For the record-makers — both the artists and their companies — the rock scene couldn't be rosier, especially at this time of year. Sales are up, with records staying on top for unprecedented lengths of time; concerts are jammed; new rock-radio markets are created overnight.
The only naysayers, it seems, are the rock critics, who claim that things are just too pat. Rock music is becoming flabby in its middle age, they argue, with so-called "mellow" sounds (Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Debbie Boone) the biggest sellers. Even the harder rock sounds Boston, say, or Aerosmith — are simply discount versions of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Rock, they say, has always been at its best when louder, harder, and more outrageous music has disrupted a mellow sound. Elvis Presley gyrated his pelvis into the bland post-war pop world of Eydie Gormé and Patti Page. The Beatles shook their moptops at the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys. Is another revolution due?
Well, perhaps. But many argue that the popular music business in the United States is too well organized for a Beatle-style turnabout to happen here. That's about as likely, for instance, as a no-wheeled vehicle bursting forth to change the way Detroit builds cars.
So critical eyes are once more upon England, where things — musical and otherwise — are considerably less predictable than here. And many of those eyes are fixed on two English acts whose records are just out here: The Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello.
The Sex Pistols are the world's most famous (not to mention notorious) punk-rock band, and they display all the symptoms: safety pins through the clothes and the flesh, oversized suits, a crunchy, simplistic style and the frequent use of obscenities. They rose to fame in Great Britain chiefly because of two acts: their appearance on a television talk show during which they let loose a string of profanity, and their release of a record called "God Save the Queen" — not, of course, a version of the British National Anthem.
Those used to the music made by early American punk-rock bands (the Ramones, for example) will find the same sort of unrelenting guitar assaults and semi-chanted vocals which characterize our punks. But the Sex Pistols have added two new factors: politics and (surprisingly) music.
It's likely that American audiences won't relate to the blind fury of the Sex Pistols' poke-it-in-your-eye anarchy; even we don't have the soft of helpless, galloping unemployment and ballooning inflation found in Great Britain. "God Save the Queen" is not an anthem of praise; it is a bit of advice handed out by a gang of punks stalking Buckingham Palace with lead pipes and straight razors. "We mean it, man," snarls lead singer Johnny Rotten — and despite all the posturing, you get the feeling that the band really does mean it, man.
The music is something else. Like American punks, the Sex Pistols go for unromantic, garage-band rock. But unlike many of their American cousins, the Pistols make it work. "God Save the Queen" and "Anarchy in the U.K." are excellent, hard-driving rock, with none of the tongue-in-cheek "we're only kidding, folks" attitude of U.S. punks. The music isn't sophisticated, but it isn't dumbbell rock either; it's got power and punch.
The Sex Pistols' first LP, like many other punk records, falls prey to its own anger and simplicity. There are only one or two themes — either musical or lyrical — in the punk oeuvre, but the album has to have 12 songs. So there's a lot of repetition and the music tends to sound alike after awhile. But for punk rock at its best (if that's not a contradiction), the Sex Pistols are unmatched.
Elvis Costello may appear to be a type of punk-rocker, judging by his unfashionable haircut, goofy knock-kneed stance and outsized blue jeans, but in this case appearances are deceiving.
(Elvis, it should be noted, chose his first name before last August. So while he took an ironic swipe at Elvis Presley's persona, he's in no way trying to cash in on Presley's death.)
Actually, Costello is musically closer to Robert Gordon, the ex-punk-turned-rockabilly who recently released a superb album with guitarist Link Wray. Costello, like Gordon, is a '50s-type rocker with a '70s sensibility.
His debut album is a mixed bag of rockers and oddball ballads. It begins on a high note with "Welcome to the Working Week," a shouting foot-stomper, and proceeds through a generous number of shortish, snappy songs with no time wasted on anything boring — solos, extended breaks, extra choruses and the like. Costello punches out his material and then goes on quickly to what seems to be another random thought.
Here, style is worth more than substance. Most of the songs seem to have been composed while sharpening pencils, basting roasts, hunting for spare change and performing other mindless tasks. But the easy elegance with which Costello whips a minuscule melody and an instant verse into a rock song is astonishing.
Elvis Costello is undisciplined, and seems to be spreading himself a bit thin on his first record. But from what I've heard, I'll bet he's a treat to hear live.