Elvis Costello must sometimes feel that there are more people collecting his records than there are buying them. In our Readers' Poll last year, he finished in the Top Ten, confirming his position as one of the most collectable artists of all time, never mind new wave or the 1980s. Yet with very few exceptions, he has remained a cult success, only rarely falling into line with public taste, and apparently only able to score massive hit singles with other artists' material.
That is scant reward for the most consistent songwriter in British music over the last decade. Costello has touched so many bases, raided so many styles, that the breadth of his recorded repertoire is difficult to grasp.
Costello's collectability has been establish-ed by the presence of scores of limited edition items in his discography. Yet he has never had to revert to the easy option of issuing endless `alternate' mixes of the same song. Every one of his rarest releases offers something to his fans, in the shape of new material, edits or extended versions unavailable elsewhere, incisive interviews, or merely a personal autograph. And even his straightforward catalogue of singles has hidden depths. His most recent release looked like a straight coupling of a song from each of his last two albums, with nothing for the collector. In fact, both "Blue Chair" and "American Without Tears" were re-recordings, with the latter in particular challenging the original version, and approaching the song from an entirely new angle.
What follows is a list of some of the tastiest Costello rarities. It is not meant to he comprehensive -- merely a guide to some of the items that every Costello collector will enjoy, and should own.
"Alison"/"Miracle Man" (U.S. Columbia 3-10641; 1977)
"Alison" was Costello's second U.K. single, and its apparently placid nature prompted U.S. Columbia to issue it as his debut release Stateside. They obviously didn't listen to the lyrics, which told rather a different story; neither did Linda Ronstadt, whose 1978 cover version was a complete misreading of the song. In Britain, the song was covered by Barry Christian, for his sole claim to rock and roll fame.
Someone at Columbia decided that the raw U.K. version of "Alison" was likely to grate on more sensitive American ears, so a discreet string section was plastered over the chorus, giving the whole piece a poignant air that doesn't sit too well with the message of the song_ This version has never been issued in Britain, though it did reappear in the States in 1978 as the flipside of "Watching The Detectives" (3-10705). Both these U.S. singles sell for around £4 apiece; the mono/stereo promo of "Alison" fetches about £6, and the orthodox A-side/B-side promo sells for slightly less than that.
"Talking In The Dark"/"Wednesday Week" (Radar RG 1, December 1978)
Costello's second and third albums came with freebies, the first coupling a studio "Stranger In The House" with a live cover of the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat", the second offering three rather unexciting live tracks from the 1979 U.S. tour. Sandwiched between them was this studio coupling, given free to patrons at the band's gigs at the Dominion Theatre in London during December 1978. Leftover copies were shipped to the States for distribution at Costello shows in New York a month later.
Both tracks were apparently out-takes from the Armed Forces sessions: "Talking In The Dark" had a certain pedestrian charm, while "Wednesday Week" was pure throw-away, though welcome for all that. And the single was a nice gesture, though the fact that both songs have subsequently appeared on compilations has prevented the price of this item rising above £15.
"I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"/"Girls Talk" (2-Tone CMS TT-7; January 1980)
This was the most sought-after collector's item of early 1980, which offended the law of gravity by gradually becoming more common instead of less. Costello had been signed to Radar Records in 1978. via a licensing deal from Riviera Global Productions. Radar collapsed towards the end of 1979, and so Elvis's manager Jake Riviera alighted upon the Specials' 2-Tone label as an ideal venue for a holding operation — a one-off single — until Elvis sorted out a deal for the Get Happy album. WEA, who had distributed Radar, were less than delighted: they felt they had a stake in Costello's career by virtue of the success of the records they had distributed for him, and so they obtained a court injunction to stop the 2-Tone single being sold.
By March 1980, the situation was clarified: F-Beat was set up by Riviera as an independent company, but WEA continued to distribute their records. In the meantime, there were several thousand 2-Tone Costello singles to dispose of. These were eventually handed to fans at a Rainbow Theatre gig — and instantly started changing hands in the small ads of the weekly papers for anything up to £40 apiece.
Several months later, Riviera pressed up a few thousand more of the 2-Tone singles, and these were given away at gigs in London and the U.S.A. By this time, however, the single had been issued with the catalogue number F-Beat XX-1. As this new number had replaced the 2-Tone number in the run-off grooves, the second batch of 2-Tone singles carried the F-Beat number, whereas the original copies had 'TT-7' as their matrix number. The first batch now sell for about £25, the second for around £12.
"New Amsterdam"/"Dr Luther's Assistant"/"Ghost Train"/"Just A Memory" (F-Beat XX 5/XX 5E/XX 5P; June 1980)
In theory, the Get Happy album was chock full of potential hit singles. In reality, Costello's only hit from the album came with Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down". Costello is indisputably one of the great singles artists of the last decade or so; despite that he has had only one Top 10 single in this country with one of his own compositions, "Oliver's Army". Collectors have one consolation: his flops will probably be worth a small fortune in another decade's time.
"New Amsterdam" had hit single written all over it — everywhere except in the charts. It appeared in three different forms. The initial 7" retailed at 50p (half the normal price) but featured just two tracks. The EP version included all four, and also appeared as a picture disc; the first 1,500 of these came with a black rim, while later copies were white-rimmed. They sell for £15 and £7 respectively, while the ordinary EP now retails for £4 and the single for £2. And the music? Well, besides the Attractions-backed A-side, the EP included three Costello solo tracks — the first evidence of his mastery of the studio, and his ability to construct songs that combined the ambition of the 1960s with the sensibility of the 1980s. Hidden away on the second side was "Just A Memory", a ballad which was later revived by Dusty Springfield under the title "Losing You".
"Excerpts from the album ALMOST BLUE" (F-Beat EC-1, 1981)
Promos don't come much classier than this four-track 7" EP, which featured "Good Year For The Roses", "Colour Of The Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me" and "Sweet Dreams". The thin paper sleeve was plain white, with the track details typed on a cheap computer and printed out on a sticky label. The label was also white, with the barest of information printed in smudged green ink. And the record sounded as if it had been pressed during an artillery exercise, having been mastered in a frying-pan. Despite this the EP sells for £35, as does a similar 12 exercise used to promote Trust.
"Man Out Of Time (DJ Edit)"/Elvis Costello introduces "Man Out Of Time"/"Man Out Of Time" (F-Beat XX 28-DJ, July 1982)
"Man Out Of Time" might he Costello's be single — or his best song issued as a single, which is not necessarily the same thing. But it still failed to reach the Top 50, despite F-Beat going to the trouble to issue this promo-only version of the single. Side One featured 3'5 7" edit of the song only available on this single, while the second side features an edited version of Costello's spoken introduction to the song from the A Conversation With album, plus the full 5'32" LP track, Recently this single has been selling for up to £ I 5.
"Everyday I Write The Book"/"Heathen Town"/"Night Time" (F-Beat XX 32T)
One of Costello's more successful singles, "Everyday I Write The Book" is more of a curiosity than a rarity. The original 12" release featured the 7" version of the song; but within two weeks that was replaced by a slightly longer remix. Some (but not all) of the second pressing carried a sticker to that effect on the front cover; all of them had the remix information on the A-side label. In the States, meanwhile, two different versions again appeared on the 12" release — a five-minute club remix, and an instrumental.
"I Wanna Be Loved"/"Turning The Town Red" (F-Beat XX 35/XX 35T/XX 35DJ/XX 35Z; June 1984)
Someone in the press decided that "I Wanna Be Loved" was a cover of the Ricky Nelson hit, and that information was repeated in magazines that should have known better. It was actually a song which Costello had discovered on an obscure Japanese compilation of soul singles on the Hi label, and it was the standout track on the otherwise low-key Goodbye Cruel World album. (It also was the subject of Costello's finest promotional video.)
Once again, quality wasn't enough to bring massive success. This time, F-Beat went to town at the mixing desk. The 7" version features the standard version of the A-side, plus the theme tune from Channel 4's Scully on the flip. The 12" added an extended version of the A-side; both these issues came in similar art sleeves.
Promo singles were also issued in both sizes. "Turning The Town Red" remained intact on all occasions, but a special edited and remixed 'radio version' of "I Wanna Be Loved" was used for the 7" promo. while the 12" dropped both the long and standard takes, in favour of the radio version and a `version discotheque'. Both of these promos came in plain black sleeves. The 7" promo now sells for around £6, the 12" for £20.
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"/"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (U.S. Columbia CAS 2310, 1986)
Have you ever fantasised that the Velvet Underground might reform on breakfast TV? Then this 12" promo single is for you. Rather than following the orthodox course of shipping out 12" white labels of this Costello single, Columbia pressed up this ferocious solo performance, recorded at the Heartbreak in New York, and broadcast live on WNEW-FM's breakfast show on February 11, 1986. The single take was rather over-arranged, but this one-man-and-his-electric-guitar performance is staggeringly direct, and it cuts the standard version to shreds. Despite suggestions on the sleeve, both sides of this record contain the same track, and the LP cut is not included. At present, this 12" sells for around £10: expect this price to rise.
"Highlights From "Blood And Chocolate" " (Imp CHOC 1;September 1986)
Snippets of four songs from Costello's most recent LP were included on this red vinyl 7" promo EP — "Blue Chair", "Uncomplicated", "Next Time Round" and "1 Hope You're Happy Now". The last of these was the album's most obvious choice of single, which is probably why it didn't appear. Expect this promo to sell for about £10 as soon as word gets out that it exists.
Other recent Costello collectables include white vinyl versions of Blood And Chocolate and the "Tokyo Storm Warning" single (only in Germany); the NME freebie EP which includes a supposedly alternate mix of "Uncomplicated"; and the new remake of "Blue Chair" issued as a single on Demon (why not on Imp, like the album?).
Our Aim Is True (Columbia promo picture disc)
This is the Costello item which regularly fetches the highest prices in this country (though in the States that honour is held by the U.K. promo 'conversation' albums). It carries no catalogue number, and could just as easily be a counterfeit as a real promo, except that a counterfeiter would probably have included some unreleased material. It consists of a selection of tracks from the U.S. My Aim Is True and This Year's Model albums, obviously designed to persuade DJs to introduce Elvis and the Attractions to the Great American Public. It sells here for anything between £100 and £200. It shouldn't be confused with the black vinyl bootleg of the same title, which features some fascinating pre-first album Costello demos, supposedly recorded with the Rumour.
Elvis Costello Live At The el Mocambo (Canadian Columbia CDN 10; 1978)
During his initial blitz on the Americas, Elvis Costello's show at the el Mocambo club in Toronto, Canada, was broadcast live in stereo by CHUM-FM. CBS Records Canada obtained a tape of the show from the radio station, and pressed it up as a limited edition (500 copies) promo album — without the knowledge of Costello. Jake Riviera or Radar Records. As anyone who collects Costello will have realised, there are many more than 500 "El Mocambo" albums in circulation. But almost all of them are bootlegs, taken off the air rather than from the promo LP. Although they use a copy of the original CBS cover, their track arrangement is slightly different, with "Radio Radio" coming at the start of Side Two, rather than the end of Side One as it did on the original version. Because of the confusion, original copies haven't risen in price beyond £.50; all other copies are illegal.
The album is actually a fine document of the early Attractions shows at their fastest and most furious, although without any of the antagonism between singer and audience that occasionally arose in this country when (a) the show finished after 45 minutes or (b) the audience were too slow to ask for an encore. No unissued songs were included: everything on the album had been released in studio form on the U.S. versions of the first two albums.
Get Happy! (Promo Album) (F-Beat XX PROMO 1; March 1980)
Unlike the later F-Beat promos, this set offered no rare material to the collector; it simply spread the lavish ingredients of the Get Happy! album across two 12" 45rpm singles, ten tracks apiece. The set comes in two forms: it was originally sent out in a double cover, with a photo and poster; later copies exist in plain white sleeves, with a list of contents stuck on the front of each disc. The promo confirms that it is the sleeve, not the label, of Get Happy! which has the right track listing of the album — i.e. "Love For Tender" is the start of Side One, not Side Two. The complete set sells for £40.
Taking Liberties (U.S. Columbia JC 36939: November 1980)
This album appeared in the States simultaneously with the British cassette compilation Ten Bloody Marys And Ten How's Your Fathers (later reissued on LP by Imp). The two sets differ slightly in track listing, but the U.S. LP has one great advantage — the fabulous (back-to-front) cover artwork. The inner sleeve also has recording details for all the tracks, revealing (for example) that "Crawling To The U.S.A." was taped in Sydney, Australia. Although the set was widely available on import when it was first issued, it has since become quite scarce, though it shouldn't cost you more than £10.
Taking Liberties included three songs missing from the U.K. cassette: "Chelsea", "Night Rally" and "Sunday's Best". They replaced "Watching The Detectives", "Radio Radio" and "Peace, Love And Understanding", all of which had previously been issued on U.S. albums. Both sets included the sublime "Hoover Factory", however, perhaps Costello's finest moment.
Elvis Costello Introduces the Tracks from his new album, 'Almost Blue' (F-Beat EC CHAT 1, October 1981)
This is one of the most sought-after Costello collector's pieces. It includes the entire Almost Blue album, with spoken introductions by Elvis to each track — ranging in length from 6 to 21 seconds. The album was issued to the press in a plain white cover, with paper designs pasted onto the front and back covers. The B-side lists the tracks, their times, and the cues for any radio DJ who wanted to play sections of the album, while the A-side has a pencil drawing of the Attractions, which is numbered and then signed by each of the group. (The front cover gave the band's keyboard player his third different surname on Costello albums — Steve Naive, Nieve and now Neive.) British copies of this release sell for around £50; American copies, issued on Columbia AS 1318, are slightly easier to find.
Almost New (Australian F-Beat ELVIS 82, 1982)
Although this is often referred to as being a promo, it was actually openly on sale in Australia and New Zealand — although the record was certainly compiled with promotion in mind. It contains seven tracks, three of them ("I Can't Stand Up", "Green Shirt" and "Pump It Up") commonly available, the others slightly more obscure. "Peace, Love And Understanding" was the cut originally issued here as the flipside of Nick Lowe's "American Squirm"; "Alison" and "Accidents Will Happen" come from the "Live At Hollywood High" single given away with early copies of "Armed Forces"; and "I'm Your Toy" is the Albert Hall live take issued as a single in Britain. "Almost New" now sells in Britain for between £15 and £20.
A Conversation with ... Elvis Costello (F-Beat EC CHAT 2, June 1982)
If you only buy one Elvis Costello rarity, then this must be your first choice. Its current value of around £50 makes it prohibitively expensive for most collectors, but the price is almost justified by the contents alone, without allowing for rarity value and prestige.
Imperial Bedroom was Costello's most complex, ornate record. Stylistically, it was something of a throwback to the Sixties, but only because it had all the invention and the mingling of musical approaches that marked the best of that era. It lacked the popular appeal of Punch The Clock, which was widely greeted as a return to form when it succeeded Imperial Bedroom in 1982. But in a decade's time, Bedroom is likely to be the album on which Costello's reputation rests.
The "Conversation" album took the format of the Almost Blue promo to its natural limits. Rather than saying "And this song's called . . ." before each track, Elvis described the writing, recording, arranging and mixing of the record in enormous detail — explaining the thinking behind otherwise impenetrable lyrics, and revealing the care with which the music had been assembled. Few interviews have ever laid the creative process so bare. The effect of the spoken introductions, which in some cases run for longer than the songs, is remarkable. "A Conversation With Elvis Costello" is not only a collector's item; it is a vital part of the man's recorded history.
This time, the album cover was properly printed, using the same David Bailey photo of Elvis as the "Man Out Of Time" single. The two LPs were contained within a single sleeve, and many copies were autographed by Costello. In fact, copies without autographs are probably rarer than those with, though also arguably less collectable. Either way, the set sells for around £50 — though in the U.S. collectors are willing to pay up to $250 for Mint condition copies.
Blood And Chocolate (Imp FIEND 80, cassette)
To tie in with the title of this album, some early cassette copies (only on sale in Virgin stores) were packaged in a mock Cadburys chocolate wrapper, which was even shaped like a chocolate bar. Inside the set was the ordinary cassette, but leave it unopened if you can; that way it will be worth much more in the future! Cadbury's predictably objected to the use of their logo and design without permission, and the special edition was quickly withdrawn. Copies are already changing hands for £12 each and rising fast.
Costello's work outside his solo career has led to collaborations with the Specials (producing their debut LP and "Nelson Mandela" single), the Eurythmics (vocal cameo on their last but one LP), Squeeze (production work circa 1981, notably on the very Costello-like East Side Story album), and the Bluebells (more production work).
There are also vocal duets like "The People's Limousine" (Imp IMP 006), a souped-up slice of urban rockabilly that was credited to the Coward Brothers — alias Elvis and T-Bone Burnette. Although this is still on catalogue, it has been spotted selling for up to £4. Less well-known is his duet with John Hiatt on the latter's "Living A Little, Laughing A Little" single (Geffen A 6121), a cover of a Detroit Spinners song which is also to be found on Hiatt's Warming Up To The Ice Age album (GEF 26309). Costello also produced and sang on one of the best records of 1985, Big Heat's "Watch Me Catch Fire", a Righteous Brothers tribute which featured the vocal talents of Bill Hurley and Drew Barfield. George Jones joined forces with Elvis on a remake of "Stranger In The House" (Epic EPC 8560); while Madness's "Tomorrow's Just Another Day" 12" features a version of the song with Costello on lead vocals. There are many more in the same vein, plus compilation albums with non-album Costello material. These will all be covered in depth in our next Costello features, which will trace his career back to 1976 and contain full details of all his collector's items from around the world.
Collectors should also note that all of his most recent LPs on F-Beat have now been reissued on Imp Records; and that the compilation album "The Man" now bears a vastly improved new cover design.