Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello: Kings of America

Burt Bacharach had his first hit when Elvis Costello was in short trousers. Costello had hits of his own when Bacharach’s star was waning. Now, the musical sophisticate and the post-punk idealist are making their music together

AS AMERICA swelters in the hottest summer in living memory, the temperature in Los Angeles is nudging the mid-nineties. Not that you would be able to tell from Elvis Costello’s attire, which is more suited to an autumn evening in Dublin, his adopted hometown, than the midday heat haze of Sunset Strip: black leather jacket, black shirt, black trousers and black loafers. Atop his newly-shorn head sits an unlikely looking straw hat of the variety so beloved by an older generation of jazz hipsters. It is his single concession to the Californian climate. This is an outfit that betokens a man not given to compromise; one whose chosen career path has, of late, been as out of step with the thrust of contemporary pop as it was once so effortlessly in synch with the post-punk public appetite for articulate, acerbic songwriting.

Burt Bacharach, on the other hand, is hatless, and dressed head-to-foot in freshly-laundered leisurewear: white sweatshirt, white slacks, white sneakers and matching socks. It is an outfit that suggests this is a man who has spent his life effortlessly unconcerned with the vagaries of fashion, at ease with himself, even more so now that the world has, yet again, rediscovered the music he made back when both he and pop were young — an adult, American music, stylised and sophisticated, redolent of a time long gone, yet also curiously timeless.

Costello and Bacharach make for an odd couple: a squat, pale Liverpudlian fortysomething, brimming over with words, with explanations, with long and complex answers to questions you have not quite asked, but which he obviously feels you should have; and, next to him, bent in concentration over the studio console, a lithe, suntanned all-American almost-seventysomething, relaxed and reticent, clothed in an air of constant preoccupation, who measures his responses in short flurries of words that stop… then, a few seconds later… start again… like this… until he has said, softly and succinctly, what he has to… and nothing more.

Bacharach and Costello; Costello and Bacharach; whichever way you arrange it, it has a certain ring to it, a sense of destiny almost. More so, certainly, than Costello and The Brodsky Quartet, who a few years back joined forces to make an album of clever, classically-inclined songs that were much easier to admire than love. More so, even, than Costello and McCartney, who had a brief, partially successful songwriting liaison around the turn of the decade.

Bacharach and Costello are on a kind of post-natal high, approaching the end of a protracted labour of love that, if all goes according to the record company’s marketing plan, could make them both household names again, on both sides of the Atlantic. After weeks of long studio sessions and months of collaborative preparation, often across time-lagged transatlantic phone and fax lines, the album that will bear both their inimitable imprints — Bacharach’s lush orchestrations and subtle arrangements, Costello’s literate lyricism and pained voice — is finally ready for release.

THERE IS A palpable sense — not least from Mercury Records, which has funded this experiment, following Costello’s amicable departure from Warner Brothers last year — that this could be the Holy Grail of collaboration that both artists have, in their separate ways, been searching for: Bacharach since his litigious split in 1973 with his lyric-writing partner, the redoubtable Hal David, with whom he’d written more than 20 top-40 hits for Dionne Warwick alone; and Costello since… well, my own contender for the title The Last Truly Great Elvis Costello Album would be 1986’s King Of America (though 1989’s collection of bilious and barbed missives, Spike, comes pretty close and, to be fair, every record he has made since contains moments of excellence, not least the criminally undervalued retrospective, All This Useless Beauty, of 1996).

The imminent album, Painted From Memory: The New Songs Of Bacharach & Costello, is, to say the least, an intriguing prospect; a collection of songs united conceptually in theme, mood and style. “I’ve always wanted to do an orchestral pop album with big ballads,” elaborates Costello when we meet at the curiously-named Ocean Way Studio (it’s a full hour’s drive from the Pacific coast), “but it’s not overwhelming in the way that some orchestral records are; it’s more understated. Texture, for Burt, is everything.”

And texture, to a great degree, is what characterises these new songs. From the faintly familiar flugelhorns and female chorus of ‘Toledo’ (a not-so-distant cousin of ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’), through the melancholic sway of ‘This House Is Empty Now’, on to the lush and plaintive pastures of ‘I Still Have That Other Girl’, Bacharach and Costello’s album is an object lesson in both musical and emotional textures, in the delineation of a single theme through words and music.

“Thematically, it’s about lost love,” explains Costello, choosing his spoken words as carefully as he picks his song lyrics. “If I was pushed, I’d call it a heartbreak record, insofar as they are all sad love songs. It’s a record for people who luxuriate in melancholy, a celebration of heartbreak.”

THE HALF-dozen songs I hear, loud and clear, and without even the tiniest bass vibration to disturb their pristine clarity, on the studio speakers are, by turns, luxurious and dramatic. They share, too, an immediately identifiable formal signature — more Bacharach than Costello — which, in its sculpted symmetry, recalls another time, when lyrics and arrangements were sacrosanct, serving each other equally. On one perhaps unavoidable level, these are old-fashioned songs, in that they pay attention to the classic song structure, they use real instruments and real musicians — a large band, strings, female backing vocalists — and so, inevitably, contain echoes of a time when all music was made this way.

What’s more, the album even looks like a record from an older time and place, wrapped as it is in a cover that recalls both the cool jazz era of Chet Baker — the black-and-white sleeve snapshots of Burt and Elvis at work in the studio are by veteran jazz photographer, William Claxton — and an even earlier time, when singers made songbook albums — as in Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book.

Costello has no qualms about making a potentially old-fashioned-sounding album. “I’ve thought about that, obviously,” he says, “but, you know, most pop music seems to use a blueprint that’s at least 30 years old. Listen to Oasis, or whoever — it’s the same template, over and over. As I get older, it appeals to me more to sing this sort of stuff, and it’s a challenge to do something new within the framework. See, the important thing about a collaboration like this is not to try and relive anyone’s past — my own as a fan, or Burt’s as a musician. That’s not what it’s about.”

What, then, I ask, is it about.

“Well, for a start, it’s a collaboration in the truest sense: Burt leads me towards things and vice versa. It’s not just a case of me coming in with the lyrics and Burt arranging them — we’ve written this music together. And, I have to say, it has been a bit of an eye-opener. I mean, Burt redefines the word obsessive. I thought I was bad, but I’ve met my match here. Mind you, he’s been at it a lot longer than me.”

Twenty years longer, to be exact, if you count the time between Bacharach’s first hit — a song called ‘The Blob’, by The Five Blobs (Columbia Records, 1957), that he wrote for a sci-fi B-movie soundtrack — and Costello’s own debut single, ‘Less Than Zero’ (Stiff Records, 1977), a caustic deconstruction of the establishment media’s benign attitude to Oswald Mosley.

When Bacharach was discharged from the army in 1952, and began his musical career with a scholarship to study theory and composition at the grandly-tided Music Academy of the West, California, Costello had not even been born. Four years later, while the infant Elvis, who was then called simply Declan Patrick McManus, was celebrating his second birthday, Bacharach was working as a musical director for the great chanteuse, Marlene Dietrich.

IN 1961, WHEN McManus was just turning eight, Bacharach co-wrote ‘Please Stay’ for The Drifters — a song, incidentally, that Costello himself covered 34 years later on his Kojak Variety album. By 1970, when psychedelic pop and progressive rock were challenging the sanctity of the three-minute pop song and the pubescent Declan McManus was first dreaming of pop stardom, Bacharach and his lyric-writing partner, Hal David, had already amassed a startling succession of singular, often complexly structured pop songs, the mere titles of which send shivers of recognition down the spine even now: ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, ‘Walk On By’, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’ (all for Dionne Warwick); ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ (for Gene Pitney); ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ (for Dusty Springfield); ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ (for Herb Alpert); ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ (for Tom Jones); ‘Close To You’ (for The Carpenters)…

By 1977, however, when Elvis Costello released his debut album, My Aim Is True, and in so doing was instrumental in ushering in a new era of three-minute pop songs — albeit ones of an altogether more brutal and uncompromising nature — Bacharach’s marathon chart ascendancy had, give or take the odd later hit, long since ended (though he continued to make a lucrative living as a concert performer).

Back then, at the height of punk, it would have seemed not just unlikely, but inconceivable that their paths would ever have crossed. Even more so, when, in 1982, Bacharach teamed up with his future wife, Carole Bayer Sager, to pen the Oscar-winning ‘Arthur’s Theme’, a song so saccharine that it was as if punk rock had never existed. That same year, a continent and a whole world away, Robert Wyatt was singing Costello’s oblique anti-Falklands war song, ‘Shipbuilding’, and Costello had earned himself the press soubriquet “the angry intellectual of British rock”.

Thankfully, Bacharach and Costello’s mutual-admiration society is based on an appreciation of their differences as much as their common ground. “I’m blessed,” says Bacharach at one point, after reluctantly agreeing to drag himself away from his studio console for a brief but illuminating chat, “because Elvis has a spectacular way of telling stories, of tracking down words that say things so differently. It’s not my area — it’s an untouched place for me until now. Just watching him work like that has been an inspiration.”

The pair first met, it turns out, at this very studio, when they bumped into each other in the corridor outside this self-same room. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” winces Costello, “because at the time I was working with the Attractions on a tune that we thought was very Burt Bacharach — it had marimbas and flugelhorns — but, of course, it ended up sounding nothing like his music at all. We were listening to ’24 Hours From Tulsa’, and thinking, ‘How did he do that bit?’ See, unless you can read music — which I couldn’t do back then — you tend to absorb things aurally and, nine times out of ten, you get it wrong. To me, getting it wrong is just another original idea. Ninety per cent of great pop music is trying to copy something and getting it wrong.”

Bacharach, who has been listening intently to this not untypical associative Costello monologue, nods his head in agreement. “You know… that’s so true,” he says, as if this realisation has just dawned on him. “That is so very true.”

Three years ago, Costello at last got himself a first-hand glimpse of how Bacharach actually works when they co-wrote the stirring ‘God Give Me Strength’ for the soundtrack to a film called Grace Of My Heart (the song was, arguably, the best thing about it). The ease with which they connected, both musically and temperamentally, was the catalyst for this altogether more epic experiment.

I ask Costello what it is about the big orchestral ballad format that so attracts him, given that, in the past, he made his name as a master of uneasy listening. “Emotion, basically,” he answers, without even the slightest pause for thought. “I mean, I’ve been through the other extreme, the protestations of no emotion. We had that back in 1977, and it lasted about 15 minutes, but, you know what, it was an affectation. I would rather listen to real emotion myself.”

Perhaps, I suggest, the love of literally orchestrated emotion is in his genes, given that his father was a big-band musician with the Joe Loss Orchestra. “Maybe. Who knows? I certainly grew up with a lot of that music and, later, when The Beatles and all that was going on, Burt’s music was always there in the background, though I didn’t really appreciate it until much later. I think there’s room for this kind of thing right now, because the only interpreters of big ballads today are the soft-soul divas — Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion. There’s a gap for the guys.”

His answer, of course, begs the question that many of his fans and detractors alike will be asking: does Elvis Costello — who is not, even by his own definition, the world’s most technically-gifted singer — have the voice, the power, the range, the technique to sing these big, arranged ballads? The tone of his answer suggests that this is a question that has also crossed his mind.

“Well, let’s say my relationship to jazz, or even to classical song forms, is not that of a jazz vocalist or a classical singer. I’m a popular vocalist who has an individual enough style and enough technique to sing certain things. I’m never going to sing Verdi — that would be idiotic — in the same way that I’m never going to sing a certain type of older Burt Bacharach song. ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ is never going to trip off my tongue.

“When I do something like this — outside the normal parameters of rock and roll — it’s usually on my own terms, within my capabilities. I’m not frustrated with the limitations of rock and roll, or anything like that. It’s just that there are different strengths to this music. It’s not better than rock or soul or whatever; it just isn’t those things. I’m not asking everybody to come along for the ride, but it would be nice if they listened with an open mind.”

WHILE I LISTEN to their album, alone in the studio and with my mind dutifully wide-open, I scribble down the following words in my notebook: “lush”, “dynamic”, “intimate”, “dreamy”, alongside the phrase “moody ballads, dramatic arrangement”; words, again, that one would associate more with Bacharach’s music than with Costello’s.

After listening through the record a couple of times, however, I begin to hear that, for the first time in a long time, Costello has written, and is singing, a different kind of song. All his trademarks are intact — the wordplay, the often elliptical turns of phrase, the mapping out, in just a few suggestive sentences, of the contours of a relationship — but, this time around, tailored to fit these melodies, they add up to something different; something less ornate, less elaborate. Then it hits me: the uncrowned king of densely-packed narratives and often wilfully impenetrable lyrics is singing fewer words than usual. Such, it seems, is the redemptive, not to mention reductive, power of a Burt Bacharach arrangement.

“Oh, there are definitely less words,” laughs Costello, when, with some trepidation, given his reputation as a defensive, often volatile interviewee, I raise this subject.

“I’m glad you picked up on that. Not just less words, but words that are more simple and direct. Some of my songs get a little out there sometimes, but, this time around, there’s none of the weird surrealism that slips in from time to time. There are no ‘butterflies feeding on dead monkey’s hands’ on this record. I’m not demeaning those more farfetched songs, mind. It’s just that this is not that kind of record. This is about illustrating simple ideas.”

Which is music to my ears and, no doubt, to all those other long-term Costello fans who yearn for the old relative simplicity of songs such as ‘Alison’ or ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ or ‘I Want You’, rather than, say, the purely cerebral compositions of The Juliet Letters, on which the Brodsky Quartet seemed to encourage, rather than rein in, Costello’s penchant for oblique-to-the-point-of-opaque lyrics.

Where Burt Bacharach is concerned, though, you always have to qualify the word “simple” with the adverb “deceptively”. As everyone from Noel Gallagher to Jarvis Cocker, both Bacharach devotees, has attested, there is nothing simple about the almost perfect arrangements of classic pop songs such as ‘Walk On By’ or ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’.

When Bacharach finally tears himself away from the studio mixing desk once more for another brief chat, he illustrates this point beautifully with an anecdote about the latter song, which was a source of mystery to session players in the late Sixties. “I remember I went up to Harlem to catch Dionne [Warwick] at the Apollo,” he says, wistfully. Costello and myself, united in utter fandom, are all ears. “As soon as I walk in the room, her backing musicians all crowd around me, going, ‘Why’d you have to write such difficult music, man? We can’t figure out ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ — it’s just too damned hard to play.” They were trying to work it out metrically, because it shifts from 5/4 to 4/4 to 7/8 and Dionne could make that sound easy. I said to them, ‘Don’t think it, guys. Just listen to it and feel it.’ I mean, the record was in the top ten, a couple of million people had bought it in the first week it was released, and they didn’t seem to have a problem with it being difficult.”

Costello, it turns out, has had a creative master-class in what he calls “the grammar of music”, marvelling more than once during our conversation at Bacharach’s ability “to home in on the simplest thing, the smallest detail”. When I ask him to define “the grammar of music”, Costello, effusive and accommodating to a degree that belies his prickly reputation, launches into a monologue that gives some sense of the meticulous nature of their working relationship. “Burt has this really fantastic sense of where a tune is heading. It’s about making the words agree with the music, rather than bending the music out of shape to accommodate the words, which is what I tend to do in my own music — the tyranny of the words. We had the inevitable arguments, but I mostly went with his judgment because I found that the changes he was suggesting — and we’re talking about something as small as the loss of maybe a one-syllable word at the start of a bridge — weren’t just improving a line, but, two or three lines on, would pay off again and you’d suddenly see what he was on about. The shape of the melody, that’s really Burt’s bag.”

In a recent appreciation of Frank Sinatra, penned for this very paper, Costello wrote how the music that accompanied the late, great singer’s slower songs not only complemented the words, but often seemed to be an essential part of the song narrative, expressing “the unspoken details”. Had he found the same quality in Bacharach’s arrangements? “Definitely. That’s a good parallel, because when I was young I didn’t know what a lot of Burt’s songs were about. Not because the words weren’t good, but because the music was saying something beyond the words. ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ is like that— the music itself is unsettling: it has a sensual, erotic quality that suggests something more torrid beyond the words. There’s a suggestion in the music of something left unspoken in the actual lyric.”

This kind of instrumental suggestion underpins the dynamics of some of these new songs, too: both ‘My Thief’ and ‘In The Darkest Place’, for example, manage to sound sophisticated and vaguely unsettling at the same time; a perfect merging of vintage Bacharach and classic Costello.

I ask Bacharach if he minds the description “sophisticated”, which tends to litter the press cuttings about him, in tandem with “lush”, as in headlines such as The Lush Sophistication Of Burt Bacharach (I avoid mentioning the dread “easy listening”, which is similarly commonplace). “Oh, no,” he smiles, “not at all. I mean, a lot of my records have been sophisticated enough to survive 20 years, and a lot of the music they said was sophisticated and progressive back then seems to have dated a whole lot more than mine. I’m not one to analyse any music, especially my own, but if I was pinned up against a wall, I’d call it sophisticated, yeah… and durable. I mean, some people look at me and say, ‘The Elevator-Music King’ or ‘The King Of Cocktail’. People need a tag, I guess…” He mulls this over for a while, then asks, almost absent-mindedly, “What do they call Elvis, I wonder?”

Costello is no longer around to answer. He’s gone off to prepare himself for the photo session. I’m about to say that term “angry intellectual of British rock” springs to mind, but before I can offer it, Bacharach has moved on to an attendant subject. “We both go for feeling over perfectionism every time. Plus, we like to challenge ourselves and each other.” He stands up to leave, then adds, “The main thing we have in common, Elvis and me, is that we’ve both got really good taste… otherwise, we wouldn’t be working with each other, would we?”

Grinning, he heads back to his second home, the recording studio, where the almost-finished new songs of Bacharach and Costello await one last finishing flourish before taking on the world. He looks quietly confident.

© Sean O’HaganThe Guardian, 19 September 1998

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