Tag Archives: 1982

62nd Favorite: Pretenders, by The Pretenders


Pretenders. The Pretenders.
1980, Sire. Producer: Chris Thomas; Nick Lowe.
Gift 1984.

pretenders album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, melodic, unusual punky pop rock that sounds unlike anything else. Chrissie Hynde’s vocals and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar work shine on an album that combines power and sweetness and grit and beauty. The band moves from jangle pop to tough punk to slow-dance grace, and never sounds like a copy of anything else.
diaryIf you’ve read this blog before, you’re very aware of what I’m about to type in the sentence after the next one. If you haven’t read it before, the next sentence may be the last of mine you’ll ever read. In this blog about records and music, I write just as much about me and my life as I do about the records and the music.

It’s kind of a weird thing to do – a private citizen who’s celebrityaccomplished nothing noteworthy to anyone outside a few friends and family[ref]The kind of noteworthy things everyone does: work a job, have some kids and pets, go on a vacation once in a while.[/ref] documenting things that have happened in my life. Who really cares? I’m a huge fan of rock music autobiographies[ref]Only AUTObiographies, generally speaking. (The recent book on The Replacements, Trouble Boys, by Bob Mehr, is an exception. However, the band cooperated (for the most part) so it was sort of like an autobiography.) I want the story told in the person’s own words. I accept that I may be getting a whitewashed or distorted version of facts, but it’s the trade-off I accept for reading the artist’s perspective. Besides, I’m more interested in insight into the creative process and what shaped an artist’s life than hard-hitting facts about their personal lives.[/ref], and what makes them interesting is the fact that the people writing them have done something terrific, moving, outstanding … something that has boredtypically touched the lives of millions, and reading their words can offer insight into their work.

I, however, have not done anything even remotely similar. The closest I’ve come to reaching millions is the time one of my funny phone calls made it on the air on WEEI radio’s old afternoon feature the “Weiner Whiner Line” back in the early ’00s[ref]Brief recap: Ivan Rodriguez, big-league catcher long rumored to have been a steroid user, returned to Spring Training significantly slimmer than previous seasons. Around the same time, Terri Schiavo’s family was battling for the right to remove the feeding tube from her brain-dead body. I called the show and said, “What happened to Ivan Rodriguez? He’s so small! Either he went off steroids or somebody removed his feeding tube.” A buddy at work told me he heard it. I was so proud.[/ref]. And (much like this blog) hardly anyone even knew it was me who did it.

importantSo why do I write so much about a bunch of mundane memories, stories so insignificant that very often the other persons featured in them have only a vague remembrance of the events I describe? It’s partially because I have a super-inflated ego, a borderline delusional sense of my own level of importance in the world, which demands I impart upon any unwitting reader an amplified version of all the characteristics that make up my “self.”

monetBut that’s only part of the reason. It’s mainly because this music has always connected with me on a deep level. Music informs my life and helps me make sense of it. There’s a soundtrack playing inside my head while I make my way through my life and, just like a movie soundtrack, it’s full of songs that color the events and enhance my feelings. My experiences are inextricably bound to the music that plays in my head during them, so I can’t really discuss the music I love without also discussing my life events that go with that music. It would be like displaying a black and white rendering of a work by Monet: you’d get the idea, but it wouldn’t really be the same. (Given Monet’s abilities vis-a-vis mine, a closer analogy might be watching an infomercial with the sound off.)

So music is part of all aspects of my life, both the good and the bad. bagheadThis means I’ve written about some pretty unsavory characteristics of myself – or rather, my past selves. I’ve changed a lot over the years. But the music has remained with me. In these posts I’ve talked about my past problems with alcohol and self-control, my past intolerance of others and flat-out bigotry, my nerdiness, and – maybe most embarrassing of all – my love for albums that aren’t very good. However, there are parts of my life that I won’t write about. I don’t write directly about individuals in my family, or other people I know. I try to refrain from writing about how wonderful I am – I figure that will come through on its own. I’m also not going to write about sex[ref]You’re welcome.[/ref].

I’m not a prude, and consider myself pretty “sex positive,” as they say, but my thoughts on the topic are not something I want to broadcast to the world at large, nor do I think I can write well about it. However, this creates a problem for prudeme when writing about music, as music does relate to all aspects of my life, so …

A big issue with writing about sex is the fact that discussing attraction and romance in a thoughtful, respectful manner is a precarious ledge along which to travel, and as a heterosexual male, one stray word from my own personal unskilled hands could easily send the piece off a sheer cliff into a glorified version of a “Letter to Penthouse Forum[ref]Although, to be fair to myself, I probably could complete a paragraph on sex without using terms like “bodacious ta-tas” or “luscious (anything).”[/ref].” Additionally, this blog is about rock/pop music, which has always been aimed directly at the teen market. So, even songs I didn’t hear as a teen can frequently stir teenage-based thoughts and emotions, and it is simply a fact that teenage feelings of attraction are different than what adults feel. In trying to delve back into those teenage feelings and document what I find, I risk coming up with nothing more than “That chick was hot!” and “I figure I’ll never touch a breast.”

But yet, I want to write about all these records honestly.

Anyway, look: some music, and some musicians, I do associate with feelings of physical attraction, and most of those associations are from a time in my life when I was in my teens and early twenties, and – at the risk of sounding like a sexist jerk judging women like livestock at the Farm Show – even barracudathough I am now approaching 50 and no longer base my opinions of these artists (who are now approaching 70) on what they looked like, I still can remember what I once felt, and songs from that era can still generate these feelings. To boil it all down: when I hear an old song by Heart today, there’s still a part of me that thinks “Man, those two are hot!!” (To be fair to myself, there’s an even larger part that thinks, “Man, this song is awesome[ref]Pre-1982 Heart only.[/ref]!!) So I’d like to write a little bit about sex and music – without discussing sex and without sounding sexist. In only about three sentences, too, since I’ve already wasted all these words on a rambling (though not particularly digressive) caveat. I’ll be as careful as possible so I don’t drop off that cliff.

I remember being grossed out by Cher’s sexy costumes on the old Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour TV show. I was not yet 10, and whenever she came out to sing (and make fun of Sonny) with her belly exposed, or in skin-tight dresses, I was horrified. By middle school, disco music was in full swing, and despite the often blatant sexual nature of the songs, I was clueless about their meanings and didn’t think much about the general attractiveness of the singers[ref]Although I did think The Village People were cool-looking guys, and was dumbfounded by the gullibility of a friend who told me he heard they were gay.[/ref]. The middle solidgoldschool years were also the era of Blondie, a band with songs I liked but with a singer whose attractiveness – once again – I didn’t really think that much about[ref]Even though my dad clearly felt strongly about her looks. He’d always recognize their songs and ask my sisters and I, “Hey, is that Blondie?” with a certain level of interest that was never matched in any of his other very few references to the existence of rock music.[/ref]. Sometime around 8th grade, the pop-music TV showcase Solid Gold debuted, airing locally in my town just before Saturday Night Live, and it featured The Solid Gold Dancers, who … well, I’ll not venture further out onto the ledge: suffice it to say things were changing with me, and I tried not to miss an episode.

As I’ve mentioned often in this blog, MTV was a big turning point in my musical appreciation. It launched in August of 1981, coinciding with mtvmy freshman year of high school – which was right about the time I also started noticing things about girls and women (including The Solid Gold Dancers) that I’d never considered before. In those early MTV years, the channel played songs I liked sung by women who were cute, but that I didn’t find particularly attractive. They also played songs I didn’t particularly like sung by women I found rather … captivating, let’s say. There were also a few videos of songs by women that my 14 year old self just couldn’t fit into its tiny little concept of men and women and attraction – even though – confusingly – I found them rather attractive just because they were making music.

And then there was Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders.
The Pretenders had several videos in rotation on MTV in 1981 and 1982, and all of them featured lots of shots of the band playing, including leader Chrissie Hynde strumming that guitar and singing. To that point in my life, I could have easily pointed out girls and women that I considered “pretty,” but Chrissie Hynde didn’t look like those people. She wasn’t ugly, but she seemed tough and dangerous, like she didn’t give a damn whether I thought she was pretty or not. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. And she played that guitar, and sang so sweetly, but at times with such force and such emotion, on lyrics that were direct, not demure, that were at times shocking to a naive 14-year old boy from small town Pennsylvania.

The band’s biggest hit video to that point was “Brass In Pocket,” andwaitress it featured Hynde acting as a waitress in a diner, serving the rest of the band members and their girlfriends. I hated that video. I didn’t want to see her act, I wanted to see her SING and PLAY! When she acted, she was just another person on TV. When she sang and played, she was CHRISSIE HYNDE. I found her compelling, but I couldn’t really explain why. I’d figure it out soon enough.

Chrissie Hynde has always been the leader of The Pretenders: chief songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist. The band has had some tragic setbacks, including firing original bassist Pete Farndon in 1982 due to heroin abuse, followed two days later by original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s death from a cocaine overdose[ref]Hynde wrote the lovely “2000 Miles” about his death.[/ref]. Farndon himself died a year later. The band has had lots of lineup changes, but Chrissie Hynde has always been there. And the album Pretenders had the first, and most memorable, lineup.

64 mustangThis was another album that I originally found in my oldest sister’s collection – however not in the milk crate full of vinyl, where I discovered so many other records. Pretenders was on a cassette she owned. I had seen it but hadn’t played it, until dawned on me one day that this was the band I’d fallen in lust with on MTV. Then I played it a lot. I also have a memory of listening to it with my sister while she drove me around in her sweet ’64 red mustang. She eventually moved to California and took the cassette with her, but she sent me a copy for a birthday present.

The album immediately announces itself, and Chrissie Hynde, with the raucous and raunchy “Precious.”

Four drum stick clicks, a little background chatter and that driving guitar riff begins. chrissie guitar 2The bass kicks in around 10 seconds, and the band is off and flying. Hynde’s voice is tough but sweet on a song that doesn’t really have much of a melody, and at times is almost a rap. If you’ve read Hynde’s recent autobiography, you know that she had a pretty violent life as a young woman in Cleveland, associating with biker gangs and doing way too many drugs. “Precious” is about her escape from Cleveland; while others stayed, as she states in one of the most famous “f-bombs” in rock history, she had to “fuck off.” The Pretenders’ songs often have unconventional structures and time signatures, and “Precious” doesn’t hew to the typical “verse-chorus-bridge” pop song format, but just charges ahead. It’s fast and direct, and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar is unusual, with effects such as the flanging, featured at 0:44. It’s a perfect first song for a first album.

“The Phone Call” is up next, and it’s got an unusual sound, too.

For one thing, it’s in the time signature of 7/4 (withchambers an extra 6/4 measure before the chorus (if you will)) which is odd enough, but switches to 4/4 (with stray 2/4 bars every fourth bar, for good measure [ref]Get it? Ha! Anyway …[/ref]) in the instrumental section. It all creates a cool, noisey, aggressive sound within which all those extra beats are barely noticeable. This is a testament to excellent drummer Martin Chambers, who handles it all with no problem whatsoever. I never knew what the barely audible, again mostly melody-less vocals were singing about, but I believe they are also about Hynde having to get the hell out of Cleveland to save her life. It’s evidence of the band’s, and Hynde’s confidence, that she’d place two such unusual songs 1-2 on the first record. It makes a listener wonder what’s coming next. And next up are two songs that have always blown me away.

The first is “Up the Neck.” And it features the inimitable guitar sounds of James Honeyman-Scott.

His guitar riff alarm opens “Up The Neck,” and after 10 seconds he begins to play ascending notes that draw me right into the song. Pete Farndon’s simple, catchy bass joins Hynde’s vocals and by 22 seconds in, jamesa perfect guitar pop song is under way. While she’s singing about what sounds to be a one night stand that turns violent, Honeyman-Scott’s guitar continues to produce little chiming flourishes that are unmistakably his, and unmistakably cool. Honeyman-Scott is one of those guitar players with a sound all his own, who you can identify simply by listening. Others in this category are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham. At 1:15, when the ascending riff returns, he adds even more curlicues to it. It’s the perfect complement to Hynde’s sweet and aggressive (and suggestive: “the veins bulged on his … brow …”) vocals. He plays a coolly simple solo, as well. It’s a song I always listen to with enthusiasm that is only eclipsed on the album by the next song: “Tattooed Love Boys.”

I probably overuse the term “chiming” to describe a certain sound a guitar can make, but it perfectly describes Honeyman-Scott’s chrissieguitarguitar riff on this song. His chimes begin a charging, aggressive song with snarling vocals and a crazy time signature of either 15/4, or 7/4 + [2 x 4/4] (if there’s a difference). That time signature gives the song a hiccuping, rough-edged sound that makes it far more compelling than it would be in a typical time signature, and Chambers again shines behind the drums. The extended guitar section, from about 1:18 to about 2:11, with its stops and starts and one-measure guitar solos, never fails to astonish me. I feel like I could happily listen to this song on a continuous loop.

One of the great aspects of early MTV was how the channel would reward a viewer for watching in long chunks of time. You knew that if you just watched long enough, and sat through enough bullshit and goofy crap (terms I use endearingly, as I enjoyed the bullshit and goofy crap, too) you’d get to see a a video you loved. For me, “Tattooed Love Boys” was such a video. And it wasn’t played frequently, so I had to watch a lot. (I HAD TO!) pretenders_2This video, with the band covered in sweat and manhandling their instruments, drove me crazy. It wasn’t just the playing: much of my fervor was due to Hynde’s performance – her wielding that guitar, dancing and moving, her voice, openly singing about a crazy, rough sexual experience involving what sounded like several men, in which she seemed to brag about, and take delight in, her role. In her recent autobiography, she has deflated my (and I hope everyone’s) fascination with the what-sounded-sexy-back-then lyrics by revealing that the song actually described a brutal gang rape by a group of bikers she thought were her friends, including a boyfriend. It’s still one of my all-time favorite songs, but I hear it differently now.

“The Wait” is another song that floors me every time, again with the crazy time signature, again one of my all-time favorites.

This is a song sung at a furious pace, with Hynde spitting out peteunintelligible lyrics about, well, something, I guess, scratching guitars in the verse, and a terrific walking bass line in the chorus by the under-appreciated Pete Farndon. At 1:47 a quiet, sultry bridge begins, then at 2:14 empties into another excellent guitar solo from Honeyman-Scott, finished off with Hynde’s grunt of approval at 2:47. It’s a song that makes me bounce around whenever I hear it.

Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders don’t just play the crazy-rhythmed, furious punk songs. They also manage the typical pop song quite nicely, as evidenced by the wonderful “Kid.”

Along with great harmony vocals and a driving beat, what I love about this song is – once again – Honeyman-Scott’s incredible solo at 1:35, culminating in a lovely harmonic, and backed by Chambers’s tribal drums. pretenders 3The band also covers The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and serve up their big hit, “Brass In Pocket,” both excellent, straightforward pop pearls. There’s also the instrumental, video game-inspired “Space Invader,” featuring sounds from the old arcade game recorded when it was a newfangled thing! The songs “Private Life” and “Lovers of Today” are a pair that I never loved (although, as always, the guitar work in “Private Life” is top-notch) but tolerated so that I could get to the last song.

“Mystery Achievement.”

It’s a perfect song to end an incredible album. The drums and bass get the song pumping, and soon enough Hynde is singing mysterious lyrics and Honeyman-Scott is throwing in his signature sounds. At 3:00 the band plays an extended instrumental section, with echoing drums and guitars and then an incredibly cool solo that pulls out at 4:23 and breaks into a nifty, ringing two-note riff behind the chrissie2vocals. It’s a song that demands repeated listening, and leaves the listener exhausted but satisfied by the very end.

Some lyrics from that last song, “Every day/ every nighttime I find/ Mystery Achievement/ you’re on my mind,” begin to describe what it’s like when you’re 13, 14, somewhere around that age, and you start to recognize something, some thing, you’ve never recognized before, even though you feel it must have been there all along. Maybe it was a face that inspired it, or a body, or a movie. For me, it was a singer in a band. I couldn’t explain it then, I can’t explain it now. The only thing I know for sure about it – even after all these years – is that it led me to a tremendous rock and roll record.

Track Listing
“The Phone Call”
“Up The Neck”
“Tattooed Love Boys”
“Space Invader”
“The Wait”
“Stop Your Sobbing”
“Private Life”
“Brass In Pocket”
“Lovers Of Today”
“Mystery Achievement”


70th Favorite: Imperial Bedroom, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions


Imperial Bedroom. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1982, Columbia Records. Producer: Geoff Emerick.
Purchased ca. 1998.

album imperial bedroom

squirrel nutIN 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.
f and g cast

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.

bootsThe 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-track[ref]A euphemism for “not college-bound.”[/ref] classes, and at my school they were most rock shirtsoften found in the Smoking Lavatory[ref]Yes, indeed. My school had a lavatory where, if your parents signed off on it, you could obtain a pass to go to a lavatory in which smoking (cigarettes, ostensibly) was allowed. The pass also allowed you to smoke in the back row of the parking lot. My school was famous for it. It sounds unbelievable, and ridiculous, but my sisters attended school before these lavs opened, and they (non-smokers both) were THRILLED when they were introduced, as it meant the rest of the lavs would now be smoke-free, a state they rarely maintained before the Smoking Lavatories were opened.[/ref]. 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 showers[ref]My kids, in 2016, cannot BELIEVE that we were forced to shower (naked!) with each other back then. Is showering after athletics really so weird?[/ref] were seemingly lifted directly from my life. The writing on the show was excellent, the actors were brilliant[ref]It’s remarkable how many members of the teenaged cast became stars as adults.[/ref], 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.

velourA 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.

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/10-ERM-e1455973845379.jpg” captiontext=”In fourth grade I wasn’t afraid of bold sartorial choices. (This outfit was not a punishment – I chose it. Even the shoes.)”]

But class photos from 6th through 10th grade demonstrate that – apart from dabbling in attempts at feathering my cowlick-ridden hair – I’d found a look[ref]The word “style” would really be overstating things.[/ref] and I went with it.

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/author-pix-2.png” captiontext=”Collars and stripes were in! Every year! Apparently. Re: the hair, I know what you’re thinking. I’m as dumbfounded as you are.”]

Earlier, I stated I hoped you readers never went through such an will rogersexperience 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.risk

mesh shirtIn 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 life[ref]I just want to point out that I’m laughing as I write this, not crying. I’ve gotten over it. Sort of. No, really, I have.[/ref].

supermanBut 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, brodskyhaving 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.

elvis iconBecause 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.

village people At some point in 8th or 9th grade I was watching a dumb movie on TV called Americathon, in which the US president[ref]Played by Three’s Company‘s John Ritter.[/ref] 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 instead[ref]As the sci-fi/fantasy author Sherrilyn Kenyon has written, “The worst decisions in life we make are always the ones we make out of fear.”[/ref].

spinningElvis 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 Rykodiscbest of 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.
elvis snl2

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 identity[ref]One of many, obviously.[/ref] 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 record[ref]Indeed, Elvis had released Almost Blue, an album of country music standards the year before Imperial Bedroom was released, but this seemed more like a fun side project for him than a seriously considered, personal work.[/ref]. Unlike Sam’s Parisian Night Suit, however, most people understood the strength and sophistication of Costello’s new style.

The record opens with the subtle, splendid “Beyond Belief,” a very mellow opener, especially after five previous (mostly) rockin’ album openers.

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 elvis attract 11a 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 seconds[ref]Ordinarily I’d state it as “the second verse,” or “last half of the verse,” but the song’s structure doesn’t fit neatly into such descriptions – which is another thing I love about it![/ref], 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.

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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 wit[ref]And who can correctly and precisely use unusual words like “identikit.”[/ref] 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 elvis attractionsThe 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 steve nieve to accompany a samba beat[ref]Or maybe its rumba. Or bossa nova. Anyway, its Latin-y sounding. I watched a bunch of instructional videos on rhythms, and I couldn’t tell which one it was![/ref], 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 elvis attractions2catchy 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. elvis attractions concertThe 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.

elvis attractions 2So 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 Identities[ref]Yes, I recognize he’s a fictional character.[/ref]. Elvis Costello has made a career of it, and this first secret identity on Imperial Bedroom may have been his best.

Beyond Belief
Tears Before Bedtime
Shabby Doll
The Long Honeymoon
Man Out of Time
Almost Blue
…And in Every Home
The Loved Ones
Human Hands
Kid About It
Little Savage
Boy with a Problem
Pidgin English
You Little Fool
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