Thursday, February 4, 2016

Elvis Costello's Golden Records

Elvis Costello, The Attractions, Punk Rock

The previous blogpost considered how both Sgt Ernie Bilko and Sgt Elvis Presley - as reflections of a decade that is so beyond reach and memory now - still effortlessly display creative dynamics of an ilk that puts the modern day to mortifying shame. I first heard Elvis' proto-punk A Big Hunk O' Love racket on the album whose sleeve featured the famous image of the singer in his gold lame suit - Elvis' Golden Records Volume 2 which is more commonly known by its 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong subtitle. Elvis appearing so handsome on the cover he barely looked human.

There were four albums originally released in this compilation series - in 1958, 1959, 1963 and then in 1968. The Golden Records collections contain some interesting material that have remained well under the radar across the years for the more general listener - Lieber and Stoller's classic Don't, the fantastically catchy Witchcraft, Pomus and Shuman's A Mess of Blues and the She's Not You lounge
classic b-side Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello.

The year that the fourth volume was released Elvis would enter the now long-defunct American Sound Studios at 827 Thomas Street Memphis to record some of the greatest popular music ever in Suspicious Minds, The Grass Won't Pay No Mind, Kentucky Rain,  Power Of My Love, In The Ghetto and much much more. Oddly enough RCA never released another volume in the series in his lifetime - Volume 5 arrived only in 1984 and included his greatest Seventies song of all in Burning Love.

The other Elvis who could clearly fill eight to ten sides of Golden Records released his autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink in late 2015 and it has proved to be a fascinating insight into both his own life history and that of his parents and grandparents. It is a very funny self-deprecating read and often incredibly moving in turn.

Declan Patrick McManus was born in 1954 in Paddington in West London and moved to Birkenhead on Merseyside in his late teens. His paternal and maternal family roots of course lie on the island of Ireland - home to some of the most unique and original folk wit on earth. This to be considered in tandem to the uniquely jet black humour located within the maritime and industrial triangle of Belfast, Liverpool and Glasgow.

That especial kind of wry Irish humour and lateral thought often travelled easily across the Irish Sea in popular culture and despite the political conflicts of the 20th century. This underscoring the pointless social fractures and animosities between the working people of the two islands - divisions that rampant historical revisionism is doing nothing to heal within Northern Ireland itself today. This in large part thanks to the selective blindness of the flaccid, unrespected and finished British mainstream media.

Growing up in Belfast in the late Seventies I remember buying both Elvis Costello and the Attraction's Chelsea and Pump It Up vinyl singles on the Radar label. This would have been 1978. After that he released Radio Radio and then a song directly inspired by witnessing the sheer youth of British squaddies on duty in downtown Belfast when playing a concert there. It was named after the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales between 1653 and 1658 -  Oliver's Army.

My knowledge of his material essentially ends with 1994's Brutal Youth album but regarding that - and the thirteen albums that proceeded it - the quality of his output is utterly extraordinary in scope, deep intelligence and eclectisim. The 1978 debut single Less Than Zero about the British Union of Fascists leader and former MP for Harrow Oswald Mosley, Pump It Up's b-side Big Tears,  the theme from the Channel 4 series Scully in Turning The Town Red, Girls Talk which would be covered by Dave Edmunds and Rockpile and Goon Squad about the heavy price to be paid for anybody not playing the straight game in life. There is Night Rally, Green Shirt, White Knuckles, Clubland, Man Out of Time, You Little Fool, Shipbuilding, Brilliant Mistake, I Want You, London's Brilliant Parade, My Science Fiction Twin or just the sheer overwhelmingly high quality of songs on 1980's  Get Happy alone - The Imposter, Possession, King Horse, Man Called Uncle and New Amsterdam. Tieing in with an earlier blogpost - and on the 1989 album Spike - Costello's Any King's Shilling analyses the quandries of national identity and military service within British Ireland in a period of revolutionary upheaval.

I saw Elvis Costello and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve perform in the mid-Nineties at the Royal Festival Hall in a very very different manifestation of London. In fact since my last reference to the changing landscapes of the capital it would appear that the Soho mainstay Stockpot is now gone on Old Compton Street and Kettners restaurant on nearby Romily Street is following suit. Even Hampstead Heath these days resembles Flanders Fields in terms of the scale of physically and spiritually overwhelming reconstruction work afoot.

Costello left Britain in the early Eighties and still lives in the USA today - after his 2005 peformance at the Glastonbury Festival he claimed that he had no desire to play in the country again: I don't get along with it. We lost touch. I don't dig it. They don't dig me. Have a listen to Costello tonight if you are thinking of leaving the confines of Austerity Britain yourself in the near future - remember what a creative hotbed London and these islands used to be and why you would never have once even considered the notion.

As an afterthought to all the above, in a two-part BBC documentary filmed some years back the late Terry Wogan travelled across Ireland both north and south. The final scenes were filmed outside the residence of the President of Ireland at Phoenix Park Dublin. During the period when the Presidency was held by Mary Robinson - who had resigned from the Irish Labour Party in 1985 in protest at the strategic implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement as affecting the rights and dignity of the Unionists in Ulster - a light was permanently kept lit in an upper storey window for all the people of Ireland who left voluntarily or had been pressured into emigration, That light underscoring that it would always and forever remain home for the departed and their bloodline. This indeed was the subject matter of a very moving monologue Salute to Belfast performed by the comic actor James Young at the Ulster Group Theatre in the city and released on the album Young and Foolish in 1967 some years before widespread civil disorder and urban terrorism erupted.

I wonder how many people in Britain tonight can relate to Elvis Costello's sense of cultural disconnectivity? Furthermore, how many lights are ever likely to shine at dead of night in memory of living, leaving, passing and human worth in a land of such greed and avarice as this now is?

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