Off-beat: Pub Rock For The '80's

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Off-beat: Pub Rock For The '80's

Elvis Costello — Miracle Man

Gina Morris

Elvis Costello owes a lot to pub rock. It was pub rock that gave him the opportunity to perform, in band called Flip City, while he spent his days slaving away at a computer. And let us not forget that his first album, the landmark My Aim Is True, would have been pub rock if it had been released in 1974 rather than 1977. Although it can be argued that Costello merely had the same influences that the pub boys had, I think there's more to the man than that facile assessment. All of Costello's albums have the what-the-hell-let's-try-it-anyway feeling of the best pub rock. His lyrics and later arrangements may have been more sophisticated and complicated than anything Ducks Deluxe or Ace ever tried, but I'm convinced that Elvis never lost the spirit that he picked up back in 1975 with Flip City.

Costello's first three albums tend to stick to the relative basics of guitar, bass, drums, and piano/organ. In fact, My Aim Is True is so basic that the arrangements are nearly non-existent. The songs "Alison," "Welcome To The Working Week," and "Waiting For The End Of The World" don't sound like much, musically, but make their impact through those bitterly ironic lyrics and Costello's sarcastic singing. These songs take their dynamics from pub rock, but the attitude is certainly not hippie in outlook. What hippie would write a song about the end of the world or a 1930s fascist leader? Under-produced certainly, but My Aim Is True still plays well today and had an influence beyond its limitations.

One of the best songs on My Aim Is True is "Watching The Detectives"; its crackling reggae accompaniment was ostensibly provided by the Attractions, and according to legend, was the very first song they played together (the rest of the album's instrumentation was provided by a Marin County band named Clover, which included among its members future star Huey Lewis, future Newsman Sean Hopper, and future Doobie Brother John McFee). The Attractions — Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass, and Steve Nieve on keyboards — made their album debut proper on Costello's 1978 waxing, This Year's Model, a wonderful album by any yardstick.

If the debut LP is updated pub rock for cynical times, then Model is Sixties rock revisited led by the dominant sound of Nieve's Farfisa organ. More importantly, the songs are stunningly eclectic: lots of Golden Age of Top 40 generic harmonies ("No Action" which is a misnomer if there ever was one), folk rock guitar ("Lip Service"), pretty pop melodies ("Little Triggers"), and "Palisades Park" remakes ("Pump It Up," "You Belong To Me," "The Beat"). Elvis composed some of his best ever riffs for this record and some of his nastiest lyrics: he trashes everything from pin ups ("This Year's Girl") to the state of late Seventies radio ("Radio, Radio") to women in general (the rest of the record). It's safe to say that this album is not for feminists.

Many of the album's songs were controversial in their day, but the most notorious by far were "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio." The former outlines our boy's solution to a bad romance and he's not talking about getting a job at the local gas station. Featuring a relentless rhythm attack from the Thomases and Nieve's crazy Farfisa washes, some of my most treasured memories consist of bouncing around my kitchen to "Pump It Up" cranked full throttle. Meanwhile, my mother was screaming at me to "turn that racket down"; some things never change, do they?

"Radio, Radio," on the other hand, was scandalous for a different reason: it's an uncompromisingly scabrous anti-radio diatribe. The late Seventies wasn't exactly a marvelous time for listening to the radio — AOR dinosaurs, pre-fab imitators, and insipid pop acts dominated the airwaves — and the battle for someone as supposedly radical as Elvis to get on the radio was an uphill one. He didn't make things easier for himself with "Radio, Radio" —that he was knocking the hand that feeds him is an understatement — but that was the point. It might seem a bit passe today, but in 1978 "Radio, Radio" was important and a fabulous piece of music.

This Year's Model is a mind-blowing record but it hardly prepared the world for Armed Forces, the most baroquely political LP I've ever heard. Nick Lowe (who also guided My Aim Is True and Model) pulled every rabbit out of his hat for this one, Elvis wrote lyrics that showed that he does care about his fellow man, and the result was his first and last American Top Ten album.

Armed Forces is much more upbeat and poppy than its predecessor, but the happy music is deceptive as it conceals some extremely downer lyrics. "Oliver's Army" is the best example of this tendency: an Abba-esque melody supports words describing mercenary tactics and the violent state of the world in 1979. Only Warren Zevon's "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" comes as close to telling it like was and still is. Meanwhile, "Goon Squad," "Chemistry Class," "Green Shirt," and "Two Little Hiders" follow suit as Elvis tries to make some sense of the madness going on around him. But his greatest statement on the album comes not from his own pen but from the pen of Nick Lowe: Costello's version of the Brinsley Schwarz lost treasure "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding" is nothing short of awesome. What had been an ironic hippie take-off became in Elvis' hands a defiant plea for a return to world sanity. The message comes through loud and clear and wondrously supportive backing from the Attractions makes "Peace, Love, And Understanding" a special song indeed.

Despite the inverted Sixties pop touches and cryptic lyrics that make Armed Forces the fascinating listening experience it is, there's still a few songs that get up the nose: "Party Girl" meanders along until it finally winds down into an endless Abbey Road chord progression and "Big Boys" is ponderous and a fast ticket to a headache. And why couldn't someone have included a lyric sheet with the record since trying to piece together the songs' meaning from bits and snatches through the highly complex arrangements is time consuming and not always fun.

Listening to 1980's Get Happy, however, is no fun at all. The record is a sloppily recorded and/or badly mixed R&B song cycle that, at 20 songs, is overcrowded to say the least. At the time it was released, some scribes considered the LP Elvis' apology for his famous Cleveland run-in (or punch out) with Bonnie Bramlett. Maybe, but I think he meant the record to be the first of his genre experiments and the appearance of Almost Blue the next year adds weight to my notion. Produced by Lowe again, he had the nerve to insist in the liner notes that the songs were crammed onto the record without loss of fidelity. Hah! I have to crank my stereo to the max just to be able to hear the vocals! Sheesh!

Truth to tell, Get Happy is actually fairly eclectic within its limited setting — ranging from the Philly soul gracefulness of "Motel Matches" to the reggae hip hop of "Human Touch" to the Motown overdrive of "Love For Tender." Most of the material, however, sticks in the Stax groove: "Temptation" with its "Time Is Tight" riff; the Sam and Dave cover "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"; and the whirlwind pace of "The Imposter." Some of the songs are just plain obvious: Elvis didn't even try to disguise the "My Girl" riff in "Secondary Modern." Overall, though, this LP is pretty boring and shamefully overrated, especially in the U.K. Did Costello try to make a bunch of second-rate songs more exciting with R&B arrangements? Or was he trying to make a point? Whatever, Get Happy is probably the only Costello LP of the '80s that doesn't bury his pub rock instincts with bombastic arrangements and cutie pie wordplay.

Later in 1980, someone at Columbia decided the Elvis house needed cleaning; hence the Taking Liberties album wherein assorted unreleased (in America) album tracks, movie soundtrack bonuses, and B-sides were randomly collected. A hit-or-miss compilation, to put it mildly, Liberties houses a few misplaced gems. Betty Everett's "Getting Mighty Crowded" was originally the flip side of "Can't Stand Up" and why it didn't make Get Happy is a mystery since this is one hot tamale indeed. Omitted from the U.S. This Year's Model, "{I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" is a memorable little number, mostly due to a couple of horrible rhymes (I'm not gonna make everyone cringe by reproducing them here) and Steve Nieve's cheesy organ work. But what I want to know is why doesn't Elvis like Chelsea? Is it too trendy for him? I guess I'll never know for sure because the lyrics never really come clean. Last but not least is "Crawling To The USA" which has a great title and is the best track on the record. Written for a wretched comedy called Americathon in which Elvis had a cameo role, this may or may not be a put-down of Yankee-land. Doesn't matter though, because it's worded ambiguously and the music is totally brill. The best thing about the film (Elvis sang "Chelsea" too, but that scene got chopped) and an oasis in the midst of too many failed experiments.

The country and western excursions, "Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger In The House," are unpretentious and better than anything on the later Almost Blue album. And "Night Rally" is another attack against fascism, but stuff like "Dr. Luther's Assistant" and "Ghost Train" just lie there comatose and have the spark of wet firecrackers. Taking Liberties is recommended only for would-be kamikazes.

The slide begun with Get Happy became a full scale avalanche with Trust, Almost Blue, and Imperial Bedroom. Lame, lamer, and lamest best describe these turkeys for which there is very little excuse and almost no defense. Trust contains exactly three worthwhile cuts: "Clubland," "New Lace Sleeves," and "Shot With His Own Gun." Some English hack called "Clubland" a succinct summation of its time or some outlandish statement like that. I've been playing it for four years and still haven't figured what it's about! Nice cocktail jazz melody, though, which — what with the recent emergence of Sade and her ilk — proves that E.G. was ahead of his time. I have to admit that "New Lace Sleeves" passed me by until I saw the video, a black-and-white "performance" piece so stunningly shot that it single-handedly altered my opinion of the song and rivals "Every Breath You Take" in the use of monochromatic textures in rock videos. And "Shot With His Own Gun" is so stark in its lyrical imagery and arrangement that it could have benefited from the same videoization that rescued "New Lace Sleeves." As for the remainder of Trust, the music is either unmemorable or difficult to get into; consequently, Trust is one of my lesser played Costello albums.

There have been many turkey LPs in the history of rock and roll, and overrated turkeys — everything from Let It Bleed to Private Dancer — are the worst kind. Elvis managed to contribute two records to the Album Turkeys Hall of Fame, Imperial Bedroom and Almost Blue.

I hate Imperial Bedroom; I disliked it when it originally appeared in 1982 and I like it even less now. Songs I sort of liked then, "Shabby Doll," "Man Out Of Time," and "Kid About It," haven't aged well and three years hindsight reveals them (and the rest of the record) to be over-arranged and over-written examples of an inflated ego. The whole project is bloated from start to finish; Geoff Emerick's production and Steve Nieve's cotton candy arrangements only make the uncomprehensively boring lyrics even more obscure. He forgot his pub grounding and the results speak for themselves.

Elvis tried to look backwards to Flip City and showed that he could make a mess of things just as easily as looking forwards. The big mistake with Almost Blue was recording it in Nashville with the King of Countrypolitan, Billy Sherrill, handling the production. Elvis sang those country covers like a sap, the Attractions played like wimps, and Almost Blue sinks under its own weight. Shoulda done it in London, El, with Nick doing the production and then, maybe, it would have worked.

Anyway, jumping back to 1982 (Almost Blue was an '81 LP), I was prepared to write off the whole year as a total loss. Then Costello turned around and put out another soul remake as a one-off single in conjunction with a U.K. tour. After the cop-out of Imperial Bedroom, our boy came roaring back with his version of Smokey Robinson's obscure "From Head To Toe." Usually I don't take kindly to Smokey retreads (not after what Linda Ronstadt did to "Ooo Baby Baby" and Tracks Of My Tears"), but since I've never heard the original I'm giving Elvis the benefit of the doubt. Besides, it's far too classy to do Motown any disrespect and it's a nice change from the usual portentious pandering to the punters. "From Head To Toe" is fairly rare, but well worth digging up.

One trait that separates Costello from the pub pioneers is the political slant of many of his songs; the ale and darts crowd were more interested in performing party music. Margaret Thatcher gave Elvis fuel for his pen when she decided to take a militaristic stance in the Falklands conflict, which not only successfully managed to make her appear a heroine in the eyes of the British public but allowed Thatcher to landslide her way back to No. 10 Downing St. for a second term. Both events moved Costello to write his strongest songs in years, "Shipbuilding" and "Pills And Soap."

It is generally acknowledged that Dylan was the pub rockers' favorite songwriter, yet so few of them had his penchant for writing socio-political lyrics, feeling more at home with his style of subtle imagery and downbeat delivery. Obviously, this wasn't enough for Elvis as "Shipbuilding" will attest. This was his answer to the sending of men to fight in a petty and needless "war," and to the idea that war will bring glory back to a fallen country. Originally written for Robert Wyatt, a radical political/humanist songwriter in his own right, who recorded a 45 version that achieved some popularity in England's independent record charts. Later, Elvis recorded the song himself for his Punch The Clock album. I've never heard Wyatt's version, so a comparison is impossible, but Costello's rendition is amazing in its drama and honesty. "Shipbuilding" is touching on record, but even better live where the lyric's morality can be milked for all it's worth.

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Off-beat: Pub Rock For The '80's

Gina Morris profiles Elvis Costello.


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