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l’ve always had this idea Paul should do a tour with just a guitar and sing the 15 best songs he ever wrote. People went on about the Beatles being Iike Schubert, but it’s really true. In 150 years’ time, they’ll be singing his songs – him, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach. And it won’t be some dusty thing, they’ll still be getting loy out of them.Elvis Costello, about Paul McCartney, MOJO, June 1996
Elvis Costello (born Declan Patrick MacManus; 25 August 1954) is an English singer-songwriter. He began his career as part of London’s pub rock scene in the early 1970s and later became associated with the first wave of the British Punk & New Wave movement of the mid-to-late 1970s. His critically acclaimed debut album, My Aim Is True, was recorded in 1976. Shortly after recording his first album he formed The Attractions as his backing band. His second album, This Year’s Model, was released in 1978, and was ranked number 11 by Rolling Stone on its list of the best albums of the period 1967-1987. Costello and The Attractions toured and recorded together for the better part of a decade, though differences between them caused a split by 1986. Much of Costello’s work since has been as a solo artist, though reunions with members of The Attractions have been credited to the group over the years.
Steeped in wordplay, the vocabulary of Costello’s lyrics is broader than that of most popular songs. His music has drawn on many diverse genres; one critic described him as a “pop encyclopaedia“, able to “reinvent the past in his own image“. […]
In 1987, Costello began a long-running songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. They wrote a number of songs together, including:
- “Back On My Feet“, the B-side of McCartney’s 1987 single “Once Upon a Long Ago“, later added as a bonus track on the 1993 re-issue of McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt
- Costello’s “Veronica” and “Pads, Paws and Claws” from Spike (1989)
- “So Like Candy” and “Playboy to a Man” from Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
- McCartney’s “My Brave Face“, “Don’t Be Careless Love“, “That Day Is Done” and “You Want Her Too” from Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
- “The Lovers That Never Were” and “Mistress and Maid” from Off the Ground (1993).
- “Shallow Grave” from All This Useless Beauty (1996).
From The Delete Bin:
[…] In 1988 or so, Costello and McCartney got together a wrote a bunch of songs, which was big news whenever either was interviewed. On McCartney’s part, it was significant as he was about to bring out his Flowers in the Dirt album, featuring the Costello-abetted “My Brave Face” as the lead single. McCartney had been saddled with a reputation for being the ambassador of twee when it came to writing pop songs. The last number one he had was “Say Say Say” for gosh sakes! So, the news that the two would be writing together was big news for many a rock fan.
As for Costello, when approached with this opportunity to write with one of his heroes, he was initially and understandably a bit apprehensive. After all, everyone expected him to play the part of Lennon. But in interviews at the time, he revealed that his self-confidence in his own writing abilities (Lennon too had been a Costello fan, mind…) sealed the deal; “why not me?”, mused Costello.
And indeed, the results were pretty great, even if they didn’t set the world on fire for the public at large the way that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” did. Still, the collaboration produced Costello’s hit “Veronica” along with McCartney’s perceived return to form in “My Brave Face”. And other co-written tunes were to follow on subsequent albums by both men into the mid-90s. […]
One lesson that I learned from writing with Paul was that once the melodic shape was established, he would not negotiate about stretching the line rhythmically to accommodate a rhyme. This emphatic sense of the music is something that I soon found he shared with Burt Bacharach. Given the indelibility of their melodies, it is hard to put up an argument to the contrary. If anything, Burt is even more unyielding once the melody is written. He will not permit as much as a demi-hemi-semi-quaver to be added, even if it would allow for a really good rhyme to be made. Not being a lyricist, he had never given himself any reason to cheat.
I cheat shamelessly. The unevenly proportioned lines of my early songs drove The Attractions mad. They were difficult to memorize, as no two verses were exactly alike.
One of the best songs that Paul and I wrote together was written at the piano. It was a sweeping, romantic tune that could almost have been an epic Bacharach ballad. In its first draft, it was a little reminiscent of “It’s for You,” a song that Paul had written for Cilla Black in 1964. I’d say the rough recording of “The Lovers That Never Were” is one of the great, unreleased performances of Paul McCartney’s solo career. I know you’ll just have to take my word for this, but I was playing the piano when Paul opened up behind me in a wild, distorted voice that was almost like the one he used on “I’m Down.”
I just kept staring down at my hands at the piano, saying to myself, Don’t mess this up, while trying to remember to chime in on the few lines that we’d agreed I’d sing.
Paul McCartney in "Conversations With McCartney", by Paul Du Noyer:
Again, pressure on him, really. I felt he was the nearest to John and I get a lot of journalists asking me this. ‘Yeah, there are similarities between them…’ But I got pissed off after a while and I ended up answering, ‘Yeah, they both wore glasses’. No matter how anyone reminds me of John, they’re not John.
We got these songs, a bit different for me, a little more wordy than if I’d written them. He’s very much into words, Elvis. He’s a good foil for me. I Foil Fine. I write something and he’ll sort of edit it, and provided I don’t mind, that goes OK.
Occasionally he used too many chords, for my opinion. I’ve found in writing music over the years that it’s often cool to cut your chords in half, and make do, leave all your melody the same, but really space out what’s behind it. I remember doing that with Elvis, going, ‘Look, if you just go from the C to A minor and lose all the passing chords in between, it’ll be great.
So it was good, we kept buzzing off each other. I thought he was very opinionated. But I don’t mind that, cos he’s up-front.
People have said that the hard edge is what I lack. It’s not totally true. Anyone that knows my stuff, there are hard-edged things like ‘Helter Skelter’. With Elvis, he did have a satirical edge to him, and his personality reminded me of John’s – hard on the outside, soft on the inside. He’s all right, is Elvis. It was good to collaborate with him.
From paulmccartney.com, January 29, 2017:
What was it like writing and recording with Elvis? Did you learn anything from him in the process?
Thanks for your question, Joe. The answer is no! [Laughs] It was good! It was good fun actually. When we were about to start, I had said to Elvis that I kind of missed the way John and I used to write, which was sitting across from each other, with an acoustic guitar each. And I’d explain to him that the fun thing for me was, with John being right-handed and me being left-handed it kind of looked like it was in a mirror. So I said we should do the same thing. He just came down to my studio in Sussex and we used that same process. We just sat down, started banging away until one of us had an idea, or either of us brought in something that had inspired us and we wrote in the same manner that John and I had written in. So that was nice, it was kind of reminiscent of using this method once again. And the great thing was, this time, once we were finished, we could go right downstairs into the studio itself – because we wrote in my office above the studio – and we’d go right downstairs into the studio the minute we’d finished it. Five minutes later we’d recorded it. Talk about fresh! That was ‘hot off the skillet’.Paul McCartney
From the liner notes of “Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous“, Elvis Costello’s compilation, 1998:
I first met Paul McCartney when we opened the show for Wings during the 1979 Concerts for Kampuchea series in London. He was very friendly and good at putting people at ease who might have been a little overwhelmed… him having been in The Beatles, like. He was also singing and playing tremendously. During the ’80s we were often working in AIR studios at the same time, sometimes sharing the engineering skills of Geoff Emerick. Once or twice Paul and Linda came down the hallway for a chat, and on a few occasions we were obliged to retrieve a slightly over-enthusiastic Attraction from their studio.
Receiving the invitation to write with Paul was very exciting, but not without its anxieties. I had always tried to be ingenious when borrowing ideas from Lennon & McCartney, but sometimes it’s a thin line between influence and larceny.
Our writing sessions could not have been more enjoyable or instructive. We set up in a room above Paul’s studio with two acoustic guitars, an electric piano, and a big notebook and worked at great speed for about five hours a day. Sometimes we prepared music separately and then reworked it together. Sometimes we pulled things out of the air. Once we had finished writing, we would go downstairs and knock off a demo recording. Each of the three-day sessions produced at least as many songs.
I found that Paul was very exact in the setting of words. He did not like to vary or extend a repeated melodic line just to accommodate a lyrical trick, where as I would always want to steal notes to allow an extra syllable or two. In time we seemed to switch roles, Paul suggesting long bursts of lyric set on one or two notes, while I introduced some Merseys harmonies and cadences into the dialogue song “You Want Her Too,” which provoked, what used to be called, an “old-fashioned look” from Mr. McCartney. Nevertheless, I think there was more to our collaboration than musical allusions. Paul was very sympathetic in his handling of my personal lyrical details in “Veronica” and “That Day Is Done.” I think our work together is well illustrated by a series of “character” songs: “Mistress And Maid,” “So Like Candy,” the unreleased “Tommy’s Coming Home,” and “My Brave Face.”
Four McCartney/MacManus compositions appeared on the Flowers In The Dirt album. Our other songs were shared out over our next few record releases. A few remain unrecorded. And there is always the chance that we might get together for another writing session.
I also worked on a few recording sessions with Paul and his group, but I think we’re better as a songwriting team than as coproducers. I must have worked on this track a little bit, as I can be heard singing in the background now and again. Paul’s pursuit of his production ideal was rewarded when this cut became a Top 40 U.S. single. If Paul ever gets round to an Anthology-style collection of his own recordings, I hope he will find space to let you hear one of our raw demos or some of our ragged-but-right combo recordings.Elvis Costello
I was looking for someone to work with, trying to think of something imaginative to do and one day my manager said ‘do you fancy writing with Elvis Costello? It might be a great thing’. I said ‘yeah’. He (Elvis) came down to my studio and we sat opposite each other with our guitars because I had said to him early on that this is how I’d written with John, with me being left handed and him being right handed, it was almost like looking in a mirror. We did virtually what John and I did which was just make up a song a day. […] Because we were working above the studio, we’d just go downstairs and make the record, just the two of us singing exactly what we had made up. So there were a few recordings that haven’t been released. We keep saying to each other that they’re good because they are raw, it’s hot off the skillet.Paul McCartney – From paulmccartney.com, February 24, 2017
Last updated on March 13, 2021
Songs written or co-written by Declan MacManus / Elvis Costello