Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello - The McCartney-MacManus Collaboration

Label: Vigotone, VT-174
Total time: 56:24

Paul and Elvis Costello's Demos
1 The Lovers That Never Were
2 Twenty-Five Fingers
3 Tommy's Coming Home
4 So Like Candy
5 You Want Her Too
6 Playboy To A Man
7 Don't Be Careless Love
8 My Brave Face
Elvis Costello's Demos
9 Veronica
St. James Palace Live 3/23/95
10 One After 909
11 Mistress And Maid
Elvis Costello Live, Burbank CA, 4/26/89
12 Pads, Paws and Claws
13 You Want Her Too
Elvis Costello Live, Troubadour LA 5/14/96
14 Shallow Grave
Paul and Elvis studio session for "Flowers in the Dirt"
15 My Brave Face
Paul Studio Live
16 That Day Is Done
B-sides from singles
17 Back On My Feet
18 Step Inside Love
19 You've Got To Hide Your Love Away

When two Englishmen of Irish descent meet, it is a humbling experience. Showcased here are highlights of one of the most noteworthy collaborations in popular music. Performed together and apart in a variety of settings, this collection brings together the nearly-complete canon of the McCartney - MacManus partnership.

Liner Notes:
It is a match that fans of popular music could only imagine. The pairing of one of music's most talented wordsmiths with a composer often criticized, yet respected for his instantly infectious melodies. By the time it was officially announced that Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney were collaborating on songs, the two had been working together sporadically for several months. Paul had been recording the rock 'n' roll oldies album which would become Choba B CCCP during the summer of 1987. Around the same time, Paul had contacted Elvis about the possibility of writing songs together.

Paul began a sort of artistic regeneration in 1987. Aside from the critically acclaimed Tug Of War, his output in the 1980's had not been well received. His biggest successes were one off collaborations with artists like Stevie Wonder and Michael ]ackson, and his live appearances had been limited to special events like the Prince's Trust or Live Aid. In 1987, it seems that Paul decided to get back to a more basic way of working. The Choba B CCCP album, with its straightforward approach to roots rock material, and Paul's new interest in a full-fledged tour, were part of this process. Another part of it was seeking to work with someone who would challenge him in the songwriting arena.

Collaboration was nothing new to McCartney. After the breakup of his most famous and productive collaboration with John Lennon, Paul had worked with Denny Laine in Wings, the aforementioned Wonder and Jackson team-ups, and his Press To Play album was a collaboration with Eric Stewart of 10cc. Yet none of these seemed to be a challenge for Paul and none of them seemed to have the slightest effect on his music. A true collaboration should involve a mixing of the influences of each contributor. Paul presumably knew that he had not worked with anyone since the Lennon/McCartney days, of sufficient personality and individuality, to achieve this effect. Elvis, on the other hand, had not done much collaborating by this point. He had written a fair number of songs for other artists, or put lyrics to other's music. But he was not accustomed to sitting down and writing a song from scratch with someone else.

Imagine the mix of feelings Elvis had to have gone through when contacted by McCartney about writing together. As he's said in many interviews, it was like meeting someone who'd been to the moon and back. Every once in a while he had to look up and say "Oh my God, it's HIM". It had to be daunting to approach an icon like that as a working partner and equal. On the other hand, as Elvis has also pointed out, Paul didn't call him up when he was a teenage fan. He called him up when he was 33 and had earned a deserved reputation as the finest songwriter working. McCartney knew Elvis' work and its quality. He also probably sensed that Elvis would not be a yes man or someone who would lust duplicate whatever ideas Paul put forth, but instead would have his own ideas about what to write, how to write it, and how to produce the recording. Thus, a true collaboration could result.

During that period in the summer and fall of 1987, Elvis and Paul would meet at Paul's office in Soho, sit down with guitars or at the piano and write songs. It's always been unclear how many songs Elvis and Paul have written together, with most accounts putting the number resulting from the 1987 sessions around 9 songs, not including the partially completed songs that each "brought to the table". They have worked together in the years since, even performing live at a benefit for the Royal College of Music. The news that Elvis is going to be an instructor at Paul's Institute for the Performing Arts in Liverpool indicates that Elvis and Paul remain in contact and hopefully will continue to work together on occasion.

The first song to appear from their collaboration was "Back On My Feet", which was released in November, 1987 as the B-side to Paul's single, "Once Upon A Long Ago". This is currently available on the repackaged and expanded CD of Flowers In The Dirt, which for some reason has yet to see release in the U.S. To break the ice, each had brought to the first session a few songs that were mostly completed but needed some work. From interviews, we know that Paul had nearly completed "Back On My Feet" prior to the initial session. It certainly seems that Elvis contributed something to this tune, if only in inspiration. Certain Costello trademarks seem to surface, such as the references to temptation and misery and the images of hands and feet, and it's hard to imagine Paul singing "I don't need love" in a happy snarl without a little push. Also noticeable is the movie camera imagery, with the narration cutting back and forth and the final reference to Cinemascope. But as Elvis has noted, you can't be sure who is responsible for these things. Elvis has stated that if it sounds like Paul, Elvis probably wrote it and vice versa. What is evident on "Back On My Feet" is an increased interest in literate lyrics and a lot of internal rhyming and detail. One can also hear a little more "Beatles" in this song, the overlapping harmonies (an Elvis trademark) and the strange noises made by the chorus. The tune is full of surprises and never gets tiresome, because of the variation in the bridge and chorus and then the vocal lines at the end. The bass playing is excellent, and Paul's singing is spirited, much like the vocals on Choba B CCCP applied to a contemporary pop song.

The two songs Elvis brought to the initial sessions were both released on Spike in 1989. One was "Pads, Paws, and Claws", a song I would never have expected to list McCartney as a co-writer. In the BBC special, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Spike Elvis described how Paul helped him finish the song. Basically Elvis had a repetitive blues riff and some lyrics and a chorus. Paul made him explain the title by writing a bridge that gave examples of pads, paws, and claws. The bridge also adds a musical variation that lifts the song out of a rut. Paul's contribution to this song may have been limited, but crucial.

The other collaboration featured on Spike was "Veronica", a track on which McCartney also contributes bass. Again it's hard to tell how much McCartney added to what Elvis had already done. One would expect that since this song, like "That Day Is Done", is mainly based on Elvis' own personal experiences, that the bulk of the lyrics are his. But recently on the CyberTalk interview, Elvis noted that the bridge is McCartney's. In any event, it's a fine song, very pop and still beautiful and serious. The new partnership gave Elvis his first (and so far, only) Top 20 hit in America, when "Veronica" went to #19 on the charts, helped in no small part by a brilliant video aired heavily by MTV and VH1.

The goal of the collaboration, however, was to write material for Paul's next album. So, initial "tune-ups" out of the way, the pair set out to write a few songs from scratch. Four of these appeared on Paul's Flowers In The Dirt released in June of 1989. "My Brave Face" (the first single from the CD, and the lead off track) is in some ways the most successful song, since it is an instantly likeable, infectious pop song and a perfect representation of what works in this collaboration. Because Elvis could pass along his affection for Paul's classic technique from the 60's to Paul himself, the result is a very enjoyable pop song that reminds one a lot of music from the past, while still sounding fairly fresh. As both composers have noted, the song is full of Beatlesque touches, from the descending harmonies on the chorus, to the very independent bass line, to the simple guitar lick that serves as a wonderful hook. Lyrically the song is most interesting in its little details, with the references to pillows, sheets, dishes and other everyday items, rather than vague homilies. Musically, it's irresistible. The guitar figure makes for a wonderful bridge, and then is repeated over the final chorus to wrap things up beautifully, as we hear the intro to the song repeated. It's an almost perfect pop arrangement. According to at least one interview, Paul credits this song with turning his attention to the Beatles catalog for his 1989-1990 World Tour. Elvis persuaded Paul to get the old Hofner bass out of storage, and the rest is history.

"You Want Her Too" is another great pop song that smacks of Beatles influence. This is the song that the composers cite as worrying them that Elvis was unconsciously assuming Lennon's old role a bit too much, in placing a hard edge opposite Paul's softness and contrasting his point of view. It was initially recorded with Paul doing both vocal parts, but it was decided quite rightly that the duet approach made more sense. Lyrically, it is fun to hear anyone, especially Elvis, give McCartney a tongue lashing, and Elvis uses his most sneering vocal for it. The lyrics are rather simple, and this allows for some acting by the singers. Musically, we have some great drums and organ in the background reminiscent of the one in "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite". Listen to the 60's style guitars in the right channel and the elongated "predictable and nice" singing.

"Don't Be Careless Love" is the least successful of the four collaborations on Flowers In The Dirt. Elvis has said that they would sometimes try to write in a certain style, and this seems like a tribute to Roy Orbison. Unfortunately, no one can sing like Roy could, and McCartney's rather frail vocal on this one hinders it. One article notes that this is actually Paul's guide vocal from the demo, and that the vocals were not redone (if that is the case, it must be another demo which has yet to surface). The lyrics are a bit too consciously strange, and the vocal harmonies unsuccessful. All in all, it's the least appealing of the bunch. It really doesn't work, and it's interesting that this is the one collaboration (other than "Back On My Feet") that Elvis has yet to play live.

By contrast, "That Day Is Done" is one of Elvis' best songs, and Paul does a fine lob on the vocals. Costello had begun performing this song as early as the Confederates fall 1987 Tour, and it was always a rousing, almost gospel number. Paul took some different approaches to the vocal lines, which interestingly enough, Elvis began to incorporate into his renditions of the song after the CD was released. Paul has given Elvis most of the credit for this one in interviews, and it is known that the impetus for the song was the death of Elvis' grandmother. Elvis on the other hand, says that Paul developed the chorus, somewhat in the vein of "Let It Be". Elvis sings background vocals on this one which also features brass almost in the style of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from Spike. The words are very effective and spare, in a gospel style. This is definitely the weightiest of the four songs on the CD, and the one that will last longest. Elvis has yet to record it himself, but has continued to perform it ever since its composition.

As was mentioned earlier, one effect of the collaboration was Paul's willingness to resurrect his Beatles past. Elvis had to coax it out of him on the above songs, but once the Hofner bass was out of the case, Paul seems to have acknowledged his past and decided he could celebrate it. As he said, who better than he? And thus the 1989-1990 World Tour featured extensive selections from the Beatles' catalog. Unfortunately, Paul chose not to perform any of the co-written songs on tour, save for "My Brave Face". However, "That Day Is Done" was included as part of pre-show film soundtrack. Elvis, on the other hand, had been playing some of the Mac and Mac songs live since 1987, and continued to include several of the Flowers In The Dirt songs in his 1989 Summer Tour repertoire.

During that tour, the opportunity for a joint live appearance by the two Macs arose but failed to occur. McCartney was in New York rehearsing for his upcoming tour and promoting Flowers In The Dirt, as Elvis and the Rude 5 swung into the New York area on their Spike tour. When Elvis played the Palladium August 27, 1989, rumors were rife that McCartney would drive down the street and join Elvis on stage. Unfortunately, Paul did not make an appearance.

Between Spike and the 1991 CD, Mighty Like A Rose, there were rumors of further collaborative sessions. An October, 1990 NME interview with Paul mentions an upcoming collaboration, which eventually took place in the summer of 1991, resulting in three new compositions.

Mighty Like A Rose included two more Mac and Mac songs - both from 1987. The first, "So Like Candy" is apparently one of Elvis' favorites as he released it as a single despite its lack of chart potential and has continued to play it live ever since. Nick Lowe has stated that McCartney's demo version of this is brilliant, and that he wishes Paul would release it. We got tired of waiting - so here it is! "From A Playboy To A Man", on the other hand, is another that one might be surprised to see the McCartney moniker on. This bizarre attack on the male animal is distinguished by a very strange vocal that has one looking at the credits to see if it's really Elvis. It is, but he sang the song through a long pipe to distort the sound of his voice.

By the time the Mighty Like A Rose tour had ended, Elvis was beginning to explore another collaboration, this time with The Brodsky Quartet. McCartney, meanwhile, produced Liverpool Oratorio with co-composer Carl Davis. It's interesting that both composers began to work with more classical forms at this time. Paul has noted that Elvis encouraged him with the Oratorio. Paul's experience, though not lauded critically, probably encouraged Elvis to pursue his interest in the Brodsky collaboration.

In 1993, McCartney's Off The Ground LP was released, featuring two more collaborations. Critics panned the production as over the top, not necessarily a new sentiment when review a McCartney studio offering . For some, the songs on Flowers In The Dirt had skirted perilously close to this fate as well. Elvis had initially produced the collaborative tracks on "Flowers" himself, but Paul felt they were too spare. Elvis production ideas were overruled by slicker producers. Paul appeared once on MTV in 1989 and amusingly recreated the debate between himself and Elvis, with Elvis shooting down every suggestion he made regarding the use of synthesizers, echo, drum sounds, etc. Still, Elvis' spare sound didn't survive but it wasn't completely buried either. On the Off The Ground tracks, the production is more evident, to some ears, at the expense of the songs.

"Mistress And Maid" is a simple waltz that at gives us succinct character study. It has pleasant harmonies, a French horn, and a very 60's ending with elongated syllables on the fade out. However, the vocals are buried in a self consciously "modern" sound. Simplicity is a virtue.

The second song, "The Lovers That Never Were", is actually the first of the true collaborations Elvis and Paul wrote. They intended it to be in the style of Smokey Robinson. Elvis had performed this live a few times in 1987, and it is a lovely piano based ballad. Part of the demo was aired on Oobu Joobu, but the entire track is included here. The song contains some lovely lyrics ,a great blend of sentiment and artfulness. In some ways, it's the lyric that best blends the strengths of each songwriter.

In the spring of 1995, another previously unheard collaboration surfaced in Elvis' live shows, a song entitled "Shallow Grave". This simple blues number was much in the vein of "Pads, Paws, And Claws", or "Sally Sue Brown", but with some very macabre lyrical twists. It saw commercial release on All This Useless Beauty in 1996, and was included in Elvis' live set that spring.

In 1989, it was rumored that a collaboration called "Indigo Moon" would be released as part of a special repackaging of Flowers In The Dirt, but it never surfaced. Costello has denied any knowledge of such a song title. The only other known song is titled "I Don't Want To Confess" which was mentioned by Elvis in a November 1994 BBC Radio interview but has yet to surface. This collection includes two previously unheard compositions from the 1987 sessions, "Tommy's Coming Home" and "Twenty-Five Fingers". This brings the number of "new" compositions from 1987 to nine (excluding the questionable "Indigo Moon"), with the three other known titles presumably dating from the summer, 1991 sessions.

On March 23, 1995, Paul hosted a benefit for the Royal College Of Music, and invited Elvis to perform. For the first time ever, Paul and Elvis appeared together on stage, performing one of the more obscure items in their joint catalog, "Mistress And Maid". Paul then suggested to Elvis that they do "One After 909", a Beatles number dating from the group's earliest days (though it was not recorded for release 'til 1969).

A further result of the collaboration was McCartney's performance of the some benefit with The Brodsky Quartet. A pretty amazing event if you think back to the countless times it has been said that music like The Juliet Letters owes its genesis to early blends of pop and classical like the experiments of the Beatles. In 1997, the Brodskys were a part of the live performances of McCartney's Standing Stone, where they performed the new McCartney classical pieces "Inebriation" and "Stately Horn".

All in all, the results of the McCartney/MacManus collaboration have been quite successful. One can a only hope that they will continue to work together on various projects in the future, and continue to inspire each other and to inspire us.

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