With Paul McCartney’s new album, Egypt Station, on the way in September, Elvis Costello (whose own new record, Look Now, will be out Oct. 12) recalls working on the project that led to the former-Beatle’s late-career renaissance.
“We got these songs, a bit different for me, a little more wordy than if I’d written them,” Paul McCartney recalled to Q Magazine’s Paul Du Noyer in 1989 of his writing partnership with Elvis Costello. “He’s very much into words, Elvis. He’s a good foil for me, and I think I’m a pretty good foil. I foil fine. I write something and he’ll sort of edit it, and provided I don’t mind, that goes OK.”
For his part, Costello was equally opaque.
“Inevitably there was a bit of, ‘Fuckin’ hell, it’s Paul McCartney,’” he told Du Noyer that same year, with both interviews recently being collected in Du Noyer’s book Conversations with McCartney. “If you don’t like what he’s singing about, if you think the sentiments are not tough enough, then that’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t say this holds true for every song he’s ever written, but when we sat down together he wouldn’t have any sloppy bits. That was interesting,” Costello went on to say, adding, “I don’t think he’s sweetened up the songs. He has discipline and a good ear for melody, plus his playing as a bass player, of course. He has good instincts about music. And people are too concerned about who he is and what he represents, and what he’s been and where he’s going. That’s an unreasonable demand to make on anybody.”
In the thirty years since the McCartney/MacManus collaboration was announced, neither McCartney nor Costello has spoken in depth about their work together. Even with the release last year of an expanded edition of McCartney’s Flowers In The Dirt – the original version of which included four of the songs the pair had written, and which now boasts a disc of nine acoustic demos, another disc of nine studio demos, as well as downloads of “Back On My Feet” and three more cassette demos, including the forgotten gem “I Don’t Want To Confess” – the erstwhile duo have kept relatively mum about their work together. That is, until now.
Costello was only too happy to answer just about every question thrown at him about his work with his most famous friend when we connected recently. Only when I asked him to dissect each song a la John Lennon’s infamous Playboy interview did her demur. So while a small portion of our conversation has appeared elsewhere, below is the complete text of our discussion, as an exclusive for Rock Cellar’s readers.
Rock Cellar: While your acoustic demos with Paul have circulated on bootlegs for some time, one of the most interesting things the new box set includes is fully developed studio demos of the songs. Listening to those versions makes it seem as though maybe you were making a full album together of the songs you’d written. Was that the case and what happened, if it was?
Elvis Costello: There was never a plan written with indelible ink, but we went from writing the songs to recording sessions with Paul’s newly assembled band. There was a rough and ready approach, which was obviously not the way Paul ended up hearing that record, but you look at the credits, I’m listed a co-producer on the version of our songs on the original album.
The acoustic demos have a very “Mersey” feel, but the studio demos lose much of that vibe. Was that a conscious effort or did they simply evolve naturally?
Elvis Costello: That’s just what happened when we started singing. I naturally harmonize below Paul for the most part and learned two-part singing from listening to the Beatles, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. I can understand Paul’s wish not to be seen repeating himself but as he’s said since, if he can’t reference a certain kind of harmony or cadence, who can?
So what was your first writing session with Paul like?
Elvis Costello: I know I didn’t want us to be staring at a blank sheet of paper, so I came prepared. As described elsewhere, we were quickly at ease; two guitars, a notepad, my hardbound, blank lyric book, a cassette recorder on the coffee table between us. I barely had time to take in Bill Black’s original upright bass propped in the corner of the room.
Talk a bit about the first session — or moment — in which you felt you were contributing something worthwhile or special to the collaboration.
Elvis Costello: There wasn’t really a “first session”, in the sense that Paul just said, “Let’s record this downstairs” after we’d finished one or other of the songs. Handy to have a 24-track studio on the ground floor.
Before I’d had chance to think about it, we’d cut a couple of things. I think that’s why they sound the way they do. You can hear a lot of laughter in the voices and a decent bit of one-upmanship; “You’re going to sing like that? Okay, I’m going to sing like this.”
The video included in the Flowers box shows you two to seem quite close, and very much connected musically. How did your relationship evolve, and was there a point where you felt you’d become a true collaborator and colleague of Paul’s?
Elvis Costello: You’d think that you’d remember being in a home movie with Paul McCartney but I had no memory of that footage being taken. You can see we were larking around a lot, trying out sounds. I do remember that at that time I was absolutely smitten with this album of Albanian choral music and we spent one hour trying record a background part that sounded similarly otherworldly; using a one violin, an odd-sounding synth and a lot of yelling at the tops of our voices, in tons of reverb. I’m not sure that sound even made it onto the record.
How did you go about choosing who got to record each of the songs?
Elvis Costello: Once the first four songs appeared on Flowers In The Dirt and “Veronica” and “My Brave Face” had been U.S. singles, I asked Paul if he minded if I cut “So Like Candy”. It’s a song that would have suited either of us, but I got back in the studio first.
“Twenty Fine Fingers” and “Tommy’s Coming Home” are incredibly strong songs. Why do you think neither of you ever chose to record them?
Elvis Costello: “Tommy” is really a two-part harmony song. We just never got round to cutting it that way. I’d completely forgotten about the slower version of “Twenty Fine Fingers” that’s seen in the video with the band. It was a knockout tune that Paul and I wrote quickly after a couple of the more intense ballads.
Did you do duo demos of “Veronica” or “Back On My Feet”?
Elvis Costello: There must be cassette work-tapes somewhere, but I didn’t file them properly. We didn’t start recording the songs in the Hog Hill studio until “Twenty Fine Fingers” and “So Like Candy.” Paul pretty much had all of “Back On My Feet” written from a musical standpoint. I think I added the idea of a counter-melody and worked on the words with him. Likewise, you would have recognized the first draft of “Veronica” with which I arrived at our first writing session, although it was much more rhythmically crowded. Paul’s amendments made the chorus and bridge flow much better.
In a bonus track to the audiobook of your memoir you tell a great story about meeting with Paul recently and him making To Do lists for both of you that included writing more songs and making an album, and then promptly sticking it in a book on a shelf in his office. And then you lost your list! For many fans of you, as individuals and as a writing duo, it’s a dream to think an album might still one day happen.
Why do you think it never has? And do you think you might ever get down to it?
Elvis Costello: I know that story about the list sounds crazy but it’s true and I still haven’t managed to get through every tome on my bookshelves to find my half of the masterplan. It’s not as if these songs were never considered again, but then neither of us have exactly been sitting around twiddling his thumbs looking for things to do.
As to whether a record should come out. It has. This is it.
What are your favorite songs from those you’ve written with Paul? Are there any that you can objectively love? Or even hate?
Elvis Costello: The most emotional song for me was “That Day Is Done”. Like “Veronica” it was about something very specific – my maternal grandmother’s last years and passing – but while I’d already arrived at the notion of writing a bright, hopeful tune about the horrors of dementia, “That Day Is Done” just came tumbling out in a lot of dense images that were very vivid and real to me but perhaps not so comprehensible to the listener. Paul really did something very subtle but crucial in making that song pay off to a big, plain spoken chorus, after I’d piled up all of these lines in the verses, including the one that yielded the album’s title.
My favorite performance is Paul’s vocal on the demo of “The Lovers That Never Were.” I don’t think you’d have the same impression of the song from the studio recording that eventually came out on Off The Ground. I don’t know why I ended up playing piano on that, but I remember thinking, “Just don’t mess this one up!”
Needless to say, the demo version of “You Want Her Too” is a gas, because even though we were shadowing each other’s voices, it was sung more as a conversation than in the final recording. It has a good couple of punch lines.
Let’s talk some more about the acoustic demo sessions. Were they done in one batch? Or were they recorded immediately after writing each song? Or perhaps they were done sometime later?
Elvis Costello: I didn’t keep a diary on the dates but I know we worked for one day on “Back On My Feet” and “Veronica” and maybe one other, and then I got called back and stayed in a little hotel nearby for a couple of days at a time for each subsequent writing session. Then we got into recording for a few days at a time, but all of this was over a couple of years.
The first writing session must have been ’87, as after the second of the get-togethers I went up to London with Paul, after work, one evening, as he was trying out players for his new band. Pete Thomas was playing drums that night and I hadn’t seen him since the Attractions final gig of the ’80s, at the Glastonbury Festival that summer. There were two or three guitar players on hand, including Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy and Brinsley Schwarz, but none of the final line-up other than Hamish Stuart, who was a terrific musician and singer. I ended up playing piano as there wasn’t a keyboard player in the room. It was a sort of loose musical get-together rather than a formal audition. Paul ran down “Twenty Flight Rock” and Bo Diddley’s “Cracking Up.”
How do you rank your collaboration with Paul as both a fan and a writer against his other work, or even your own? And how do you rank it against your many other collaborations?
Elvis Costello: That wouldn’t be for me to say. I think there are a couple of great tunes and some terrific performances, especially among the demos. But I love the version of “So Like Candy” that we did with just the two of us. I think it beats either of our studio cuts. But then I also like us hammering through “Playboy To A Man”, which has a lot more humor than my studio version, where I’m singing through an old, rusty metal pipe.
Are there any songs you’ve written with Paul that we still haven’t heard?
Elvis Costello: I think we were both surprised when a 15th song turned up; a cassette demo of “I Don’t Want To Confess.” Sounds as if we never really got around to writing a second verse, but what remains is pretty great. I was glad, too, that cassette demos of “Shallow Grave” and “Mistress and Maid” turned up, even though they sound like 78 rpms from 1933.
The only other duet version of “Mistress and Maid” was a version Paul and I did at a concert at St. James Palace. We also did a skiffle version of “The One After 909”; just two guitars and some footstomping… That’s all you need!
Were you disappointed that the original Flowers album didn’t include more of your collaborations with Paul? Why do you think it didn’t? And where do you rank it in Paul’s solo cannon?
Elvis Costello: No, I was very pleased that any of our songs made the final cut. I’d assumed that the songs had been put to one side and had even begun performing “That Day Is Done” on an Australian tour with His Confederates, a band that included James Burton and Jim Keltner, but when I listen to the studio version now, I don’t think our arrangement ideas for that song were really that far apart.
Although I’d suggested Paul keep the sessions stripped down, my own next record, Spike, featured about 35 different musicians and was recorded in four cities. You have to do what the music demands and your purse can stand.
Linda was so ever-present in Paul’s solo years, but she doesn’t seem to figure into your collaborations in any meaningful way. It seems very much “boys getting down to work” in the way he did in the ’60s with John. Was she around? Did she act as a foil for the two of you in any way? I’d love to hear your memories of her. And do you think Paul fed off the dynamic in a similar way to his work with John?
Elvis Costello: Linda was a terrific, generous soul. I’d met them both first when we’d been on the bill with Wings on their very last gig in London. We were working in adjacent studio rooms at AIR Studios when we were making Imperial Bedroom and Paul was working on Tug of War.
I loved seeing the shot of Mary and James, as kids visiting Dad at work at the Mill, with me lurking in the background trying to look like a thoughtful producer while Paul was playing the Rickenbacker at the mixing board.
I liked it when Linda came to the studio. She’d tease us about it sounding like a bit of a beat group, but I thought she was terrific. She took that great shot of me and Paul going up to his office, just as the lift door was about to close. She had a great eye for the moment.
As to the John Lennon comparison, I was quite surprised when Paul paid me that compliment at the time of release. I don’t think anyone could or should attempt to replicate that relationship. It was from a different time in the lives of two young friends.
However, in the sense that we were spontaneous in the way we wrote, took contrary views, had a very high work rate, while I took the lower harmony and sometimes sing through me nose, well, I suppose some things are unavoidable.
Were you around when Paul and your wife recorded – maybe during pre-production – and what are your memories of that time?
Elvis Costello: Diana and Paul had a great rapport in the studio. She knew every song he wanted to sing and I think “Home” and particularly “More I Cannot Wish You” were very deeply felt. Paul also let Diana record a beautiful song he’d written for that album, called “If I Take You Home Tonight”. A wonderful melody, but one that didn’t seem to fit on Kisses On The Bottom. I don’t recall the last time he gave a new song to another artist.
I was really happy to be at Capitol when they shot the Live Kisses DVD with an unbeatable band, a string section, Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt behind the board and an invited audience. Diana was the M.D. at the piano on that gig too. It was a high-wire act, but if anything I like those performances as much as, if not more than, the studio album.
Okay, so if you’re game, let’s discuss a bit about each song and also who contributed what.
Elvis Costello: Other than that which I’ve already stated in my book or here, I’m disinclined to pick apart the proportions of these songs, other than to say that I found an old kids book in a junk shop that provided the title, “Pad, Paws and Claws,” and Paul brought in a postcard of a Vermeer painting and suggested that we write the story that became “Mistress and Maid.”