For Paul McCartney, it was an all-too-familiar feeling. There he was, paired with an acerbic, rough-voiced co-writer with Liverpudlian roots, sitting face to face as they strummed acoustic guitars, finishing each other's musical phrases and lyrics, singing in comfortable harmony. "We would write in the same method that me and John used to write," says McCartney, recalling his wildly productive late-Eighties collaborations with Elvis Costello. "I figured, in a way, he was being John. And for me, that was good and bad. He was a great person to write with, a great foil to bounce off, but here's me, trying to avoid doing something too Beatle-y!"
Those sessions, at McCartney's rustic Hog Hill Mill Studio in East Sussex, England, were intended to yield songs for what became the ex-Beatle's 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt, an Eighties high point. Four tracks, including the playful duet "You Want Her Too", ended up on that LP, two on McCartney's next one (1993's Off the Ground), and the rest on Costello's albums – most notably the hit single "Veronica".
But as a new box-set reissue of Flowers in the Dirt (set to be released as part of the upcoming Record Store Day) reveals, the collaborative recordings – rough acoustic versions (long circulated as coveted bootlegs) and, later, full-band Costello-McCartney versions – stand on their own as an extraordinary document of a partnership that was probably too perfect to last. "It moved me forward, and it moved him forward," says McCartney, who's equally proud of other Flowers tracks, like the uncharacteristic blues funk of the Trevor Horn-produced "Rough Ride". "That's the best you could hope for. I don't think either of us thought we were gonna become Lennon-McCartney Part Two."
Still, Costello recalls, "There was sort of a plan to work on the sessions together, to co-produce the sessions." (He also insists that he had zero intention of imitating Lennon – though learning to sing harmony from Beatles records inevitably influenced Costello's choice of vocal parts.) But McCartney, determined to have an album that would stand up on his first Wings-free solo tour, ended up enlisting an array of producers and collaborators (including David Gilmour) for Flowers, and rendering songs like "My Brave Face" – distinctly raw and Beatlesque in its first demo, interestingly reggae-ish in the second – in what Costello calls "widescreen... elaborate productions".
McCartney now acknowledges that "the energy and the performances on the demos were better in some cases. That's really why we wanted to release them: for all the people who don't buy bootlegs." McCartney's impassioned vocal on the original piano-demo version of "The Lovers That Never Were" is particularly striking. "That was the one where I was aware it was good while we were doing it," says Costello, who played piano with McCartney over his shoulder strumming guitar. "You'd have to go some way to beat that performance."
Costello was delighted to learn that McCartney is finally releasing their long-lost joint recordings. "In the continuity of Paul McCartney collaborators," he notes with a laugh, "I'm the person that stands between Michael Jackson and Kanye West and Rihanna. You just didn't know that about me. And that's a pop fact with which you can probably win a bet."
From issue #786 (May 2017), available now.