Morning Music: Baby Plays Around

Spike - Elvis CostelloToday in our adventures with Elvis Costello, I’m going to highlight what I think is the first CD I ever owned: Spike. It’s certainly the case that I originally had Blood & Chocolate on vinyl. And yes, I know, I’ve completely neglected the first three albums. I think that’s because of something James said. I assure you, I could do Elvis Costello songs for the next several months and manage to write 500 words about each one of them. I’m still not 100% and today we’re doing Spike so get over it!

The thing about Spike is that I don’t think it is a very good album. But it has some of my favorite songs on it. It has “Let Him Dangle” and “Tramp the Dirt Down.” But I already highlighted both of those songs (along with the exquisite “Shipbuilding”) a year ago, Three Elvis Costello Political Songs. In that article, I say I that I hadn’t actively sought out his music after this album, but that’s not true; I followed him closely through All This Useless Beauty. But it is probably true that Spike was the album that kind of ended the romance.

The real standout song on the album is “God’s Comic.” Maybe I say that simply because I get it, unlike so many other of his songs. For example, on the same album is “Veronica,” a little pop annoyance he wrote with Paul McCartney. I really tried to figure out what that song was about, but it was only after I read an interview with Costello that I found out. How the hell was anyone supposed to get that from the song? And given what the song is about, why is it such an upbeat tune?

On the other hand, in “God’s Comic,” I’m in on the joke. I even get the final line that turns everything on its head. And I think this is a wonderful bit of sly writing:

So there he [God] was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem
He said, before it had really begun
“I prefer the one about my son.”

Get it?! God is listening to Webber’s requiem mass, but God isn’t that into it. He prefers Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. In addition to everything else, God has base tastes. It’s a brilliant song with lots of other great lines like, “Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus; it’s the big white beard I suppose.” And I was going to feature it today, but this week, I’m feeling a little down. And so we’ll listen to another song I quite like from the album, “Baby Plays Around.” It was written with Cait O’Riordan, the woman who did a better job than anyone else at putting up with his crap.

4 thoughts on “Morning Music: Baby Plays Around

  1. Well, it’s like Dylan. A) any two people will see songs differently and B) any two people will like different aspects of the music. My favorite Dylans are the big, sprawling inscrutable songs but I won’t knock anyone for preferring his early folk music or his shorter, snappier tunes. Because I like all of the above. (Just don’t say your favorites are “Gotta Serve Somebody” or “Neighborhood Bully.”)

    “Spike” was also the first CD I owned — actually, one of the first 10. I got it through one of those scam Columbia House things, remember? (“Ten CDs for a penny!”) My mom cleverly chastised the company into releasing me from the contract (“you have to buy only 666 more CDs at regular price!”) by calling out Columbia House for selling contracts to minors. Unfortunately, that meant I had to return all the CDs.

    I only had time to unwrap a few and listen once. I liked Elvis’s voice and that of Michael Stipe immediately, although I had no idea what they were singing about (and those album covers, “Spike” and “Green,” were almost deliberately ugly . . . maybe because they were the big-contract, big-label debuts for both acts?) I remember hating U2’s “Rattle And Hum” because they butchered “Helter Skelter” (I knew no new rock bands, I picked CDs at random, but I knew older rock, and I knew my Beatles.) The other seven CDs . . . no idea what they were.

    It took another 10 years or so for me to revisit Elvis. I was discovering music through old LPs and buying ones I liked for the covers. I thought the cover art on “Imperial Bedroom” was cool. I put it on and zang! I remembered that voice!

    By the time I got around to “Spike” again I was working with disabled adults, and so I understood “Veronica” immediately. “Veronica sits in her favorite chair, she sits very quiet and still. And they call her a name that they never get right, and if they don’t than nobody else will.” I knew nonverbal people who sat in their favorite chairs. It made complete sense.

    As for the inappropriate peppiness, well, that’s Sir Paul’s trademark. “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head.” Sir Paul can make everyday misery into a catchy upbeat tune. It’s what he does. If I remember, “Hitchhiker’s Guide” had a riff on how Sir Paul could write an upbeat tune about anything.

    (It took me years to revisit my CD Elvis. I revisited my Micheal Stipe pretty quickly because a girl in college did some heavy petting with me and liked REM. I bought every REM album to impress her. She decided I wasn’t her type. It took me another ten years to get past heavy petting, because of my fundamentalist upbringing, but this nice lady cracked open many doors. I also loaned her my signed copy of “Hitchhiker’s.” I’m grateful to her for introducing me to heavy petting. I’m quite grateful she decided I wasn’t her type, as it would have been a bad match. She was gracious and kind breaking it off; amazingly, I didn’t feel rejected at all, I felt she was completely right. I’m happy I learned about REM from her. But I’m still fucking mad I never got my “Hitchhiker’s” copy back, dammit!)

    It’s all taste, which is so subjective. With music, you’ve got not only voice, but lyrics (which can be interpreted differently by each listener) and musical style (do you like certain beats, note associations, etc.) I actually thought “Neighborhood Bully” was a pretty catchy little tune until I figured out what it was about! (And I still like “Jokerman,” maybe because I have no idea what it’s about.)

    • I mostly remember “Union Sundown” off that album. Dylan’s always had a strange relationship to religion and his Jewishness. And who knows what he thinks today. The only problem with the song is that it is simplistic. I never questioned Israel being a good idea — until quite recently. Now I am starting to see Zionism as just another form of racism that leads to the same kind of violence that racism always leads to.

      In a technical sense, I guess you are right about Spike being a major label debut. But Stiff Records was a very big deal, and all those albums were distributed by Columbia in the US. As for REM, I’d say the same thing. IRS was a big label. All of their albums were successful and then Lifes Rich Pageant was huge. I think you just have something about Warner Bros. ;-)

      • I do like “Infidels.” I have no foggy notion what “Jokerman” is about, except that Dylan is singing strongly. He’s not mumbling the way he did on his Born Again records. It probably helped that Mark Knopfler produced “Infidels.” It sounds better.

        I assume that Dylan took his Zionist phase as seriously as he took his Born Again phase, which is to say, not very seriously. He did have catchier songs on “Infidels” than “Slow Train Coming,” IMO.

        I probably do have a thing against Warner Bros. Too tired to type it now.

        • I thought Infidels was an important album because it showed that he still had it and always would. But I don’t own it — and I own a lot of Dylan!

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