Elvis Costello's signature songs stick in your ear like sugarcoated slivers of metal. The scratchy grace of "Alison," the organ-driven pump of "Radio, Radio" and the breathless wordplay of "Veronica" could only have come from this angry Brit.
But perhaps the best overall rock song of Costello's career resides, like "Radio," on his sophomore effort, the barely hinged 1978 masterpiece This Year's Model. It's everything mainstream music wasn't at the time: concise, intelligent and boiling with bitterness. It was also Costello's first album with the Attractions, a crack group that injected a scary, speedy vigor into his songs.
"No Action" kicks off This Year's Model with the barely restrained sexual energy of a frustrated teen. "I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wanna touch," he spits before crashing into a wall of guitar, drums and organ. "I don't wanna see you 'cause I don't miss you that much."
It's an affirmation of his lack of reliance, but one given through gritted teeth, the cry of rejection masquerading as independence. Costello's brilliant melding of punk's ethos and sound with his burning, naked fury belied a tightly controlled persona — a fresh casting of Lou Reed or Iggy Pop in Buddy Holly's clothing.
Costello's songs are my earliest memories in life. My father was an unapologetic fan, and that brainwashed me as a toddler.
Hearing "No Action" these days reinforces its timelessness, but also stirs vague memories of clutching my dad's wood-paneled speakers when I could barely walk, shaking them furiously as the glorious melodies inspired a cutesy rock proto-rage.
Credit the Attractions' deceptively simple and accessible playing. "No Action's" unstoppable momentum springs from the band's all-out performance. Taken as a whole it's a roller coaster ride of pounding, instrument-splintering beats and notes. But a close listen reveals the finely tuned cymbal work and lightning-quick fills that made Pete Thomas such a superhuman drummer. Bruce Thomas' rubbery bass line bends punk's energy with the precision of physics equation. And what would "No Action" be without Steve Nieve's menacing circus keyboards?
At just under two minutes the song crystallizes punk's potential and everything Costello had learned about it by 1978. But it's not punk. It's the cry of modern rock as it's spanked unceremoniously on its backside and cut from its umbilical cord.
By song's end our narrator has given in to pain and retracted his fierce, "I'm fine without you" stance. "And I think about the way things used to be, knowing you're with him is driving me crazy," Costello sings. "Sometimes I phone you when I know you're not lonely, but I always disconnect it in time."
It's a sentiment that balances sweetness and paranoia, and one that defines the stylistic freedom Costello has come to live by.