The most popular artist to come out of England's New Wave so far is Elvis Costello, whose songs convey a message of anger, irony and perverse passion set to a bright, jangly beat that makes it all sound rather cheery.
At a concert last night in the men's gym at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Costello conveyed a harsh intensity in both manner and music as he stood stiffly before the microphone, clutching at his guitar and shouting his lyrics as though he had to get them out before it was too late.
He was backed by the Attractions, a minimal group consisting of drums, organ and guitar that kept up a constant wave of angular, jerky rock 'n' roll behind Costello, without a note held longer than it absolutely had to be.
The band played at a breakneck pace, barely pausing between songs as it kept a wall of sound behind Costello.
Elvis himself, looking rather like a mutant Buddy Holly, is not the kind of guy you'd want your daughter to invite to the senior prom.
To emphasize the point, a green light occasionally shown on Costello from below, lending him a sickly glow that characterizes the physical repulsiveness which, along with such devices as safety pins stuck through ears, has symbolized the anger and revolt of punk rock.
Although not quite as stylized as some of the more extreme punk groups, Costello moves around the stage like a defective puppet on a string in stiff jerky movements, occasionally using his guitar as a machine gun to blast the audience.
Costello's love songs in particular have displayed an oddly compelling mix between a neurotic attraction that is almost perverted and sheer repulsion, as though Costello is disgusted by his own feelings.
"It makes me think dirty thoughts," said one woman who attended the concert.
"Watching the Detectives," for example, contains the lines "Nearly took a miracle to make you to stay / It only took my little finger to blow you away."
Costello is not about to forget rejection — "Some things you never get used to" he sings —and some of his songs should make rape counselors nervous.
Costello stuck mainly to songs from his latest album, Armed Forces, and did not include such crowd-pleasing hits from his first and best-known album, My Aim is True as "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" or "Alison."
Costello did include "Watching the Detectives" from the first album and closed his show with the sprightly "Miracle Man" from the same album.
In his third album, like the others, Costello sings of a dangerous world etched in hard angry images of violence and reeled off at breakneck speed.
"Accidents will happen and they're always hit and run / You may be a victim but you're not the only one," Costello sings in "Accidents Will Happen."
Costello wraps up his feelings and compresses them into short, three-minute rock 'n' roll bullets that despite their apocalyptic feel are still eminently danceable.
Indeed, much of the packed crowd at the SUNY gym remained on its feet throughout the show. Costello was preceded by a young California band, the Rubinoos, who pleasantly aped a number of styles ranging from the Beatles to Ted Nugent heavy metal to those pre-Beach Boy surfers, the Ventures.