Melody Maker, July 11, 1981

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Melody Maker

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Boom goes Macroom


Allan Jones

Vision on for the great, outdoors and the fearfully familiar parameters of the open air festival.

The hash and the cowdung and the rancid odour of puke and stale beer soaking into unwashed denims; marauding gangs of pissed-up bullies terrorising whacked-out hippies; fumbling couples screwing in sweaty sleeping bags; the early casualties, face down in the clover with their chemical shakes; the obligatory heavy metal band with their perms and their pin-hipped boilers crowding the backstage area, the hacks, usually legless at the bar.

Set in a sloping field somewhere in County Cork, the Macroom Festival witnessed the evitable delights that have become synonymous with the typical alfresco rock 'n' roll Armageddon. Fortunately, Macroom also witnessed Elvis Costello, Paul Brady and the Rhythm Kings. Between them, they managed to make the idea of sitting in an open field for two days seem almost worthwhile.

Sheehan and I headed for the bar and an immediate collision with Jake Riviera, who'd just arrived with his boy Elvis. Jake came whistling through the crowd like an impatient hurricane coming down from a weekend on dodgy speed. The Costello roadcrew lined up to be jabbed in the chest; loudly berated, but clearly used to it; they trooped off to the bar. I asked Jake how he was feeling.

"Angry," he snapped, his jaws clamping together with a "Angry" he snapped, his jaws clamping together with a force that might've left him in need of dental treatment. He went off to sit on the wall overlooking the river to cool down.

"Nice to see Jake in such a good mood for a change" Sheehan remarked, cautiously lowering his voice. Elvoid, meanwhile was lurking about in the doorway of his dressing room, a wide brimmed trilby pulled down over his shades, the collar of his KGB overcoat pulled up around his ears. He looked like he might come over at any time and ask us to hand over the plans of the tractor factory. Eventually he did come over, shook hands appearing the very definition of friendliness.

A year ago, Costello had fought a running battle with me all over Montreux, the very definition of suspicion. Macroom clearly suited Elvis's temperament. Later that night (in fact, early the next morning), he ambushed me at the bar of the Metropole Hotel held me spellbound for over an hour: his conversation was by turns fleetingly revealing, sometimes hilarious; I tell you, we lost a great interviewee when Elvis and Jake Riviera decided to lock the door on the hacks, but somehow, considering some hacks with tape recorders strapped to their chests, who can blame them?

Vibing off the set with a rogue assault on James Brown's "I Got You," Costello and the Attractions were five numbers into their set, raging full-tilt with no hands on the throttle through a mighty version of "Clubland" before I caught my first breath.

Designed almost spontaneously to alarm and provoke, to test, challenge, amuse and possibly infuriate, this was clearly going to be one of those famous Costello gigs that transcended all the normal definitions of rock 'n' roll's thrills and spills and sentimental communions. Costello doesn't invite his audience to participate in cosy singalongs; he prefers to remind them of the murderous realities and hilariously bleak ironies; with Costello we dance to the rhythms of disaster, the gloves are off and every damned song can make you break down and cry.

He's as pitiless on his audience as he is on himself. Listening to "Human Hands" felt like strips of cheese-wire were cutting the corners of my heart: it was frightened, vulnerable, brave; an agnostic hymn.

A curious violence gripped the crowd as they surged forward toward the stage, eyes rolling like vowels off a yokel's tongue: "Watch Your Step" assumed an awful pertinence as cans rained over the wire fence that separated the stage from the front ranks of the increasingly belligerent audience.

Clearly bemused and impatient with the bewildering hostility, Costello swerved into "The Beat," sat on the riff: "We've been playing this riff for a long time now," he shouted eventually, almost hoarse with a desperate anger, "and we can play it for a lot longer..." More cans and assorted missiles bruised the front of the stage. Costello shook his head. "As if we weren't in enough trouble, assholes," he glared.

"New Lace Sleeves" segue into a brittle "Lovers Walk," which was followed by a version of (gulp) "Alison" that almost had me on the deck with a coat over my head. Even this concession, playing an old favourite to placate the crowd, didn't halt the primitive aerial bombardment. "Well" Costello sneered, "I was hoping this was going to be a cheerful occasion, but it looks like some of you fuckers have other ideas."

Provoked now, Elvis launched into a final six song salvo that reminded you that he's got more to say on more fronts than any other contemporary rock 'n' roll writer: the sheer intelligence of his writing is breathtaking, and when that intelligence is allied to the ferociously marshalled attack of the Attractions, well, the competition might as well dig its own grave now.

It results, you see, in moments of mesmerising power like the version of "Clowntime Is Over" that they performed at Macroom, or the desperate passion with which they invested "Big Sister's Clothes." This was rock music that affected every moment of your life; a guerrilla attack by the most potent emotional and political songwriter currently trying to bother your conscience.

Costello's fourth encore was dedicated to the mindless nutters who'd tried to disrupt his gig; it was a Nick Lowe song and it was called "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding"; by the end Sheehan and I were speechless.

Later that night I was talking to Pete Thomas, they Attractions' drummer, about the gig. "We're always good, no doubt about it," he said.

"Tonight, I thought we were absolutely damned special. Tonight I was proud to be backing my frontman. I thought he gave it a damn good hiding."

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Melody Maker, July 11, 1981


Allan Jones reports on the Macroom Festival, June 27, 1981, County Cork, Macroom, Ireland.

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