On August the 25th, the beloved entertainer, Declan McManus (a.k.a Elvis Costello O.B.E.) will be 65 years old. To celebrate artist Harry Pye has not only collaborated with Rowland Smith on a new painting of Elvis and his old pals, The Attractions, but has also compiled a list of 65 lesser known Costello classics that never troubled the charts but won a place in his heart.
All The Rage is an angry song. I like Elvis when he’s angry. On the track from his 1994 album Brutal Youth the singer warns us, “Don’t try and touch my heart, it’s darker than you think” . The song builds in a similar way to Bowie’s Rock & Roll Suicide and I love Costello’s furious guitar solo. He gives it all he’s got right up to the end and you can almost imagine him collapsing in a heap once the song is over.
Almost Blue is a beautiful ballad Elvis included on his 1982 album Imperial Bedroom. Costello’s lyrics and vocal performance are both perfect on this track. Jazz legend Chet Baker was a fan of the track and in his final years, performed the track live on several occasions.
Baby It’s You is a brilliant cover of an old Burt Bacharach tune from the early 60s that Elvis recorded with his chum Nick Lowe in the mid 80s. The arrangement is charming and production is surprisingly commercial. It seems strange this wasn't released as a single.
Basement Kiss is one of the songs Elvis wrote for Wendy James to perform on her album, Now Aint The Time For Your Tears. The version of the track performed by Elvis and The Attractions live in Dublin is well worth tracking down. “Did you bruise yourself on those false alarms?” quizzes Elvis on this Dylan-esq gem.
Battered Old Bird is from The Attraction’s 1986’s Blood & Chocolate album. It features very intriguing and original lyrics. I remember Costello once introduced the song live with the words, “This is a song about a house I used to live in.” I imagine it was a dark place.
Betrayal (original angry version of Tramp The Dirt Down) features brilliant keyboard work from Steve Nieve. This rant about Mrs T is a bonus track on the re-issue of Costello best album, King of America.
Big Light is a cautionary tale about what happens when you drink too much. Johnny Cash recorded a decent cover, but Costello’s original features the great guitar skills of James Burton so I slightly prefer it.
Big Boys Cry was originally made famous by Bobby Charles. If you’re a fan of Fats Domino it’s likely you’ll find yourself tapping a toe along to this tune. Elvis performed a corking version of this song live at a tribute to Charles. He was backed by the splendid Lil' Band o' Gold.
Big Tears is the sound of Elvis plus The Attraction plus Mick Jones of The Clash on guitar. It rocks.
Black & White World first appeared on the excellent Get Happy album released in 1980. The original is fab but, if you can find it, the live versions he did with The Roots in 2015 you’ll be dropping your fag in your beer and taking your chin of the floor etc etc.
Birds Will Be Singing (from the MOJO 2015 compilation CD 'A Collection of Unfaithful Music' Around the time of his North L.P Costello mentioned in an interview that one day he'd like to release an album of instrumentals. Eyebrows were raised as obviously he's celebrated for his way with words and emotional performances rather than this melodies. However when you listen to the mighty Steve Nieve work his magic on this beautiful piece of music it doesn't seem such a bad idea after all.
Certain Girl was the high light of Costello’s TV series ‘Spectacle’. The track is performed by legendary keyboard player and songwriter, Allen Toussaint. Elvis put together an amazing backing band consisting of Richard Thompson on lead Guitar, Steve Nieve on organ, Nick Lowe on bass, Levon Helm on drums and himself on rhythm guitar and backing vocals – the results were heavenly.
Chemistry Class from the Armed Forces L.P. Elvis sounds rather threatening performing this song especially when it’s done live with just him and an electric guitar.
Comedians made its first appearance on Costello’s 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World album. However the version I’m most fond of appears on Roy Orbison’s comeback LP Mystery Girl which was released a few years later. Costello and his producer pal T-Bone Burnett obviously spent a bit of time getting the new arrangement perfect for the man they called The Big O. Their hard work paid off.
Couldn’t All It Unexpected Number 2.
This perky piece performed by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band appears on Mighty Like A Rose which got in the Top 5 Album charts way back in 1991. It's short and sweet and it's vaguely reminiscent of the kind of thing Thelonious Monk got up to in the late 1950s.
Do You Know What I’m Saying? This song has so many crazy lyrics such as, “She danced liked an ambulance and talked like a cartoon mouse. She took off her clothes and it brought down the house.” It’s nuts, but it’s kind of brilliant.
Getting Mighty Crowded is a fun cover of a Van McCoy song. The Attractions sound like they are enjoying themselves. It slightly has the edge on their version of Smokey Robinson's Head To Toe or their take on Really Mystified by The Merseybeats.
Get Yourself Another Fool features an extraordinary vocal performance from Elvis and an excellent keyboard solo by Steve Nieve.
Green Song is from 2001 album Elv made with Anne Sophie Von Otter. The album featured covers of classics by The Beach Boys, Abba, The Beatles and Tom Waits. Somehow, Green Song was the most successful. It’s great to hear Von Otter hit the high notes.
Harry Worth (from Momofuku, the album Elvis and The Imposters released in 2008) is a curious song that’s not a million miles away from Girl From Ipanema. The lyrics are kind of smart and kind of dumb. I’ve always had a soft spot for it.
Heart Shaped Bruise is the sound of Elvis backed by The Imposters with John McFee on pedal steel guitar and extra special guest singer Emmylou Harris. In my opinion, Heart Shaped Bruise was the highpoint of 2004’s Delivery Man album. And on this track Elvis sounds every bit as good as his hero Gram Parsons.
Heathen Town For some reason I've always liked the bit in this song where Elvis sings, "I'm so frightened." It was written in the early 80s and there's a great acoustic version featured on the re-issue of Punch The Clock. It's an intriguing little number that keeps mentioning other song titles in one section he starts singing bits from Guys And Dolls. I don't understand what he's singing about but I enjoy listening.
Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head from 1986’s Blood & Chocolate album. It’s clunky and desperate sounding. It was recorded when the band weren’t getting on. The lyrics are over the top. I love it.
Home Truth appears on Goodbye Cruel World. Apparently the producers Clive Langer questioned the wisdom of making such a personal song public. It’s very raw and very good.
How Much I Lied was originally recorded by country legend Gram Parsons. Elvis’s version was produced by Billy Sherrill and was the last track on his Almost Blue album. Paul Heaton has often listed it as one of his personal favourites. If you’re the type of person who likes to gets drunk on your own and feel sorry for yourself – this track will hit the spot.
I Almost Had A Weakness is an amusing track from the album Costello made with the Broadsky quartet in 1993. Elv really gets into character
I’ll Never Fall in Love Again is Elvis and Burt enjoying themselves. They recorded this version of the Bacharach & David song for the Austin Powers movie. Early on in his career Elvis had a go at Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself and it was ok. And one of the highlights of 1995 album of covers was another one of Burt's oldies called, Please Stay, I like hearing an emotional Elv enquire, “If I called out your name like a prayer would you leave me alone with my tears?” Please Stay also features an amazing keyboard solo from Larry Knechtel, but it's the delicate way he sings I'll Never Fall in Love Again that I'm most charmed by.
Impatience (2003) Elvis is backed by The Imposters, plus a brilliant horn section and the always brilliant guitar playing of special guest Marc Ribot.
Jack of All Parades is just one of the many killer tracks on King of America. Elvis tells us about a girl he used to know. Apparently she looked so much like Judy Garland people would stop and give her money.
Let Em Dangle is a protest song about a great miscarriage of British justice that makes it’s case for never bringing back the death penalty. When Costello performed the song live on BBC 2, armed with just an acoustic guitar, his frenzied yelps of, “String em up!” were genuinely disturbing.
Let’s Misbehave is a lovely cover of the Cole Porter classic. It was recorded for a bio pic starring Kevin Kline in 2004. The highlight of the movie is Elvis doing a little dance during the instrumental break of this song.
Lipstick Vogue is a song about a man who thinks love is a tumour that needs to be ripped out. It's been covered by Artic Monkeys and various others. My favourite version is by Elvis & The A's live at Rockpalast Cologne, Germany in 1978. Bruce on bass is amazing as ever but I think Pete Thomas on drums is man of the match. Modern Drummer magazine rightly describe this song as having a "killer intro." They went on to describe's Pete's playing as, "totally over the top, but totally together."
London's Brilliant Parade is a beautiful song from Brutal Youth about someone dreaming they are having the time of their life whilst out and about in the capital.
Love For Sale (1980) another Cole Porter song. Billy Bremner is a brilliant guitarist whose worked with everyone from Lulu to The Pretenders. Billy plays beautifully on this track recorded around the time of the Trust L.P.Mr Costello delivers a great vocal performance.
A Monster Went And Ate My Big Two is a re-write of (Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes) which Elvis performed with Sesame Street legends Elmo and Cookie Monster for Kids Tv. The video for this track is conclusive proof Elvis is king of comedy.
Mouth Almighty predates Morrissey’s Big Mouth Strikes Again by a year or two. Both songs are apologies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the studio version on Costello’s Punch The Clock album but the version I prefer is his acoustic demo which contained a little magic that got lost along the way.
Motel Matches from 1980, sounds like the work of a soul in torment. “Giving you away like motel matches” sobs Elvis. Mr Costello has been in love and he’s been hurt.
My Dark Life was a one off Eno/ Costello collaboration. As the title suggests it’s hardly a knees-up but happily Brian and Elvis prove they can both still deliver the goods.
My Three Sons (2008) is a nice straight forward song in which Elvis praises the fruit of his loins. It’s hard not to be moved by this very sincere ballad.
Our Little Angel
"She sits alone apart from the crowd in a white dress she wears like a question mark, Friends speak of her fondly, enemies just think out loud, You think you're man enough to please her and you're fool enough to start...
but you're not going to do a thing to our little angel" sings Elvis on this track from the King of America L.P. The band backing him on this track are made up of musicians who previously played with Elvis Presley and former Dylan collaborator T-Bone Burnett is in the producer's chair. I could imagine both Bob or Presley sing this.
Party Girl from the Armed Forces album was apparently written when Elvis was on tour in America. As with other Elvis songs it’s the performance that impresses rather than the song. He means it man – or at least, that’s what I’m left thinking.
Point of No Return is a cover of an old Georgie Fame track from the 60s. There’s something really special about the way Costello sings his heart out on this number. No doubt it would sound even better if played on a groovy hi fi.
Apparently Elvis was possessed to write this song after feeling lustful about a waitress who was serving him. It's one of the many great songs featured on 1980's fantastic Get Happy album.
Put Your Big Toe in The Milk of Human Kindness featured on Rob Wasserman’s album Trios. I've heard Wasserman's work with Lou Reed and been impressed and Marc Ribot's work with Tom Waits and been impressed. Costello was very wise to accept the invitation to work with these two musical geniuses. There’s something there's something very warm and tender about in the way he sings this song.
Psycho the best version of this song was recorded live in Aberdeen. I notice people who don't like Elvis and don't like country music often hear this song and say, "I don't like Elvis Costello and I don't like Country music but this is really good."
Radio Sweetheart became something of a live favourite. Elvis would often turn this song into a medley that also featured Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson and Jackie Wilson Said by Van Morrison. This is not the type of angry young man song that made Elvis famous. It’s a catchy, classy sing along track that should have been a hit.
Ship of Fools is a brilliant song by The Grateful Dead that Costello recorded in Barbados in 1990
Costello puts a lot of love and care into this cover of a Gram Parson's tracker.
Still (live on Letterman) I remember Elvis being interviewed on TV by Daytime TV legends Richard and Judy. Although they played a clip of Still. It was clear Richard just wanted to talk about how Elvis's father had provided the voice on the 1970's ads for R-Whites Lemon aid. Thankfully, across the pond, On David Letterman's show, Elvis and Steve were able to perform this track in its entirety. When the song finished Dave said, "That was a beautiful Elvis!" I agree.
Suit of Lights
is from Costello's King of America album and it's the only track The Attractions appear on. The way he sings "they pulled him out of the cold ground" on the chorus reminds me of Van Morrison but the way he delivers lines like, "can't you give us all a break and you stop breathing" is more like Morrissey. I find this song fascinating and the songs finale is perfection.
Sour Milk Cow Blues
from Good Bye Cruel World sounds like it might have been written in 5 minutes and some of the lyrics in this song are re-cycled in other songs like How To Be Dumb many years later. Some of the lines like, "I think about you every day, something about you is not the same, something about the things you say..." sound like they are being made up on the spot. The Attractions are fighting for attention and the end result is a mess but it's an interesting mess. If it was produced by Nick Lowe instead of Langer and Whitstanley and Elvis said "Ah" at the end of each sentence it would appeal to John Peel and fans of The Fall. A fan called Erich Sellheim has recorded an intriguing cover version of this song on You Tube. I predict someone, somewhere will one day record this song and sell millions.
That Day is Done Elvis live with Steve Nieve at the For Linda concert is my favourite version but this powerful song about thoughts that go round your head at a funeral has sounded great in various different versions. Lou Reed was in the audience one time Costello performed the song with esteemed Gospel singers, The Fairfield Four. Apparently after the show Lou Reed expressed how impressed he was and had to ask, "Elvis, how do you do the things you do?"
The Element Within Her (1983) finds Our Elvis in Cheeky Scouser mode. The acoustic demo version is sound as a pound.
There Won’t Be Any More (live in Aberdeen) another great drinking ideal song for boozers and losers.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me – the lovely Tony Bennett invited Elvis to onto to his Unplugged TV show. You can tell they both have great admiration for each other.
They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me duet with T-Bone Burnett. Is it as good as the versions by George Jones, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings and a million others? Probably not but it’s still fun.
Turning The Town Red featured as the theme tune to a comedy series written by Alan Blesaedale. It sounds like it was knocked off quickly but there’s something charming about it.
Ugly Things is a cover of a very old Nick Lowe song that Costello decided to cover. It has a great fake ending and Costello’s vocal delivery is spot on.
Watch Your Step is one of the highlights of Trust. Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums are brilliant as always. The track has a slight 2-Tone feel about it.
We Despise You another daft song written with Wendy James in mind.
What Do I Do Now? Is Elvis covering Brit Poppers Sleeper. So much better than I expected it to be.
When It Sings
"All the words you say to me have music in them..." sings a very loved up Elvis on this track from his album North. It took a while for this song to grow on me but I love it now.
Withered And Died Costello's cover of this sad but beautiful song by his hero Richard Thompson was tucked away as the b-side of Peace in Our Time.
Worthless Thing (1984) A curious song with some witty lyrics. Critics at the time assumed he was making fun of Madonna, Bruce and everyone else who was selling millions more copies of their albums than he was at the time. It's not perfect but it has it's charms.
You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way is the most recent Costello classic. I first heard him sing it on the Jimmy Kimmel show in 2018. It's a simple song but quite powerful. Although the suit he was wearing was a size too small I felt like Elvis was giving a master class on how to write a song and how to perform it. He's written songs that use repetition before (such as I Want You)and the North album is filled with Sinatra-esq late night ballads but this song is a bully's eye or hole in one that took my breath away.
You Want Her Too is one of the many songs Costello wrote with a fellow left handed guitarist with a Liverpool connection. Like That Day Is Done it appeared on McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt album. As ever there is a very find-able acoustic demo version of this song which is better than the over polished studio version. It's basically a novelty item - a kind of comedy duet - but it is a good one. I like Costello's version of So Like Candy which he co-wrote with McCartney but I have a feeling the song would sound better sung by Paul. I like to think there's more to come.