Music Monthly, April 1978

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  • 1978 April

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Elvis Costello's music: sensational testament

Bruce Pilato

Early last fall the rumors began. Something was brewing in England. Every now and then there'd be a small blurb in the rock magazines. Something about a wild, new sensation that was taking England by storm; somebody named Elvis Costello.

Who? What is this? Another crummy Presley rip off? What else could it be? He looks like he was put in a deep freeze in 1957, and just dethawed. An obvious English exploiter of Presley's fame.

Wrong. Upon hearing Elvis Costello for a mere 30 seconds, it is clear that he is far from being a plastic Presley. He's not a '50s rehash, nor is he punk rock or anything remotely close to it. If anything, and this is even stretching it, he's quasi-Springsteen.

Whatever Elvis Costello is, only one thing is known for sure: he's good. Damn good.

Elvis Costello is not a fad, and his appearance is no gimmick. The man is an honest musician, or "music activist," as he prefers to be called. The Woody Allen glasses, the high-cuffed jeans, the tacky gray sports jacket; they're all part of him. The same goes for the awkward stance and that hokey grin. At first glance he seems to be a rock 'n' roll joke, but be forewarned. There rarely has been such a serious man in pop music.

After being released only a few months ago, his first album, My Aim Is True, has become a national FM smash hit, and if the single takes off, he should attain the commercial popularity in the US he holds in Britain.

He's already received countless lines of press coverage (from Rolling Stone to Time), a hype campaign that should equal the '75 Springsteen Born to Run public relations sweep, and a first American tour of major clubs that was a complete sellout. Not bad for a man who looks like a reject from a Buddy Holly look-alike contest.

Everything about the man is unconventional. He was originally a computer operator in the working-class section of London. From there he held a street-corner audition for CBS Records executives as they passed into a posh London hotel to attend their international convention. That day be was arrested for disturbing the peace; a month later he was signed to a recording contract.

During interviews for his first American tour he created a rough, tough, working-class image for himself. He told Time magazine "If one more person said 'Have a nice day,' I thought I might kill him."

But it's all unimportant; the image, the hype, the overnight success. What is really crucial to the Elvis Costello experience is the music. In a word, it is tremendous.

The magic of My Aim Is True never stops. From the opening notes of "Welcome To The Working Week" until the final strains of "Waiting For The End Of The World," the album comfortably slides through 13 top-notch songs.

Costello gets right to the point; rarely are there long introductions, or even extended solos. The songs are short, most under three minutes.

This music combines the rebelliousness of the '50s with the naive pop sound of the mid-'60s British Invasion. Throw in the power of the '70s and a touch of urbanization for flavor, and you've got Costello.

The initial Costello market is divided between Bruce Springsteen/ Graham Parker followers and these who are trying to take new wave music seriously and see him as a good starting point. Whatever the case, those who examine him closely soon become hooked. Costello has a magnetic power in his music that makes it more appealing with each listen. Many critics and fans alike are calling the album a rock classic.

But obviously something this good couldn't have happened without a lot of thought and planning. CBS hired Parker producer Nick Lowe to produce the album, which was the smartest move they could have made with Costello. Lowe takes Costello's music ultra-seriously and the production and arrangements show this. They are superb.

Featured foremost on this disc are Springsteen-style vocals and his heavily rhythmic electric guitar. Production gimmicks such as phasing and synthesizing are nowhere to be found, thus keeping the sound clean and natural.

The album is full of great tunes, with catchy hooks, such as "Red Shoes," "No Dancing," and "I'm Not Angry," These songs, along with the rocking "Mystery Dance and the demonic-reggae styled "Watching The Detectives," are receiving the most FM airplay around the country. But the album's true highpoint comes with the song "Allison." The song is a beautiful ballad, not unlike Springsteen's "Sandy." It is the album's single and will expose Elvis to AM radio in America.

His music is even more dynamic in concert. Unfortunately, millions of Americans were given a poor showcase recently on NBC's Saturday Night Live. They hired Costello at the last minute (because the Sex Pistols wimped out) and his performance, though colorful, was sloppy.

Last December, however, Costello performed his only upstate New York gig at Utica's Four Acres Inn. Playing with a three-piece group called The Attractions, Costello gave a stunning performance that had the packed house screaming for more.

It was a simple testament to rock 'n' roll. The energy only slowed down once (to sing "Alison") and his set was almost solid music, with Costello only stopping to talk with the audience a few times.

Before he began his final encore, be grabbed the microphone and shouted, "You know, since I came to America, everything has been press, radio, exposure. But tonight it's people. I'm playing for people."

Those of us, in the audience were completely moved by his show. Probably much in the same way that were moved by Hendrix, Joplin and The Who at Monterey in 1967. We had been witness to a new sensation, the incredible Elvis Costello.


Music Monthly, April 1978

Bruce Pilato profiles Elvis Costello and reports on his concert with The Attractions, Tuesday, December 6, 1977, Four Acres Club, Marcy, New York.

(Reprinted from Syracuse University Daily Orange, January 27, 1978)


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