Duke University Chronicle, January 29, 1981
Elvis Costello explodes in Chapel Hill
Elvis Costello socked the viewers in Chapel Hill's Carmichael Gym last Sunday with his highly vital and energizing style of rock 'n' roll. His performance was slick, slam-bang, to-the-point and utterly unique.
Stone-faced and center stage, Costello looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and Henry Kissinger as he sported the infamous business suit, slim-Jim tie and horn-rimmed glasses. This audience got an unusual treat: Costello replaced his typical 45 minute set with 90 minutes of non-stop, breathless continuum. 22 songs were performed as well as two encores with three songs each.
Elvis and his band the Attractions did not shirk: there were no gimmicks, no fancy stage tricks and no breaking of amps. They gave a serious show producing solid, confident and complex music with unbreaking concentration. The music contained a disciplined energy and controlled power; precision never gave way to the fast pace.
Shaking his guitar with a psychic energy, Costello pounded the chords of his opening song "Beaten to the Punch." The crowd went crazy with "Accidents Will Happen," a tune in which keyboardist Steve Naive demonstrated the thundering power of the synthesizers. The first part of the concert seemed slower and sweeter than one would expect of Elvis. He sang "Alision," with a warmth and soulful sincerity professing the closeness he feels towards his words. One could see why he has called Linda Ronstadt's version of the song, "a pitiful misinterpretation." Subtley placed sexual innuendos amidst all of these opening songs, however, betrayed a classic Costello trick which is described by Village Voice as "...a sort of pretending-to-hold-back-till-I-really-let-you-have-it-baby control
Costello reaches out and snatches one's concentration; he won't let go until he puts his guitar down and walks offstage, as unruffled as he was at the start. He performed classic songs such as "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," "Secondary Modern" and "Big Tears," all of which are jam-packed with highly complex lyrics. Even if one knows all the lyrics (they have never been published), they are impossible to follow in concert; this is of no consequence, because the lyrics become part of the power and complexity of the music itself.
Costello's voice booms, soars and shoots out like a bullet; he can give it bluesy soul, an Elvis Presley falsetto or the biting numbness of a punk. His voice becomes an entity, no matter what words come out: in "Pump It Up" for example, the band begins to sound like one many-voiced instrument and, Costello's voice becomes the lead guitar.
Master of cliche, pun and precision, Costello has the confidence , to defy conventions of rhyme, grammar and metre. He imposes his syntax on the world. In "Motel Matches" the piano sounds like a rippling waterfall, while the guitars pound away the aggressive chords of the new wave mode. Blues, reggae and funk conglomerate in his songs like the dots on a speckled egg, which contain detail and unity. The notes, as in a newer song entitled "Radio, Radio," seem to come from nowhere and merge like spaghetti; and yet there is this precision which ties it all up into a neat little package.
Thematically, Costello's work focuses on revenge, guilt, anger, frustration and bitterness. Elvis explains, "Those are the only emotions I know about and that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs." In one of his most impressive songs, "Watching the Detectives," Costello creates a cold, fatalistic description of the literal absorption of a girl into the TV screen. Trashy drama merges with trashy life. Costello sang that song last Sunday with a frightening cynicism in his voice which joined the pounding guitar chords in an angry response to the cold complexity of this mechanistic world.
Costello has the voice of the modern psyche. His front for disillusion is sarcasm. The steel-like polish of his music creates perfect accompaniment to his stories of empty lives, blank emotions and futile relationships. But Elvis still laughs at it all. He wants you to stand up and move; it is impossible not to.
Costello exploded into the music world with the same sudden power as contained in his music. He sprung from anonymity to the top of the British album charts in a period of only six months. Elvis Costello (real name: Deklan McManus) was born in London and raised in working-class Liverpool. He played parttime in a London bluegrass band while working as a computer programmer in an Elizabeth Arden factory.
After hawking a demo tape to every major British recording company without success, Costello formed his own small independent label called STIFF in March of 1977. His first single, "Less Than Zero," received critical applause but few sales. STIFF increased promotional backing for Costello's debut album, My Aim is True, designed by producer/mentor Nick Lowe. Costello celebrated its release by getting arrested after playing an impromptu set outside the London Hilton Hotel for CBS record executives who were gathered there for the label's annual convention. Two weeks later at a London club appearance, more than one thousand Costello fans were turned away.
Prince Charmless, a Costello nick name, is recognized as the first artist to bring large scale public attention to new wave and the first new waver to sell in the U.S. Elvis' music, however, is a force that defies category. His music is beyond all forms: it is a fusion of the past as well as a step ahead and to the side of the present mainstream.
Elvis and the Attractions, who did not join him until "Watching the Detectives," have followed a clear progression in styles since the first album. This Year's Model of 1978, revived the garish Farfisa sound in admitted attempt, for example, to make the drums sound like garbage cans. The third album, Armed Forces, released in 1979, moved forward into Beatle-like high pop with its full orchestration. Costello becomes quite political in his anger here as well. Get Happy!! followed in 1980, containing great similarity to Sixties soul. A collection of previously unreleased and imported tunes was recently released as Taking Liberties. In all, the taut rock 'n' roll basics of the Fifties sound combine with Sixties psychedelia and flashes of the '70s progressive rock to form what has been called "...the best marriage of decades past since Bruce Springsteen."
Elvis Costello is a magnet, a seducer and a hypnotizer. He enjoys experimenting with the control he has over the audience. In between songs, one could catch a slight grin on his face, quite uncharacteristic of his detached, angry, individualistic image. He seemed to make a point of recovering his deadpan expression each time he turned back to the audience.
Costello's talent is unrestrainable, and it spills out over everything with each confidant chord he plays and with each unique word combination he sings. He is an image seller, placing viewers in a daze with the dangerously honest complexity of his work. The 90 minutes on Sunday was a time warp of concentrated skill and power. Elvis Costello's depth of perception is untouchable. There are few steadfast conclusions that can be made about this man, because he would shoot them down immediately:
"What I choose to do is a matter of of life and death to me, but I don't choose to explain it. I'm more interested in underminging whatever impressions people have of me."
The Chronicle, January 29, 1981