12 Reasons Why Elvis Costello should go right into the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame
- Ed Masley
The Best of Elvis Costello
12 reasons why the British punk/balladeer should go right into the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Friday, October 18, 2002
By Ed Masley Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic
The most inspired artist of a most inspired generation, the computer
geek who would be King emerged at the height of the punk revolution
as the thinking-person's miscreant, a newer-than-average Dylan insisting
"I'm not angry anymore" in an intensely angry song that found
him listening to his former lover making love to someone new.
The image worked so well that to the casual music fan, Elvis Costello
will always be frozen in time as the pigeon-toed geek in Buddy Holly
glasses on the cover of "My Aim Is True" - unless you count
the fluke success of "Everyday I Write the Book," his U.S.
breakthrough, or "Veronica," an even bigger hit he wrote with
But as the casual listener grew increasingly indifferent and the critics
learned to approach him with open hostility -- to the extent that a
review of his latest release in Village Voice began with "Elvis
Costello is such an [expletive]" -- Elvis quietly amassed a catalog
of classic albums fit to hold its own against the greatest artists in
the history of rock 'n' roll, a catalog of urgency, ambition, depth
and caustic humor, with an attitude as punk as Johnny Rotten on a bad
And he did it all while constantly evolving, from the punk assault
of "This Year's Model" through the soul revival of "Get
Happy" to loftier projects that found him working with a string
quartet, an opera singer, jazz guitarist Bill Frissell, Burt Bacharach
and the Mingus Big Band.
It's hard to imagine a rock 'n' roll artist more willing to change,
to try new sounds. And Elvis rarely found a sound he couldn't make his
He's never turned his back on rock 'n' roll for long, though. Earlier
this year, "When I Was Cruel" was released to the clamor of
ads that shouted "FIRST LOUD ALBUM SINCE 199?" And while that
may be true, it could be argued that it oversimplifies the pleasures
of his most exciting album in nearly a decade.
From the sigh of "It was so much easier when I was cruel"
to other lines that make you think it still comes pretty easily, his
latest effort is essential Elvis, only strengthening his claim on what
The Trouser Press Guide hails as "modern pop's greatest single-artist
oeuvre, second only to Bob Dylan's."
If you don't believe the hype, then chances are, you haven't heard
1) Get Happy (1980): With New Wave getting old, Costello looks to
'60s soul for inspiration on a single album packed with 20 songs in
a head-on collision of brevity, soul and wit. How punk is that? "Temptation"
takes its cue from "Time Is Tight" while "Love For Tender"
proves you can too hurry love as the Attractions rhythm section -- bassist
Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas -- makes the most of every stolen
groove. Despite the upbeat party feel and all that happy organ Steve
Nieve insists on bringing to the soul-revival tent, Costello hasn't
really gotten happy. As he sings on "The Imposter" (while
the band runs away with the groove), "It's only gonna end in tears."
And it does on such heartbreaking ballads as "Riot Act," "Clowntime
is Over" and the country-flavored "Motel Matches." Every
song is a classic, including the covers (hopped-up Sam & Dave and
a tune by those titans of soul, the Merseybeats).
2) Blood & Chocolate (1986): "I Want You" is his finest
hour -- as a lyricist, a vocalist, a really creepy date. It's a sinister
ballad in which he essentially stalks the girl who broke his heart,
his anger growing more intense with each new sordid detail until finally,
he explodes in a menacing two-note guitar solo -- tortured genius in
its purest form. The other songs are nearly every bit as brilliant and/or
hurtful, from the raucous stomp with which he kicks the album into gear
("Uncomplicated") to the poppier moments that can't mask the
pain or the anger. In "I Hope You're Happy Now," he ridicules
her with "He's got all the things you need and some that you will
never/But you make him sound like frozen food/His love will last forever."
3) This Year's Model (1978): From the Who-like bombast of "No Action"
to the vitriolic charm of "This Year's Girl" (a tune that
lifts its beat from Ringo Starr) to "Pump It Up" and "(I
Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," "This Year's Model" rocks
with the intensity of all the greatest punk. Pete Thomas nails the beat
with style and force, Bruce Thomas picks up where McCartney left off
in the Beatles and there are no words but genius to describe what Steve
Nieve is doing to those trash-rock keyboards. Even with the greatest
band a guy could hope for at his back, though, it's the lyrics here
that ultimately separate Costello from the pack. He does for love what
the Sex Pistols did for the Queen in valentines as barbed as "No,
don't ask me to apologize/I won't ask you to forgive me/If I'm gonna
go down/You're gonna come with me."
4) My Aim is True (1977): The album that threatened to make him a star,
it's got his saddest love song, "Alison," and some of his
funnier lyrics, from the sexual fumbling of "Mystery Dance"
to the part in "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" where
the man who never met a phrase he couldn't turn disarms you with the
punchline, "I said, 'I'm so happy I could die'/She said, 'Drop
dead,' then left with another guy." The playing got a whole lot
better on the second record, once he'd signed on the Attractions, but
there's no mistaking what it was that had the critics foaming at the
mouth when this one hit the streets.
5) Imperial Bedroom (1982): Elvis goes baroque in this, his most Beatlesque
masterpiece. George Martin's shop assistant, Geoff Emerick, is in for
Nick Lowe as producer, but it's Steve Nieve who ends up charting all
those "Sgt. Pepper"-worthy orchestrations, every detail just
the thing to underscore the most successfully sophisticated set of songs
in the Costello canon. "Human Hands" is as close to romantic
as Elvis had gotten at that point; "Almost Blue" is the best
of his early attempts at recasting himself as the last of the great
white Tin Pin Alley torch-song writers; with "Tears Before Bedtime"
and "Kid About It," he soulfully bridges the gap between this
album and "Get Happy;" and "Beyond Belief" is just
that as a set of lyrics, spilling down the stream of consciousness like
Dylan in his prime. The overall effect is Elvis at his most emotionally
tortured -- and surprisingly direct.
6) Armed Forces (1979): Rising to the New Wave challenge with some of
the quirkiest songs he'd ever written ("Moods For Moderns,"
"Senior Service"), Elvis delivers his catchiest, most accessible
album yet, from the opening splendor of "Accidents Will Happen"
to the album-closing definitive treatment of producer Nick Lowe's "(What's
So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" With "Oliver's
Army," he writes the most inflammatory ABBA hit you've ever heard,
while "Party Girl" finds Elvis in an oddly empathetic mood
for an artist who famously claimed his only motivations were revenge
and guilt. A number of the songs use military images, including Hitler,
as a metaphor for love gone wrong (while others are merely political).
It should sound dated, what with all the quirky New Wave touches, but
7) Trust (1981): The least cohesive of his early records, "Trust"
abandons the genre-specific approach of "Get Happy" in favor
of opening up the possibilities of sound to everything from screaming
psycho-billy ("Luxembourg") to hardcore country ("Different
Finger"), from the Johnny Otis Show approach of "Lover's Walk"
to the detective-watching drama of "Shot With His Own Gun."
Glenn Tilbrook takes a holiday from Squeeze to share a vocal, and it
ends with a spooky Jamaican dub vibe (and the backward accordion that
entails -- if you're Costello, anyway). Most numbers, though, find Elvis
well along the road to "Imperial Bedroom," but rocking you
through the sophistication, from the cocktail-pop of "Clubland"
to the sparse and soulful "New Lace Sleeves," which features
the immortal line, "Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere."
8) When I Was Cruel (2002): This album rocks, with two Attractions --
the two you'd imagine, not Bruce Thomas -- joining Elvis in a bid to
recapture the rage and glory of a misspent, brutal youth while resigning
himself to the fact that it was "so much easier when I was cruel."
Costello's guitar rages almost as much as his vocals on cuts as explosive
as "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "Dissolve."
And even when he pumps it down on "Tart" and "Alibi"
to show you what a master of the modern ballad he's become, his voice
is fueled by an intensity he hasn't shown in years. But just when you're
feeling nostalgic, this year's model works a modern street, from "Spooky
Girlfriend," with its jazz-noir ambience, to a title cut that loops
a sampled Italian pop recording from the '60s only to sound, in the
end, like a cross between the tried-and-true spaghetti western vibe
of "Watching the Detectives" and "I Want You."
9) King of America (1986): Elvis joins the roots-rock revolution with
David Hidalgo of Los Lobos chiming in on "Loveable" and some
ringers whose previous gigs included working with another Elvis (Jerry
Scheff, James Burton) at his back. Produced by the man who eventually
gave you American Music for Dummies -- also known as "O Brother
Where Art Thou" -- you could say it rocks in places ("Glitter
Gulch," in particular), but this is Elvis at his most adult-alternative.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not always, anyway.
10) Brutal Youth (1994): In writing the liner notes to the recent reissue
on Rhino, Elvis goes to great lengths to dismiss the Attractions reunion
hype that surrounded the album's release. But I say trust the art. With
Nick Lowe's presence adding to the back-to-basics hype, it sounds like
an Attractions album, fueled by what was easily the most inspired playing
to have graced a Costello recording in years, from cuts that rock with
the infectious charge of "Pony St." or "13 Steps Lead
Down" to tender turns that wouldn't even think of rocking. That's
what made it so exciting at the time. Well, that and the writing, of
course, from the baroque-pop charms of "This is Hell" to the
out-of-nowhere soul falsetto that lifts the bridge of "Clown Strike."
11) Almost Blue (1981): Elvis as a Nashville karaoke fiend, produced
by Billy Sherrill and leaving his mark on songs made famous by the likes
of Patsy Cline, George Jones and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Attractions
kick it off in raucous fashion with a rockabilly treatment of Hank Williams'
great "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" and take
a detour through the swamp with the Rock and Roll Trio's "Honey
Hush," but there are far more ballads here than rockers, and Costello
does them all with style and passion.
12) Live at the El Mocambo (1978): Captured live with the Attractions
at their hungriest, this widely-bootlegged, promotional-only Canadian
album with horrible sound was recorded for radio broadcast at a packed
club in Toronto shortly before the release of "This Year's Model."
A ferocious explosion of sound, it features impassioned if trashy performances
of "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," "You Belong to
Me" and other "This Year's Model" classics while offering
fans a taste of what the first one would have sounded like with the
Attractions in for Clover.
Ed Masley can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1865.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 20, 2002) Elvis Costello
had a second U.S. hit in 1989 with "Veronica," a song he wrote
with Paul McCartney. A story yesterday said "Everyday I Write the
Book," his U.S. breakthrough, was his only U.S. hit.