Elvis Costello & the Attractions Play ‘The Long Honeymoon’

Listen to this track by a musically ambitious Elvis Costello & The Attractions.  It’s “The Long Honeymoon” as taken from their celebrated, and lushly arranged and recorded, Imperial Bedroom LP, released in 1982 and making many a list for being among the best albums released that year, and eventually in that decade, too.

By the beginning of the 1980s, when the embers of new wave were beginning to cool, Costello and his band knew that staying the course was not an option.  They had already made a departure with their Get Happy!! album in 1980, coloured as it was by soul music and even with a touch of Kinks-inspired pop.  Even more so, they surprised critics with 1981’s Almost Blue, recorded in Nashville as a straight-ahead album of country covers produced by an allegedly bewildered Billy Sherrill, legendary producer of American country music icons George Jones and Tammy Wynette,  who suddenly found himself working with a British rock ‘n’ roll group.

It was clear that Costello and his band were unencumbered by style, and limited by nothing in terms of arrangements. And because usual producer Nick Lowe was more of a one-take producer, Geoff Emerick seemed to be the better choice to sit in the producer’s chair for Imperial Bedroom.  Emerick had practically invented the art of mike placement and off the cuff experimentation in the studio not bound by the limits of studio time, as a part of the Beatles’ inner circle while recording.  In this, you can understand that expectations for Costello’s record were high. And the enigmatic, possibly self-defeating, marketing tagline  “Masterpiece?” summed up those expectations pretty solidly.

The final results certainly garnered praise, including comparisons to George Gershwin in terms of its lush musicality and lyrical complexity. The record was partially recorded at Beatles producer George Martin’s Air Studios. All the while ,the newest album by an actual Beatle (and future Costello songwriting partner) Paul McCartney was being made in the next studio down the hall – Tug of War, to be precise.  Perhaps something of McCartney’s pop sensibilities, and his interest in non-rock pop textures rubbed off on Costello, albeit with Costello still retaining his own deft hand at writing sweet pop songs that carry a bitter aftertaste.

This possibility is certainly framed well here by “The Long Honeymoon”.  This is a song about the suspicions of a young wife who is plagued by the thought one night that she may have married the wrong man, all to a tango-rhythm and Gallic accordion (thanks to Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve).  The lightness of touch here makes this dark tale even darker, with the contrast between the two shades accentuating the punch of both.

It should be noted that the songs were laid down in many forms, trying different styles to see which ones carried them over the best, with attention to detail in the arrangements that were unprecedented by the group previously . This was a major departure to how the group had made albums all around.  Yet, even if the band had left new wave in the dust by the time the album was completed, one of the conventions of new wave and post-punk is still in place here; the jaunty, light-as-air tune against a tense lyric that creates a lively, ironic tension.

By the following year, the band took a turn toward pure pop songs with their next two albums being forays onto North American pop charts once again, and further away from the spiky rock music they’d made at the end of the 1970s. By the middle of the decade, they were burned out as a musical unit, making one final album during the decade together , 1986’s Blood and Chocolate with Nick Lowe back in the producer’s chair.  But, Imperial Bedroom would  easily live up to be that hoped-for expectation of a masterpiece for the group originally suggested by the hype, and confirmed by fans and critics.  And it would ensure interest in Costello well beyond his initial angry young man image, and put him on a road he travels on to this day as a stylistically unbridled artist.


Elvis Costello & the Attractions Play ‘Riot Act’

elvis_costello_-_get_happyListen to this track, the closing song on 1980’s landmark Get Happy!! album, recorded quickly after a dreary American tour and with a pile of Northern Soul 45s as a means to achieve his most varied, yet precise, work to date.  Yet, there were other forces that helped to make this particular track –  scandal!

Picture the scene in a Columbus, Ohio hotel bar, with a well-in-the-bag Costello, along with Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, as well as members of Stephen Stills’ band, including one Bonnie Bramlett.  As such, we have something of the old guard in Stills’ party, arguably 60s hippy remnants at somewhat of a descending career arc by 1979.   To contrast, Elvis Costello was being hailed as the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and as far away from Woodstock ideals as could be – at least on the surface.

Musicians being the competitive sort, and some being rather belligerent after a few beers, an argument ensued.  And boy, did it get ugly.  From People magazine’s archives:

“Bramlett, a longtime paladin of rhythm-and-blues whose backup bands once included heavies like Leon Russell, Duane Allman and Rita Coolidge, kept cool until, she says, Costello “called James Brown a jive-ass n*gger.” Next, according to an onlooker, “Bonnie said, ‘All right, you son of a bitch, what do you think of Ray Charles?’ He said, ‘Screw Ray Charles, he’s nothing but a blind n*gger.’ That did it. Bonnie backhanded him, slapped him pretty hard, because she’s a healthy chick.” (asterisks mine).

The result of this was a press conference in New York, with Costello on the carpet in front of a very disgruntled American music press.  It also led to American radio banning of Costello’s music, and picketing at his remaining concert appearances.  Costello explained to the press that he was drunk at the time, and feeling very much like he wanted the conversation to end. He explained that he was not a racist, but that he wanted to offend his assailants.

As such he very ill-advisedly decided to say the most offensive thing he could manage.  At the time, he felt that since they were American musicians, it made sense to denigrate some of the giants in their field with the worst insults possible.  “Had they been painters,” Costello said at the time, “I would have insulted Toulouse Lautrec”.

Yet, the whole thing seemed like a pall on the band when they got back to Britain, and subsequently recording Get Happy!! in Holland with the heavy atmosphere created by their experiences in Ohio, and the flak they took afterward.  The Ray Davies-esque “Riot Act” seems like Costello’s way to decompress from it, infused with frustration over what had happened, as well as with some fear he felt over the possibility that the incident had derailed his career as a professional musician in America and everywhere else. “A slip of the tongue is going to keep me civilian” indeed.

His angry young man phase was nearly at an end, whether by circumstance or design. And this track showed that even if his judgment as a man was questionable where this incident was concerned, the work he was able to produce as an artist certainly was not.  He would take the ambition of this track to the next level in ensuing years, particularly with his Imperial Bedroomalbum that won over critics on both sides of the Atlantic anew, complete with Gershwin comparisons, two years later.