How Elvis Costello Helped Paul McCartney Get His Mojo Back

Esquire: Jeff Slate: March 22nd 2017

Costello recalls collaborating with the former Beatle in 1987—songs that are newly released on a reissue of McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt.

Elvis Costello is a very good foil for me," Paul McCartney told Q magazine's Paul Du Noyer in 1989 of the fellow Liverpudlian he'd teamed up with to write some songs with for his then-latest album, adding that Costello was opinionated, narrow-minded and full of himself. "But I like that in a guy!"

When the news had broken the previous year that the former Beatle and the enfant terrible of New Wave were collaborating, it was mooted that the two were recording an entire album together. After a rough 1980s—which saw a pot bust in Japan, the break-up of Wings, the assassination of John Lennon, a failed venture into filmmaking, a floundering recording career, public and private squabbling with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and Michael Jackson buying the rights to his beloved Beatles songbook out from under him—McCartney was hell bent on reclaiming his crown as the preeminent elder statesman of rock. And after an increasingly fractious relationship with his band and label, Costello was charting a new course as a solo artist. For fans of either artist, the pairing seemed a match made in heaven.

But the rumored album never happened, and the songs McCartney and Costello penned together ended up trickling out: four on McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt and two on its follow-up Off the Ground, two apiece on Costello's Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, and another on his final album with the Attractions, All This Useless Beauty, taking much of the steam out of the dream pairing.

But this week's reissue of McCartney's 1989 return-to-form Flowers in the Dirt, in pricey but spectacular deluxe and expanded form, includes a bonus disc of acoustic demos of nine songs by the pair, another disc of fully realized studio recordings amounting to the album that never was, and bonus downloads of an additional track, plus three rough and ready cassette recordings made in 1987—which will also be released for Record Store Day as a three-song cassette—in essence rewrites history.