Whilst we eagerly await the hasty return of Elvis Costello at the Phil this month, Getintothis’ Del Pike offers his Top 10 for your pleasure.
Elvis Costello is back in town which is, as always, cause for celebration. Following his sell out gig at the Phil last year with his Detour show that was a hotch potch of songs old and new with stories and guest appearances from Larkin Poe, this year’s tour looks set to be a more traditional affair with just the man himself and his Imposters, hopefully rocking out the hits like a trooper.
Elvis always gets a welcome in Liverpool and wears his status as an honorary Scouser with pride. His Dad, Ross McManus was Birkenhead born and bred, and an artist in his own right. Finding fame as a singer and a bandleader, and infamy with the R Whites lemonade ad in the 70s as the secret lemonade drinker. Elvis himself was born in London but moved with his Mum to Birkenhead in the early 70s and his heart has remained here while the rest of him toured the world.
Elvis’s long and illustrious career as a singer, songwriter producer and collaborator has taken him through just about every genre of music. Starting off in the post punk era of the late 70 with angular chart hits like Pump It Up and I Don’t Want to go to Chelsea, it wasn’t long before he was branching out into more jazzy and country territories, 1981’s Almost Blue was recorded entirely in Nashville and was simply a great country album.
After a killer period in the mid to late-80s that spawned the incredible King of America, Blood and Chocolate and Spike albums Elvis’s output became even more eclectic. Collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and Allan Toussaint seemed like natural choices whilst The Juliet Letters (1993) a collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet took him into challenging classical territories.
Never one to take the easy route, Elvis’s albums have continued to sell and offer new and exciting adventures for seasoned fans whilst not necessarily aiming to attract new audiences. Albums like 2003’s North was critically panned for being too difficult, although it has its fans, whilst the following year’s Americana project, The Delivery Man was rightfully hailed as a return to form bar none. Days of bothering singles charts may be well behind him but this has given him room to experiment and actually enjoy himself.
Whilst Elvis now has new found fame as a Stateside chat show host with his CTV series Spectacle, he has continued to record, startling audiences in 2013 with Wise Up Ghost. A collaboration with The Roots on the Blue Note label. The album featured new tracks and reworkings of old favourites and Elvis was at once cool again.
With such a rich back-catalogue to draw on we can only hope that the forthcoming set at the Philharmonic (July 11) will span his entire career. As we love a Top 10 here at getintothis now would be an ideal opportunity to look back on some incredible songs and remind ourselves of the genius of Mr Declan Patrick MacManus or as his mates call him, Elvis Costello.
- So Like Candy from Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
Elvis has always been a heartbreaker when it comes to love songs and throughout his career he has become something of a master of the break up song. This along with the majestic I Want You is best avoided if your loved one has just hit the mist. Co-written with hi long time hero, Paul McCartney, there are straight to the gut lines that anyone who has been unceremoniously dumped can relate to. Try “Here lie the records that she scratched, and on the sleeve I find a note attached… She couldn’t say “Goodbye” but “I admire your taste”” Elvis extended his bittersweet barbs onto McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt album during this period making it one of the most satisfying Post-Beatle releases of Macca’s career.
- Pills and Soap from Punch the Clock (1983)
Much like the classic Shipbuilding, Pills and Soap is a song borne from the impact of the Falklands war. The song draws parallels with the inhumane treatment of animals and the disregard for human life as dished out by Thatcher’s government. Lyrics aside it is the sinister delivery of the song that sets it apart from the crowd. Elvis has a brilliant knack of taking on various personas to fit his songs, from the angst ridden lover to the spiky agitator and in this case the creeping conscious of a country on its knees. The appalling image of the drooling TV journo is made complete with the opening line of “They talked to the sister, the father and the mother with a microphone in one hand and a chequebook in the other. And the camera closes in to the tears on her face, the tears on her face, the tears on her face” This is Elvis at his acidic best.
- Brilliant Mistake from King of America (1986)
1986 was an incredible year for Elvis Costello, releasing King of America at the start of the year, a career best at this point, co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and largely an improvement on the Country style of Almost Blue, embracing a wider landscape of Americana. Later that same year came the even better Blood and Chocolate. Not since The Beatles’ machine gun output had two albums of such stature been released within 12 months of each other by the same artist. Brilliant Mistake cracks open King of America and stands as Elvis’s most endearing album opener. “He thought he was the King of America where they pour Coca –Cola just like vintage wine” That opening sweep of apathy, poetry and pure bloody genius sets the scene for the rest of this painful and lovely album. A love hate song to the country that has influenced him the most, “It was a fine idea at the time, now it’s a brilliant mistake.”
- Oliver’s Army from Armed Forces (1979)
The Costello calling card. Put a radio request in for a bit of Elvis and this is what they’ll play. Included here for its sheer status as a knockout single and iconic Elvis moment, but true fans may not see it as his best work. Written after a trip to Northern Ireland, the dark lyrics are pretty hard to follow even after the 100th listen but somehow that catchy tune won over radio listeners and made this his most famous song. Even the inclusion of the N word doesn’t stop this from being a staple of airplays to this day. One for the populists.
- Lipstick Vogue from This Year’s Model (1978)
The penultimate track from Elvis’s second album is a staccato powerhouse of clipped production and spat lyrics.A genuinely exciting listen, produced by Nick Lowe, it was allegedly inspired by the rhythms of the Metropolitan line where it was written. The extent of venom towards harmony doesn’t get any more spiteful in the line “Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour. You’ve got to cut it out”, delivered surprisingly early in the song. It can only end badly. A punk love song condensed into three and a half frantic minutes.
- Watching the Detectives from My Aim is True (1977)
This cut from Elvis’s first album was also the first single to be credited to Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Elvis was still finding his feet stylistically and early performances of this will find him posturing awkwardly in a cod Buddy Holly style. This performance style dwindled into the 80s, as Elvis became more about the song than the image. The reggae style reflected a resurgence in the charts of Jamaican influenced tunes, most prominently in the music of The Police who also emerged from the post punk fug of 1977. Once again the lyrics concern a disgruntled lover whose partner would rather watch crime TV than make out. A happy love song is a rare thing. Elvis Costello has that magic skill of writing heart stopping lyrics with just great tunes. Watching the Detectives is one of them.
- Pump it up from This Year’s Model (1978)
Another classic production from Elvis, The Attractions and Nick Lowe. The pounding delivery of the song is instantly recognisable and has influenced a million songs since. Almost a rap, three years before Blondie launched Rapture and helped to ease black rap to the mainstream, this is unlike anything heard before.
“She’s been a bad girl. She’s like a chemical. Though you try to stop it, she’s like a narcotic. You wanna torture her. You wanna talk to her. All the things you bought for her, putting up your temp’rature.” Exhausting stuff. Possibly his most bombastic single.
- Shipbuilding from Punch the Clock (1983)
A modern folk song made popular by Robert Wyatt, this heart-breaking portrayal of Britain during the Falklands crisis also sits comfortably on Punch the Clock, one of Elvis’s finer albums. One of the most appealing aspects of Elvis’s political song writing is how he sees the world through the eyes of the people. Even Tramp the Dirt Down, his tour de force attack on Thatcher is sung from the doorstep. Shipbuilding looks at those left behind and the state of Britain, a country in pieces, its government spending its money on armaments and sending good folks to their deaths. It’s a tearjerker and a blunt reminder of how crippling a government can be to its own folk. “With all the will in the world, diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls”
- I Want You from Blood and Chocolate (1986)
The greatest and most harrowing of all break up songs. Funereal in its delivery, the song begins with a classic bubble-gum pop moment “Oh my baby baby, I love you more than I can tell” and rapidly descends into “I love you so it scares me to death” One heavy bass twang and we are into a Mantra of lost love. Each chilling line is punctuated by increasingly breathless cries of “I Want You”. This is desperate stuff and really, really should not be listened to after a break up. Lines like “It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for, It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for” take us deep into the heart of the bedroom while “It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing, It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing” make us sick with dank familiarity. Love songs rarely get more traumatic as this. As the song reaches its crescendo the singer is breathless and worn down. There is a moment of frantic wailing accompanied by distorted guitars before our hero collapses onto his empty bed and cries “I Want You” repeatedly until it becomes a hopeless whisper. Best played very loud in a dark room with a strong tissue.
1.Tramp the dirt down from Spike (1989)
Taken from Elvis’s tour de force debut album for Warner, Tramp the dirt down heralded the end of Thatcher’s ten year reign and was a scathing diatribe of a decade of political hell. Morrissey had already wished her dead on Viva Hate’s Margaret on the guillotine the previous year, and now Elvis is dancing solemnly on her grave. Once again this is a folk song, a poison pen letter to the iron lady that pulls absolutely no punches. Taking the image of a child that Thatcher has kissed during a campaign as a touchstone; “Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child’s lips.” Its powerful stuff as Elvis cries out that he wants to just live long enough to see Maggie laid in the ground so he can tramp the dirt down. In a similar vein to I Want You, a chanting list emerges of Thatcher’s past crimes, including once again “The boys on both sides being blown up, beaten or maimed” and the disturbing image of a man who has “just squeezed the life from his only son”.
When Thatcher finally died in 2013, Tramp the Dirt Down immediately topped playlists in many a household across the country. It was a song that spoke from the heart to the hordes who had suffered at her hands and told it exactly as it was. The passion in the voice on that final line, “Cause when they finally put you in the ground, they’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down”, reveals that with Elvis there really is no bullshit, this is a voice that is rich in honesty and sheer hatred. Some were surprised when Elvis left this out of his set at the Phil last year, but there is a sense that this work is done and it’s time to move on.
Elvis Costello and The Imposters will be appearing at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on July 11 2016.