New Musical Express, August 21, 1982

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Talking in the dark

Elvis opens the doors to his Imperial Bedroom

Nick Kent

As EC sets off to reconquer America, Nick Kent eavesdrops on A Conversation with Elvis Costello, the promotional album of the album.

In a better world, of course, things would be different. There would be a sense of communal espirit de corps, a ban on empty gestures, psychochic and smug voyeurism, the stress factor would be nullified, and the Imperial Bedroom album would be number one throughout the charts of the Western World.

But reality in its habitually turgid manner dictates otherwise, and as morale flounders so do sales of Elvis Costello's latest masterpiece, highlighting once again this most perplexing of phenomena: the fact that however stunning each successive Costello creation has proven itself to be as an aesthetic coup (discounting Almost Blue), the general public simply doesn't want to know.

Recorded at Air Studios just before Christmas, Imperial Bedroom has thus far failed to ignite the fuse attached to the all-important commercial detente an artist of Costello's stature requires in order to blast him above the ho-hum sales notched up by predecessors Get Happy and Trust. Also, although Almost Blue captured a new market as well as buoying up sales on the home front, over in America this gracious homage to country music's stoic sincerity fell foul of "marketing" and "categorization" to the point where much damage has been caused to Costello's prestige. Even though the receding US sales of Get Happy and Trust denoted the singer song writer's inability to break into the populist echelon of a Springsteen, he nonetheless couldn't be dismissed casually, demanding major league consideration from all other quarters. Almost Blue almost destroyed Costello's aesthetic momentum and demanded a severe reconsideration of ways in which to return.

Thus the current two month US tour of East and West Coasts, with detours into the Midwest and South, concentrating on Imperial Bedroom material, some new unreleased songs, a clutch of old chestnuts plus the odd Almost Blue selection. Two days after the Attractions' return, EC and company embark on the lengthy British tour terminating in London this Christmas.

Meanwhile, whilst heatedly promoting IB, through live gigs, Costello has apparently been considering the odd interview for the American market. Rolling Stone, for example, have been negotiating with Riviera for a possible cover story, although beyond simply backing up these rumours, F-Beat spokespersons became vague regarding concrete results.

There is however A Conversation With Elvis Costello; a two album set that diligently pairs IB's 14 tracks with lengthy explanations and details of everything from myriad techniques through to the exact meaning and inspiration of the song from the Master's Voice itself. With 300 copies pressed primarily for radio promotional purposes, Costello's good natured banter takes up a good hour of listening time, and affords anyone even vaguely intrigued by our pre-eminent pop composer's quirky genius a solid and agreeable insight into its workings.

"The title — Imperial Bedroom — you really get the title when you announce it and everyone goes "ah yes." Titles are peculiar things in that they usually are phrases or words that come up in conversation and happen to evoke a particular mood. It was exactly the same with Get Happy and Trust which was originally going to be called Cats And Dogs. (laughs) And that was it! Then someone at the sessions 'I really think we should have some trust here.'

"The original title of IB ... it was going to be called This Is A Revolution Of The Mind ... which is a line from the fade out of James Brown's 'King Heroin.' (Quotes) "This is a revolution of the mind / Get your mind together and stay away from drugs." I thought it was a great thing to say, y'know. A great idea which was both a bit tongue-in-cheek but also denoting a "healthy change of attitude." Then some people said it sounded like a Moody Blues album title, considering it as deadly serious as though we'd gone to... Venus (laughs).

"Then it was gonna be PS I Love You (the phrase crops up twice at the conclusion of "The Loved Ones" and "Pidgin English") until we discovered some dodgy K-Tel type compilation of — y'know '20 beautiful, silky, romantic hits' so we dropped that.

"Then one day I thought up Imperial Bedroom and it was automatic, y'know: Ah perfect. Because the two words achieve just the right combination of 'faded splendour' and 'sleaze' to fit all the tracks on the album. It's 'Imperial Bedroom' music. That title evokes for me the perfect definition... I mean, I can just see the 'Imperial Bedroom' itself."

"Recorded just before Christmas, it turned out to be the longest album to make, mostly because, as co-producer I had to keep running from the control room to the studio in order to hear the take we'd just completed. Geoff Emerick took care of all the sound and mixing whilst my side of things really involved y'know, "Is it a good take"? As a result of my being more directly involved in production, there was a part in the band to treat each track individually as opposed to going for an overall production 'feel' which had always been the case before. Like on Get Happy there was the 'soul' idea so that every song conformed to that concept.

"Geoff Emerick (best known for being George Martin's lay engineer and thus having worked on most Beatles' cuts, not to mention a plethora of the most diverse recordings) was the perfect man for the job of producer. possessing as he does endles patience, great ideas, vast experience and — something we both share — a healthy suspicion with regard to some of the more dubious 'trends' in modern production. Like, I didn't want to make a '60s-sounding record but there are certain elements to the '60s production thing that have gradually been eroded. For example, the bass drum has got louder and louder to this ludicrous state where it drums out the whole rest of the kit, whilst voices have got quieter and quieter with more and more effects that are almost too subtle. I've always believed that an effect should be used solely to leap out and grab you, plus I wanted my voice mixed up loud so you can hear the words.

"Some of the songs that I had (slight pause) in my 'bag', so to speak, around the time of Almost Blue didn't make it onto the album. I think in fact only one or two that were around before Almost Blue made it onto the record. This was all due to something of a radical change of attitude generally as regards my songwriting. Having chosen the particular clutch of songs I wanted to record, we (Costello and the Attractions) rented a cottage in Devon — very old fashioned (chuckles) — in order to rehearse for about a week exclusively without interruption. We ended up in fact with a double album's worth of material, though no one seriously considered that particular option. And the songs were too long for another 20-track effort — having been through that pantomime already. (laughs)

"Once in the studio I had serious doubts, some fairly radical shifts of opinions, regarding the sound whilst certain songs changed dramatically — in structure — from their initial arrangements. In fact this album marked the first time I've ever rewritten material in the studio which probably had a lot to do with me being in control.

"On 'Beyond Belief' the first track, I noticed that the backing track had this great conviction whilst my initial melody was weak and needed drastically rearranging. The original lyric was garbled because it was at more than twice the speed. So I halved the lyrics and halved the speed of my vocal delivery which make for a nicely disconcerting effect of calm vocals over this rattling back up, instead of yet another frantic track which we've done too often before.

"Similarly 'Tears Before Bedtime' — there were something like four versions of that. A county version was recorded during the Almost Blue sessions, plus a rock 'n' roll arrangement. Then we did a sort of Fats Domino arrangement which ended up sounding too dated .. in fact, it sounded like John Lennon's 'Starting Over' (laughs). Then there was a rhythm shift, like on 'Strict Time' off Trust which we nicked off The Meters. A much sleazier approach which I carried on by doing a fairly humorous vocal set-up which ended up sounding like The Coasters (laughs). It needed a more buoyant feel because the subject definitely isn't lightweight but tended to sound a bit too angst-ridden to begin with. People have had enough pain and misery anyway. Particularly on our records! (laughs)."

The dialogue continues track-by-track the length and breadth of IB's devious architecture. A number of Costello's remarks are particularly illuminating. 'Shabby Doll', a musical equivalent of David Lynch's brilliantly disorientating Eraserhead, came about due to "seeing this ancient music hall poster in which one artiste was referred to as "she's just a shabby doll," while "Long Honeymoon" turns out to have originated as a piano instrument that Costello's publishers had sent to legendary New York lyricist Sammy Cahn ("All The Way," "The Tender Trap," "Three Coins In The Fountain"). Cahn sent the tape back after two months prompting Costello, his ego mildly grazed, to reshape the melody line and compose the lyrics himself.

'Almost Blue' "was an attempt to write in the classic mode. Its lyric style is more akin to the '40s era although "nostalgia's the last thing I wanted to suggest. That's why there's not more of an arrangement." Inspired by Chet Baker — Costello's favourite singer alongside Frank Sinatra — 'Almost Blue' itself is "my most sincerely sung ballad."

'And In Every Home' meanwhile started life as a rocker, believe it or not; "another 'Pump It Up' but too many chords and the story was too delicate to be sledgehammered to oblivion." The story "suggested a performance with more innuendo in it. It's a song about being out of work quite simply. Most songs on the subject always take a grim, realistic point of view. Certainly it's not a situation to boast proudly about but instead of aggrandizing it, I just wanted to state that ultimately a person is of more worth than a job."

By the commencement of the album's second side, the Elvoid is in expansive state. Most surprising is this statement:

"The idea stated in 'The Loved Ones' is basically To hell with posterity you know... it's better to live than to die young in what foolish people assume to be a romantic way.

"For every junkie musician or alcoholic writer who dies in what are twistedly regarded as romantic conditions — this supposed blaze of phoney glory — there's a mum or dad or a sister somewhere just crying their eyes out over it all. I mean, they're the ones who've got to bury the sod. This cheerful tune underscores an utterly morbid concept. Actually, it's not morbid, it's simply about wanting to live and not die. That's why there's the 'PS I Love You' at the end, the voice beyond the grave."

Costello defines his moral concerns with an endearingly erudite candour when talking about three of Bedroom's more initially evasive songs. "Little Savage," for example, "is a sort of love song. Most love songs are written on this very firm conviction of love found or love lost. There aren't nearly as many about people in the middle, and there are a lot of those people they're the ones who don't know if they're Mr Average or Little Savage, right?

"'Pidgin English' is a political song, yes, because I think it's pretty disgusting the way the English language is being taken to pieces, particularly by certain newspapers. The way the Star and the Sun are trying to turn everyone into morons, people actually won't be able to talk properly in 50 years time. The English language is very expressive when used properly but everything's being turned into jargon.

"There's nothing wrong with slang as shorthand to put over ideas so that other people can latch on immediately. Fashion's a good idea because it can give you this special sense of pride. But when it becomes just this degeneration of intelligence then it's dangerous because you end up being manipulated by people who've taken away your ability to say anything different. The whole reason for me writing a pop song about that issue is that it's become a popular disease, it's pretty serious.

"'You Little Fool' is about a young girl who's worth a lot more than she's getting. This fellow — a real creep — is taking advantage of her and she doesn't know quite enough to say 'Leggo'. Thus the split personality vocals: the guy singing the chorus sounds horribly slimey, I wouldn't want to meet him.

"The central theme is one step up from 'Mother's Little Helper' by the Rolling Stones — when they were still like a group — the girl keeps getting this useless advice from her mother, who thinks she's being liberal but who is giving her daughter no help whatsoever. That goes on a lot.

"Like Adam Ant says, you don't have to lose your virginity at 15. You're your own master.

"A lot of people have been saying for 20 years now that kids are too permissive, but it's more the mothers reading Cosmopolitan feeding them this kind of garbage. The kids themselves usually know what's going on. They don't need to read The Sensuous Woman. What a load of bollocks that is."

Finally, with a swift nod to "Town Cryer" ("The key line is 'I'm never going to cry again' — on Almost Blue — people had enough of me wingeing on"), one quote lingers as a perfect reason for Costello's supremacy as pop writer and the perfect reason for the general public, choosing to keep on ignoring him.

"Most people, I think, are confused regarding their identities, or how they feel, particularly about love. They're confused because they're not given a voice, they don't have many songs written for or about them. On the one hand there's 'I love you, the sky is blue,' or total desolation, and inbetween there's this lack of anything. And it's never that clear-cut. There's a dishonesty in so much pop — written, possibly, with an honest intent — all that starry eyed stuff.

"I believe I fulfill the role of writing songs that aren't starry-eyed all the time."

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New Musical Express, August 21, 1982

Nick Kent writes about Elvis Costello and Imperial Bedroom, quoting heavily from the Conversation With Elvis Costello promo.

Paul Tickell reviews the Gram Parsons compilation, which features liner notes by EC.

Also includes an ad for the Bedrooms Of Britain Tour.


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Page scan.

Gram Parsons

Paul Tickell

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Elvis Costello understands country music, the moods which it lyricises and the spirit which it keeps up. This didn't stop Almost Blue, his Nashville album, from being an execrable affair, with The Attractions thinking that playing at being a country bar-room band meant forsaking delicacy and Elvis himself mis-reading the emotiveness of the music as simple bluesy crooning.

Hell, though, Costello is already making up for this little venture with his selection of the best material from Gram Parsons' early '70s solo albums GP and Grievous Angel. The gist of Elvis' sleeve notes is that Parsons, but for his squalid junkie death, would've been up there with Hank Williams — in fact listening to cuts like "Hearts On Fire," "Hickory Wind" and "In My Hour Of Darkness," he probably already is. It was Emmylou Harris who helped him get there: her own solo work may be something of a turn-off, but there's little that's more sublime than her duets with Parsons — listen to "Love Hurts."

Although Parsons never enjoyed big success in his own lifetime, he managed to shake up country music and give edge to its melancholy — much more so than thinking outlaw types like Wayion Jennings and Willie Nelson. Unlike them he didn't resort to macho posturing to compensate for any sensitivity: he let that vulnerable voice stand up for itself.

Parsons' background was partly a rock one, with spells in The Burrito Brothers and Byrds, a fact which Costello is very dismissive about. Wrongly, I think, because a song like "$1000 Wedding" would be less great without its uptempo middle, where the style is rocking rather than the shit-kicking barn-dance one of "Las Vegas" and "Cash On The Barrelhead." Don't let's split hairs, though: Elvis has chosen well, and what he says about Harris and Parsons singing in unison can be applied to all of this album. "If it should fail to move you — then you have a big problem."

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