The 1980s had not been going well for Paul McCartney. A series of commercial flops left even the artist taking stock. “It was time to prove something to myself,” McCartney said back then. That he did. “Flowers in the Dirt,” released in 1989, marked a rebirth.
But the most intriguing element of “Flowers” was shelved for decades. In 1987, McCartney had invited Elvis Costello to work with him. Four of their songs ended up on “Flowers,” but a few others never came out. And both McCartney and Costello agree that their nine initial demo recordings remain the best part of their collaboration. On March 24, those demos are being released as part of an elaborate, box-set reissue of “Flowers in the Dirt.”
We spoke recently with McCartney and Costello, separately and by phone, about their intense writing spurts, the challenges of turning the demos into a polished album and about their obvious differences over a certain synth-pop group.
In 1986, McCartney released his sixth solo studio album, “Press to Play,” working with producer Hugh Padgham, known for his work with Phil Collins and the Human League.
McCartney: Sometimes you get caught up in trying to be the current flavor, trying to go along and flavor your cooking with the food of the month, and I think “Press to Play” was certainly that. . . . I remember the records I listened to. “Let’s Dance.” Or “Drive” by the Cars. Records that were of the time and I probably just thought, “Yeah, it’d be quite nice to get into a bit of that.”
McCartney’s manager suggested he call Costello. Costello, then 33 , came to McCartney’s Hog Hill Mill Studio in East Sussex, England. Costello grew up loving the Beatles. But he didn’t bring his fan club card.
Costello: I’ve seen people, quite eminent people, completely lose their mind in his company. I didn’t want to turn up and be kind of bothersome in that way. I wanted to get something good done. Something that justified the invitation.
McCartney: I do get a bit of that in life generally, but I’ve adapted, I’ve developed a way of trying to put people at ease that kind of eliminates the vast majority of this syndrome. With Elvis, I didn’t need to do it. He’s sensible enough to know that. We’d sit around and talk and have a cup of tea. By the time we got down to songwriting, we knew the deal.
We just sat on these couches. Each of us got an acoustic guitar. Sat across from each other. I said to him, “The way I’m used to working with a collaborator is really, mainly with John.” And the way we used to do it is sit opposite like this. And the thing for me that was kind of nice . . . because I was left-handed and he was right-handed, as was the case with Elvis, too, it was as if I was looking in the mirror.
Costello: I was sort of a little startled when he made that reference. I think it’s more to just try to explain the immediacy of the way we worked rather than put me in the same bracket as Lennon. I don’t see myself like that. In terms of the immediacy and just the musical role. . . . I can’t sing above him so I would naturally harmonize below. Which is often the relationship of Lennon and McCartney’s harmonization. That would draw some comparison. Hey, I sing through my nose some of the time. What can I do?
McCartney: The thing about working with John is that we started songwriting virtually together. We had written a little bit separate from each other. But we grew into songwriting together. . . . You know, the bottom line is I’ve never had a better collaborator than John and I don’t expect to. Because we were pretty hot.
Working with Costello created a sound that was decidedly Beatles-like, something McCartney had tried to avoid for years.
McCartney: By that point, it seemed okay to reference the Beatles, so with Elvis, we tried to keep away from it, but if we did fall into anything — like, I think “My Brave Face” has a sort of Beatle-y thing to it — we didn’t try to avoid it.
Costello: I learned how to sing two-part harmonies from singing along with Beatles records. So of course, the minute I put my voice next to his, with the somewhat harder edges in my voice, it naturally created some sort of regional echo. I call it the Mersey cadence. I wasn’t even born in Liverpool. My family’s from Liverpool. But I’ve got a lot of those sounds in my voice.
When critics heard of the collaboration, they developed a story line — that Costello, the punk-rocking bad boy, represented the darker Lennon. He would push McCartney, the softy who sang “Silly Love Songs.” Costello dismisses that.
Costello: Oh, Paul’s the ballad guy, the same guy who sang “I’m Down,” “She’s a Woman” and “Helter Skelter.” You can find a contrary thing when people talk about Lennon/McCartney and those simplifications. Yeah, you can go “Instant Karma” and “Revolution” and these things and “Help.” But you can also go “Julia” and “Beautiful Boy.”
McCartney: The funny thing is, I think a lot of people assume that John and I pushed each other in those ways. . . . That never occurred. We had a very easy manner where both of us knew that the other was only in it to help and we were pooling our resources. So many times I would help John out with a problem in his song, but conversely, he’d do exactly the same with me. We knew that we would do that, and it was perfectly allowed. It’s not a question of pushing. It’s a question of just being. I’m writing, “It’s getting better all the time” and John comes in with, “Couldn’t get no worse.” Instead of going, “Oh, you’re spoiling my lovely song.” I go, “Genius, great.” I would do the same thing for him. . . . John famously brought in “Come Together” sounding very much like a Chuck Berry song called “You Can’t Catch Me.” I said, “That’s Chuck Berry.” He went, “Yeah.” I said, “No, no, no.” And we swapped it out and slowed it down and made a genius record. I’m allowed to say that now.
Costello did politely urge McCartney away from the instrument he was using, a modern bass with five strings. (“A perversion of nature,” says Costello.) He asked McCartney to pull out his old Hofner. The bass still had a Beatles set list taped to it.
Costello: I wasn’t being funny or being in any way sentimental. I honestly thought [the new bass] disguised his musical personality when he was playing. He actually played his Rickenbacker on a lot of the tracks. He played the Hofner on “Veronica,” that he played on my session [for Costello’s album “Spike”]. Because he knew I liked the sound of it. But he flew around on that Rickenbacker, and it was suddenly like, “My God, this is one of the great instrumentalists of the rock-and-roll era.” His voice comes through. It’s as if you gave Louis Armstrong a plastic horn to play.
There was no great strategy as they wrote. It was organic. Costello points to “Tommy’s Coming Home,” a beautiful, poetic song about a war widow torn between mourning and temptation. (The demo is being released for the first time on the “Flowers” box set.)
Costello: Paul made the first musical statement. But if you listen to that song, who do you think wrote that? Probably me, less known as a melodist than him. But I think I was the one who suggested [hums the chorus]. Often we exchanged the role as we were doing it because it wasn’t considered. All these theories, they don’t exist because of who I am. They exist because of who he is and all these associations that people want to read into. None of that was any part of writing any of these songs. It was almost fun really. It was really seeing what we could get. . . . The image of the hawk hovering over the little animals in that song. I said, “How do we get that in the story?” And I had the idea of a war widow on a train, and somehow both of those images ended up in that song. That’s proper collaborating. It’s not theoretical. It’s actual practical work.
In 1988, Costello and McCartney returned to the studio. The idea is that Costello would co-produce the new record. As they worked, they realized they had different ideas. One day, they were talking about “That Day is Done,” a gospel-inspired ballad. Costello wanted to use New Orleans brass. McCartney referenced the Human League. Costello left the studio to calm himself down.
McCartney: This is one of the rules of my game. I will say stuff, any idea that comes into my head. And if you don’t like it, you just tell me and I’ll probably agree. But my method is to throw out a lot of stuff and whittle it down. [Pause.] Actually, he was really not a fan of the Human League. I like “Don’t You Want Me.” [Hums the chorus.] I think that’s, like, a classic pop record. . . . I can now see now that me even mentioning the words Human League would send him off in the wrong direction.
The final studio recording of “That Day is Done,” on “Flowers,” was actually true to Costello’s original idea.
Costello: I think I was just overly sensitive, to be honest, because I did feel so attached to the lyrics.
So why did Costello and McCartney eventually part ways?
McCartney: Thinking back to the time, I didn’t just want to just make an Elvis Costello album. There were other things I was interested in. I also wanted to work with this fabulous arranger, Clare Fischer, which may not have happened if I had been working with Elvis. I think I wanted to work with Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson, and things like “Rough Ride” and “Figure of Eight” wouldn’t have been there. I wanted some variety, and that led to the decision of writing some stuff with Elvis. And things like “Put It There,” I think those were pretty successful.
Of the demos, though, he and Costello agree. They are, indeed, the best versions of their songs. That doesn’t mean McCartney has any regrets.
McCartney: Man, are you kidding? It’s being reissued like a gazillion years afterward, and people are loving it. And the great thing is that we can now release these hidden treasures. It’s actually worked out really well.