Punch The Clock (2003) liner notes

From The Elvis Costello Wiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
... Bibliography ...
202122232425 26 27 28

Liner notes


Punch The Clock

Elvis Costello

Preface 2003

It was rather like one of those legendary anxiety dreams in which the groom finds himself at the altar, without his trousers. I was onstage at the "Red Parrot" nightclub in Manhattan with the entire Count Basie Orchestra behind me. I opened my mouth to sing but all I could utter was a hoarse croak.

I had accepted NBC's berserk invitation to take part in a television special in which I would sing with Tony Bennett, backed by the Basie band. I was certain that somebody would have the good sense to pull the plug before it ever was visited upon the unsuspecting viewer. But if it happened it would be something to tell the grandchildren, that for one night you had sung in front of the same band as Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan and Jimmy Rushing, the band that had once featured Lester Young. What I hadn't considered was that the preceding three nights would consist of howling, bawling mayhem in front of a sonic battle between The Attractions and the TKO Horns, that would reduce my voice to a whisper.

My choice of solo song seemed quite fortuitous at first. I had learned Neal Hefti's "Lil' Darlin'" at ten years old from the Georgie Fame recording. I could probably get through the verse, even with a shot throat, by singing very softly, but the bridge, in which Jon Hendricks' words are set to the original saxophone solo proved to be nearly impossible to negotiate. However that was nothing compared to having to duet with Tony Bennett on "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)", a number I'd have had second thoughts about tackling in the shower.

Any illusions I might have harboured about "holding my own", or even springing a few surprises were rudely dashed. Throughout the rehearsals Mr. Bennett was patient, sympathetic and paternal. From the looks on their faces, the same could not be said of the saxophone section. Their expressions ranged from comic through pitying and all the way out to a sullen and contemptuous, "How in the hell did this guy get the gig?" resignation.

Mr. Bennett was also very, very good. If I had been less mortified, I might have started to formulate a conspiracy theory in which NBC had tempted me into this humiliation as revenge for our song-switching act on Saturday Night Live in 1977. After several half-hearted and witheringly embarrassing attempts, I did what any grown man would do—I broke down and pleaded for mercy.

Count Basie, who was in the last months of his life and suffering from chronic arthritis that required him to sit at the piano astride a little motorized buggy and play even less than his economic style had previously allowed, fixed me with his big sad eyes and said, "Young man, I'm seventy-nine years old and I can't get my arm above this," indicating the extent of his movement. "You can do it."

So I had no choice. My reward, though hardly deserved, was to stand two feet away from the piano as The Count took his solo and introduced his big finale. Of course there was a technical hitch with the cameras and this perfect piece of music was lost, forcing a retake that was obviously very painful for him. I'm happy to say that all of these indignities remain buried in an NBC vault somewhere and long may they moulder. "No" rolls off the tongue a lot easier these days.

None of this has very much to do with the making of this album but I have begun each note accompanying this programme of re-releases with an anecdote in hope of capturing something of the moment in which the album was made. Sadly, I have been unable to recall a single further entertaining incident that occurred during these sessions.

As a consequence, I have decided to re-print the following essay from the previous edition. It is a truthful account and seems to accurately reflect my feelings about the material and the times in which it was recorded. I do not believe that I can improve upon it, other than to add some words about the additional tracks on CD2 in a "postscript". In the end, I trust your decision to purchase this edition is rewarded by the music on the discs.

Your friend in hi-fi,
Elvis Costello


"Punch The Clock" was our chance to get reacquainted with the wonderful world of pop music and still maintain a sense of humour. After Nashville and the labyrinth of "Imperial Bedroom" I was ready to find a different production approach.

Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley certainly knew where the charts were but they also made great records. They had produced hits for The Teardrop Explodes, Dexy's Midnight Runners and Madness. In fact I first met Clive as a fellow producer for 2-Tone Records. By the time I had finished The Specials' debut album, Clive and Alan had moved with Madness to Stiff Records where they cut some of the best pop singles since the finest days of The Kinks.

Despite making the most "English" music on the planet "Clanger and Winstanley" even managed to get Madness to No. 1 in America with "Our House". By 1983 they were pretty irresistible and unstoppable.

(Clive was also an excellent songwriter. "Clive Langer and The Boxes" opened for us on the "Get Happy" tour of seaside towns and out of the way places. I produced a version of Amen Corner's "If Paradise Is Half As Nice" for his "Splash" album on F-Beat. Alan, the quiet and patient one of the team, also had some pretty mean credits to his name including engineering The Buzzcocks' best records).

They favoured the "building-block" method of recording: retaining very little from the original "live" take (often only the drums) and tailoring each instrumental overdub to best serve the arrangement. This system naturally precluded the spontaneity of our past "happy accidents" but could yield startling results when the last piece was in place.

Now to be honest I haven't always been kind about this album. I find it hard to ignore the benefit of hindsight. However I shall try to explain how we fared among the passionless fads of that charmless time: "The Early 80's".

Being in a fairly feckless frame of mind I had dashed off a couple of bright pop tunes that didn't have much else to them. The chorus of "Element Within Her" consisted entirely of the immortal words: "la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la" (although I liked the silly Liverpudlian-slang joke in the last verse: "He said "Are you cold?" She said "No but you are La…la-la-la…etc."). "Everyday I Write The Book" was written in a spare ten minutes on tour as a spoof Merseybeat tune. In rehearsal Clive guided us towards an arrangement that was unlike anything we had ever recorded. Although we borrowed a few touches from the r'n'b styles of the day I have witnessed, firsthand, the record's ability to clear a nightclub dancefloor in seconds. Despite this it remains one of our very few entirely cheerful recordings and was even a minor hit on both sides of the Atlantic – reaching No. 28 in U.K. and No. 32 in the U.S. charts – then our best placing for a single.

The vocal responses on "Punch The Clock" were improvised by Claudia Fontaine and Caron Wheeler, known at the time as "Afrodiziak". They had not appeared on that many pop recordings and their spontaneous approach was a welcome contrast to the jaded clichés demanded of other groups of "session singers". (Both went on to grace many hit records. Caron is probably best known as the voice on the Soul II Soul smash "Back To Life".)

The other addition to our ensemble was the horn section led by trombonist Big Jim Paterson. He brought with him saxophonists Paul Speare and Jeff Blythe who had also recently left Dexy's Midnight Runners. So that we did not duplicate that group's sound we added trumpet player Dave Plews to the line-up. (However it is true that the TKO Horns employed something of the rude, unison sound they had fashioned in Dexy's, so I found it strange that the Stax comparison was often made in the press. I was only happy if we sounded like Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers on their version of "One Way Love".)

Though I scatted all the main horn refrains on my demo recordings, Clive and the players worked out some of the more sophisticated punches and flourishes. I soon found myself writing them into the other tunes.

("The Invisible Man" was the final resting place of lyrics which had been part of the ‘unreleased" songs: "25 to 12", "Seconds Of Pleasure" and "I Turn Around" – see the re-issues of "Trust" and "Imperial Bedroom". Now this song and "Let Them All Talk" – originally "beat-group" tunes – revolved around horn figures. "The Greatest Thing" even contained a reference to my Dad's years with The Joe Loss Orchestra by way of a quote from "In The Mood" – complete with Paul Speare doubling on clarinet. "The World And His Wife" was re-written from a solemn folk song about a drunken family gathering into a bilious knees-up with the horns playing their part in the scene.)

All of the above is not to suggest that I entered into the writing and recording of this record in a haphazard or lackadaisical manner. On the contrary I was still writing most of my songs at the piano and almost all of them were melancholy ballads. Clive cajoled me into picking up the guitar at least for the purpose of writing some more lively material. He argued that there was a danger in becoming known for only the most cynical and disillusioned songs of "Imperial Bedroom". I remained allergic to the happy ending but in reply I managed a pair of proud and wishful songs on Love and Marriage: "The Greatest Thing" and "Let Them All Talk" and a couple about the Ugly Truth: "Mouth Almighty" and "Charm School".

"They put the numb into number
They put the cut into cutie
They put the slum into slumber
And the boot into beauty"
"T.K.O. (Boxing Day)"

Between 1979 and 1983 something strange happened. The British government mutated from an annoying and often disreputable body, that spent people's taxes on the wrong things, into a hostile regime contemptuous of anyone who did not serve or would not yield to its purpose.

"Work" was transformed from a right into a privileged reward. There were a few passionate and coherent calls to resistance (most notably Alan Bleasdale's "Boys From The Blackstuff") and I could offer little more than a puny echo and some of the crude references which litter the lesser songs. I might have tried to argue that this was all very ironic – while fashioning a bauble and feeling for a faint pop pulse but I've always been a dunce at making up that kind of alibi. Anyway most of what I wanted to get out of my head had gone into two songs recorded before we began work on "Punch The Clock".

The phrase "Pills and Soap" was originally inspired by "The Animals Film", while the sound of the record was indebted to "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. The former was a long harrowing portrayal of man's abuse of animals as pets and exhibits, in factory farming and scientific research. It didn't take much to extract that we are willing to do unto each other as we do to the animals. Beyond that it was a catalogue of the lovely times with the tabloid press just beginning to hone their skills of assassination, exploitation and phoney indignation, the country's blind, sad affair with that lucky family in the palace and the new rank breath of jingoism.

I'd been fooling around at the piano with a piece that I told myself sounded like something Ramsey Lewis…or Mose Allison…or Dave Brubeck might play…when I heard "The Message"… It was the first rap record I had encountered that was anymore than an invitation to dance. It spoke about ugly life. It was the best and only record of its kind that I had heard since The Last Poets' "Wake Up Niggers".

I could not adopt such a vocal delivery but I wanted to set my litany to a drum machine beat. So I turned the piano part over to Steve Nieve (who could actually play it) and switched on the device…that was on a Wednesday, the acetates were cut and distributed to the press and radio the following day and the finished single was in the shops by the following Friday. A week later it appeared in the charts. (The ability to achieve all this so quickly had everything to do with the fact that I was not, for the moment, being distributed by a major record label. "Pills and Soap", credited to The Imposter, a "Fairley/Imposter Production", appeared on "Imp Records" – a Demon Records imprint. It was released for a limited period only and melodramatically deleted on the eve of the 1983 General Election. The need to re-issue it the following day on a celebratory red vinyl 12" sadly never arose.)

This seemed to alarm the BBC who feared that the lyrics might somehow contravene the rules of broadcasting "balance" during the election campaign. A senior BBC producer questioned me about the song's subject matter. I said it was about "man's abuse of animals", a strictly truthful but slippery explanation worthy of a Tory cabinet minister. The producer then threatened me with banishment from the national airwaves if I should ever reveal that the song had a hidden agenda and more importantly…gloat about it…How very English.

Given the outcome of the election that I was supposed to be trying to sway and all the miserable years since I can hardly say that the episode gave me much satisfaction other than to get such an unusual song to No. 16 in the charts without anyone noticing.

"Shipbuilding" started out as a piano melody composed by Clive Langer. He had asked me if I could come up with some words that would suit Robert Wyatt… "perhaps something to do with the hours of the clock" being the only clue. Robert had recorded a beautiful soulful version of "I'm A Believer" so I did not feel that the song had to be inspired by current events. Anyway he had a way of narrowing the distance between a simple love song and an obviously political number. Take a listen to his reading of Chic's "At Last I Am Free" and then hear his version of Victor Jara's "Te Recuerdo Amanda" and you'll see what I mean.

I was leaving for an Australian tour with Clive's demo in my bag. The government was in the process of reversing their disastrous fortunes by springing to the defence of an obscure and obsolete Imperial coaling station and sheep farming outcrop. In as much as you can spring to the defence of The Falkland Islands when you are in the Northern Hemisphere and they are in the South Atlantic. Especially after the nincompoops in the Foreign Ministry have done everything possible to suggest to the particularly vicious junta in Argentina that their claim to "Las Malvinas" might go unchallenged if they would only care to invade…Oh, what a lovely war. Except that it was never called "A War". It was always referred to as the "Falklands Crisis" and later the "Falklands Conflict". Thank God CNN wasn't what it is today or we'd have had a theme tune and a logo overnight: "South Atlantic Storm: The Falkland Countdown".

By the time I reached Australia the bloody liberation was underway. I thought I'd seen it all in the British media coverage: grown men drooling over the hardware, the sick illusion of invincibility before HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile. The Sun's "Gotcha" headline when 300 Argentine sailors drowned when the Belgrano went down, the construction of the odd heroic myth to cheer everyone up after a series of blunders that led to a pointless and brutal slaughter of Welsh Guards and of course the real star of the show: The Prime Minister arriving on our screens each day as if directly from the theatrical costumiers. Sometimes as Boadicea. Sometimes as Britannia. Oh! I nearly forgot the raving lunatic who reared up from the Tory backbenches to suggest a nuclear attack on Buenos Aires. However none of this could prepare me for the depravity of the Australian tabloid coverage. To listen to them the "Poms" were getting slaughtered Gallipoli-style and the "Argies" were eating Falkland babies.

Most of the above was beyond words but the notion that this might really drag on and become a war of attrition seemed as believable as anything else. Ships were being lost. More ships would soon be needed. So: "Welcome back the discarded men of Cammell Laird, Harland and Wolff and Swan Hunter. Boys are being lost. We need more boys. Your sons will do…just as soon as those ships are ready."

For what it's worth this was pretty much the thinking behind the words of "Shipbuilding". That it didn't come to pass was a blessing. It was always less of a protest song than a warning sign.

Clive, Alan and I co-produced Robert Wyatt's recording of "Shipbuilding". He sang it beautifully and the single reached many people in Britain. Despite being daunted by the prospect of "covering" the song I wanted to include it on "Punch The Clock" so that it would be heard by a wider audience. As Steve Nieve played the piano on Robert's version I thought we should feature a trumpet soloist on our rendition.

Truthfully my ideal was Miles Davis, though I was probably thinking of the Arabic lines of "Sketches of Spain" rather than his recent fusion records. (I had even attempted to imitate some of those figures in the background voices on both Robert's "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap". This last arrangement also took a cue from parts of Joni Mitchell's album "Hissing of Summer Lawns", although my vocal delivery obviously disguises this quite well.)

If that seemed improbable then what happened next was almost miraculous. I opened the paper to find that Chet Baker was playing a hurriedly announced residency at The Canteen. I went along to find Chet in wonderful musical form despite the presence of several drunken bores who would loudly call for more booze in the middle of some of his most delicate playing. You got the feeling that this happened most nights but it seemed particularly appropriate that the main culprit was said to be one of London's leading jazz critics. Between sets I introduced myself to Chet, who was wandering about in the club untroubled by the patrons. There is no false modesty in saying that he had no idea who I was. Why the hell should he? However he accepted my invitation to come and play on the "Shipbuilding" session the next day. I mentioned a fee. He said "Scale". I think we probably doubled it.

It was a tense but rewarding session. Chet took a little time to grasp the unusual structure of the song but once he had it he played beautifully even if he looks pretty deathly in the studio photos. I'd say it was one of The Attractions very best performances. At the end of the session I handed Chet a copy of "Almost Blue", a song which was modelled on his style. He ended up recording it, but that's another story.

My one regret about the track is that I was tempted to put a spin echo on a couple of Chet's phrases. I suppose I still had "Sketches Of Spain" in the back of my mind. Then again at the same time I didn't really understand what composer David Bedford was trying to do in the arrangement of the strings and had them rather buried in the mix. Now I'm really glad that we are all on the record.

Footnote: From then on I always went to see Chet whenever he played in London. Jazz club patrons, who'd probably never heard "Shipbuilding", looked a little startled when he picked me out in the crowd or dedicated a number. We'd have a drink and he'd say funny things about the "jazz-singer" who was wowing the house with less than a pink dress and a little talent. However he seemed somebody that you "knew" rather than somebody you were "friends with". I even interviewed him once for a video special and sang a few numbers, including "You Don't Know What Love Is", with his trio. I think he knew I didn't want to talk about "the drugs". However, despite the fact that he once said in a magazine interview that he didn't care for that fateful echoed phrase he never raised that matter with me and I never got around to apologising. I guess you can't change history.


"Heathen Town" and "The Flirting Kind": Both these songs should have been part of "Punch The Clock". I was still so uncertain about the running order that I even had a scheme to substitute "Heathen Town" for "Love Went Mad" after the initial vinyl pressing. It was written as an "answer" song to Gram Parson's "Sin City", with just a little pinch of "Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat" (from "Guys and Dolls") thrown in. "Flirting Kind" was originally written in the same time and idiom as "Kid About It" (from "Imperial Bedroom"). There was more than a tip of the hat to Burt Bacharach in my demo. However the mania for "pace" which infected some of our wrong-headed choices lead to this pretty but less tragic version. Nevertheless we put quite a lot of time into the arrangement. Somehow it just doesn't really fit the song. (In contrast, "Kind Of Thieves", a tricky tune about the trials of a blacklisted scriptwriter, benefited from the production process. It created a bridge between the sombre songs and the brash attractive noise. I woke up from a dream with the first line of the song in my head… "I had forgotten all about the "Case of the Three Pins"…I still have no idea what it means but it sounds like the beginning of a detective novel.)

"{{Walking On Thin Ice]]": During the "Clocking on across America" tour I received an invitation to meet Yoko Ono at a New York City studio. She had recently begun mixing and compiling the two albums that she and John Lennon had been working on at the time of his death.

Milk And Honey might have been an album of rough and unfinished Lennon recordings but hearing them in a dimly lit studio with the widow, who had only recently been able to face listening to the tapes, was a very emotional experience. This was probably due to the fact that Lennon's unedited "between-takes" banter was blasting out of the control room speakers while the studio itself was in darkness. The effect was quite unsettling. Yoko asked me to contribute to "Every Man Loves A Woman" (the other work-in-progress album): a collection of other artists' recordings of her songs. Although I would not pretend that her records are exactly a fixture on my turntable I was happy to help complete one of her husband's last projects which one must imagine was conceived out of love.

We were to cut a version of "Walking On Thin Ice", certainly one of Yoko's strongest pieces. However our touring schedule required that we record on one of the few days when we would not be either travelling or performing. Our itinerary suggested Memphis or New Orleans. Now we needed a producer. I suggested that Yoko's office might approach Willie Mitchell in Memphis or Allen Toussaint in New Orleans. After all both these producers had created unique horn-section sounds and we just happened to have one with us.

I don't know if Yoko's people ever heard back from Willie Mitchell but the next thing we knew we were at Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans with Allen Toussaint behind the board. Pete Thomas was delighted to be in the same drum booth as used by the Meters' Ziggy Modeliste while Allen worked closely with Bruce fashioning a very original bass part and swapped keyboard ideas with Steve Nieve. Ironically the main horn refrain was a quote from an obscure Willie Mitchell production: "Let The Love Bell Ring" although Allen naturally tailored the overall arrangement and phrasing to a recognisably Toussaint sound. I don't believe that horn section ever sounded better than on this recording. During our stay we took in a couple of Neville Brothers shows where I first heard drummer Willie Green who, along with Allen Toussaint, later played on the New Orleans sessions for my Warner Bros album "Spike". As for our concert in the city…it was cancelled due to lack of ticket sales.

"The Town Where Time Stood Still": The result of an experimental Eden Studios session between Imperial Bedroom and Punch The Clock. Pete Thomas provided the drum loop (with my "vocal percussion") and I added the rest of the instruments. Much later I re-worked some lyrics for a song written with Ruben Blades: "The Miranda Syndrome".

"Shatterproof": This 4-track home demo is my only recording of this song. It is my unsubtle revenge on the landlord who swindled me out of my last penny when I was a twenty-one year-old "newly-wed". It was later recorded for a solo single by Rockpile's Billy Bremner.



Thanks to some enthusiastic digging in the vaults by my friends at Rhino and Demon Records, CD2 now presents the listener with an alternative "Punch the Clock", constructed from raw, pre-production studio run-throughs, demos and live tapes. Here are a few words about the new inclusions.

"Everyday I Write The Book": I have absolutely no memory of cutting this version of the song, but it is how it was originally intended to sound and replaces the inferior lo-fi, live take on the previous edition.

"Baby Pictures": This song is actually supposed to be a ballad. It was written around 1980, at the same time as the "Trust" cut, "Shot with his own gun" and occasionally performed in concert on my '80s solo tours. This abandoned studio take is of our ill-advised attempt to play it in the English Musical Hall style. Careful listeners may notice an inserted musical quote from The Move's "Fire Brigade" at the end of the bridge. Everyone else will find it hard to avoid the singer's bewildering decision to vocalise after the fashion of the "David Jones" who was not in The Monkees.

"Big Sister's Clothes / Stand Down Margaret" and "Danger Zone": This cut is the product of a BBC radio session, an event that usually resulted in us becoming extremely "pissed" in both the US and UK definitions of the word. On this occasion we recorded this live arrangement in which we made a transition from the final song of the "Trust" album into Dave Wakeling's more plainly spoken appeal to the Prime Minister, as originally recorded by The Beat. This session also produced a version of another Cold War favourite that had recently become rather too timely. I had known this Percy Mayfield song since childhood after discovering it on the B-side of the Ray Charles 45, "Hit the Road Jack".

"Seconds Of Pleasure ": This was the third attempt to record this material, following versions of the song included in recent editions of Trust and Imperial Bedroom. According to our highly qualified researchers it is being returned to the correct chronological sequence by its inclusion here.

"The World And His Wife": A solo studio recording of the original version of this song, prior to a reworking as a band and horn section number. This take includes a few extra lines, none of them very memorable but it does replace the lo-fi live recording included on the previous edition.

"Let Them All Talk," "King Of Thieves," "The Invisible Man," "The Element Within Her," "Love Went Mad," "The Greatest Thing," "Mouth Almighty," "Charm School": Most of these songs were the product of a challenge from Clive Langer for me to provide more up-tempo material for the album. Listening again to these fuzzy four-track demos, it seems that there was the possibility that this record might have continued in the beat group direction suggested by the early version of "Everyday I write the book".

Many of the songs feature passages of two-part vocal harmony and the influence of Lennon and McCartney and Roy Wood is much more apparent than on the final horn-driven recordings. Certainly the "direct" electric guitar accompaniments all seem to take their cue from very early George Harrison parts…only played by someone wearing boxing gloves.

I have to confess that I now prefer the less produced approach to "King of Thieves", as the story seems more concentrated. Certainly, even a slight and lyrically laboured song about life in a nuclear shelter such as "Love Went Mad" is clearly musically rooted in the 1960s and I suppose Clive saw it as his job to bring us more into the moment, hence the voguish arrangement that the song barely deserved.

There seems to be a deal more doubt in the slower rendition of "The Greatest Thing", I referred to it in the notes above as "wishful" and that would be a generous view of this version which includes more references to deprivations that I was no longer suffering and edited out of the final text along with the odd surreal observation: "There's a world of coffee table books and no coffee table".

Obviously some these demos are more intimate and conversational. There is a slightly different melody in the chorus of "Charm School" and I think I can detect references to a Pretenders song in this version of "Mouth Almighty".

I'm not sure that anything vital was really lost in submitting these songs to the Clanger/Winstanley method as we took to the recording process with some gusto. However, whenever I return to any of these songs today they usually come out sounding closer to these original drafts than the recording found on CD1.

"Possession," "Secondary Modern," "The Bells," "Watch Your Step" and "Back Stabbers" / "King Horse": These excerpts from a radio concert from Austin, Texas illustrate the influence of the TKO Horns on the material from the album "Get Happy!!". They sound most reminiscent of that great siren sound that three of the members created in Dexy's Midnight Runners when playing the original organ line from "Possession". They also add some drama to a rather frantic verse of The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" that tumbles into "King Horse".

"The Bells", an obscure Motown number arranged and produced by Marvin Gaye for The Originals, became a favourite of mine around this time. I became possessed of the belief that I should sing it even though the strain on my voice during these shows frequently left me unable to do that much with the melody. Sometimes I think I only called the number to infuriate certain members of The Attractions. On this rendition it sounds as if Steve Nieve was retaliating using some rather literal sound effects on his brand new Emulator keyboard. Then again it was the '80s. The decade that music and good taste forgot.

— Elvis Costello


Punch The Clock liner notes (2003)

Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 2003 Rhino/Edsel reissue of Punch The Clock.


Back to top

External links