Imperial Bedroom (1994) liner notes

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Liner notes


Imperial Bedroom

Elvis Costello

Imperial Bedroom was my first record of original material to be produced by anybody other than Nick Lowe. We had made five albums between 1976 and 1980 — four of them with the attractions — as well as touring together, so we had all heard each other's jokes at least once by this point. In any case I knew that I wanted to try a few things in the studio that I suspected would quickly exhaust Nick's patience.

Of course we still worked together: on a duet version of "Baby, It's You" and for Nick's track "L.A.F.S.," which I produced, before he came back in to produce our album Blood and Chocolate.

As it was our first album to be recorded without the benefit of extensive "live" experience of the songs, work on the arrangements and even some of the writing continued through rehearsals and into the studio sessions. This was only possible because we were to allow ourselves an extravagant twelve weeks of recording time. That this opportunity was not squandered must be credited to Geoff Emerick who was listed on the sleeve as producing the record "...from an original idea" by myself. This was not the conceit it may have appeared to be at the time. I had observed how the production of Squeeze's East Side Story had come, in a very short time, to be attributed to myself alone, with co-producer Roger Bechirian's name often omitted from reviews and articles. I did not want this process to be repeated, so although I was nominally co-producer with Geoff, in truth he did nearly everything that could be called "production" in terms of sound, while I concentrated on the music. Of course we were well aware that Geoff had engineered The Beatles' most ambitious records. Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were just a few of his vast and varied "credits". In those days it was standard practice for only "the producer" to be listed on the record sleeve, although by the time we worked with Geoff I'm sure that most people with an appreciation of his contribution must have thought that this was terribly unfair. Nevertheless we swore not to bug him for old Beatles stories, but as the sessions wore on, Geoff volunteered a few "behind the scenes" anecdotes and would occasionally surprise us by conjuring up a trademark echo or effected that he had more or less "invented", through experimentation, in the days before these sounds were so readily available in little digital boxes. A constant reminder of his illustrious work at AIR studios where George Martin and Paul McCartney were producing Tug Of War. In fact Geoff was also the main engineer on that album, as Imperial Bedroom was supposed to be made during a hiatus in their recording schedule. In fact a few sessions actually ran simultaneously with Geoff departing for an hour or two to engineer a McCartney recording while we fooled around in the studio. This proximity was later to prove quite fortuitous. As with Trust the rehearsals took place in a friend's cottage in Devon, only on this occasion the local scrumpy pub played a smaller part in the proceedings. We could draw from material written during the end of the Trust sessions ("Boy With A Problem"), through my work on "East Side Story" ("Kid About It"), during our Nashville adventure ("Tears Before Bedtime"), as well as time at home with my piano ("Almost Blue", "...And In Every Home" and "Long Honeymoon"). We did not make any attempt to have the songs obey an arrangement or production style, rather we tried to make the most out of this musical variety.

During the rehearsals we made quite credible 8-track recordings of most of the songs. That tape suggests an album very close to Trust and during the first two hectic weeks of recording we maintained this "live - first take" attitude. All that survives of those sessions is the "intro" and "outro" of "Man Out Of Time". The listener is spared our reckless attempt to play the song at this frenetic tempo, instead the "random racket" was used to break with the mood of the surrounding tracks. Despite a few junked experiments with tape loops and some radical editing, the basic group performances are as "live-in-the-studio" as on our previous albums. Songs such as "Almost Blue" and the main body of "Man Out Of Time" have few if any additions to the basic ensemble. The Attractions actually recorded the perfect "Boy With A Problem" track while I was absent from the studio and posted it through my letter-box one evening.

It is probably the vocal and instrumental additions that set this album apart from our previous records. Having decided to use some orchestral instruments, Steve Nieve began writing the charts; for a trio of French horns on "Long Honeymoon" (which he later told me was supposed to sound like Wagnerian hunting horns, although as one of the players might have swallowed something that didn't agree with him, that effect came closer to a New Orleans funeral band), a brass and woodwind section on "Pidgin English", a Philly-style violin section on "Town Cryer" and a full forty piece orchestra for "...And In Every Home". Prior to that last session Geoff asked George Martin to cast an eye over Steve's score (which contained a couple of musical jokes and allusions to George's orchestrations for the Beatles), as he might make a few valuable suggestions regarding the booking of particular players to negotiate the trickier passages. On the big day Steve conducted the orchestra himself, a remarkable sight which non of us had the foresight to capture on a snap-shot camera.

Another feature of the recording was the use of additional instruments which we attempted to play ourselves. Some were layered in ways that might have been bewildering without Geoff's expertise. On other occasions instruments were adapted in unlikely ways; a twelve-string Martin guitar was "bugged" and run through a Hammond Leslie speaker on "Shabby Doll", while a National Steel Dobro was used for the sitar-like line in the introduction of "Pidgin English" while a Danelectro Sitar-Guitar was used like an electric harp on "Human Hands". A beautiful harpsichord was hired in for "You Little Fool", although its effect was subverted in the closing choruses when the part was redubbed using the backwards-tape technique. Most ridiculous was the accordion part on "Long Honeymoon" which it took three of us to play; Steve at the Keyboard (which we lay flat across the table) Bruce to work the bellows and myself to wrestle with the beast and stop it from crawling onto the studio floor. For "Long Honeymoon" and "Pidgin English" I wrote the guitar interludes into the original composition rather than improvise, while both Steve and Bruce added more crucial musical detail of their own invention than ever before. In saying this I am thinking of Bruce's final verse in "Human Hands" and the fade of "Shabby Doll", while I once again commend Steve's spectacular bridge in "The Loved Ones" to the listener, not to forget his solitary guitar playing cameo in the final seconds of "Tears Before Bedtime"! The fact that there is less explosive music contained herein could lead to Pete Thomas' contribution being underestimated. However as you listen again I am sure you will hear the range of his playing from "Almost Blue" to "Man Out of Time". Without doubt it was his singular frame of mind that shaped the performance of the album's most spontaneous and unexpected music: "Beyond Belief".

The outcome of the "Beyond Belief" session caused me to reconsider the role of the vocal line in some of our arrangements. I then worked for several weeks with just Geoff Emerick and Jon Jacobs as I experimented with different vocal combinations. Sometimes lowering the lead voice by an octave as in "Kid About It" or contrasting two stylings as in "Pidgin English" or using a combination of falsetto voice (which I can never sustain outside the studio) and an overdubbed "vocal group" as with "Tears Before Bedtime", "The Loved Ones" and "Town Cryer". This way I tried to create some more contrast with the straightforward approach of "Almost Blue", "Man Out Of Time", and "Long Honeymoon". I must confess that I also tinkered at the organ and vibraphone on the "Kid About It" backing track which didn't meet with band approval, but we were to some extent hearing different things in the songs by that point. "Beyond Belief" (Which had originally been entitled "The Land Of Give And Take") was most transformed by my solo sessions. I completely "re-composed" the song over the existing track altering both the metre of the lyric and the register of the vocal line and creating an uneven structure leading to a more defined chorus of a less ranting tone. In a later concert performance the songs had to be stripped of many of the above embellishments; the "Kid About It" vocal line was returned to the higher octave as it made a more powerful "live" impression that way, while other songs such as "The Loved Ones" and "Tears Before Bedtime" never really found a place in our live repertoire without their studio-created vocal arrangements. Nevertheless the process of making this record was both a "do-it-yourself" education in using the studio like blank manuscript paper on which to work out the arrangements and...I nearly forgot...enormous fun.

About the cover: Given most of the lyrical content, you might be surprised to hear that I had imagined this to be my most optimistic album to date. Perhaps I was distracted by some of the sunnier instrumental sounds borrowed from the late 60's pop music. I was therefore taken aback when I first viewed Barney Bubbles' cover painting. In what was intended to be the first in a series I had asked him to pain an impression of the finished record as a change from the usual cover photograph. You can see that he obviously responded to the more violent and carnal aspects of the songs. The large canvas now hangs in my music room, so I am fondly reminded of Barney, his with and panache.

Recently in Spain somebody asked me about the cover and its obvious pastiche of Picasso's "Three Musicians". I could have said that Barney was tipping a large hat to the masters as we intended to do on the album, but instead I pointed out the lettering on each of the zipper-like creatures. It spells out "Pablo Si".

Although Imperial Bedroom reached No. 6 in the U.K. charts and No. 30 in the U.S. charts, the single released did not fare well in the hit parade. Both Warner (F-Beat's Distributor) and Columbia (in the U.S.) were rather cautious in releasing "You Little Fool" as the first single ahead of a bolder choice such as "Beyond Belief". So by the release of "Man Out Of Time" the initial interest in the album had cooled somewhat and a wider audience received a very sketchy idea of the music on the album.

"Perhaps inspired by Columbia's bizarre "masterpiece ?" ad campaign (the question mark was surely asking for trouble) and secure in the knowledge that commercial success was unlikely, many U.S. review were extremely positive. I believe The New York Times ran an article making a flattering, if rather far-fetched, comparison to George Gershwin. Several years after initial release I was in a Los Angeles hotel bar when the man who had been informally performing at the piano introduced himself as Michael Feinstein, who I later learned was a respected singer, pianist and connoisseur of the arcane and obscure among the songs of the Broadway era. He told me that he had assisted Ira Gershwin for a time and that Mr. Gershwin had been intrigued by the reference to his brother in the review of a new pop record and requested that Mr. Feinstein obtain a copy. As this comparison was probably based on a mere two tracks I could only imagine the horror on Mr. Gershwin's face when confronted with some of the remaining music and the idea that it conjured up thoughts of his remarkable brother in the writer's mind. Mr. Feinstein was far too tactful to elaborate on this reaction but having read some of Gershwin's own volume of annotated lyrics (a recommendable, if intimidating read for any lyricist) I think I can imagine the worst.

Extended Play

From Head To Toe (F-beat single), The World Of Broken Hearts (B-side of the above), Night Time (released on the B-side of the 12 inch single of "Everyday I Write The Book"), Really Mystified (previously unreleased) — These tracks were recorded at Matrix Studios, London shortly after the completion of Imperial Bedroom. Inspired by Demon Records re-release of various "Merseybeat" recordings I selected a few songs that would provide a contrast to the production approach of the album. "From Head To Toe" was originally recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, but as the backing vocals here are by "The Indulgences", this version owes more to the Liverpool group The Escorts, who also recorded the original "Night Time". The Merseybeats' "Really Mystified" had been in our repertoire since our first London club dates but this was our first studio recording of this song, although we had once included it on a B.B.C. radio session. The odd song out is the Pomus/Shuman composition "World Of Broken Hearts" which I learned from an Amen Corner record.

I Turn Around (previously unreleased demo) — "This is a re-working of a chorus written when I was 19, although the words were a recent stab at the esperanto of pop. A few lines survive to re-appear in "The Invisible Man". The demo, also recorded at Matrix features Bruce and Pete on bass and drums but as Steve was away on holiday I added the piano and organ as well as the guitar.

Seconds Of Pleasure — The third part in the continuing saga of a wandering song. This version was rewritten as a woman's song with the addition of a bridge and along with "I Turn Around" and Imperial Bedroom were sent to Anni-Frid Lyngstad (or "Frida") for possible inclusion on her first solo album after the break-up of our beloved ABBA. I never found out what she made of this rather odd selection of songs, but I know that her producer, a certain Mr. P. Collins didn't think much of any of them as I heard it from his own lips. The rest, as they say, is history. Steve played the piano, I added the bass and vocals. What was rescued from this song may be found in its final resting place on the album Punch The Clock under the title "The Invisible Man".

Stamping Ground (Pathway Studios demo - released on the Demon Records Compilation Out of Our Idiot), Shabby Doll (Pathway Studios demo - previously unreleased) — Both of these tracks came from a solo demo session shortly before we began work on "Imperial Bedroom". "Stamping Ground" never got beyond the rough version, but "Shabby Doll" has something odd in this six-string bass part that sets it apart from the album version.

Imperial Bedroom (Eden Studios Demo - Released on Demon Records compilation Out Of Our Idiot) — This "title song" was actually written after the completion of the album. I have always avoided naming any album after any one song, as it asks a lot of that tune to the possible detriment of others. However the lyrical possibilities of the title were too tempting, just as I had written "Almost Blue" after our return from Nashville having been inspired by Chet Baker's instrumental version of "Thrill is Gone". "Imperial Bedroom" the song is supported by comical percussion, the result of my first encounter with a Linn Drum Machine. The vocal features some truly rotten French.

-- Elvis Costello


Imperial Bedroom liner notes (1994)

Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 1994 Rykodisc/Demon reissue of Imperial Bedroom.


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