Elvis Costello: The Man Who Took Liberties

Looking back at 40 years of the New Wave icon’s first singles collection

Glitched Liberties (Art: Ron Hart)

There’s a lot yak going around about Elvis Costello’s new one, Hey Clockface, and the massive multi-disc repackaging of Armed Forces.

Fair enough. I like what I’ve heard of the new one – it’s all over the place – and I grew to love Armed Forces once I adapted to the pop sheen.

But today we’re going to yak up one of those “forgotten” albums or an album that wasn’t really conceived of as album, Taking Liberties, released 40 years ago this month.

Let me take you back to the late ’70 and early ‘80s. It was an era, particularly in the UK, where singles and EPs were chucked out at a startling rate. These were often in addition to, between, or independent of, the artist’s LPs. It was a singles-oriented world. Alas, singles were not ideal for the home listening experience –  a lot of up and down bother. You’d rather have 18-20 minutes of an album side and then flip the disc for another shot of the same.

Taking Liberties, Side One (Photo: Discogs)

But I’d buy the singles, many of them. I wanted the immediate, visceral shot of what was happening now. In Boston, I’d comb the import racks at Newbury Comics because I wanted the music now, didn’t want to wait until a possible inclusion on an LP. (Caveat: That’s when I had disposable income.) Actually, a lot of those singles and EPs were, initially, standalones, never intended for the next full-length work.  (This reminded me of the Beatles, their different US and UK album releases and stellar between-album singles.)

But eventually, over time – sometimes in quick order, sometimes not – those singles or B-sides did show up on compilations albums. The two best of the latter; Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady and Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties.

It was Costello’s fifth LP and, frankly, it stands tall and proud with the previous releases, even as you realize it’s a mish-mash of tracks, not a concerted or thematic effort: 20 songs of British album cuts, B-sides and out-takes, songs that had never appeared on a domestic LP. (Hence, the album’s title.) And, while I’ve gone back and forth on Costello’s music over the past few decades – his multiple genre and stylistic explorations – the punchy, coiled, oft-terse music he made from 1977-1980 was essential. It’s where he made his mark – the more, for lack of a better word, “literate” end of the punk spectrum or maybe the embodiment of what new wave might become. And that’s where Taking Liberties, most songs done with the Attractions, fills out your collection.

Lemme start with “Girls Talk.” Costello wrote it but we first knew it from Dave Edmunds’ breezy version; here, Costello gives it a fierce bite and curdling sneer – “There are some things you can’t cover up with lipstick and powder” (and I suppose you could read “powder” in either makeup or cocaine terms) … “Got the word up on everyone’s lipstick that you’re getting faded/You may not be an old-fashioned girl but you’re gonna get dated.”

 

AUDIO: Elvis Costello & The Attractions “Girls Talk”

More stick-in-the-brain/kick-in-the-gut melodies with barbed lyrics in “Big Tears” (“Big tears mean nothing/You can count them as they fall”), “Tiny Steps” (“Tiny steps, almost real/Tiny fingers you almost feel/Make her walk or make her kneel/Oh, she’s almost human beneath that Cuban heel and “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea (“It does not move me”). Yes, there was still the lurking malevolence of My Aim is True and This Year’s Model.

The tear-jerking “Stranger in the House” (which Costello wrote) was a precursor to his country covers album, Almost Blue; “My Funny Valentine” presaged Imperial Bedroom

If it weren’t for Taking Liberties, we’d have to dig up the Americathon soundtrack to hear “Crawling to the USA”. (I’m aware everything is available via streaming now and ownership is pretty much moot, but I’m talking back in the day.)

Elvis Costello’s Rhyming Dictionary (Photo: Google)

After this:  (“Tiny steps, almost real/Tiny fingers you almost feel/Make her walk or make her kneel/Oh, she’s almost human beneath that Cuban heel”) and then the gut-wrenching, Steve Nieve-led “Just a Memory” – what every spurned lover wants to say to (but maybe doesn’t feel about) the one who spurned him or her. “Losing you is just a memory,” sings Elvis, and “memories don’t mean that much to me.” 

Affluence does not seduce Elvis in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea (“It does not move me”). “Night Rally” doesn’t reference fascist get-togethers explicitly but was clearly sparked by Britain’s extreme right National Front. And this, about the power of an anthem: “Everybody’s singing with their hand on their heart/About deeds done in the darkest hours/That’s just the sort of catchy little melody/To get you singing in the showers.” Pertinent today, much? 

In the buoyant “Talking in the Dark,” Elvis misses what the title says, but only, “when the barking and biting is through.” “Radio Sweetheart” was the B-side to the much-heralded “Less Than Zero,” but it’s no throwaway; it’s another one that sounds bright and breezy, but it begins on the club floor with “goose step dancing” and our narrator surveying the scene to find the “hope in the eyes of the ugly girls/That settle for the lies of the last chancers/When slow motion drunks pick wallflower dancers.” Fucking brilliant. 

The tear-jerking “Stranger in the House” (which Costello wrote) was a precursor to his country covers album, Almost Blue; “My Funny Valentine” presaged Imperial Bedroom. Revisiting Taking Liberties to write this piece was a complete joy. It brought me back to an earlier time in my life and in Elvis’s. And both of those were pretty damn good times.

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

One thought on “Elvis Costello: The Man Who Took Liberties

  • November 20, 2020 at 11:07 am
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    Thanks for “bringing me back to an earlier time in my life and in Elvis’s”, as well, Jim. As my disposable income in the 80s went mostly to LPs and not singles, collections like this and “Singles Going Steady” were indeed essential. It’s also fun to see the “Singing Dictionary”, which I own and used in teaching myself basic guitar chords. Elvis lives!

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