Elvis Costello’s Warner Bros. debut confused fans and defied expectations, but remains a crucial cog in his sprawling catalog
My journey to becoming a ride-or-die Elvis Costello fan began with the 4 ft. tall cardboard cut out of the New Wave icon from the cover of This Year’s Model. The stand was a perk from his job at the time as the manager of the Record World at the old Mid-Island Plaza in Hicksville, NY.
It used to be positioned right outside my uncle’s bedroom door as a deterrent to keep me from coming in and snooping around. It totally worked. Those beady, darting eyes of E.C. pierced right through me from behind that camera, giving me every reason not to venture into his room beyond the doorway back in my kindergarten years.
Ten years later, as a high school freshman, Elvis is all over MTV thanks to the popularity of “Veronica,” the first and most famous single off his 12th album Spike, released 30 years ago this past February 6th and the hotly anticipated debut work on his new label Warner Bros. Records. Having a wife who works with seniors, working with them myself as a therapy aide, and sadly having beloved family members suffer through its painful erasure, hearing the song “Veronica” now is indeed a very different trip than it was 30 years ago as a kid. Little did I know this incredibly melodic uptempo track, one of the cache of amazing tunes Elvis wrote with Paul McCartney during this time, was about the gravitas of dementia; and that Ronald Reagan was suffering from the early stages of it when he left office in 1988. But at 14, all I heard were the inescapable harmonies that made this otherwise sorrowful subject matter incredibly uplifting. I bought the tape in the spring of ’89, while visiting my grandpa and the uncle with the Elvis cardboard cutout in his room for Easter–most likely at the Tower Records that had just opened in Carle Place.
VIDEO: “Veronica” by Elvis Costello
On its face, Spike was not an easy listen for a high school freshman. There were indeed songs that matched the upbeat catchiness of “Veronica”, like opening cut “…This Town…,” the brutal anti-Thatcher scree “Tramp the Dirt Down” and the jumpy “Pads, Paws & Claws.” But rather this LP was a portrait of Elvis at 35, looking to move beyond the pub punk rabble of his Attractions days by expanding the scope of his reach as a composer and songwriter. The material on this album would very much provide the primer for his run at Warner Bros. through most of the 90s before jumping ship to Universal in 1998.
Spike, in many ways, was my first formal introduction to classical music, baroque, jazz, country soul, Vaudeville, calypso, Dixieland and all the other sonic dashes of color painting this picture. Credit the vision of Costello, whose initial plan was to create five different albums from four sessions at four different studios–Ocean Way in Hollywood; Southland Studios in New Orleans; Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin; and AIR Studios in London–with four different groups of musicians at each location alongside producer T-Bone Burnett, who previously worked with Elvis on his 1986 classic King of America. Looking at the personnel roster, it’s an astounding cast of characters on hand as well, one that includes former girlfriend Cait O’Riordan of The Pogues, Macca himself, Benmont Tench, Nick Lowe, Chrissie Hynde, Allen Toussaint (whom Costello would record the stunning collaborative LP The River In Reverse in 2006), Mitchell Froom, Marc Ribot, Jim Keltner, Roger McGuinn, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas among many others. Spike is the very essence of these combined forces channeled through the tale of Costello’s “Beloved Entertainer. ”
In fact, the first thing you notice about Spike is its tartan cover art depicting Costello’s head in mime facepaint mounted on a plaque that looks very similar to the WB logo. He knew he was a trophy signing for the label. But while he did give the suits a bona-fide hit with “Veronica,” Elvis was not going to become some kind of moneygoround for the powermen. The fact he followed up Spike with the even more bizzare and fascinating Mighty Like A Rose in 1991 and then a straight-up classical album with the Brodsky Quartet in 1993 with The Juliet Letters was proof positive of his intent not to be compartmentalized.
Here are five songs from the album that expanded my appreciation for music beyond the minor scope of MTV and radio.
VIDEO: “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” by Elvis Costello
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
“One day your going to have to face/ the deep dark truthful mirror/ and it’s going to tell you things that/ I still love you too much to say.” As a kid hopelessly Cathartically crushed out on the girl who’ll never give him the time of day, those first strains of this song feel like a punch in the gut. But then Costello, with the soulful backing of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, lifts you back on your feet again.
VIDEO: “God’s Comic” by Elvis Costello Live at Woodstock ’99
This xylophone peppered waltz was the catalyst to helping me appreciate the likes of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Aimee Mann in its strolling shuffle of cabaret cool. Hearing Elvis coolly perform this solo at Woodstock ’99 was one of my favorite moments of an otherwise shitshow of a weekend.
VIDEO: “Stalin Malone” by Elvis Costello
A highlight from the New Orleans sessions, this instrumental found Costello working alongside Big Easy greats the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on a variation of the Jamaican music he loved as a youth.
“When I was 15, rock steady was all the rage at parties in England,” he told nd you heard records by the Pioneers, The Beat in their August 3, 1989 issue. “And you heard records by The Pioneers, Alton Ellis, and Roland Alphonso’s fantastic ‘Phoenix City’ which was a direct influence on a song from Spike, ‘Stalin Malone.’”
There are lyrics to the song as well, presented in spoken word form by Costello on an outtake of the track featured on Rhino’s essential deluxe edition of Spike.
VIDEO: “Satellite” by Elvis Costello
This mid-tempo ballad is the most quintessentially Costello song on the album. A highlight of the L.A. sessions, the keyboard power duo of Tench and Froom–both absolute acolytes of Attractions piano man Steve Nieve–live out their Imperial Bedroom fantasies on this romance in three acts whose lyrics are credited to Costello’s birth name Declan MacManus.
VIDEO: “Baby Plays Around” by Elvis Costello
Baby Plays Around
This heartbreaking and spare song was co-written with O’Riordan. But listening to the words he’s singing–a lament for someone who seemingly wants more out of the relationship than the other partner–not only gives a clue behind the breakdown of the former couple’s own romantic union but also rings true to those of us who’ve experienced such a divide in the game of love as well.