When a 21-year-old Elvis Presley, stepping out from under the banks of studio lights at the Ed Sullivan Theater, cupped his hands over his eyes and gazed out over the audience grinning his Hall of Fame grin, he was, in George Wallace's wonderful phrase, "sending them a message." In one gesture he shrugged off conventional show biz decorum and reached out to kids everywhere, letting them know that thoug he may be on TV he certainly wasn't of TV. When, a few years later, the Rolling Stones sauntered into the studio for their first BBC appearance without matching band suits(!), a couple of them in polo shirts(!!), the same thing happened. Mick J. stared at the camera leering his Hall of Fame leer and the rest is history.
Great rockers have always had an anti-professional secret code for major TV appearances. But in 1978, when Elvis Costello first stumbled onto the set of Saturday Night Live, I missed the message altogether, unable to distinguish between the artist and the entertainers. As if live TV were just one more band rehearsal, Costello stalked the stage, charmless and bug-eyed, stopping a song in mid-phrase for no discernible reason and immediately starting another. At the time I thought the performance was more nervy bullshit from a minor league master of effrontery, further evidence of his generally graceless contrariness. I was wrong.
I'm suspicious by nature and my standards are — uh — rigorous. In the first flush of new wave enthusiasm, when those folks who now think that the Clash is the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world were thrilled to find a hard edged limey with U.S. commercial potential, I was genuinely offended. I thought he was a rock star from Superman Comics' bizarro world — absolutely everything was somehow wrong: his assumed nom de bop (total irony), his appearance (Buddy Holly on belladonna), his petty nastiness (he certainly had no gift for the grand gesture), etc. And yet, obviously, something important was going on — I can't usually list that many reasons for liking someone. The mid-60's Dylan parallel was clear: the sound of the band, the "how far in do you want to go" lyrics, and, of course, the hortatory tone, the imperious, impervious cynicism. The second album, This Year's Model, began to grow on me. With the release of Armed Forces last year, I felt compelled to listen and, grudgingly, to admire Elvis Costello.
None of this inner struggle (curiosity, repulsion, admiration) could have prepared me for Get Happy!!, a work of such richness, complexity, and unflagging energy that I remain astonished. I am frankly at a loss to explain why its release wasn't treated as a certified, bona fide rock & roll event (it hasn't exactly been greeted with a rush of acclaim) although this may have more to do with Costello's quirky, constricted splendor than with the expiration of his 15 minutes of fame. Be that as it may, Get Happy!! is an extraordinary piece of work with 20(!!) songs - 18 originals and two totally reupholstered soul covers — on one record.
Everything about this project, from the careful, unobtrusive production (the redoubtable Nick Lowe) to the bongo party cover art (the redoubtable VAT 245 4945 42) is precise and economical. Only two songs run over three minutes but all 20 are as long and full as they mean to be — which makes me think of E. C.'s long-standing interest in American country music formalized in last year's duet with George Jones. The songs turn on clever verbal hooks and twists mounted on a straightforward and accessible melodic structure, punctuated by subtle and often unexpected touches and cemented by fierce sincerity in the vocals. If this reads like a synopsis of Chapters 1-5 of the Nashville Hitmaker's Handbook, so does much of the record. It may not sound like country, but it's built like country. I wonder if he's been invited to one of Johnny Cash's after dinner song swaps yet. Better call him up June, the boy's overdue.
Throughout the record it's clear that Lowe and the superb Attractions could do anything they had a mind to but, incredibly, chose to simply serve the songs. To present 20 songs — each one with its own integrity and intensity intact — is a minor miracle. Without going into detail (and turning this into War & Peace), the songs that are obscure sound great and hold out the promise of substantial meaning. The songs that are obsessive — as most of his are — don't lose their universality for their obsessiveness. If anything, they seem to gain scope and suggestibility from their very single-mindedness. (Welcome to the 80's.) Through almost an hour's worth of tunes Costello dazzles with his impassioned singing and his inspired use of language, particularly his country-style genius for finding the complex in the commonplace. (Simile of the month: "Giving you away like motel matches".) All this without the vanity of a lyric sheet — you have to listen to this record to know what's on it.
I don't want to seem to overpraise Get Happy!!, but I'm not really sure I could. I believe you'll be hearing these songs in many different versions for years to come (especially if he'll stop beating on poor Linda R. while she's trying to stuff thousand dollar bills into his pockets). When I listen I hear Willie Nelson taking a conference call from Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Isaac Hayes and David Porter. No matter what he said to Bonnie Bramlett, no one recording today has studied the American classics more carefully and fruitfully. But influences and inclinations aside, Get Happy!! is a spectacular showcase for Elvis Costello. I still can't say his name without a twinge, but if you care at all about rock & roll you must have this album.