For almost a decade it would go unheard, but in 1975, before he was Elvis Costello, Elvis Costello wrote a song called “Shatterproof.”
According to the chronology presented in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, it was a sort of last gasp of the Declan MacManus/D.P. Costello “Honky Tonk” era. A few early demos had been played on Charlie Gillett’s radio show but, as Costello puts it today,
…still no limousine pulled up outside to dispatch a cigar-chomping impresario to my door with promises of acclaim and riches.
He’s kidding when he offers up this image, but nonetheless it’s hard to imagine MacManus, struggling to set up house with his new wife, would have balked had success come knocking at his door. Or, more precisely, at his in-laws’ door – the young couple, hard up for cash, had moved in with the missus’s parents, where their record collection stuffed beneath the bed suffered indignities at the jaws of the Burgoyne family dog. In its defense, the pooch was a resident of the place; the MacManuses merely squatters. In the sense that his memoir is the story of how he came to write the songs he wrote, Costello presents the key to escaping this state of domestic drift as the discovery of “a different, less ingratiating way of speaking.” His previous songwriting style, he realized, wasn’t doing the trick:
My gentle, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes trite little songs were not going to command a room, much less the fickle attentions of radio listeners. I needed a new vocabulary and different music.
Thus it was, or so Costello tells it now, that after he’d relocated to new digs, and perhaps in a desperate effort to find a way to make the money to pay for such accommodations, he started writing sharper songs about “unlikeable dupes” and “romantic losers” – the nastier, catchier stuff that would eventually form the core of My Aim Is True. Now, if anyone has ever been capable of so neat and tidy a creative switchover, it’s Elvis Costello, but I have to admit I’m always skeptical of an account that draws such clear turned-on-a-dime demarcations between artistic periods. Indeed, “Shatterproof” was the product of a liminal stage even in Costello’s telling: “Either the dog or I had to go,” he tells us of his time living with his wife’s family, and so the MacManuses packed their chewed-up LPs and moved out – but it was touch-and-go for a while before they found a new home. Unpleasant interactions with the shady sorts of landlords who fleece young couples because young couples are easy to fleece would form the jumping-off point for the composition of this song, which was incidentally perhaps the only one written during this change-of-address interlude. It’s certainly the only one we know of. In songwriting terms “Shatterproof” was, in short, the product of a fuzzy era between the heartfelt/trite period of “Jump Up” and “Poison Moon,” and the more cutting, vitriolic days of “Miracle Man” and “No Dancing.” It is, appropriately enough, heartfelt and trite and cutting and vitriolic – in fact, and a little disorientingly, it’s all of those things at once.
Before discussing it, I should issue a caveat given the limitations of what we have: two recordings exist, one a demo and one a cover, from between 1982 and 1984 of what was by then a very old song. It’s important to be clear that neither, necessarily, allows us to hear “Shatterproof” as originally written. The song could well have undergone polishing or editing in the intervening years, or even a complete overhaul, and whatever form it had as it was composed during a period of rootlessness, it likely sounded very different than it would by the time it was taped many years later. The Costello demo bears the marks of time spent with Geoff Emerick making Imperial Bedroom – its lazily swirling keyboard part contains a hint of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” – while the Billy Bremner cover is delightfully early-eighties, sounding a bit like the Stray Cats attempting something poppier without abandoning their rockabilly underpinnings. Either way, the apparently-unrecorded pre-fame “Shatterproof” was likely played on guitar rather than keyboard, and surely had more of the unfleshed-out wispiness of the “Honky Tonk” material. Its lyric, as well as its sonics, could easily have been more primitive – though it’s hard to argue “Shatterproof” as we know it doesn’t sound more like MacManus’s 1975-era songwriting than Costello’s voice of 1982. All this notwithstanding, although I’m aware of the hazards of doing so, until a heretofore-forgotten tape of that earlier version surfaces I’ll be working under the assumption that in content, at least, what MacManus originally wrote matches the versions of “Shatterproof” we can listen to today.
Now, Costello has never wavered in his account of what “Shatterproof” is about. The world first heard the song as a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of Punch The Clock, where the usually prolix liner notes described it in these terse terms:
This 4-track demo is my only recording of this song. It is my unsubtle revenge on the landlord who swindled me out of my last penny when I was a twenty-one-year-old “newly-wed.” It was later recorded for a solo single by Rockpile’s Billy Bremner.
Unfaithful Music expands on this only marginally. Speaking of the time after he and his wife departed her parents’ house, Costello says:
I went looking for a new home among those offered by unscrupulous landlords who would tack up a screen that didn’t even reach the ceiling and claim a dwelling consisting of “two rooms,” or insist that a stove stuffed into the cupboard was actually a kitchen and then cheat you out of a deposit held against breakages or vandalism when all you had done was paint over a patch of damp wallpaper.
I wrote the song “Shatterproof,” which dreamt about doing physical harm to such a swindler.
So there you have it: a landlord did him wrong, so he wrote a song about how much he wanted to beat the shit out of the guy. Sounds straightforward, right? And yet… I don’t want to contradict the song’s author, who would after all know what it’s about, but it seems to me Costello’s description here is a little disingenuous. If nothing else, it feels like an attempt to listen to “Shatterproof” as if it already boasts that “different, less ingratiating” delivery we’re told EC was still in the process of crafting at the time. At the very least, there’s more here that’s transitional than Costello’s suggested reading allows for, and to ignore that is to miss one of our few opportunities to peer through a crack at the crucial and otherwise-unknowable time between the “Honky Tonk” demos and My Aim Is True.
Just listen to the song’s opening. Over an almost hypnotic harmonic line, in a woozy sort of semi-waltz time, MacManus/Costello starts out not with the swindler, but with the swindlees, and though he strikes a discordant note at the end of the verse he starts out presenting them quite sweetly:
I see those newlyweds
Their eyes wide and believing
They bill and coo at the mention of “Chez Nous”
Appearances can be deceiving…
It’s heartfelt; it’s arguably trite: this simple portrait of post-nuptial bliss is ornamented with instrumental flourishes like the hearts and flowers adorning a wedding picture in a formal album. (Again, those could be later, Emerick-ian additions to a starker original tune.) The melody bubbles along, and even the accelerated meter of the third line feels a little like a nursery rhyme. What could go wrong with these two, so young and so in love? Well, as the speaker says, appearances can be deceiving. For a case in point, fall into the song’s many-times-repeated chorus and have a look at the couple’s dream home:
It’s just a door and a window
Four walls and a roof
But a home of your own would be shatterproof…
A door, a window, four walls, a roof: it’s a child’s drawing of a house, rather than a real building – a big square with a rectangle for the door and another smaller square for the window, topped by a triangle. Perhaps there’s a squiggly cloud in the sky, and a circle with radiating lines for the sun, and the couple themselves are nothing more than stick figures in the yard standing side-by-side. This isn’t real life – this is make-believe, an image fitting for a song that’s already teetering toward the saccharine. Am I getting ahead of the lyric when I say that taking such a rose-colored view of something like a house is dangerous? If nothing else, it’s a recipe for a rude awakening, when you realize that fixing holes in that roof and caulking pipes inside those four walls and repairing broken panes in those windows can be extremely expensive. Still, the couple wants to believe that a home of their own – as opposed, say, to living with the wife’s parents – would be perfect. And maybe it would be. They can retreat behind that door – hopefully it’s adequately weatherstripped – and inside they’ll be cozy and warm and lovey-dovey. Who, after all, would ever try to shatter that?
But who’s speaking here? Who’s painting this crude picture? “I see those newlyweds,” the song begins, which means that in the first verse someone is observing this couple. Maybe the chorus, likewise, is spoken by him, with a sympathy for the people he regards – through the childlike imagery he uses to describe the house, he’s acknowledging the couple’s innocence, and articulating their sincere-if-naïve belief when he notes that the house they see, or the house they want to see anyway, is “shatterproof.” Is he the landlord, who we know from Costello’s account of the song’s genesis harbors evil intent? If so, the last line of the chorus could be a slithery voice, the devil feeding back to you the thing you want to believe in order to get you to do what he wants: rent the place, sign on the line, ignore the structural flaws and the fact that the two rooms are really one and that the kitchen is not really a kitchen and that there’s an unsightly damp spot on the wallpaper. Or maybe the observer, thus far anyway, is impartial, someone else entirely, and the chorus is simply a third-person articulation of the couple’s mindset. It’s problematic to attach too much importance to shifts in person in Costello’s songs, particularly the early ones where this tends to be a little messy, but in “Shatterproof” there’s a clear movement away from this original speaker as we enter the second verse:
We papered over all the cracks
And painted a cat’s lick and a promise
The landlord was a man of few words
And most of them were ominous…
This “we” has to be the couple. We’ve flashed forward a bit: they’ve discovered the house isn’t flawless, but they’re making the most of things – not necessarily fixing the problems, but at least covering them over so the place will look like, if not actually be, the perfect abode of their dreams. But then the villain enters: the falling-off of the melody on the word “ominous” feels somewhat like the melodramatic accompaniment to a silent picture. What “few words” does this mustache-twirler actually say? Sadly – irony is never unwelcome in fairy tales, which are almost always at least a little trite – it’s possible he says the exact same thing the newlyweds were thinking, from the heart, when they moved in:
It’s just a door and a window
Four walls and a roof
But a home of your own would be shatterproof…
Vicious twister of words! The landlord, like the devil himself, master of language, takes the song’s title and bends it to his will: yes, the couple thought the house was “shatterproof,” meaning strong and sturdy and able to withstand, like the brick home of the three little pigs, the buffetings of life and fate and time; no, returns the landlord, it’s only “shatterproof” in the sense that treated glass can be. It will hold together, sure, but still it can easily be broken into a thousand little pieces. Heck, it was probably broken when you moved in. But you’ve already signed, and the check has already cleared – and oh, did you paint over that patch of wallpaper? Bad luck for you: I’ll be keeping your deposit…
Now for the main event: that “physical harm” Costello says he dreamed of doing his swine of a landlord. Don’t get too excited, though – it proves a bit of a disappointment in practice, as Costello’s imagination for revenge, or perhaps just his confidence in placing his revenge fantasies within a lyric, was still in embryo form in 1975. Resentment builds and retribution is enacted all within the space of a crisp bridge, the dreamy waltz giving way briefly to a somber near-march:
It was nothing really to write home about
Then one day it all appears too much
Here comes my little hammer and its shatterproof touch…
One day Costello will write fantasy scenes of mayhem that are absolutely baroque in their detail: “After The Fall” comes to mind, or maybe the Fellini-esque debaucheries of “This Is Hell.” For now he just lays it out: I was pushed too far, so I grabbed my hammer, and then let’s trail off in an ellipsis while I let you imagine what a pissed-off tenant might do to his dodgy landlord with a blunt instrument. Costello isn’t wrong if, in retrospect, he sees this as “different” and “less ingratiating” than he’d been before, but at the same time there’s something tempered about the viciousness of violence delivered offscreen, so to speak – whatever vitriol and cuttingness is embedded in “Shatterproof,” it isn’t a world away from, for instance, the “when it is all over we will still be friends” wink-wink of the domestic fisticuffs in “Wave A White Flag.” Indeed, in the final verse the landlord actually does wave said flag, pleading with the hammer-wielding newlywed to let up:
He said, “Be practical!
These are most unreasonable demands!
Forget about the broken spectacles
And the damage to your hand…”
Insisting that he’s right – to be held blameless for the painted-over paper is, after all, outside the probably-quite-restrictive contract he duped the couple into signing – the landlord attempts to place the blame on the people he’s swindled, saying they’re the unreasonable ones. And then, though apparently he’s fought back with a blow to the head that busted a pair of specs – Bremner, in his cover, says “glasses” – and probably, moreover, ducked and caused the tenant to injure his fist as it plowed into a wall, still he contends that they can let bygones be bygones. To the extent “Shatterproof” is a revenge fantasy, therefore, the focus isn’t on the physical harm that’s done but on the humiliation delivered: the sinister villain of the piece has been rendered a cowering laughingstock. The final chorus, sung by the landlord now, is him licking his wounds:
It’s just a door and a window
Four walls and a roof
And the doctors say I’m almost shatterproof…
Keep in mind this is the landlord speaking, and his definition of “shatterproof” is “able to hold together despite breaking.” He’s in the hospital, having been given a good hammering, but though he’s broken he isn’t beaten – he’s still in one busted-up piece, and we get the sense he’s lived, so to speak, to fleece another day. The villain survives, and surprisingly enough he’s been given the last word. The song, in its 1980s demo incarnation anyway, ends in a lovely little dwindle, like a curtain dropping upon the tawdry action.
Let’s start with the obvious: yes, we can hear the song as Costello suggests, as being about an imagined resolution to a mishap that occurred over stressful home renovations. But “Shatterproof” is also, because it has to be, about relationships. It posits a young couple who see the world unrealistically, and in its simple way it forces them to confront the complexity of life, actualizing the external stresses felt by newlyweds in the form of a malevolent person upon whom, in fantasy, they can exact revenge. I’m not saying Costello has misled us as to what the song is – it is indeed about making a home, in a metaphorical sense. But EC will demonstrate, a few years later in “Big Sister’s Clothes,” that he recognizes the double meaning of the phrase “home improvements,” and “Shatterproof” is about maintaining a house or an apartment in the same way the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” is about a drag race. To be clear, there’s no need to see the song as being about the MacManus marriage, which seems to have been a happy one, monetary matters aside. I’m suggesting only that like any good songwriter, MacManus was concerned with the less-pretty truths underlying romantic contentment – and that, insofar as “Shatterproof” stands at a crossroads for the character Costello was creating, it points the way to who he, on record, would become. Brian Wilson sensed the pressures that disrupt romantic bliss, and reacted by going out to race despite his trepidations, “taking his girl’s love along with him”; Elvis Costello did the same by pulling out and wielding his “hammer with its shatterproof touch.” Earnest and eviscerating, both, “Shatterproof” is a strange love song – but it’s a love song nevertheless.
All of which is to say, it’s intriguing how much “Shatterproof” looks both backwards and forwards: as befits a song from a transitional phase, it contains elements of what came before while foreshadowing what’s ahead. The starry-eyed romanticism it shares with the songwriter’s earlier work – if anything, the opening verses of “Shatterproof” are even more trite, in a Desmond-and-Molly-Jones sort of way, than a hushed-but-not-unblinking ode to domesticity like “Poison Moon” – gives way, a shade clumsily, to a barely-restrained fury more associated with the later songs of Elvis-Costello-as-opposed-to-Declan-MacManus. If nothing else, the fact that a song about exacting satisfaction endured for almost ten years before being recorded places it squarely within the body of work of a character said to carry around a black book with the names of his enemies in it. “I’ve been known to hold a grudge,” Costello conceded in the liner notes to Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours, a 1998 collection that included the Bremner cover, “and I suppose this song is the evidence.” Indeed it is. Those notes – which along with the two bits of prose excerpted earlier are, to my knowledge, the only statements Costello has made about “Shatterproof” – highlight a point worth considering regarding what I’ve been calling the character of Elvis Costello. He goes on to describe, once again, the way he sees the song as a revenge fantasy:
When I was swindled out of my last pound by a crooked landlord as a young married man, I think I did entertain thoughts of violence. Between 1974 and 1981 I had thankfully discovered the private and entirely legal consolation to be had in brutal thoughts. Then I wrote this song.
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that the last sentence throws our chronology out of whack. (It’s not impossible to read it simply as an imprecise way of noting that the arrangement, as opposed to the actual composition, dates from post-1981, as suggested by the subsequent note that “I think I was trying to set my version of the story to the kind of music I associated with Ray Davies’s English social satires, a style that had recently been brought back into fashion by Madness.” The demo and especially Bremner’s “less polite” cover do indeed take a cue from this sort of sound.) Instead, let’s focus on the idea of the “private and entirely legal consolation” of “brutal thoughts.” It’s a glib bit of language, a sort of older-and-wiser-and-less-foul-humored version of the famous Costello quote about “revenge and guilt,” but there’s something important here nevertheless: an observation, universally true but for our purposes true of Declan MacManus in particular, that our personalities are complicated. Who among us hasn’t felt wronged by someone, and experienced a churning anger inside? Some people act on that anger, and wind up in the hospital or in jail; others bottle it up inside, or struggle to find some sort of zen release from it, or channel it into various more-or-less productive things. EC poured it into songs, and it became an important part of the character he was crafting. He took the “private consolation” of angry fantasy and transformed it into a very public cri de coeur – against girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day, against the radio programmers who wouldn’t play his records, against Margaret Thatcher. Here, in a very early swipe at a cheating landlord, is that character in chrysalis.
And then there’s one last thing I’d like to note. In the contradiction between Bespoke Songs’ dating of “Shatterproof” to 1981 and Unfaithful Music’s to 1975, we find – not entirely assuringly – that Costello’s accounts of his own work aren’t infallible. Costello’s powers of recall are so impressive, and his memoir in particular so detailed, that we like to think he’s the ultimate authority on his work, yet as we’ve seen above he’s capable of looking at and interpreting his songs a shade narrowly – and as we see here, he’s guilty of the occasional inconsistency even in the facts of their composition. But the inconsistency is wrongly called an error: from the almost-scholarly point of view of the writer of liner notes explaining where Billy Bremner’s cover came from, the song was indeed a product of the early eighties; from that of the genial raconteur of the 2010s ushering his readers through a life in music, it just as certainly emerged from a mid-seventies financial crisis that led to a period of hand-to-mouth homelessness at the mercy of unscrupulous renters. Just as we need to be wary of who’s speaking in any given lyric, we need to be aware of which Elvis Costello is talking to us in any source, even a nonfictional prose one. It’s not just artists who create characters: it’s curators of record collections too; it’s memoirists wanting to present themselves in a certain way. Everything we read has to be considered with an eye towards who’s written it, and everything we hear has to be colored with an understanding of who’s saying or playing it. Things may seem simple – a door, a window, four walls, a roof – but in reality they’re always more complicated, and eventually someone comes along, a “man of few words” or a man of many, his words ominous or otherwise, to remind us of the truth. We can lose sight of it, but that won’t last long.
Recorded (possibly-lost, possibly-never-made 1975 version): MacManus home, 1975. DPM: vocal, guitar? Recorded (demo): Costello home, 1982/83. EC: vocal, keyboard, synthesizer. Released: bonus track on Punch The Clock (Ryko reissue), 1995. Never played live.
Top to bottom: Buster Keaton in One Week, 1920; Bremner’s “Shatterproof” single, 1984; an anonymous child’s drawing of a house, courtesy of Google image search and Pinterest; EC, ca. 1983.