McCartney & MacManus: The Songwriting Partnership by Dave Farr

paul-elvisThis piece originally appeared in Beyond Belief #4 back in November 1995.

By the time it was officially announced that Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney were collaborating on songs, the two had been working together sporadically for several months.  Paul had been recording the rock and roll oldies album which would become Choba B CCCP during the summer of 1987.  Around the same time, Paul had contacted Elvis about the possibility of writing songs together.

Paul McCartney began a sort of artistic regeneration in 1987. Aside from the critically acclaimed Tug of War (1982), his output in the 1980’s had not been well received.  His biggest successes were one‑off collaborations with artists like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and his live appearances since the Wings tour of 1976 had been limited to special events like Prince’s Trust benefits or Live Aid. In 1987 it seems that Paul decided to get back to more basic ways of working.  The Choba B CCCP album, with its straightforward approach to roots rock material, and Paul’s new interest in a full-fledged tour, was part of this process.  Another part of it was seeking to work with someone who would challenge him in the songwriting process.

Collaboration was nothing new for Paul McCartney.  After the breakup of his most famous and productive collaboration with John Lennon, Paul had worked with Denny Laine in Wings, the aforementioned Wonder and Jackson team-ups, and his Press To Play album was a collaboration with Eric Stewart, formerly of 10cc.  Yet none of these seemed to be a challenge for Paul, and none of them seemed to have the slightest effect on his music. A true collaboration should involve a mixing of the influences of each contributor.

Paul presumably knew that he had not worked with anyone, since the Lennon/McCartney days, of sufficient stature, personality and individuality, to achieve this effect.  Elvis, on the other hand, had not done much collaborating by this point.  He had written a fair number of songs for other artists, or put lyrics to others’ music.  But he was not accustomed to sitting down and writing a song from scratch with someone else.

Elvis and Paul were not strangers to each other by 1987. Their paths had crossed several times before, although often only briefly.  The December 1979 Concerts for Kampuchea, organized by McCartney, featured Elvis and the Attractions on the same bill as Wings on the final night.  Bruce Thomas also played bass in McCartney’s Rockestra that same night and also played bass on one of Paul’s’ best albums, Back to the Egg. Paul was aware of Elvis’ and the Attractions’ music. In a Guitar Player interview, Bruce recalled how Paul illustrated his appreciation of Bruce’s work with the Attractions by playing him the bass line from (I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea.

In 1981, Squeeze’s East Side Story LP was originally planned as a double album, with each side being produced by a different producer, two of whom would be Elvis and Paul.  As it turned out Elvis and Roger Bechirian produced the album.

Elvis has related how he and Paul were recording albums at the same time in 1982; while Paul was cutting Tug of War, Elvis was working on Imperial Bedroom.  Elvis and Paul would chat, have a cup of coffee, etc.

Of course, The Beatles had been Elvis’ favorite group when he was a youngster in Liverpool. Please Please Me, the single, was the first record Elvis ever bought on his own.  He was a member of the Beatles fan club.  And Beatles songs had been sprinkled throughout his live sets for years, although actually most were Lennon compositions.  Over the years, Elvis had expressed his affection for McCartney’s solo work as well, noting that a song like With A Little Luck from the London Town LP in 1978 sounded pretty darn good on the radio while Elvis was touring the US, in comparison to most of the disco flavored dross that was on the airwaves at the time.

Imagine the mix of feelings Elvis had to have gone through when contacted by McCartney about writing together.  As he’s said in many interviews, it was like meeting someone who’d been to the moon and back.  Every once in a while he had to look up and say “Oh my god, it’s HIM!”

It had to be daunting to approach an icon like that as a working partner and equal.  On the other hand, as Elvis has also pointed out, Paul didn’t call him up when he was a teenage fan.  He called him up when he was 33, and had earned a deserved reputation as the finest songwriter working.  McCartney knew Elvis’ work and its quality. He also probably sensed that Elvis would not be a yes man or someone who would just duplicate whatever ideas Paul put forth, but instead would have his own ideas about what to write, how to write it, and how to produce the recording. Thus, a true collaboration could result.

During that period in the summer and fall of 1987, Elvis and Paul would meet at Paul’s London offices and basically sit down with two guitars and write songs together.  Occasionally they would use the piano. Then they could go downstairs to Paul’s 24 track recording studio and make instant demos.

It’s always been a little unclear how many songs Elvis and Paul have written together.  Most accounts put the number that resulted from the 1987 sessions as 9 songs.  This does not include the partially completed songs that turned up first (see below). They have since worked on more songs together, and have finished 3 or 4, by my best guess.

Hopefully this partnership will not die out.  The recent joint appearance at the Royal College of Music benefit (March 23, 1995) and the news that Elvis is going to be an instructor at Paul’s Institute for the Performing Arts in Liverpool, indicate that Elvis and Paul remain friends and hopefully will continue to work together occasionally.

Let’s look at the songs that have resulted from this collaboration:

The first song to appear was Back on My Feet, which was released in November 1987 as the B side to Paul’s single, Once upon a Long Ago. This is now available on the repackaged and expanded CD of Flowers in the Dirt (lyrics included), which has come out everywhere but the US for some reason.

To break the ice, each had brought to the first session a few songs that were mostly completed but needed some work. From interviews, we know that Paul had Back on My Feet at the initial session. Although we know that it was mostly written by Paul before the initial meeting, it certainly seems that Elvis contributed something to this tune, if only in inspiration.

The lyrics are among the liveliest Paul had produced in a long while. Certain Costello trademarks seem to surface, such as the references to temptation and misery, and the images of hands and feet, and it’s hard to imagine Paul singing “I don’t need love” in a happy snarl, without a little push. Also noticeable is the movie camera imagery, with the narration cutting back and forth and the final reference to Cinemascope.  But as Elvis has noted, you can’t be sure who is responsible for these things. Elvis has said that if it sounds like Paul, Elvis probably wrote it, and vice versa.

What is evident on Back on My Feet is an increased interest in literate lyrics, a lot of internal rhyming and detail.  I also hear a little more “Beatles” in this song. Listen to the overlapping harmonies (an Elvis trademark) and the strange noises made by the chorus, a little I Am the Walrus flavoring.

The song itself is a great performance by Paul.  The tune is full of surprises and never gets tiresome, because of the variation in the bridge and chorus and then the vocal lines at the end. The bass playing is excellent, and Paul’s singing is spirited, much like the vocals on Choba B CCCP applied to a contemporary pop song.

The two songs Elvis brought to the initial sessions were both released on Spike in 1989.  One was Pads Paws and Claws, a song I would never have expected to list McCartney as a co-writer.  In the BBC special, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Spike, Elvis described how Paul helped him finish the song.  Basically Elvis had a repetitive blues riff and some lyrics and a chorus.  Paul made him explain the title by writing a bridge that gave examples of paws, pads, and claws.  The bridge also adds a musical variation that lifts the song out of a rut.  Paul’s contribution to this song may have been limited, but it was very crucial.

The other collaboration featured on Spike was Veronica, a track on which McCartney also plays bass.  Again it’s hard to tell how much McCartney added to what Elvis had already done.  I would expect that since this song, like That Day is Done (below), is mainly based on Elvis’ own personal experiences, that the bulk of the lyrics are his.  But recently on the CyberTalk interview, Elvis noted that the bridge is McCartney’s.  In any event, it’s a fine song, very pop and still beautiful and serious.

The new partnership gave Elvis his first (and so far, only) Top 20 hit in America, when Veronica went to #19 on the charts, helped in no small part by a brilliant video aired heavily by MTV and VH1. The other result of the partnership was an endless stream of questions for Elvis about writing with McCartney.  You can’t read an interview since 1989 without a question about it, even now.

The goal of the collaboration, however, was to write songs for Paul’s next album.  So, initial tune ups out of the way, the pair set out to write entirely new songs from scratch.  Four of these appeared on Paul’s Flowers in the Dirt CD, released in June of 1989.  The others surfaced on later releases, if at all.  At one point, the plan was for the entire CD to be collaborations; however, Paul decided this might look like he was leaning too much on Elvis for support. Excuse my bias as an Elvis fan, but I am convinced that the McCartney/MacManus material on Flowers in the Dirt is the best stuff on the CD, although I like a few of the other tracks as well.

My Brave Face, the first single from the CD and the lead off track is in some ways the most successful song, since it is an instantly likable, infectious pop song and a perfect representation of what works in this collaboration.  Because Elvis could pass along his affection for Paul’s classic technique from the 60’s to Paul himself, the result is a very enjoyable pop song that reminds one a lot of music from the past, while still sounding fairly fresh.

As both composers have noted, the song is full of Beatlesque touches, from the descending harmonies on the chorus, to the very independent bass line, to the simple guitar lick that serves as a wonderful hook. Lyrically, the song is most interesting in its little details, with the references to pillows, sheets, dishes, and other everyday items, rather than vague homilies.  Musically, it’s irresistible.  The guitar figure makes for a wonderful bridge, and is then repeated over the final chorus to wrap things up beautifully, as we hear the intro to the song repeated. An almost perfect pop arrangement.

According to at least one interview, Paul credits this song with turning his attention to the Beatles catalog for his 1990 world tour! Elvis persuaded Paul to get the old Hofner bass out of storage, and the rest is history.

You Want Her Too is another great pop song that smacks of Beatles influence.  This is the song that the composers cite as worrying them that Elvis was unconsciously assuming Lennon’s old role a bit too much, in placing a hard edge opposite Paul’s softness and contrasting his point of view.  It was recorded with Paul doing both vocal parts, but it was decided quite rightly that the duet made more sense.  The song is quite successful and funny.  Lyrically, it is fun to hear anyone, especially Elvis, give McCartney a tongue lashing, and Elvis uses his most sneering vocal for it.  The lyrics are rather simple, and this allows for some acting by the singers.              Musically, we have some great drums (mixed the way Nick Lowe might’ve done it!) and an amusing organ in the background, reminiscent of the one in Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite.  Paul added an interesting music box style opening which is extended with an orchestra at the fade.  Listen to the 60’s style guitars in the right channel, and the elongated “predictable and ni‑I‑I‑ice” singing.  Very enjoyable.  Elvis performed this one on the 1989 Rude 5 tour several times, but it doesn’t match the duet.

Don’t Be Careless Love is the least successful of the four songs.  Elvis has said that they would sometimes try to write in a certain style, and this seems like a tribute to Roy Orbison. Unfortunately no one can sing like Orbison could, and McCartney’s rather frail vocal on this one hinders it.  One article notes that this is actually Paul’s guide vocal from the demo, and that the vocals were not redone.  The lyrics are a bit too consciously strange, and the vocal harmonies unsuccessful. All in all, the least appealing of the bunch.  It really doesn’t work; and it’s interesting that this is the one collaboration we’ve never seen Elvis play live.

By contrast, That Day Is Done is one of Elvis’ best songs, and Paul does a fine job on the vocals.  Elvis had begun performing this song as early as the Confederates fall 1987 tour, and it was always a rousing, almost gospel number.  Paul took some different approaches to the vocal lines, which interestingly enough, Elvis began to incorporate into his renditions of the song after the CD was released. Paul has given Elvis most of the credit for this one in interviews, and it is known that the impetus for the song was the death of Elvis’ grandmother.  EC, on the other hand, says that Paul developed the chorus, somewhat in the vein of Let It Be.             Elvis sings background vocals on this one, which also features brass almost in the style of the Dirty Dozen from Spike. The track does have a slight Spike sound to it.  The words are very effective and spare, in a gospel style.  This is definitely the weightiest of the four songs on the CD, and the one that will last longest.  Elvis has yet to record it himself, but has continued to perform it ever since 1987, as recently as this summer’s Meltdown festival.

As was mentioned earlier, one effect of the collaboration was Paul’s willingness to resurrect his Beatles past.  Elvis had to coax it out of him on the above songs, but once the Hofner bass was out of the case, Paul seems to have acknowledged his past and decided he could celebrate it.  As he said, who better than he? And thus the 1990 world tour featured extensive selections from the Beatles’ catalogue.

Unfortunately, Paul chose not to perform any of the co-written songs on tour, except for My Brave FaceThat Day Is Done was included on the soundtrack of the short film shown to introduce the show.  Elvis, on the other hand, had been playing some of the Mac and Mac songs live since 1987, and continued to play 3 of the 4 Flowers in the Dirt songs in his 1989 summer tour.

During that tour, the opportunity for a joint live appearance by the two Macs arose but failed to occur.  McCartney was in New York rehearsing for his upcoming tour and promoting Flowers in the Dirt, as Elvis and the Rude 5 swung into the New York area on their Spike tour. When Elvis played the Palladium August 27, 1989, rumors were rife that McCartney would drive down the street and join Elvis on stage.  Elvis and McCartney had actually visited each other while Elvis was in the Big Apple.  Unfortunately, Paul did not make an appearance.  Elvis was kind enough to let us know very early in the show that we should stop looking for “”moptops”” in the wings, by performing You Want Her Too, an obvious duet candidate, alone as the set’s third number.  After that, we could all relax and enjoy what was one of the hottest shows of the tour.

Between Spike and the 1991 CD Mighty like a Rose, there were rumors of further collaborative sessions.  An October 1990 NME interview with Paul has him planning to write with Elvis again.  It is unclear when and if this happened, and what songs came out of it.  So like Candy was obviously written in the first sessions, as was Lovers That Never Were.  Other co-written songs that have appeared are of indeterminate date.

MLAR included 2 more Mac and Mac songs.  The first, So Like Candy, is apparently one of Elvis’ favorites, as he released it as a single despite its lack of chart potential and has continued to play it live ever since. Elvis has stated that McCartney’s demo version of this is brilliant, and that he wishes Paul would release it.  Time will tell. Music and vocals in this song create more of a mood than a tune, as the pace is somewhat dreary.  I find it too repetitious (in the use of the title) and melodramatic.

Playboy To A Man, on the other hand, is another one that you are surprised to see McCartney’s name on.  This bizarre attack on the male animal is distinguished by a very strange vocal that has one looking at the credits to see if it’s really Elvis.  It is, but he sang the song through a long pipe to distort the sound of his voice.  If you’re in the right mood, this song can be a lot of fun, and it was great as a live rave up.

By the time the MLAR tour had ended, Elvis was beginning to explore another collaboration, with the Brodsky Quartet. McCartney, meanwhile, had produced the Liverpool Oratorio.  It’s interesting that both composers began to work with more classical forms at this time.  Paul has noted that Elvis encouraged him with the Oratorio.  Paul’s experience, though not lauded critically, probably encouraged Elvis to pursue his interest in the Brodsky collaboration.

In 1993, McCartney’s Off the Ground LP was released, featuring two more of the collaborations. Chief vice—overproduction!  The songs on Flowers in the Dirt skirted perilously close to this fate, but survived. Elvis had produced the collaborative tracks on that CD himself, but Paul felt they were too spare.  Elvis’ production ideas were overruled by slicker producers. Paul appeared once on MTV in 1989 and amusingly recreated the debate between himself and Elvis, with Elvis shooting down every suggestion Paul made regarding the use of synthesizers, echo, drum sounds, etc.  Still, Elvis’ spare sound didn’t survive on Flowers, but it wasn’t buried either.  On the Off the Ground songs, overproduction wins hands down, and the songs suffer as a result.

Mistress and Maid is a simple waltz that gives us a succinct character study.  It has pleasant harmonies, a French horn (or something quite like it), and a very 60’s ending with elongated syllables on the fade out.  However the vocals are buried in a self-consciously “modern” sound.  I paid little attention to this song till it was performed at the Royal College benefit as an acoustic duet by Elvis and Paul.  It sounded great, and made me hear the very good framework of the song.  Simplicity is a virtue.

The second song, The Lovers That Never Were, is actually the first of the true collaborations Elvis and Paul wrote.  They intended it to be in the style of Smokey Robinson.  Elvis had performed this live a few times in 1987, and it is a lovely piano‑based ballad.  Paul’s recorded version, on the other hand, buries the song under a huge drum sound and synths, and too many harmony parts.  Paul recently played part of the demo for this song on his syndicated Oobu Joobu radio show, and then played part of the CD track immediately after. The contrast was startling. The very plaintive song worked really well as a ballad with simple music; the CD ruins the song with bombast.  It’s a shame, because the song contains some lovely lyrics, a great blend of sentiment and artfulness. In some ways, it’s the lyric that best blends the strengths of each songwriter.

This past spring, another previously unheard collaboration surfaced in Elvis’ live shows, a song called Shallow Graves.  This is a simple blues number much in the vein of Pads Paws And Claws, or Sally Sue Brown, but with some very macabre humor about death (“throw another Joan on the blaze”).

In 1989, it was rumored that a collaboration called Indigo Moon would be released as part of a special repackaging of Flowers in the Dirt, but it never surfaced, and Elvis recently denied any knowledge of such a song title. The only other known song is titled I Don’t Want to Confess and was mentioned by Elvis in a November 1994 BBC Radio interview.

Until recently, things seemed to be very quiet on the McCartney/MacManus front.  The occasional reference would be to the fact that each liked working with the other, and hoped it would again come about.  Still, each seemed busy with their individual projects.  On March 23, 1995, however, Paul hosted a benefit for the Royal College of Music, and invited Elvis to perform.  For the first time ever, Paul and Elvis performed together on stage, duetting on one of the more obscure items in their joint catalog, Mistress and Maid. Paul then suggested to Elvis that they do The One after 909, a Beatles number dating from the group’s earliest days (though it was not recorded for release till 1969).  Unfortunately, this was not broadcast, but all accounts say it was tremendous.

A further result of the collaboration was McCartney’s performing at the same benefit with The Brodsky Quartet, in lovely versions of For No One, Eleanor Rigby, and Yesterday…a pretty amazing event, if you think back to the countless times it has been said that music like the Juliet Letters owes its genesis to early blends of pop and classical like the above songs and other experiments the Beatles tried back in the mid-60’s!

All in all, the results of the McCartney‑MacManus collaboration have been quite successful.  It has been particularly exciting for fans like myself who loved the Beatles, and still enjoy seeing Paul hit one out of the park once in a while, to see Paul working with Elvis.  We can hope that they will continue to work together on various projects in the future, and continue to inspire each other and to inspire us.

Post Script: It should be noted that following Mr. Farr’s brilliant article, a 1998 bootleg CD revealed demos for two other collaborations: Twenty-Five Fingers and Tommy’s Coming Home. In addition, a bootleg recording of their 1995 benefit performance together also surfaced.

 

 

 

 

 

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