Mc­Cart­ney demos with Costello get a proper re­lease.

Newly emerg­ing demos from Mc­Cart­ney’s ‘Flow­ers in the Dirt’ sessions hint at his cre­ative process and the push he got from his song­writ­ing al­liance with Elvis Costello

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - IN­SIDE

The 1980s had not been go­ing well for Paul Mc­Cart­ney. A se­ries of com­mer­cial flops left even the artist tak­ing stock. “It was time to prove some­thing to my­self,” Mc­Cart­ney said back then. That he did. “Flow­ers in the Dirt,” re­leased in 1989, marked a re­birth.

But the most in­trigu­ing el­e­ment of “Flow­ers” was shelved for decades. In 1987, Mc­Cart­ney had in­vited Elvis Costello to work with him. Four of their songs ended up on “Flow­ers,” but a few oth­ers never came out. And both Mc­Cart­ney and Costello agree that their nine ini­tial demo record­ings re­main the best part of their col­lab­o­ra­tion. On March 24, those demos are be­ing re­leased as part of an elab­o­rate, box-set reis­sue of “Flow­ers in the Dirt.”

We spoke re­cently with Mc­Cart­ney and Costello, sep­a­rately and by phone, about their in­tense writ­ing spurts, the chal­lenges of turn­ing the demos into a pol­ished al­bum and about their ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences over a cer­tain synth-pop group.

In 1986, Mc­Cart­ney re­leased his sixth solo stu­dio al­bum, “Press to Play,” work­ing with pro­ducer Hugh Padgham, known for his work with Phil Collins and the Hu­man League.

Mc­Cart­ney: Some­times you get caught up in try­ing to be the cur­rent fla­vor, try­ing to go along and fla­vor your cook­ing with the food of the month, and I think “Press to Play” was cer­tainly that. . . . I remember the records I lis­tened to. “Let’s Dance.” Or “Drive” by the Cars. Records that were of the time and I prob­a­bly just thought, “Yeah, it’d be quite nice to get into a bit of that.”

Mc­Cart­ney’s man­ager sug­gested he call Costello. Costello, then 33, came to Mc­Cart­ney’s Hog Hill Mill Stu­dio in East Sus­sex, Eng­land. Costello grew up lov­ing the Bea­tles. But he didn’t bring his fan club card.

Costello: I’ve seen peo­ple, quite em­i­nent peo­ple, com­pletely lose their mind in his com­pany. I didn’t want to turn up and be kind of both­er­some in that way. I wanted to get some­thing good done. Some­thing that jus­ti­fied the in­vi­ta­tion.

Mc­Cart­ney: I do get a bit of that in life gen­er­ally, but I’ve adapted, I’ve de­vel­oped a way of try­ing to put peo­ple at ease that kind of elim­i­nates the vast ma­jor­ity of this syn­drome. With Elvis, I didn’t need to do it. He’s sen­si­ble enough to know that. We’d sit around and talk and have a cup of tea. By the time we got down to song­writ­ing, we knew the deal.

We just sat on th­ese couches. Each of us got an acous­tic gui­tar. Sat across from each other. I said to him, “The way I’m used to work­ing with a col­lab­o­ra­tor is re­ally, mainly with John.” And the way we used to do it is sit op­po­site like this. And the thing for me that was kind of nice . . . be­cause I was left-handed and he was right-handed, as was the case with Elvis, too, it was as if I was look­ing in the mir­ror.

Costello: I was sort of a lit­tle star­tled when he made that ref­er­ence. I think it’s more to just try to explain the im­me­di­acy of the way we worked rather than put me in the same bracket as Len­non. I don’t see my­self like that. In terms of the im­me­di­acy and just the mu­si­cal role . . . . I can’t sing above him so I would nat­u­rally har­mo­nize below. Which is often the relationship of Len­non and Mc­Cart­ney’s har­mo­niza­tion. That would draw some com­par­i­son. Hey, I sing through my nose some of the time. What can I do?

Mc­Cart­ney: The thing about work­ing with John is that we started song­writ­ing vir­tu­ally to­gether. We had writ­ten a lit­tle bit sep­a­rate from each other. But we grew into song­writ­ing to­gether . . . . You know, the bot­tom line is I’ve never had a bet­ter col­lab­o­ra­tor than John and I don’t ex­pect to. Be­cause we were pretty hot.

Work­ing with Costello cre­ated a sound that was de­cid­edly Beatles­like, some­thing Mc­Cart­ney had tried to avoid for years.

Mc­Cart­ney: By that point, it seemed okay to ref­er­ence the Bea­tles, so with Elvis, we tried to keep away from it, but if we did fall into any­thing — like, I think “My Brave Face” has a sort of Bea­tle-y thing to it — we didn’t try to avoid it.

Costello: I learned how to sing two-part har­monies from singing along with Bea­tles records. So of course, the minute I put my voice next to his, with the some­what harder edges in my voice, it nat­u­rally cre­ated some sort of re­gional echo. I call it the Mersey ca­dence. I wasn’t even born in Liver­pool. My fam­ily’s from Liver­pool. But I’ve got a lot of those sounds in my voice.

When crit­ics heard of the col­lab­o­ra­tion, they de­vel­oped a story line — that Costello, the punk­rock­ing bad boy, rep­re­sented the darker Len­non. He would push Mc­Cart­ney, the softy who sang “Silly Love Songs.” Costello dis­misses that.

Costello: Oh, Paul’s the bal­lad guy, the same guy who sang “I’m Down,” “She’s a Woman” and “Hel­ter Skel­ter.” You can find a con­trary thing when peo­ple talk about Len­non/Mc­Cart­ney and those sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. Yeah, you can go “Instant Karma” and “Rev­o­lu­tion” and th­ese things and “Help.” But you can also go “Ju­lia” and “Beau­ti­ful Boy.”

Mc­Cart­ney: The funny thing is, I think a lot of peo­ple as­sume that John and I pushed each other in those ways . . . . That never oc­curred. We had a very easy man­ner where both of us knew that the other was only in it to help and we were pool­ing our re­sources. So many times I would help John out with a prob­lem in his song, but con­versely, he’d do ex­actly the same with me. We knew that we would do that, and it was per­fectly al­lowed. It’s not a ques­tion of push­ing. It’s a ques­tion of just be­ing. I’m writ­ing, “It’s get­ting bet­ter all the time” and John comes in with, “Couldn’t get no worse.” In­stead of go­ing, “Oh, you’re spoil­ing my lovely song.” I go, “Ge­nius, great.” I would do the same thing for him . . . . John fa­mously brought in “Come To­gether” sound­ing very much like a Chuck Berry song called “You Can’t Catch Me.” I said, “That’s Chuck Berry.” He went, “Yeah.” I said, “No, no, no.” And we swapped it out and slowed it down and made a ge­nius record. I’m al­lowed to say that now.

Costello did po­litely urge Mc­Cart­ney away from the in­stru­ment he was us­ing, a mod­ern bass with five strings. (“A per­ver­sion of na­ture,” says Costello.) He asked Mc­Cart­ney to pull out his old Hofner. The bass still had a Bea­tles set

list taped to it.

Costello: I wasn’t be­ing funny or be­ing in any way sen­ti­men­tal. I hon­estly thought [the new bass] dis­guised his mu­si­cal per­son­al­ity when he was playing. He ac­tu­ally played his Rick­en­backer on a lot of the tracks. He played the Hofner on “Veron­ica,” that he played on my ses­sion [for Costello’s al­bum “Spike”]. Be­cause he knew I liked the sound of it. But he flew around on that Rick­en­backer, and it was sud­denly like, “My God, this is one of the great in­stru­men­tal­ists of the rock-and-roll era.” His voice comes through. It’s as if you gave Louis Arm­strong a plas­tic horn to play.

There was no great strat­egy as they wrote. It was or­ganic. Costello points to “Tommy’s Com­ing Home,” a beau­ti­ful, po­etic song about a war wi­dow torn be­tween mourn­ing and temp­ta­tion. (The demo is be­ing re­leased for the first time on the “Flow­ers” box set.)

Costello: Paul made the first mu­si­cal state­ment. But if you lis­ten to that song, who do you think wrote that? Prob­a­bly me, less known as a melodist than him. But I think I was the one who sug­gested [hums the cho­rus]. Often we ex­changed the role as we were do­ing it be­cause it wasn’t con­sid­ered. All th­ese the­o­ries, they don’t ex­ist be­cause of who I am. They ex­ist be­cause of who he is and all th­ese as­so­ci­a­tions that peo­ple want to read into. None of that was any part of writ­ing any of th­ese songs. It was al­most fun re­ally. It was re­ally see­ing what we could get . . . . The im­age of the hawk hov­er­ing over the lit­tle an­i­mals in that song. I said, “How do we get that in the story?” And I had the idea of a war wi­dow on a train, and some­how both of those im­ages ended up in that song. That’s proper col­lab­o­rat­ing. It’s not the­o­ret­i­cal. It’s ac­tual prac­ti­cal work.

Mc­Cart­ney: This is one of the rules of my game. I will say stuff, any idea that comes into my head. And if you don’t like it, you just tell me and I’ll prob­a­bly agree. But my method is to throw out a lot of stuff and whit­tle it down. [Pause.] Ac­tu­ally, he was re­ally not a fan of the Hu­man League. I like “Don’t You Want Me.” [Hums the cho­rus.] I think that’s, like, a clas­sic pop record . . . . I can now see now that me even men­tion­ing the words Hu­man League would send him off in the wrong di­rec­tion.

The fi­nal stu­dio record­ing of “That Day is Done,” on “Flow­ers,” was ac­tu­ally true to Costello’s original idea.

Costello: I think I was just overly sen­si­tive, to be hon­est, be­cause I did feel so at­tached to the lyrics.

So why did Costello and Mc­Cart­ney even­tu­ally part ways?

Mc­Cart­ney: Think­ing back to the time, I didn’t just want to just make an Elvis Costello al­bum. There were other things I was in­ter­ested in. I also wanted to work with this fab­u­lous ar­ranger, Clare Fis­cher, which may not have hap­pened if I had been work­ing with Elvis. I think I wanted to work with Trevor Horn and Steve Lip­son, and things like “Rough Ride” and “Fig­ure of Eight” wouldn’t have been there. I wanted some va­ri­ety, and that led to the de­ci­sion of writ­ing some stuff with Elvis. And things like “Put It There,” I think those were pretty suc­cess­ful.

Mc­Cart­ney: Man, are you kid­ding? It’s be­ing reis­sued like a gazil­lion years af­ter­ward, and peo­ple are lov­ing it. And the great thing is that we can now re­lease th­ese hid­den trea­sures. It’s ac­tu­ally worked out re­ally well.



Costello wanted Mc­Cart­ney to play his clas­sic Hofner bass, in front above, dur­ing their sessions. “I wasn’t be­ing funny or be­ing in any way sen­ti­men­tal. I hon­estly thought [the new bass] dis­guised his mu­si­cal per­son­al­ity,” he said. “It’s as if you gave Louis Arm­strong a plas­tic horn to play.”


The demos from Paul Mc­Cart­ney’s 1987 sessions with Elvis Costello will be in­cluded on the reis­sue of “Flow­ers in the Dirt.”



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