In 1974, Elvis Costello moved out of his father’s home and into a small house at 3 Stag Lane in Roehampton Vale with his band, Flip City. The rent was thirty-two pounds a month, split among six men, none of whom was yet twenty years old. They stayed up late; they fought over who was to do the dishes; they had intense political discussions; they listened to records and made music. Briefly, they squabbled over a girl. A year later, Costello moved out – he’d gotten that girl pregnant, and married her, and the new family returned to the flat below his dad’s place – and not long after, the remaining tenants were evicted. The band broke up in late 1975.
Such is the broad-strokes saga of Flip City. It could be the story of any band – indeed, it could be the story of being nineteen-ish in the mid-going-on-late twentieth century. Don’t be surprised that the story of the band’s living arrangements is also its story, period: collective living is one of the touchstones of being young, and being in a band is itself close enough to collective living that many bands wind up lodging under the same roof anyway. If, somewhere in that sentence, there’s a bit of transitive-property logic that suggests being in a band and being young are equivalents – well, there’s truth in that too. It’s a strange moment in your life: you’re no longer a kid, and not yet an adult, so it’s you against everybody else, and naturally your impulse is to form your own society in miniature, gathering friends around you to express yourself in song and to render your rent more manageable and to help make difficult life choices seem less daunting. When it’s time to grow up – when you’ve got a wife and a kid you need to support, say – the arrangement gives way. All that’s left is the music, and much of the time, because so much energy was devoted to deciding who would do those dishes, and who would get that girl you were fighting over, and not incidentally because recording can be prohibitively expensive – there isn’t even much of that. We’re lucky to have the handful of tracks we do by Flip City.
A rock and roll band is an odd fraternity. Costello, in moving in with bassist Mich Kent and drummer Malcolm Dennis and guitarist Steve Hazlehurst and percussionist Dickie Faulkner – as well as their sound mixer Mike Whelan, who’d found the house originally – was choosing his allies in a stance all young men take against the world; he was also following a pattern he knew countless musicians had chosen in the past. In America, the prototype was probably the Grateful Dead, shacking up in the wilds of Marin to craft the sounds of American Beauty; in England, the classic example is Traffic, withdrawing to a country cottage at Sheepcott Farm to write Mr. Fantasy. Both of these bands’ chosen retirement destinations were far more rural than the suburban environs of Stag Lane, as were the more direct forebears to what Flip City was up to: Big Pink, where Bob Dylan and the Band cloistered themselves to produce the Basement Tapes, and Northwood, where Costello’s heroes Brinsley Schwarz wrote much of Despite It All and Silver Pistol. Running away to the country sounds nice, but in the end you have to make a living, and Costello needed to be close to his job as a computer operator in Acton, while his housemates had similarly town-oriented gigs as maintenance men and truck drivers and – it yielded a guitar Costello would play for several years – even a warehouse worker at Fender. In the handful of anecdotes that have survived from this era, we get a glimpse of typical boys-will-be-boys sophomoricness – early Costello biographer Mick St. Michael refers to “practical jokes of the toothpaste-on-the-door-handle variety” – and culinary inspiration likely stemming from budgetary limitations – Graeme Thomson has unearthed tales of Costello’s terrible eating habits: “He’d suddenly emerge from the kitchen,” Hazlehurst is quoted as remembering, “with a peanut-butter sandwich with blackberry jam with tomatoes on it.” There are also veiled references to disagreements about professionalism: “One thing that annoyed me about Declan,” Hazlehurst goes on to recall of the man then known as Declan MacManus, “[was] he wanted money. Vast amounts of it.” This, one suspects, was more comparative than anything else – as the sole married member of the group, naturally Costello was more concerned than the others about their income. And though the matter doesn’t seem to have been openly discussed, it hardly takes much sleuthing to realize there were differences in musical ability that Costello struggled against: we know that his songwriting from this era included at least a few of the “Honky Tonk demos,” and yet he seems to have squirreled those away, preferring to share with his underproficient bandmates far less sophisticated numbers like “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band.” But the salient part of every story of the Stag Lane period is a sense of commonality, of us-against-them. The five guys were in it together. Indeed, from time to time they even tipped their hats to other outsiders: St. Michael spoke to a friend of the band who once accompanied them to a South London gig at a seedy club packed with bikers itching for a fight. “Dec just started chatting to some guy who said he could play harmonica,” she remembers, “and [he] invited him to come up and have a blow. The result was the audience all loved him. That was an example of his common touch.” Somewhere, incidentally, in this tale of a scrawny makeup-factory worker finding common ground with a leathered-up motorcyclist is a germ of the musical catholicity and embrace of other players that would, in later decades, make Costello comfortable recording with such disparate musicians as Elvis Presley’s band on King Of America or the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters or hip-hoppers the Roots on Wise Up Ghost.
Perhaps a band has to be this way, by its very nature. It is, after all, an assembly of people who stand within a circle, membership defined in opposition to all those who are outside of it. (That circle, needless to say, can be actualized in the form of a house where everyone lives together.) Popular depictions of bands tend to emphasize the camaraderie – John Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night glares at some geezer who’s trying to corral him and his mates, and he sneers, “You’re a swine…” – or the oppressive impulses brought to bear upon them – on the other side of a vast temporal and cultural divide, we find Richard E. Grant overacting in Spice World as the manager of the Spice Girls, hearing Mel C insist that he lighten up and let them live their lives, whereupon he declares heatedly, “You don’t have a life, you have a schedule! You are part of a well-oiled, global machine!”* And indeed, in the latter case and to a less stultifying degree in the former too, they were. Flip City was not. They did, however, evince something of the spirit of these portrayals of what a band is. Stag Lane was, to draw upon a few more great-and-not-so-great rock movies, some probably-filthy combination of the wonderland-ish row of townhouses the moptops have joined together in Help! and the shitty beach shack where Justine Bateman’s band crashes in Satisfaction.** Outside its walls were forces that Costello, a product of his time, viewed as vaguely menacing. Whereas George Harrison in 1964 could profess of those he viewed as “a drag” that he would “turn the sound down” when they’re on his telly “and say rude things,” and whereas Baby and Ginger and Scary and Sporty and Posh in 1998 could wave away all their troubles with a peace sign and a meaningless cry of “Girl power!” Costello was living amid the same grim post-sixties hangover that produced Michael Apted’s Stardust. In that 1974 film, which we know Costello admires from its mentions in his memoir, rock star David Essex is isolated from his bandmates and driven mad by managers Adam Faith and Larry Hagman, for reasons ranging from the craven to the psychosexual – at the end, as Essex is in an ambulance ODing, Faith cries angrily: “You can’t fucking die! I own half of you!” This is to say, the outside world has always been the enemy of fun, but in the mid-seventies it seemed overtly out to get you. “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band” is a short essay by Costello on the topic.
It’s not much of a song, though it feints at good things to come. Critic and biographer Brian Hinton, unkindly but astutely, has noted of its title that “‘Don’t Stop The Band’ is hardly a plea which many paying audiences would have echoed, if [its] tape is representative of live concerts.” Sure enough, the demo we have is herky-jerk and meandering – probably a half-decent thing to have chugging along on a pub stage behind you while you’re chatting up a girl over a pint, but nothing that rewards close attention for its almost-interminable length. (The song is four minutes and forty-four seconds, and feels at least twice that.) It’s three verses, three choruses, no bridge, and a ton of verbiage – to the point where a few of the lines are garbled into incomprehensibility. Things start promisingly enough, with a shuffling rhythm lifted straight off The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle – Ian Powell, having replaced Dennis along the line, even seems to be replicating the charmingly-clumsy stick-and-pedal work of Vini Lopez. (Whether or not Faulkner was still in the band at this point is difficult to determine.) The real time-keeping has been left to Kent, not that the bassist does all that consistent a job of it, though on the plus side he does come up with some rather nice fills here and there – witness his clever sonic approximation in the third verse of a “treadmill rat” once you’ve “stepped right on his tail.” Hazlehurst tries to provide a wiry guitar accompaniment, reminiscent of something you might find laced through a Van Morrison vocal, but as so often with Flip City numbers he’s a serious weak link – his little plinks and ploinks sound amateurish, to say the least. He doesn’t ruin things, but he doesn’t add much either. (It’s possible, in fairness to Hazlehurst, that some of this inartful guitar work is Costello’s own.) Flaws notwithstanding there’s little to reproach in the track’s simple groove – it’s really the failure to build to anything that sinks the song, which means blame can fall on no one save Costello himself. That said, the singer turns in a creditable performance, sniping and full of snot – listen to him clip the words “from the very start” in the second verse, clamping on the phrase like a demolition expert depressing a plunger into the wired-up box of his detonator. Strictly speaking the song was written and sung by Declan MacManus, the Elvis Costello stage name not yet having been coined, but somewhere between the lines, and sometimes in the spitting-out of them, we can find clear traces of the character that would be forged to bring his nasty message to the people on My Aim Is True.
But what’s Costello so pissy about here? Who exactly is he worried might stop his band? It sounds like a sleazy industry figure of the Faith/Hagman model, a sort of unctuous forebear to the guy Pink Floyd would bring to life with such unpleasant vividness in “Have A Cigar.” It’s not really clear what this fellow has in mind for Flip City – possibly Costello and the boys had no real-life experience of this sort of thing, their band never having been good enough to merit attention or interference from folks looking to take advantage of them – but he definitely intends to stir up trouble in the vaguely utopian world of Stag Lane:
The man and the money had a hand in the game
I don’t like your face, he says, and I can’t remember your name
But I give you these shoes with the broken laces
You go looking in the eyes of the pretty faces down that stony road
Remembering Hazelhurst’s observation that his housemate was concerned to an unseemly degree about finances, it’s probably worth noting that the manager and the income he promises have been equated in the song’s opening phrase. Costello proceeds to note the importance of both to the group, their “hand in the game,” even as he allows the manager in the next line to dismiss them all as individuals: “I don’t like your face, and I can’t remember your name” is something you, as a budding recording artist, want to hear only if your other choice is something transparently sycophantic: “I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere,” for instance. “Oh by the way – which one’s Pink?” As for the second couplet, it’s more of the same: the manager offers to change their look and dress them up, though crucially the costume he suggests is secondhand and broken, and he does his best to distract them from the fleecing they’re about to undergo by foisting upon them a few comely groupies. Have a cigar, indeed.
The balance shifts, and the artist is given the second half of the verse – or, perhaps more precisely, he’s allowed to speak the transitional pre-chorus:
Well, I tip my hat
I was nailed to my seat
But I would rather go walking down breezy street
Lost my trust in the promised land
Put all of my faith in the Hope Street band
He’s deferential; he’s riveted. He’s registered the manager’s slick last line, though – and rather than stroll down “stony road,” he says he’d prefer, all things considered, to be on “breezy street.” The one-night comforts offered by the girls, in short, matter less than financial security would. Perhaps to himself, he notes that he’s turned realistic in his expectations, no longer hoping to be allowed into “the promised land” and having thrown in his lot with the brotherhood he’s formed with his fellow musicians. That it might not have been all that wise to “put his faith” in the likes of Hazlehurst is unintentionally underlined by the inept guitar figure adorning this line – but that’s neither here nor there, because we’ve arrived at the chorus, which wants somewhat desperately to be something Bruce Springsteen might sing with the E Street Band clamoring behind him:
Sitting on the edge of anticipation
Running around the bend
There’s a hungry hand in an empty pocket
Everything is locked up
Or shut up and sit down
Goodnight, my old friend
Please mister, don’t stop the band
Please mister, don’t stop the band
The denizens of Stag Lane can’t wait to be famous – their thoughts constantly rush toward what lies ahead. For now, of course, they don’t have a dime to their names – that “hungry hand” is either their own, fishing for money that isn’t there, or the manager’s, looking to pick their pockets of cash they don’t have – and there’s nothing to do but get shut out of places or be told to pipe down and get in line. At night, of course, Flip City can always quaff a few till it’s time for bed, enjoying their insular community and playing their music the way they want to – the real fear is that instead of an expansion of this freedom, which is the key component of the way they see their promising futures, this manager might quash it. The song’s title is a plea, expressed in polite terms unusual for Costello and indicative of his outfit’s beggars-can’t-be-choosers situation, for that not to happen.
Things get fuzzier from there – this song cries out for editing, and it’s hardly a surprise Costello has never revisited it. The second verse harks back to Rusty-era songs of dread – Allan Mayes has claimed, though there’s little evidence in the surviving lyric, that “Warm House” was about Costello’s fear that “he was going to get beaten up while walking the streets on the way to a gig.” (The quote is from Thomson, incidentally.) Two years later, still in his teens and living on his own for the first time, Mayes’s old bandmate seems not to have forgotten that scary little skinhead fantasy, and “Please Mister” drops in, not entirely snugly, an articulation of similar unease:
Living by the law of the small-town-small-talk
Well, I’m not one to run from trouble, but I wish you’d walk me down there
They got murder in their heart
They got murder in their minds
From the very start they’ve been treated so unkindly
Well, I feel about as welcome as a kick in the teeth
As I looked up from the scuffle I was underneath***
The connection to the first verse is weak – it’s a modulation of the theme of everybody’s-out-to-get-us, but it doesn’t sit particularly comfortably. This verse does, interestingly, present us with further hints of the Costello character in chrysalis: the singer, strangely alone now and isolated (like Essex in Stardust, perhaps) from his band, feels persecuted and like everybody is out to get him. Still early in his career as opposed to Essex’s character’s twilight of it, he manages to blur self-pity into something like sympathy for others, which is an inherently writerly act – it’s easy to imagine the quivering sentiment of “I’ve been treated so unkindly” almost accidentally, perhaps with a slip of the pen, becoming a statement about other people as “I’ve” turned into “they’ve” – and as he’s ganged up on, from his perspective at the bottom of the dogpile, the best he can do is come up with a wry little couplet based on the classic schoolyard response of the weakling to the bully, using words and humor to defy if not to defeat might:
So they took away all of your paper money
Better learn to laugh if you want to be funny
One wonders if the feeling of helplessness isn’t Costello’s reaction to the oppression he’s imagining that manager imposing upon his band – if this isn’t what he, in Sporty Spice’s shoes as Grant informed her of the preeminence of schedule over fun, might have felt. It’s noteworthy that he’ll fail somewhat spectacularly to take at least half of his own advice: in just a few years he’ll have learned to be funny, in an embittered sort of way, but we won’t hear Elvis Costello laugh except in a derisive chortle for a very long time.
It’s tempting to stop after the second chorus – one can’t help wishing, in contravention of the song’s title, that the band did – but there’s one more verse, in which the singer convinces himself that he has to submit, that his band in order to be successful is going to have to listen to that manager or at least to acknowledge the world outside the cradle of Stag Lane:
I’ve been living on the edge, I’ve been sleeping on nails
Well, the treadmill rat he will go for your throat if you step right on his tail
But they rattle the jambo they spat on and hated
And it’s much too late to be relegated down this dead-end line
But if you don’t answer the occasional call
You’re bound to end up at the workhouse wall
Take your chances because you don’t get many
Better take your turn, or you don’t get any
The first four lines of this are a fuzzy description of yearning – a drawn-out restatement of the chorus’s “sitting on the edge of anticipation, running around the bend” – which are remarkable mostly for Costello’s delivery: he crams so much poisonous emotion into his singing here that he obscures, probably an intentional sacrifice, his usually-crisp diction and even, as a result, his meaning. I defy you to tell me exactly what it is to “rattle the jambo.” But then the song winds up with a contemplative concession that life inside your little house, eating your peanut-butter-blackberry-and-tomato sandwiches, can’t be an end in itself. There’s real wisdom in the otherwise unremarkable line “take your chances because you don’t get many.” And though Costello will wind up his song with yet another chorus and a long repeat of the well-mannered imprecation of the title line, there’s an irony in retrospect, given that in time he’ll find the best route to success, to having his next band prove unstoppable, is to make fiery declarations like “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me.” One day he’ll rage against the the record industry’s powers that be, excoriating them as “fools trying to anaesthetize the way that you feel” and raging furiously against the fact that “they don’t given you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason.” For now though, all he can do is ask respectfully: “Please mister, don’t stop the band.”
Like Flip City itself, which stopped in the end of its own accord, “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band” can’t be called a success. Its odd sense of going nowhere can be attributed to its struggle to be two different things – a rousing affirmation of music’s power, like something out of the Springsteen songbook, and also a sour fuck-you to all the “swine” outside of Flip City who want to kick Costello in the teeth and are trying to “stop the band.” It’s no wonder the song doesn’t entirely work: it’s trying not just to lift you up but also to keep you under its heel. It’s a shame we don’t have any live recordings of it, as it would be interesting to hear what contemporary crowds made of this shapeless singalong, this exhortation that winds up in meek submission to its own villain. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is the way it masquerades as a song about a community – all the members of Flip City chime in on the chorus’s recitations of the title phrase – but ultimately seems to be more about a single speaker than a group. Like that putative “I” that I’m imagining having melted into a “they” in the second verse, the song as a whole takes “we” and morphs it into “me” – as we’ll see this is, perhaps, a characteristic Costello move. Still, in its tentative explorations of the us-against-them dynamics that lie at the very heart of what it is to be in a band, it presages Costello’s more militant defiance in later songs off This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, when the politesse will be dropped and anyone’s attempt to stop his band in any way will be doomed to be shoved aside violently, spurned and scorned and spat upon, steamrollered right out of existence.
Recorded: Hope & Anchor Studios, spring 1975. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst: guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass, backing vocals; Ian Powell: drums; Faulkner?: percussion. Engineer: Dave Robinson (paid “twenty pounds and a bottle of port” for his services). Unreleased, save on bootleg. Played live in Flip City shows, 1974-75, though it doesn’t feature on the sole live recording we have of the band. Never resuscitated since.
* I confess, red-faced, to having screened Spice World recently, which is not something I recommend unless you too have an interest in Costello’s spotty career as a cameo player in various middling motion pictures. In this particular 1998 romp, he plays a bartender, the butt of a joke not worth repeating about the fickleness of fame, and has precisely two lines: “So what can I get you?” and “Yes.” Perhaps I should concede, however, that thinking of the film now forces me to emend a contention I made earlier in this essay: in certain cases, a rock and roll band can also be “an odd sorority.”
** This not-unjustly-forgotten 1988 film is another movie I happen to have seen recently, and I’m only unashamed to have watched it by comparison with Spice World. Screening Satisfaction did prove worthwhile, however, if only insofar as it reminded me of its soundtrack’s rather good Costello cover. The snarling stab at “Mystery Dance,” sadly un-YouTube-able, is the first of, to my knowledge, two cinematic connections between EC and Julia Roberts – the second, of course, being Costello’s popular version of Charles Aznavour’s “She” for 1999’s Notting Hill. More on that song in, well, let’s just say in a long time from now.
*** The Elvis Costello Wiki entry for “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band” has transcribed this last line differently, rendering it “as I looked up from the scalpel I was underneath.” This is a better line, to be sure, but after many listens I’m almost certain the slurred vocal on the demo has Costello saying “scuffle” instead. For a time, of course, I also thought it might be “scaffold” – the rush of laying down eight tracks in that late-spring 1975 demo session seems to have had Flip City failing to redo several very messy takes, including this one and the even-sloppier “Wreck On The Slide,” slated to be discussed in our next post.
Top to bottom: The Spice Girls, 1998, gazing out at audiences during the closing credits of their movie and, surely, wondering why anyone would have come to see it; John Lennon, up to no good alongside the great Wilfrid Brambell in A Hard Day’s Night, 1964; the rather wonderful band that Adam Faith’s character “stops” in Stardust, 1974: it included Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds, in addition to David Essex; the only picture anyone ever posts of Flip City, because it seems to be the only picture around of Flip City, ca. 1974.