Whether he likes it or not, Elvis Costello is Big Business. His undisputed talent is not the issue here. More germane to the record industry, he was the first new wave personality to be taken seriously — saleswise — in the US. That remark about Ray Charles may still stick in some throats, but Costello has ensconced himself in a dependable area of the American pop consumer's heart. If conclusive proof is required, one need only refer to that barometer of mass taste, Linda Ronstadt, who's recording three Costello tunes on her next album.
Because he sells records, Costello's moves are monitored by music business moguls as well as rock critics. Considering his still-fresh career, Costello has moved around quite a bit; Get Happy, his fourth LP, marks his third British label affiliation. This switching has not been mere whim, however, and Get Happy's release was held up while Costello's musical ownership was battled (unhappily) in court.
Some backtracking is necessary to understand the situation. Costello's first album, My Aim Is True, was released in England on Stiff Records. As the UK's original new wave/independent record company (founded 1976 A.D.), Stiff needs little explanation beyond mentioning that it was started by Jake Riviera (Andrew Jakeman) and Dave Robinson. Riviera later abandoned Stiff to create the ambitiously titled Riviera Global Productions, taking Costello and Nick Lowe with him. He soon found a vinyl home for them at newly-inaugurated Radar Records (and, in the US, Columbia). Radar released its first record (a single by Nick Lowe, as it happened) in February, 1978. The label was the brainchild of two former (British) United Artists Records directors, Martin Davis and Andrew Lauder. Unlike independent Stiff, Radar was financed by WEA Records, the international wing of Warner Communications; WEA has similar arrangements with other small labels (Real, Beggar's Banquet). WEA originally owned half of Radar; after buying out Davis and Lauder in November, 1979, it became a majority shareholder.
WEA's financing entitled Warner Bros. to have first crack at releasing Radar material in the US. But the label's breadwinners, Costello and Lowe — officially "under license from Riviera Global Productions" — were already patted to Columbia. "There was some disenchantment there," says Dan Loggins, Warners' executive director of international A&R. 'Then for some reason (Warners was] not in love with the Bram Tchaikovsky tapes."
Ironically, Tchaikovsky's Strange Man, Changed Man would be Radar's first non-Costello or Lowe hit LP in the US; their catalogue was filling up with album reissues by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Red Crayola, and the Shadows of Knight. (Lauder had produced fascinating '60s compilations while with UA). Besides reissues, Radar released a single by the neo-psychedelic Soft Boys and signed the avant-garde (and misnomered) Pop Group. A Warner Bros. representative (not from the A&R department), in England on business, reportedly saw the Pop Group and freaked out, pulling the plug on any US Warners-Radar alliance.
"At the time the industry was pulling back," Loggins says in Warners' defense. "Perhaps because of some of the weird things that came out on Radar after Elvis and Nick, and before Bram got his record rolling, they felt this was not a good investment." Elektra and Atlantic (the "E" and "A" of WEA) passed in turn, and so Radar's acts were licensed for North America to Polydor Records — who proceeded to rack up impressive sales not only with Bram Tchaikovsky but later the Inmates.
Another Radar band, the Yachts, enjoyed moderate success, but the label started running into problems. Davis and Lauder had a falling out, culminating in Lauder's leaving the company. At the same time, according to Loggins, "[English] Warner Bros. bookkeepers were scrutinizing the lack of profitability of a company that should have been making an enormous profit. Radar had an exceedingly high overhead: big offices in Covent Garden, badges and buttons — I guess they wanted to go first class once they were successful, but there wasn't enough cash flow to keep it going at that level. They were earning money but not making the kind of money the original premise of the label was based on. When option time came Warner Bros. had to take a serious look at it from a business point of view." WEA ended up absorbing Radar in January, 1980. Davis resigned. (After a brief fling in real estate he came back to run Island Records in England.) Radar is now run by Stuart Hornall, who also oversees British Elektra/Asylum.
As the Radar label still existed, there was no question to whom Radar-contracted artists belonged — except for those new wave glimmer twins Costello and Lowe. Manager Riviera claimed there was no contract between his boys and Radar; their records were released on an album-by-album basis via a handshake agreement. "(Riviera) decided that with the demise of Radar as it was — with Andrew and Martin — the label no longer existed as he understood the contract," Loggins says. "He decided his contract was null and void." Loggins is openly skeptical of Riviera's claim that Costello and Lowe actually had no contract with Radar. "I find it very hard to believe."
Gregg Geller, Columbia Records' director of East Coast A&R (and the man who signed Elvis Costello for the US), begs to differ. "Believe it or not, in this business there still are such things as gentlemen's agreements." In any case, WEA was understandably less than thrilled about suddenly having Radar's drawing cards yanked away from them. (Loggins: "The focal point of the company was always Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.")
Adding to the tension, Costello had finished a new album (Get Happy) and concomitant single, a cover of Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down." (The non-LP flip is his own version of "Girls Talk," first recorded by Dave Edmunds.) A very hot property was up for grabs — or so WEA thought. They went to court to get their artist back.
In December, 1979, Lauder teamed up with Riviera to start a new label. Christened Off-Beat at first, the name was soon shortened to the more intriguing F-Beat. While they were getting organized, it was decided to issue Costello's 45 on the Specials' 2 Tone label. "It was an idea of Elvis's, particularly," Lauder says. "Elvis said he liked the Specials very much, having produced their album. He said he would enjoy a quick one-off single."
The nascent F-Beat brashly moved ahead. Riviera leaked acetate advance pressings of "I Can't Stand Up" to British radio. "We knew the record was going to come out," Lauder says. "We just didn't know what label it was going to be on." Lauder himself booked time at a CBS pressing plant — especially hard to get during England's Yuletide shutdown — and had 13,000 copies of the single run off; Chrysalis (2 Tone's distributor) also pressed the record. 'We acted on it very quickly," Lauder admits. "I think the Specials didn't realize it was going to get out that quickly."
"It seemed like a good idea," Specials manager Rick Rogers says of the Costello 2 Tone 45, "but it was just impossible in terms of time." The Specials themselves had a live EP coming out on 2 Tone January 4, and a Selecter 45 due a week later. "Two Tone's a little label run by musicians," Rogers explains. 'We don't have the operations to put out three singles in two weeks."
Scheduling may have been the decisive blow, but other factors conspired against the 45's release. A Chrysalis source hints that the Specials felt there wasn't enough collaboration on the project. Jerry Dammers, the group's organist and songwriter, met with Costello the last week in December, when both played London benefits for Cambodian refugees (Fax 'n' Rumours, TP 48). Rogers says the two considered listening to other album tracks for a possible Costello 2 Tone 45. The Specials were set to leave for a US tour, though, so there was no time for review.
Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, F-Beat was hit with an injunction against pressing through either CBS or 2 Tone; the new company was attempting to align itself with British CBS. In the US, Get Happy was delayed until F-Beat's problems were sorted out. Columbia's agreement with Riviera Global was exempted from any WEA claim but, Geller says, "we've always agreed with Jake that we would release his artists' records simultaneously in England and the US." Ironically, this is another gentle men's agreement.
The injunction forced Riviera and WEA's managing director John Fruin to make a new agreement for F-Beat. The alternative was for F-Beat to sit out the injunction in court while Costello's 45 — and Get Happy — collected dust. "It wasn't in our interests to go on for another two months without releasing the LP," Lauder says. Under the new arrangement WEA will only manufacture and distribute the new label; advertising, promotion, releases, etc. are all F-Beat's domain.
"Radar was a situation where we had to deliver — with a commitment of finances — a certain amount of records each year," Lauder explains. "F-Beat's not bound in the same way.
Loggins is sanguine. "I think the best situation was had by all. We should make money, Elvis should make money, and Andrew's got his new company with Jake. [Lauder's] obviously more important as an owner than he was with Radar." Riviera comments, "We've got a lot to do and we want to get on with it, so fuck off."
Ah, yes. You were wondering about those 13,000 Costello 2 Tone 45s? A few went out as review copies to the British press; Lauder heard of one changing hands for over $200. The rest stayed in storage. Lauder boasted, "I've got them all," and F-Beat presumably paid all pressing costs. (A Chrysalis executive said, "We'd be happy to pay for them; they're collectors' items.") Later, however, Rick Rogers was informed they'd all been destroyed.
In the wake of Costello's aborted 2 Tone experience, is there the possibility of a true collaboration between him and the Specials? Rogers smiles. "One never knows."