sweetest punch wrote:https://www.wsj.com/articles/elvis-costello-on-accidents-will-happen-11603900495
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ANATOMY OF A SONG
Elvis Costello on ‘Accidents Will Happen’
The new-wave singer looks back on his mistakes—and the real meaning behind his 1979 song
By Marc Myers
Oct. 28, 2020 11:54 am ET
“Accidents Will Happen” opened the third album by newly minted rock star Elvis Costello in 1979. Recorded with his band the Attractions, the song helped push the album, “Armed Forces,” to No. 10 on the Billboard chart for two weeks in March that year.
In a recent conversation, Mr. Costello revealed the deeper meaning of the lyrics in the autobiographical song—beyond the telling in his 2015 memoir—and shared his regrets and the song’s influences. His new album, “Hey Clockface” (Concord), is due Saturday , and his remastered “Complete Armed Forces” (UMe) box will be issued Nov. 6. Edited from an interview.
Elvis Costello: I wrote “Accidents Will Happen” in early 1978, just prior to my U.S. tour that spring. For the lyrics, I couldn’t bring myself to invent an honest narrative for the life I was living at the time.
As a song, “Accidents” has a romantic sound, but it also has this moral dilemma baked in. I’ve had to make peace with my own failings during that time as a husband and as a father. All of those years ended in a painful divorce.
The song wasn’t inspired by a romantic encounter with a female cab driver in Tucson, Ariz., as I wrote in my 2015 memoir. In the book, I needed to construct a single episode in print to stand in for the truth, which was much less funny and much more embarrassing.
Back in ’78, I was young, newly famous and I didn’t have any sense of responsibility. Temptation came along, and I gave in to it more than I should have. That’s what this song is really about.
I did indeed try to run away to Mexico, as I hinted in the book, but that was just used as a comic way of telling the story. In truth, the song was about several dalliances gone wrong, only to realize after that I shouldn’t have done that.
Several songs influenced me during the writing of “Accidents.” The drama and scale of the song was swayed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Though their song doesn’t resemble “Accidents” in any way, I wanted their bell-tolling sensation in the chorus that the Attractions’ Steve Nieve articulated well on keyboards.
The other inspiration was a lyric line—“I don’t want to hear it”— from Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” Dusty Springfield recorded it on her 1969 “Dusty in Memphis” album. I used the line in my chorus:
“Accidents will happen / We only hit and run / I don’t want to hear it / ’Cause I know what I’ve done.”
When writing the lyrics, I decided to add a bit of disguise by shifting the perspective throughout the song, from first to third person—he, she, him, we, they. You hear this immediately in the song’s opening verse:
“Oh I just don’t know where to begin / Though he says he’ll wait forever / It’s now or never / But she keeps him hanging on.”
If I had used the first person—“I”—throughout, it would have sounded too confessional. The third person distracts from the confidence the singer is sharing with the listener and makes the drama more universal and less personal.
That was probably self-defense on my part. When I wrote the lyrics, I couldn’t quite live with what I was saying in the first person. I also was ashamed, as I was married at the time.
The first verse continues on about a guy trying to seduce some girl who has a girlfriend with her. The guy is trying to lose the other girl:
“The silly champion / She says she can’t go home / Without a chaperone.”
Cast in the third person, the lyrics also became more journalistic—I’m relaying something I’ve witnessed. That’s particularly true in the second verse:
“There’s so many fish in the sea / That only rise up in the sweat and smoke like mercury / But they keep you hanging on / They say you’re so young / Your mind is made up but your mouth is undone.”
In reality, the lyrics describe a club scene, the way the eye casts around, and everybody is looking at each other.
From my perspective, I had gone from being an outsider and not very social to being aware of people looking at me because I was on a record cover. There were girls taking an interest because I was somebody they’d heard of. There was all of that conundrum in the verse.
I think in a weird way, there’s a kind of innocence in there or inexperience. I see that now. Of course, all of these things I didn’t see when I was writing it.
I don’t know where the melody came from specifically. I think somewhere in my mind was the song “Walk Away Renée.” I was a huge Levi Stubbs fan and I knew the 1967 version by the Four Tops. Then, when I first came to America on tour in ’77, I found the Left Banke’s 1966 original in a second-hand record store. I remember thinking, “I wish I could write a melody that was that airborne.”
Back in London in late June ’78, the Attractions and I began rehearsing “Accidents” just outside of London in a church hall next to a school. A bunch of girls came out and recognized us from TV or a pop magazine. They wanted to know what we were doing there.
They came into the studio with us and became our focus group as we rehearsed. We were thrilled, since we were playing for an age group we hoped was our audience. The girls just sat there, somewhat bewildered, listening for a little while.
Then they said they had to go. I remember one of them turned around and said, “You look stupid in that jacket.”
In August, we went into London’s Eden Studios to record. We didn’t have a written musical arrangement. Everything was worked out during rehearsals and memorized. We recorded with engineer Roger Béchirian and producer Nick Lowe.
The first two words of the song, “Oh, I,” were always going to be sung a cappella. My influence was the Beatles’ “Girl” from Rubber Soul. I always liked how John Lennon sang the first two words a cappella—“Is there….” The music kicks in and John continues: “…anybody going to listen to my story / all about the girl who came to stay?”
There’s no guitar on the basic track of “Accidents.” It’s just keyboards, bass and drums. We could have used ringing guitars, but we had Steve play these cascading keyboard arpeggios instead. In the second half, you hear Steve on an early synthesizer, which adds mystique.
We had been listening a lot to ABBA’s use of layered keyboards. ABBA’s Benny Andersson added a very grand, almost classical-style piano on their songs. Steve did that for us.
Once the music was recorded, I overdubbed my vocal. Then Nick and I did all the vocal harmonies. We double-tracked our voices to make the background vocals a little wider, for a gauze effect rather than a close harmony.
With distance, I hear the song the way other people do. If there’s anything in it at all, I know that there is a true story behind it.
But I didn’t falsify the story in my memoir. I simply romanticized it to illustrate the dilemma and tragedy I found myself in. It’s the same with the song. If you relayed the details of an important life event precisely in the lyrics, they’d be crushingly boring.
You’d also be thinking of your moments of indecision and prevarication. The moment where you wanted to escape but didn’t and found yourself in some compromise.
Anybody can make that kind of mistake. It’s also not the end of the world. That’s why the song is called “Accidents Will Happen.” In life, there are happy accidents as well as tragic ones.