Imperial Bedroom. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1982, Columbia Records. Producer: Geoff Emerick.
Purchased ca. 1998.
IN A NUTSHELL – The new wave/punk angry young man finds new ways to showcase his caustic wit in this collection of polished, orchestrated and highly produced numbers. The Attractions are as excellent as ever, and Costello’s voice is at its finest as he takes the first of many steps away from the music that defined his early career.
One of the best TV shows in the history of TV shows was the short-lived and perfect Freaks and Geeks. I think the reason I love it so much is because it’s basically the story of me and my freshman year of high school. It was set in suburban Michigan, not too dissimilar from the rural/suburban Pennsylvania region where I grew up; in a public high school, like I attended; and took place in 1980, just about the same time I started high school.
The focus of the show is the journey undertaken by a high school junior and academic heavyweight, Lindsey Weir, as she embarks on new friendships with the “Freaks,” the kids in school who seem to be into nothing, except drinking and drugs and smoking and cars and loud rock music. These “Freaks” were a constant population in 80s suburban public schools, and every school seemed to have their own names for them: “Druggies,” “Burnouts,” “Burners.” At our school they were called “Treads,” which someone told me was because they typically wore work boots with big treads on the bottom (and usually with red laces, for some reason). Most of them (though not all) were in the lower-track1 classes, and at my school they were most often found in the Smoking Lavatory2. Their uniform consisted of old jeans, concert tee-shirts (or three-quarter sleeved jerseys), and a denim jacket or army coat.
Lindsey has a younger brother, Sam, who starts his freshman year at McKinley High School that same year. This is the character with whom I identify. I was a geek, and I had a few close friends, just like Sam. Each episode had a Sam storyline, and each one resonated with me. Stories such as liking a girl who doesn’t like you back, being scared that a tough Tread-girl will beat the shit out of you, or the utter agony and dread associated with gym class showers3 were seemingly lifted directly from my life. The writing on the show was excellent, the actors were brilliant4, and these two things paired with the show’s setting (not to mention its IMPRESSIVE use of carefully chosen, era-specific music) made it the absolute perfect show for me.
A classic, cringe-inducing episode, titled “Looks and Books,” involves Sam trying to change his fortunes with girls, or, rather, one girl, Cindy Sanders, by changing up his wardrobe. He’s certain that his typical turn-of-the-decade duds – the jeans, corduroys, velour v-neck sweaters and striped t-shirts – aren’t doing enough to get Cindy to notice him. So he heads to the coolest store in the mall, to see if the awesomely fashionable staff can help him out:
Sam buys a “Parisian Night Suit”, and in one of the most free and wonderful performances I’ve seen by an actor, John Francis Daley, as Sam, imagines just what the suit will do for him. It’s not a dream sequence – the imaginings take place in his head. And as uncomfortable as it may be to glimpse what’s going on inside young Sam’s head by peeking into his bedroom, I hope every one of you, dear readers, has felt this way over something or someone at some point in your life:
And just as I hope you all felt as happy as Sam in the previous video, I hope you never have had to deal with the crushing, deflating, terror of real life stomping all over your dreams… as occurs – quite painfully – in this next clip, as Sam quickly realizes that not everyone immediately grasps the sophistication and strength of his new apparel:
I myself wasn’t the type to take big risks with my wardrobe, such as the one Sam takes with his Parisian Night Suit. I went along with the trends, to be sure, and in 4th grade maybe I’d break out something a little flashy.
Earlier, I stated I hoped you readers never went through such an experience as Sam did. But to be honest I hope something like this has happened to you because it means that – simultaneous-teeth-and-buttocks-clenching embarrassment aside – you went out on a limb and tried something outside your comfort zone. There are a million great quotes about the necessity and humanity of taking risks. There’s a very Will Rogers-y quote by Will Rogers that goes, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that is where the fruit is.” Perhaps my favorite is by the writer Annie Dillard who said, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” I didn’t jump off many style-related cliffs, like Sam did, but I did stumble off a few and find my hastily assembled wings fail me before I splatted on the pavement.
In my freshman year I once wore to school a mesh t-shirt that we got for being on the basketball team – a style that was frequently worn by many boys in school. But I hadn’t noticed that even though the holes in the mesh were very tiny, on a silky white shirt they created a see-through effect that, when coupled with the shirt’s tight fit on my chubby frame, presented a strongly amusing appearance to many other kids in my class. (Apparently.) There were jokes galore at my expense that day – for several days, really. One boy called me Cheryl Tiegs for the next several weeks. I never wore the shirt to school again – even though as a bit of proof that I had in fact made the Freshman basketball team, it was a memento of one of my proudest achievements to that point in my life6.
But this is a far different experience than Sam had. I had simply overlooked some information about a common garment. Sam made a conscious decision to take the bold action to reveal, through a wardrobe change, his secret identity as Super Hip, Super Desirable Young Man. The feelings he showed in his awkward mirror dance are joyful, human expressions of self worth, and he hoped to demonstrate to his classmates his worth as a suave, sophisticated, modern young man of style. He had a lot more invested in his decision to wear a Parisian Night Suit than I did in my mesh shirt. I had my pride on display; Sam displayed a previously concealed Self. (Not to mention a really goofy-looking, powder blue jumpsuit.)
When it comes to a musician’s “wardrobe” of styles, Elvis Costello is well-known today for being a Halloween-Costume type of performer, having released albums of multiple styles over the past 40(ish) years. Country-folk, New Orleans jazz, classical, jazz/pop, lush 60s-style pop, string quartet with voice … these are some of the styles Elvis has worked in over the years, and there are other records in the discography that are not really in any category. But in the early 80s, Elvis was very much a poster boy for the punk/new wave sound that the UK had been exporting to the US by way of independent record stores, college radio and videos like the ones being shown on that new channel, MTV.
Because of his iconic look, featured on the cover of his debut album, My Aim Is True, and consisting of short hair, big, black spectacles, an ill-fitting suit and pigeon-toed stance, I recognized Elvis Costello before I’d ever heard a song of his. I’ve written before about my first introduction to punk rock as a middle schooler, via MAD Magazine, but the basic story is that it scared the shit out of me. And Elvis was British and looked weird – not nearly as normal as other rock performers of the 70s – so I just assumed he was a scary punk rocker. To an 11 year old buying Village People cassettes, it was a commonsense deduction.
At some point in 8th or 9th grade I was watching a dumb movie on TV called Americathon, in which the US president7 holds a telethon to raise money to keep America from being sold to Native Americans. A performer called “The Earl of Manchester” sings a song on the telethon, and I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a good song.” It was Elvis Costello, in his film debut, playing the song “Crawling to the USA.” This piqued my interest, and I began to flip through his records at record stores and department stores, wondering if I should buy. As I’ve written before, I worried what my folks would think of the smart-assed Brit, so I decided to go with AC/DC and REO Speedwagon instead8.
Elvis became a guy whose songs I heard on the radio, and whose videos I watched on MTV. I liked some songs, didn’t think much about him, and went on my merry way. I did see him and The Attractions live in Philadelphia in 1986 as part of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour, in which audience members spun a gargantuan carnival wheel with song titles stamped on it, and the band played whatever came up. It remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. But still, I didn’t rush out and buy his records.
I really became a fan in the mid 90s, when I bought the Rykodisc release The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions – one of at least 10 “Best of” records that Elvis has released over the years. Then I started buying – and listening constantly – to his records. Imperial Bedroom is a record that I bought after I’d thoroughly digested his first five albums: My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!, and Trust.
Imperial Bedroom is the Parisian Night Suit of Elvis’s early records. This is the record on which he took a chance and revealed his secret identity9 as crooner and front man for an orchestral pop outfit. Some people were taken aback – unsure what to make of this fellow who they thought they’d had pegged. Any fan who’d gotten used to aggressive, guitar-and-organ driven numbers, with lyrics spat derisively into the mic, was in for a big surprise upon hearing the 15 tracks on this new record10. Unlike Sam’s Parisian Night Suit, however, most people understood the strength and sophistication of Costello’s new style.
This is another song that would be high up in my Championship Vinyl Commemorative Top Five List of Side One Track Ones. I love how it opens with a faint vocalization while drummer Pete Thomas’s high-hat jangles, and Bruce Thomas (no relation) strikes a declarative single bass note. Elvis sings, softly and closely, an incredibly wide-ranging melody, with more words-per-measure than some folks put into an entire verse. The song builds gradually, with Pete double-timing the bass drum at about 48 seconds11, and keyboardist Steve Nieve holding a note that turns into a swirling, calliope-esque background for the rest of the song. Meanwhile, Bruce Thomas has been striking single bass notes, and Pete Thomas is frantically pounding, and the whole thing escalates to a gunshot sound at 1:09. So we’re just over a minute into the song, and already it’s clear that this record is not going to be made up of simple verse-chorus-verse-bridge rock songs, and straightforward rock band sounds. The entire song sounds like something different, a pop song from another world. Also, the song’s lyrics are particularly clever and full of allusions and puns, and seem to describe a character drunkenly meeting a woman at a bar and leaving with her – and regretting it as it happens.
Elvis’s lyrics are generally either loved or hated because of their slick (too slick?) wordplay – but I’m a guy who appreciates the puns and wit12 The next song, “Tears Before Bedtime,” describes one side of a deteriorating relationship in clear, direct language, and a phrase that anyone who’s argued with a partner can understand: “How wrong can I be before I am right?”
There’s so much I like about this song. It really shows off the band’s abilities. In Costello’s recent autobiography, he continually (and hyperbolically) praises The Attractions as the best band ever assembled, and they truly are talented. Nieve’s beep-booping keyboard takes center stage, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear a ska-sounding rhythm chop supporting the whole thing. This is also played by the multi-talented Nieve. At about 1:48 it’s particularly clear, until Bruce Thomas’s catchy run brings the whole band back in for the chorus. I also like how Elvis’s vocals are sung in many voices, as if he’s playing different parts. It’s very much a sing-along song for me.
There are a few songs about crumbling relationships on the album, and another one that again features a rather non-Elvis arrangement is the sweet-sounding sob story “The Long Honeymoon.”
On this track, Nieve adds a gentle accordion to accompany a samba beat13, which together with Elvis’s vibrato gives the song the feel of a sleazy 60s lounge-singer. Which – given the tale of a husband stepping out on his wife – fits perfectly! Elvis isn’t well-known as a guitarist, but he plays a great solo on this song that fits in tone and style. One gets the sense Mr. Costello was having difficulties at home while he was writing Imperial Bedroom – a fact he confirmed in his book.
The discord in his personal life is likely the source of a song in which he asks for forgiveness: “Human Hands.”
It’s a quick, bouncy piano-based number with some catchy horns arranged by the album’s producer (and engineer on some of the best Beatles albums), Geoff Emerick. I love Elvis’s vocals on this one, which is once again a wide-ranging melody. It was the presence of Emerick as producer that helped guide Costello to stitch together this Parisian Night Suit of an album. Emerick’s work on albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road is legendary, and according to his book (and Costello’s book) he played a significant role in coaxing Costello to trust himself and take some stylistic risks. It is in this risk-taking spirit that comes the lushly orchestrated “…And In Every Home.” The score for the orchestra was written by pianist Nieve, who attended London’s Royal College of Music. The song seems to be another one about an unhappy home
Emerick’s touch is also heard in the harpsichord backing and flanging vocals in the lovely lament about teenage love, (and the lack of information that can make it so weird and challenging) “You Little Fool.”
There are a few “classic”-sounding Costello songs on the album. “The Loved Ones” would have fit nicely on an earlier record and features a call-and-response chorus that has Mr. Emerick’s fingerprints all over it. And “Little Savage” sounds like a lost track from his 60s-themed album Get Happy! But most sound like nothing he’d done before. Take “Pidgin English,” for example, with its orchestration, multiple voices and distorted drums. This is the second song on the album to feature the words “PS I Love You” at the end, this time sounding like an epitaph – perhaps another clue to the status of Costello’s love life when the songs were written.
Besides the opening track, my favorite song on the album is “Man Out of Time.”
The song opens and closes with snippets of earlier versions of the song, when it was a raucous rave-up, but as recorded for Imperial Bedroom, it’s a grandly sweeping epic. It features wonderful keyboard work from Nieve – organs and pianos adding shading behind the verses. Elvis’s singing is again evocative and personal-sounding. I’m not sure what the lyrics are about – many have suggested it harkens to an old British political scandal. Whatever they mean, the lyrics make for excellent poetry.
So there you have it – Elvis Costello’s Parisian Night Suit. He boldly put it on and strode through the high school halls of 80s New Wave and dared the others to laugh. I’d like to think that Sam bought Imperial Bedroom in his junior year at McKinley High and was inspired to go out on some other limbs. Maybe the Parisian Night Suit wasn’t right for him, but I hope he kept trying to get the right presentation for all of his Secret Identities14. Elvis Costello has made a career of it, and this first secret identity on Imperial Bedroom may have been his best.
Tears Before Bedtime
The Long Honeymoon
Man Out of Time
…And in Every Home
The Loved Ones
Kid About It
Boy with a Problem
You Little Fool