It was one of the most arresting moments of rock 'n' roll on television. It was around Christmas of 1977; in no time at all, Elvis Costello had changed the rules.
Scheduled to perform his big FM hit "Less Than Zero" on Saturday Night Live, Costello did a couple bars of the song, then brought it to a ragged halt, proclaiming there was no reason to play that song. Rather, he and his band, the Attractions, launched into "Radio, Radio" — a dynamite-packed burst of intense vitriol directed expressly at the radio stations that were playing him, but not the harder edged new wave music. Costello was angry enough to take the risk.
It's 1981 now, and Costello album No. 6, Trust (Columbia), is on the racks. It's a good record; Costello's not made a bad one. But one gets the feeling that Costello is circling the airport, locked into a holding pattern. Even on first listen, Trust is nothing if not familiar — a well done country song ("Different Finger"), a pop-rocker ("From a Whisper to a Scream"), a Presley-like shouter ("Luxembourg") and a Boomtown Rats kind of ballad ("Shot By His Own Gun").
Added to these are a sackful, of two-and-a-half to three-minute propulsive rockers, steeped in revenge ("White knuckles on black and blue skin / He didn't mean to hit her but she kept laughing") and wit ("Now daddy's keeping mum"). The Attractions churn out the requisite catchy riffs backed by ever-engaging percussive syncopation, Costello constricts himself all over the song and — Presto! — more pop songs about life and love for people who don't always sec it to be a bowl of cherries.
I've bought the product since 1977. Trust doesn't have any wrongheaded moves. So what's wrong with the picture?
Maybe just changing times. What was brash and powerful four years ago has become Costello's success formula now. The new wave is moving on and new artists like UA, the Teardrop Explodes, the Psychedelic Furs, Joy Division and Adam and the Ants are stretching the boundaries, much like Costello did back when new wave was just a cleaner name for punk rock, and rock needed a profound kick in the rear. With Trust Costello shows signs of becoming a craftsman first and foremost. He has carved out a market. He is (although this is probably a contradiction in terms) a new wave superstar. He's brought something that was once radical — cutting, poppy vignettes about emotional complications and hurt — into the mainstream. But that necessarily means that the center has shifted. To think of Costello as merely a popular entertainer with a quick and biting wit does not do justice to those memories of 1977 and 1978.
Elvis Costello once jerked your head around and made you pay attention. Now, you'll pay attention, but you'll fed like you ought to — not that you have to. It's the difference between rock 'n' roll at the edge, the kind that demands a reaction, and rock 'n' roll practiced within limits, the kind that pleases if you like the sound.
Me, I still like the sound. But by this time, I was hoping we'd be getting a little more from Costello. More of a challenge. More reasons to think while we dance. Or, perhaps, maybe a different dance to do now and then.