His greatest albums reassessed... by Elvis!
“With stupefying arrogance, we set about showing our contemporaries what could be done with their winning formulas,” Elvis Costello tells Uncut, discussing his 1981 LP Trust. The new-wave upstart turned renaissance man could almost be describing any of his albums, though; from the audacious mix of fury and classicism on 1977 debut My Aim Is True, and the extravagant, Beatles-esque Imperial Bedroom (1982), to the sombre torch songs of 2003’s North and his eclectic, impressive latest, Look Now, Costello has aimed high and invariably succeeded.
When Uncut invited the songwriter to discuss nine of his finest albums, Costello suggested that he instead write his own reflections on some of his personal favourites with the Attractions, the Imposters, The Roots and solo – plus a fond look back at the demos he recorded with Paul McCartney, only released in 2017. Here, then, is Costello’s own personal history.On completing his ‘classic’, he says he left the NYC studio at 1am “thinking this was a movie that will probably never get made again”….
MY AIM IS TRUE
Costello’s first recordings were so striking, Stiff signed their songwriter as an artist in his own right
ELVIS COSTELLO: Rehearsed in a rat-infested country house and recorded in a cardboard box in Islington [Pathway Studios] in a total of 24 hours’ studio time, on sick days and holidays from my office job as a computer operator. Having only heard my voice, mumbling under a bare bulb, club stage or on a borrowed reel-to-reel in my bedroom, I never imagined I would be in that studio with a band as good as Clover, a Marin County outfit whose Fantasy albums I’d had to hunt down in secondhand shops. They spoke in code about the songs – “Red Shoes” was “The One That Sounds Like The Byrds”. I didn’t mention that “Waiting For The End Of The World” was supposed to sound like “I’m Waiting For The Man”. I don’t think they had ever heard The Velvet Underground, and perhaps that was for the best. You can listen to a new take on “Mr Moon” from Clover’s recent Homestead Redemption (on which they revisit their ’70s songs and I deputise for vocalist Alex Call on an alternate take) and hear John McFee quote his own guitar part from “Alison”. Time is going backwards. I liked the sound of Pathway so much that I went back there with just me and Pete Thomas to cut “Kinder Murder” for Brutal Youth, and The Gwendolyn Letters, demos of the 12 songs that I wrote for Wendy James over one weekend in the ’90s.
THIS YEAR’S MODEL
His second album, featuring “Pump It Up” and “Night Rally”, remains one of Costello’s best
Before we left Pathway, Nick Lowe had showed me that we could paint pictures with sound on “Watching The Detectives”. Steve Nieve had arrived by then to play the keyboards. I told him I wanted the piano to sound like “Hitchcock”, when I think I meant “Bernard Herrmann”. However, I needed all of the Attractions to work at speed of life for “Lipstick Vogue”. “Pump It Up” was scrawled on a hotel fire-escape in Newcastle, in the last days of the Stiff Tour, and cut at Eden Studios in Acton just before I left for our first American misadventure. You could say “we never looked back”, but having crossed the United States for the first time and been thrown off SNL and had a mince pie, when we returned home, we finished the album in the rest of the 11 days that we could afford. And then we went back to America, again and again… Look Now co-producer Sebastian Krys pushed up the faders on “This Year’s Girl” recently, adding the voice of Natalie Berman (from Wilde Belle) for a remix for the opening titles of the second season of The Deuce. These are very big shoes to fill after Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s A Hell Below” had opened Season One, but Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve’s playing sounded as mighty as ever and we even uncovered an unused background vocal idea, lifted from our inspiration – The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath.