If you’ve been following, you might know how this goes – this is neither objectively the best Elvis Costello album, nor is it my favourite (although it’s closer than you might think), but it’s the one I picked unhesitatingly when I was compiling the list, and thought to myself “there has to be an Elvis Costello album on there”.
The reason for picking Spike ahead of so many others goes to the heart of why I’m doing this. This exercise, as I’ve said all along, is mainly for my own entertainment, and one of the most enjoyable parts of this whole thing has been focusing in on particular parts of my life and illustrating those with the music I was entranced by at the time.
There’s a run of albums coming up which cover a pivotal part of my life; the years where I – we – dealt with adversity and unforeseen changes. At the end of that process, we’ll be living in a different country to the one we grew up in, and I’ll have something which feels much more like a career than the one I started out with.
To get there, however, we had to go through the early stages of proper adult life – buying a place to live rather than renting; taking decisions about where to live, and which of our jobs should take priority in that decision, and once we’d gone through the process of moving from one side of Inverness to another, then agreeing that my job opportunity looked like something solid and uprooting ourselves again to go and live in Perth, making the biggest change of all.
I’m talking, of course, about joining another library which had records you could borrow. The library in Inverness was fine, but the selection of albums was a little limited (I do, as we’ll see, owe my enduring love of the Penguin Café Orchestra to Inverness library, but little else). The library in Perth was housed in an imposing Victorian sandstone building, and had a much bigger selection of books and records than any of the ones I’d been a member of up to now.
Although we were newly-minted homeowners, with a cripplingly expensive mortgage to show for it, and had two incomes, we weren’t exactly rolling in disposable income just yet (I feel sure that day will come any time soon…). Therefore, the library took the place of bookshops and record shops in my regular Saturday morning trips into town, and my collection of poorly recorded cassette tapes grew and grew.
Having a library with an extensive back catalogue did, however, allow me to explore some of the artists who I previously loved mainly for their singles. My abiding love of Joe Jackson (qv) dates from this time, and it was only now, in 1989 or so, that I properly started to get to know my generation’s Elvis.
I’d been aware of him, of course, from the first time I saw him on TV (memory insists it was a performance of Alison, research suggests it was much more likely Red Shoes, neither of which charted, but both of which stuck in my head). The thing about Elvis Costello, of course, was that he looked like someone you’d meet on the street. The pop stars of the first half of the 1970s were gaudy, polished stars; people you might catch a glimpse of from afar. Elvis Costello and everyone around him in that strangely undefined ‘new wave’ thing which wasn’t so much a musical movement as an attitude – they looked like you and me, or at least our older brothers. They probably had day jobs in banks and accountancy firms, and they wrote and sang songs like the ones we would have written, if we had a tenth of their talent.
I have always been – this whole project will pretty much attest to it – a sucker for a song which tells a story, and pretty much every Costello single I heard did exactly that, with wit, invention and wordplay and a singing voice which cut through the static of medium wave directly to the centre of my brain. You would never mistake an Elvis Costello song for someone else, and you wouldn’t hear lyrics like that from anyone else.
It turned out, as I slowly got to know the albums, that he didn’t just save the songwriting tricks for the singles; every album I heard was packed full of acid wit, catchy hooks and an attitude which jumped off the vinyl and challenged you to see things his way. Even the broken-hearted love songs were deep, dark, and sinister.
One evening, during rehearsals for Hamlet (also qv, somewhere around the Pink Floyd period), a bunch of us were sitting on the back stairs at the Children’s Theatre, passing around and admiring someone’s copy of Get Happy!!. If you hadn’t been brought up – as I hadn’t – on early Beatles albums, you would have been – as I was – astounded by the look of the thing. I pull out my own copy now, and see exactly what I saw then – an extraordinary number of tracks crammed on to each side. The artwork – not recreated on my Canadian copy, sadly – was pre-distressed; it looked as if it had been well-used for decades, despite having been released the week before.
I loved the idea of Get Happy!! and I loved the singles. Then I heard New Amsterdam and I was a fan for life. Note that this was after Watching the Detectives, Oliver’s Army, I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, and so on – the Costello wordplay wasn’t new to me, but New Amsterdam was on another level somehow. It contains so many puns – some of them incredibly obscure, likely only intelligible to the author – in such a short track that it left me breathless in admiration and wonder.
So, here I am in Perth library one chilly (it’s Scotland; it probably was chilly) Saturday morning, and here’s a brand new copy of a brand new Elvis Costello album. I had no idea what to expect – the last album, Blood and Chocolate, had been a dark, tumultuous thing featuring a couple of my favourite Costello songs, but which I hadn’t entirely got on with, but I was determined to listen to this, because of Paul McCartney.
I’d been reading about the Costello McCartney partnership in my new favourite magazine. Q magazine had taken the place of the weekly music press for those of us a little older and wiser (well, I liked to think so). It was more permanent than the old inkies – my collection grew to the point where it was in danger of killing someone if it fell on them – and it had all kinds of in-depth information, analysis and nonsense about all those artists who were making the transition to CD (again, I’m coming to that). I read about the collaboration, and the idea of this spiky wordsmith teaming up with half of the greatest songwriting team of all time was – well, it was intriguing. There would be inevitable comparisons with John Lennon, but I waned to see if this partnership would work on its own.
So, I borrowed the album, then the next weekend went out and bought my own copy. I’ve owned it in some form or other ever since – I still have (for some meaning of the word ‘have’) my digital copy which was one of the first things I bought on iTunes when it started to be a thing, but I’m going to listen to it now on my vinyl copy, and I’ll be transported back to Perth, and that brief time in our lives when everything seemed to be trucking along nicely.
You’ll have to wait a week for what happened next, but for now, let’s see if I can figure out just why this is the EC album I would save from a fire above all others…
The first thing you notice is that the album is credited to just ‘Elvis Costello’. No Attractions, or indeed anyone else. Instead, there’s an all-star cast scattered throughout – the fist track guest list is led off by Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney, for example – and while you might cavil that this takes some of the focus away from the songs, I’m going to respectfully disagree.
Opening tack …This Town… is atmospheric and mysterious, a film noir of a lyric sung over a slightly eccentric beat. Underpinning the orchestra of instruments is – of course – the liquid bassline of that bloke who used to play the bass in the Beatles – it plays with the rhythm and seems to have a space all of its own to bounce around, even if you’re listening hard to the words to figure out who all those people are, you can’t help noticing this bass melody poking its head up every now and then.
Let Him Dangle is Costello at his angry, vitriolic best. He’s never shied away from letting people know what he thinks about things, and this is a succinct true story full of devastating detail (the hangman shaking the condemned man’s hand to calculate his weight) which leaves you in no doubt about the songwriter’s opinion that miscarriages of justice in a country with the death penalty kills people who don’t deserve to die. And the guitar solo is perhaps only behind I Want You in the Costello ‘angry instumental’ stakes.
Then we’re flipped into a soulful piano ballad – Deep Dark Truthful Mirror begins with piano and voice alone, and is illuminated by a horn ensemble credited as the ‘Dirty Dozen Brass Band’. As with the best albums, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, this surrealist poem set to wheezing New Orleans brass, but it fits perfectly into this set of songs.
Next up is the first of the McCartney collaborations, which was a huge hit on this side of the Atlantic, and is another of those songs which pop up in grocery stores every now and then. Just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it doesn’t have me singing along every time. If there was ever a hope that this collaboration would turn out a song which would have worked for the Beatles, this is it. It’s still an Elvis Costello song, but if you squint a little, you can hear something there in its bounce and swagger which reminds you of McCartney’s earlier work. It’s joyful and fun, which is not something you can often say about a song about someone with dementia.
I imagine that God’s Comic still divides opinion. If – like me – you are a fan of comic songs in general, and DPA McManus’ wordplay in particular, then this is one of the highlights of the album; a delightful, woozy take on the afterlife and God’s plan seen through the eyes of a whisky priest with a cynical eye. It’s a story, just as the others on here are, but I’m aware that not everyone finds as much fun and fulfilment in this kind of thing as I do.
If you’ve skipped over the last track, you should stick around for the caustic funk stylings of Chewing Gum – it’s perhaps emblematic of why this album isn’t better loved or better known. It’s the sixth track, featuring the sixth different musical style, and while some might find that distracting, I love the way the guitar never manages to harmonise with anything else going on but spends the whole song trying to pull it all out of shape while the vocals – without moving out of the standard Costello range – slither between the sounds in the only way anyone could possibly sing this.
The 1980s feel like a distant memory sometimes, it can be hard to remember just how strange and dislocating it felt to be governed by someone – a party, a system – whose contempt for those who didn’t fit the plan was so complete. It was hard at the time, knowing that what was happening was wrong, was deliberately unfair and cruel, when I wasn’t suffering from it; may even have been benefiting from the economic havoc being wreaked (but ask me about the interest rate on that mortgage, and about being one of those hand-picked to pay the Poll Tax as part of what seemed to be an experiment to see how much pain a government could cause its people before something snapped). Elvis Costello knew, though. What was it like to be subjected to the Thatcher Revolution? Tramp the Dirt Down, sung as an Irish lament, tells you all you need to know.
Stalin Malone, the first track on side 2, is a rare, possibly unique beast – an instrumental with lyrics. The words were printed on the outer sleeve, but presumably couldn’t be made to fit the music, which is back in the New Orleans brass band idiom. It swings and sways with an insistent snare drum leading us through the swampy, jazz-inflected sounds. I’ve come to think of the music as an interpretation of the poem printed on the back sleeve, but it can’t help feeling a little too jaunty for its subject matter.
Satellite, on the other hand, exists to serve its lyric – it’s in the New Amsterdam idiom – quick, clever wordplay almost falling over itself in its rush to tell the story of the anonymity of long-distance telecommunications. Truer now than it was at the time, when the internet was a faint and distant dream, it lopes through a warning about how disconnected we’re all becoming.
Pads, Paws and Claws is the second Paul McCartney collaboration, and if it doesn’t quite work as well as Veronica, that’s partly because it’s not trying to be a jaunty pop song; it’s a sly rockabilly number which works best as the first half of the story of betrayal which gets the full lament treatment in the next track.
Baby Plays Around is the same scenario as Pads, seen from the perspective of the wronged half of the relationship. It’s a curious song to write with your wife, I’d suggest, but it works, partly because of the song from Blood and Chocolate I keep referring back to. I Want You is bitter and angry, almost menacing in its desire, while this is resigned and sad. It’s one of his finest melodies, and sung with exactly the right amount of resignation and despair.
In keeping with the mad leaping around this whole album does, the rawest and saddest song is immediately followed by a drunken fairground ride of a song, about a character which seems to have sprung from the combined imaginations of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. Musically, it mashes together all of the disparate elements we’ve heard so far, with the tuba parping along in the bassline while a Wurlitzer organ competes with several traditional Irish instruments to knit a tune out of soup. Not quite my favourite on the album, but up there.
As is the straight up Irish ballad of Any King’s Shilling. A little further down this post, I’ll be extolling the virtues of an album which came along a few years later, and told a series of pin-sharp short stories in postcard form, and this follows the same structure, but with a poignancy and relevance lent to it by the accompaniment. The straightforward rendering of a story which may have come from Costello’s family history as a piece of Irish music gives it a simple power, although it’s perhaps an easier listen in these post-Troubles times than it would have been at the time, when any exploration of Irish nationalism was by definition a political act.
Elvis Costello never shied away from the political, though. Last Boat Leaving ties together all the political threads running through the album and leaves us with another short story full of heartache and hinted-at depths; people have won Booker Prizes for novels which explored this theme over hundreds of pages; this song tells its entire tale in just over three minutes, and like so many of these songs, leaves us satisfied that we’ve heard enough to let our imaginations fill in the blanks.
Overall, Spike, the Beloved Entertainer to give it it’s full title, is a dizzying grab-back of disparate stories and influences. It works because there’s a single unifying voice tying it all together, and it works because the stories it tells are so clearly drawn – even the one told solely by instruments – that you go along with the sudden changes in direction and mood because you want to hear the next one. Not so much a concept album as the musical equivalent of a short story collection, this album has lived with me since the day I first heard it, and continues to delight (in spite of its overall pessimistic tone) to this day. Not where I’d start with EC, but if you want to understand the man’s full range, there are few better albums.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Of course. A great many, but I’m going to focus on the one I love above all the others, and it’s not what you’d expect. Costello’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, features not one traditional rock instrument, and is simply stunning in its storytelling and the way it subverts expectation at every turn. It might take a while to get used to the whole ‘string quartet’ thing, but it rewards careful and repeated listening.
And if you liked Spike, you should try its companion album, Mighty Like a Rose.
Compilations to consider?
There are many, but I’m going to recommend the one which Elvis himself compiled, called (for reasons I don’ remember, but which are probably explained all over the copious sleeve notes) Girls Girls Girls. It’s comprehensive and full of the songs he thinks you should hear.
I keep seeing Live at El Mocambo in record shops here, but I’ve never heard it, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard an EC live album of any kind. I’m not the person to come to for recommendations, I’m afraid.
Anything else? The autobiographical Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink has been on my ‘must read pile for years; maybe doing this will make me get round to reading it. Otherwise, there are TV shows out there, and have you seen him do Penny Lane for Paul McCartney at the White House?