MGF Reviews The Other Elvis' 30th


Elvis Costello – The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years and Rock and Roll Music
Hip-O/Universal (5/1/07 for both)
Rock / Punk / New Wave
Both Available At Amazon.com:
The First Ten Years
Rock and Roll Music

It’s a story that just sounds too good to be true. But this is the world of rock, where the unexpected and unusual is a matter of course. In the mid-’70s, Declan MacManus was operating a computer for a hospital in London. But he had a bit of a secret life. He fooled around with punch cards by day and his acoustic guitar at night, attempting to follow in the footsteps of his first and greatest influence, his father Ross, who sang and played jazz trumpet. It wasn’t long before he decided that running a computer might be a secure income (no small matter of concern in the decaying economy of ’70s Britain), but what he really wanted to do was be a songwriter. He already had a small library of songs he’d written. However, the age of the professional songwriter was over. Not even ads he put in the weekly music trades got him any attention.

But the world was changing around him. In 1976, punk was gaining attention in Britain and creating a groundswell movement. With that movement came a philosophy first stated by writer Caroline Coon: Do It Yourself. The philosophy inspired another groundswell: the first new set of English independent record labels since the late 1960s. One of the more successful of these small independent labels was Stiff Records, who’d already tapped into punk by signing acts like the Adverts. Declan MacManus experienced a stroke of double inspiration: 1) Why write songs for other people when he could sing them himself? He had a pretty good voice, after all. 2) Why not take a shot at one of these independent record labels?

So, one day in late 1976, MacManus found himself at the tiny offices of Stiff, guitar in hand. He started to sing and play for the minimal office staff. One of the people stopped him and walked into another office. Out from that office came Stiff’s supremo, Jake Riviera. MacManus started to play for Riviera. Jake quickly stopped him and said, “We’re signing you, right now, to a recording contract.” However, there was a catch. He’d have to change his name. Declan MacManus just didn’t fit into the prevailing zeitgeist. Riviera was always a showman at heart. He took a look at the nerdy MacManus and immediately said, “Your first name is Elvis.” What better way to take the piss out of a legend and make a statement? Name a nerd after the King himself. MacManus really didn’t mind that too much, just as long as he could choose the last name. Further piss was taken out when he decided to name himself after Lou Costello. The King combined with a comedian, packaged into a skinny kid with horn-rim glasses. Combine this with the fact that he wrote his own songs… he was Buddy Holly for a much sicker, less innocent age, with the future of music dominated by people who believed themselves to be, well, less than zero.

Riviera got him into a studio quickly. He found out quickly that Elvis Costello could really write a song. His material was a more coherent version of the glorious noise of punk, delivered with the same fierce energy as the screamers that were quickly populating London. But those few extra years that he had on most of the late-teen punk performers showed. He dealt with similar topics to the punk groups, but with a more mature outlook. He was punk for people who didn’t like punk, delivering the message in a fashion that was acceptable to radio broadcasters who wouldn’t play a punk song on their shows and record stores that wouldn’t stock punk records. Pub rock veteran Nick Lowe was assigned to produce him, and he understood where Costello was coming from. They created an album that showed the world, right off the bat, how correct the title of that first album was in his case. His aim was true.

But he felt that, although his aim was perfectly fine, he still needed power behind him, something to drive his songs into the ears of audiences. He needed a back-up band behind him. He found a rhythm section in the Thomases, Bruce on bass and Pete on drums. Then he rounded his sound out with an inventive keyboard player named Steve Nieve. He called them the Attractions, and gave them equal billing on his second album, also produced by Lowe.

And that’s the beginning of the story, a story that continues today. The nerd that became a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, right alongside Buddy Holly, while still being able to carry the burden of being declared “the best songwriter of his generation”. Elvis Costello’s musical explorations have taken him all over the map, creating discussion of what rock is really all about. He’s explored pure pop in collaborations with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. He’s explored new horizons in fusing rock’s influences with its present, most notably on last year’s magnificent collaboration with the man who really put New Orleans on the rock map, Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse. Just like Dusty Springfield went to Memphis to fuse true soul into her English mannerisms, Elvis went to Nashville to work with country greats and created a new hybrid that’s informed this generation of country artists. He’s even worked with classical artists like the Brodsky Quartet and opera singers. No one questioned his 2003 induction into the Hall of Fame (right alongside his contemporaries the Clash). And best of all, he’s only 52 years old. His best work may truly be yet to come.

However, a 30th Anniversary is a good time to stop and take stock, and Costello’s reached that milestone this year. It’s also a good time to show everyone exactly why he’s in the Hall of Fame, putting out a remastered set of the songs that made his reputation, an overview of his first ten years, from My Aim Is True to Blood and Chocolate. The Many Moods Of Elvis Costello are neatly summarized in that period, from his punkesque early material through his reflections on love and loss, from pure pop to pure bile. But this is Elvis Costello we’re talking about here. He can’t do anything the expected way. Instead of yet another collection of tracks (he’s already released two substantive collections, Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How’s Your Fathers and Girls Girls Girls), he’s decided to release two collections, the expected overview of that time period and another with rarities that round out that period in his life. Best of all, he got his record company to release them cheap, so anyone can afford one or both. And they’re packed at twenty-two tracks each.

The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years is Elvis’ hand-picked selection of what he considers his best from that period. Guess what? Any fan of Costello’s would agree totally with the selections on this disc. This truly is the best of his work. If you weren’t around then, or you’ve never heard these, they are a must. These tracks are a touchstone to any of the major musical movements of the last twenty years. Costello paved the way perfectly. From techno-pop to grunge to modern country, the ingredients are all here. Is it any surprise that Costello is mentioned as an influence by acts today as much as the Beatles, the Stones, the Pistols, or REM?

Suprisingly, the collection doesn’t start off with “Less Than Zero”. Great as the song is, Costello must regard that as a mulligan, a practice swing before he got into the nitty-gritty of My Aim Is True. The first three songs on the collection are from that debut, and any Costello fan could probably tell you exactly what they are without looking at the disc: “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, “Watching The Detectives”, and the song that truly showed off how versatile he was as a songwriter, even at that stage, “Alison”, a love song with bite.

In judging the remastering of the collection, I considered these three tracks to be the most important. Too often, the original intent of the producer and engineer is lost when songs get remastered (and the original engineers of the work, especially, complain about this a great deal). My Aim Is True is pretty sparse compared to Costello’s later work with and without the Attractions. It would be very easy to obliterate Lowe’s work here by a ham-fisted remastering job. Fortunately, that’s not the case. The remastering is very evident on the vocals here; Costello’s never sounded better on these songs. The bass on “Watching the Detectives” has more muscle than it ever has. All in all, an excellent remastering job that shows off why these songs are so influential.

Moving into the Attractions Era, the most critical bit of remastering has to be on Nieve’s keyboards. They became the centerpiece of the Costello sound and deserve the most attention from anyone daring to fiddle with This Year’s Model and Armed Forces. The remixers did the right thing by moving the keyboards slightly back into the mix, making them a more organic portion of the sound and emphasizing the Thomases, an underrated rhythm section. It helps also to emphasize Costello’s vocals. “Pump It Up” has never sounded better, for instance. I was especially fearful of what might have been done to “Radio Radio”, my favorite Costello track, but my fears weren’t realized; it sounds magnificent, perhaps for the first time as Costello intended it to sound. In the cases of “Oliver’s Army” and “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”, it’s like hearing them again for the first time.

With Get Happy! and Trust, Costello went into a bit of a slump, but the best of those albums, like “Clubland” are represented here in style. It was that slump, and a bit of wanderlust, that caused him to break from Nick Lowe. He went to Nashville and worked with the legendary country producer Billy Sherrill on Almost Blue (in a typical Costello trait, his song “Almost Blue” isn’t the title track here, it’s a later work). Costello took on some country standards on that work, and “Good Year for the Roses” is included here. Sherrill’s been criticized for overdoing things on occasion, but maybe not knowing what to do with Costello, he restrained himself, and that restraint enables an easier job on the remastering.

Costello working with Sherrill showed his willingness to experiment, and he decided to go all-out on his next album in search of new sounds. He hooked up with a grandmaster at finding new ways to do old tricks. Before he was twenty years old, Geoff Emerick had become a legend in the recording industry. The sound that he fashioned for the Beatles as engineer of Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road became ideals that other acts worked toward. When Paul McCartney was in the doldrums in the early days of Wings, he turned to his old friend Emerick for inspiration and his skill behind a console, and together they created Band on the Run, a massive return to form for Macca. His reunion with George Martin helped turn three US Air Force brats into a worldwide sensation as America. It’s not a surprise that Costello would have turned to him to refurbish and expand his sound. The first of two albums they did together, Imperial Bedroom, was greeted with both raves and question marks from critics, who wondered exactly where Costello was going. This was an Elvis they’d never heard before, and they didn’t know exactly how to react. The more savvy among them, though, realized exactly what he was doing. Emerick is notoriously fussy on the issue of remasters, but I think he’s be satisfied with the job done on the three Imperial Bedroom tracks here, especially “Almost Blue”, which creates a cathedral behind Costello’s voice.

After the raw experimentation of Imperial Bedroom, Costello wanted to go in a slightly different direction, exploring the pop side that had emerged during those sessions. He got together with two of Britain’s best pop producers of the early New Wave, Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer, and created Punch the Clock. If his goal was to finally get a hit in the US to go along with his already-established reputation there, he succeeded. “Every Day I Write the Book” was his first US Top 40 hit, and Punch the Clock became his first big hit album in the States. It fit in nicely with the incredible pop music being released in 1983, and he not only got that elusive first hit, but produced one of his true standards, “Shipbuilding”. Langer and Winstanley gave him the clean sound that song needed, and the remaster maintains that pristine feeling.

The United States, as the fount of all that’s Rock And Roll, has always been a bit of an obsession for artists from the British Isles. John Lennon moved to the US, after all, and Van Morrison has virtually dedicated his entire career to exploring the unique fusion of American music and the perception obtained from it through the effort extended in being able to listen to it during his formative years. Elvis Costello was no exception. He decided to explore his American side in 1986 by leaving the Attractions behind and working with American musicians, with T-Bone Burnett as producer. King of America was another departure that was misunderstood a bit by the critics, but it produced some great tracks, two of which are included here. “Brilliant Mistake” showed that, no matter where his explorations took him, he still had the bile that created his initial classics. The remaster assisted the magnificent harmonies in that song.

After the critics’ confused reception to King of America, Costello decided to go back to basics, seemingly just to prove to everyone that he was still Elvis Costello (fortunately, doing so burned that need out of his system; after this, he’d never need to prove that to anyone again). So it was him, the Attractions, and Nick Lowe, together again, for Blood and Chocolate. The centerpiece of that work, the suite-length “I Want You”, borrowing a title and a spirit from Dylan, closes the retrospective in fine fashion.

Of course, things were to come in the future, but the collection is designed only to highlight those first ten years, and does so in a fashion that makes it as mandatory for music fans as his first two collections. Hooked up with a magnificent remastering job, it perfectly highlights why Costello is so important. It’s quite important to emphasize that right now, because a series of reissues of the albums represented here, remastered and expanded, are on deck. It’s a perfect sampler for the riches that are heading down the pipeline.

Rock and Roll Music is also, in that case, another teaser. It contains rarities, B-sides, and deep tracks from the same period as The First 10 Years. If The First 10 Years highlights Costello the performer, Rock and Roll Music highlights Costello the songwriter, and the Attractions as musicians. I don’t think I could think of a better way to kick off this collection than the splenetic “Lipstick Vogue”. Removed from the context of This Year’s Model, it’s almost shocking in its anger (but fits in perfectly on that album). After that song, “No Action”, also from This Year’s Model, seems a little bit tame. But both tracks show that Costello is one of the true masters of the Screw You Song, reinforced by the inclusion here of “Miracle Man”, one of the lesser-known tracks from My Aim Is True.

If you wanted a demonstration of how great Costello was, listen to “Big Tears” and realize that he threw this away as a B-side. Most performers couldn’t afford to relegate a great song like this to that kind of fate, but Costello was so great and so prolific at the beginning of his career that he could do this. It’s nice to see this song get some exposure. But I do have to wonder about track selection. “This Year’s Girl” really doesn’t fit into the conception of this album; it’s too well-known (but it’s great, so I’m not complaining so much). But why put “Chelsea”, “Pump It Up” and “Peace, Love, and Understanding” on both collections (the latter is in its US version)? They must be reserving outtakes and alternate versions of those for the reissues.

Costello’s done this type of collection before. In 1980, he released a set of B-sides and singles-only releases called Taking Liberties, and that album’s well-represented here. “Clean Money” is a two-minute burst of excitement, highlighted by some great multitracked background vocals by Dave Edmunds, who was in a bit of a career revival at that point himself. “Tiny Steps” and “Wednesday Week” deserved better than B-sides. If you ever wondered why Costello was considered punk, listen to “Wednesday Week”, with its slightly goofy Nieve keyboards, and wonder no more.

When Armed Forces was expanded into a two-CD package five years ago, it included some live tracks from the subsequent tour of the US that Costello and the Attractions did. Two live tracks from that bonus disc are included here. “Mystery Dance” and “You Belong to Me” shows what an incendiary live performer Costello was, and how terrific the Attractions were as a live band. Of course, if you didn’t attend any of the concerts, you could still have come away with that conclusion from their controversial performance on Saturday Night Live, where Costello stopped the Attractions in mid-song and had them kick into “Radio Radio”, a song that NBC didn’t want him to play.

Get Happy! wasn’t one of Costello’s best efforts, but they did choose one of the best tracks from it to include on Rock and Roll Music, “King Horse”. “Lover’s Walk” is a rather uncharacteristic track from Trust, but it does show his desire to start experimenting, which he’d do after that album. The remaining tracks on the collection bar the final are from Blood and Chocolate and its sessions, ignoring Imperial Bedroom (which was well-represented on the other collection) and King of America. However, “Tokyo Storm Warning” is included, and that forgives that particular concentration.

The collection closes with the demo version of “Welcome to the Working Week”, which will be included in the expanded, remastered edition of My Aim Is True. It’s a good indicator of what the ingredients looked like when they were first added into the test tube, and it’s a great teaser for those upcoming reissues. It’s nice to have on here, but around this time, Costello performed a solo version of “Alison” on a British TV show, and it was magnificent. The only problem is that there are no surviving videotape versions that are of sufficient quality to turn into an audio recording suitable for CD release. Having this on here is some small consolation for that.

Rock and Roll Music is not essential listening like The First 10 Years is, but it’s a quality selection of the obscure, punctuated by inclusions of better-known tracks. If you’re just getting into Costello’s early work, I’d recommend The First 10 Years, followed by the reissues of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces and Imperial Bedroom, then move on to Rock and Roll Music. Eventually, though, Rock and Roll Music will be on your purchase list. As the man himself said, you gotta listen.

Ratings:

The First Ten Years

Rock And Roll Music