I’m listening to King of America, Elvis Costello’s 1986 album, while receiving my fourth and final dose of Cytarabine for this chemo cycle. Unlike the over-produced and rather directionless ‘Goodbye Cruel World’, this album still works for me 32 years on as the songs and production remain coherent for the whole hour.
The first track is ‘Brilliant Mistake’, and the first verse seems to resonate when listened to against the backdrop of Trump and Brexit. I hope fervently that in a couple of years these brilliant mistakes will have been consigned to the dustbin of history. But if not, well, a few listens to ‘Suit of Lights’, also on this album, will probably make me feel a little better.
Brilliant Mistake – Declan MacManus
He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour coca-cola just like vintage wine
Now I try hard not to become hysterical
But I’m not sure if I’m laughing or crying
I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this hurting feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
It was a fine idea at the time (*)
Now it’s a brilliant mistake
(*) I was obviously never convinced that Trump or Brexit were fine ideas, but understand why many people thought they were. Hopefully change is coming …
I had drafted a long piece in praise of weakly held beliefs this morning. You may be relieved to know that I’ve decided to bin it in favour of simply asking this question to the crazy extremists of the political left and right, and of faith and no faith out there in the world beyond my study. I think it’s as good a question today as it was in 1974. If this blog post gives just one of them pause for thought, then I’ll be happy.
This is the Brinsley Schwarz version of the song featuring a very young Nick Lowe on lead guitar and vocals, with the bonus of some great synchronised moves from the rest of the band.
Last Saturday evening, as Elvis Costello was thundering towards the climax of his performance at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, I remembered what it was like to be 17 again. Just for a few moments during the final couple of songs I really believed that the last 30 or so years hadn’t happened yet.
A quick glance around convinced me of reality though. Probably the most notable feature of the evening, aside from the privilege of watching a great performer was that the vast majority of the audience were most definitely not 17. They were nearly all my age – or older. The teenagers were a few yards up the road, waiting to get into Rock City as us oldies all trooped out into the night after the gig had finished at around 11pm.
But for a couple of hours it was great to re-live the soundtrack to that particular part of my life … even if I can’t hear any version of High Fidelity (a single from the 1980 “Get Happy!!” album) without my brain superimposing the scratches at the end of the track which have always been on my copy.
I’ve being experimenting with Huffty’s radio/cd/media player system over the last couple of days and found myself listening to a number of Elvis Costello albums I’ve haven’t played for a while. A couple of the tracks, Radio, Radio and The Other Side of Summer reminded me of an interview I heard a couple of decades ago (at least!) on subversive pop – a term I seem to think was coined or at least used a lot by Nick Lowe. The idea is that you hide subversive lyrics in what, on the face of it, appears to be just a pop song.
Radio, radio is great example of subversive pop. It has an upbeat, catchy tune and the opening lyrics to the song are fairly innocuous. Just long enough for a radio DJ to put it on, fade it down in their headphones and think about the next track they’re going to put on or person they’re about to interview. The song ends with the (repeated) lyrics “marvellous radio, wonderful radio, radio radio …”, so this is what the DJ will hear as they fade the track back up on their monitors. However, the whole song is really a vicious attack on (particularly American) radio stations, the media in general, sound bite culture and the political conservatism of their owners.
“You either shut up or get cut up;
they don’t wanna hear about it.
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
trying to anaesthetise the way that you feel”