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Elvis Costello and The Pop Tradition

Elton John – Elvis Costello’s guest for the premiere episode of SPECTACLE (as well as one of the show’s executive producers) – is a towering example of contemporary pop songcraft. In a career spanning four decades, he has gone from creating such indelible melodies as “Your Song” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to composing for the musical theater, including the songs for THE LION KING and, most recently, BILLY ELLIOT.

When Elvis began his recording career in the 1970s, his acerbic tone and image may have seemed distant from such traditional pop songwriting, but his very first album contained at least one song that bore all the characteristics of a genuine standard; “Alison,” from MY AIM IS TRUE, was soon20covered by Linda Ronstadt, an interpretive singer in the most classic pop mold. By the time of 1980’s TRUST, Elvis was experimenting in the studio with the likes of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and Billie Holiday’s incomparable lament “Gloomy Sunday” (the results are included on the most recent, two-CD reissue of the album).

But it was with IMPERIAL BEDROOM in 1982 that Elvis firmly asserted his standing in the pop pantheon. He had switched from guitar to piano as his primary instrument for composing, and brought in Geoff Emerick – who had engineered many of the Beatles’s greatest sessions – as a producer. As he recounts in the liner notes to the album’s 2002 reissue, he even reached out (unsuccessfully) to Sammy Cahn, composer of such classics as Frank Sinatra’s “All the Way,” to help him complete a lyric. IMPERIAL BEDROOM revealed a remarkable melodic sophistication, with complex song structures and arrangements that allied Elvis with a more adult, erudite musical legacy.

Through the years, Elvis’s grounding in time-honored, tautly constructed music and lyrics has surfaced on such albums as ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY (1996) and NORTH (2003). His pre- rock & roll affinities have served him well in his work alongside such artists as Tony Bennett and, of course, his wife, jazz pianist Diana Krall. But there are two collaborations that probably best define Elvis Costello’s ties to the pop songwriting tradition: his extensive work with Paul McCartney and with Burt Bacharach.

His writing with McCartney stretched out over almost a decade, from the 1987 McCartney b-side “Back On My Feet” to “Shallow Grave” from ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY. The 1989 single “Veronica,” Elvis’s only Top 20 hit in the U.S., is their best-known pairing.

Elvis had long been a Bacharach fan; he recorded a version of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” all the way back in 1978. The duo first joined forces in 1996, on “God Give Me Strength” for the movie GRACE OF MY HEART. This led to the Grammy-winning, album-length collaboration PAINTED FROM MEMORY in 1998. They also made an unforgettable appearance together in 1999’s AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, singing “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” And really, what could possibly establish a spot in the pop firmament more strongly than serenading Mike Myers alongside a beaming Burt Bacharach?

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.