Away from London, after being a bandleader, out of the cold shadow of the Black Rock, I wrote these songs. In a Dublin hotel room, in a ship's cabin off the coast of Greenland, on a summer's afternoon in a house next to windmill as the English countryside rolled down to the coast.
Some of them came out of the newspapers and everyday anger – "Tramp the dirt down," "...This town...," "Coal Train Robberies." One of them came out of old newspapers and ugly arguments – "Let him Dangle." The case of Derek Bentley had been brought up in every capital punishment debate since I had been a child, so I put it in a song.
The location of one song is Dublin. My Grandfather was a military bandmaster who was demobilised there from the post-First World War infantry at Beggar's Bush Barracks. He was an Irishman with an English accent, courtesy of the military school of music at Kneller Hall, walking round in a British Army uniform at exactly the wrong time. His story went into "Any King's Shilling." He then took the safer occupation of ship's musician and travelled the world on the White Star Line during the mid-1920's and 30's. You could see the funnels of ships in the dock from my Grandmother's window. Some of that view got into the lyrics of "Veronica" and "Last Boat Leaving." They are set in my Father's hometown, Birkenhead.
A handful of titles came out of my own travels and misadventures – "Chewing Gum," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and the one written amongst the big blue icebergs: "God's Comic." I am happy to say that "Satellite" is pure fantasy.
Songs don't always give the precise facts. Other times, an entirely fictional song is laced private details and coded phrases. They help the singer connect with something personal inside. The listener doesn't have to know about this. They are entitled to their own version. I've found that creative mishearing often improves a lyric.
There are three co-written tunes on this album. One afternoon I went out to buy a paper and when I got back, my wife, Cait O'Riordan, had composed "Baby Plays Around." All I did was harmonise the bridge and memorise the chord sequence.
I began writing with Paul McCartney, for his album Flowers in the Dirt, in 1987. We went on to compose a dozen songs together. "Veronica" was one of the very first songs that we worked on. It is a wishful song about my Grandmother's failing hold on memory and reality. As the subject was so personal, I didn't find it so easy to edit the song. Paul put some shape into the music of a rambling bridge and tightened up a few of the lyrical lines in the verses. The title "Pads, Paws and Claws" was taken from a junk shop book. Song didn't take long.
I called T Bone Burnett to co-produce the album. He put Kevin Killen behind the controls and away we went. Sessions were planned for Dublin, New Orleans, Hollywood and London. Having just signed to Warner Brothers for the entire world, I was working with the budget of a small independent movie. I was hoping that they weren't expecting any change
I had the blueprint of five albums in my head. Having felt hostility turn into invisibility at Columbia, I offered W.B. their choice. I would even shoot it out with a highly commercial producer if they so desired — believing the songs and my voice could hold their own. They told me to make whatever record I wanted. I seem to have elected to make all five albums at once.
We began in Dublin. I didn't want to borrow anyone's clothes, I wanted people knew each other but hadn't necessarily all played together in one group. So Donal Lunny gathered a unique ensemble from all quarters of Irish music: his former Moving Hearts colleague, Davey Spillane was on Uileann Pipes and low whistle, De Dannan's Frankie Gavin played the fiddle along with Steve Wickham from The Waterboys, who had recently moved to Ireland. The great singer and songwriter, Christy Moore was ready to set up a mighty rumble on the bodhran while the Chieftans' Derek Bell talked of micro-tonal tuning and the mysteries of the snow leopard from behind the Irish harp and cimbalom. Donal himself threaded a line through the songs on bouzuki or guitar and Pete Thomas joined us for "Tramp the dirt down" on snare drum.
"Let me dream on it" said Kirk Joseph, as he went out of the door at Southlake Studio in New Orleans. His sousaphone had driven along the Dirty Dozen Brass Band when I first saw them at a New York City club in1985. Now I was asking him to take the bass line on "Chewing Gum," a tune that already had the Neville Brothers' Willie Green on drums. He and the rest of the Dozen had laid down an instrumental version of "Stalin Malone," and put horn their parts next to the pipes and fiddle that we had recorded in Dublin on "Miss Macbeth."
The recording method was established by now. I would lay down a vocal and guitar to a very spare drum machine. It played anything BUT the backbeat, so as to keep things loose. Then we assembled the arrangement piece by piece. The only musicians who performed simultaneously were the Dirty Dozen and those at the Dublin sessions.
I had worked with Allen Toussaint before in 1983. He had produced an unusual version of Yoko Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice," recorded with the Attractions and the T.K.O. Horns. Now he pretty much set the scene for "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" with his colossal piano part – the Dozen played off his performance and so on. At best, it was like seeing a sketch turn into a painting.
By the time we left New Orleans, we had half of the record in the can. I had also asked Roger McGuinn to play on our next session in Hollywood after crashing into his dressing room at a French Quarter club in, what he has since generously referred to as, "high spirits." Not everything on this record was quite so well planned.
The Hollywood sessions featured several players who had worked on the "King of America" record in 1985; drummer, Jim Keltner, the bass players, Jerry Scheff and T-Bone Wolk plus Mitchell Froom on an array of strange keyboards such as the Chamberlain. T Bone Burnett and I had pretty much cast each them for their parts before we had left Dublin. Needless to say there were plenty of surprises during the execution.
Two musicians, who I had first heard in Tom Waits' band, had a lot to do with the sound of these sessions. Marc Ribot doctored the bridge of his guitar with bulldog clips to get a kalimba sound on "Pads, Paws and Claws." He got well outside reason on "Chewing Gum" and "Let him Dangle" but played a delicate Spanish guitar on "God's Comic." Michael Blair brought in a breaker's yard full of metal junk and hubcaps plus a magician's table laden with arcane percussion.
While we were putting marimbas and timpani on "Satellite" we found out that Burt Bacharach was working in the next studio. As far as I was concerned, this track was a shameless steal from Burt's arrangement style. He graciously agreed to come in to listen to the track, seemed amused by a few touches and went on his way wishing us well. It was only when we were composing and recording together eight years later that I realised how very far "Satellite" was from his actual writing and arranging style.
My own instrumental contribution was limited to a few quirky overdubs – banging the bass pedals of a Hammond organ with my fists under the "live" guitar coda of "Baby Plays Around" and the daft Hofner bass line in the bridge of "God's Comic." Most of my studio time went into singing and arranging.
There were other musicians who I was working with for the first time in the studio. Buell Niedlinger added double bass to "Any King's Shilling" and both bass and cello to "God's Comic." Jerry Marotta played the final drum parts on "Veronica" and "Let him Dangle" with the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench adding piano to the same two tracks. "Veronica" was still missing a bass part when we left California but we had been able to build "…This Town…" around Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker 12-string.
The case of missing bass parts was very quickly solved upon our arrival in London. My co-writer came in to add his famous Hofner bass to "Veronica" and the "McCartney/McGuinn/MacManus" trio was established when he went on to also play on "...This Town..."
Chrissie Hynde then added the kind of vocal harmony to "Satellite" that I had imagined for years and it was time to return to Hollywood for the mixing sessions.
During the early planning of this record, it was called "Pantomine Evil," in honour of my childhood nemesis, "Miss MacBeth" and another mad woman who was haunting England at the time. By the time I'd finished writing "Tramp the dirt down," the situation seemed too grim for that title. The album was also briefly called "The Beloved Entertainer" but this was relegated to a subtitle on the trophy plaque upon which my head appears to be mounted on the sleeve. The cover was not done by trick photography. I was actually made-up in clown face and had to poke my head through an opening in the backdrop, like one of those seaside amusements – always remembering not to scratch my face and smudge the greasepaint.
The artist and photographer, Brian Griffin, probably still has the macabre and comical production video of my disembodied head roaring and growling only to freeze in increasingly demented expressions – it would make a good short horror film. The fact that the shield that I was mounted on resembled the W.B. crest seemed a happy accident and an incidental comment on my departure from Columbia Records. This similarity was not lost on the W.B. legal department who threatened to block the design as it infringed the copyright of their trademark – even though the record was actually on their own label. Perhaps I should have taken this as a warning of darker days to come.
Reading all of this, it may seem a very eccentric way to make an album. At the time, I couldn't write musical notation and this was a way of using the 24 track tape like piece of music manuscript – "writing" ideas in and then erasing them if they didn't work. In fact, the demos on the second CD indicate that I had many of the parts worked out long before we began our travels. The execution on those versions is quite raw. Unsurprisingly, they sound as if I am making it up as I am going along. There are one or two lyrical variations that I later edited out and "Satellite" is played in an entirely different time signature. These ragged demos may actually be more to some people's taste than the finished album.
Given the method of recording, there are no true "out-takes" from Spike except a version of "Stalin Malone" on which I recite the text, originally printed on the back of the record jacket, while the Dirty Dozen Brass Band play down the tune. I later abandoned the idea but this rough take is included for your amusement.
Returning to London after the Spike mixing sessions, I went into Wessex Studios to cut "B-sides" for the up-coming singles releases. The band on these sessions consisted of Pete Thomas on drums and Nick Lowe on bass. I played everything else. We put down "The Ugly Things," a song of Nick's of the same vintage as "(What's so funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and the Goffin/King tune, "Point Of No Return," which I first heard on the Georgie Fame E.P., Fame at Last. I also cut a solo version of John Sebastian's "The Room Nobody Lives In," with an odd extended coda of de-tuned, delayed echo guitars. My favourite cut from this session is "You're no good," a song forever associated in my mind with Liverpool's mighty Swinging Blue Jeans. My version was recorded with a toy drum machine jammed through a Fender Twin Reverb, a kalimba and a tremelo guitar. "Put your big toe in the milk of human kindness" is a demo of a song originally written for a Disney movie. Mercifully, the Mouse declined the tune and I was able to cut it a few years later with Rob Wasserman and Marc Ribot for Rob's album, "Trios." It now sounds to me as if I was attempting to write something like the Cahn/Van Heusen song, "High Hopes." The closest I ever got was "God's Comic."
I've performed most of the songs on Spike many times in concert. I may have played some of them better than on this disc but there are all sorts of unusual holes in these recordings that I like. I really wouldn't change a note. Without having broken out of the conventional style of band recording, I wouldn't have known where to begin the next ten years.
T Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen shaped "Veronica" into a record that could be played on the radio. Evan English delivered a video clip that gave people a greater sense of the song's content. The single went into the U.S. Top Twenty. If it had not done so then this album might have been counted amongst the most obscure in my catalogue. Instead of which, during its original release, it became the best-selling album of my career to date. When I listen to it now, this seems pretty curious – not because the songs are bad but because they are rather odd, each track being very different from the next. I'm not so sure that anyone would bankroll a record of this kind these days. So I am rather glad that we made Spike while I had the chance.
— Elvis Costello