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This week’s pick: “Hoover Factory,” released on Taking Liberties (1980)
Gary Stewart: In just one minute and 45 seconds, this track (which predates his first album) shows Costello had more going on musically than most of his peers in punk, new wave, or, for that matter, anyone topping the late-’70s charts. And it wasn’t just his innate talent; he also had the ability to draw on a wider range of influences than most folks making records at the time. His record collection (or his parents’ record collection) included everything from Randy Newman to Hoagy Carmichael, not just the usual hip suspects everyone cited.
Here E.C. takes a seemingly minor topic—an abandoned vacuum-cleaner factory—and turns out an ode to beauty and impermanence. And he does it all in under two minutes.
On paper this almost seems like it could have been the result of some mundane songwriting exercise. I can imagine a scenario where Elvis is walking around with a friend playing a game of “I can write a song about anything.” The friend points to the Hoover factory and voila! Something that should have been a throwaway becomes a funny and philosophical tribute to a former cathedral of industry. The truth is that the song’s inspiration came from the actual Hoover factory he passed on the way to his pre-showbiz job. He was taken with the the beauty of this structure (at the time abandoned and falling into ruin), and it shows here.
In lesser hands, a subject this seemingly slight would be the stuff of bad improv or fodder for a Saturday Night Live sketch mocking songs about nothing—Costello’s “Chopping Broccoli”—but E.C. transcends all of that and turns potential frivolity into poignancy. Not content with chronicling the simple joys of architecture, he can’t resist commenting on how great art, even in decline, trumps mortality. In many ways this is a prequel to “All This Useless Beauty.”
The version most listeners know was recorded in 1979 with a bit of psychedelia, which emphasizes the song’s less conventional side, but there’s an earlier version from 1977 that includes an additional line describing the building’s color: “It’s a nice felt green/It gets five out of ten on the green gauge.”
That’s precise, funny, and even touching. Just like the rest of the song.
Oh, and if you want to hear just how far this song can travel, you need to hear Tori Amos’ cover/reinvention.
David Gorman: This song started to matter to me when I was an art student at a school in downtown Detroit. As many people now know through the endless stream of squalor-porn photo essays documenting the ruins of Detroit, there are dozens of Hoover Factories all over that city: buildings that were gorgeous monuments to the Industrial Age, conceived and crafted with a beauty and care that nobody would even consider dedicating to something as mundane as a factory, now abandoned and in often shocking states of disrepair.
I spent entire afternoons wandering around those buildings, studying the great architects that built Detroit and imagining what their most revered works might have looked like before the city started to crumble. The Packard Automobile Plant, one of the largest and by all accounts the most advanced manufacturing facility in the world when it was built, was now drowning in overgrown brush, with its windows shattered, and being used as a canvas for graffiti. Ford’s Highland Park Plant, once the largest in the world, the first assembly line ever built, and, arguably the factory that created America’s automobile industry and its once-mighty middle-class, was largely abandoned, decomposing, and something you wanted to drive past as quickly as possible. Hell, even the once-glorious hotel where my grandparents were married was now a desolate corpse, but its grand, neoclassical columns made it clear that the Ellias wedding was a truly swank affair.
The ghosts and weird, wheezing effects that echo through “Hoover Factory” were the perfect soundtrack to my excursions in and around downtown Detroit’s rotting churches, hotels, theaters, and factories. A song that I’d heard years before but never really connected to suddenly made beautiful sense. “Must’ve been a wonder when it was brand new” is a line that could have described that entire city for decades. The line “It doesn’t matter if I take another breath, who cares?” seemed maudlin even when I first heard it as a sulky teenager, but it suddenly made all the sense in the world when contemplating how quickly these buildings—buildings that were intended to stand for centuries—were abandoned and left for dead.
While there were dozens of major books, gallery shows, and endless click-bait posts documenting the ruins of this once-great American city, none of those folks self-righteously eulogizing Detroit seem to have checked in on its revival. A recent influx of tech companies, artists, new industries and developers are hard at work turning Detroit into a living template for what a modern city can be. Those decrepit old buildings are being bought up and restored. Even the Packard plant. The areas my parents were afraid to hear I spent my time are now populated with Bikram Yoga studios, fresh-roast coffee shops, and stores that unironically sell heritage “work wear” that no actual worker could possibly afford. Jack White just announced he’s putting a record store in a building he bought with Shinola, a company whose entire brand is built on a romantic return to Detroit’s industrial roots. And it’s just like Elvis predicted in this song: “One of these days the Hoover factory’s gonna be all the rage in those fashionable pages.”