New Musical Express, October 3, 1998

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A Burt And Costello Show!

Mark Beaumont

It was inevitable that the two mightiest songwriting talents on the planet — Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello — would one day merge. And, indeed, they have. With quite spectacular results.

They've closed off four whole blocks for the President to cruise. Crowds line the blue wood barriers, craning for a glimpse of the cavalcade. They face off against armed police, dodge the dogs sniffing for bombs and blow into inflatable cigars in preparation for the drive-by. A few blocks East they've cordoned off half of Times Square for Marilyn Manson's arrival at MTV studios to deliver his State of the New Goth Nation address on Manson TV. But today, we're informed, this is "low priority."

Between scouring the windows of the skyscrapers opposite for sniper snubs, the gaggle of cops on the roof of the Regency Hotel run through the schedule. In 90 minutes Bill 'Suck It And See' Clinton, his doting wife, 30 NYPD on motorbikes and enough Men In Black to cover up a nuclear holocaust will crawl slowly down Ninth Avenue on their way to a charity function in midtown Manhattan. Then they'll go to see The Lion King. Maybe pick up a pizza. The Boss comes out to party and a mobile Fort Knox tours New York, with every nod, wave and heart-wrenching hug of the wife timed to the millisecond so as not to clash with the ad breaks.

Hang on, he's early. Thirty floors below a black car silently sidles to the kerb. A door opens and two retina-scorching yellow socks emerge. Then a shallow-brimmed hat, plunged over purple shades. Not quite Bill's usual business wear, unless he's intending to plead insanity. But it's not Bill, just another New York Elvis.

"Is Burt here yet? Half an hour? OK."

The vice president of the United States of Songwriting sweeps unnoticed into the Regency lobby, here to deliver the introductory speech of a far more historical summit, to announce the merger of two of the mightiest songwriting talents on the planet into one utterly devastating musical pact.

This afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, romantics and revenge-seekers, lovers and latent psychopaths, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach will join together in legendary communion. Little does he know it, but today Busted Fly Bill and his travelling media circus are merely a sideshow.

"We did a fashion shoot for Rolling Stone," Elvis Costello — loquacious, affable and on a roll — chuckles deeply and swaps his outdoor purple shades for indoor yellow ones. "The photographer had this idea to have us busking on a corner and writing music on a wall with chalk. Of course, we start drawing a crowd. Everybody was up on the fire escape of the building opposite shouting, 'WE LOVE YOU, BURT!' There were people stopping in cars not believing what they're seeing!"

"Photographically, we're an odd match," he continues. "I tend to stare the camera down, and Burt's a natural smiler. When the pictures come back I look like someone's threatening me to make me smile, and when Burt doesn't smile he looks like somebody stole his puppy!"

An odd match indeed. Elvis Costello, aka The Imposter: maverick post-punk pop genius, anti-monarchist, owner of tongue wrapped in lyrical barbed wire, made the world dress like evil Buddy Holly imps for most of the late-'70s, doesn't mind popping into Chelsea these days thank you very much, wrote 'Oliver's Army'. And Burt Bacharach, aka The Guv'nor: near-mythical lounge-core uberlord and icon of 'easy', anti-autumn, owner of whole wardrobe full of tracksuit tops with 'Burt Bacharach' stitched onto the breast, made your mum first snog your dad in 1968, knows the way to San Jose, cheers, wrote every great song on Earth that Costello didn't write first. Or thereabouts.

Yet their musical marriage was fairly inevitable. For ten years now, Elvis has been the spiteful stalker skirting the boundaries of the pop aristocracy (writing funeral elegies for McCartney, choking unsuspecting Dylan fans with his bitter pill support slots) while at the same time delving into classical realms with his Brodsky Quartet collaboration The Juliet Letters. Bacharach, meanwhile, is riding a wave of cult cool that began with one of his albums being leant against Bonehead's sofa on the Definitely Maybe sleeve and reached tsunami level when Burt was spotted playing piano on top of a bus in Austin Powers. Add the fact that Elvis has been playing and recording Burt Bacharach songs since 1977 and that Burt probably couldn't tell the difference, credibility-wise, between Elvis and, say, Pelvis and it's clear that the two have subliminally been on a direct collaboration course for half-a-decade.

In the end it took a turkey to bring them together: the box-office flop film Grace Of My Heart — loosely based on the life of Carol King — for which the producers asked them to pair up and write and record the heartbreaking centrepiece, "God Give Me Strength." In five days.

"He's in Los Angeles," Elvis recalls, "and I'm on the road with Bob Dylan! How the hell are we going to do this? So, I'm in Paris on the phone to Burt at 2 a.m. going, 'I think I've got the words for the bridge!' I made a demo and played it into Burt's answerphone."

The movie died on its arse, but the Burt and Elvis Show flourished. Both whirlwind perfectionists, they clicked under pressure and decided to expand the project into an album. For five days at a time over the space of a year they converged around a piano in the Regency Hotel and concocted the smooth yet sinister grooves of Painted From Memory. It's refreshingly uneasy listening: Burt's trademark organ cheese, bouffant backing choir and tinkling windchime solos are stabbed through with Costello's lovelorn lyricism and twisted until they spew buckets of seductive bile. A cheese and wine party at The Samaritans, essentially.

Picture it: twinkle, parp, bloke goes mental dreaming about his lost lover ("My Thief"). Whoosh, spangle, bloke spies on lost lover opening birthday presents with New Bloke ("Tears At The Birthday Party"). Bah-bah-bah-bah bloke gets smacked in gob by soon-to-be-lost lover ("The Sweetest Punch"). Er, haven't you been happily married for ages, Elv?

"I'm not in a sad frame of mind within myself," he says, "but I get very dark sometimes. When I'm in the moment of it, writing or performing it, it's utterly real. The record's called Painted From Memory and that's not an accident. These aren't recent experiences or even my own experiences, but it doesn't mean they didn't happen."

With Brutal Youth you regained a lot of credibility you lost over The Beard Years. Now you've gone 'lounge'. Does this feel like another step away from your punk cool?

"Absolutely not," Elvis states, "because I think it's all in certain people's imaginations. I don't think this is an un-credible record. If you want me to make Armed Forces again, then this is clearly a mistake because this isn't it. But I'm never gonna do that. I'm never gonna make Brutal Youth again. And guess what? I'm never gonna make Painted From Memory again. That would be a step lacking in credibility. The only credibility I care about is the one I get when I look in the mirror. I don't give a flying fuck about what anybody thinks."

The room hushes. Grown men rise. He's here. An hour behind schedule The Guv'nor saunters into the lounge, immediately identifiable by mile-wide grin, elegantly wrinkled face and tracksuit top lovingly embroidered with his name.

"Sorry I'm late," he says, extending a frail hand. "My breakfast was wrong."

Burt Bacharach, immaculately jet-lagged slides smoothly on to the sofa like a perma-grinning iguana and surveys the chaos outside.

"I'm worn out by all this Clinton thing," he murmurs. "Terrified, embarrassed..."

"They'll never impeach him," Costello says.

Burt chuckles breathily. "They should impeach him for a terrible taste in women."

Burt Bacharach is the King of New York. During breaks in the writing sessions, Elvis and Burt would stroll around Manhattan, constantly tripping over Burt's legend. They'd be hugged by fans, accosted by old friends, even once being recognized by a man that Burt wrote a song with in 1958. All in a day's breathing for a man whose music is so embedded in that American conscience that, without it, the simple act of procreation can become impossible.

"I remember being on an aeroplane from Los Angeles to New York and there was this woman next to me," he recalls. "She had a few drinks and then got confessional. She says, 'I have to tell you, I can't really make it in bed unless I got your music on.'"

Ahem. It may come as no surprise in this light that Burt sees his collaboration with Elvis in terms of rumpo.

"With "God Give Me Strength," we'd had this one date," he nods, "and had a really nice time. We fell in love, picked our furniture, Elvis and I were doing good off that one experience. I have enormous respect for Elvis, I knew he was a risk-taker and I like that a lot. He'd done this thing with the Brodsky Quartet and that's pretty daring. He's got a strong AOR credibility and you know they're gonna hold that up to the light and say, 'Well, he's writing elevator music!' How's that gonna look? I'm sure we'll get it, but it's about music."

How do you feel about suddenly being the coolest pensioner in rock?

"You have no control over something like that," Burt coughs, clears his throat, taps his tea-cup. "Austin Powers happening at the same time as My Best Friends Wedding was happening, at the same time as multiple albums were out there. The best public relations dream team can't do that. You're at the mercy or the blessing of good fortune. I like some of the comments that Noel made and it was fun when Noel came onstage at the Royal Festival Hall, that was interesting."

How did the cameo in Austin Powers come about?

"Mike [Myers] is a big fan. He'd talked about my songs, saying maybe I could score the film. I read the script and then they started shooting and I didn't hear which songs they were gonna use. Then I got a call about coming to Vegas and shooting that scene. I thought about it for a second."

Did you two ever have any serious barnies over musical direction?

"We'd have some standoffs," Burt beams, "but we never argued."

Elvis: "We did change things, though. My favourite was when we had a horn section in and Burt would leave the room and I'd say, 'Quick! Play this bit at the end of the chorus!' and when he came back it'd be done. It got quite conspiratorial."

Burt sparkles and laughs, pleased that these pesky youngsters are still willing to screw around with his art. Elvis grins, happy he can still explore new musical avenues while flicking the bird to his blinkered critics. Out in the street the Presidential cavalcade rolls past on its way to wipe the stains from Clinton's political pants, but heads turn to watch two yellow socks and one embroidered shell-suit melt into the crowd, suddenly drawn towards a far more intriguing proposition. Hell, for all of old Bill's trouser python expertise, he never wrote a tune you could whistle.

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New Musical Express, October 3, 1998

Mark Beaumont interviews Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello.


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Page scan.

Photos by Roger Sargent.
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1998-10-03 New Musical Express photo 02 rs.jpg
Photos by Roger Sargent.

1998-10-03 New Musical Express cover.jpg


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