Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – ‘Painted From Memory’

My new car journey to work was at best, just under an hour. That meant I could listen to an album going to work, then another coming home. For a good few weeks in the Spring of ’99 I’d play an album mornings and evenings, no other album got a look in. That album was Painted From Memory by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. At 52 minutes it was tailor-made for my commute.

Now, I was a big fan of Elvis. From his classic singles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, through to Spike and Brutal Youth in the ‘90s I loved his passion, his attitude and acutely culture-referenced songwriting. Burt Bacharach is quite simply one of the best songwriters of all-time. I Say A Little Prayer, This Guys In Love With You, Walk On By, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, Anyone Who Had A Heart… with Hal David he produced a legendary back catalogue, with Dionne Warwick being the main beneficiary of their combined brilliance.

On first listen Painted From Memory sounds like it could be Burt Bacharach songs sung by Elvis Costello, as the romantic nature of many of the lyrics appear fit Bacharach’s usual style. But it most definitely isn’t. Both lyrics and music are co-credited and for me it just enhanced my love of Elvis by a sizeable notch or two.

Elvis’ usual vocal style is strained, and when singing such emotive songs of love and loss that strain is intensified, and almost all of the time that works beautifully. On the very odd occasion a sweeter, Dionne Warwicker voice would smooth and sooth over the exemplary strings, gentle horns and perfect orchestration, but then when Elvis pleads: “Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness” on the beautifully sad This House Is Empty Now, it hits hard.

I Still Have That Other Girl is a crooner’s delight and Such Unlikely Lovers is just a gem, but nothing on the twelve tracks is less than exquisite, musicality wrapped around stunning songwriting and vocals. Commissioned for a film in ‘96 God Give Me Strength was the start of this perfect collaboration, with Elvis writing in his 2015 autobiography, “To have written a song like “God Give Me Strength” and simply stopped would have been ridiculous…” Another gorgeous song of a love lost, with clear roads it met with the end of my journey, the album seeing me home feeling somehow warmer, calmer and better with the world.

Elvis Costello – live at Glastonbury CND Festival 1987

I’ve been to the Glastonbury Festival twice, first in 1987 and again in 1990. 1987 brings back much better memories due to the music, the sheer excitement and the love I felt amongst 60,000 mud-soaked revellers, in particular my comrades and fellow peacenicks, Gary and Simon. The latter supplied the transport. A 2CV. A cool choice, even when being gang-pushed up a muddy hill upon exit. In ’87 it was still the Glastonbury CND Festival, by ’90 the acronym was dropped, and that year I have no magical musical memories, although I do remember the Happy Mondays being shit and our total festival hash fund being wasted (not in a good way) on day one. That lump of rubber looked so real!

It intermittently lashed down both years, but the mud was nothing compared to the memory of the gut-wrenching stench emanating from the trenched pits of piss and crap (see shit pic below). On the plus side, in ’87 we parked a few hundred metres directly in front of the Pyramid Stage, just because we could. I was yet to discover the magnificence of Van Morrison, so he passed me by, but I loved World Party’s album, Private Revolution. Karl Wallinger radiated much needed warmth and positivity, with Ship Of Fools sounding like a glorious stream of sunshine as the rain fell relentlessly. Julian Cope was at it too, aboard his climbing frame mic, rocking out World Shut Your Mouth, Trampolene and Teardrop’s Bouncing Babies.

toilets-glasto

So, Elvis Costello. We were fans. I owned Armed Forces and Get Happy and he was clearly an all round dude de force having produced The Specials’ iconic debut album. I played him plenty at Charivari and of all the acts playing at Glastonbury, he was the only one not to be missed. Here’s what I remember. He played solo, a mixture of classics and albums tracks, including a spine-tingling version of Shipbuilding. Mostly acoustic, never less than totally captivating he finished after about ninety minutes. A great gig, almost worthy of the entry money alone.

Encore one. Encore two. Encore three! A boombox assisted Pump It Up / Sign Of The Times mash-up. I’d have very happily walked away there. But, behind Elvis were large drapes covering the width of the stage. He pulled a cord, the curtains parted, and there were the Attractions who immediately launched into Oliver’s Army! What’s the sound of about 30,000 people deliriously gobsmacked? Oliver’s Army was followed by an hour or more of full band action, including Watching The Detectives and climaxing with Instant Karma. Three hours of pure joy.

I loved Elvis Costello’s early stuff, Spike in ’89 was a big favourite, and ten years later came my most played Elvis album, his stunning collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. An absolute masterpiece of classic songwriting. But, that evening, THAT moment as the band appeared and that classic piano intro kicked in… Oliver’s Army will always mean Glastonbury 1987.

The Specials – ‘The Specials’

By late 1979 the musical mix of post punk and new wave was dominating the UK charts, whilst ‘the second wave of ska’ was also fast becoming part of the Top 40 countdown that by now, I was obsessed with. Of course there was dross too, but when isn’t there? Maybe there has to be the crap to fully appreciate the good stuff. If there’s one thing Thatcher can be credited with it’s inspiring a multitude of musicians, poets, and social commentators to wax lyrical; to pour scorn through their chosen medium.

Well, I was yet to read poetry or any literature beyond Smash Hits, Melody Maker or the NME, but one band who were a major part of my cultural learning, of my awareness of social, political and class issues were The Specials. Their eponymous debut album was a masterpiece, and would still rank as one of my favourite albums of all time.

Produced by Elvis Costello and released on Jerry Dammers’ 2-Tone label, The Specials was a dance mix of ska and punk; a brilliant homage to their musical heroes including covers of Dandy Livingstone, Toots & The Maytals and Prince Buster whilst capturing perfectly the angst and energy as well as inspiring the youth of the day. Unlike debut albums from Madness and The Beat (brief 2Tone label-mates) the album never veered towards pop, instead the social messages were as persistent as the ska rhythms. At 13 I was totally naive, but my eyes, ears and dreams were being opened up and fuelled by provocative, radical visuals and lyrics.

Political correctness did not exist in ’79 and the album is full of piss-taking and social spikes that seem wonderfully sharp compared to today’s banality, not that The Specials wouldn’t have given a shit anyway.

“I won’t dance in a club like this / all the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss” – Nite Club

“The only things you want to see are kitch / the only thing you want to be is rich / your little pink up-pointed nose begins to twitch / I know, you know, you’re just a little bitch” – Little Bitch.

Welcome to being a teenager. The Specials packed a mighty live punch and whilst I had to wait over thirty years to see them live, this album alone was enough to last three decades.