New Musical Express, March 8, 1980

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Fly me I'm Elvis!

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / West Runton

Ian Penman

Better put it all in present tenses...

From neurology in some pharmacy to Get Happy!! on a seaside holiday(!!)

The attraction is in an adventurously limited trail for the provinces, where a lot of people live and buy records and don't get gigs. West Runton pavilion is the first of those definitely smaller, probably more deserving gigs; is practically Norfolk's only hot hop, and — unsympathetic local forces? — is soon to be shut, finitely.

Mr Costello opens like a chum. Observing the imminent closure, he shapes a dedication relevant to future fates. For if but one night is given us, we might surely take from it, yet snappy!!

The human touch — no pessimism — from the "new" Elvis? Whether you knew or accepted any other one in the past, whether he alone was ever that responsible for its construction — these considerations are pushed aside for now.

He's got a grin, it could take you by surprise. And did you see him fly on TOTP!!??

The mythical, taciturn powdered, scowling author is dissolved in a 20 track LP, a snappy seltzer fizz dominated not by this or that Elvis Costello so much as by a playful, gleeful pop language; the peak of parole (meaning: one person's use of some wider language available to them).

The Costello rewrite of past pop books (some '60s soul) isn't a copyist's cheat, pulp, but a transformational pact — not a million styles from what Bowie did with some '70s soul on Young Americans.

In my pop childhood I was mostly sold on soul, so I'm happy (!!) I stopped listening to someone else's Elvis Costello and started to hear simple subjectivity. No one ever accused Smokey Robinson of being obsessive, did they? Don't be silly.

In the immediacy of a solipsism's aspersion are hidden doubt, debt, weak defences, dead emotion: "Insecurity" isn't so much a dirty word as a line of worn connotations — after all, even clichés get insecure.

A secure pop language is a protective language: it never renders, never rends, but shuts you up and keeps you in, limits ideas and vocabulary, represses who and what you might identify with. It's a world where everyone is obediently psychological, economic, sexual — framed in a keyhole and always naked, each figure fashioned from cellophane-see-through.

A romance, as Billie Holiday once sang, "With no quarrels, with no insults, and all morals."

Undesirable ideologies — you know, the things the Left is always lapel-badging against — are born and bred in daily language, in triviality, in casual acquaintances with culture...

"Those disco synthesizers / Those daily tranquillisers / ...Those bedroom alibis."

Elvis Costello and The Attractions bespeak a less padded, more aesthetically radical case for thorough narrative, a better bitterness in an instrumental introduction without off-putting echoes of stock rock rigmarole — the obstinate inherited manners, rusty riffs in smiling files. It's a music which will inevitably draw to it unsufferable adjectives, like: nervous (but it's not inhibited) or aggressive (but it's not inhibiting — maybe it was, but no longer). It's not straightforward.

At West Runton they played confident but agitated, spiked but not arrogant pop music, with someone sympathetic over the mixing desk dials. Perhaps they were too cramped at times, but with the concentration of words as it is, especially in the Get Happy!! songs, it's definitely apt and probably inevitable that an odd beat be left hanging on the phoneme.

The difference between this show — pun music, jump music — and the other once I saw them live (year and a half ago) was between being left numb, and have succumbed. A sensual change — you're kept under an impression, not ego'd underband, allowed to follow apace.

The three Attractions are still rhythmically centrifugal and suitably anonymous. An ideal engine now able to exploit the terribly meticulous tension they're capable of producing, even if it still isn't overwhelmingly reflected in their own aesthetic presence.

EC is still the totem. His aesthetic I reckon to be about the equal opposite (kick me if this get too screwed-up hippie astronomer-ish) to the pin-up doubt, Sting. Elvis is cluttered cool, melancholy's violence, a sweaty statue. Smaller venues suit them, I suppose.

Get Happy!! and This Year's Model were sources for the majority of selections, so when things drag — as anything does — I at least had home-from-home fun with favourites, lines ("I wanted to seize you / But I'm no good with machinery") and tunes (including the sneak-spaced Get Happy!! love story trilogy: "Temptation" - "Opportunity" - "Possession").

'Watching The Detectives' got the big de-dub dig, simply interrogated into incompatible parts, quietly battered. The only other real elder was "Less Than Zero," which wasn't so severely dealt with. Something I didn't recognize led with an introductory bar or so of "Tears Of A Clown", done most slowly, surreptitiously: what a wounded stare you wear.

Other titles are easily guessed. The definitely terrace-chant and probably chart-top "I Can't Stand Up" announced the encores; EC lectured persons unknown about their spit — "Pardon me while I contain myself" — and everybody seemed happy at the end.

They could have done Smokey Robinson & The Miracles "When The Words From Your Heart Get Caught Up In Your Throat" — but that's just me wishing overboard, as usual. "I think I'd better write a note..."

One such: I'd missed Clive Langer & The Boxes, because it took me even longer than usual to get to the gig. What with highwaymen and highwaywomen and...

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New Musical Express, March 8, 1980

Ian Penman reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Saturday, March 1, 1980, Pavilion, West Runton. (This piece also ran May 2 in RAM.)


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Photo by Pennie Smith.
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1980-03-08 New Musical Express cover.jpg


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