Kojak Variety (2004) liner notes

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Liner notes


Kojak Variety

Elvis Costello

I walked from the blinding sunshine into the chill, air-conditioned gloom of the studio building. A shadowy figure was roused from a couch. He ambled towards us with an unfortunate air. He was an American who had been hired as second engineer for our sessions. Despite the lack of light in the lounge, he was wearing mirrored aviators. As we came face to face, he offered his introduction: "My future's so bright, I gotta wear shades", quoting a maddeningly catchy, Timbuk 3 single from years before. He accompanied this with that twin finger-click and pointing gesture that you last saw executed by The Fonz on Happy Days. I fired him on the spot.

I hadn't come to Barbados to fool around even though I was bidding a light-hearted farewell to a group of musicians with whom I'd recorded and toured for the previous five years.

In fact, I had planned to record an entirely different album in 1990. The album that would become Mighty Like A Rose was originally intended to feature the Attractions for the first time since 1986. Unfortunately, the contractual negotiations became a theatre for delusions and long harboured grudges and that version of the record was never made. By contrast, the simple idea to going to a Caribbean island to record "some of my favourite songs with some of my favourite musicians" — as the original sleeve note defined this record — seemed like an inviting prospect.

The sessions for King Of America in 1985 had been my first experience of recording original material with musicians other than the Attractions since 1977. The line-up of "Elvis Costello and His Confederates" changed during three subsequent tours but guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Jim Keltner were common to all of them.

Jerry and Jim were among the many players involved in the 1988 sessions for Spike, which also heavily featured the guitar playing of Marc Ribot and included a small cameo appearance by Pete Thomas. When it came time to tour, I invited Jerry and Pete to be the rhythm section and asked Marc to play guitar and Eb Horn. Mitchell Froom, who had played keyboards on both albums and toured in the original Confederate line-up, was now so involved in production that he was unable to join the Spike tour. At Jerry Scheff's suggestion we enlisted Larry Knechtel, who probably has some of the heaviest session credits in popular music. Having left behind both the security and the creative impasse of a permanent group, I thought myself lucky to be able to call on such a rich group of players in both the studio and during live adventures.

When planning the Barbados trip, I knew I could rely entirely on Jerry Scheff for the bass playing but decided to invite both Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner, scheduling five days with each drummer, making sure that they overlapped for a couple for sessions in case we wanted to attempt anything unusual. I also guessed that the contrast of styles between Marc Ribot and James Burton was bound create some heat but really only got to know Larry during the sessions. I soon discovered that he always knew the right thing to play.

Blue Wave Studios was located on the opposite side of the Barbados from our hotel. Days began early, with a swim in ocean before the sun became too intense. Mongeese could be seen scurrying around the grounds and were also seen dead and alive along the rough road that lead to the studio. I drove a battered Mitsubishi, the only automatic transmission vehicle available. The steering wheel had been jolted by the rutted road surface so that it appeared that one was always driving sideways.

Kojak Variety was the name of a grocery store on the route to the studio. I imagine that the sign was put up during the "Who loves you baby?" craze, it being the catchphrase of Telly Savalas' lollipop-sucking television detective. Somehow it seemed to fit my arcane selection of songs and the sleeve design was to even made it look like the logo of an old soap powder.

An early bout of laryngitis lent a unique vocal tone to a couple of cuts. It was brought on by over enthusiastic rehearsals and then falling asleep in the icy air conditioning of our hotel blowing full blast. Nevertheless, we cut the songs pretty fast. In every case we listened to a recorded version of the song and decided if there was anything essential that we should preserve from the original arrangement. I knew I could count on my own voice and the personality of the players to provide a new fresh take on the material. It was pretty uncomplicated work.

Our afternoon breaks saw a table laden with green mangoes and flying fish. The evening began with rum and grapefruit cocktails and darkness was accompanied to the incessant songs of cicadas and tree frogs that inspired the sound of one track on this record. Wild monkeys had been briefly glimpsed in a field beside the studio. It was certainly a little different from Pathway Studios in Islington, North London, where my recording career had begun.

The Kojak Variety recordings were never intended to be to be issued immediately. I simply thought this might be the last opportunity for me to work with this group of players. Given the frequency of my new work, it proved impossible to schedule the release of this material until 1995. Even then, I really wanted WB to issue the record without any fanfare, letting it simply appear in the racks. It was the kind of "lost record" that I had dreamed of discovering by one of my favourite bands while idly flipping through racks of vinyl during the thousands of hours that I had spent in record shops. Needless to say, the company couldn't bring themselves to attempt anything so certain to end in commercial failure, even though I am sure that the record would have had more charm if issued in this fashion.

So-called "cover" records tend to come in seasons. The early 70s saw The Band's Moondog Matinée (probably the unconscious inspiration for this set), David Bowie's Pin-Ups and John Lennon's Rock ‘n' Roll. Though they may not have been equal to the artists' best original material, they told you plenty that was very personal about the musicians who made them. Unhappily, by the mid-90s, such records were seen to simply denote a vanity or an absence of fresh inspiration. The coincidence that three entirely differently motivated "covers" albums appeared in a matter of weeks cannot have helped the perception that these collections were just an indulgence.

These songs have only appeared occasionally in concert repertoire. I started singing "I Threw It All Away" on my first solo tour in 1984, adding "Running Out Of Fools" to later solo concerts. "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man" was first performed on the Confederate tours after the release of King Of America and "Leave My Kitten Alone" was recorded (but originally left in the can) during the Blood & Chocolate sessions and was featured in some of the last Attractions appearances of the 80s. The rest of material was only performed on a handful of occasions in '95.

The release of Kojak Variety was only attended by just a solitary concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London that was broadcast throughout the world. Unfortunately, my voice had been left at a couple of television studio appearances that week and the show was not a success. Earlier in the day, we had been guests on The Late Show with David Letterman, which was also visiting London. By a curious coincidence, the house band featured two famous guest musicians: Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Our scheduled number was Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo." Even at the rehearsal, we tore into the number and due to the traditionally, frigid studio conditions, I also tore into my throat. Right on cue, Little Richard appeared on the set, declaiming excitedly, "I heard you playing my song!!!" He was probably the last person to do so that evening.

What follows is the original sleeve note for this album. It was my first rock and roll record to contain such notes. I thought that this disc could stand something that tipped a hat to the likes of Tony Barrow, whose liners notes for The Beatles albums, I had pored over for many hours as reading them again and again would reveal more story…

This is a record of some of my favourite songs performed with some of my favourite musicians. The songs here date from between 1930 and 1970 so it should really he called Kojak Variety — Volume One.

I've tried not to cut songs that are too familiar. I found "Strange" on the b-side of a Screaming Jay Hawkins single on Roulette. It asks the musical questions: "How many wrinkles in a pickle? How many hairs in a head? How many waves in the ocean? How many crumbs in bread? ... How many bubbles in soap? How many chewings in gum? How many rolls in wheel?" and most importantly ... "Where did eyeballs come from?" Marc Ribot takes full advantage of the invitation to "go strange" during the solo and fade.

On "Hidden Charms" Larry Knechtel's wah-wah Hammond organ shadows Ribot as he delivers a long, swinging solo which tips a hat to Hubert Sumlin (the guitar player on the Howlin' Wolf original). Marc takes several choruses courtesy of some fine brushes work by Pete Thomas. "Hidden Charms" was written by the great Willie Dixon.

At different times in my life I have haunted such shops as Potter's Music in Richmond, where I also bought my first proper guitar and still get many of my favourite jazz and ballad recordings; Probe in Liverpool, where I stumbled through a teenage crisis brought on by trying to like psychedelic music; Rock On in Camden Town, where I bought the pile of Stax singles that helped shape the album Get Happy and, from the first time I traveled across America, the countless thrift stores and pawn shops which offered the chance of discovering an entire album by some group or singer that I had previously only known from singles or a scrappy compilation record.

Some of my best discoveries have been made in what may be the greatest record collecting store in the world: Village Music in Mill Valley, California. Any shop that confronts you with its own ever-changing "Hall of Fame" (which might include a Lester Young, The Fairfield Four, some Bill Monroe and a great Otis Rush anthology) AND a rack called "Sometimes the cover is enough," featuring such classics as Music for Sleepwalkers, must be doing something right.

It was here that I bought The Supremes Sing Holland/Dozier/Holland. It included some of their own best-sellers and "covers" of other Motown artists' hits such as "Same Old Song" and "Heatwave". The odd song out was "Remove This Doubt". There's a touch of film music about this one. The thing that sounds like a big zither in the solo is actually a plucked piano string.

One of the better known songs included here is Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away." It comes from his album Nashville Skyline. Such was the departure of that record's vocal and writing style that the simple beauty of this song seems to have been overlooked. I performed the song on my very first solo tour in 1984. Larry Knechtel leads the way in this arrangement with some mighty piano and organ.

One of the great albums in my parents' collection when I was very young was a ten-inch album by Peggy Lee called "Black Coffee". I'm not sure whether "Fever" was on that disc but I've listened to Peggy Lee all my life and somewhere along the way I got curious about the Little Willie John version. The only other time I had even seen his name was as writer of "Need Your Love So Bad". Peter Green cut a superb rendition of this with the "original" Fleetwood Mac. If you don't already know Little Willie John's stuff I would suggest any anthology with such sides as "All Around The World", "Big Blue Diamonds" and the "answer-songs" to "Fever": "Spasms," "My Nerves" and "I'm Shakin'". He also recorded "Leave My Kitten Alone," although I have heard it by The Beatles. I've played it with both The Attractions and The Rude Five. Our recorded account was cut with Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner sharing parts of a dismantled drum kit. Pete played snare, hi-hat and tom-tom while Jim played bass drum with a hand-held beater — telling Pete he would give him "the best right foot he'd ever had". James Burton takes the solo.

I learned the name Mose Allison from Georgie Fame's records. His Fame At Last and Sound Venture introduced me to the music of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Goffin and King's "Point Of No Return" and Neal Hefti's "Lil' Darlin'." Later I realised that the Georgie Fame record of Willie Dixon's "I Love The Life I Live" was actually modelled on the Mose Allison version. Although Georgie did several Mose Allison tunes I don't think he ever cut "Everybody's Crying Mercy." I found it first on Bonnie Raitt's third album: Taking My Time. Marc Ribot leads this version which features a fine, funny coda from the whole band.

I don't know if many people will be familiar with Randy Newman's "I've Been Wrong Before." It was written before he started his own recording career and cut by both Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black. I learned it from the Dusty Springfield version. In fact she recorded two of Randy Newman's pop masterpieces on her great album "Dusty in Memphis": "Just One Smile" and "I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore" — a song which I half-quote in my song "Accidents Will Happen." Larry and Marc combine well for the broken musical-box accompaniment in this new arrangement.

I first heard Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" in 1964. It was released on a yellow "London American Recordings" 45. I have the record in front of me now. It's an "A" label copy which means I got it from my father.

During my Dad's time singing with The Joe Loss Orchestra he used to bring home all kinds of "A" label advance copies and even acetates of songs he was to learn for that week's radio broadcast. The process of securing "live" or radio covers was still crucial to both record companies and music publishers. As late as the release of The Beatles' Rubber Soul, when they hardly needed a helping hand, their publishers, Northern Songs, were still sending out acetates of non-single tracks such as "Girl" and "Michelle" so that the songs were covered by the radio dancebands. When my Dad had finished learning the song he gave me the record. This meant that I had far more singles than pocket money would have bought. It also meant that I used to keep my fingers crossed so that, out of the three band singers, my Father would be allotted my favourites from each batch of the new releases. It also certainly means that I am actually the second member of the MacManus family to perform "Bama Lama Bama Loo."

I cannot attempt the famous Penniman "Whoooo!" so James Burton provides The Voice Of Lucinda. Once again Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner share parts of a drum kit. Ribot takes the first solo and James the second.

In some cases I've changed the style of the song quite a bit. Bill Anderson's "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face" was originally recorded by the Louvin Brothers but we did it as an R'n'B ballad.

When I was growing up most "country" hits were novelty records. I didn't get curious about country until I heard The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and started seeking out the original versions by the artists they had covered. These included the Louvins' "Christian Life" but I didn't get the bug for them until I heard their songs cut by Gram Parsons. There's still a record exchange in Wandsworth where I picked up a bargain-priced import copy of G.P., his first solo album. It was the first record that I actually owned featuring James Burton and here he is playing on this arrangement.

Having recorded an entire album in Nashville I wanted to do something different with this song and took a cue from the way Percy Sledge approaches country ballads. Anyway, I didn't have anyone to harmonise with. Even though I have performed the Louvins song "My Baby's Gone" with Nick Lowe, he does it much better on his own. I've also been known to reel off their very grim murder ballad "Knoxville Girl." If you're a fan of The Everly Brothers or any of the great vocal duos who went before them then you probably know the Louvin Brothers' records. If you don't know their tunes then try to find "Tragic Songs Of Life" or one of the many re-issues now available.

Some years ago when I was in Japan I discovered "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man" by James Carr on a brand new Goldwax Records issue. This was at a time when his records were shamefully absent from catalogues in the US and Britain. For years I've taken it to be another of the great Dan Penn songs. Perhaps this is because Carr shares the Moman/Penn classic "Dark End Of The Street" with Percy Sledge (who also cut Penn and Oldham's "Out Of Left Field" and "It Tears Me Up"). In fact "Pouring water..." was written by the team of Baker and McCormick.

I included this song in my 1986 shows with The Confederates, a band which featured Jerry Scheff, Jim Keltner and James Burton. However in this performance the spotlight should really fall on Larry Knechtel's piano playing.

You can now find this song on the very fine James Carr compilation "At the Dark End of The Street". By the way, Dan Penn's first album for twenty years, "Do Right Man," was issued in 1994. It contains new versions of some of his greatest songs including, I promise you... "You Left The Water Running."

"The Very Thought of You" was written by English band leader Ray Noble around 1930 and later popularised by Nat "King" Cole. I have performed this song before for a video special with The Chet Baker Trio. During the solo on this rendition I join Marc Ribot's Spanish guitar and Eb horn with a bit of "mouth trumpet." In fact this arrangement is a band effort, Jerry, James and Larry suggesting the simplified accompaniment of the opening to which I added the transition into the final verse.

Jesse Winchester's "Payday" is the most recent song on this record. It comes from his 1970 debut album that contains many very beautiful ballads and one terrifying song called "Black Dog." I still cannot listen to it in the dark. That album was produced by Robbie Robertson and features other members of The Band. If you see it snap it up! There is a very fine Jesse Winchester anthology but it would only be perfect if it contained all the tracks from that first record. I've always wanted to record this song if only for the lines:

"I've got me this long legged girl to help me spend my dough Her heart as big as your mama's stove and her body like Brigitte Bardot."

I asked Marc Ribot to play as if he was hearing lots of different music while walking past a row of nightclubs. Pete, Jerry and especially Larry really get going on this one.

When I first heard some of these songs there were only about three hours of "beat music" on the BBC Light Programme per week. "Rock'n'roll" was actually old people's music to anyone under thirteen — particularly as Elvis Presley was doing mock-operatic stuff like "It's Now Or Never." "Rhythm and Blues" was an exotic style that my favourite pop groups said they liked. For example the songs that The Beatles didn't write turned out to be by Arthur Alexander and Smokey Robinson.

Even if the original American version of a tune was issued it took up to six weeks to appear by which time a local facsimile by a familiar face was often already established. In some cases those "covers" were actually better. I love Smokey and the Miracles but I honestly prefer The Beatles take on "You Really Got A Hold On Me."

There were at least two other versions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Please Stay" but I learned it from a record by Zoot Money and the Big Roll Band. Now we present a version starring Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ.

To compete the story, "Running Out Of Fools" was one of the last Columbia sides cut by Aretha Franklin before she moved to Atlantic Records. It was the first song that we recorded for this album. The last song recorded was Ray Davies' "Days." It is the only track on which I join Marc Ribot on electric guitar. I plugged into my rather dilapidated old Music Man stage amplifier and found that I could only get some strange feedback effects out of it. These happened to sound exactly like the tree-frogs that could be heard in the trees after dark and were almost as loud...

This album was recorded by Kevin Killen at Blue Wave Studios, Barbados in two weeks. The vocal backgrounds were added at Eden Studios, London. The tracks were mixed at Blue Wave and Eden Studios.

If you enjoy these recordings and do not already know the original versions then I wish you a lot of pleasure in seeking them out. I look forward to recording "Volume Two" sometime in the next millennium.

Well, CD2 is not exactly "Volume Two" of Kojak Variety. In fact I am thinking of skipping Volumes Two through Four and starting straight into Volume Five, any day now. However, the second disc does contain a number of songs written by other people and recorded during the 90s for a variety of reasons.

"Ship Of Fools" was cut during the Blue Wave sessions but was made exclusively for Deadicated, an album of Grateful Dead songs. The track is slightly more ordered and arrangement than the tracks on the album. James Burton plays the guitar tag of the cut that begins with the opening statement Jerry Garcia's original guitar solo and then goes somewhere that is entirely "James".

Perhaps the strangest group of songs is those from Track 2 to Track 11 of CD2. Perhaps I should explain them. I have worked with George Jones on three separate occasions over twenty years but we have always lost touch in between times. Nevertheless, I was approached in 1993 by Interview magazine to present a series of questions to the great man.

Our telephone conversation began bizarrely. I enquired as to George's wellbeing and he replied that he was doing well with the dog food. It was not until later on that I found out he was referring to a product endorsement that he had made. Eventually, the topic came around to songs from outside of country music that I imagined might very well suit such a fine singer, thereby turning them into "George Jones songs". It didn't seem as if George had been doing too much broad listening, as he had apparently never heard of some of the composers, let alone their songs.

I promised to send him a compilation of ideas for his amusement but thought better of it when I actually assembled of tape of the original recordings. So I decided to go into the studio and actually demo the songs in the manner in which I had read was quite common in Nashville, namely mimicking the singer's style to sell a song. Only in this case the songs were not mine but simply songs I loved and thought might be great for George. This might seem like a huge presumption but like many George Jones fans from outside country music, I had often been frustrated and disappointed by the inferior songs that he had sometimes been obliged to record.

So, taking just one day in the studio in the company of Pete Thomas and Paul "Bassman" Riley, we cut songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, T-Bone Burnett, Paul Simon, Dan Penn, Bob Dylan and George Gershwin, in my mad and, at times, comical approximation of the Jones style. I've no idea what Mr. Jones made of the tape or if he ever even received it. On the next occasion that we performed together, on TNN's Monday Night Concert with Ricky Skaggs at Ryman Theatre in Nashville, George diplomatically failed to mention these recordings.

Nevertheless, I can still her him singing Paul Simon's "Congratulations", although I must apologise for my accidental re-writing of Bob Dylan's "You're Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go". I really did think that the line was "Relationships have all been bad. Mine have been like the lanes and rambles" rather than "Verlaine's and Rimbaud's". A few items from this demonstration record have been issued on B-sides and CD singles but this is the first time that they have been released in their entirety.

Another cut that in some way referred back to my Nashville adventures in the early 80s, is "Sleepless Nights". I originally learned this Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song – first cut by the Everly Brothers – from the Gram Parsons recording with Emmylou Harris. When Emmylou approached me to contribute to Return of the Grievous Angel, a tribute album to G.P., I selected this song to illustrate the way he could almost re-write a song in the process of interpretation.

My rendition, produced in London by Glyn Johns, features Pete Thomas on drums, B.J. Cole on steel guitar, Steve Donnelly on guitar, Roy Babbington on double bass and myself on piano and vibraphone. I first performed this song on my 1984 solo tour and more recently had the remarkable experience of harmonising on the tune with Emmylou during the European leg of the "Concert for A Landmine Free World" tour in 2002.

Tracks 13, 14 and 16 were recorded for The Family, a dark and harrowing BBC/RTE television drama series by Roddy Doyle. Each episode ended with a song that echoed the tone of the final scene. Given that the drama was about abuse and domestic violence (and that fourth episode ended with "Kinder Murder" from Brutal Youth) it is probably not too hard to imagine how "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Sticks And Stones" – a Titus Turner song best known by Ray Charles – fitted into the story. "Step Inside Love" was obviously used in more ironic fashion. This wonderful Paul McCartney song was originally made famous by Cilla Black as the theme tune to her late 60s/early 70s TV show. The band line-up on these songs included Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve together with bassist Trevor Barry and guitarist Steve Donnelly.

I first heard Arthur Alexander's song "Anna" as recorded by The Beatles on their 1963 EP "Beatles No. 1". Having always loved his songs whenever I came across them, I was happy to contribute this version of "Sally Sue Brown" to the 1994 tribute album Adios Amigo. It is a solo cut with an overdubbed guitar solo.

"That's How You Got Killed Before" is a Dave Bartholomew song from the 1950s that served as the opening (and sometimes also the closing) number of every "Confederate" show in the late 80s. This version was produced in New York by Scott Billington for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's New Orleans Album. This album was issued in 1990, in between our collaborations on the Spike and Mighty Like A Rose albums.

Two tracks included here were recorded in Dublin. The rendition of "Full Force Gale" with The Voice Squad was produced by Phil Coulter and Van Morrison for No Prima Donna, a tribute record to Van's songs. The macabre traditional song "The Night Before Larry Was Stretched" was my contribution to Donal Lunny's "Common Ground" record. Donal had played a major part in the Dublin session for the Spike and although this track was actually cut shortly after the eventual release of Kojak Variety, it is included here as part of great variety of work that I did at this time.

One of the more unusual guest appearances that I made during these years was on Larry Adler's The Glory of Gershwin album. At the time of recording, the mouth organ virtuoso (that, by the way, was his chosen description of the instrument usually called the chromatic harmonica) was in his mid-80s, still playing a daily game of tennis and nearly as well known as a radio and television raconteur and ceaseless correspondent to the "Letters to the Editor" pages of various publications as he was as a musician.

The fact that he was the dedicatee of concerti by several notable composers and had received an Oscar nomination for his score for the 1954 English comedy, Genevieve, was sometimes lost in the face of his almost unstoppable storytelling. Then again when Mr. Adler referred to "Mr. Gershwin", he was talking about his encounters with George's father. His meeting with "Mr. Capone" was also pretty interesting.

In selecting a song from the Gershwin catalogue, I found that I had been beaten to several of my favourite tunes by members of the large and starry contributing cast that included Elton John, Kate Bush, Cher and Sting. The record also featured an astonishing version of "Rhapsody in Blue" by Mr. Adler.

After settling on "But Not For Me", I met with George Martin, who was producing the record, to discuss the arrangement. Although it is entirely his work, it does make use of a quote from an unrecorded chamber music song of mine entitled "The Trouble With Dreams" in the introduction.

The track was originally cut live in a couple of takes with Larry and the ensemble, but I was unhappy with my performance and later returned to the studio to re-record the vocal on a session overseen by George Martin's son, Giles.

However, my favourite recollection relating to this track is of a lunch meeting held to discuss the upcoming session. I met Larry and George at a restaurant near AIR Lyndhurst Studios in Hampstead, London. Needless to say, the conversation was remarkable. I think my head started to spin around the time Larry recounted a performance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" for victory radio broadcast, which he said was made from a balcony of the gutted Reichstag, just after the fall of Berlin in 1945. He had been playing it to accompany a recitation of the Gettysburg Address by Ingrid Bergman. Almost as an aside he added, "Of course, I was in love with her…" Mr. Martin also had quite a few good stories.

I mention this tale to illustrate that there is really no rush with music. If I were to set out to make this record again I would probably select many different tunes. Then again if were to make a list of my "favourite songs" on just about any day of the week it would be a different proposition.

-- Elvis Costello


Kojak Variety liner notes (2004)

Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 2004 Rhino/Edsel reissue of Kojak Variety.


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