Are you ready for the fiiinal soluuuuuuuuuuuushun (oh yeah)?
At this point in time, the final solution for what seems to be plaguing Elvis Costello is — like all final solutions — both simple and unattainable: stop touring.
Of course, it's impossible. That Big Break is just another sell-out whistle-stop smash-'em-in-the-gut-and-split-Jack-tour of the USA away, as Armed Forces crunches into the American charts just like CBS in the States and Jake Riviera in the UK hoped it would.
It's too late to stop now even though Elvis and his boys are completely dead on their feet. Shagged out, wiped out, drained. Trying to be dynamic but the starter won't start. There's only so far you can pump it up.
Showing no strain and feeling no pain. John Cooper Clarke bounded out on stage in his red tux to motormouth the audience with "Gaberdine Angus," grooving that he is now a hot enough name for people to listen respectfully as opposed to simply bottling him off.
An attraction (small 'a' please, maestro) rather than an irritation, he grabbed his moment with the zeal and alacrity of a man at the peak of his powers — bad throat or no bad throat.
He dedicated "Twat" (the most comprehensive barrage of insults and injuries available anywhere since Groucho Marx's tongue and cheek got laid to rest) to Costello's tour manager Des Brown ("Who's going to beat me up afterwards"), unveiled an ode to bodybuilding named "Bronzed Adonis" that'd deflate Lou Ferrigno's pectorals in four and a half seconds flat, ran through the sharpest stuff from his album, wound up with the towering, accusatory "Beasley Street" and encored with a breakneck babble-on "Psyche Sluts," and ran off into infinity.
J.C.C. has established himself more firmly than anyone could possibly have predicted a year ago, and having gone further with a one-man poetry act than ever seemed possible, it would be criminal for him to limit himself to half-hour spots opening up other people's gigs. It's time to get that road band together and go for the big one. Go deh!
The night's triumph having been and gone by 9.15, it next remained for Richard Hell And The Voidoids to hit the proverbial stage. "A band from New York who're gonna rock really hard for ya," murmured the avuncular Andy Drunkley. What we got was more along the lines of "posing really 'ard."
Hell has now relinquished his bass in favour of a young fellow who resembles Jean Jacques Burnel's less intelligent younger brother, and Marc Bell — now firmly installed in the bosom of the Ramone Family — has been replaced by a raggedy-andy punk doll who seemed to deploy more effort than science into his drumnastics.
Guitarists Ivan Julian (dreadlocks, short) and Bob Quine (bald) were present and correct, but the rhythm sections seemed to have been out to lunch for a millennium of Sundays, and the way that the drummer methodically dropped the accents into the wrong places on the penultimate "Blank Generation" was truly awful to behear and behold.
Hell grinned energetically, ran around a lot and got just enough audience reaction to justify an encore.
So step right up, it's the main Attraction (big "A," bub).
First there's the brief indecipherable boom of taped symphonic stuff (first feeling of unease sets in) and then a tube full of lightbulbs splayed across the back-line amps sends an illuminated stutter from left to right.
Steve Naive and Pete Thomas jog on to take up their customary places behind keyboards and kit, followed after rather an attenuated interval by Bruce Thomas and (after another one) by Elvis lui-meme in a black and white chessboard checked jacket. As it turns out, he isn't going to be playing anything off My Aim Is True (except for an encore of "Mystery Dance") so he might as well wear the cover.
The sets kicks off promisingly enough with the Booker T-gone-motorik Stax-meets-Moroder groove of "Moods For Moderns," but the energy level seems low — Elvis turning to Bruce Thomas with an angry pump-it-up arm movement — but there's nothing they can do to boost it.
They play most of the stuff off the new album with "Green Shirt" and "Party Girl" coming off best because those numbers are more dependent on feel than bottle to get them over. Even the statutory tour-de-force-medley of "Lipstick Vogue" and "Watching The Detectives" comes off with but a fraction of the firepower delivered a few months back. (Check the Toronto bootleg if you don't believe me. Awoah!)
They deliver "Oliver's Army" and Elvis gives the Attractions an across-the-throat blow-it-out gesture and they split. Then it's bring-on-the-chaps for the encores: Martin Belmont for "Pump It Up" (and off), Dave Edmunds for "Mystery Dance" (and off) and then just the basics for "Chelsea" (how're the new offices, Jake?) and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding."
Costello is caught in three traps right now.
Trap one: getting institutionalised and thereby stuck with the problem of delivering a dangerous act to a safe audience. Trap Two: his new material relies less on his persona than any of his previous songs and thereby requires the artists to be at the height of his powers to bring them off. Trap Three (and this one's the killer): it seems as if that endless touring has eroded reserves of energy that he desperately needs. The passion was there (just) but the power has dissipated.
Costello needs another tour like he needs a busted leg, but needs must and the business drives.
Nothing wrong that six months off the road couldn't cure, but that's a big "but" and no snazzy lighting or red Stratocaster's gonna hide that this band's right at the end of their tether. Whether Costello's "got it" ain't at issue — he's proved that often enough, but whether he can keep it is yet another ball game. After all, it ain't Elvis' ball any more.
The set was chilled and despairing. The response was warm but damp. I remember when it only took his little fingers to blow me away...