Elvis Costello And The Attractions
Aragon Ballroom, Chicago
A man in a pub-crawler's suit screams his fantasies of revenge, scratching out basic rock 'n' roll guitar licks while an ancient electric organ fills the dementedly simple chords. A deafening beat is threatening the building's foundations. It's Elvis Costello and the Attractions, top billed on their second tour of the U.S., and fast becoming a favorite among the chicly aging young who listen to the New Wave.
The crowd in abandon is no longer teeny-boppers, but well into its 20s. Elvis is singing of love-hate relationships, and to connect with his disconsolation and sinister obsessions his listeners must be old enough to know some ambiguity, irony and pain. Old enough to be glad his axe is just a guitar, to recognize his fury as their repressed own, and to laugh, too, that the heart should generate such misery.
Such crowds must be young enough to get off on the primal howl of rock 'n' roll, with its power split between rawness and melody, between unleashed din and memorable lyrics. It helps to be young enough to dance.
Elvis' act plays off such contradictions. He makes obvious his borrowings — the crazy-legged, heavily spectacled look of Buddy Holly, as well as song structures taken from Presley, the first British invasion, plugged-in Dylan and more recent reggae — almost to the point of parody. But Elvis is no wimp; larger in life than the photos would lead one to expect, Costello is a force onstage, a spellbinding, chilling demon offering up the frustrations and guilts accompanying sexual freedoms — and occasionally referring to the fun.
Opening with "Waiting For The End Of The World," Elvis urged God to appear: "I sincerely hope you're coming / 'Cause you really started something." The Supreme Being might answer with another Costello title: "Blame It On Cain (Don't Blame It On Me)" locating the source of soured relations squarely in the self. At a furious pace, Costello continued through almost all of the tunes from his two self-penned Columbia albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. From the latter, "Pump It Up" was immediately catchy, and "Radio, Radio" the critical centerpiece.
Fans cheered the familiar numbers (including an aching version of "Alison," a perky "Sneaky Feelings," and an unresigned "Less Than Zero"), straining to hear new songs (like "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea"). The three Attractions were well-rehearsed, energetic and raucous, but the show was dominated by Costello, whose singing-speaking was credibly anguished.
Spotlights fired his face red-orange as he recited the pointed plot of "Watching The Detectives," and Costello captivated the audience with an encore of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Mystery Dance," and "I'm Not Angry." A couple thousand people shouted "An-gry!" in chorus, a rousing shout-along response that showed they were certainly disturbed.
Suicide and murder, despair and loathing may seem extreme themes to be found in what are essentially teenage torch songs, but these are Costello's clever metaphors examining the depths of our loves. With stomping rock rhythms he's pounding out our dark thoughts; and they prove to be much subtler, more twisted than either heavy metal macho or self-conscious folky sensitivity admits.
Of course, we've known that right along, and there have been a few rock artists around to remind us before Costello appeared. Elvis might burn out before too long as some of his predecessors have, but for now he's holding up a mirror for his audience to study — he's hot, and one should take a look before the powerful images melt away.
Personnel: Costello, vocals and guitar; Steve Naive, organ; Pete Thomas, drums; Bruce Thomas, bass.
Photo by Bill Sosin.
This Year's Model
Let us deal first with certain misconceptions. Costello is not a Presley imitator in any sense except, perhaps, the sneer. And his moniker was selected before the death of The King, not in a fit of exploitative necrophilia. Elvis Costello should not be banished to the punk/new wave rock category — he has already shown accessibility, consistency and quality writing which separates him from the pack. With this, his second album (the first being the high-class My Aim Is True), Costello deals out 11 more originals, each reflecting a point-of-view and emotional feeling which is all his own.
My Aim Is True had a rhythmic, minimalist sound with bass, drums, and keyboards backing Elvis' angry, driving vocals and rhythm guitar. Rockabilly in some spots, reggae in others, the lyrics were out front. Costello and Nick Lowe, producer of both albums, seem to have changed course between the two, and This Year's Model jumps back with both feet into mid-'60s rock 'n' roll, with dominating organ a la the Animals.
The new album is bludgeoning in its musical approach, but it is the perfect setting for Elvis' songs, which average a little over three minutes in length. Costello's band, the Attractions, drives the tunes along with a cat o' nine tails and consistently provides the proper shade of black. No instrumental solos will be found.
Although Costello and avant garde jazz musicians might fret at the thought of an alliance, they do have some things in common. Musically speaking, Costello's work is an answer to the clean, pretentious "today" sounds. The lyrics of a song like "Radio, Radio" could have been written by any number of musicians we've interviewed, if they were 23-year-old working-class punks. "They don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason," and "The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel."
But that is about as far as Costello goes into sociological subjects; most of his tunes are of a more personal nature, usually with perverse twists. His idea of a love song is "Hand In Hand": "If I'm gonna go down, you're gonna come with me ... hand in hand." This could go on and on. Enough to say that if you liked what you read, there's plenty more of the same.
The early word from Elvis himself, who has since clammed up, was that his songs are about "hate, guilt and revenge." This is as accurate as any three-word synopsis. His raw, fierce music is acclaimed by furniture movers, corporate executives and critics alike.
I'm going out on the limb to predict that if Elvis Costello follows up his first two albums with more of like quality, intelligence and feeling will be injected into pop music with an impact similar to that made by the electric Dylan of the mid-'60s. Gotta check out that loud droning — I hope it's Elvis and not a chainsaw.
Personnel: Costello, vocals; The Attractions (Bruce, Steve, Pete) without last names or instrumental credits.
Cover and page scans.