Elvis Costello Sings “Veronica”

Veronica_Elvis_Costello (1)Listen to this track by bespectacled beloved entertainer Declan Patrick MacManus, AKA Elvis Costello. It’s “Veronica”, a hit single from 1989’s Spike. This is one of a number of songs Costello wrote with Paul McCartney by the end of the 1980s, in the beginning of his post-Attractions phase. Several of these songs would appear on the records of both men from the late eighties into the early-to-mid nineties. In this case, McCartney plays his trademark and iconic Hofner bass on the track. Also, this tune was arguably the most personal track they wrote together, and among the most personal songs in Costello’s catalogue on the whole.

The song was inspired by Costello’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, with a vibrant life, a carefree mind of her own (and a devilish look in her eye) behind her that could only be recalled by her in brief moments of lucidity. In some ways, McCartney was the perfect collaborator on a song like this, having a solid track record even when he was in The Beatles in writing songs about women and the pressures and stresses they must endure.

As far as Costello’s part, and beyond the disease aspect of what inspired this tune, there is a series of wider themes that are served by it; human dignity, vulnerability, memory, the nature of old age, and of identity itself. Read more

Elvis Costello Plays “Miracle Man”

Elvis Costello My Aim Is TrueListen to this track by bespectacled angry young man and original hipster singer-songwriter Elvis Costello.  It’s “Miracle Man”, a deep cut as taken from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.

This song is in very good company with those that Costello worked up while he was an early signee to the nascent Stiff Records label. This was after seven years of graft, taking the then twenty-two year old songwriter from his teenage years as a member of pub rockers Flip City to when he was christened with his Kingly moniker upon hooking up with Jake Riviera at Stiff.

And maybe it’s because Costello had spent so many years making demos, and having them sent back to him by record companies, that his debut is a compendium of tales of frustration and insecurity marked by a fierce intelligence and the swagger of youthful ambition. With this song, that theme carries through pretty well. And on the surface, it comes off as a guy who’s attached to someone who doesn’t really appreciate his efforts in the love department. But, that really is just on the surface of things.

Read more

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet Perform “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe”

Listen to this track by stylistically exploratory singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, and lyrical chamber music avatars The Brodsky Quartet. It’s “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe” as taken from the 1993 collaborative album The Juliet Letters.

In many ways, it’s amazing that this record was put out on a major label. The early ’90s was a time when the formatting of music was becoming more and more rigid for established artists signed to the majors. Elvis Costello who had been signed to Warner Brothers for a few years by this time seemed to be moving in the completely opposite direction to this trend. From 1989’s Spike, and 1991’s Mighty Like A Rose, he’d created some pretty angular pop music, with equally idiosyncratic production that is not to everyone’s taste. This was especially true for those expecting another This Year’s Model.

So, how did a rock ‘n’ roll songwriter, and a straight-ahead classical string quartet to get together and make an album that was neither a pop record, nor a classical one? And how does this particular song shine a light on the core values found in both musical streams? Read more

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint Play “Freedom For The Stallion”

the-river-in-reverseListen to this track by singer-songwriter and musical collaboration stylist Elvis Costello, and go-to New Orleans piano-man and songwriter Allen Toussaint. It’s “Freedom For the Stallion”, a gospel-tinged song  re-interpreted here as a key track on their 2006 Joe Henry-produced collaborative album River In Reverse.

This album brought together the two artists, plus Elvis’ backing band The Imposters, guitarist Anthony “A.B” Brown,  and the Crescent City Horns. The song is an older tune by Toussaint, recorded by acts that include Lee Dorsey, The Hues Corporation, and Three Dog Night. Even Bob Dylan had a shot at it.

This widespread coverage of the song may be because it’s such a succinct lament of the state of the world, a true protest song, with a genuine message that is all-too relevant as much today (if not more so) as it was when it was written.

The arrangement here ramps up the gospel feel on it, and Costello’s voice is plaintive and very connected to the material, a pleading  prayer for justice in a world where the greedy and the heartless profit, while others suffer the effects. .

In 2006, the song was in a very specific context, although no less grave than it is today. Read more

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.


Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach Perform “What’s Her Name Today?”

paintedfrommemoryListen to this song by serial musical collaborator Elvis Costello and smooth-as-silk pop classicist Burt Bacharach.  It’s “What’s Her Name Today?” as taken from their must-hear 1998 album Painted from Memory.  It’s  the record which features the higher profile track “God Give Me Strength” as featured in the movie Grace Of My Heart.

Sometimes, the wallflower tune on a record that has plenty of songs which vye for my attention is my favourite of the bunch.  “What’s Her Name Today?” is one of those, packing as hard an emotional and melodic punch as any song on Painted From Memory.  This is  a tale of a man confronting another man about the poor way he treats women, knowing that he does it because he was once ruined by a certain one who’s now out of reach.

It’s a classic tale of revenge, and yet one that ultimately casts the revenger as one who can’t receive any satisfaction.  The one on whom he seeks revenge has long gone.  Yet, behind  lay a trail of innocents whom one can imagine will feel the need to pass along some bitterness of their own. It’s a powerful song, exploring how damage to the human heart often spreads to others if not properly addressed.

Yet, because Costello’s delivery suggests a tone of pity, not judgment, this is not an angry song so much as a sad one.  And this matches most, if not all, of the songs on this extremely well-crafted and emotionally engaged record of love-gone-wrong songs.  And who better to deliver them than Costello, and one of his heroes Burt Bacharach.

Costello had covered “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” way back in 1977 when he toured his first album.  But more recently in 1996,  the two had collaborated on the centrepiece of the movie soundtrack for Grace of My Heart, which was their co-penned “God Give Me Strength”.  A full record was not only welcome, but kind of expected too.

And here you can hear Costello come into his own as a vocalist, with Bacharach’s intricate stylings pushing him beyond his comfort zone to bring out Elvis’ torch singer side.  Costello keeps the proceedings from getting too sentimental, which keeps Bacharach in check.  It’s a great example of a true collaboration, when each artist walks away all the better for having been involved.

Costello has been criticized for his musical tourism, for the thought that after a few pints he’s anybody’s as far as musical collaborations go. I don’t agree. I think he’s a music fan, that’s all. He’s got an extensive record collection, and made a list of his 500 essential must-hear albums published in Vanity Fair magazine in 2000, with artists ranging from ABBA to Bartok, to the Clash, to Count Basie.

But, being Elvis Costello, he adds a dimension to his musical curiosity. When he’s in the position to make a record with an artist he admires, he takes the opportunity to do so.  To me, that just an extension of his being a music fan.  It’s hard to argue with that, even if you don’t approve of the results.

For more information about Elvis Costello, I’d urge you to check out his recently revamped Elvis Costello Official Site.

And for more Burt Bacharach, investigate A House Is Not A Homepage, an unofficial Burt Bacharach webpage with a cool title.


Elvis Costello Performs “So Like Candy”Co-written with Paul McCartney

Here’s a clip of Elvis Costello with a tip top tune from his early 90s “beard years”, “So Like Candy” as featured on his Mighty Like a Rose album. If you think this tune sounds slightly Beatlesque, it’s because there are bona fide Beatle ingredients in it, and I don’t mean Costello’s Lennon bed-in facial foliage. I’m talking about the song’s co-writer – Paul McCartney.

In 1988 or so, Costello and McCartney got together a wrote a bunch of songs, which was big news whenever either was interviewed.  On McCartney’s part, it was significant as he was about to bring out his Flowers in the Dirt album, featuring the Costello-abetted “My Brave Face” as the lead single.  McCartney had been saddled with a reputation for being the ambassador of twee when it came to writing pop songs.  The last number one he had was “Say Say Say” for gosh sakes!  So, the news that the two would be writing together was big news for many a rock fan.

As for Costello, when approached with this opportunity to write with one of his heroes, he was initially and understandably a bit apprehensive.  After all, everyone expected him to play the part of Lennon.  But in interviews at the time, he revealed that his  self-confidence in his own writing abilities (Lennon too had been a Costello fan, mind…)  sealed the deal; “why not me?”, mused Costello.

And indeed, the results were pretty great, even if they didn’t set the world on fire for the public at large the way that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” did.  Still, the collaboration produced Costello’s hit “Veronica” along with McCartney’s perceived return to form in “My Brave Face”.  And other co-written tunes were to follow on subsequent albums by both men into the mid-90s.

This song appeared later in 1991 on the Mighty… record, and a shining gem of tune it is too. Lush in arrangement and heavy on melody of course, I think Costello’s delivery adds to the undercurrents of darkness in it too. Although much like a Lennon-McCartney collaboration, it would be a mistake to think that the ironic elements in the song’s lyrics are down to Costello alone.

Allegedly, the collaboration was not as clearly demarcated along the words and music dichotomy as one might assume.  This fact of course is not unlike the assumptions popularly made during the Beatles era that positioned McCartney as the melodist, and Lennon (like Costello) the wordsmith.  Not so, not so.

For a bit of contrast, here’s the original demo version of “So Like Candy”, featuring its two writers singing it together.


Elvis Costello Sings ‘Shipbuilding’

Here’s a clip of Elvis Costello, performing his 1983 track ‘Shipbuilding’ which was originally included on the Punch the Clock album. This is a live version, featuring Costello’s long term backing band, the Attractions.

Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello

This song in many ways was the follow-up to the kind of style that Costello had achieved with his song “Almost Blue” which was included on the Imperial Bedroom album of the previous year. Like that song, this one had Chet Baker in mind melodically speaking, going one further by including Baker on the track, playing trumpet. This stylistic turn was emblematic of Costello’s wandering interest in exploring other styles, breaking out of his well-established ‘angry young man’ label which marked the first phase of his career. Ironically, this is a very angry song, perhaps one of his angriest.

In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a set of landmasses off of the South American continent, and home to a great many sheep. However, they were British sheep; the islands in question were still a part of the British Commonwealth. Reasons for a military response remain to be controversial to this day, but the British Navy was dispatched to the area, and battle commenced.

Daily rags in Britain worked up a media frenzy, the flames of nationalism in Britain were stoked, and ultimately lives were lost fighting to take back the islands thousands of miles away. While this was going on, many justifications for the war were centred around the promise of a job boom and industrial prosperity which war would bring to depressed areas.

The question ‘is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife, and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday?’ was, for the time being, not being asked – at least in the Daily Mail. It wasn’t being asked by the military junta in Argentina either. They had invaded the islands in order to win the favour of nationalists who had argued the ownership over the Falklands for generations.

But this song demands that the question be answered. Is it worth it? Is it worth it to risk the lives of young men and women for economic and political gain? Is this really about defending a way of life? Or, was the whole thing an opportunity for the governments of both nations to distract their citizens from the inadequacies of their leadership, and turn the tide of uncertain political currents toward electoral dominance?

Who knew that this tune, and the questions found in it, would remain to be relevant over 25 years later?

In addition to Elvis’ version of the song, Robert Wyatt’s cover version is a favourite among many, his brittle-yet-angelic voice bringing out the sadness in the track perhaps to an arguably greater degree than Costello’s take on it.

Enjoy the clips.

Elvis Costello & the Attractions Perform “Lipstick Vogue”

Here’s a clip of Elvis Costello & The Attractions performing a fiery album track taken from 1978’s This Year’s Model: “Lipstick Vogue”

Elvis Costello & The Attractions This Year's ModelThere is a generalisation that punk showed no musical ambition. And where I think that Costello was no punk, I also think that the spirit of the time was certainly interwoven into his approach, and certainly fueled the fires of his backup group which he’d assembled the year before the record was released: Pete Thomas on drums, Steve Nieve on keyboards, and Bruce Thomas (no relation to Pete) on bass guitar – The Attractions.

What made them such an incredible band was that they were unafraid to show their chops mixed in with the comparative ferocity of the music being made by certified punk acts like the Damned. Costello loved the Band as much as he appreciated the visceral energy of his contemporaries. And the Attractions helped him to get the balance right, particularly on This Year’s Model, which many fans will tell you is the last record on which Costello sounded so downright hostile in his delivery.

So, with this song and others from this era, you’re hearing top flight playing that doesn’t overshadow the material, which in the age of progressive rock and virtuoso soloing, had been a reason punk and pub rock took off by the end of the 1970s in Britain. But yet, listen to Pete Thomas’ opening salvo on the drums, Bruce Thomas’ winding and kinetic bass, and Nieves’s Garth Hudson-like sonic colours holding it all together behind Costello’s amphetamine growl. This tune blows the doors off. These guys would go on to prove how versatile they were as a unit well into the next decade, joining Costello on a number of stylistic excursions. But “Lipstick Vogue” shows that these guys were one of the best rock n’ roll bands of the time – perhaps of any time.

Check out the most recent version of the album This Year’s Model, which includes the record, plus a bonus disc of live material similar to what you’ve seen in the clip.