Johnny Rotten may be the anti-Christ but Elvis Costello has to be the anti-hero. When it comes to love, poor old El is the perpetual loser. Yet he doesn't take the knocks meekly. No, he wants revenge on those who do him wrong — "if I'm gonna go down, you're gonna come with me." ("Hand in Hand" on This Year's Model). Much has been written about Elvis' obsessions with revenge and guilt and the hostility evident in many of his songs yet what critics seem to overlook is the way these feelings co-exist with a peculiar sensitivity and vulnerability. In his portrayals of the women who are the object of his feelings, Elvis is revealing more about himself than his lovers. While his songs show us a frustrated, inadequate and often hostile man, it is a man who displays so much feeling that after a round with El's songs the listener is left emotionally exhausted.
Little is know of Elvis' past. Born 23 years ago as son Declan to Mr and Mrs McManus, El grew up in Liverpool in a house full of British jazz records owned by his Dad who sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. Prior to sending off the demo tape to Stiff Records which resulted in him being launched on to an unsuspecting public in 1977, he was the lead singer with a bluegrass band called Flip City, who at one point had a residency at London's Marquee Club as house support band. Elvis has a surprising affection for country music and claims it is the only musical genre where you can find the same sort of honest expression of what it's like to be a complete loser that is to be found in his own songs. His heroes are country singer George Jones and the late Gram Parsons and his song "Stranger in the House" (on the single included with the English import copies of This Year's Model) was written specifically for Jones to record.
Australia's first taste of Mr Costello was through the My Aim Is True elpee, an album which helped shape his reputation as the unsuccessful lover —
"I said I'm so happy I could die,
She said 'drop dead' then left with another guy"
whose women always seem to be the cold, unresponsive, bitchy types —
"She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake"
("Watching the Detectives")
and who always seem to have the upper hand in the relationship — "She looks so good he gets down and begs" and thus virtually invite El's vengeance upon themselves — "It only took one little finger to blow her away." (Both from "Watching The Detectives").
Even in the humorous "Mystery Dance," El is depicted as a sexual incompetent who doesn't even know the right techniques —
"You can see those pictures in any magazine
But what's the use of looking if you don't know what they mean,"
and then "Miracle Man" sees him as unable to do anything well enough to satisfy his demanding girlfriend.
All this is presented with such an intensity that it's almost impossible not to sympathise with El's plight. Probably much of the appeal of his songs for males stems from an identification with the miseries he suffers as a result of his various relationships with women. The image of female as enemy comes across very strongly in the first album but unlike many critics I find This Year's Model much more sympathetic in tone. Several of the songs on the follow up elpee are concerned with fashion — as the title suggests. "This Year's Girl" attacks both the way women like Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Cheryl Tiegs are held up as the ideal way to look for a particular year and the exploitation of the girl that this involves, although in El's eyes these girls still come out on top — "There'd be no doubt / that she's still gotten much more than she's lost," despite the fact that "time's running out" (and) "she's not happy with the cost." Yes, being this year's girl is a short lived experience. But El is not attacking the girl so much as the system which takes her over as just one more commodity to be marketed and the way we are all accomplices in this process —
"You think you all own little pieces of this year's girl ...
You see yourself rolling on the carpet with this year's girl."
In a sense, this song sums up Elvis' own fears about what the music business will do to him, for like this year's girl, he is a commodity to be marketed and sold as long as a public taste (something that is often privately manipulated) permits.
El's attitudes to the radio programming aspect of the music biz are documented in "Radio, Radio" (which appears on the American release of This Year's Model), a song of scarcely controlled rage at the fact that "radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetise the way you feel." (He obviously hasn't listened to 2XX — Ed.) And he's aware of the incongruity of attacking the system which has allowed him his present fame and fortune —
"I want to bite the hand that feeds me
I want to bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me."
Like "This Year's Girl," "Chelsea" and "Lipstick Vogue" decry the imperatives of fashion with the girl in the latter song being praised cos she's "not just another mouth lost in a lipstick vogue" But as Elvis has recently observed, his protest that "I don't want to go to Chelsea" (Chelsea representing the ultimate in trendiness) has been in vain, for in 1978 at least there is nothing more fashionable than Elvis Costello, who is surely This Year's Model for the British rock 'n' roll industry.
This second album reinforced El's status as songwriter extraordinaire but also revealed a progression in the musical intensity of his songs, a change directly attributable to the introduction of his own backing band, the Attractions. Amazingly, none of the Attractions had played together prior to joining up with Elvis, they were merely individual respondents to an ad placed in one of the music biz papers. Both drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas had had experience in various other bands but for keyboards player Steve Naive, fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music, (having failed his exams) it was his first experience in a band.
And they are just so right together. Bruce's solid bass line and Pete's sparsely thumping beat are filled in by Steve's keyboards and El's occasional riff to produce the distinctive mix that is El and the Attractions. You couldn't fail to identify, them so completely theirs is the resulting sound.
The comparisons with Graham Parker that used to haunt E.C. after My Aim Is True are no longer viable (not that they ever really were). The early sixties sound of the first album has been brought right up to 1978 on Model and if you want to see the difference the Attractions make to his songs, compare the studio versions of "Mystery Dance" and "Miracle Man" on the Aim elpee with the live versions (with the Attractions) on the B side of the single "Watching the Detectives" and the Live Stiffs elpee respectively.
The question now of course is can Elvis and co maintain the high standard they have set. This is a problem which besets anyone who produces a highly acclaimed album, as Bruce Springsteen would be the first to testify. Obviously, with the superlativies being thrown around about this band for both live and studio performances the pressure of come up with something of equal quality must be great. Elvis seems fairly confident that he can do it. I am too.