Time for another in AFDPJ’s series, looking back in detail at an album from the past. Ladies and Gentlemen, your host for tonight is The Beloved Entertainer….
1 …This Town… 4:30
2 Let Him Dangle 4:45
3 Deep Dark Truthful Mirror 4:06
4 Veronica 3:09 (UK Single, #31)
5 God’s Comic 5:31
6 Chewing Gum 3:47
7 Tramp The Dirt Down 5:44
8 Stalin Malone 4:09
9 Satellite 5:44
10 Pads, Paws And Claws 2:56
11 Baby Plays Around 2:48 (UK Single, #65)
12 Miss Macbeth 4:25
13 Any King’s Shilling 6:06
14 Coal-Train Robberies 3:18
15 Last Boat Leaving 3:30
Ever the contrarian, determined and unafraid to play the music biz game by his rules and nobody else’s, Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus gave the world two brand new albums in 1986 – one as The Costello Show, and the other credited to the more familiar moniker of Elvis Costello & The Attractions – and then effectively disappeared from view for more than two years.
He wasn’t the only one, of course; 1988 marked the only occasion Madonna failed to release anything at all, and Simple Minds were among the major acts to take a break after several years of activity. Tears For Fears were AWOL, lost in an attempt to follow Songs From The Big Chair. Several mid-80s favourites of mine also chose 1988 to step back…no Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw or Paul Young for the first time since 1983. The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen had suddenly split up, Marillion had parted company with Fish.
It was a strange period, when the musical landscape I’d become accustomed to suddenly got rearranged. This was accentuated by the rapid decline in my condition, which took on new and unpleasant characteristics. My brain’s reaction was to lose myself in the world of music even more intensely than before, but in a way that was literally unreal and feverish. Everything took on a surreal air, as the darkness I was forced to live in on a day to day basis, and the refusal of my brain to fully process what was happening to me, meant that I created a kind of parallel universe of heightened awareness and sensitivity to everything.
This is why I can still remember quotes from old Q Magazine interviews and reviews, or chart positions/release dates from that era, and why so many of the albums between 1987 and 1989 were such a huge deal to me. I’d build up the whole picture completely in my head, with extra information from snippets of articles read to me, or editions of Singled Out on Radio 1, so that by the time an album was released it had the power to stir my imagination and exist as a complete experience. My full attention was guaranteed. I wouldn’t be able to have my eyes open for very long, often not at all, or be able read the liner notes myself.
The last time Elvis Costello had released a new album, I had yet to buy my first Compact Disc. I was still, just about, able to stagger shakily into Our Price and get Blood & Chocolate on vinyl, and be able, just about, to put it on the turntable once I was brought back home. September 1986 was before Kylie, before Bros, before Acid House, before the biggest upheaval in popular music I’d known in my short lifetime (goodness knows how I’d have coped with Punk!).
Costello’s pair of 1986 albums, from a time before my world got very strange indeed.
Now, two-and-a-half years on, here comes Spike. A new Costello record, on a new label -after a decade with small-time imprints Radar, F-Beat and Demon, he signed up with the mighty Warner Brothers. Much talk during 1987 and 1988 of a songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney (another who decided to leave 1988 well alone) had created an extra buzz around the project.
There was no lead single to trail the album (given the distinct lack of chart success of anything Costello had issued in the mid-80s, this probably wasn’t a bad idea); Warners instead relied on a concerted, sophisticated and doubtless expensive promo blitz. It had worked with Lou Reed’s New York a month earlier, and with Green by R.E.M. at the end of 1988. All highly acclaimed artists freshly added to the label’s roster, and Warners were not shy in trumpeting how highly they felt the new releases by these acquisitions ought to be rated by the media and public alike.
(Either that or they felt there was no option but to chuck as much money at the campaign as they could, to offset the lengthy genesis of the album itself, and the absence of Costello’s name on the actual record sleeve. But we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; why wouldn’t they be excited to have an eagerly-awaited new Elvis Costello LP with McCartney co-writes and a cast of dozens featured on it?).
EC happily embraced this let’s-tell-everyone-about-the-new-album approach, with guest spots on Radio 1 and prime-time TV, and exhaustive interviews in Q and the NME. After all, his old US label had effectively “buried” each and every one his albums since 1984, so this enthusiasm from his new employers – whatever its motives – was welcome.
On the promo trail: an array of items from the Spike campaign…an advance CD copy in custom sleeve (above), the Warner Bros. WB logo gets “nailed” by EC (top left) and Elvis Costello, the “stand up” years (top right).
Everything about Spike was amplified by my circumstances at the time; the return after a long absence, the new major-label commercial approach, the bizarre sleeve conceit, the lack of a single to give any clues or whet the appetite, and the prospect of owning a Costello release on CD by default, rather than on vinyl or cassette….it felt like an event.
Vinyl reissues of Spike….the one with a yellow hype sticker is a facsimile of the original CD from 1989 (which I stupidly replaced in the days when a new jewelcase was more important to me than keeping the stickered case it came in. D’oh!).
Right from the off, Spike makes a point (sorry) of being a very different proposition to the usual Costello fare. A drum machine, weird squiggly guitar sounds and a swirling crescendo of disoriented strings and sound-effects mark the opening of the album and its first track, …This Town… (“you’re nobody in this town until everybody in this town thinks you’re a bastard” is the full, charming punchline of the chorus). Intro aside, it’s not too far from the Elvis Costello any fans would recognise; words tumbling out faster than he can deliver them, the trademark caustic wit very much on display. Just a more contemporary, studio-bound arrangement, in place of The Attractions or similarly assembled band set-up.
Plenty of unexpected and occasionally head-spinning surprises follow over the course of the album’s 15 songs. Spike is the very definition of genre-hopping, Costello the “jack of all parades” (to quote a highlight from that King Of America opus) as he effortlessly switches between genres, musicians and countries.
Back then, I wasn’t put off by all this diversity, and didn’t pick up on all the subtle differences in sound (in my world of hyperacusis, headphone-listening was totally out of bounds). My favourites in 1989 were the ones which most easily caught my ear; Chewing Gum, …This Town…, God’s Comic, Miss Macbeth and the single Veronica. The latter was one of two McCartney co-creations (the other, Pads Paws And Claws, is best described as The Stray Cats meets Tom Waits in a back alley somewhere), and remains a glorious slice of chamber power-pop, its heady rush of a chorus taking the song to places that its stately beginning barely hints at.
Veronica was a modest #31 success in Britain, but did even better in America, edging into the Billboard Top 20. Spike had its hit single, its focal point, beyond all the clever marketing and giddy column inches.
Yet even before that, Spike had enjoyed the kind of chart placings that no Costello album had known since the beginning of the decade; debuting at #5 in the UK, then rebounding to #6 after an odd second-week dip to #11 (I’m sure there was a reason for this, but my memory’s drawing blanks!).
So this was Elvis Costello amongst the major players, the rock cognoscenti; on the same label as Fleetwood Mac, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, R.E.M., The Traveling Wilburys….part of the same organisation responsible (at the time, before Geffen moved to MCA) for the release of albums by Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, and Guns ‘N Roses.
New labelmates The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde adds her distinctive vocal class to Satellite, (lyrically magnificent, rhyming “arouses” with “pornographer’s trousers”, but musically too dull to warrant its 6-minute running time), while there’s a veritable who’s-who of muscians’-musicians that grace proceedings, from Roger McGuinn, Allen Touissant and Benmont Tench to Donal Lunny, Steve Wickham and Christy Moore. In an era when records were painstakingly created in big studios for equally big money, rather than configured on laptops and mastered for iTunes, Spike must have set Warner Bros. back a fair bit. But you can hear the quality.
Or rather, I personally can hear it much more clearly when playing the album these days. All the intricacies reveal themselves, as well as echoes of other records and artists that I hadn’t picked up on initially; Mitchell Froom’s contribution to God’s Comic, for example, is so obviously reminiscent of his work with Crowded House on Temple Of Low Men and Woodface. Tom Waits’ regular guitarist Marc Ribot likewise brings his trademark clanging, angular style to his parts on Spike (Let Him Dangle, the aforementioned Pads Paws and Claws).
In some ways, it was easier to enjoy Spike at the time as simply a Costello record, without knowing all the credits, and (unfairly) viewing it as an all-star, no-stone-unturned, no-trick-unplayed attempt with Warners’ backing to make an album that would sell. Because it’s brilliantly ambitious and flawlessly executed, with several songs that have not only stood the test of time, but whose reputations have arguably increased; Tramp The Dirt Down pretty much speaks for itself, Veronica is still the best thing with Paul McCartney’s name on it since the 1970s, and Deep Dark Truthful Mirror would not have shamed itself by being on one of Van Morrison’s seminal early albums for Warners.
Potentially the greatest change in my appreciation of Spike now, compared to 1989, is Baby Plays Around, the low-key ballad which was issued as the album’s second (and surprisingly final) single. At under 3 minutes, it’s as brief as it is understated, and felt like a bizarre choice in a pop world now in thrall to London Boys, Kylie, Roxette, Fuzzbox and Bobby Brown. Issuing it as a 4-track EP with versions of three older tunes also seemed to betray the label’s lack of confidence in its prospects.
A #65 peak couldn’t be called unexpected, even when released the same week as My Brave Face – the second high-profile Macca collaboration which was launching Sir Thumbsaloft’s own Flowers In The Dirt project with almost as many helping hands, multiple studio settings and studied focus on quality as Spike. However, for some reason sales for the album began to tail off rapidly at the same time as Baby Plays Around was charting; a strong 7-week run in the UK Top 20 came to an abrupt end, and Spike disappeared from the Top 75 completely a couple of months later, never to grace the chart again.
Costello’s renaissance managed to continue into the 1990s, peaking again in 1994 when the award-nominated Brutal Youth saw him back with The Attractions and back at #2, heights he’d not reached since the days of Oliver’s Army and the Armed Forces / Get Happy! albums. I wasn’t into his music so deeply by that point, reverting to a more reserved admiration for what he did…buying the albums, but not getting completely swept up by them in the way that I had so memorably done with Spike during one of the most testing phases of my life.
[…] Well, in terms of the Costello album, it was hard to argue against such high praise. Spike was recently covered (at almost ridiculous length) by afdpj in its ongoing series of detailed (very detailed!) features on individual albums from the past, so I’ll simply point you in the direction of that article! […]