Michigan State News, April 3, 1980

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Elvis puts on a happy face


Bill Holdship

"Everybody's hiding under covers / Who's making Lover's Lane safe again for lovers?"
   — Elvis Costello, "Clowntime Is Over"

Johnny Rotten may have been louder, but when Elvis Costello burst on the scene in 1977 with My Aim Is True, rock 'n' roll saw the arrival of its angriest young artist to date. The music may have been some of the most brilliant pop-rock to come our way since those four other lads from Liverpool (Elvis' hometown) conquered the world in 1964, but beneath the happy-go-lucky melodies lurked an existential rage and poetic genius that out-burned even Dylan's early nihilistic candor.

Coming on like a post-napalm version of Buddy Holly, Elvis was almost comical in concept. (Ya know, like Abbott & Costello; he sorta looks like a wired Woody Allen.) But after a closer look at the lyrics, it became apparent that Elvis' neurotic wit was funny only because it hurts less to laugh than it does to cry.

In his own words, Elvis had this camera click-click-clicking in his brain, and the bleak pictures he was revealing went much deeper than just the death of romance, the decay of culture, the perversion of emotion, or the anti-fascist politics evident on songs like "Less Than Zero." Above it all, Elvis was singing about the death of God (or all the hopes and dreams which may fall under that label), and rock 'n' roll was only a means by which he could wait for the end of the world.

When Elvis returned with his newly-acquired Attractions, releasing This Year's Model right in the midst of punk rock's most notorious phase, he proved himself to be the Main Attraction in more ways than one. Behind what resembled "96 Tears" filtered through a literal history of rock 'n' roll, Elvis' rage seemed even more vehement than it did before. In fact, Elvis' attacks against the modern world were often so vicious that he appeared to be a misanthropist at times. He offended a lot of people. "My songs aren't about love," he said. "They're about guilt and revenge."

But, once again, a closer look at the lyrics revealed that Elvis summed to be much too concerned about "the times ahead" to be full of nothing but hate. Elvis was actually like a latter-day version of John Lennon, in that he gave rock audiences exactly what they wanted to hear, while bawling them out at the same time. When Lennon later said Elvis was his favorite new artist, it drove the analogy home.

All of Elvis' developing themes were brought together under one grand production on the brilliant and daring Armed Forces (originally titled Emotional Fascism). Behind some of. his most beautiful melodies yet, Elvis drew distinct connections between everything political, social, cultural and psychological, and warned the world to beware because accidents will happen. Above it all, he took a bitter look at the military armed forces (and other "super powers"), wrapped it all up by calling for a different kind of armed forces on Nick Lowe's luscious "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love & Understanding," and created a masterpiece that seems more relevant right now than it did upon its release over a year ago.

And then in the midst of a bizarre American tour, Elvis suddenly seemed to throw it all away. Following a traumatic separation from his wife and child (they have since reconciled), Elvis' paranoid reaction to his "overnight" stardom in America took a hostile and destructive course. It all culminated in a drunken barroom brawl with noted "punkophobics" Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, in which Elvis said everything he could to offend the pair. After attacking their personal artistic merits, Elvis attacked America and everything about it (including inquiries about Elvis Presley and Hank Williams), and ended with the notorious racist comments about two of America's greatest R&B performers. Bramlett slugged him, and the American press finally had the story it needed to get back at that bad-mouthed, bigoted British wimp. Elvis had blown his cover, and, ironically enough, he suddenly seemed to represent the very things he once detested. (The subsequent reaction was faintly reminiscent of the time when another rock star compared his band to Jesus Christ.)

And now as the world seems ready for the living hell he has prophesized on his last three LPs, Elvis Costello is telling anyone who will listen to Get Happy!! (Columbia JC 36347). Of course, Elvis has always been a master of the double-entendre, and — like its predecessors — the LP's title can be taken at various levels of meaning. After all, it's apparent from the onset that Elvis doesn't seem to be any happier with the state of the modern world.

Take, for instance, "Opportunity" — one of the LP's 20 (that's right, 20!!) great cuts. After examining the theme of "back-stabbing" at various levels and the absurdity of modern existence, Elvis ends with what are some of the album's best lines: "I'm down in the foxhole / I'm down in the trench / I'd be a hero / but I can't stand the stench / The fitness institute is full of general motor men / The whole low house of beauty wouldn't stand a chance with them / The chairman of this boredom is a compliment collector / I'd like to be his funeral director / Opportunity / This is your big opportunity / To shop around / Follow you without a sound / Whatever you do now / PLEASE don't turn around!" Not exactly the type of lyrics you'd expect from a (God forbid!) complacent man.

Nonetheless, Get Happy!! is a change of direction for Elvis in that he finally takes on the one emotion that, to paraphrase Faulkner, prevails in spite of, not because of — namely LOVE. As a result, the LP's lyrics are Elvis' most personal yet, and he finally reveals a bit of the real Declan McManus who, until now, has hidden behind the facade of Elvis Costello.

Shortly before going into the studio to record the album, Elvis entered London's largest "oldies" store to purchase every Stax, Atlantic, Motown and Tamla R&B record he could find. (At Christmas time, Elvis was the guest disc jockey on a London radio show, and he played nothing but old soul singles, in addition to several tunes by John Lennon.) Elvis was undoubtedly preparing for the new LP because these R&B and soul influences are evident throughout Get Happy!!

Nick Lowe's production makes the music sound tinny and muddled, just like the old Motown singles ("High Fidelity" sounds like a Berry Gordy production transformed to the 1980s), and the music would sound perfect blaring from a transistor radio — just like the old Motown classics. (Even the songs performed in ska or country waltz tempo have this R&B production flare.) The Attractions have never sounded better, although Get Happy!! features no guitar or organ solos at all. The instruments all fit together to form one solid center, just like on the old Motown singles.

The style is a perfect vehicle for Elvis' concept, since no music has ever expressed the emotional intensity of love better than classic R&B soul, be it negative ("My World Is Empty Without You") or positive ("Love Is Like A Heatwave"). Elvis even brings it all home by performing covers of two obscure R&B classics —Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and the Merseybeat's "I Stand Accused," the latter of which ends with what seems to be a deliberate lift from the Isley Brothers' timeless "Shout."

As always, Elvis pulls no punches lyrically, and every conceivable angle of love, relationships and romance is covered on Get Happy!! Most of it is far from happy. For instance, Elvis' look at the economic perversions of love on both "Love For Tender" and the delightfully pop-oriented "Possession" should have Karl Marx rockin' in his grave, while "B Movie" — with its haunting "You can't feel" finale — is a sad, sad look at the current state of modern love affairs.

Most of the LP's tunes were undoubtedly written in response to the bad moments Elvis experienced during his last American tour, and there are numerous "hidden" references to, among other things, the Bramlett/Stills fiasco ("Beaten To The Punch," "Riot Act"), his brief fling with Bebe Buell ("I was looking at the black & white world / trying to nail some pinup"), the pressures of stardom ("It looks like a luxury / feels like a disease"), and the painful separation from his wife who, in fact, may be the unknown subject addressed in many of these songs.

But even more personal is the self-examination and self-abasement Elvis displays throughout the 20 tracks. "You think I don't know what I'm doing? / Another fashionable first? / Like walking down the road to ruin," he sings on "5ive Gears In Reverse." "Clowntime Is Over" re-examines his direction and role, while making a distinct challenge to the rock 'n' roll audience. And after several listens, it's apparent that Elvis probably wrote "The Imposter" with himself in mind.

Get Happy!! is uncharacteristic of what has come to be expected from Elvis. Rather than anger, the main emotion present now appears to be sadness, and there is an ambivalent mixture of the "tenderness and brute force" he sings of on "King Horse." He seems to have dropped his guard somewhat; the most obvious example being when Elvis — who has always been in complete control — goes from neurotic to psychotic, and screams the final line of "Beaten To The Punch" like a madman. (There is great irony in the fact that this song follows "(I Need A) Human Touch.") But what's most uncharacteristic of all is to hear Elvis Costello — who once snarled "Sometimes I think of love as just a tumor / You've got to cut it out" — now sing lines like "The vow that we made / You broke it in two / But that don't stop me / from loving you..."

Get Happy!! concludes with either bitter resignation ("Riot Act") or a reaffirmation of romance ("High Fidelity"), depending on how one looks at it. The latter song is perhaps the LP's strongest cut. Written for his wife during their separation, the song is built around a "Radar Love" type of concept, as Elvis sends his love across the ocean like music over the airwaves. It is the closest he has ever come to a pure love song, and — by combining the theme of love with a rock 'n' roll concept — Elvis has created an anthem of love. The singer has been wounded by love. But he hasn't been defeated, and his faith in romance is secure. (What else have we got?) It is a beautiful and stunning finale.

Despite its title, Get Happy!! is actually Elvis' most unsettling record yet. Although more of the music is happy pop, the album as a whole has a disturbing quality. The record reaches no real resolution, and the overall effect might be compared to some of Neil Young's bleakest work. Since the song listings on the cover and label don't correspond ("accidents will happen"), the album has no real beginning or end, and the whole thing seems to be like one continuous circle.

Of course, this is precisely the effect Elvis wanted, for the confusion alone is a strong comment on our current state of love and romance. The LP will probably best be appreciated by those going through the heartaches of love, and as someone who recently experienced a bitter defeat in this area, I have to say it's refreshing to once again hear an artist who seems to be talking directly to "you" and your concerns. (Of course, "you" can encompass millions. Another life is saved by rock 'n' roll!)

In certain respects, Get Happy!! could be considered a step backwards for Elvis, especially in light of the revolution rock he initiated on Armed Forces. But while we'll all be waiting to see the direction he takes on his next release, the purpose of Get Happy!! seems to be Elvis stopping for a moment to show that happiness isn't possible until we learn to understand love and all the things it entails. And in regard to the concepts of love and rock 'n' roll revolution — as they once sang in our parents' day about love and marriage, you can't have one without the other. Or as that other famous Liverpool resident once wrote: "There's nothing you can do that can't be done / It's easy..."

But enough of this intellectual garbage! It's only rock 'n' roll, so shut up and dance! Elvis is King! Now, get happy!!!!

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Michigan State News, April 3, 1980


Bill Holdship reviews Get Happy!!.

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