Q, June 1995

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Here's one I prepared a lot earlier

Stuart Maconie

He talks of "cutting records" and "string charts." He moves easily from Dan Penn to Otis Rush, Handel to Portishead. Elvis Costello is about to release his second covers album (after 1981's Almost Blue), something, he acknowledges ruefully, that puts him in the company of Duran Duran and Annie Lennox. Kojak Variety is, however, a very different proposition, featuring songs possibly unfamiliar to even a keen music lover. "Other things got in the way"; is all Costello will say about the delay, but he is almost evangelically keen to explain the choices of song and what he calls "a private jukebox I've had in my head for, in some case, 30 years."

1. Strange
"Screamin' Jay Hawkins is not a particular major figure in my life but half the fun in music is coming across the Quirky one-off that you just love. I found this on a B-side and I just loved the words ("How many wrinkles in a pickle... / How many crumbs in bread... / Where do eyeballs come from.") In fact, the words are so ludicrous I couldn't get through the first verse. But I kept the fuck-up at the beginning because that's the way it was recorded and, anyway, it's not supposed to be an Open University blues album."

2. Hidden Charms
"A great Willie Dixon song; great words (sings): She's weak and wanton in my arms / Oooh What a babe! It's a lusty song. You don't have to be some macho guy to appreciate that. But Howlin' Wolf... the problem is, how do you sound like as physically big as a guy he was? When I first emerged on to the music scene, bands tried to sound like the last thing out and we were never like that. On the first record I was using shuffles and stuff and the musicians were well-versed in country. In fact, The Attractions were R&B with a different attitude. It didn't groove admittedly, but This Year's Model was us trying to play like the Stones on Aftermath — but an Aftermath for 1978. That's all pop is — a take on something else."

3. Remove This Doubt
"I wouldn't want to take on the Isleys or The Four Tops 'cos they're too perfect. Levi Stubbs, who I think sounds like Dylan sometimes, is the most underrated singer who ever walked the earth. This is from an album called The Supremes Sing Holland Dozier Holland, a very early album. They're singing "Heatwave" and stuff in that tradition of Motown artists doing each other's songs. And in the middle is this fantastic song. Really strange, like film music or something. We've changed it around a little. I don't sound very much like Diana Ross for one thing."

4. I Threw It All Away
"When I was a kid, Bob Dylan was a pop star. "Times They Are A Changin'" and "Like A Rolling Stone" were in the charts alongside The Kinks and The Beatles. I never had his albums 'cos I never had the money. I didn't own any till I bought Blonde on Blonde in the '70s. Now I can afford them, I've got 'em naturally. Nashville Skyline is so overlooked; people were shocked to hear him singing, 'I want to spend the night with Peggy Day' instead of 'jewels and binoculars hanging from the neck of a mule'. I don't give a shit about whether he's a better poet than Keats. He's technically miles better than other pop writers. This uses stock images like 'Twelfth of Never' but the sentiments are so lovely."

5. Leave My Kitten Alone
"Written by Little Willie John. I came to this via Peggy Lee's version which was in my parents' record collection. We used to do a white noise thrash version in The Attractions. It's just a great song. I've always wanted to sing it. There's a Beatles version somewhere, a bootleg I think. Not that I have a copy of course."

6. Everybody's Crying Mercy
"Mose Allison I know about through Georgie Fame. The Beatles and Georgie are my two favourite British artists of the '60s. I had the albums. Sound Venture is fantastic. If Georgie Fame was American, he'd be revered. I guess "Bonnie and Clyde" got him tagged as a novelty guy. But I never realised, no offence, but Georgie was basically doing a Mose Allison. I first heard "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" by Bonnie Raitt. It was sort of ironic in 1963. The words are just so tragic today."

7. I've Been Wrong Before
"I get bracketed together with Randy Newman: the acerbic singer-songwriter who doesn't sell any records. He rankles at the mention of my name. I've never done anything to him. I love him. But I understand it. I manage a reasonable size audience without playing by the rules. People forget that he's a fantastic pop songwriter. He's right up there with Bacharach & David, Goffin & King, Mann & Weill — those people. There's a version of this by Dusty and by Cilla. Cilla's version of it is quite good actually, back in the days when she still took singing quite seriously.

8. Bama Lama Bama Loo
"By Little Richard. I got this off my dad. We had a Decca Decalion record player and my dad had this arrangement of elastic bands and pencils that would trick it into playing the record over and over again. He had to learn all these songs that he brought home. There was a guy called Leslie vinyl — yes, that's his real name — and he was the transcriber for the Joe Loss Orchestra. He's one of the unsung geniuses of English music. He was transcribing "See Emily Play" because they kept right up with the singles chart. He would listen to feedback and make an arrangement for a 20-piece dance band. this is before 24-hour music on radio and TV remember. It's a strange little corner of English music. like something Morrissey would write a song about."

9. Must You Throw Dirt In My Face
"I knew of the Louvin Brothers through Gram Parsons and The Byrds, like Stones and Zeppelin fans checked out Howlin' Wolf. They're from Alabama and made these wonderful harmony records, high nasal harmonies straight out of bluegrass. Claudette by the Everlys is like a punk take on that and in turn, of course, the Everlys' harmonies become the basis for the Lennon-McCartney harmonies. You can draw those kinds of lines through music."

10. Pouring Water On A Drowning Man
"I heard this at a time when James Carr's music was hard to find. He's had a somewhat unhappy life, he's not always been well. He has this really dark style that sounds tortured. I wouldn't attempt a lot of his stuff."

11. The Very Thought Of You
"Our treatment is very different from Nat 'King' Cole's. It was the latter part of the first week of recording and we were getting quite relaxed. It's kind of like James Brown's version of "I Loves You Porgy" — he doesn't really sing anything like the tune. We abandoned the sophisticated substitutions and played it like two-chord R&B. It's written by Ray Noble, one of the two great English Rays on the record."

12. Payday
"This is from Jesse Winchester's first album in 1970; it's the most recent song on my album. he denies it now, I believe. I think he got God or something and he now thinks it's the foolish work of his childhood. Even when you're redeemed, you can still have a ball I would've thought. Anyone who likes Lyle Lovett should check out Jesse Winchester. Jesse is the real item. it's a song I've wanted to sing since I lived that life; a man waiting desperately for payday. I don't live that life now but that doesn't mean I can't sing it with meaning."

13. Please Stay
"I was speaking to Burt Bacharach the other day! Someone had asked us to write a song together. He was in the studio next door when we did "Satellite" (from Spike), which was a kind of homage to the Bacharach & David sound. he came in with his cigarette and listened and kept smiling when he heard a little figure or trick that was one of his. I love Bacharach's knack of being very light in a Latin way, like Nascimento or Gilberto, and yet tough."

14. Running Out Of Fools
"A nice easy thing to do, cover Aretha Franklin. I'd never cover an Atlantic song. Again, too perfect. This is when she was at Columbia and they didn't know what they had. they had her cover "Walk On By." What an insult to her and Dionne Warwick. What's the point? They didn't have the imagination to hear that the gospel training could work in a pop thing. The minute you let her loose she makes "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" ... perhaps the most indelible vocal performance in pop music."

15. Days
"This is like a prayer, a Jewish prayer someone told me. The Kink's version is like them doing a Beatles pastiche, but I wanted a "Pale Blue Eyes" feel, very simple, just building and subsiding. A contrast to the bright, sparkly sound on Kirsty MacColl's hit. It's not a Velvets pastiche but it has that feel. Plaintive and sad.

<< >>

Q, No. 105, June 1995

Elvis Costello talks to Stuart Maconie about Kojak Variety.

EC names "Down River" by David Ackles as the Record That Changed My Life.


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Page scans.

The record that changed my life

Elvis Costello

Pop songs; incidental music; classical; covers; no job too small for Mr Renaissance; born 1955.

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It could have been the very first record I ever owned of my own, which was "Please Please Me" by The Beatles and I nicked loads of stuff off that. Or it could have been a song that you fell in love with when you were a love-struck teenager like "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" by The Supremes & The Temptations.

But I'm going to pick quite an obscure song by an artist called David Ackles. He made two really terrific records for Elektra when I was about 15 or 16 and I used to listen to them very avidly in my bedroom. It was kind of my teenage angst record and he had a very dark, deep, kind of older man's voice. He sang all kinds of different songs, mostly quite dark, and this particular one is called "Down River."

It's the story of a guy who he's been in prison and he comes back to his home town and meets up with this girl. He keeps talking to this girl, Rosie, and little by little, he's having a conversation with her and he realises that he's been in love with her all the time he's been in prison. She's married his best friend and it sounds like a corny country song, but the way he tells it, and the way it happens in the course of the song, is actually very dramatic.

I used to try and work out the chords because I'd learnt to play the guitar when I was about 13 but around that time I'd started plonking on my grandmother's piano and I managed to work my way round some of the chords, in a rather crab-like fashion. I could never really manage to play the whole song. Sometimes I love to play the bass on my records, and I realised that my whole style of bass-playing had been nicked off this one record. I think Elton John probably listened quite a lot to Ackles and stole quite a bit — you know, in the nicest way.

I've picked the record really because not many people know it and I'm sorry that more people don't know this guy's songs so I'm sort of saying that it's changed my life only in the way that lots of different times I've returned to the record and I've always got exactly the same thing from it.

Photo by Ken Sharp.
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Cover and contents page.
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