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Elvis Costello

A Life In Liner Notes

On April 26, Rhino released a two-disc edition of Elvis Costello’s 1986 album King Of America, completing a reissue project that’s taken five years and encompassed 16 double-disc sets. Best of all for Costello fans, the King Of America reissue includes the last of Costello’s personally written liner notes, which, across 16 booklets, at a minimum of 12 pages each, has been the equivalent of a 100-page autobiography. Costello has been remarkably forthright throughout, detailing his varying addictions and obsessions, and in the Get Happy!! notes, he even dissects the infamous, nearly career-derailing moment when he was goaded into calling Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant n***er.” Here are some of the highlights of the Costello story, album by album, and in his own words.

My Aim Is True (1977)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “In 1976 I was operating an I.B.M. 360 computer in an office next to a lipstick factory. My duties included printing out invoices for the moustache waxes of the occasional Duchess who visited the company’s West End salon.”

Choice Cut: “I spent a lot of time with just a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album. By the time I got down to the last few grains, I had written ‘Watching The Detectives.’”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “I continued with my computer job after my first single came and went without troubling the charts. My record advance consisted of 150 pounds, a new cassette tape recorder, and a Vox battery-powered practise amp. I took some of my newfound wealth and bought back a copy of A Hard Day’s Night that I had recently been forced to sell to pay the gas bill. About three weeks later I was on the cover of a music paper–an overnight success after seven years.”

This Year’s Model (1978)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “The engineer was Roger Bechirian, who was to work on our next four Nick Lowe-produced albums. It was Roger who had the task of making a sonic reality out of Nick’s directions, such as ‘turn the drums into one big maraca’ or ‘make it sound like a dinosaur eating cars.’”

Choice Cut: “One night, while suffering from what might be politely called ‘assisted insomnia,’ I scrawled a large number of verses about this headlong pursuit of oblivion. Five days later, we recorded ‘Pump It Up’ in one take.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “For a brief, improbable moment the horrified children of Britain were offered magazines featuring pop pinups of myself... right alongside Debbie Harry and those other blonde beauties, The Police. Thankfully for all concerned, I was just about to screw it up completely.”

Armed Forces (1979)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “I’d got used to staggering, half asleep, into a truck-stop in the middle of the night to squander scarce drinking money on irresistible junk... 3-D Jesus postcards, and cut-out Conway and Loretta cassettes that played once and then unraveled. Every shop front or nightclub sign seemed like a line from a song. In some cases that was just what they became.”

Choice Cut: “’Chemistry Class’ was a reaction to the complacence of some of the university campuses that we visited on those first trips to America. At times we seemed to only encounter hedonism or braying superficiality.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “Personal and global matters are spoken about with the same vocabulary; maybe this was a mistake. Betrayal and murder are not the same thing. I was not quite 24 and I thought I knew it all.”

Get Happy!! (1980)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “The success of the Armed Forces album threatened to take us to a place where there was little understanding or tolerance for detail, only a mass reaction to a hit tune. The game I was playing in my mind (or perhaps with my mind) was about to come to a very nasty conclusion. A ridiculous drunken argument would culminate in me speaking the exact opposite of my true beliefs. Our records were pulled from the few radio playlists where they were featured, our shows picketed by the very anti-racist organisation for which we had appeared six months earlier, and there were over a hundred death threats to my person. With hindsight, it might be tempting to claim that I had some noble motive in basing this record on the music that I had admired and learned from prior to my brush with infamy. But... I simply went back to work and relied on instinct, curiosity, and enduring passions.”

Choice Cut: “Bearing in mind that this record was made many years before the trend towards ‘sampling,’ we made a pretty good job of lifting the main figure of Booker T. & The MGs’ ‘Time Is Tight’ for ‘Temptation.’”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “I was standing backstage at a gala show in Los Angeles with a group of friends in the dingy, concrete loading bay when I saw a man in dark sunglasses being led in our direction. It was Ray Charles. All I could do was turn my head away with shame and frustration knowing that this was a hand I will probably never shake.”

Trust (1981)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “From a very personal point of view, this was easily the most drug-influenced record of my career. It was completed close to a self-induced nervous collapse on a diet of rough ‘scrumpy’ cider, gin and tonic, various powders, only one of which was ‘Andrew’s Liver Salts,’ and, in the final hours, Johnnie Walker Black Label.”

Choice Cut: “Although I might have risked a rebellion among The Attractions to state so openly, I privately modeled ‘White Knuckles’ on a couple of XTC records.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “Almost by accident, the album arrived at a sound and tone that was very true to my feelings at the time. The world it described was the opposite of the album title in much the same way that Get Happy!! had been less than cheerful. It suggested a tarnished and disappointed soul looking beyond the certainties of brash, arrogant youth and early success and on into a life (and possibly a career) in music.”

Almost Blue (1981)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “Much had happened to me... from scandal to disgrace, near-divorce, and the end of something like pop-stardom. Now I had developed the notion that I might better express my feelings through other people’s words and music. Country ballads suited my blue mood most of all.”

Choice Cut: “Booze was certainly in my blood and on my mind, and this led to us cutting both Merle Haggard’s ‘Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down’ and Charlie Rich’s ‘Sittin’ And Thinkin’,’ which begins ‘I got loaded last night on a bottle of gin,’ my drink of choice at the time.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “We were playing the rather soulless Opryland Theater, part of the themepark complex at the edge of [Nashville]. I recall coming away with the gift of a pair of complimentary Opryland cuff links with a mandolin design. That was about the best it got in America.”

Imperial Bedroom (1982)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “To some extent Imperial Bedroom was the record on which The Attractions and I granted ourselves the sort of scope that we imagined The Beatles had enjoyed in the mid-’60s. If we needed a harpsichord or Mellotron, we hired one; if we required a 12-string acoustic guitar, marimba, or accordion, we went out and bought one; if we heard strings and trumpet and horns, we booked the musicians and Steve [Nieve] began writing out the parts.”

Choice Cut: “Many of the songs take their cue from the opening track, ‘Beyond Belief.’ They exhibit a malaise of the spirit and a sinking feeling about happy endings. The souring and spoiling of England was just under way. I intend that most ‘private’ matters should remain that way, but when the opening track is called ‘Beyond Belief,’ and the key song of a record is entitled ‘Man Out Of Time,’ you don’t have to be a detective or a psychiatrist to work out what was going on.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “The album was not a big commercial success, despite Columbia Records’ absurd ‘Masterpiece?’ ad campaign–which was really asking for it.”

Punch The Clock (1983)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “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.”

Choice Cut: “[’Pills And Soap’] seemed to alarm the BBC, who feared that the lyrics might somehow contravene the rules of broadcasting ‘balance’ during the election campaign.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: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. I haven’t always been kind about this album. I find it hard to ignore the benefit of hindsight.”

Goodbye Cruel World (1984)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “I almost completely thwarted the efforts of my producers, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, and it is true to say that they were probably ill-equipped for dealing with someone of my temperament at that time. A nurse with a large sedative syringe might have been more appropriate.”

Choice Cut: “[’The Only Flame In Town’] was one of two tracks that were given the concentrated production approach, and like many cuts on the record, makes excessive use of the new DX7 synthesizer, the tone of which might as well date-stamp the album to an exact week in 1984. It is not a sound that has improved with age.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “It is probably the worst record that I could have made of a decent bunch of songs.”

King Of America (1986)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “During my visits to Hollywood, I found myself sitting around hotel rooms late at night with other songwriters, drinking and swapping stories and songs. This was entirely new to someone who had started out in the rather more insular and competitive London scene. I would meet a lot of musicians and other interesting characters in [T-Bone Burnett’s] company over the next few years, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Dixon, Harry Dean Stanton, Kris Kristofferson, and Lucinda Williams.”

Choice Cut: “[On] the fade of ‘I‘ll Wear It Proudly’... Mitchell [Froom] plays the organ melody that I had sung to him. He would make good use of it, turning a variation of that theme into a hook on his production of the big Crowded House hit, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “I had found myself in the darker implications of adulthood and still being billed as some kind of ‘vengeful geek’ just didn’t make it anymore. It was the exact opposite of an ‘identity crisis.’ I now decided to re-claim my family name... King Of America might have been credited to ‘Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus,’ but anxious management and the record company people prevailed.”

Blood & Chocolate (1986)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “This is a record of people beating and twanging things with a fair amount of yelling. Although it’s commonly thought that high volume in the studio creates an uncontrollable sonic picture, this approach seemed to suit the material entirely.”

Choice Cut: “The events of ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’ travel from Narita to Heysel via Pompeii, Port Stanley, Paris, and London. Tokyo is just the place where these things begin and end. It is a city for which I am never prepared. Each arrival is shocking and slightly alienating... it is only when you are about to leave that the rhythm of the place starts to make sense and you wish you had more time.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “The album was a pissed-off 32-year-old divorcé’s version of the musical blueprint with which I had begun my recording career with The Attractions. My relationship with the band had now soured almost beyond repair.”

Spike (1989)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “Having just signed to Warner Bros. for the entire world, I was working with the budget of a small independent movie. I had the blueprint of five albums in my head. They told me to make whatever record I wanted. I seem to have elected to make all five albums at once.”

Choice Cut: “’Veronica’ was one of the very first songs [Paul McCartney and I] worked on. It is a wishful song about my grandmother’s failing hold on memory and reality. As the subject was so personal, I didn’t find it so easy to edit the song. Paul put some shape into the music of a rambling bridge and tightened up a few of the lyrical lines in the verses.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “[’Veronica’] went into the U.S. Top 20. If it had not done so, then this album might have been counted amongst the most obscure in my catalogue. Instead of which, during its original release, it became the best-selling album of my career to date. When I listen to it now, this seems pretty curious–not because the songs are bad, but because they are rather off, each track being very different from the next. I’m not so sure anyone would bankroll a record of this kind these days. So I am rather glad that we made Spike while I had the chance.”

Mighty Like A Rose (1991)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “CNN was trailing every bulletin with their new ‘Desert Storm’ logo and musical fanfare. I did not imagine that I would be recording any of this record during wartime when I wrote it, although I was looking at the world without much affection. Many of my early records have been described as being ‘angry,’ a quality that I think is exaggerated by a quirk of my vocal delivery. However, if you really want to hear an angry record, then this disc is for you.”

Choice Cut: “This album opens with ‘The Other Side of Summer.’ The arrangement is a pastiche of The Beach Boys after the fashion of The Beatles’ ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ The words are a catalogue of pop conceits, deceits, hypocrisies, and delusions. I include myself in this parade of liars and dupes.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “This record says the world we are making is grim, and I believe that it is. We are cruel to each other, we lie and manipulate until the unworthy encounter a love to which we must surrender.”

Brutal Youth (1994)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “Although Pete Thomas and I had continued to work together since the apparent demise of The Attractions, my relationship with Steve Nieve and Bruce Thomas was pretty nonexistent. After my attempt to reassemble the band for the recording of Mighty Like A Rose had ended in an unseemly legal squabble, I assumed that we had cut our last record together.”

Choice Cut: “’This Is Hell’ was an attempt to continue the fantasy afterlife theme of ‘God’s Comic’ from Spike. I hope the song justifies its existence with the notion that ‘in hell’ you can hear Richard Rogers’ ‘My Favourite Things,’ but it is always performed by Julie Andrews and never by John Coltrane.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “The album was tagged with that lame old cliché: ‘back to basics.’ These simplifications may have made for good ad copy and lazy journalism, but they were pretty inaccurate. In time I came to regard the Brutal Youth sessions as a failure, simply because the little that was said about the album tended to focus on superficial appearances and the soap-opera mechanics of the recording, while totally ignoring the content.”

Kojak Variety (1995)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “The simple idea of going to a Caribbean island to record ‘some of my favourite songs with some of my favourite musicians’–as the original sleeve note defined this record–seemed like an inviting prospect. Our afternoon breaks saw a table laden with green mangoes and flying fish. The evening began with rum and grapefruit cocktails. Wild monkeys had been briefly glimpsed in a field beside the studio.”

Choice Cut: “I first heard Little Richard’s ‘Bama Lama Bama Loo’ in 1964. I have the record in front of me now. It’s an ‘A’ label [advance] copy, which means I got it from my father [a big-band singer]. It also certainly means I am actually the second member of the McManus family to perform ‘Bama Lama Bama Loo.’”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “I really wanted Warner Bros. to issue the record without any fanfare, letting it simply appear in the racks. It was the kind of ‘lost record’ that I dreamed of discovering, by one of my favourite bands, while idly flipping through racks of vinyl during the thousands of hours that I had spent in record shops.”

All This Useless Beauty (1996)

Preparation/Production/Perspective: “This record exists in the distance between an ideal and the reality. I’ve read that it is simply a collection of songs that I wrote for other singers–usually with the implication that this was a bad or inferior thing.”

Choice Cut: “The bleaker implication of [’I Want To Vanish’] was not something I’d expect anyone else to relish. The line ‘I‘m as certain as a lost dog pondering a signpost’ pretty much states my frame of mind at the time of this recording.”

Reflections/Reactions/Reprisals: “The fan or admirer in many of us may imagine a different creative history for our favourite singers, actors, and artists. What if Elvis Presley had lived to record ‘Brilliant Disguise’ by Bruce Springsteen or Picasso had painted the Forth Bridge or Winona Ryder had taken the part of the daughter in The Godfather III? Or perhaps all these things are better the way they are. In the end it doesn’t really matter that Johnny Cash never recorded ‘Complicated Shadows’ or that Sam Moore couldn’t see himself singing ‘Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone.’ It was enough to be thinking of them.”