Elvis Costello has penned and performed a goodly chunk of the most penetrating rock 'n' roll of the past 15 years. Certainly, he's had his ups and downs, but never could he be written off as yesterday's papers — someone whose recording contract lingered on well past his prime. Whatever the era or dominant trend, Costello's has been a voice worth hearing.
But, yes, there was something special and supercharged about Costello's early years, before it was certain that the British singer-songwriter would endure. Costello's first three albums, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces, released 1977-79, contained songs that burned, songs that just screamed to get out of the creator's head. There was passion, wit, anger, violence, wordplay, historical references, craftsmanship.
Salem's Rykodisc has licensed the North American rights to at least 11 Costello albums and, on Tuesday, released the first three albums with digitally remastered versions of the original songs, additional rare demos or B-sides (some from the Taking Liberties album), and various obscurities. The entire thing can be purchased as 2½ Years, a four-pack box (which includes the widely circulated 1978 live bootleg Live At El Mocambo) or the albums can be purchased individually. You might get flashbacks like this one. Costello was about to take the Paradise stage in 1978 — his first Boston concert — and he was introduced by a perky, headset-wearing WBCN DJ, Tracey Roach.
"Who was that little Martian?" Costello barked upon taking the stage. "This song is about radio — the radio is useless!"
That was "Radio Radio," and it was packed with righteous rage, directed toward his would-be benefactors. "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me," sang Costello. "I wanna bite that hand so badly / I wanna make them wish they'd never seen me." It remains the best song ever written about rock radio.
A few weeks earlier on Saturday Night Live, Costello and his band, the Attractions switched course at the last minute, cutting short "Less Than Zero" to jump-start "Radio Radio." They baffled the SNL camera crew and confounded director Lorne Michaels, who kept a camera pinned on Costello's angry, angular face.
I saw Costello at the Rat two months later and asked him about it. He said Michaels shot him the bird throughout the song and later vowed Costello would never work there again.
It might have been an act, but it was not a smooth act.
Part of the young Costello's charm was that he came out of the punk scene, but he showed his roots — Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Beatles, Stones. He was an angry young man who didn't require that each and every punk rock kick come from the new rebellious order: speed + anger = power. The skinny, knock-kneed, Buddy Holly-esque, bespectacled Brit to be something of a godsend.
The first two albums were personal, fueled, as Costello said in a rare early interview, by "revenge and guilt." Costello was a poet in punk clothes or vice versa. There certainly was a full load of well-crafted pop vitriol and multi-leveled loathing from which to choose: "You want her broken with her mouth wide open / 'Cause she's this year's girl;" ("This Year's Girl"); "Knowing you're with him is driving me crazy/ ... Every time I phone you I just wanna put you down" ("No Action").
On the third album, Armed Forces, Costello began to stretch, musically and lyrically. His take on TV news readers, "Green Shirt," remains trenchant: "She takes all the red, yellow, orange and green and she turns them into black and white."
Time and again, Costello cut to the emotional core — love, fallout, betrayal. Clever wordplay was part of the game, but it
served the song and didn't come off as clever for its own sake. Listening to it all again — this time with better sound — the thrill comes back. Along with the kick that comes with strong antagonistic rock. In tune with the zeitgeist of the late-' 70s? Certainly. Today? More than ever.