The Grammy voters' choice last week of A Taste of Honey, a far-from-proven disco-soul entry, as best new artist over Elvis Costello (or the Cars) no doubt outraged rock fans, but it was in keeping with the conservative Grammy tradition.
Since the awards competition began 21 years ago, Grammy participants have leaned to pop or easy-listening acts. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Band, Neil Young, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen are among the rock attractions who have been bypassed in the best new artist balloting.
The only thing that saved the Grammy organization the embarrassment of picking conservative Pat Boone over Elvis Presley in 1954 was that the Grammys weren't initiated until four years later.
Chris Rea, a pop-rock singer-songwriter from England, found last Thursday's Grammy ceremony amusing. Nominated in the best new artist category on the strength of his stylish "Fool if You Think Its Over" single, Rea said he had looked forward to the Shrine Auditorium event.
"I was really pleased that I had been nominated," he said Friday afternoon. "I thought I was going to go there and meet all my idols — the Joe Walshs, the Joni Mitchells, the Stones, the Bruce Springsteens.
"But I couldn't believe it when I got there. Everything was so middle-of-the-road... the Bee Gees, Barry Manilow. The guys I respected in music weren't even there.
"When I saw what was happening, I said to my manager, 'Let's go home.' We were almost glad I didn't win. It would have been a little embarrassing to go back to England with a prize that is so geared to easy-listening music."
Costello, also English, had no such illusions about the Grammys. Rather than attend, he spent Thursday evening at the Hollywood offices of Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, producers of the highly acclaimed Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll TV special.
"He came over with his band and spent two-and-a-half hours looking at tape," Solt said Friday night at the Palomino Club, where he caught Costello's late show. "He wanted to see Presley's 'Dorsey Shows' from 1956, some of the Beatles' footage, Dylan, Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon. He loved it."
If the Grammy selections were at least in keeping with the conservative tradition of that awards competition, the failure of AM radio to acknowledge rock's most important new figures is a discouraging break from the past.
Even if Grammy judges overlooked them, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and even, occasionally, Bob Dylan were once championed by AM stations. But Costello and Springsteen — the only two late-'70s rockers judged worthy for spots in the Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll special — continue to be sidestepped by AM program directors.
The irony is that Springsteen and Costello have built enough of a following through FM radio, touring and critical support for their albums to do well on the sales charts. Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town made the national Top 5; Costello's new Armed Forces already is in the Top 15.
I hope the local program directors — who argue that the Costello and Springsteen records are too intense for mass radio acceptance — caught at least one of Costello's six sold-out Southern California shows here last week. The audience response would have told them something important is building here.
The choicest moment, in this context, was Wednesday night at the Long Beach Arena when Costello closed the concert with a stinging version of "Radio, Radio," his attack on conservative AM attitudes. The audience reaction was the strongest of the night when Costello got to the lines: "You either shut up or get cut out / They don't want to hear about it / It's only inches on the reel-to-reel /... the radio's in the hands of such a lot of fools / Tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel."
Costello is a brilliant songwriter and a raw, captivating singer, but he is not yet a consistent performer. His local shows last week were uneven. However, there were moments in each that confirmed his position as one of the premier rock artists of the '70s.
Measured against his earlier Berkeley set, Costello's Tuesday concert at the Long Beach Arena was a bit flat. The band seemed to be rushing things as if overcompensating for the move from its small-hall norm to the basketball-arena dimensions of Long Beach. Things were better Wednesday, but still spotty compared to the consistency and punch of Berkeley.
The emphasis both nights continued to be on songs from the new Armed Forces album rather than a "greatest hits" replay of Costello's first two albums. As a Valentine's Day treat, all 6,200 persons Wednesday were given free copies of a Costello recording (red vinyl, of course) of Rodgers & Hart's "My Funny Valentine."
Costello's set Saturday night at Santa Barbara's 2,000-seat Arlington Theater again relied on the same basic song list, but the renditions were more forceful. The audience was on its feet the entire 56 minutes.
The songs from the new album that work best live are the ones that center on individual — rather than wider, social — confrontations. "Green Shirt," "Two Little Hitlers" and "Big Boys" are masterful psychological studies that deal with desire, frustration and determination.
They combine the youthful awakening of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye with the fury and tension of Norman Mailer's best writing. The feverish arrangements are a powerful, alluring blend of the urgency of a speeding police car and the brightness of Steve Naive's calliopelike keyboard work.
But the real treat was Friday night at the Palomino Club.
"I think there must have been a bit of misunderstanding," the bespectacled Costello said on stage at the Palomino, Los Angeles' key country music showcase. "Somebody probably thought we were a western swing band."
But Costello's Palomino appearance was no mistake. He wanted to play there. More than just a chance to get away for a night from the auditorium circuit, he loves country music. When I asked him last year to name some of his music idols, Costello's first two choices were the late Gram Parsons, the founder of Los Angeles' country-rock movement, and George Jones, the Nashville-based country singer whose hits include "She Thinks I Still Care." Both have played the Palomino often.
Breaking from his regular concert pattern, Costello turned to a few songs from his first two albums ("Mystery Dance," "Alison") and brought up steel guitarist John McFee to join him on a group of country-flavored numbers. They ranged from his own tunes (the old "Stranger in the House" and the new "Motel Matches") to such borrowed items as the late Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go" ballad and a macabre '50s tune called "Psycho."
Costello's dip into country was as authoritative as his regular rock fare. The Palomino date — the hottest club ticket in town since Springsteen's Roxy show last summer — was a refreshing glimpse of the versatility of an artist who, one senses, is going to be an important part of the rock scene in the 1980s. Who ever thought we'd have another great rocker named Elvis?