They call him Prince Charmless, and his hostile, gutsy rock and roller personality shines through clearly for the first time on the Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo "Demonstration Only" album now available at record stores throughout the city.
Live at the El Mocambo is a recording of Costello's Canadian concert debut, recorded March 6, 1978. at the same club which hosted much of the Stones' Love You Live album. El Mocambo was pressed for radio station airplay only, but it is now available in some record stores at prices varying from seven to twelve dollars. Just how many copies are available is uncertain; quantities are probably limited and the album may disappear from the shelves at any time.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Elvis Costello (real name: Deklan McManus) is the epitomal frustrated adolescent. One listening to his debut album, My Aim is True, and the bitter anger of a dateless teenager becomes painfully evident. Costello, singing unsettling late-50's rock and roll style songs, comes off with a nerdy personna which has been best described as "that engineering cool." Songs like "Alison," a scornful love ballad which has since been unfortunately covered by Linda Ronstadt, and "Watching the Detectives," a gritty rocker about a young many trying to seduce a girl who is engrossed in a violent television detective show, established for Costello a reputation for being an emotionally intense young performer, not merely a harmless, directionless youth.
This Year's Model, which appears to have been almost completely in the can and ready for release at the time of the el Mocambo concert; significantly improves upon the debut album. Because there was no reason to believe that the record-buying public would invite the music of a wrathful, disturbing post-adolescent into their dens and living rooms, producer Nick Lowe had a meager budget to work with on My Aim is True. The unpredictable success of this album led to the kind of improvements which only money and reputation can bring. Costello's band on the debut album was an outfit named Clover, a competent but unspectacular group. Clover was replaced on the tour and on the follow-up album by the Attractions, a potent bunch of pub-rockers. This Year's Model, displaying the same unpretentious spirit which marked My Aim is True, is much faster and more powerful than its predecessor. The Attractions play with all the speed of the Ramones, but keep the music unbalances enough to prevent this blazing seppd from becoming monotonous. Songwriter Costello consciously avoids cliched hooks, never allowing his listeners to take the music for granted. Lowe builds musical climaxes by placing the organ at the front of the mix at moments of emphasis. The songs "(Last of the) Lipstick Vogue" and the single "Pump It Up," besides dazzling the listener with their sheer speed and powerful rhythms, show Costello at his bitter best. He sneers out lines like "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor - You gotta cut it out" and "Sometimes I almost feel - Just like a human being should."
Live at the El Mocambo, with thirteen of the best cuts from My Aim is True and This Year's Model, carries the Costello of the studio one step further. Having to scream to be heard above the band. he sings in a deeper and more powerful voice. He assumes the authority that makes a rock and roll vocalist a dynamic live performer. The Attractions, meanwhile, have never sounded better, proving that they deserve to be considered as among the finest outfits in rock and roll. The band miraculously speeds up the songs, playing just tightly enough to make them rock, but without the calculated perfection that takes the edge off of so much of live music. Drummer Pete Thomas really launches into the songs off the debut album, giving "Watching the Detectives" and "Mystery Dance" a new vitality. Live at the El Mocambo also offers a special bonus — a gritty version of "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," a song not found on any of the studio albums.
Live at the El Mocambo is not cheap. It is, however, a great addition to the record collections of Costello's devotees, and a great introduction to his work for the uninitiated.