This week’s pick: “The Only Flame in Town,” live version.
Gary Stewart: We’re not talking about the version from Goodbye Cruel World, whose video became an MTV hit and features Daryl Hall in a cameo (he also sings background vocals). I like that version—hell, I even love that version—but there’s another song buried under that one dying to get out. And one could even argue that the version most people know is just a cover of the artist’s own shelved original, which closely resembles this spare guitar- and vocal-only arrangement premiered on an acoustic live tour.
Hidden in the dense, snappy Earth Wind & Fire-inspired ’80s pop version on Goodbye Cruel World is the slow, longing, torchy ballad originally written for Aaron Neville (and we’re still waiting for his take). It would have been gold in the hands of any other great singer, then or now: Annie Lennox on her next covers record, Michael Jackson on the unplugged album he would have surely made, Adele when she does a jazz-vocal-inspired collection. Like the best ballads caressed by classic soul singers like Otis Redding, Nina Simone, and Sam Cooke, it’s slow and sad, and at the same time it’s the kind of Great American songbook/saloon song that Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra would have been proud to take on, or one that Cole Porter or Smokey Robinson would have been glad to have written (especially the line line about “more tinder and less tender”). In other words, it’s ripe for redemption, reclamation, and more importantly, respect.
David Gorman: You know I’m the first one to defend and celebrate the production of Goodbye Cruel World (and, when questioned, Punch the Clock) and I generally have no beef with the “hit” version of “The Only Flame in Town” except for my knee-jerk prejudice of any pop/rock song with a sax intro and the inevitably wailin’ solo at the bridge. It triggers a Pavlovian response where I’m sure I’ve woken up during the end-credits of SNL. The rest of the track I’m an unapologetic fan of, including the camptastic video (by the director of Rock ’n’ Roll High School!), which couldn’t be more ’80s if it rolled up in a BMW convertible with a tennis sweater draped over its arms.
But I do agree the earlier version of “The Only Flame In Town” is the true torch song (pun very much intended) that Elvis meant to write and will hopefully record some day. The sparkly sheen of the single version obscures the song’s whiskey-soaked tether back to the great songs of lovesick self-delusion. You mention the great saloon songs of Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and I think Nat King Cole’s “Funny (Not Much)” is a perfect match here, right down to the line, “I can speak her name, and it doesn’t start a flame . . . not much.”
I also hear bits of Sinatra’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care” lurking in the lyrics. All of those songs drown sorrows with crippling empathy and arrangements perfectly matched to their false hopes. Hearing Elvis perform “The Only Flame in Town” as he does in this early version hints at what could have been and what hopefully is yet to come, especially if Elvis can convince his wife to add it to her set lists. I have a feeling she could do this one right.
Since the version of “The Only Flame In Town” that we’re talking about isn’t currently in print (or whatever you call the online equivalent), our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist remains unchanged. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to it anyway: