel song if there hadn't been a strong chorus on it, which is what Paul said immediately: "It's got to have a chorus!" I was quite happy for it to have the detail of the verses and pay it off with just the title line, but he said, "No, you've got to develop that title line and repeat it musically. Then you end up with a song of more substance."

Before that it would have followed much more of a stock blueprint. Which I've done sometimes. On many songs on King of America I was writing after the patterns of a gospel or blues or country song. And it would only be the lyrics that would be unique to me. The melodies would be almost found. He doesn't do that. He would start with that and then add a melodic invention on top of it. Which is what the chorus of "That Day Is Done" is.

"That Day Is Done" was quite a personal story to me. I think that was a real test of whether we could really write together. Heaven knows we both know enough about songwriting that if we couldn't write a couple of things as good as "My Brave Face" and "Veronica" there'd really be something the matter. The real test was to write something with real feeling. That wasn't just plucked out of the air as an exercise in "What kind of tempo shall we work on today?" or "Should we go for a lot of shifts between major and minor?" I had a very strong idea about what the song should say, but I hadn't all the words. I just had the very opening of the song. Everything else was developed together and yet it remained true to the sentiment of a personal story about my not being able to attend a funeral. Whether it means something different to Paul when he sings it is the test of whether it's a good song. It should be possible to sing it with an entirely different emphasis and meaning and still make it work.

I had the story but I hadn't articulated it. So Paul and I sat and wrote down certain words that seemed to fit the mood of the song. Which is not a very regular way of writing lyrics. There were certain words that seemed to resonate within that song. I think it's something Robbie Robertson did early on. There were certain words that you could not imagine existing in his songs. It was almost as if he had a deliberately edited vocabulary. Not in the sense of being inarticulate, but in a sense of his trying to define a certain way of speaking to make it sound like it was coming from another time. That was an influence on the way we approached "That Day Is Done." We said, "It's got to be in this slightly arcane language." That's the way the rest of the lyric developed. I wanted it to have something of a Louvin Brothers Appalachian ballad about. Slightly mystical songs with very dark imagery.

So I knew roughly what I wanted the song to say but it took two people to get it out. It was a very personal topic and it actually helped having another person to articulate it. People hear that lyric and say. "Oh, that comes from Costello," 'cause in the last few years I've written more songs of a mysterious nature than Paul has. But I don't know what hand he had in "Baby's in Black," but that song to me has always been on a par with [Jesse Winchester's] "Black Dog." It's one of those songs that makes my skin creep a little bit, like a good thriller does. My favorite Band songs, "Tears of Rage," "Unfaithful Servant," have a similar quality. Those songs seem to be about something going on around the corner that you can't quite see. Something behind a locked door.

Well, McCartney's done that. "Eleanor Rigby" had that spookiness,"Let It Be" is about his mother's ghost coming in the night.

Well, this is all sounding a little bit pretentious as we talk about it, but here's the comical side: I arrived at the studio with the gospel development of the verse melody of "That Day Is Done." It could have kept going around on three or four notes as far as I was concerned 'cause it only had to tell the story. Paul said, "That's fine but it just sounds like a million songs. What you need is this." And he sang, "That day is done, that day is done, that day is done." I said, "Oh, you mean like, 'Let it be, let it be, let it be'?" But he was right, it needs that kind of statement to make the song pay off. Otherwise it would be just a long series of images leading perhaps to some payoff, but with no release, no motion. All story and no emphasis.

McCartney puts more thought into lyrics than people realize.

I'm supposed to be a lyricist, but he'd say, "No, that's just not logical. You're making too much assumption that the audience will follow that little jump there."

I think it's probably because the music he would have heard immediately before starting writing would have been written by trained songwriters. People say "Oh, he was listening to rock 'n' roll!" But early rock 'n' roll songs weren't all written by hillbillies. A lot of them were really crafted. All the Leiber & Stoller things rhyme really well; they never accommodate a three-syllable word rhyming with a two-syllable word. They never add extra bars or extra beats. Everything's exact in them. And that was true for the whole tradition of songwriting from the '30s, except where it was done obviously for effect, like in Cole Porter.

Look at the standards McCartney throws into his repertoire from time to time, they're very disciplined songs. In the course of Lennon and McCartney developing as writers there was obviously some sort of revelation they had that you could do these little things. Suddenly these bars of 2/4 started creeping in. As early as Beatles for Sale, but really took over around Rubber Soul. That was the stuff that influenced me when I was learning. It was uneven structure, and after that the rulebook went out the window. Revolver is the textbook on how to write really melodic pop songs that don't obey any of the normal rules. "And Your Bird Can Sing" and things like that. And then occasionally they're really formal — like "Here, There and Everywhere," which has the little opening: "To lead a better life I need my love to be here." You can see the guy singing that coming through the French windows into the rose garden. It's a real Broadway show introduction. And I mean that in a good way.

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Musician, No. 139, May 1990

Bill Flanagan interviews EC as part of a cover story on Paul McCartney.


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Paul McCartney interview

Bill Flanagan

Costello extract:

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Elvis Costello worked with McCartney on the Flowers in the Dirt album, as well as several tracks on his own Spike. They co-wrote a number of songs, including their respective hits, "Veronica" and "My Brave Face." A Beatles fan since the start and a sharp student of rock 'n' roll, Costello is articulate on the subject of Paul McCartney. "There's no denying that he has a way of sort of defending himself by being charming and smiling and thumbs up and all the bit," Costello says. "I said once that I thought he should try to step from behind that, at least insofar as the music was concerned. We actually had a heart-to-heart about whether it was possible to have a personality in songs, regardless of what you need to get you through the day when you have to go and meet people and things are expected of you.

"Most people in show business develop some way of fending off unwelcome intrusions. It can be by making yourself enigmatic and elusive, like Dylan. Or you do like McCartney does and come head-on at people and almost shock them by how personable you are. In a smaller, confined space where that defense is not necessary, it can become an obstacle. But I never felt when we were writing that it was there. The minute the two of us were in a room together it disappeared completely. His professional face would return sometimes when he was bored. I think that's just a question of the unbelievable trip that he's been on. And I don't think that's a harsh criticism at all. As I have my own sort of armor of that nature, I'd be throwing stones at a glass house if I were to say there's something the matter with that. But there was never any distance when we were writing."

One odd turn the McCartney/Costello songwriting collaborations took was that Elvis had to push Paul to use composing techniques made popular by the Beatles. "It got sort of comical, "Costello says. "It was 'Here we go again.' Once we got over the initial surprise that writing together worked so easily, the thing was not to go down cliched roads. A lot of the descending lines which people hear and say 'Oh, that's a Beatles thing' were actually mine. I learned guitar by learning Beatles songs, and working with him brought it out. Working with Paul, when you've actually got him there singing harmony, those little turns are almost irresistible. Like in the bridge of 'My Brave Face' or in the structure of 'You Want Her Too.' There was a point where he might have thought, 'Hang on, this is getting a bit parodyish.' But what I thought I could add — it's not like he needs a lot of help to write songs — was the little friction that is creative, and to get him to refer to the musical vocabulary that is second nature to me from Beatle music. You'd think it would be even more second nature to him. After all, he thought it up to begin with! But in Wings it was never referred to.

"After the first solo album, McCartney, he never referred to any Beatles language. It's quite amazing, it's quite unique really. The only parallel I can think of in pop music is Richard Rodgers. He had two distinct styles, one with Hart and one with Hammerstein. It isn't just that the lyrics changed, the melodies changed as well. And McCartney did it without a partner! Quite an amazing thing. That's not to say that all of the songs he wrote with Wings were as good as the best of the Beatles, but it's quite an achievement to dispense with a whole musical vocabulary and come up with another one. A musicologist would give you credit for that.'

"Elvis was very good for me in that respect," McCartney agrees. "I think I probably would have kept a little more of the Beatles' musical vocabulary — 'cause I was certainly interested in it — but a number of people said, 'Oh, he'll churn all the Beatles shit out!' So I purposely dug my heels in and said, 'Oh will I? We'll see about that!'

"But after all that time it was good to have someone like Elvis say, 'Yeah, but you know, you're alright. You've proved you can do the other, and it's cool. We could do this. It was nice when you did that.' He got me to get the old Hofner bass out. Elvis is very that way, he doesn't care if things are a tiny bit out of tune and stuff. Like me. Again, the Beatles had that primitive innocence. In the Beatles, whenever we heard anything out of tune we'd say, 'Ooo, it sounds like a fairground — it sounds great! "Ooo, honky-tonk piano out of tune!' In fact I picked up a guitar the other day and it was wildly out of tune, but I was in an angry mood, and you know, guitar's a very therapeutic instrument. You can go off in a room and kind of cry with your guitar. I've written a lot of songs that way. I happened to pick up this guitar that was totally out of tune and, man, I was really into it, I loved it! I was too angry to tune it." McCartney mimes thrashing the guitar and shouting, "Fuck! Yeah! Sure! One more fucking time!' 1 was just screaming. Now I know it's out of tune. That's the only difference. But at least I don't reject it.

"Elvis' point is interesting. I suppose that after the Beatles you couldn't just go and become the Beatles. The thing with Wings was, I certainly couldn't just go out and become a pale copy of the Beatles. Our stuff was too strong for that. Anyway there were millions of 'new Beatles.' Everyone was being that anyway. So it was down to, well, let's just go back to the beginning again, let's just go back to the little tour with the van, go back to our roots, we'll get 'Lucille' out of the packing case again.

Photo by Tom Sheehan.
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