The mid-‘80s saw a dip in McCartney’s career after the triumph of his 1982 album Tug of War. Pipes of Peace (1983) received lukewarm critical response, his feature Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) was a box office flop, and Press (1986) saw a significant drop in sales compared to his earlier releases. McCartney decided an overhaul was in order and reached out to Elvis Costello (born Declan MacManus).
Costello originally rose to fame as a member of the late ‘70s punk/New Wave movement due to his angry intellectual persona, but the sophistication of his snarky wordplay and torch song melodies made him a genre all to himself. Also, like McCartney he had a musician father, a Liverpudlian mother — and he had joined the Beatles fan club at age 11.
On George Harrison’s recent comeback album Cloud Nine (1987), producer Jeff Lynne cajoled him to get back in touch with the Beatle qualities he had suppressed in order to prove he could make it on his own. On Flowers in the Dirt, Costello did the same for McCartney, first by encouraging him to get his Hofner violin bass out of mothballs. Deciding the past was now far enough away, McCartney did so and from then on played it regularly.
McCartney relished working with Costello, whose cynical persona was reminiscent of Lennon’s. However, when Costello started answering back in song, as Lennon did in “Getting Better,” McCartney initially balked, fearing they were setting themselves up for too close a comparison. Still, he eventually relaxed, and Costello joined the tradition of singing partners with whom McCartney competes for a girl in a song. Lennon did so in “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” Michael Jackson in “The Girl Is Mine,” and Costello in “You Want Her Too.”
In 1987 and 1988, McCartney and Costello recorded an album’s worth of acoustic demos. Twelve were eventually re-recorded for various albums or b-sides, but to many hardcore fans the demos are actually superior to the slickly produced official versions. The high-pitched harmonies of the “My Brave Face” demo have the strength and purity of the Fabs in 1963.
The “Don’t Be Careless Love” demo recalls the heyday of British duos like Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon, but on Flowers in the Dirt, McCartney dropped Costello’s voice in the mix and swathed it with ‘80s production gauze.
He did the same for “That Day Is Done,” but at the Concert for Linda’s Memorial in 1999, Costello knocked it out of the park accompanied just by piano.
Hopefully, Macca and Costello will officially release the original demos one day soon.
Probably their finest collaboration was “Veronica,” which appeared on Costello’s 1989 album Spike. A shimmering up-tempo number, paradoxically it was about Costello’s grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. (“The Day is Done” was about her death.) It was Costello’s biggest hit in the US, making it to No. 19 on Billboard and No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart.
Of the twelve McCartney-Costello songs that have so far seen official release, the only ones on which the two sing together are “My Brave Face,” “You Want Her Too,” and “Veronica.” The others include: the fine “Back on My Feet,” b-side to McCartney’s “Once Upon a Long Ago” (on bonus reissues of Flowers in the Dirt), “Don’t Be Careless Love” and “That Day Is Done” on Flowers in the Dirt, “Mistress and Maid” and “The Lovers That Never Were” on McCartney’s Off the Ground (1993), “Pads, Paws, and Claws” on Costello’s Spike (1989), “So Like Candy” and “Playboy to a Man” on Costello’s Mighty Like a Rose (1991), and “Shallow Grave” on Costello’s All This Useless Beauty (1996).