Mystery Dance

Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock

Mystery Dance.
Mystery Dance (demo version).

TWO… CHORDS! (Two. Beats.)

The song has begun, announcing itself with a snarl and a boom! It’s powerful. It’s primal. It’s the roar of a lion, followed by its menacing footsteps; the bugle blasts of an oncoming army and the rumble of its tanks.

TWO… CHORDS! (Two. Beats.)

Hear that, friends? That’s a demand for surrender, in every conceivable sense: mean, tough, dominating, sexy – and Elvis hasn’t even started singing yet. But oh, when he does…

The warden threw a party in the county jail!
The prison band was there and they began to wail!
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing!
You shoulda heard those knocked-out…

Wait, what’s that? Oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to mislead you. This isn’t our Elvis. I’m talking about the other one, the first one – our guy’s namesake – and this is the opening to “Jailhouse Rock.” But I can see how you might have gotten confused. “Mystery Dance” and “Jailhouse Rock” are, after all, birds of a black-and-white-striped feather. Forgive me as I wax poetic upon the latter for a moment, before stepping back to tackle the former.

Presley’s 1957 hit single embodies the tough-as-nails sound of early rock and roll: it’s the starting gun for everything that came after. Elvis The First, wiggling his hips in black-and-white as he slides lewdly up and down a pole connecting the upper cellblock and the lower, is as iconic an American image as Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, say, or Rhett Butler whisking Scarlett O’Hara up those stairs to have his way with her, or Andy Warhol’s pop-art pixellations of Jackie O; this song might well be the letter A in the alphabet of modern popular music. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were probably more than half kidding when they wrote the tune – the cheeky homoerotic stuff certainly suggests as much – but the performance is out for blood: Presley’s vocal is not for the faint of heart, while bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana can barely hold back Scotty Moore’s searing guitar work. This is one of the great tunes of the fifties, and of all time. It’s a song about prisoners, and it takes none.

It changed the world. Now, thousands of words – millions, probably – have been written about the effect of fifties rock and roll on the teenagers who first heard it, at home and abroad. I don’t pretend to have anything profound to add to that discussion, but I will suggest that all sorts of things that went on in Britain in the subsequent decades, from John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe smoking ciggies in their leather jackets to Mick Ronson defiantly smashing out a different set of chords in a different rhythm at the top of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” can be traced straight back to the sound and the attitude and the defiance of those first seconds of “Jailhouse Rock.” By the seventies, however, there had been a generational shift. The sixties figures who’d grown up on Presley and pals had mellowed into singer-songwriters, and then they’d gotten incredibly rich and able to indulge every bombastic whim: the punks looked at Wings Over America, to name an egregious example, and promptly vomited at what their parents had done with rock. This is not to say they held Presley in any particular high regard – Costello’s stage name, though chosen weeks before the first Elvis’s death and thus picked irreverently rather than sacrilegiously, is proof enough of that – but they clearly responded, just as their forerunners had, to the clean, raw, sexually voracious sound of the 1950s. It was immediate. It didn’t place a yawning canyon between you and the artist, the way the dinosaurs’ regimented gigs in arenas and stadiums did. It was perfect for bands playing in bars, which was where younger people yearned to hear their music anyway. There was a revival. It took different forms on different continents – in their various ways Robert Gordon and the New York Dolls and Bruce Springsteen were the flagbearers in the States, while in England retro-rock-resuscitation emerged out of the work of the pub-rockers with their rockabilly flavors, oddball bands with names like Ducks Deluxe and the Kursaal Flyers giving birth to acts like Eddie & The Hot Rods and The Rumour and Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers. (Take note of those last two bands, incidentally. We haven’t heard the last of them.) The true believers, of course, came later and proved significantly fiercer: the Ramones transcended their fifties sounds without ever penning a song longer than two-and-a-half minutes; the Clash wanted things rawer than anyone in the Eisenhower or Macmillan eras could have contemplated; the Sex Pistols deemed cleanness considerably less important than obnoxiousness. But in a mid-going-on-late-seventies context, it was not-ungenerally considered a plus for your rock songs if they sounded just a little like something the young Elvis Presley might have sung. By no means do I mean to sound critical of unoriginality here – no one ever grew poor being derivative in pop music. I’m just looking to explain what was on that tape.


Which is to say, there was a tape. I generally imagine it as a cassette, because that’s what “tape” meant to me growing up a decade later, but it was probably a reel. To my knowledge, it has never been released, which suggests either that it’s been lost or that it was pretty awful – seemingly every other listenable note Elvis Costello recorded in this era has been scraped up, like the ice cream remnants at the base of a gluttonous child’s bowl, for release on one reissue or another, and yet that tape, this tape, the tape, remains unheard. We don’t know exactly what was on it, save for one song: “Mystery Dance.” We know this because it was the track that attracted Jake Riviera’s attention.* The tape was recorded by Costello – then going by the stage name D.P. Costello, the emphasis we’re told decidedly on the first syllable of his grandmother’s Irish maiden name – on a borrowed Revox reel-to-reel he’d set up in his bedroom, and was carried personally to the Stiff Records offices in London on his lunch break from the computer center at Elizabeth Arden. It was dropped through the mail slot, or perhaps handed to a secretary – you’ll hear the story differently, romanticized in retellings over the years – in response to a call from the fledgling record label for new artists. Costello left; Riviera came back from his own midday meal; he played the tape and went “Wowowow!” And the rest is history. So we’re told.

The reality is probably a bit more mundane. Riviera probably had a stack of these tapes. He’d probably been half-dreading listening to them. His secretary had probably been pestering him to do it. He finally got over his footdragging and put one on, and it was probably awful, as was the next and the next and the next. But somewhere in there he got to the D.P. Costello tape, and he heard something that appealed to him. Some versions of the story say Nick Lowe was present when the tape was played – Lowe also may or may not have run into not-yet-Elvis on the subway heading back to work beforehand – and encouraged Riviera’s attraction to this music that would one day be played by actual Attractions.** Riviera didn’t think the tape could be released – even a ramshackle outfit like Stiff wasn’t putting out homecooked demos – and, Lowe’s positivity notwithstanding, he didn’t even think Costello, emphasis on the “COS,” was a likely candidate to be Stiff’s newest signee. What he thought, initially at least, was that another artist could make something of one of Costello’s songs.

Dave Edmunds

The artist in question was Dave Edmunds. We’ll hear Edmunds’s name again before too long, when he takes advantage of a magnanimous-in-his-drunkenness Costello to record his own version of one of EC’s best tunes and thus claim it for himself, something Costello regrets to this day. (I don’t mean to make Edmunds sound crafty here – by all accounts he’s a very nice guy. But it’s hard to believe he wasn’t aware he was getting an inordinately good deal when Costello boozily “gifted” him “Girls Talk” in 1979.) Edmunds in 1976 was a strong but minor player on the London pub-rock circuit, bigger behind the scenes than in front of them. The Welshman had been a rockabilly acolyte who turned to blues-rock in the late sixties and then had something of a shadow career as a singles artist, starting with a Christmas 1970 #1 in “I Hear You Knocking,” while turning into one of the most respected producers of pub bands like Ducks Deluxe and the Flamin’ Groovies. Most notably for our purposes, he was behind the boards in 1974 for Brinsley Schwarz’s final album The New Favorites Of… – that’s the one, for what it’s worth, that kicked off with a jaunty little Lowe number called “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding?” The members of Schwarz backed Edmunds, in turn, for his 1975 album Subtle As A Flying Mallet, which was almost entirely composed of reworked fifties and sixties songs – Phil Spector tunes, Chuck Berry tunes, Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich tunes. Edmunds was, in short, angling to be the new Elvis, back when there was only one. This was all well and good, but in the wake of Brinsley’s breakup Edmunds and Lowe, and Riviera by extension, faced a bit of a problem: the two musicians wanted to form a band, which they were to call Rockpile after Edmunds’s first solo album, but contractual snafus were proving to be a spanner in the works. (Despite touring extensively and playing on each other’s records for half a decade, Rockpile wouldn’t manage to thread the necessary legal needles to record together until 1980’s Seconds Of Pleasure.) Worse still, Lowe was signed to Stiff while Edmunds, or so we’re told, found Riviera repellent – he would eventually sign instead to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. It’s hard to sort out the exact timing, but it seems likely that Costello’s tape appeared at a crucial juncture, just as Riviera was searching for strong material to dangle before Edmunds in hopes of keeping him from ankling the fold. “Mystery Dance,” with its raw three-chord sound precisely akin to the sorts of stuff Edmunds had been favoring on his recent records, seemed like just the ticket. Whether or not it would have been adequate enticement to convince Edmunds to set aside his dislike for Riviera is a matter for conjecture, which doesn’t stop us from conjecturing upon it.

But before we do that, it’s worth taking a moment to note what exactly it means that Riviera heard, in “Mystery Dance,” a possible single for Dave Edmunds. Riviera had to know this man didn’t like him. He wanted him on his label anyway. I know I keep bringing Riviera up, a preview of coming attractions, and then boxing him back into his cage again like I’m toying with or teasing you. Well, I’m going to do that once more now – this is not the place for a careful consideration of Riviera, his combative personality, and his controversial role in the early career of Elvis Costello. It is, however, the place to realize that “Mystery Dance” was, to him, in his first moments of exposure to it, a way to keep a restless artist from signing with a rival label. A tape is spooling through a machine, giving Riviera his first listen to the work of the man whose music and whose talents will change his life, and his first thoughts are – what? They’re competitive, mercenary, even cutthroat. “This,” he mused to himself, “is how I will keep an artist who hates me from leaving.” He thought he could use it as flypaper, a snare, maybe even a noose. I’ll just lay this out on a platter and leave it, tossed on the table with a thud and rattling as it settles to a stop, in hopes the sound will echo through to future discussions of other songs: this, friends, is the man who brought us Elvis Costello.

But for now, back to it: would Edmunds have liked this song? Would it have been something he’d have been eager to scoop up and make a hit single of, the way he eventually did “Girls Talk”? Would it have served as an incentive, that is, to stay at Stiff if Riviera hadn’t given the D.P. Costello tape a few more listens and decided, apparently with Lowe’s eager concurrence, to sign MacManus as an artist rather than a songwriter? Was this, more broadly, a song that anyone other than Costello himself could have sung? To be frank, it doesn’t seem likely. Edmunds was a meat-and-potatoes guy – it’s hard to imagine him, even with a crack band like Brinsley behind him pounding out Black/Fontana/Moore-style rhythms and crunching through haymaker chords, warbling Elvis Mark Two’s paeans to sexual inadequacy. Sure, he probably wouldn’t have had any trouble with the first verse:

Romeo was restless, he was ready to kill
Jumped out the window ’cause he couldn’t sit still
Juliet was waitin’ with a safety net
He said, “Don’t bury me, ’cause I’m not dead yet!”

Edmunds might even have liked this. Clever wordplay is always fun, and the reimagining of the classic “young lovers” tale is charming, faintly silly and made tough by the torrent of words crammed into the verse’s short space. Is it crucial to think of these two as Shakespeare’s great starcrossed couple, so desperate to jump each other’s bones that they defied their feuding families and eventually brought about their own demises? Probably not: Costello could just as easily have written the verse about “Jack and Diane,” “Desmond and Molly Jones,” “Crazy Janey and the Mission Man” – or, for that matter, “Numbers Forty-Seven and Three.” But the literary nod doesn’t hurt, and it gives the song a veneer of respectability that mixes well with the cheeky comedy. There’s a chorus next – we’ll talk about that in a second – but then we tumble into a second verse that might have proved more problematic, had Riviera suggested Edmunds give it a go:

Well, I remember when the lights went out
I was tryin’ to make it look like it was never in doubt
She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew
Both of us were willing but we didn’t know how to do it…

This is funny too, of course, in the same frenetic sense, but the subject has grown more personal: the target of the humor here is less the general awkwardness of young lovers and more the specific awkwardness of the speaker himself, lacking in prowess and exposed as a charlatan in bed. That his partner is no less inept – one suspects that the reminiscence of that initial “I remember when the lights when out” makes this a retrospective on the speaker’s “first time,” fumblingly approaching a girl equally callow and inexperienced – lessens only so much the embarrassment of the admission. I can’t speak for Edmunds’s sense of humor, but this doesn’t feel like the sort of self-effacing jest a swaggering rock star or even his more modest but no less ego-driven pub-rock confrere would be eager to proclaim to an audience of peers and pals and groupies. Say Edmunds swallowed his pride, however. Say he knew that the song was a good one, and he wanted to tear through those first two verses eager to get to the guitar solo in the bridge, on which one expects he would have positively slayed.*** Maybe, we start to think, imagining thus, Riviera’s plan to reel this recalcitrant musician in could have worked. But Edmunds would still have had to get over the last hump, no pun intended, of the final verse – and that last verse is a doozy:

I was lyin’ under the covers in the middle of the night
Tryin’ to discover my left foot from my right
You can see those pictures in any magazine
But what’s the use of lookin’ when you don’t know what they mean?

That’s right: Costello was auditioning for Stiff with a song that, in part, is about masturbation – and not just masturbation, but masturbatory maladroitness. His speaker feels urges but has no clue about how his body should be used to respond to them – he can’t even comprehend the illustrations of the process that he’s procured in a skin mag. This is a boy, probably not even a teenager yet, engaged in self-exploration and unsure, in the extremity of his inexperience, even how to pleasure himself. It’s hard to think of another song, sung by Presley or anyone who showed up on the scene in the two decades since “Jailhouse Rock,” that touches on this particular topic.**** And Riviera thought Dave Edmunds, of all people, might jump at the chance to record it? “Hey Dave,” one envisions Riviera exclaiming, tapping his fingertips together mischievously. “Do I have a song for you!” It’s amusing to imagine the retorts Edmunds might have issued in response.

Jake Riviera

No matter: the idea to use “Mystery Dance” to snare another artist was a fleeting one – we’ve probably talked about it, now, for longer than it remained in Riviera’s brain. By this point in our timeline, the label head has started regrouping, plotting to sign Costello as a performer, and to rechristen and repackage him and make him a star. Things are in motion, and the fuse has been lit. It’s impossible to say what led Riviera to shift gears from his original impulse – perhaps it was an increasing awareness, the more he listened to such distinctive material, that Costello’s was an original voice deserving of an airing with records of his own, or perhaps it was a diminished confidence, the more he thought about Edmunds’s likely reaction to being asked to sing about “discovering his left foot from his right,” in the likelihood of the scheme working out. It was probably some combination of the two. What’s almost certain is that it became clear, on further reflection, that nobody could sing this material besides Costello himself. Yes, the songwriter had savvily tailored one of his tunes to the burgeoning fifties-revival movement, so much so that at first brush it seemed perfect for Edmunds, but in the end his personality lived so strongly in the words he’d written that – and perhaps this was Costello’s intention from the start – he and only he himself could sing them.*****

And he sings the hell out of them. Yes, his voice wobbles a little in the demo versions we have – it’s kind of uncharacteristic for the young Costello, who was from the start supremely confident in front of a mic – but as produced by Lowe for My Aim Is True the song sounds like a jet landing on an aircraft carrier: those lyrics, funny and brutal and self-mocking and furious and comedic and repulsive, are delivered over an arrangement almost impossibly raw. Echoing “Jailhouse Rock” as if taking that fifties-rock prototype as its touchstone – perhaps, given the all the echoing going on, there’s a joke in the way Costello’s vocal is drenched in more echo here than anywhere else on My Aim Is True – the song’s first verse is likewise built around two immense chords, repeated with ominous emptinesses taking the place of the two snare hits between.****** Each verse builds to a barked-out series of staccato syllables exposed by the dropping-out of the instrumentation: instead of the bright cries of “you shoulda heard those knocked-out jailbirds sing” or “the whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang,” we get those sneering declarations of sexual inadequacy: “both of us were willing but we didn’t know how to do it” or “what’s the use of lookin’ when you don’t know what they mean?” The crisp articulation of that last line is particularly worth noting: Costello is taunting us with the specificity of what he’s saying, defying us, and initially defying execs like Riviera, to ignore it – his clear attack on every consonant, enunciating like a seasoned actor marshaling a lifetime’s experience to tackle Lear, is miles from Presley’s drawling slur as he sashayed his way through the syllable-stew of “warren true-a pardee inna cow-knee jail…” And where Presley sang lovingly in his chorus of the assembled convicts gyrating in unison – “everybody in the whole cellblock” dances to the titular sound, after all – Costello sings of a dance that’s utterly inscrutable, one that he’s struggled to master all his life and never, vexingly enough, managed to get the hang of:

Why don’t you tell me ’bout the Mystery Dance
I wanna know about the Mystery Dance
Why don’t you show me
’Cause I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’m still mystified
I can’t do it anymore and I’m not satisfied…

This is more, for what it’s worth, than the lament of someone forced to “use a wooden chair” because he’s unable to find a partner – at first blush, the song seems simply to be about sex, its inscrutabilities and its humiliations and the seeming-impossibility, especially when you’re young, of ever mastering it to the point where you won’t feel at least a little uncomfortable at the very thought of it. Yet picked apart a little it starts to seem to be about more.

under the covers

The real trick of the song – and it’s more apparent when you separate out the lyrics verse-by-verse, as above – is its chronology. Costello is rewinding time here: we’re given a comic vignette about sexed-up teenagers; we then step back to observe two fumbling virgins on the threshold of becoming the lovers from the first verse; suddenly we’re with a little kid, cowering alone beneath a blanket and poring over dirty pictures, barely pubescent and baffled by everything that the folks in verses one and two presumably understand at least the basic mechanics of, even if they’re making a hash of the whole thing. The song thus traces a line backwards, punctuating each stop on the journey with that cry: “I can’t do it anymore and I’m not satisfied!” But the “it” here is not the “it” of “we didn’t know how to do it.” This “it” is not sex, but the “mystery dance” itself. What is it that Costello yearns to be told about, to know about, to be shown? If the first verse were the entire song, it would be copulation, plain and simple. But subsequent verses show that the “mystery dance” isn’t just how to insert yourself into your partner once the two of you are denuded and recumbent and aroused – it’s how to find that partner, and what the urges for companionship that drive you to find a partner even mean. The song leafs back through memory as if in search of the original setting-in-motion of this vast, bewildering process of human interaction – to the point where it’s pleasant, if you derive pleasure from such things, to imagine a putative fourth verse, in which the Freudians might depict a kid interacting shyly with his mother, say, or the Darwinians a sludgy creature as he struggles to emerge from the sea and locks eyes with a winsome female ooze-monster walking upright for the first time. Pick your poison. But there’s no need for guessing games: Costello himself actually wrote that fourth verse, and it appeared on the early demos before being yanked for the song’s final Pathway take. (It appears to have not been at all unusual, at least in the early years, for Costello to overwrite a song in demo form and then prune it back in the studio. “Miracle Man” and “Green Shirt” leap quickest to mind as examples, and doubtless there are many more.) It will come as no surprise that, like any good Catholic, Costello in journeying to the center of things confronts the most primal thing of all, when he finds himself meeting the Big Man himself:

I’m gonna walk right up to heaven, dodgin’ lighting rods
I’m gonna have this very personal conversation with God
I’ll say, “You’ve got the information – why don’t you say so?”
He’ll say, “Well, I’ve been around, and I still don’t know…”

More comedy: God himself, omniscient though he may be, has no more grasp on what the hell humans get up to in the sack than Elvis does. But beyond this rather slight jest, the verse adds little to the song’s tight drama, and it hardly seems a tragedy that it didn’t make the cut – the imprecision of language in “lightning rods” feels sloppy by Costello standards; moreover he must have known that so juicy an idea as a face-to-face between the Almighty and this snotty, rude “Elvis Costello” character he was in the middle of creating begged to be set into a more developed song, a rather windy version of which Costello would finally unveil a dozen years later in “God’s Comic.”

But a real discussion with the actual Almighty, the real progenitor of all this, the prime-mover of rock and roll, would prove impossible. If Elvis Costello was, to use a phrase applied to another musician on the other side of the Atlantic a couple years earlier, “rock and roll future,” then it was in part because he was building upon the strong foundations laid down by rock’s past – in particular the predecessor with whom he shared a name. And no meeting between the Elvises was ever to occur, because that other guy died before anyone had paid Costello a lick of attention. In the end, Costello would let slip in interviews and elsewhere that his musical tastes were actually far more catholic than those of your typical rocker of his day: thanks to his upbringing he was versed in music hall and jazz and easy listening and skiffle and big band and, horror of horrors, even country. But this was the sort of thing you keep secret from a girl you’re courting until you’re pretty sure you’ve got her on the hook, and the key to Costello’s gaining a large and dedicated enough listenership in England and abroad that was willing to follow him down these less-well-worn musical paths was his skillful early seizure of rock’s simple structures and pleasures. He took the craggy and overdeveloped chord progressions and metaphors of his earlier songwriting, and stripped them down and cast them as radio-friendly, vaguely fifties-flavored rock and roll numbers.  “Mystery Dance” is a perfect example. In Unfaithful Music, Costello calls it “a rock and roll novelty tune… a trifle that just seemed to use the same riff as ‘Jailhouse Rock.’” He might be right in being so casually dismissive. He would know, after all. But it’s hard to ignore that, “trifle” though it may be, “Mystery Dance” succeeds because it has such immense balls, for lack of a better word, that it unhesitatingly grabs the great watch that ticks away our time on earth and winds it backward, turning back time, taking its speaker and its listeners alike into the great yesterday until color has become black and white, until girls are mysteries unexperienced, until rock and roll is no longer a tired, worn-out art form but a vital new music still in its infancy, vibrant on film screens with pelvis-shaking and jailhouse-rocking. Perhaps Costello’s savviest move of all, in fact, was lopping away the song’s grand conclusion: if the great trick of “Mystery Dance” is this winding-back of the clock, perhaps it’s appropriate, given the proclaimed inscrutability of the two-step under consideration, that it never does manage to arrive at that moment when everything was set in motion. Like the song’s speaker himself, “Mystery Dance” never quite manages, despite everything, to arrive at the Big Bang.

Recorded: Pathway Studios, London, late 1976-January 1977. EC: vocals, guitar, piano; John McFee: guitar; Lowe: bass, drums, piano; Mickey Shine: drums. Producer: Lowe. Engineer: Bazza Farmer. Released: My Aim Is True, 1977; “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” (b-side), 1977; “Mystery Dance” (Belgian single), 1977. Played live more or less continuously throughout Costello’s career.

* For the record, David Gouldstone in A Man Out Of Time/God’s Comic claims that “Blame It On Cain” was also on the tape, though he cites no source for the contention. I should also note that it’s not impossible the recordings, whatever the songs were, were drawn from the “Honky Tonk demos,” which are widely available today. These seem to have been the recordings Costello was proudest of at the time – after all, he deemed them worthy enough representations of his talents that he angled tirelessly to get them broadcast on Charlie Gillett’s radio show Honky Tonk, hence the demos’ informal name. The thing that gives me the most pause in asserting that the material submitted to Stiff was sourced therefrom is the fact that “Mystery Dance” is perhaps the roughest-sounding of those demos, which makes it seem marginally less likely to have proved the standout to Riviera. Then again, perhaps the recording’s roughness, which in the pub-rock era was seen to equal authenticity, was precisely its draw.

** One of the many joys of Costello’s new memoir, Unfaithful Music and Invisible Ink, is his seemingly-infallible ability to recollect details about people such as Riviera’s receptionist, as well as to recall and connect the chancest of encounters, such as his ostensible run-in with Lowe on his way back to work on this fateful afternoon. The fact that he himself has said in the past that the tape was “dropped through the slot,” and that it’s hard to believe there really wasn’t a single other tape that arrived prior to Costello’s, and that the conversation with Lowe could easily have happened anytime at all – Costello himself acknowledges the unlikeliness of the timing – does little to tarnish the beauty of passages like this one, from chapter 16:

I was the first songwriter through the door after reading an announcement that Stiff Records was open for business. I called in a sick day for my computer job and rode the Tube to a single shop front building in Westbourne Park. I’d been to record company premises and publisher’s offices before, but this didn’t seem like any operation I’d ever encountered. There was only one person looking after the store, a delightfully well-spoken young woman with a hennaed Mia Farrow haircut. She had been left alone manning the phones but had a slightly scattered air. I half expected her to sell me a scented candle. She seemed surprised that any potential recording artists might be knocking on the door so soon, and I left my home-recorded demo tape with the assurances it would be auditioned and returned to me.

I walked back to the Tube station and, with all the improbability of the movie version of our lives, walked straight into Nick Lowe, who must have been arriving to the Stiff offices in his capacity as their sole artist and potential house producer.

Nick said, “Are you going to tread the planks again anytime soon, old chap?” and we stood there for a moment like two old vaudevillians chatting at the stage door of the local music hall.

I bade Nick farewell and went on my way, not knowing whether I would see him so often, now that his band had broken up.

Would that every rock memoir were so fleet-footed and lively of voice. And would that every rock n’ roll origin story were so clean and mythically uncluttered.

*** Greil Marcus, in his December 1, 1977 Rolling Stone review of My Aim Is True, singled out “Mystery Dance” for particular praise, referring to its lyrics as “clean as anything by Chuck Berry, but so much more perverse.” He takes care to hail the two-measure solo in the middle as “one of the better guitar solos of our day,” which is high praise given Costello’s inarguable limitations as an axeman – it’s not unlikely this was another John McFee contribution, and it’s easy to imagine a much more technically-gifted guitarist like Edmunds attacking it with even more savagery. Incidentally, Marcus goes on to note that this song is so strong  it can hardly be called a revival of fifties tropes: listening to it, “one realizes that the possibilities of present-day rockabilly have nothing to do with the flaccid revivals of a poser like Robert Gordon. ‘Mystery Dance’… does not refer back to classic rock: it is classic rock.” Surely Marcus’s use of the word “flaccid,” in discussing a song so preoccupied with sexual performance, was no accident – and neither was his insight that the song, though harking back to Presleyan tropes, was in fact peering determinedly into the future.

**** I would be remiss, having said this much, not to cite Gouldstone once again. His take on “Mystery Dance” is perfect: he praises the song’s comedy, in that it casts such wildly un-virile lyrics against such familiarly hypermasculine sounds, but at the same time notes that the voice here is very distinctive, and that this Elvis differs greatly from his predecessor. “It’s difficult,” Gouldstone notes pithily, “to imagine the original Elvis singing about not knowing what to do with his plonker.”

***** The only person, to my knowledge, who’s ever covered “Mystery Dance” creditably is, unsurprisingly, Nick Lowe.  Lowe has always been far and away the strongest interpreter of Costello’s work, and at the “Costello Sings Lowe, Nick Sings Elvis” benefit concert in San Francisco on October 1, 2010, he gave us perhaps the closest we’ll ever hear to a Dave Edmunds-esque reading of “Mystery Dance.”  It’s rollicking and dignified and quite impressive – to be honest, it makes a bit of a hash of one of the central theses of this essay, which is that nobody but Elvis could sing this song.  Clearly, Nick can.  I like to think of this as one of those instance of exception-proves-the-rule.

****** It wouldn’t be long, of course, before the Attractions would transform this song, and its starkness, into something much noisier and fiercer. Pete Thomas, in particular, would fill these empty spaces with a stampeding roll of drums, while Steve Nieve confiscated that guitar solo from the record and replaced it with a deranged-sounding keyboard workout. Just take a look at them thrashing their way through it on Rockpalast in 1978, and see how much they were capable of obscuring a lyrical look at ineptitude with flabbergastingly muscular musicianship.  But we’ll get to a discussion of the Attractions later – I bring them up here merely to nod at their remarkable ability to take Costello’s raw material and flesh it out into something mighty. All the potential Riviera heard in Costello’s Revox demo seemed to be realized less by Lowe in the studio, fine though that work unquestionably was, and more by Naïve and the two Thomases when they transformed it on the road.

Top to bottom: the first Elvis in 1957, jailbirding and getting his kicks; a Revox reel-to-reel, of the sort used to record the original demo of “Mystery Dance”; Dave Edmunds, late seventies, looking goofier than usual; Jake Riviera, ca. 1977, with a cut-out of his greatest creation; “Hiding under the covers in the middle of the night…”


  1. BenJ · January 1, 2016

    Like the song’s speaker himself, “Mystery Dance” never quite manages, despite everything, to arrive at the Big Bang.

    Ah, but it does have fun with all the slaps and caresses meant to get us there.

    I like the idea in the unused fourth verse of the speaker/EC dodging lightning as he arrives in Heaven, being aware of just how blasphemous he’s been up to this point. It’s just a shame that, as you point out, he uses the term “lightning rods,” since that means quite something else.

    I do hope you keep this blog up, and I look forward to future entries.


    • ecsongbysong · January 5, 2016

      I’m very glad you like what you’ve read! And there’s plenty to come: I got a little knocked off my game by the holidays, but I’ll be back in the swing of things later this week. Please come back and check it out!


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  4. Mara H · December 14

    Loved reading this thannks


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