Classic Americana Albums: The Costello Show “King Of America”

F-Beat, 1986

King Of America’ was Costello’s follow up, after a two year hiatus, to ‘Good Bye Cruel World’, a nadir which was described by the beloved entertainer as his “worst album” and which was little loved by his fans. Following the release of ‘Good Bye Cruel World’, Costello hooked up with T Bone Burnett to form The Coward Brothers. Henry and Howard Coward, (aka Costello and T Bone Burnett), spun improbable stories at press interviews of how their management had convinced them to fake their own deaths, retire to “The Island” and then stage the “Ultimate Comeback”.

Planning for the ‘King Of America’ sessions was undertaken on The Coward Brothers’ “final comeback” tour of Australia and Japan in 1985. During the long flights, a wish list of musicians was concocted for each track. It comprised: Earl Palmer who drummed on almost all of Little Richard’s and Fats Domino’s hits; Ray Brown on bass whose recording credits included working with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson; Jim Keltner who’d drummed on recordings by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison; as well as Ron Tutt, Jerry Scheff and James Burton who’d collectively formed the core of Elvis Presley’s TCB band, to name just a few.

Tellingly, given the departure in terms of instrumentation, the words “Elvis Costello” appeared nowhere on the original album’s cover or liner notes. The sleeve credits ‘The Costello Show’, the songs are written by Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus and the inner sleeve identifies the vocalist/guitarist as ‘LHC, The Little Hands Of Concrete’, a name given to Costello by Nick Lowe after he broke his guitar strings during recordings for one of his earlier albums.

In January 1986, against Costello’s wishes, his cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ was released as a single. Costello’s downbeat version preceded the release of ‘King Of America’ by a month. It wasn’t a good start. The single was panned by Danny Kelly in the New Musical Express (NME). He accused Costello of letting his divorce and fondness for drink affect him and described the recording as “a funeral dirge, devoid of anything except the red raw edge of Costello’s gravelly, wired-bared delivery”. Kelly’s review of the single concluded with the words: “For a variety of reasons, most of them wrong, an astonishing record”. Four weeks after slating ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and after having listened to the whole album on his Walkman, Danny Kelly ate humble pie, and writing in the NME stated that ‘King Of America’ was “unlikely to have been the work of a clapped out, self-destructive drunk, and is, splutter, his best stuff for years”.

The record opens with ‘Brilliant Mistake’, a prophetic look at the contradictions that make up the USA, and which includes the scathing line, “She said that she was working for the ABC News, It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use”. ‘American Without Tears’ recounts the lot of two English GI brides who, following the Second World War, find out that America isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. ‘Suit Of Lights’ is the only song which features all of The Attractions, a fact which didn’t go down well with the band. Costello explained that the song was “inspired by watching my father, Ross, sing of experience and tenderness to an uncomprehending rabble of karaoke-trained dullards”.

The album is filled with mini-soap operas. ‘Sleep Of The Just’ finds Costello singing poignantly about a liaison between a young woman and a soldier and ‘Little Palaces’ is a commentary on Thatcher’s Britain. Its opening lines of: “In chocolate town all the trains are painted brown, In the silver paper of the wrapper” is a reference to Cadbury’s and according to Costello the fact that they had “a fixation about painting everything the same colour as their wrappers”. Six months later Costello released the striking ‘Blood And Chocolate’ album. The cassette version was released in a package resembling a Cadbury’s Bournville dark chocolate bar. Rather ironically, it was hastily withdrawn following a threat by Cadbury’s to sue the singer.

King Of America’ is a true masterpiece, with Costello at the very top of his game. It is worth hunting down the long deleted two CD version, reissued by Edsel Records in 2005, which together with the original recordings included a 21 track bonus disc packed with outtakes, demos and live performances from 1986.

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Mike O'Driscoll

I bought King of America and Blood and Chocolate at the same time. Still two of his very best albums.