I was just telling Nick Lowe for the fourteenth time that our next record was going to cross the melody of Armed Forces with the rhythm of Get Happy!!, when one of the drummers present elected to do his party trick. This involved cutting the necktie of one of the other bar patrons with a pair of scissors borrowed from the hotel kitchen. In the movies of Laurel & Hardy or The Three Stooges, this is achieved in one smoothly satisfying snip, but drunkenness and blunted blades meant that the clumsy hacking went on long after the joke had died, and the victim had recovered from his surprise at being assailed by a drinking companion and started to become irate.
We were on the Channel Island of Jersey, a deeply conservative tax-haven belonging to the U.K. but improbably close to the French coast. It was hardly the most likely location to be starting out on a European tour, but then this was hardly a typical tour. Steve Nieve had recently been injured in a car accident in Los Angeles, and I had taken the rash decision to take to the road in a trio format.
Our opening-night concert, on the nearby island of Guernsey, had been a disaster that few of the traumatized audience members will talk about to this day. Having equipped myself with a terrifying stock of guitar pedals and a ferocious cocktail of mind-bending liquids, we stumbled through two more such wretched nights before enlisting the help of Martin Belmont, a guitarist from Graham Parker's band, The Rumour. Once he arrived we went rampaging through Europe, occasionally finding the energy to play concerts featuring the two-guitar format that can be heard on one track of this, my fifth album (and sixth record release) in four years.
From a personal point of view, this was easily the most drug-influenced record of my career. I say this without any sober piety or in order to glory in it with indulgent hindsight but because it is true. It was completed close to a self-induced nervous collapse on a diet of rough "scrumpy" cider, gin and tonic, various powders, only one of which was "Andrews' Liver Salts" and, in the final hours, Seconal and Johnnie Walker Black Label. The barely coherent ramblings of my addled brain were gradually beaten into some shape by the relentless re-working of melodies and lyrical fragments, many of which pre-dated my professional career. The radical shift from the innocence of those early drafts of the cynical and jagged texts contained in the final record is only balanced by one or two precisely constructed compositions, most notably, "Shot With His Own Gun" — the first result of having bought a Bechstein baby grand piano in early 1980.
The poise and calm of several of the cuts belies the wild mood swings and the violent hangover through which most of this music was recorded. "New Lace Sleeves," in particular, is among the finest of The Attractions' ensemble performances. That the song itself is mostly concerned with the tension between passion and the emotionally suppressing influence of "being civilized" is an irony that we can all enjoy with twenty years or more of hindsight.
One alliance that would play a part in the making of this record was that with the South East London band, Squeeze. I had been a great admirer of Chris Difford's gift for the details of a short story in lyric form and Glenn Tilbrook's melodic flights, but our paths had not crossed until one evening when we were all propping up the bar in the BBC Club in Television Centre. It was something of a game to attempt to get past the rather intimidating, uniformed, and mustachioed doorman and then raise hell during the lull between camera rehearsals and the taping of the weekly Top Of The Pops programme on which we had all become fairly regular guests since late 1977.
On this occasion I was more determined than ever to imbibe as much alcohol as possible, as I was due to be "flown" on a painful pantomime wire thanks to the producer's absurd flight of inspiration that I should be hauled up to the studio ceiling on the title line of our current hit, "I can't stand up for falling down". I vaguely recall Mr. Difford being more than generous about the fact that I had allowed myself to be talked into this nonsense, and we have been friends and colleagues ever since. Soon I would be calling his writing partner to come to my assistance in a moment of crisis during our recording sessions.
The songs on this record are loosely concerned with a kind of disenchantment that seemed to settle on me in my mid-20s. Certainly, the recent political swing to the Right offered a gloomier sense of the future and provided the lyrics of "Clubland," "Pretty Words," and the unsubtle commentary on the new prime Minister's enthusiasm for Cold War posturing: "Big Sister". The sense of general dread and paranoia of "Strict Time" was probably not unconnected with the influence of controlled substances, but this was also to be found in the words of "New Lace Sleeves" and "Watch Your Step," both of which were completions of songs I had begun when I was between 19 and 20.
The fact that I had come close to a terminal fracture in my marriage lowered me into feelings of adult guilt and romantic disillusionment. I think this can be easily heard in another pre-professional composition, the country ballad "Different Finger," but also in "Lovers Walk," "Shot With His Own Gun," the brutal portrait of "White Knuckles" and its companion song, "You'll Never Be A Man". At this remove it seems unnatural that I should have been so unremittingly cynical, but as sense and nonsense collided in the aftermath of our two-and-a-half years of pop success and disgrace, this was a pretty accurate, if blurred, picture.
We might have been perfectly well prepared, having spent several days rehearsing in the West Country cottage of my solicitor. However, we had also developed a taste for the local brew of rough cider (rumoured to be able to dissolve a dead rat or a tennis shoe immersed to test its vintage). At the time licensing laws curtailed drinking in the mid-afternoon, but that which went on behind illegally locked doors reduced some of the locals and several of the visiting musicians into caricatures from a Hogarthian gin house scene.
As might be expected in the circumstances, the process of recording turned out not to be an easy one. This may have been as a consequence of initially having chosen the wrong studio in which to record. Abandoning Eden Studios, in which we had recorded all or part of the previous three albums, we arrived at DJM, on the edge of the city of London. We quickly discovered that we had made an expensive error.
The room was constructed to favour the tight, dry, and muted sound of many early ‘70s records, and it quickly became apparent that we could not create the mood that the songs required. Our attempts to batter the material into shape can be heard on CD2 of this edition. One or two of our ragged experiments now seem to have a sense of anger (the slower of two versions of "Big Sister" and a manic attempt at "Watch Your Step" in particular) that is absent from the more considered and resigned final draft.
Most days would begin with disenchantment at hearing the previous days efforts, and a plan to repair to a pub at the end of the wonderfully named Lamb's Conduit Passage would soon be proposed. Fortified by several pints of the cider that had fuelled our rehearsals, we then purchased a couple of flagons of the same and the cycle of delusion and disappointment that would continue until the small hours. Despite this "working method," there were moments of focus that produced very coherent performances such as "Shot With His Own Gun". Although I composed the song at the piano, I was barely able to play it if anyone was looking. Steve Nieve's classical training was quite evident, as he provided a much more flowing and dramatic accompaniment than I could have imagined or mastered.
Returning to Eden seemed the wisest option. We effectively began again, no more disciplined but at least able to recognize the sonic results that were being captured by Roger Bechirian. Ironically, we nevertheless took advantage of a drier, close sound first glimpsed at DJM for some of the most individual recordings: "New Lace Sleeves" and "Watch Your Step," both of which featured melodica fanfares, an idea borrowed from dub records, where we might have previously employed a Vox Continental organ. There were also two guitar solos that I had imagined as part of the compositions rather than recorded improvisations.
The first of these on "Fish ‘n Chip Paper" tipped a hat to the melodic style favoured by Glenn Tilbrook, though hardly executed with his finesse. Glenn had come to visit the studio during the inevitable crisis in which my voice had vanished due to so many nights spent carousing more than singing. He offered to deputize on vocals, so we could cut the track for "From A Whisper To A Scream," and the effect was so impressive that we decided to cut the song as a duet when I had recovered.
The second guitar solo was part of a surprisingly intricate arrangement for "White Knuckles". This song is a one of a number of tunes that took musical cues from records in the recent charts. Although, I might have risked a rebellion among The Attractions to state so openly I privately modeled "White Knuckles" on a couple of XTC records, while for "You'll Never Be A Man" I borrowed some musical ideas from The Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket" and several other songs by Chrissie Hynde.
Oddest of all, it now occurs to me the circular arpeggios in "Clubland" may have secretly been a disrespectful gloss of The Police's guitar style, though obviously with a darker lyrical content that their songs always seemed to lack. Although my arrogance about and detachment from the pop mainstream was almost complete, we approached this song as if it were to be the next in out only recently broken run of hit singles.
In our haste to recover the lost time at DJM we continued to record for several days without Nick Lowe while he was down with the flu. And the record of "Clubland" probably never did recover from his absence. Although the arrangement was strong, I now see why Nick had some reservations about our master take upon his return to the studio. At the time I was adamant that this was the version to be mixed, although I have heard the same arrangement played to very much better effect on many occasions since.
It was not the only time I entered the studio without Nick Lowe during these sessions. In the last fraught days of recording, I cut a solo track, a re-working of "Big Sister" into something that contained a little more tragedy than anger: "Big Sister's Clothes." The fact that the bass line was modeled on something by The Clash might have risked an allergic reaction in certain members of the band, so I thought it best to record the song alone. Once again melodica and skin tambourine featured in the arrangement, along with a vibraphone and a pair of timpani that just happened to be in the studio. In my slightly befuddled state, I even took the time to record the world's first "backwards accordion," imaging that it might be a suitably mysterious effect, only to find that it was almost identical to the sound of the instrument being dropped down a small staircase.
If some of these songs departed in some disguised manner from current releases, there were others that reflected a continuation of the use of R'n'B rhythms derived from some decently obscure sources as with the previous album, Get Happy!! I know that "Strict Time" and "Lovers Walk" both had their beginnings in my interest in The Meters and other less well-known New Orleans artists, but the berserk atmosphere of the final recordings utterly disguised these "influences".
Several songs recorded during these sessions were not included on the final album, although it is now hard to imagine why this is the case. "Black Sails At Sunset," a sort of slower melodic variant of "Oliver's Army," had been written during my first visit to Berlin and certainly denoted a further disenchantment with the rewards of pop life. It had a similar lyrical theme to "New Lace Sleeves": the less attractive aspects of the triumph of supposedly civilized culture over instinct and passion—just yer usual pop song nonsense. This tune had been originally cut shortly after the Get Happy!! Sessions in a piano and voice rendition which pre-dated even "Shot With His Own Gun" but was re-recorded during the DJM sessions. With hindsight it might have been a better addition to the album than one or two of the lighter but faster pieces that were included.
"Sad About Girls" was a Steve Nieve song, written by the "Brain and Hart" partnership for The Attractions' "solo" album, Mad About The Wrong Boy (or "Too Clever By Two-Thirds," as I once rather sarcastically suggested it might be called). The song was my personal favourite from the set and for some reason been one or two Steve Nieve compositions that featured in our 1978 debut concert in Paris, a town in which Mr. Nieve now resides, despite the nature of that debacle. This attempt to divide the writing responsibilities did not make it to the final sequence and was never repeated.
Other songs recorded in and around this time include a bizarre rendition of Cole Porter's "Love For Sale," delicately accompanied by Rockpile's Billy Bremmer on Spanish guitar, and my hesitant solo piano demo of the music that would later appear in the Imperial Bedroom composition "The Long Honeymoon". This was cut at a late-night session after a show in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, at which I recorded a surprisingly faithful and reasonably coherent guitar and vocal transcription of a song made famous by Billie Holliday, "Gloomy Sunday". I have no memory as to why I was moved to cut it, other than I love the song. And, this version of "Boy With A Problem," with my own piano accompaniment, features Chris Difford's entire lyric before I made the small amendments which are heard on the Imperial Bedroom recording.
The short instrumental "Weeper's Dream" was originally composed around 1973, whilst "Twenty-Five To Twelve" represents the first appearance of a piece that illustrates the crooked path that a song may take to its final resting place. The track owes more than a little to David Bowie's "Heroes," but for further installments, the listener is directed to Imperial Bedroom ("Seconds Of Pleasure") and Punch The Clock ("The Invisible Man" and "Seconds Of Pleasure").
None of the singles from this album made much of an impact in the UK or America, although "Watch Your Step" did return us from our exile from US television with an appearance on Tom Snyder's show Tomorrow. There was also still sufficient interest in our new release that we were booked to deputize for The Clash as the headline act for the 100,000 people who attended the "Heatwave Festival" at Mosport Speedway, outside Toronto, on a bill that included Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Rockpile, and the B-52's, most of whom had enjoyed much greater radio and chart success than we had ever done during our absence from North America from mid '79 to the summer of 1980. It would take a trip to Nashville and an old George Jones song to return us to the charts, and then only in the UK.
Almost by accident, the album arrived at a sound and tone that was very true to my feelings at the time. The world it described was the opposite of the album title in much the same way that Get Happy!! had been less than cheerful. It suggested a tarnished and disappointed soul looking beyond the certainties of brash, arrogant youth and early success and on into a life (and possibly a career) in music. It also contains several songs that I still perform to this day.
Not all the songs included enjoyed such a happy fate. The rowdiest but slightest cut on the record, "Luxembourg," had its origins in an R'n'B number, "Seven O'Clock," written for Canvey Island's finest, Dr. Feelgood. The final draft of the lyrics picked the hapless dukedom as an object of scorn, but only after the original, equally wordy text had been rejected by Dr. Feelgood's frontman, Lee Brilleaux, after one perusal, with the immortal line: "What's this then, fucking Shakespeare?"
-- Elvis Costello