A comment on a recent post took me to task.
The point was made apropos of my essay on “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band,” and it’s hard to argue with it. I was using an almost-forgotten piece of juvenilia to consider Declan MacManus as a youth, as a member of a rock band fated to go nowhere, as an artist-in-embryo whose development was about to be altered forever by the adoption, the imposition even, of a persona with another, made-up name – one half drawn from his own family history and half from the revered mononym of a bloated rock n’ roll dinosaur moments from departing the world. I focused on dimly-remembered tales of the time: adolescent pranks; tiffs over women; enthusiasm for football teams and eccentric combinations of sandwich fixings. In Flip City’s snippy internal politics, in their late-night philosophical discussions, in their doomed efforts to turn the germs of brilliance provided by their frontman into a successful musical career, I admit I saw – or, perhaps I should say, tried to see – something familiar from my own teenage years. In this, as commenter Erey noted, I was doing my subject an injustice.
This is because Elvis Costello was an atypical young man. He may have lived in a poorly-kept house with a bunch of pals, with whom he bonded and squabbled, played gigs for beer money, felt camaraderie for and proceeded to horrify with his culinary habits, but he also possessed an astonishing and extraordinary reserve of precociousness. As Erey has reminded me, he was a working musician, doggedly disciplined about it all out of proportion to his success, before he was out of school; he was, or so he tells us, dead-certain of which woman he would marry when he was barely fourteen; he seems to have regarded his father’s embrace of late-sixties hippiedom with skepticism, flipping the generation gap in the MacManus house to a degree he laughs about today. (In his memoir, Costello concedes his father probably never said, “You’re a disgrace to the family – grow your hair!” This doesn’t stop him from entertaining live audiences with the quote nightly.) There’s more: we’ll read in a future entry about the strange epiphany he had during a train ride into Liverpool, evincing an awareness of mortality almost unheard-of in a man his age, which he would put to music in a song he’d proceed to play until long after it became clear he didn’t take “the angels” up on their offer to ensure he’d never “get any older.” As Erey astutely put it, with a succinctness I’m sure my readers have figured out I’m incapable of:
Be cautious about applying the typical chronological boilerplate of a teenager and young man’s life to this particular teenager and young man… In a way, EC flipped the order of his teen and very early adult years with his later twenties: he started out as a serious and sober young man, a hard-working husband and father; then, having been poleaxed by sudden fame at age twenty-three, spent the next few years behaving like a wild-ass teenager, one with an unlimited amount of trouble to get into and no parents to ground him for misbehaving.
Over the next very-long-time I’m going to lob thousands of words at you in essays covering all the songs on the first three albums; I will be very lucky if in all that verbiage I manage to say precisely what Erey has expressed here in two sentences. In an effort to dissuade you from deciding you’ve got the message, and leaving off reading the blog right now, I will say I think there are significant details and shadings begging to be added to this sketch. But color me chastened: as I move forward with this project, I intend to take Erey’s words to heart. I will indeed “be cautious.”
That said, Costello himself – I suppose I should say MacManus, since we’re talking about a period that predates his rechristening – was to an extent keeping this part of his personality under wraps during his Flip City days. There’s a reason the stories I was able to draw upon in depicting this era are largely goofball tales of normal adolescentdom – they were told by his bandmates, who were normal adolescents. The time MacManus spent crafting song after song, schlepping around searching for gigs, peering with disapproval at those less disciplined than himself, was probably barely noticed by these guys, and to the extent it was, it was likely misinterpreted. (Recall Steve Hazlehurst’s observation that “Declan… wanted money, vast amounts of it.”) That the intensely-driven side of this young man was something of a secret is suggested by his work itself: of the dozens of songs EC wrote during 1974-76, we have only a handful, but the difference between the pub-rock songs he earmarked for Flip City and the much more personal material he held back for himself, which has reached us as the “Honky Tonk demos,” is stark. Part of this, one suspects, is rooted in the band’s limited proficiency – surely they’d have made a hash of “Poison Moon,” say – but part of it seems like a tentative early foray into character consciousness. A decade later we’ll be able to see the difference between the sensitive folk-tinged balladry “Declan MacManus” will write for King Of America and the screamers “Napoleon Dynamite” is going to serve up on a platter covered in Blood & Chocolate; for now, we’ve got the fun-loving “Dec” who giddily convinces his band to dress up like Barefoot Jerry for a Flip City photo shoot, contrasted with this sober-minded other fellow who plays Hoagy Carmichael-inspired originals in folk clubs. If MacManus was, in 1974, concealing a greater ambition by in some ways playing the part of a typical teenager, then I hope I can be forgiven for falling into the trap and reading a song from that time as if it was written by one.
But all this is preface to a consideration of an oddity in the Costello canon: “Pay It Back.” It is the sole pre-1977 song (unless you count the reworked “Radio Soul” or the fragments mined out of “Cheap Reward”) to survive the purge of MacManusness in the wake of EC’s becoming Elvis: it was a staple of Flip City live performances; it appeared with Clover backing him on My Aim Is True and it spent at least a short time in live sets with the Attractions. The temptation is to see it as a bridge between two periods in Costello’s career, and maybe it is that: it would be nice to think he deemed it the best thing he had, and that was why it was carried forward, or to imagine that he discovered its MacManus-era concerns matched those he was focusing on, premeditatedly or not, in tailoring the “Elvis Costello” persona of his debut LP. But there are problems with this view. For one thing, “Pay It Back” is far from the best Flip City song – that title, almost unquestionably, goes to “Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver)” – and while its singalong vitriol certainly sits well on wax between the kick-up-your-heels sexual frustration of “Mystery Dance” and the seething viciousness of “I’m Not Angry,” it’s not quite of a piece with the rest of the album, as evidenced perhaps by the fact that it proved too good-timey in feel to last in the Attractions’ steely-eyed buzzsaw live show. Some of its couplets – “I love you more than everything in the world,” its speaker quips, “I don’t expect that will last…” – feel like the “snappy lines” Costello claims, with considerable evidence, he could “write in his sleep” around this time, and “Pay It Back” does feel at home on an album filled with quotable kiss-offs. But it’s an odd duck, and I must confess I haven’t been sure what I was going to say about it when the time came to put it under the microscope. I’m grateful to Erey for prompting me to see it in a new light.
Because “Pay It Back,” now that I think about it, is a song about the price you pay as you make decisions, when you’re young, about which parts of yourself you’re going to give to the world and which parts you’re going to keep private. Even its sonics seem built on that essential divide: on the outside it’s a gleeful invitation to dance – the Flip City version goes so far as to add irregular handclaps and a chortling sax part – but its lyric is coiled with fury and meditates extensively on self-defeat. The sentiments dart through those step-lively rhythms like a pilot fish between the teeth of a shark, but for all their spryness they’re pretty bleak: the first verse, nevermind its shifty second-person/first-person point of view, contemplates the possible consequences of an unintended pregnancy:
Stop thief, you’re gonna come to grief
If you don’t take a little more care
You’re gonna get more than the family plan
From this one-shoestring affair
I may be crazy, but I can’t contemplate
Being trapped between the doctor and the magistrate…
I should confess I’m not sure what’s going on in those first few lines. About as much as I can say with certainty is that, despite its second word, the song isn’t about thievery – that Hazlehurst once dedicated the song in performance to “all you thieves out there” earned a nasty glare from MacManus, possibly because Hazlehurst was stepping on the frontman role but likelier because the glib shout-out was evidence, as if EC needed it, that his bandmates weren’t adequately appreciative the complexity of his songsmithery. My best guess is that “thief,” in addition to providing a pleasing internal rhyme, is meant in an inelegant fashion to conjure the idea of passing time, proverbially nature’s most persistent and successful thief; thus the opening couplet is a reminder to the song’s speaker/subject that there are things that will happen as a result of the things he’s doing, perhaps carelessly, right now. Maybe I’m overreading what follows – I always suspect something like “the family plan” is a culturally-specific reference to something in 1970s Britain that I, growing up elsewhere, wasn’t aware of – but it seems like the speaker is noting that what feels like a tenuous connection, a tie with a lover felicitously depicted as flimsy as a single shoestring, can get complicated fast. By way of example: the final couplet. Now this sort of stuff, it’s worth noting, is probably a major reason why the song was deemed appropriate for My Aim Is True: “Pay It Back” is certainly of a piece with the album’s uncompromising insistence that sex is a pitfall leading to humiliation at best and ruin at worst. But here, however obliquely, we find Costello concerned with the public and private aspects of sex more than perhaps anywhere else in his early songs. What you do with your woman “under the covers in the middle of the night,” as he says in another tune, is entirely between the two of you, but once her belly starts to swell your choices are a trip to the abortionist or to the Justice of the Peace. For a good Catholic like Costello, the former is out of the question, which means a little one-on-one hanky-panky, a “one-shoestring affair,” can be the start of a straight line to a public declaration of matrimony.
The speaker “can’t contemplate” it, it’s so unthinkable, and yet he proceeds to do just that: the second verse speculates on how one might wind up in that spot. As it does so, it also dwells on the way intimacy can only exacerbate a nagging feeling, present starting with your schooldays and continuing more or less forever, that the person you are is sort of a sham – you want to present the world with your best face, but you’re not even sure what your real face is let alone the spiffiest version of it, and the more you try to figure that out the less certain you are. And then suddenly you’re in bed with someone you love, or at least desire, or at any rate don’t want to disappoint, and you’re completely naked, and things should be simpler but in fact they’re even more complex:
And then they told me I could be somebody
If I didn’t let too much get in my way
And I tried so hard just to be myself
But I keep on fading away
And then the lights went out, I didn’t know what to do
If I could fool myself, then maybe I’d fool you…
For what it’s worth, the original lyric as sung in the Flip City take of the song is “Schoolmistress told me I could be somebody…” which situates the frustration of not knowing who you are in a more specific, even less mature time. The alteration to an unidentified “they” seems part of an effort to create, in the My Aim Is True material, a me-against-them dynamic without ever saying precisely who “they” are – the paranoia and victimization is some of the bedrock upon which the character of “Elvis Costello” will be built. But MacManus/Costello goes on to articulate, in the following couplet, precisely what the problem is: if “being yourself” is something you have to “try” to do, then it’s an act, which renders any genuineness in who you are, paradoxically, into falseness. In writing these words, was Declan MacManus thinking about his tendency to withhold his finest and most personal songs from his ostensible best friends in Flip City? Was he contemplating the way his ever-present notebooks, filled with his most personal thoughts as he lathed them into lyrics, were assumed by others to be full of the names of people who’d crossed him and against whom he’d vowed vengeance? Was he pondering the strange mix of love and lust and trepidation and fear that fills every teenager – “normal young man” or otherwise – when he thinks about the woman he loves and yearns to marry and surely, on some level, frets over the permanence of attaching himself to? Whatever his anxieties, he closes the verse with what we’re starting to see is a decidedly Costello-esque move – this squirrelly character he’s beginning to assume will routinely channel his apprehension and angst into seedy musings on sex: the lights go out; he is, as he is in “Mystery Dance” too, unsure what to do in this least public of non-solitary moments; he determines that “being himself” is impossible and all he can do is hope to “fool” both parties involved in this fumbling little encounter. In other contexts, the line could be vaguely reassuring – a vow to, forgive the vulgarity, “fake it till you make it.” But Costello never employs the word “fool” in anything but a derogatory sense: even his tenderest uses of it, in covering Sam Cooke’s “Get Yourself Another Fool” or in his own lovely “You Little Fool,” will find the word laced with spit. The lyric here in “Pay It Back” takes anything romantic, anything adventurous, all the discovery and fun of sex, and renders it risible.
Okay, so the first verse contemplates a possible scenario; the second outlines the personal history of someone who might find himself in it. The third posits that it’s happened, and offers us that man’s words to the woman who, we have to assume, he’s contemplating wedding. Is she pregnant? It barely matters. Suffice it to say, this is not the woman Declan MacManus has been yearning for since he was fourteen – this, rather, is a woman his speaker regrets, or anticipates regretting, finding himself tied to. He’s trying, ineptly, to let her down easy. He has three points to make: a barely-articulate plea that she set aside illusions and talk turkey; an impassioned declaration of adoration for her that he quickly discards; and a sort of sigh of desperation, mostly to himself and almost muttered beneath his breath, wishing he’d “taken a little more care,” as the first verse implored him to do.
I wouldn’t say that I was raised on romance
Let’s not get stuck in the past
I love you more than everything in the world
I don’t expect that will last
They told me everything was guaranteed
Somebody somewhere must have lied to me…
And that’s it. “Pay It Back” has no bridge, just these verses and a chipper chorus that we’ll discuss in a moment. The song, like Erey’s comment, is a plea to “be cautious,” and a note that the standard view of how things work is overly facile and thus untrue: how many pop songs are there about how great things will be once we’re married? Isn’t this, at heart, a kind of extolling of maturity – a romanticization of an era which, as MacManus is pointing out here, has as its starting gun the abandonment of romance and the embrace of responsibility? You’ve pretended to be a grownup, and now you are a grownup, and the fact that inside you aren’t one – that you don’t, indeed, have any more idea who you really are than you did back when your schoolmistress was assuring you that adulthood would be a time of independence for the strong-willed – is just a sad joke. Grownuphood, in fact, never comes at all – though all the external trappings of it will adhere to you and weigh you down, in course, if you’re not careful. “Pay It Back,” in short, posits that maturity itself – a thing we’ve agreed the young Declan MacManus possessed to an unusual degree – is a false front, a sham.
And yet, as we’ve also agreed, it’s something the writer of this song was, when he wrote it, working toward with impressive diligence. He was putting in late nights, crafting song after song; he was donning that ridiculous courting coat of his step-grandmother’s and paying calls on the future Mary MacManus; he was taking what to his buddies at Stag Lane was a lark, their not-really-all-that-good band, and trying to make it into a serious professional endeavor. For all the midnight discussions of footballers, all the toothpaste-on-the-door-handle pranks, all the vile-looking sandwiches he concocted from whatever was in the kitchen, Declan MacManus was in secret sacrificing a chunk of his carefree youth and furiously working it, like iron upon an anvil, into maturity. Of course this made him anxious: what if it all turned out to be for naught? He was placing a sizable bet, funding it with a loan he’d taken out from the greatest thief of all, and anyone who says that bet is guaranteed is, as “Pay It Back” asserts in its concluding cry, most likely lying. How do you keep yourself going, in the face of so much uncertainty, and the uneasy awareness that what you’re working for is, itself, probably not worth the effort? Well, you promise yourself that one day you’re gonna “pay it back.”
Now, I haven’t always known what to make of this song’s chorus. It couldn’t be simpler – it’s a big, sloppy singalong for Flip City and a tightly-wound support opportunity for Sean Hopper, Johnny Ciambotti, and Nick Lowe in the Clover version. It’s ten words, give or take, as MacManus/Costello makes a giddy vow:
One of these days I’m gonna pay it back, pay it back
One of these days…
Pay what back? Here we run up against another of Costello’s antecedentless pronouns. In this case, we don’t even know the grammatical meaning of “it” – is the object direct or indirect? Is “it” the thing he’s going to be handing over in “paying back,” or is “it” the lender, who’s going to be reimbursed? It’s impossible to tell, and frankly our reading of the words depends, a little, on context. You get the sense the Flip City guys behind MacManus view the line as a jovial version of Wimpy’s old plea from the Popeye cartoons: “I’ll gladly you pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Hopper, Ciambotti, and Lowe, by contrast – maybe they’ve just finished a run-through of “I’m Not Angry,” say, and are aware of Costello’s nastier edge – seem at least mildly aware that the same words could be a promise of reprisal, the bullied schoolkid’s promise to himself as he slinks off the playground that one day he’ll come back and sock every one of those guys in the face. But what if – and of course we can’t know for sure – the words are instead a promise MacManus is making to himself? What if they’re a reassurance that all of the discipline he’s bringing to staying on the narrow path, trudging toward a professional career and a fruitful marriage and a rewarding adulthood, all the while avoiding the plight of being stuck “between the doctor and the magistrate,” will be worth it because someday he’ll make up for all the fun he’s missing out on? What if he’s saying, “Don’t worry, buddy. Eventually, even if it’s long after it’s become unseemly to do so, you’ll get to ‘act like a wild-ass teenager…’”? Yes, MacManus is saying, you’re giving the world only a part of yourself, but one day you’ll be able to unleash the rest as well – and that refers to both things, making public the songwriting side of himself he’s been keeping back from his band, as well as pursuing the women he’s forgone sleeping with because he’s dedicated to someone he’d met when he was in short pants. The line is thus both fun-loving and sober-minded, to use the adjectives I employed earlier to designate the public and the private sides of Flip City-era Declan MacManus:
One of these days I’m gonna pay it back, pay it back
One of these days…
Is it crazy to think MacManus, in 1974, was anticipating a level of success he would go on to achieve by 1978 under a different name completely, one he hadn’t at that point even heard? Is it a stretch to think he was eager to be “poleaxed” by a fame most people – least of all his compatriots in Flip City – couldn’t possibly have imagined was attainable at all? No, and not least because MacManus was indeed “an atypical young man,” who was more than capable of dreaming very, very big, and not at all modest about his exceptional talents or retiring in his expectations of what heights he might climb once they were recognized. We also know, from Costello’s own telling of his story, that part of the way the “typical chronological boilerplate of a teenager and young man’s life” doesn’t apply to Declan MacManus is the way in which he seems to have had a strange awareness of exactly where his story would take him. He was capable, or so we’re given to believe, of peering into the future. His crystal ball was unerring: one could almost say he himself knew that, as Erey put it, he would eventually “flip the order of his teen and very early adult years with his later twenties.” I’ve quoted this before, but in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink Costello speaks of an uncanny way in which his early songs were “premonitions.” He nods to “Alison” and concedes that as he wrote it he knew, somehow, that
…my fear that I would not be faithful or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to kill the love that I had longed for.
The songs were self-actualizing, in other words. Another example is “Stranger In The House,” of which Costello notes that as he wrote it he was aware, “deep in that conflicted place between reason and impulse that people call the heart,” that it too anticipated things to come:
I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I’d made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray…
This rather lovely language is an adult assessing his youthful “wild-ass”ness. Reading the words, tinged with wisdom and more than a little regret, in 2016 demands that we try to imagine what the EC of 1974-77 would have had to say on the same subject: it’s hard to imagine him penning even the wistful sentiments of “Alison” or “Stranger In The House” or, more to the point of this post, the uneasy verge-of-maturity portrait that is “Pay It Back” without at least a little eagerness, a twinge of excitement at what lay ahead – at the “unlimited amount of trouble” that is a life in rock and roll. This was the reward for his discipline. This was what he could anticipate when the time for compensation came. He would pay for it, too – Unfaithful Music makes it clear that he knows that now – but at the time, there was nothing but impatience to get to it, to plunge into fame and swim in it and luxuriate in it, and to start paying it back.
Recorded (Flip City version): Hope & Anchor Studios, early 1975. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst, guitar, backing vocals; Mich Kent: bass, backing vocals; Malcolm Dennis?, drums; Dickie Faulkner?, percussion; saxophone: unknown. Producer/engineer: unknown, perhaps Dave Robinson. Recorded (My Aim Is True version): Pathway Studios, London, late 1976-January 1977. EC: vocals, guitar; John McFee: guitar; Hopper: keyboards, backing vocals; Ciambotti: bass, backing vocals; Mickey Shine: drums; Lowe: backing vocals. Producer: Lowe. Engineer: Bazza Farmer. Released: My Aim Is True, 1977. Played live throughout Flip City’s career, and by the Attractions for a short period in 1977-78. It features, in a soundcheck version, on the Nashville Rooms recording from August 7, 1977 that was appended to the Hip-O reissue of the first album: of particular note, as is the case with all the tracks from that tape, is Steve Nieve’s gorgeous keyboard part, already in place despite the band being a mere matter of weeks old. “Pay It Back” was dropped pretty quick, and has received little love since: though revived for the 2007 San Francisco shows with Clover, it was otherwise played only in a 2014 one-off, apparently on solo piano, sadly unbootlegged.
Top to bottom: a 1950s science-fiction magazine whose cover Costello has been featuring in his current “Detour” shows; Ross MacManus in his hippie days, the father whose “louche ways,” to quote Erey, young EC disapproved of; a brief non-LP appearance of “Pay It Back,” on a 1977 Belgian/French 45.