It seems we who are involved with music for a living or otherwise are gearing up for the Battle of Armageddon and we've not really drawn up the sides, nor the issues, except in some vague terminology relating to the words "Punk" or "New Wave." This confusion even extends to the bands who are unsure of which appelation will do them the most commercial good. As a manager of two of the leading punk bands (Vom, featuring R. Meltzer, and the Ravers, whose "Punk Rock Christmas" is the first release on Zombie Records) as well as a critic of long standing I feel uniquely qualified to spread some oil on troubled waters.
Bob Dylan once said "It's all music," in reference to his electrified sets and Gertrude Stein might as well have said "music is music...etc." The point is, no matter what, we have a semantic structure for labeling sounds (and noise) produced in a certain manner as music, and all other classifications as sub-genres. Going further, punk rock does not exist in a vacuum, but rather on the continuum of music and its evolution.
To me, punk rock is nothing more or less than good rock and roll, a product conspicuously absent in the seventies. Period. It's not about pogo dancing, shaved heads or garage bands — it's about only one thing: killer rock and roll. Killer r&r doesn't necessarily imply three chords, or playing out of tune. It implies, as the famous Chuck Berry song states, "a backbeat, you can't lose it."
Personally, I'm tired of all these garbage bands that the Whiskey features, bands that have never played before getting on stage and calling themselves "punk rockers." They have as much to do with making significant rock and roll as Pat Boone did (or, for that matter, his daughter does).
Elvis Costello has no such problems, except semantic. His music has a bit of a pop sound to it, it seems eminently commercial and ultimately top 40 — he didn't have any safety pins through his nose, and, most of all, his band could play. If these virtues eliminate him from the Punk Rock Derby, so be it. The last virtue is particularly significant, because it's the element that will elevate Costello, along with the Sex Pistols, to the top of the heap. Indeed, the set I caught, they injected an old Jefferson Airplane jam, note for note, into the middle of one of the songs. It certainly wasn't a radical move, but the punk rock ideologues had some trouble relating to it. I was knocked out by how tight the band was, how very good they were using any criteria and it was so very easy to see why Elvis is causing a sensation in England. My only disappointment was that he didn't do "Welcome to the Working Week." That could have been the encore, but the jaded freebie comp list house of over-the-hill fringe didn't go manic.
Up in the bleachers, where I was sitting, it was wild, and most other groups would have come back once or twice on the strength of the applause. Not Elvis, so it's also good to see he's not yet been totally co-opted by the "Biz." Impressive songs included "Miracle Man," "Watching the Detectives" and the bittersweet "Alison." (With its pounding reggae beat — one of the few times I've seen a white band effectively play this kind of music.) His incessant remonstrations of pain are somewhat akin to Springsteen, but the performances are much more lyrical for me, and much more basic. The band doesn't fart around but rather strikes a professional stance from the first note.
Costello has established himself as a big one and he's going to get bigger. People are already talking about the legendary qualities of his performances on this first tour of America. If you missed the Beatles at Carnegie Hall, this might be the chance to catch up on your culture.