In this song, Elvis makes a deal with the angels, who have come down to Earth because their wings have rusted. Needing footwear, they grant Costello immortality in exchange for his red shoes.
His estranged girlfriend, however, is not impressed and doesn't share in his enthusiasm, telling him to drop dead and leaving the club with another guy.
Costello wrote the song backward, starting with the club scene where the girl leaves with another guy. From there, he worked in the idea of making the deal with the angels so he stops aging. He was just 22 years old at the time, and wasn't sure why he was writing about immortality.
Costello wrote this in 10 minutes while on the Inter-City train to Liverpool between the Runcorn and Lime Street stations. He didn't have a recorder with him, so he kept the song in his head until he got off the train and made it to his mother's house, where he found one of his old guitars and played the song over and over until he had it recorded to memory.
Nick Lowe produced the album. Costello had recently signed his record deal and didn't have a backing band, so Lowe brought in the group Clover. Alex Call, who was their lead singer, told us the story: "Clover got together in the late '60s. It was four of us, we made two albums on Fantasy - we were buddies with Creedence Clearwater Revival. We got dropped, and then Huey Lewis and our keyboard player, Shawn Hopper, joined the band and we kind of made another run at it. In the mid-'70s, we were going down to Los Angeles a lot and playing a club called The Palamino.
The Palamino was this great Country and Western place. We were more of a rock band really, but we kind of were country. At one gig, Nick Lowe was there with Paul Carrack. Nick had been in the band Brinsley Schwartz, and The Brinsleys were big fans of the early Clover albums. So one thing led to another, and Jake Riviera, who was Elvis' manager, signed us to come to England, and we signed with Phonogram over there, which is Mercury here. Elvis Costello was at that time Dec McManus, he was using his real name. He was just this mild-mannered, meek little songwriter who would hang out around Stiff Records, which was our management office. Elvis once said, 'Man, I wish I could sing like you.'
He went to cut some demos, and they used Clover. Huey and I did not participate in those because they had no need for us, but I remember they went and cut at this little place called Pathways - a little 8-track studio so small that all you had just enough space to play your instrument. They went in that first session, and in one session they cut 'Alison' and 'Red Shoes' and 'Less Than Zero,' these classic songs. I remember hearing them at this rock 'n' roll house we lived in outside of Headley, South of London called the Headley Grange House. John McFee brought back a reel-to-reel tape on one of those old Wollensak tape recorders. He played this stuff, and I mean, I was ready to quit after hearing that - it was so astounding. They did like three 8-12 hour sessions, and that was My Aim Is True.
That is a classic record, just unbelievable. We were managed by the same guys and we hung out a lot with Nick. Nick produced a lot of our early sessions there. We made two albums with Mutt Lange, and nothing happened with the band. We came close in England to breaking a single, but it didn't work and we ended up breaking up." (Check out our interview with Alex Call.)
In 2011, Costello performed this on Sesame Street as "The Monster Went and Ate My Red 2." He had his numbers lined up from 1-10, but Cookie Monster (who does eat other things beside cookies, by the way), kept eating the red number 2, creating a counting problem.
This song tells a strange story, but not nearly as strange as the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Red Shoes, which inspired a Kate Bush song of the same name. In that story, a girl puts on a pair of red shoes that make her dance uncontrollably. She can't take them off, so she has her feet cut off, only to have the shoes continue to dance with her amputated feet inside them.
If you noticed a jangle-rock influence on this song, you're not alone. Before it had a proper title, John McFee, who played guitar on the track, referred to it as, "That one that sounds like The Byrds."
Michael Livingston from Los AngelesI've been listening to this song since it came out, I always pictured the hells angels wearing his red shoes.....look how wrong you can be....
Steve from Chino Hills, CaWhen they recently elected a new Pope I couldn't help but think about their red shoes worn at the conclave. Yet another ironic Costello twist? Wasn't Elvis raised Catholic?
Andy from Halesowen, West Midlands, United KingdomFred, if you think Elvis would change lyrics for PC reasons, consider his song "Radio Radio" and the comment about the Saturday Night Live performance. Does that sound like a man who would back down? Additionally, "bitches" was not a word used to refer to anythine that was not canine in 1970's UK!
Andy from Halesowen, West Midlands, United KingdomExcellent song from an excellent album. I bought this on vinyll when it came out, and it often seemed the songs were written just for me. Probably still a lot on there that would seem relevant to a older teen / young adult male even today. Always thought the "I'm so happy ... Drop dead" lines were absolutely classic.
Fred from Laurel, MdThis is why I love coming to this site--there's always something to learn that I never suspected or realized. I always thought the line after "..I'm so happy I could die / She said 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy" was, "That's what you get if you go chasing after bitches" -- am I the only one who heard it this way? The protagonist of the song sounds like someone angry enough at women to say this, after all. But I could never quite make out the following, rhyming line, so if that's right in this site's version, I'm sure the line in question is right, too. Or ... did EC or someone else change both lines to the way they are here for PC (playable commercially) ;-) purposes?
David from Merseyside, Englandthis song is known for sounding much like the proclaimes hit ' i would walk 500 miles'
Mark from Virginia Beach, Vagreat song, so simple but so catchy and garage like rawness
Brian from Meriden, CtElvis's music always seemed to me so dripping with irony and satire, I never felt I really understood him. I've recently heard him speak about his music and his sources of inspiration and it was quite refreshing to hear such a humble, regular guy. And one so empathetic of regular folks struggle as they do in life's situations. I do enjoy many of his songs and I think it's notable that whatever the motivating factor he carries on the Buddy Holly/Elvis Presley image. Red Shoes was one of many examples that Elvis has a truly funky Irish heart.