Elvis Costello's appearance on Saturday Night Live last year probably didn't win him any fans. The band was skeletal and inexperienced, his voice cracked and his lead guitar playing left much to he desired. the album's integral backing vocals were nonexistent (an oversight on the part of a cheapskate publicist and an indifferent record company?) and the "live" audience response was lukewarm. Oddly enough, all concerts on that 14-city U.S. tour were sold out — SRO; the critics lauded his first lp effort, My Aim Is True and he recruited an enthusiastic cult following.
I would like to make a stand on Costello's behalf and state, simply and without hyperbole, the man is a genius. Admittedly, he's not a musician, but he is a brilliant songwriter, with so much to say. (If one more person mentions his name in the same breath as "punk rock," I'll give that misinformed ignoramus a crack in the jaw.
"I write about the gut emotions, the feelings you're left with at night," said Costello. His sound is tough and wicked, borrowing from the '50s, a vapid era, to say the least, and his vocals have been likened to a teenage Bruce Springsteen.
"Mystery Dance" is a mind-reeling, supersonic speed rocker about the intricacies, and the ins and outs of doing it. If you've ever had a painful encounter with a former lover, "Alison" can make you cry. "Miracle Man's" primo bass line and catchy rockabilly melody support the unhappy tale of a demanding woman who expects late night Olympian performances from her wasted man.
"Less Than Zero" is a biting attack on Oswald Mosley. a senile anti-Semite and Fascist proponent of the 30s, and self-styled hero of the racist and violent National Front, "Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tatoo..." Elvis proceeds to spew out some of the most powerful lines in rock history: "Oswald and his sister are doing it again, they've got the finest home movies that you have ever seen... They're gonna take a little break and they'll be hack after awhile. Well, I hear that South America is coming into style..."
The 22 year-old computer operator-cum-rock and roll visionary appears most biographical in "Pay It Back," "...if you don't take a little more care, you're gonna get more than the family plan..." Elvis married young, and has one child.
It's difficult to describe Costello's unique looks. Try to imagine the "before" picture in a Charles Atlas advertisement, Buddy Holly's malnourished twin brother, or Woody Allen with all of the blood squeezed out of him.
Physical deviance aside, Costello is a hell of a lot better than most of the garbage currently stagnating on our nation's radio airwaves. He is evidence that not everything coming out of Great Britain today is safety pinned cheeks, bondage pants and ripped T-shirts. England spawned one of the most monumental movements to ever invade the colonies in the form of four mop-topped Liverpool youths. The 1980s will belong to the Elvis Costellos of the world.