Saturday, 26 January 2013
Elvis Costello: 1977-1988
In 1989, just as he was jumping ship to Warner Brothers, Elvis helped to compile a compilation album called “Girls Girls Girls”, an impressive double album set covering his first decade in music, detailing singles and album tracks from his time on Stiff, Radar, F Beat and Demon Records. It offered an alternative way into the man’s back catalogue, as like most acts, some of his best material had never been released as singles. It was a signing off of his past, and should have been the final word on this period of his career.
But of course, it was merely the beginning. In the years that followed, Demon - who had released the LP - reissued his studio albums, then in 2002, Edsel had a go, and then a few years later, it was the turn of Universal to have a crack at a few as well. Add to that a few box sets, and it means that this period of Elvis’ career has been thoroughly revamped more times than it probably should have been.
Later this year, Elvis is off on tour again with his “Spinning Songbook” shows, so I thought it was time I looked at this period of his career, and which albums are currently available, which ones aren’t, and which ones might be.
Although it’s seen as a stone cold classic, I have always thought that the debut LP “My Aim Is True” was a bit patchy. It rushes along at a fair old pace, but it all seems a bit “one track” at times, especially when compared to the masterpieces that followed. In the USA, the track listing was enlivened by the inclusion of “Watching The Detectives”, a late 77 UK stand alone single, which was shoe-horned onto the US version of the album as it was not released stateside until early 78. This single was a genuine early period classic, a sort of cod-reggae rumble, but with sinister overtones. Even today, it still sounds slightly odd, an almost dub-like piece of pop, enlivened by some shrilling organ noises, and Duane Eddy style guitar licks.
By this point, Costello had started to perform with a permanent group set up called The Attractions, and he would remain with them - onstage and off - for pretty much everything he did for the next seven or eight years. Many of the releases that they put out, however, were still credited to Elvis as a solo act. I would argue that this is why the first album with The Attractions, 1978’s “This Year’s Model”, is such a ground breaking leap forward from the debut - with the help of his new bandmates, it’s a thrilling, exhilarating piece of “New Wave”. The incendiary, hyperactive opener “No Action”, the keyboard driven bounce of “Pump It Up”, the sneering “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”, the propulsive punky throb of “Lipstick Vogue”, it’s an astonishing piece of work.
It was the start of a golden period of music from Elvis, with 1979’s “Armed Forces” following perfectly in it’s footsteps, spawning classic 45’s in the form of the politically charged “Oliver’s Army” and the organ-driven sublime-ness of “Accidents Will Happen”. But he was not a man to stand still, and turned in an arguably better record in 1980 with the Soul/Motown inspired “Get Happy”, a mesmerising party record, with Elvis cramming in no less than twenty footstompers in less than fifty minutes.
After the power pop genius of 1981’s “Trust”, Elvis began to really test his audience, by going completely Country on “Almost Blue”. 1982 saw him return to the relative safety of his new wave beginnings with the excellent “Imperial Bedroom”, driven along by pieces of faultless pop in the form of the magnificent opener “Beyond Belief”, a song that builds and builds to a frenzied climax, the pure pop of “You Little Fool”, or the sheer perfection of the stunningly melodic “Man Out Of Time”, notable for it’s “punk rock” opening and ending, tagged on from an early alternative take of the same song.
1983’s “Punch the Clock” was a truly schizophrenic album, with the anti-Falklands mournful ballad that is “Shipbuilding” and the anti-Tory Party scowl of the miraculous “Pills And Soap” (issued as a political single on the eve of the 1983 General Election by “The Imposter”) on one side, snuggling up to the pure 1980’s mainstream pop that is “Let Them All Talk” and “Everyday I Write The Book” on the other. 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World” was seemingly an attempt to do a whole album of the latter, but fell foul to the typical mid-80’s production sound, and ended up as a bland and middle of the road trudge, famously described by the man himself as “the worst album of my career” in the sleevenotes of the 1995 reissue.
Maybe it was the mess that was “Goodbye Cruel World” that forced Elvis to look outside of his world with The Attractions. 1985’s Americana obsessed “King Of America” featured little involvement from the band, Elvis collaborating with a multitude of extra musicians, which resulted in the album being credited to “The Costello Show”. However, he did get back with them for one final album, 1986’s flawless “Blood And Chocolate”. It looked through much of his past, and happily jumped from organ driven new wave (“Uncomplicated”, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”) to rockabilly (“Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind”) to balladry (“Battered Old Bird”). But it was two of the singles that showcased it’s ultimate genius, with “I Want You” being a genuinely disturbing, creepy, stalker anthem, that made “Every Breath You Take” sound like “Puppy Love”, and “Tokyo Storm Warning”, an astonishing six minute stream of consciousness, a la Dylan’s “Stuck Inside Of Mobile”, with Elvis spitting and snarling through what remains his most epic piece of music. Quite who thought this would make an obvious choice of single must have been insane, and the 7” edition simply chopped it in half, with the first bit on side A, and the second on the B-side. The 12” edition featured the album mix in all it’s unedited glory.
A stand alone 45 in 1987, “A Town Called Big Nothing”, returned to the earlier concept of featuring Elvis and Friends, rather than The Attractions, and was thus credited to “The Macmanus Gang”. And that was it. Costello and The Attractions split, he joined Warner Brothers, and it was time for phase 2. The Attractions would rejoin Elvis on 1994’s monumental “Brutal Youth”, but in-band fighting saw the partnership collapse within a handful of years. Costello’s current backing band, The Imposters, consist of two thirds of The Attractions, with former bass player Bruce Thomas having fallen out big time with Elvis at the end of the 90's. I shall look at the Warners years in a future blog.
Once the 12” had established itself as a major format, Costello dabbled with this format as well. Sometimes, he would use it to indulge in his dance music fantasies (extended mixes were made for several singles, including “Let Them All Talk”), at other times it became the perfect vehicle for another EP (such as the 4 track “Blue Chair” release).
Whilst most Costello a-sides were songs lifted from the then-current LP, a handful of stand alone 45’s were issued (including “Radio Radio” and “A Town Called Big Nothing”), whilst a few singles appeared in “radio mix” form when issued on 45 (see “I Wanna Be Loved”, or the 7“ of “Tokyo Storm Warning”). Pretty much every single included exclusive material on the B-side, either in the form of alternate takes or “new” studio recordings.
In 1987, Demon issued “Out Of Our Idiot”, a collection of B-sides and rarities from the period. By this point, Costello had been credited as a solo performer, with both The Attractions and the Confederates, and under various other pseudonyms on his single releases, and as such, it was listed as being a “Various Artists” set, rather than a Costello one. The album included alternate mixes of “Get Yourself Another Fool” and “Black Sails In The Sunset”, whilst the CD edition of the album included “Little Goody Two Shoes”, exclusive to this set although a later reissue of “Imperial Bedroom” included an alternate mix of the same song. More about Costello’s reissues right now.
Reissues, Box Sets, Other Albums and Best Of’s
Some reissues were to feature more tracks than others - it simply seemed to be based upon what was in the vaults, and what Elvis was happy to include. The campaign started with the release of a box set entitled “2 ½ Years”, which included expanded reissues of Elvis’ first three albums, along with an exclusive bonus CD - a reissue of the infamous Vinyl Promo Only LP “Live At El Mocambo”, a fiery record capturing the man at the top of his game on stage. All of the three studio albums were made available individually at the same time, although it would take until 2009 until “El Mocambo” achieved this honour. Although the three studio records have all since been re-released again with extra tracks, thus taking some of the shine off this box, it really is a thing of beauty if you can find one. Housed in a 12-inch squared box, complete with photo booklet, it’s a perfect document of early period Elvis. The title, in case you were wondering, refers to the time frame within which these albums were released.
The reissue campaign continued with each of the studio albums appearing, in chunks, in the same order in which they were originally released. “Get Happy” was therefore up next, the 20-track LP now boosted by ten bonus tracks. There was a 31st song, a demo of “Love For Tender”, which cuts off after about 90 seconds. Although assumed to be some sort of pressing error, it was later revealed that the inclusion of this half finished rarity was intentional.
Possibly sensing the high esteem in which “King Of America” had always been regarded, the 1995 reissue of this album was done differently to what came before. The reissue was billed as a limited edition, and was to be pressed on Double LP, Cassette and CD. The CD edition featured the original album and five bonus tracks on a single CD, whilst the package included a bonus CD, a six track live mini-album called “Live On Broadway”. The Cassette version was done as a Long Play edition, with the original LP filling up side 1, and the bonus tracks and mini album being included on side 2. From what I can gather, once the double-CD copies had sold out, later editions were pressed minus the “Live On Broadway” disc. The last album in the reissue series, “Blood And Chocolate”, returned to the standard “single expanded CD” set up.
Whilst all of the stand alone 45’s from the period were added to the most relevant corresponding LP, other material that could have made the reissues didn’t. A number of B-sides went missing, most notably many of the “I’m Your Toy” B-sides (no less then FIVE were spread across the 7” and 12” editions, but only a handful made it onto the “Almost Blue“ reissue), whilst there was usually no space for alternate mixes of the singles - so the 12” mix of “Let Them All Talk” and the 7” edit of “A Town Called Big Nothing” remained off catalogue, for example. Also missing was Costello’s live cover of The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”, which had appeared on a free 7” given with initial copies of the original vinyl release of “This Year’s Model”, although the other side of the same single, a cover of George Jones’ “Stranger in the House” (thereby showcasing, on one single, Costello’s varied musical tastes), did appear on the expanded “My Aim is True”, reflecting when it was taped as opposed to when it was released. Conversely, the three tracks from the “Live At Hollywood High” EP, given free with original copies of “Armed Forces”, did all appear on the reissue of the same album. As ever, it’s all a bit academic now - the entire gig from which the “Hollywood High” tracks were sourced has now been issued as an LP in it’s own right.
Despite the various omissions, I generally thought the reissues did a good job, and it did allow you, as a collector, to still carry on trying to hunt the missing stuff down. That should have been the end of it. But no. By the start of the noughties, Costello had left Warners, and the Demon reissues had been deleted. A second reissue campaign was to be conducted, with Warners’ sister label Rhino reissuing the Warner Bros LP’s, and specialist reissue label Edsel re-doing the Demon ones. Again, Elvis was to oversee the reissues.
All of the albums, both on Edsel and Rhino, were to appear as 2-CD editions. The original album was to appear on CD1, the second CD - with a running time far in excess of the original record - would deal with the rarities. The stand alone singles were generally omitted this time, presumably on the basis that they were easily available elsewhere (trouble was, not all of them were), whilst - with one or two exceptions - the bonus tracks from the Demon issues were also to be found on the Edsel ones. “Goodbye Cruel World” was here again, this time with bonus tracks that “redefined the original album”.
But no. Again. By 2007, Costello’s current home, Universal, had acquired the rights to his pre-Warners years, and all of the Edsel reissues (and Warners ones) were deleted. In 2007 and 2008, to celebrate their 30th anniversaries, Costello’s first two records were reissued again in newly expanded “deluxe” form. The original albums were padded out with rarities from the period on CD1, whilst a period live gig filled up CD2. This meant that the amount of studio rarities was depleted when compared to the Edsel pressings, and although a couple of rarities from those releases made the Universal ones, a number of songs simply went missing. Costello has come in for some stick in allowing these two albums to be reissued in expanded form no less than three times in under 20 years, and the fact that the now deleted Edsel pressings were chock full of rarities now no longer available, makes the whole situation slightly baffling. In order to get the likes of “Trust” back in the shops again, Universal re-released the remaining studio albums as part of the “Elvis Costello Originals” campaign, with each album appearing in a sleeve mimicking the original vinyl release, but with NO bonus tracks. Whilst the idea of “Get Happy” now ending with “Riot Act” once again does make some sort of sense, and the reissues have a nice little wrap around obi which shows - where they exist - a picture of the alternate US cover photo, it all seems a bit, well, pointless.
Costello’s 45’s have fared slightly better. In 2003, Edsel issued three box sets titled “Singles Volume 1”, “Singles Volume 2”, and - yes - “Singles Volume 3”. These boxsets followed that tried and tested formula - eleven or twelve CD’s per box, each CD a reissue of a Costello UK 45 in it’s original cover, with - where they exist - bonus tracks from additional formats, or even, from overseas/promo releases. These boxsets are better than most, for where a single was issued in a die cut sleeve, rather than design some “special” picture sleeve this time around, a photograph of the original 7” adorns the front of the CD sleeve, and a photo of the back of the 7” adorns the rear. Spot on, and much better than the “fake” sleeves used in EMI’s Madness and Stranglers boxsets from the same period.
But once again, things aren’t perfect. First, the good news. The first box includes the “Stranger In The House” freebie, and the gig only “Talking in The Dark” 7”, although the “Hollywood High” EP is excluded. Box 2 includes the A&M issued “Party Party”, a song which Costello actually hates, and was recorded specifically for a movie. As with most singles boxes, you can’t tick all the boxes. “New Amsterdam” came in two different sleeves, “Accidents Will Happen” in three, but of course, you only get one in each box. Fair enough. But come box 3, and things go a bit astray.
Firstly, and this isn’t a total disaster, but a couple of “un rare” songs from the period from some of the singles are missing. The LP version of “Tokyo Storm Warning”, which appeared on the original 12”, is not here. Nor is the LP mix of “American Without Tears”, which turned up on the 12” version of “Blue Chair”, primarily because one of the other tracks on the same 45 was a recorded version of the same song called “American Without Tears No. 2”. So far, so acceptable. But the 7” edit of “A Town Called Big Nothing” is missing from the box, whilst even more controversially, there is one major single missing altogether.
In 1985, Telstar issued a compilation called “The Best Of Elvis Costello”, and Elvis’ then label F Beat decided to issue the “Armed Forces” track “Green Shirt” as a 45 to coincide, which was also on this compilation. But for some reason, there is no re-pressing of this single in the third box. I can only assume this is because, as this was the only Costello single thus far to be released “after the event”, Edsel must have assumed it is not a “proper” single. But given that the 12” edition featured an exclusive brand new remix, unavailable on any other Costello collection, this is a glaring omission. Slapped wrists all round.
So, aside from “Out Of Our Idiot”, “Girls Girls Girls”, “Hollywood High” and “El Mocambo”, what else has appeared over the years? Well, I’m not going to list everything, but there are a few releases of note. First up, the mid 80’s spawned a re-release on Demon of “The Best Of” called “The Man”, with a revamped track listing and a superior sleeve, and is quite a well known Costello Best-Of. It used a photo previously to be found on the US only “B-sides” set “Taking Liberties”, which appeared in 1980, an LP which later appeared - in slightly altered form - in the UK as “Ten Bloody Marys And Ten Hows Your Fathers”.
To coincide with the Demon reissues in the 90’s, another collection called “The Very Best Of Elvis Costello And The Attractions”, turned up in 1994 - although I would suggest you track down the VHS version, coming as it does with a stack of previously unavailable promo clips. After Costello had a slightly fluky one-off hit with a cover of “She” from the “Notting Hill” movie in the late 90’s, Polygram issued a superb 2-CD trawl through the past called “The Very Best Of Elvis Costello”, with an inspired track listing. It was ’re-promoted’ a couple of years later to coincide with the Edsel/Rhino reissue campaign.
And finally, we come full circle. To tie in with the 2007 reissues, Universal issued “The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years”. Like the Polygram release, it comes in a superb “Buddy Holly” style cover, but by restricting itself to a single CD, it only dents the surface, and doesn’t really showcase the genius of Costello in a way that “Girls Girls Girls” does. But that, dear readers, is the record industry for you. Twenty plus years after one of the best Elvis compilations was released, the current one simply doesn’t quite have the same impact. Boo.
The discography below covers those first ten years. The Edsel reissues detail the expanded “noughties” pressings that, although deleted, are the essential starting point if money is no object. Be warned, some of these things sell for inflated prices now.
The Demon reissues are not easy to find either, but as they feature “less” tracks, and were pressed on more formats worldwide, they might be cheaper to locate. The other albums showcase the Hip-O/Universal “deluxe” pressings, and selected other Costello albums recorded during this period.
The singles should speak for themselves, but I have detailed what was or wasn’t in the three “Singles” boxsets.
My Aim Is True (Originally 1977, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 101)
This Year’s Model (Originally 1978, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 102)
Armed Forces (Originally 1979, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 103)
Get Happy (Originally 1980, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 105)
Trust (Originally 1981, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 106)
Almost Blue (Originally 1981, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 107)
Imperial Bedroom (Originally 1982, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 108)
Punch The Clock (Originally 1983, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 109)
Goodbye Cruel World (Originally 1984, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 110)
King Of America (Originally 1986, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 111)
Blood And Chocolate (Originally 1986, 2xCD, Edsel MANUS 112)
2 ½ Years (4xCD, Demon QPAM BOX 1)
Get Happy (CD, Demon DPAM 5)
Trust (CD, Demon DPAM 6)
Almost Blue (CD, Demon DPAM 7)
Imperial Bedroom (CD, Demon DPAM 8)
Punch The Clock (CD, Demon DPAM 9)
Goodbye Cruel World (CD, Demon DPAM 10)
King Of America (2xCD, Demon DPAM 11)
Blood And Chocolate (CD, Demon DPAM 12)
Ten Bloody Marys And Ten Hows Your Fathers (1984, LP, Demon FIEND 27)
The Best Of (1985, LP, Telstar STAR 2247)
The Man (1986, LP, Demon FIEND 52)
Out Of Our Idiot (1987, CD, Demon FIENDCD 67)
Girls Girls Girls (1989, 2xLP, Demon D-FIEND 160)
The Very Best Of Elvis Costello And The Attractions (1994, Video, Demon DPAMVID 1)
The Very Best Of (1999, 2xCD, Polygram 546 490-2)
The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years (2007, CD, Universal 1726091)
My Aim Is True (2007, 2xCD, Universal 174 1478)
This Year’s Model (2008, 2xCD, Universal 06025 176 06319)
Live At The El Mocambo (2009, CD, Universal 06025 179 13790)
Live At Hollywood High (2010, CD, Universal 06025 272 80158)
Less Than Zero/Radio Sweetheart (7”, Stiff BUY 11)
Alison/Welcome To The Working Week (7”, Stiff BUY 14, box set adds “Alison (US Version)”)
Red Shoes/Mystery Dance (7”, Stiff BUY 15)
Watching The Detectives/Blame It On Cain (Live)/Mystery Dance (Live) (7”, Stiff BUY 20, box set adds “Miracle Man (Live)”)
Chelsea/You Belong To Me (7”, Radar ADA 3)
Stranger In The House/Neat Neat Neat (Live) (Freebie 7”, Radar SAM 83)
Pump It Up/Big Tears (7”, Radar ADA 10)
Radio Radio/Tiny Steps (7”, Radar ADA 24)
Talking In The Dark/Wednesday Week (Freebie 7”, Radar RG 1)
Oliver’s Army/My Funny Valentine (7”, Radar ADA 31)
Live At Hollywood High EP (7”, Radar SAM 90)
Accidents Will Happen/Talking In The Dark/Wednesday Week (7”, Radar ADA 35, different editions exist housed in three variant sleeve designs)
I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down/Girl’s Talk (7”, F Beat XX 1)
High Fidelity/Getting Mighty Crowded/Clowntime Is Over (No. 2) (12”, F Beat XX 3 T)
Stranger In The House (Duet with George Jones) +1 (7", Epic S EPC 8560, not included in box set)
New Amsterdam/Dr Luther’s Assistant (7”, F Beat XX 5, not included in box set)
New Amsterdam EP: New Amsterdam/Dr Luther’s Assistant/Ghost Train/Just A Memory (7”, F Beat XX 5 E, also on available on 7” Picture Disc)
Clubland/Clean Money/Hoover Factory (7”, F Beat XX 12)
From A Whisper To A Scream/Luxembourg (7”, F Beat XX 14)
Good Year For The Roses/Your Angel Steps Out Of Heaven (7”, F Beat XX 17)
Sweet Dreams/Psycho (Live) (7”, F Beat XX 19)
I’m Your Toy (Live)/Cry Cry Cry/Wondering (7”, F Beat XX 21, not in box set)
I’m Your Toy (Live)/My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You/Blues Keep Calling/Honky Tonk Girl (12”, F Beat XX 21 T, box set edition adds B-sides from 7“ version)
You Little Fool/Big Sister/Stamping Ground (7”, F Beat XX 26)
Man Out Of Time/Town Cryer (Alternate Version)/Imperial Bedroom (12”, F Beat XX 28 T, box set version adds “Man Out Of Time (DJ Edit)”)
From Head To Toe/The World Of Broken Hearts (7”, F Beat XX 30)
Party Party/Imperial Bedroom (7”, A&M AMS 8267)
Pills And Soap (3.46 Mix)/(Extended Version) (7”, Imposter IMP001)
Everyday I Write The Book/Heathen Town/Night Time (12”, F Beat XX 32 T, box set version adds “Everyday I Write The Book (Extended Mix)”, “Everyday I Write The Book (Special Version)”, “Everyday I Write the Book (Instrumental)”)
Let Them All Talk (Extended Remix)/The Flirting Kind (12”, F Beat XX 33 T, box set adds LP mix of A-side as found on original 7” edition)
Peace In Our Time/Withered And Died (7”, Imposter TRUCE 1)
I Wanna Be Loved (Radio Version)/Turning The Town Red/I Wanna Be Loved (Extended Smooch ‘n’ Runny Version) (12”, F Beat XX 35 T, box set version adds “I Wanna Be Loved (Version Discotheque)”)
The Only Flame In Town (Version Discotheque)/The Comedians (12”, F Beat XX 37 T, box set adds LP mix of A-side as found on original 7”, plus “Baby It’s You” and “Pump It Up (1984 Dance Mix)”)
Green Shirt/Beyond Belief/Green Shirt (Extended Mix) (12”, F Beat ZT 40086, some pressed on green vinyl, not included in box set)
The People’s Limousine/They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me (7”, Imposter IMP 006)
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood/Baby’s Got A Brand New Hairdo/Get Yourself Another Fool (12”, F Beat ZT 40556, box set adds live version of a-side)
Tokyo Storm Warning (Part 1)/(Part 2) (7”, Imposter IMP 007, not included in box set)
Tokyo Storm Warning/Black Sails In The Sunset (12”, Imposter IMP 007 T, box set replaces A-side mix with “Part 1” and “Part 2” mixes of track instead)
I Want You/I Hope You’re Happy Now (7”, Imposter IMP 008, also on 12”)
Blue Chair/Shoes Without Heels/American Without Tears (Original)/(#2 -Twilight Version) (12”, Demon D 1047 T, box set omits “American Without Tears (Original)”)
A Town Called Big Nothing/Return To Big Nothing (7”, Demon D 1052, not on box set)
A Town Called Big Nothing (Really Big Nothing)/Return To Big Nothing/A Town Called Big Nothing (The Long March) (12”, Demon D 1052 T)
Note: to coincide with the Edsel reissue of “King Of America” in 2005, a song from the LP, “Brilliant Mistake”, was issued as a 7” single. Unlike the majority of the singles above, it has not been reissued in box set form yet.