Chicago Reader, March 22, 1979

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How the twit took over: Elvis Costello's master plan

John Milward

Elvis Costello's recent one-two punch of Chicago marked his emergence as a bona fide rock star, but there's difference between him and other guitar-toting tycoons: he can anticipate his platinum-plus success and still remain angry. This seeming schizophrenia arises from the fact that he is both the most musically gifted and lyrically deft singer-songwriter to survive the punk New Wave movement, and a bespectacled little twit manipulating a master plan. This second contention isn't just idle paranoia — a dominant theme in Costello's songs is fascism, both in its political and romantic manifestations. (His new album was almost called Emotional Fascism.) In songs like "This Year's Girl" and "Radio Radio," he notes similar dictatorial tendencies in pop culture and music, taking particular care in the latter to "bite the hand that feeds" the aspiring rocker, the radio. Given this dog-eat-dog view of the world, it's possible to see Costello's zealously antiestablishment assault on the rock biz as a devilishly clever promotional device.

Consider the evidence: in a little over two years, Costello has released three albums to extraordinarily widespread critical hosannas and an almost-instant audience of 200,000-plus; he has gained reasonable FM airplay and great second-hand notoriety from Linda Ronstadt's version of his "Alison"; with the already-gold Armed Forces, he seems on the verge of a major platinum breakthrough (if it's not this album, it'll likely be the next). Beyond the unquestionably fine albums, his rise to fame has been characterized by
 --?-- collectors  --?-- marketing (the English and American versions of the first two albums included a handful of different tunes, and single releases invariably include unreleased B-sides), and an unrivaled antagonism toward the print-and-television end of the star-making machinery. When he performed on Saturday Night Live, he gave the show's seconds-counting director a coronary by cutting off the scheduled "Less Than Zero" after one verse and brashly leading the Attractions into "Radio Radio" because he thought it more appropriate for an American audience. Music journalists long ago stopped asking for interviews (when a Columbia publicist flew east coast writers to town for the Aragon date, she had to be sure to house them in a different hotel from the Costello entourage),

What's so funny 'bout this purposefully abrasive approach to career-building is that it has worked in today's Bee Gees world. The difference between Costello and England's other angry New Wave pugs, of course, is that his songs arc resolutely tuneful pieces that owe great and tangible debts to the best pop-rock of the original British Invasion. Consequently, what was significant about his sold-out Aragon appearance wasn't the sheer number of fans, but that many of them were younger rockers who previously had tended to reject the new music as attitudizing without attendant showbiz panache. Hard to believe, but the kids still don't know that the Ramones have more intrinsic value than glam-bang bands like Angel. Costello's refusal to become the New Wave's darling has allowed him to walk the line between cult music and mass entertainment, and his recent successes have put him on the brink of combining these heretofore incompatible audiences.

These speculations would be so much banter were it not for Costello's already formidable recorded repertoire, for without the beat, his ranting manner would be seen as so much posturing. Musically, Costello is a stone-hard classicist, a Buddy Holly for this brave new world. The Holly allusion is not considered lightly — both men write songs that weave complicated webs with simple threads, juggling basic chord and chord and rhythm patterns  --?--  --?-- toward creating  --?--  --?--  --?--. Their  --?--  --?--  --?--  --?--  --?-- verse-and-chorus structures are thrown into the mixmaster, and out come songs that are nothing more or less than three minutes of rhythmic persuasion. Costello knows, as Holly did, that great rock and roll need be nothing more. Within this songwriting approach, the two men struck upon disarmingly similar lyrical approaches. Though In a philosophical sense they are worlds apart — Holly's world view pitted his Youthful romantic bombast again an unreceptive adult world, while Elvis operates out of a paranoid scenario where both literal and romantic politics have already corrupted each other — they composed with the belief that their world could be sufficiently defined within a snappy beat.

Costello's two Chicago shots displayed him in the roles of still-energized antagonist (the Park West) and rock star (the Aragon) "I am starting to function," began Elvis at the club date, more than fashionably late and starting out his set with nearly half of Armed Forces. From "Green Shirt" to "Two Little Hitlers," the message was clear — don't trust anybody, especially your lover (and, most particularly, your mother). By contrast, the Aragon show opened with what may be Costello's best song yet, the album-opening single "Accidents Will Happen." "Oh I just don't know where to begin," he sings, and it's hard to imagine a better salutation for an evening of this man's obsessions. This song strikes with the same heart-bending intensity as "Alison": more than any of his other tunes, these two speak from the heart rather than from behind a narrative disguise. Costello customarily cloaks his demons in characters, from the pocket novel ambience of "Watching the Detectives" to the military allusions that run throughout Armed Forces, but these songs lay the theme right out on the bloody line. People meet, fuck each other over, and persist in repeating the mystery dance. Dominance and submission, whether in the military or matrimony. "Accidents will happen, it's only hit and run, I don't want to hear it, 'cause I know what I've done."

Costello's three albums tread the same emotional  --?--  --?-- ends  --?--  --?-- was  --?--  --?--  --?-- vantage point, making it difficult to pick a favorite, and finally making it appear as if they're all one. It is instructive, however, to note the production and repertoire differences between the records: for herein might lie the blueprint to the master plan. My Aim Is True literally came out of nowhere, and its songs seem, in retrospect, almost innocent, it not virginal. Cynicism already pervaded Costello's world. but "The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was the record's calling card and a raving declaration of the rejuvenative powers of full-tilt rock 'n' roll dancing'. The creativity was both feverish and vigorous.

This Year's Model aimed for bigger targets, and, in performance, its songs have become Elvis's most impressive trophies. Where the accompaniment by rock group Clover on the first album was a tad sterile, the recording debut of the Attractions breathed fire on Costello's songs. At their best, the compositions became synonymous with the performances, both components rocking happily to "The Beat." That song, of course, is its own best metaphor, and it's hardly surprising that it was a stunning show-stopper at both Chicago concerts. The song seems bigger than the words and guitar chords of which It is made: and it becomes a celebration a rock 'n' roll rather than just a rock 'n' roll song. Elvis's cynical self is hiding in the syncopation — "I'll do anything to confuse the enemy," he sings — but there is also an obsessive energy that overshadows any stray pop pretensions.

"The Beat" is also a case study in the band style Costello has developed with the Attractions, a style that essentially makes Steve's organ the lead instrument and Pete's drum the primary rhythmic tool, with Elvis's guitar for emphasizing color. (The Attractions last names still don't appear on Costello's albums.) A delightfully cheesy set of organ chords frames "The Beat," with guitar chords fleshing out a few spots in the verse and Keith Moon-like drums exploding at each chorus. It's when Costello puts the

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Chicago Reader, March 22, 1979

John Milward profiles EC and reports on his concerts Saturday, March 10, 1979, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, and Wednesday, March 14, 1979, Park West, Chicago.


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Photo by Paul Natkin.
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