On an otherwise typical day late last October, Elvis Costello strolled through the door of London's Rock On record shop in Camden Town, the oldies emporium that laid the groundwork for the first of the new breed of independent labels (Chiswick), and played its part in the movement from pub-rock to punk. Ask Joe Strummer. Or ask Elvis.
Elvis had finished work producing The Specials' album and "Message To You Rudy" was already in the charts. In a few weeks time he and The Attractions along with Nick Lowe and engineer Roger Bechirian would be in Holland making the fourth Elvis Costello album, scheduled to come out a year after Armed Forces, but delayed by business matters until now. He had come to Rock On to raid their trove of obscure and classic records of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
A few hours later, Elvis emerged, clutching bags of singles and a handful of albums hearing the ‘60s blue and red labels of Stax and Atlantic – mostly Sam and Dave records, but generally anything that emanated from the downtown Memphis studio that housed Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Al Jackson and Duck Dunn and put the big beat behind Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and more. An even 50 quid's worth of this stuff walked out the door with EC. He presumably already had a lot of Tamla and such-like. And he presumably had the germ of an idea.
This is the result: Get Happy!!, Elvis Costello's soul album, 20 tracks, 50 minutes, with the single first, just like a Motown.
In 1979 Costello had to step down and take a break. He'd made the side-step into a fine art, but last year he finally put a foot wrong. He achieved his first number one single with a sly indictment of the armed farces cleverly disguised as an Abba song, and he jeopardized his standing in America by getting into a bar-room brawl in the wake of which some quarters of the US media were about ready to lynch the tense, over-worked, over-tired little limey bigot.
For a while it seemed that the closing lines of Armed Forces had got it ironically wrong. "I will not burn," he promised. "I will return." And so he has.
Of course, there were those of us who got quite a kick out . of watching Elvis push and push and push, driven by Whatever it is that drives him — money, lust, drugs, revenge, boredom, sheer perversity, a hunger for the brink —to an almost inevitably bitter end. In a terribly 'vicarious way — like watching a fighter in the ring — I really enjoyed these past few years of watching Elvis burn. It was going to be good. It was going to spare him and me the sad and embarrassing spectacle of an undignified decline. It wasn't going to be like The Who, that's for sure.
But that was then and this is now. Elvis picks up where he left off with a tight-reined musical stomp called "5ive Gears In Reverse": "You think l don't know what I'm doing? Another fashionable first? Like walking down that road to ruin."
To digest the content of 20 songs takes a longtime. To digest the songs takes even longer. Get Happy!! isn't an especially long album — most of the songs last only two and a half minutes — but they're crammed to the teeth. So let's chew it over (-night, in fact).
Elvis and The Attractions have pared their sound right down to the bone. There are no solos, except for one small flourish of guitar at the end of "5ive Gears," there are no synthesisers and almost no overdubs. Steve Mason fleshes out the sound on acoustic piano and organ with his usual succinct excellence, and Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas lock in hard with Elvis rhythm guitar. The model is obviously The MGs — and Nick Loew takes his production cues from that and from the Motor-town hit factory.
While Steve Mason is busy out-doing Bob Andrews' Garth Hudson impersonation and throwing in a side order of Booker T, Bruce Thomas is busy making like Carole Kaye. "Love For Tender" ìs almost a tribute to Tamla. "High Fidelity" goes beyond Motown, and the bass on "B Movie" is pure Detroit studio '66 off-set by a reggaematic mix-up. There's more: Elvis loosens up his usual twisted, venomous snarl and lets in some Eddie Floyd, some Marvin Gaye, and something more relaxed, varied and confident. True to their source, the vocals are more part of the mix than its highlight, as in the past. You don't have to pay attention, just play it and it'll be re-paid.
Get Happy!! comes at a good time, but in a sense it also comes at the wrong time. It makes deliberate nods to the period that inspired it (the jokey time-warped sleeve admits to everything before you even play it) but it makes them well over six months too late. That doesn't make it a bad album. No way. The skill and style with which the participants have adapted the sound – and all the familiar elements of Elvis Costello are still around, even two songs in country waltz time – shows the door to all the young contenders for the new soul crown. Get Happy!! gets it right. Simple as that. It's a long way from just a re-creation.
I have a friend who thinks Costello has a method. Iggy and Bowie used it to write Lust For Life. You take a song, as a model or jumping-off point, and then gradually strip away the parts, replacing them with your own, until the original song is all but un-recognisable. He imagines it isn't as precise as that, however. For, say, "Temptation" Elvis had a lyric and just said to the band play like "Green Onions" or something ("Temptation" isn't a million miles removed from "Green Onions"). My friend also hears "We Can Work It Out" ("Clowntime Is Over") and "I Saw Her Standing There" ("Beaten To The Punch") as well as echoes of certain Supremes' songs. So maybe soul was simply last year's model. And talking of models ...
The songs on Get Happy!! were written over a year in which Elvis can't help but have changed somehow considering the way events upset his previous poise. Broadly speaking, the lyrics seem to come from either a period of sleepless nights in the US of A, or from later, more conciliatory times back home.
Elvis still isn't too enamoured of the modern world (and he rails humourously at the harbinger of bleakness and automation on "(I Need, I Need, I Need A) Human Touch" — which is also, appropriately, a fine tribute to The Specials), but he seems more at ease this time with the strain between his curiously old-fashioned morality and modern temptations, if only marginally less bitter at the bind he, and others, find themselves in. Try, for starters, "Black And White World": "I was looking at the black and white world / Trying to nail some pin up / Those days she was just a beautiful girl / Now she's plain and hung up / It seemed so exciting if you'd only put me back to back with that girl / With just a little lighting / There'll never be days like that again / Can I resist a bargain?"
The question seems to have been answered. But Elvis' camera keeps clicking in his head. Here's a sordid, sorry little polaroid from the sexual supermarket with music down home from Aretha Franklin and lyrics from one of the prime exponents of the wry country idiom. "Boys everywhere, fumbling with the catches / I struck lucky with motel matches / Falling for you without a second look /Falling out of your open pocket book / Giving you away like motel matches" ("Motel Matches").
With 20 songs, and no solos to interrupt them, there are a lot of lyrics on this album, and there's a lot being said with a greater sense of direct autobiographical honesty (some of it very graphic) and with less of a feeling of contrivance than on previous albums. Elvis doesn't seem to be under as big an obligation as on Armed Forces to keep coming up with those pithy puns and coy couplets. There's a much better rhythm and expression here; a greater, more enjoyable, liberty. He must have been aware of his tendency to sound, at times, unbearably forced, and Get Happy!! doesn't.
It's a record you didn't expect. It looks like fun and it is. Maybe it's only a temporary lapse, but Elvis has gotten off the treadmill and gotten happy. Get it.