In 2004, Elvis Costello wrote a lengthy appreciation of The Beatles for Rolling Stone:
“I first heard of The Beatles when I was nine years old…I was exactly the right age to be hit by them full on. My experience — seizing on every picture, saving money for singles and EPs, catching them on a local news show — was repeated over and over again around the world. It was the first time anything like this had happened on this scale.”
Costello’s comments on the sonic aspects of The Beatles are especially instructive:
“Every record was a shock when it came out. Compared to rabid R&B evangelists like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles arrived sounding like nothing else…They were pretty much the first group to mess with the aural perspective of their recordings and have it be more than just a gimmick. Brilliant engineers at Abbey Road Studios like Geoff Emerick invented techniques that we now take for granted in response to the group’s imagination. Before The Beatles, you had guys in lab coats doing recording experiments in the Fifties, but you didn’t have rockers deliberately putting things out of balance, like a quiet vocal in front of a loud track on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ You can’t exaggerate the license that this gave to everyone from Motown to Jimi Hendrix.”
As a ground floor Beatles fan, it is evident that they influenced Costello’s own work. His name-check of engineer Geoff Emerick demonstrates how much he thought about the way The Beatles crafted and shaped their music. This fascination led to Costello inviting Emerick to produce his 1981 album Imperial Bedroom, the first time an Elvis Costello & The Attractions record was not produced by Nick Lowe. Working with Emerick allowed Costello and the band to experiment with new sounds and how to present their music. As Costello writes in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:
“There was very little that you could throw at [Emerick] that he hadn’t already encountered. The way Geoff shaped and balanced the sound was nearly as important as the notes we played and sang.”
The experimental approach of Costello and The Attractions for Imperial Bedroom is immediately apparent with “Beyond Belief,” the first song on the album:
The first sound that can be heard in the song is a voice in the background. It’s unclear whose voice it is, Costello, Emerick, or a member of the band. Is a word being uttered or merely a sound? Regardless, it’s appreciative. After that sound, the music starts. There’s a combination of bass, keyboard, and guitar as well as the tinkling of the cymbals. This momentary snippet of the song before the vocals start is The Attractions making their own version of the motorik sound. It’s most reminiscent of the German band Neu! whose motorik approach can be heard on their 1975 song “E-Musik”:
If one stretched that fragment of sound at the beginning of “Beyond Belief” with The Attractions staying on only that chord, it would sound like a Neu! song. Costello’s vocals enter immediately after this moment, and it is clear that “Beyond Belief” has a different destiny than to sound like Neu!. Over the years, Costello has recounted many times that when he and The Attractions first toured the United States by station wagon, among the music that they listened to repeatedly was Low by David Bowie, an album which was partially recorded in Berlin and heavily influenced by German bands such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and, of course, Neu!.
Where did the musical approach for “Beyond Belief” originate? In Unfaithful Music, Costello attributes it to Attractions drummer Pete Thomas:
“[He] turned up so late for one afternoon session that we’d begun the song without him and pretty much sketched out the arrangement using a metronome. He tumbled through the door, cackling like a hyena and breathing flammable fumes but insisting he was ready for the front. I said, ‘You’ve got one take and then you’re going for a little lie-down.’ He trumped me by playing a sensation drum part.'”
Starting with Thomas’s drums, Costello, the band, and Emerick shaped and molded the singular sound for the song. Costello then matched Thomas’s intensity on the drums through his own vocals. He describes his process in Unfaithful Music:
“I thought we’d invented a new way to play rock and roll, no longer screaming the words out over the drums but using the false perspective of close-miking to keep the voice low and intimate.”
The notion that this was a unique breakthrough on their part is a bit rich, especially since Costello in the same book describes Emerick employing the equivalent process of quiet vocal over loud background on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Furthermore, the croon by Bing Crosby was a vocal technique developed in union with the improvement of microphone technology that allowed Crosby to utilize a softer timbre in his singing style while still being able to be heard over the louder sound of his musical accompaniment. Putting aside the discovering-a-country-in-which-people-are-already-living aspect of Costello’s statement, he and Emerick certainly experimented with his vocal delivery for “Beyond Belief” during the recording process as further detailed in Unfaithful Music:
“It would be accurate to say ‘voices,’ as at this time I had the notion that there should be more than one vocal ‘point of view’ in the recording and would spend many long hours alone in the studio, redubbing leads in contrasting tones and registers.”
Voice One of “Beyond Belief” enters at the beginning of the song just after The Attractions lock into their Neu! mode. It’s a whispered vocal, in a high register as if Costello is singing without wanting to wake someone sleeping in the next room. This is Costello not quite crooning like Bing Crosby, but using that same technique. He sings:
History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats.
This is a beautifully written couplet to open the song, setting the emotional tone of the song as well as all of Imperial Bedroom. Costello appears to be commenting on the idea of history itself, a macro-level observation about studying the past. Yet it also could be the history that an individual has with another person through Costello’s personification of the idea of “history.” It is history that has “glib replies.” Immediately, he is mixing the political with the personal in “Beyond Belief” as he does in his best work. Costello is a master of the opening line, especially with the first lines of an album, including these that begin 1978’s This Year’s Model:
I don’t wanna kiss you
I don’t wanna touch
I don’t wanna see you
‘Cause I don’t miss you that much.
Or, this inward sigh of someone in over his head that sets off 1979’s Armed Forces: “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin.”
The theme of “Beyond Belief” continues with the next two lines of the opening verse:
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues.
The “crocodile tears” betrays the narrator’s feelings about the intentions of the target of the song. This person’s false sincerity is so ever-present that Kleenex are always at the ready to emphasize a superficial sympathy.
With the next verse, Costello introduces Voice Two, leaving behind the whispery, high mode and shifting to a much lower register. The vocals are still immediate and intimate, but there’s a deviation of viewpoint as this voice is speaking in the first person:
I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel.
I hang around dying to be tortured
You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard
This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel.
Costello demonstrates his excellent command of lyric writing with this intricate set of words, punning and rhyming throughout while disclosing startling details about the narrator. “I hang around dying to be tortured” is as good of a definition of masochism as can be expressed in rock and roll. Voice Two continues:
So in this almost empty gin palace
Through a two-way looking glass
You see your Alice.
You know she has no sense
For all your jealousy
In a sense she still smiles very sweetly.
There’s so much embedded in these lines. The narrator is looking into a mirror in an empty bar, but rather than seeing himself reflected back, it is instead “a two-way looking glass” and it displays the most famous Alice to ever go through the looking glass. But not just any Alice, the narrator’s own Alice. He says that she remains ignorant of his jealousy as she retains her sweet smile. But the narrator undercuts this sentiment by qualifying it as saying “in a sense she still smiles very sweetly.” Remember, the narrator revels in torturing himself by “hanging around” so he forces himself to wonder if the sweet smile isn’t quite sincere as it once was. As we know from the beginning of the song that the crocodile tears are always present so he’s right to wonder about her devotion to him. He can’t help himself to think this way just as he can’t help but think about her when he’s looking at himself in a mirror. The reflections he sees are only his jealousy, suspicions, and doubts.
Before Voice Two can finish singing the word “sweetly,” Voice Three crashes in, overlapping with Voice Two. It’s as if Voice Three doesn’t want to hear anymore from Voice Two, cutting off those words as if in rebuke. Or, Voice Three could be overruling Voice Two, perhaps wanting to interrupt this line of questioning. What is it that Voice Three wants to share with us so impatiently?
Charged with insults and flattery
Her body moves with malice
Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?
In the exploration of Costello’s song “Watching the Detectives” for Recliner Notes, there is the appearance of a female character acting as a femme fatale, but is in actuality she is an innocent within the narrative of the song. In “Beyond Belief,” Voice Three makes it clear that the female figure in this song is guilty of something as she is “charged with insults and flattery.” This femme fatale’s “body moves with malice.” Like with “Watching the Detectives” Costello utilizes the language of police or the judicial system in order to make accusations against the woman he is portraying.
The next line — “Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?” — is a particularly loaded line. It’s a rhetorical question; Voice Three is not expecting a response. It’s as if it’s a given that callousness is the accepted state of being in these circumstances. Paradoxically, Voice Three wonders if the cruelty and cold-bloodedness is too much even for this situation. It’s also not apparent who Voice Three is referring to? Is he talking about the woman in question, or is it a question that he is aiming at himself? The line could be heard as hurled at someone else with poisonous intent, or whispered to oneself, questioning the need for this much toxicity in one’s actions. “Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?” is Costello at his best, saying out loud what is usually uttered in private or revealing to oneself, layering in many levels of meanings.
Meanwhile, the music is building behind Costello’s vocals. A tempestuous keyboard enters to join with the sound created by The Attractions. As Voice Three sings, “And now you find you fit this identikit completely” a loud BANG hits in the background as if a bomb has been set off. The music is knocked off-course forcing the song to the bridge. More keyboards join with a frenetic yet glimmering sound. The bridge signals the entrance of Voice Four. Costello’s vocals here are highly processed, distorted, and even a little pinched. Voice Four sounds further away, yet more insistent than the other voices in the song. It’s as though Voice Four is being heard out of a distant radio, reading the latest headlines. Voice Four announces the following:
I might make it California’s fault
Be locked in Geneva’s deepest vault
Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef
I come to you beyond belief.
The natural features named by Voice Four represent metaphors for the narrator’s own romantic situation, “fault” and “barrier” have dual meanings in these lines. It’s a similar device as personifying “history” in the opening verse. “Fault” and “barrier” are loaded, negative words when talking about a relationship. The first instance of the title phrase appears in the bridge: “I come to you beyond belief.” This is not the last time this line will be heard in the song.
After the emphatic bridge, the vocals pause as the music melts down from the assertiveness. The backing musicians settle back into the previous groove. With that downshift, Voice Two returns again:
My hands were clammy and cunning
She’s been suitably stunning
But I know there’s not a hope in Hades
All the laddies cat call and wolf whistle
So-called gentlemen and ladies
Dog fight like rose and thistle.
The vocal delivery that Costello employs with Voice Two as with the other voices in “Beyond Belief” is stunning. The dexterity with which he sings this complex set of words is dazzling, sharing different emotional tones to fit the specific word. Costello is truly at the top of his powers as a singer throughout the song.
With the completion of the last verse, Costello and The Attractions enter into a sort of chorus or extended outro. Another explosion is heard as this final section opens, the instrumentation builds and builds as the song fades out. Pete Thomas’s drumming becomes even more pronounced. As Costello said previously, he reset the tone of the song so it makes sense that he gets the last word, musically.
Speaking of last words, Costello’s final voice, Voice Five, is unveiled in the ending. He sings the following over and over again in the fadeout:
I’ve got a feeling
I’m going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief.
These words demonstrate that the narrator has advanced in a way, admitting that he used to enjoy the grief and admonishments that he previously received. Again, there are hints of masochism earlier in the song. Now, he has stripped himself of everything, moving to a place outside of assumptions and expectation. He has forsaken everything, dropped all doubts and prejudices, no longer holding on to history with its “old conceits..glib replies…same defeats.” Could that be a bit of hope, a ray of optimism from Costello? The words are saying that he sounds exhausted from everything that he may as well accept his situation and allow himself to go further. Of course, these words are tied to the unrelenting music of The Attractions. Voice Five is loud and forceful and even confident, expressing his newfound state of being, “beyond belief,” over and over again.
“Beyond Belief” shares many attributes with the song “Sign o’ the Times” by Prince:
“Sign o’ the Times” begins with a bass, drum, and a keyboard sound, all played on a synthesizer. Though it is highly processed, the musical approach of Prince’s song shares the motorik feel of Neu! and The Attractions on “Beyond Belief.” The melody that Prince sings is similar to Costello’s song with his vocals close in feel to Voice Two, bouncing off the words and images. “Sign o’ the Times” is more outward looking than “Beyond Belief.” Whereas Costello takes any external perspective as a comment on his own relationship and opportunity for denunciation of the self, Prince is sharing commentary on the issues of the day, an accounting of the present, including AIDS, gang violence, the poor, drugs, all kinds of disasters, and the looming threat of nuclear war. Considering these struggles and conflicts, at the end of the song, Prince turns inward:
Sign o’ the times mess with your mind
Hurry before it’s too late
Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby
We’ll call him Nate
If it’s a boy.
While Costello’s state at the end of “Beyond Belief” is one of a somewhat reluctant optimism because of exhaustion and gradual wearing away of defenses and defensiveness, Prince has a truer expression of how to deal with life’s conflicts: love, family, and the nurturing of the next generation. “Beyond Belief” and “Sign o’ the Times” are the first songs on both albums. Both feel as though they are grand statements with which to start an album, the setting of the themes and emotional tones of the forthcoming collection of songs.
“Beyond Belief” demonstrates that Elvis Costello and The Attractions, with the help of Geoff Emerick, use the studio as a compositional tool that is emblematic of the rest of Imperial Bedroom. The Beatles were the masters of creating whole worlds within a deceptively short running length for the song. “Beyond Belief” is the same way, running only two minutes and thirty-seven seconds, while presenting an entire universe of narrative points of view, instrumental sounds, and the collective voices characterized by Elvis Costello’s singing.
Image: Gennady Grachev from Moscow, Russia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.